The Sunshine State of California: San Francisco and Los Angeles are at the forefront, closely followed by the Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lassen Volcanic National Parks. Ride the Pacific Coast Highway up the scenic coastline, trace the roots of the Beach Boys, or visit Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.
The Mediterranean climate even makes it a good place to visit in the winter. The slopes around the popular Lake Tahoe are some of the top ski areas in the U.S. The summer spoils you with lots of hot days. Endless beaches, over 60 miles in San Diego alone, offer refreshment, trendy beach life, and a large selection of water sports. Or should it be a cooler wine cellar in the Napa Valley? The wine complements the innovative fusion cuisine perfectly.
Those seeking the extreme must not miss the hottest point on earth in Death Valley, or Yosemite National Park, with the highest waterfall in America. The trees in Redwood National Park climb over 330 feet into the sky. The Sequoias in the park of the same name are over 2,000 years old. Wherever you look in California, you'll find something exciting.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley lies nearly 100 miles west of Las Vegas. The 140-mile long rift valley is surrounded by mountain peaks up to 9,800 feet high. Several Vista Points reveal breathtaking views of brown and ochre tones in the shimmering heat. For a brief period shortly after the extremely infrequent rainy days between November and May, millions of yellow and purple spots of color cover the shifting dunes and salt lakes.
Furnace Creek, Death Valley's only town, lies in the center of the valley. The Visitor Center (open all year 8 AM - 6 PM, tel. 760-786-3200) has information about flora and fauna. The lowest spot in the western world can be found at 280 feet below sea level in the desiccated Badwater salt lake 15 miles to the south. Even in an air-conditioned rental car, it is not advisable to drive through the valley during high summer because temperatures of over 120 degrees F quickly cause an engine to overheat. The name "Death Valley" should be taken seriously.
Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst created his own Disneyland - Hearst Castle. The palace, built in the 1930s and '40s by one of the most influential men on the West Coast, is located on the outskirts of the coastal village of San Simeon. The magnificent gardens and the rooms crammed with paintings and antiques create an aura of ostentation somewhat lacking in style. A plethora of seemingly haphazardly arranged artifacts include Roman statues, Byzantine mosaics and Flemish tapestry.
Hearst had different architects tinker around his dream castle for about 28 years until finally, in 1947, even the last detail was exactly how he wanted it. He held parties at this 165-room castle for nearly all who could be counted among Hollywood's greats at the time. The media mogul wasn't able to enjoy the luxury of his country home for long, though - he died in 1951, deeply in debt. His heirs signed over the estate to the state of California in return for a tax credit amounting to $50 million. Tours are conducted several times a day, although they must be reserved by phone in advance.
Interstate No. 5 - a multi-lane freeway - links San Francisco and Los Angeles with a journey time of just two days. Of course the winding coastal road, Highway One, offers much more beautiful scenery and is one of the loveliest panoramic routes in the world. Provided it isn't closed because of flooding or shrouded in mid-summer fog, a phenomenal view of the Pacific opens up from the steep-sided cliffs dropping down to the sea.
The road leads past Castroville, the "Capital of Artichoke Land", and the Monterey Peninsula, doused by ocean spray. Nature lovers can watch the sea lions and cormorants on the beach at the Point Lobos State Reserve. The small coastal town of Big Sur came to fame not only for its unique panorama. The writer Henry Miller reflected its scenic beauty in his novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, a book he wrote in the country he made his home. Two nature reserves can be found nearby. In the Big Sur State Park there are several Redwood groves, the other, Julia Pfeiffer State Park, was created to protect natural sand dune formations along the beach.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mount Lassen is one of the few active volcanoes in North America. For thousands of years, the 11,500-foot Lassen Peak remained quiet - that is until 1914, when small eruptions provided the first warning signs of a major eruption. Just one year later, the pressure which had accumulated within the mountain caused a tremendous cloud of molten rock and burning ashes to be flung as high as 6 miles into the air. For half a decade, the volcano repeatedly ejected lava, and even today there is no guarantee that another eruption might not occur at any time.
The volcano is contained in a 105,00-acre protected area with many lakes, where camping, fishing and canoeing are permitted in some places. Fascinating trails of varying lengths traverse the park, and a number of vantage points along Lassen Park Road provide scenic views across a bizarre landscape of lava fields stretching all the way to the summit. Because of heavy snow, large sections of the road are closed from October to July.
"Big Water" is the name given by the Washoe Indians to the largest mountain lake in California. Its 22-mile long and 12-mile wide basin contains a quantity of water great enough to flood the entire state of California up to a level of 14 inches.
The lake, 6,800 feet above sea level, is located in a valley between the Sierra Nevada and the crest of the Carson Mountain Range. During the era of the Gold Rush, trees were cut down in the dense forests around Lake Tahoe to provide supporting beams for buttressing the mines and to supply firewood for trains. In the early part of the 19th century, wealthy Californians began to spend their vacations on the shores of this picturesque lake, and as skiing became popular, the adjacent valleys were turned into ski areas. Since the snow conditions are always good, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley. During the summer, the surface of Lake Tahoe's water warms up sufficiently to attract swimmers, surfers and sailors alike, while the surrounding mountains beckon those who enjoy extensive mountain-biking tours or hiking trips.
This little town of 1,000 inhabitants was originally a lumbering settlement. In their search for seclusion and inspiration, painters, sculptors and writers discovered this tranquil refuge in the 1950s. The idyllic setting with its Victorian-style wooden houses and the surrounding lush forests has often served as a motif for painters.
Examples can be found at the Mendocino Art Center (45200 Little Lake Road), where exhibitions and theater performances are held. Old photographs and drawings at the Historical Museum document the town's history. However, the beautiful wooden buildings can also be seen in person: the magnificent Mendocino Hotel and the Ford House on Main Street, dating from 1854, are examples of what artists transposed onto canvas. The adjacent Mendocino Headlands State Park not only protects the village from urbanization, it also provides vacationers with scenic trails through natural forests untouched by tourism.
Spanish discoverer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered this peninsula as early as 1542. However, the sea was too rough for him to land. So another sixty years went by before Sebastián Vizcaíno was able to name the region after the viceroy of Mexico, the Count of Monte Rey. And it was to be another 150 years before Franciscan monks finally came to settle on the Monterey peninsula in 1770.
Subsequently, the city of Monterey rapidly grew to become a whaling center, and later involved in sardine fishing. In his classic novel Cannery Row, author John Steinbeck described how bad the conditions must have been in the harbor district pervaded by the foul stench. Tourism, however, very soon came to replace the fishing industry. In 1880, the first large hotels and beach houses opened and attracted vacationers from nearby San Francisco. Today, visitors from around the world are attracted by the city's fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium, housing the world's largest artificial underwater habitat, and by several golf courses set in dream-like surroundings.
California's "Wine Country" was still at the center of the American Gold Rush 150 years ago. At that time, vineyards were tended only by missionaries residing in Sonoma and San Rafael. Today, Napa Valley is one of the most famous wine-growing regions for Californian table wine and wine tasting. Tours of vineyards are particularly popular activities among tourists. The Winery Robert Mondavi in Rutherford, the Clos Pegase Estate and the Sterling Winery in Calistoga provide good overviews of how wine is produced, and include wine tasting. Some of the West Coast's most exquisite gourmet restaurants flourished under the spell of the noble grape.
As early as the 19th century, the northern town of Calistoga became a leading health resort under the entrepreneur Sam Brennan. For 150 years, part of this relaxation program has included a mud bath filled with an enriched dark broth of volcanic ash. The hot springs obtain their heat from the nearby Mount St. Helena volcano.
Orange County Coast
From Los Angeles to San Diego, the southern Californian desert reaches to the sea. Deep wells were sunk by the German immigrant grape growers who arrived around one hundred years ago to name towns such as Anaheim and Carlsbad. Later, fruit orchards supplanted the vineyards and ultimately gave Orange County its name. After World War II, artists' colonies formed along the sun-drenched coast. Drop-outs and the well-to-do lived next door to each other in pastel houses.
Today, the Orange County coast is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. The electronics and computer industries are booming, and idyllic coastal towns such as Oceanside and Laguna Beach provide a high quality of life. In Huntington, a hip young scene predominates. Sun-bronzed athletes play heated volleyball matches, while surfers wait for "their" wave.
Over seventy sand beaches line San Diego Bay. Today 1.2 million people live in what once was California's first mission city. The huge variety of recreational and leisure-time activities guarantees that the city will continue to grow.
West of the city center is the San Diego Zoo, one of the most beautiful zoological gardens in America. Most of the animals are kept in natural enclosures. The star attractions are pandas Shi Shi and Bai Yun. In Mission Bay, the operators of Sea World, have built the largest oceanarium in the world, housing dolphins, beluga and even killer whales. A large military base is located on the peninsula facing the city. From its tip at Point Loma, fantastic views can be seen of the Pacific on one side and of the San Diego skyline on the other. Coronado Island, with the popular beach of the same name, lies just off San Diego in the Bay. The luxurious Hotel del Coronado is not just another posh place for the rich and famous. In 1958, it was there that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, dressed in women's clothing, fled the Friends of Italian Opera in Billy Wilder's classic box office hit Some Like It Hot.
In this idyllic town north of Los Angeles on Highway One, young and old live in perfect symbiosis. The students of the University of Santa Barbara in the suburb of Isla Vista provide a hot beach life in a backdrop of trendy boutiques and lively cafés. The well-heeled older population provides the money for clean streets and freshly renovated houses. The sidewalks are swept and the palms growing in the town are freshly trimmed. Although Santa Barabara seems like an ancient Mexican mission town, its colonial-style houses all date from the 20th century, largely because of the massive earthquake in 1925 that devastated the entire town.
Palm-lined Cabrillo Boulevard runs along the beach. Restaurants on Stearn's Wharf, which extends 2,850 feet into the ocean, feature fresh seafood. State Street leads into the city center, which practically resembles a pedestrian zone due to such light traffic. Santa Barbara's architectural jewel is the Santa Barabara Mission on Upper Laguna Street. Father Serra had the mission station, with its pastel-colored twin towers, built by the Chumash Indians in 1786.
Yosemite National Park
On June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln declared the area around Mariposa Grove the nation's first State Park. Twenty-six years later, Yosemite became a National Park. Unfolding in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it reveals a dreamy landscape consisting of waterfalls, rock formations, groves of mammoth-sized trees and mountain meadows. Hardly any other national park commands such a broad diversity of natural sights, although none other is also as overrun by tourists.
Yosemite Valley occupies a modest 7 of the total 1,169 square miles. Bridal Veil Falls, at 610 feet, only provides a teaser for America's highest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, a little further north. Here, the water masses plunge an incredible vertical distance of 2,400 feet. Those with the stamina to climb up to the edge of the gorge will be rewarded with a fantastic view of El Capitan and Half Dome.© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore