Bug-free, beautiful: California's golden allure

In a new survey, the Golden State beats Florida as the place Americans most want to live.

It is the scene that has launched a thousand postcards.

In the distance, the red ribbon of the Golden Gate Bridge arches across a clear September sky toward the steep slopes of the Marin headlands. A cargo ship slips beneath, as if to offer some hint of the scale, its smoke stretched into a thin thread of pale indigo that frays in the cool Pacific breeze.

On the shore, rainbow-colored umbrellas and bikinis cover the pale and bronzed, as cyclists slalom through a boardwalk crowd. Terry Kelly stands nearby and looks over the bay like any tourist would, awestruck. But Mr. Kelly, pausing over the kayak he has just paddled ashore, is no visitor. And he's glad: "There's no place I'd rather live than here," he exults.

America, it would seem, now agrees with him. According to a newly released Harris Interactive survey, California is now the state where Americans would most like to live, unseating Florida, which had been No. 1 since 1997.

The poll is hardly a statement of intent. In reality, more people move out of California than enter it. Rather, it is a measure of the enduring California mystique – that even after a dotcom depression, statewide blackouts, and billion-dollar deficits, it is still seen as the most alluring state in the union.

'Like America, only more so'

California is as much an idea as a location, encompassing all that is America – from farmlands to mountains to deserts to seas – and amplifying its extremes, like the fault-scarred landscape itself. It is the most populous, most diverse, most influential state. Were it a country, it would have the sixth largest economy in the world. Says state librarian Kevin Starr, "It's like America, only more so."

Yet on this most quintessentially Californian of days, when even walking the dog takes on the hint of a vacation, one need only go outside to see what provokes other states' envy.

From her perch beside the fluted sandstone column of Coit Tower, high above the bay on Telegraph Hill, Kim Callahan looks like she could sip in the sunshine and 70-degree temperatures through a straw. Leaning back on the stairs of the monument, chin tilted toward the sun, she says she would have no qualms about abandoning her Kansas City-area home for the Golden State. "Oh yeah," says Ms. Callahan, who's here with her husband for their 13th wedding anniversary. "It's the weather."

Traffic, quakes, fires – but no bugs

It makes up for a multitude of sins.

Earthquakes, for one. Mudslides, for another. Wildfires. Traffic. Home prices. In the nine-county Bay Area – granted, the most expensive part of the state – the median home price tops $400,000. In Florida, that kind of money is only for people who gold leaf their bathtubs.

Florida "is a great place to raise a family," says Joe Hyman, president of the Florida Travel and Tourist Bureau and a lifelong Floridian. "The housing is affordable. A middle-class Floridian can live in a two-bedroom house in a gated community, while in California you'd have to be making $200,000." It's warm there, too, and "the water is warm enough that you can actually get in and swim," he adds.

Callahan, however, is not convinced. "I've been to Florida," she says. "Too many bugs."

Besides, California is for those who've transcended the practical. Brea Aldorfer could have moved anywhere with her nursing job. She came to San Francisco, where she needed to find a roommate and cordon off a one-bedroom apartment with a bedsheet. Recently, a couple was found living in a tree down the peninsula. The image of the struggling actor in Los Angeles has become proverbial.

A state of epiphany

For many, California is more a calling than a migration – to a unique lifestyle.

"It's the flavor of it, the romance of it," says Austin Dach, head of California Lifestyles Realty in Arcata along the remote coastline of California's north coast.

He grew up in a California where tumbleweeds would blow down the streets of the San Fernando Valley on the Santa Ana winds, later left to spend a few years in the East, then returned to northern California in 1969. He hasn't moved since. "It is this magnetic sort of force," he says.

Kayaker Kelly agrees. As a philosophy professor, he might have used words like "Zen" before coming to California – but never in association with anything that had a state bird. "This is the only place I've lived where I felt the place made me a better person," says Terry, who lived in Philadelphia and St. Louis before San Francisco. "You'll be backpacking in Yosemite and time and time again, you wind up having these moments of epiphany."

For the most part, the only hiking he did before he moved here was to and from class. Now, he's Grizzly Adams in synthetic stretch pants. He has his own boat and pushes out on to San Francisco Bay twice a week. "Here, you can't avoid these sorts of things," he says, sounding like a state tourism official. "Give me 3-1/2 hours of driving, and I can be at Yosemite, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe. I can be sitting on a beach and skiing in the same day. That's pretty powerful."

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