California's 1,264 miles of coastline run between the 42nd and 32nd latitudes. That's a stretch of globe equal to 11 Eastern states, from New Hampshire into Georgia. The mighty Coast Ranges direct the lay of the land from Oregon to Santa Barbara, and the San Andreas Fault's temperamental plates shift beneath much of the state's seaside spine. From Pelican State Beach at the Oregon border to Imperial Beach at Mexico's door, the state seems to be three in one: Northern, Central, and Southern. Ancient forests, fast-flowing rivers, offshore sea stacks, rocky coves, verdant pastureland, and perilous sea cliffs characterize California's top third. On the Central Coast, the terrain descends from dizzying heights, and calms―with the exception of Big Sur―into wetlands, dunes, bays, and sloughs. Near Point Conception, the wide beaches and consistently mild weather of Southern California appear on cue. For work, play, and education, all of these land- and seascapes give access to every form of water, from salty Pacific depths to freshwater rivers to alpine snow and ice.
Northern California serves up the eerie foggy wilderness and dramatic craggy beaches of Del Norte, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties; the wedding-cake loveliness of San Francisco; and the laid-back style and surfing hoopla of Santa Cruz. Central California's treasure chest includes the incomparable Monterey Bay and its National Marine Sanctuary; the casual elegance of Pebble Beach; artist-colony charms of the Big Sur Coast; and rural, fertile farmland. Flanked east and south by the arid Mojave and Colorado deserts, heavily irrigated Southern California is all about triumphing against odds, and the region's style and verve are mirrored in fashion, film, and architecture. Tolerance holds powerful sway in California across all aspects of life: religion, race, lifestyle, politics, and culture. As Joni Mitchell sings, rhetorically: "California, I'm coming home, Oh will you take me as I am?" Millions have crossed oceans and wilderness to arrive here for freedom, opportunity, a fresh start―for that physical and emotional vista of the unfettered Pacific.
The state's economy―the world's fifth largest―has suffered in recent years. In Silicon Valley (actually a cluster of Santa Clara County towns), the sweeping momentum of the late 20th century has waned. Throughout California, the dot-com bubble burst with the same resounding pop as elsewhere. Overall, the economic situation outraged voters enough in 2003 to recall career politician Gov. Gray Davis mid-term and elect movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place. Newcomers may be uncomfortable with aggressive politics and ongoing ballot initiatives. Growing population, projected to 60 million or more by 2040, threatens the state's resources, open-space preservation, and maritime conservation overseen since 1976 by the California Coastal Commission. Traffic congestion is swelling along the Pacific Coast Highway and all main arteries. And, in a word: earthquakes.
California architect Cliff May transformed the West Coast home scene with his 1932 introduction of the ranch style, in San Diego. The distinctive one-story phenomenon quickly migrated throughout the state―and the country. Otherwise, California offers an architectural bouquet: innovative structures married to the landscape at The Sea Ranch development, traditional designs that 19th-century New Englanders brought to Mendocino, restored Queen Annes of San Francisco, eccentric cottage motifs in Carmel, Spanish mission influence in Southern California homes and gardens, and bungalows of the Arts and Crafts movement. Waterfront living is at a premium because of strict coastal regulations and tends to be more available in Southern California. Urban redevelopment in San Diego and Los Angeles includes high-rise condos that democratize the waterscape. Home ownership remains a cherished dream among Californians, who'll bank on almost any piece of property for real-estate leverage. Living arrangements include duplexes and homes with in-law units, popular for partnership buying or so owners may live in one unit and rent out the other.
What It Costs:
A lot. California's 2004 median home price keeps ratcheting up: It's expected to reach nearly $420,000 by year's end. Still, properties go quickly, often for more than the asking price. Along the Pacific corridor, prices vary widely. For urban lifestyles, hearts set on San Francisco face $350,000 for closet-size fixer-uppers in what few gritty neighborhoods exist. Or, consider nearby waterfront Benicia for more space, great schools, and possible ocean views starting at $375,000. Want to help a historic town reclaim its viability? Then Eureka may be for you, with small fixer-upper homes starting around $110,000 in this waterfront outpost of the beautiful Redwood Coast. To neighbor up with multimillion-dollar Pebble Beach territory, check out Marina, an ethnically diverse Monterey Bay town where the few availabilities range from a $279,000 condo to a $650,000 home. Or hold out for one of the world's loveliest seaside communities and settle into Pacific Grove (2004 median price about $750,000, no water view). Living inland, but still within a short drive of the ocean, can lower costs: Santa Maria, population 77,000 and near Pismo Beach, offers really nice family homes starting at $350,000. If you're pining for Santa Barbara (tiny town house, $500,000; tiny house, $750,000), you can have similar properties for about $100,000 less in Goleta, home to University of California, Santa Barbara. Near SoCal's Laguna Beach, the Crystal Cove community is the stuff of dreams, at $1 million to $4 million. For life on a SoCal island, exquisite Coronado starts at $800,000 for a condo ($500,000 on nearby Imperial Beach). Because the "dirt" is the prize, it's not uncommon for Californians to level any house and build a shiny new one.
Your Next-door Neighbors:
An eclectic mix call this state home: a 45-year-old starting a third radically different career, a chef-and-winemaker couple, or a dot-commer back in the banking world. You'll find a waiter hoping for a big break in movies, a Monterey Bay Aquarium marine biologist, a Friends of the Sea Otter docent, and a diver with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures. Other possible neighbors include a Muir Woods forest ranger, an artist whose studio sits behind her historic B&B, a wildlife photographer, and a champion surfer. There's a tony raw food-restaurant owner, the editor of Yoga Journal, and a health-food-store proprietor. Then, of course, you'll find the very wealthy―commercial real estate tycoons and celebrities such as Robin Williams, Vanessa Williams, and Rick Fox. Conformity is out on California's coast; individual style, flair, and pursuit of dreams are in.
How You'd Spend Your Free Time:
A huge 86 percent of visitors within California's 12 officially designated tourism regions reside in-state, and you'd likely join the getaway gang. Snorkel among the Channel Islands. Explore the forests, mountains, and beaches of splendid Point Reyes National Seashore. Go recreational abalone diving on the Mendocino Coast. Sign up for an outing with Coastwalk. Catch the stirring Pageant of the Arts held in Laguna Beach each summer for more than 70 years. Go wine-tasting in the Santa Barbara hills or ballooning in Napa Valley wine country east of the Coast Ranges. Discover L.A.'s wilderness pockets for hiking, biking, and picnicking. Try surfing at SoCal's gentle Doheny Beach and clamming on the Sonoma Coast. Pick pumpkins in Half Moon Bay. Root for the San Francisco Giants, and gear up for the annual Stanford-Cal football showdown. Head for Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe for downhill and cross-country skiing. Drive or hop a quick flight to Ashland, Oregon, for the nearly year-round Shakespeare Festival that draws thousands of Californians.