For centuries, spectacular beauty and rich natural resources have defined the Golden State, and the allure lives on.

By Susan Haynes
March 04, 2004
Shelley Metcalf


California's 1,264 miles of coastline run between the 42nd and32nd latitudes. That's a stretch of globe equal to 11 Easternstates, from New Hampshire into Georgia. The mighty Coast Rangesdirect the lay of the land from Oregon to Santa Barbara, and theSan Andreas Fault's temperamental plates shift beneath much of thestate's seaside spine. From Pelican State Beach at the Oregonborder to Imperial Beach at Mexico's door, the state seems to bethree in one: Northern, Central, and Southern. Ancient forests,fast-flowing rivers, offshore sea stacks, rocky coves, verdantpastureland, and perilous sea cliffs characterize California's topthird. On the Central Coast, the terrain descends from dizzyingheights, and calms―with the exception of Big Sur―intowetlands, dunes, bays, and sloughs. Near Point Conception, the widebeaches and consistently mild weather of Southern California appearon cue. For work, play, and education, all of these land- andseascapes give access to every form of water, from salty Pacificdepths to freshwater rivers to alpine snow and ice.


Northern California serves up the eerie foggy wilderness anddramatic craggy beaches of Del Norte, Humboldt, and Mendocinocounties; the wedding-cake loveliness of San Francisco; and thelaid-back style and surfing hoopla of Santa Cruz. CentralCalifornia's treasure chest includes the incomparable Monterey Bayand its National Marine Sanctuary; the casual elegance of PebbleBeach; artist-colony charms of the Big Sur Coast; and rural,fertile farmland. Flanked east and south by the arid Mojave andColorado deserts, heavily irrigated Southern California is allabout triumphing against odds, and the region's style and verve aremirrored in fashion, film, and architecture. Tolerance holdspowerful 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 asI am?" Millions have crossed oceans and wilderness to arrive herefor freedom, opportunity, a fresh start―for that physical andemotional vista of the unfettered Pacific.


The state's economy―the world's fifth largest―hassuffered in recent years. In Silicon Valley (actually a cluster ofSanta Clara County towns), the sweeping momentum of the late 20thcentury has waned. Throughout California, the dot-com bubble burstwith the same resounding pop as elsewhere. Overall, the economicsituation outraged voters enough in 2003 to recall careerpolitician Gov. Gray Davis mid-term and elect movie star ArnoldSchwarzenegger in his place. Newcomers may be uncomfortable withaggressive politics and ongoing ballot initiatives. Growingpopulation, projected to 60 million or more by 2040, threatens thestate's resources, open-space preservation, and maritimeconservation overseen since 1976 by the California CoastalCommission. Traffic congestion is swelling along the Pacific CoastHighway and all main arteries. And, in a word: earthquakes.

Housing Options:

California architect Cliff May transformed the West Coast homescene with his 1932 introduction of the ranch style, in San Diego.The distinctive one-story phenomenon quickly migrated throughoutthe state―and the country. Otherwise, California offers anarchitectural bouquet: innovative structures married to thelandscape at The Sea Ranch development, traditional designs that19th-century New Englanders brought to Mendocino, restored QueenAnnes of San Francisco, eccentric cottage motifs in Carmel, Spanishmission influence in Southern California homes and gardens, andbungalows of the Arts and Crafts movement. Waterfront living is ata premium because of strict coastal regulations and tends to bemore available in Southern California. Urban redevelopment in SanDiego and Los Angeles includes high-rise condos that democratizethe waterscape. Home ownership remains a cherished dream amongCalifornians, who'll bank on almost any piece of property forreal-estate leverage. Living arrangements include duplexes andhomes with in-law units, popular for partnership buying or soowners 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. Alongthe Pacific corridor, prices vary widely. For urban lifestyles,hearts set on San Francisco face $350,000 for closet-sizefixer-uppers in what few gritty neighborhoods exist. Or, considernearby waterfront Benicia for more space, great schools, andpossible ocean views starting at $375,000. Want to help a historictown reclaim its viability? Then Eureka may be for you, with smallfixer-upper homes starting around $110,000 in this waterfrontoutpost of the beautiful Redwood Coast. To neighbor up withmultimillion-dollar Pebble Beach territory, check out Marina, anethnically diverse Monterey Bay town where the few availabilitiesrange from a $279,000 condo to a $650,000 home. Or hold out for oneof the world's loveliest seaside communities and settle intoPacific Grove (2004 median price about $750,000, no water view).Living inland, but still within a short drive of the ocean, canlower costs: Santa Maria, population 77,000 and near Pismo Beach,offers really nice family homes starting at $350,000. If you'repining for Santa Barbara (tiny town house, $500,000; tiny house,$750,000), you can have similar properties for about $100,000 lessin Goleta, home to University of California, Santa Barbara. NearSoCal's Laguna Beach, the Crystal Cove community is the stuff ofdreams, at $1 million to $4 million. For life on a SoCal island,exquisite Coronado starts at $800,000 for a condo ($500,000 onnearby Imperial Beach). Because the "dirt" is the prize, it's notuncommon for Californians to level any house and build a shiny newone.

Your Next-door Neighbors:

An eclectic mix call this state home: a 45-year-old starting athird radically different career, a chef-and-winemaker couple, or adot-commer back in the banking world. You'll find a waiter hopingfor a big break in movies, a Monterey Bay Aquarium marinebiologist, a Friends of the Sea Otter docent, and a diver withJean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures. Other possible neighborsinclude a Muir Woods forest ranger, an artist whose studio sitsbehind her historic B&B, a wildlife photographer, and achampion surfer. There's a tony raw food-restaurant owner, theeditor of Yoga Journal, and a health-food-store proprietor. Then, ofcourse, you'll find the very wealthy―commercial real estatetycoons and celebrities such as Robin Williams, Vanessa Williams,and Rick Fox. Conformity is out on California's coast; individualstyle, flair, and pursuit of dreams are in.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time:

A huge 86 percent of visitors within California's 12 officiallydesignated tourism regions reside in-state, and you'd likely jointhe getaway gang. Snorkel among the Channel Islands. Explore theforests, mountains, and beaches of splendid Point Reyes NationalSeashore. Go recreational abalone diving on the Mendocino Coast.Sign up for an outing with Coastwalk. Catch the stirring Pageant ofthe Arts held in Laguna Beach each summer for more than 70 years.Go wine-tasting in the Santa Barbara hills or ballooning in NapaValley wine country east of the Coast Ranges. Discover L.A.'swilderness pockets for hiking, biking, and picnicking. Try surfingat 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 forMammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe for downhill and cross-country skiing.Drive or hop a quick flight to Ashland, Oregon, for the nearlyyear-round Shakespeare Festival that draws thousands ofCalifornians.