California Dreaming

California Coast

Condé Nast Traveler China

Photographers:  Erin Kunkel, Gina Sabatella


Living so close to the natural beauty of coastal sunsets, majestic mountains, sublime redwood forests, and legendary waves, you can forget that the “California Dream” exists.  I certainly had this dream as a child on the East Coast of the United States. I used to admire the California bleached blondes in magazines and on television, in their obscene French cut swimsuits, and I wondered why I, nor anyone else I knew in real life, looked this cool.  They looked perfect bouncing around in the sunshine.  They seemed to have a lot to be happy about, calling things “awesome” and “gnarly.”  Always a summer girl, my beach in my hometown on the Atlantic didn’t boast the beautiful shades of azure and aquamarine I’d seen in pictures of the Pacific coastline.  The ocean I’d grown up next to was more gray, and I felt cheated.  I was convinced that California was a dreamland, of movie stars, surfer dudes, bikers, hippies—as far as I knew, this place was an enclave of everything cool.  That was it, I decided I’d pack up and live in its endless sunshine some day.  Now I’m actually here, grown accustomed to the lovely beach towns that surround me, from San Diego’s Pacific and Mission Beaches, the little surf town of Huntington Beach, Los Angeles’ Hermosa and Venice Beaches, to my forever favourite, Malibu.  I thought I’d seen it all, and I really belonged in this place.  Yet there’s always more to be seen here.

Surely the 100+ Native American tribes who inhabited California long before European colonization felt a strong affection toward the land, with its diverse and abundant landscape and eternally mild climate.  Today much of these tribes’ influence still lives in the local artistry, culture, and the outdoorsy California lifestyle.  When Spanish Catholics descended upon California and established twenty-one missions throughout the land between 1789 and 1823, it was the first major venture to colonize this new frontier.  It was an attempt to “civilize” the indigenous people in order to develop the conquered land into an ideal society.  The 1821 Mexican War of Independence gave Mexico independence from Spain, and ownership of California.  As a result, the missions were secularized by 1834.  Eventually, the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848 ended with the United States claiming California as a United States territory.

It was then, when the real ideal of the “California Dream” was born, when James W. Marshall discovered gold here.  And so began the California Gold Rush, earning the state a reputation of being a “golden” place of new beginnings and good fortune.  People flocked to the land from the North American continent and beyond, half of them traveling by sea from as far as Australia and China to find their own piece of wealth.  Since the beginning of the state of California, it’s always been lauded as a land of opportunity.  Pioneers have been magnetized to this frontier land, and today it maintains a heritage of innovators of technology, business, art, literature, and agriculture.

Flash-forward again to my first drive down Highway One; it certainly did become more magical.  About an hour south of Carmel, in Big Sur—my eyes still wide with wonder—the intoxicating aroma of fir and redwoods suddenly enveloped me and I came under an even deeper spell.  When people say that Big Sur is a mysterious, romantic place, it’s an understatement.  This is a place where people really disappear into.  Homes are scarcely visible from Highway One—only rows of mailboxes along the side of the road give a hint that the coastal cliffs and lush forests are inhabited.  Many of these bohemian residents are descendants of the first settlers of Big Sur from the late 19th century.

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