California Guided Vacations

West Coast: California Dreaming

California is a dreamer’s paradise.

Maybe because so many of its landmarks and regions have become bigger than life— pop culture postcards that represent places that millions dream of visiting. How many visitors every day ask, “Am I really standing on the Golden Gate Bridge? Am I gazing up at half dome in Yosemite? Is that the actual Hollywood sign? Am I really here?”

Just the mention of the word “California” conjures up dreams. Of mountains, movie stars, and dramatic coastlines. Of spectacular cities, lush valleys, countrysides and tucked away Shangri-las.

As a dreamer’s paradise, California does more than just call out to the dreamer. It implores them to take the journey…

To San Francisco, where rippled layers of fog tease the visitor, offering glimpses of one of the world’s most beguiling cities. Then the veil gives way, revealing the jewel by the bay where so many dreamers found inspiration. Here walked Mark Twain, Jack London, Joe DiMaggio, Alfred Hitchcock, the Grateful Dead and so many others.

You may be familiar with the wonderfully winding Lombard Street. It’s called “The crookedest street in the world” and was designed with eight sharp “switchback” curves to help offset the hill’s natural 27 percent grade. Or Union Square, designed in 1850 and named for the many pro-Union demonstrations that happened there during the Civil War. Or the art deco Coit Tower, built in 1925 and featuring more than two dozen murals by various artists and Chinatown. But did you know San Francisco is also where the fortune cookie was invented? Not to mention denim jeans (for gold rush miners who needed tough clothing), Irish coffee and even the Popsicle!

Then there’s the island in the bay that has served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, military prison and a federal penitentiary. Currently, it’s a popular national recreation area, know to all as “Alcatraz.” In San Francisco you’ll also find the only mobile National Historic Landmark (the venerable San Francisco Cable Car), Angel Island (Ellis Island of the west) and a certain bridge that has become one of America’s most definitive icons.

The Golden Gate Bridge was opened when President Franklin Roosevelt pressed the button on May 27, 1937. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world back then, and incredibly, its vibrant orange color almost didn’t happen. Orange was the color of the sealant used on the bridge, and locals loved it so much they persuaded architect Irving Morrow to forgo the standard silver and stick with the distinctive orange, which it still is today. Still one of the world’s most breath taking man-made structures, a walk across the bridge is a dream unto itself. (So you know, the “Golden Gate” that the bridge spans is named as such because it resembles Istanbul’s Golden Horn.)

Just north is Napa Valley. Robert Louis Stevenson lived here and wrote about this intoxicating area, today a wine region that ranks with France, Italy and Spain. The climate, geography and geology all combine to create a fertile grape-growing region, and the first commercial vineyard here was established all the way back in 1858 by John Patchett. Today, more than four million people visit Napa Valley each year, so Mr. Patchett’s dream for the area certainly became realized.

Head slightly east and the clock spins back in time when you hit Old Sacramento, where dreams of gold lured many a miner in the mid 1800s. History reveals itself on every corner, from the building that served as the western terminal of the Pony Express, a railroad museum, a military museum—it’s a rush—a gold rush.

Nearby is idyllic Lake Tahoe. You may recognize it from the TV series Bonanza or in the film The Godfather Part II. It’s the highest alpine lake in the United States and the second largest alpine lake in the world. Mark Twain, not known for being easily impressed or given to superlatives, called his view of Lake Tahoe “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Heading south to Yosemite National Park, you’ll be able to experience the world's third largest waterfall and North America's highest (a drop of 2425 feet). And, oh the dreamers that walked these woods in the shadow of granite domes, towering water falls and pristine forests: Famed naturalist John Muir, photographer Ansel Adams and Teddy Roosevelt who, upon visiting Yosemite in 1903, called it "The most beautiful place in the world." And as vivid and rewarding as your color photographs will be here, if you can, perhaps shoot some black and white as well. After all, with the muse of Ansel Adams surrounding you (he lived here), you’re bound to capture something extra special. Heading back west across the state, to the ocean, the enchanting places known as Carmel and Monterrey await. Both are havens for artists of all breeds, and while on the scenic 17-mile drive, Lone Cypress and John Steinbeck landmarks are all must-considers. The magic of both places is not just found in the spectacular landmarks, but hidden on secluded beach trails and historic alleyways.

Continuing south, hugging Highway 1 along the picturesque Pacific coastline, you soon arrive at San Simeon. You may encounter plump sea lions basking on the sand near the roadway. But you will certainly see the house high on the hill, Hearst Castle, the dream home of dream homes. 165 rooms, 38 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 14 sitting rooms, a kitchen, a movie theater, 127 acres of gardens—it’s not a dream, it is real, as are 1,000,000 tiles covering the pool room—each inlayed in real gold. The entire complex is a monument to the power of the dream. But what few people know is that originally, Hearst’s idea was to build a small, simple bungalow up on the hill—because he was tired of camping in the area. The house sits on the spot where he tent-camped as a child over the course of many family trips.

Motoring south, the Denmark inspired city of Solvang and coastal community of Santa Barbara will soon beckon. The dream of Danish settlers in 1911, Solvang features traditional Danish life in a setting that becomes the definition of “quaint.” Santa Barbara “The American Riviera”, in addition to being one of the most scenic places in California (if not the world), is also where some popular products and concepts were dreamed up: Kinko’s, Motel 6, the Egg McMuffin and even the Oscar Weinermobile!

And how fitting that “California Dreaming” winds up in Los Angeles. It’s the perfect Hollywood-ending that a journey like this deserves. Writer Quentin Crisp called Los Angeles “New York lying down” and it’s an apt description. The city’s sprawl pulls you in a thousand directions, each path promising something provocative. The grandeur of Beverly Hills? The history of Olvera Street? The funky charm of Melrose, West Hollywood, Santa Monica or Los Feliz? The beaches of Malibu, Westwood Village, the Miracle Mile—which direction to take? Which street of dreams will you follow?

If you’re like many, then perhaps you’ll choose the one that runs through the original dream factory, Hollywood. This is where wide-eyed millions have come in search of dreams; of fame, fortune and celebrity. It’s been that way since the early 1900s, when east coast producers figured it was easier to make their dream films come true out where the weather was better. After all, back then, natural light was easier to harness than electricity. Interesting as well is the fact that the farther away producers got from New Jersey, the easier it was to make movies because it was harder for Thomas Edison to enforce his many motion picture patents from 3,000 miles away!

Dream chasing took place when the first films were shot in California and it has continued though the evolution of Hollywood not just as a place but also as a state of mind. The ghosts linger in the stardust, from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe, on the streets where you’ll be walking.

From the cities to the mountains to the beaches—this is California, in all its majestic, historic and dreamlike glory. It’s a journey that touches the heart and soul of many remarkable places, immersing the fortunate traveler in a lifetime’s worth of experiences.

California is a dreamer’s paradise.

So go ahead, pinch yourself if you’d like. It might help remind you that yes, these places do exist.

They’re not just a dream. And they are waiting for you on this most unforgettable journey.