California's Seven Wonders: There's no shortage of the spectacular

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Wonder(n): Something that arouses awe, astonishment, surprise, or admiration; a marvel.

The Pyramids of Giza and ... what else? The much-ballyhooed contest to "elect" the New 7 Wonders of the World got us wondering about awesome icons closer to home. In the spirit of wonder inspired by the Web-based contest (go to www.new7wonders.com), we decided to come up with a list of our own.

Our Seven Wonders of California are admittedly subjective. By confining our choices to man-made creations, we had to pass over natural wonders such as Yosemite Valley, redwood trees and Big Sur. To keep the list geographically diverse, we limited ourselves to one attraction per major metropolitan area. And we nixed industrial marvels, such as the California Water Project, which can't readily be visited or toured.

What about Shasta Dam, you say? Should San Francisco's cable cars have beat out the Golden Gate Bridge? And how about Hollywood, world capital of film? It's man-made and unique, for sure.

We also considered Shasta Dam, Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Hollywood, the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Concert Hall and the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center.

SUNDIAL BRIDGE, REDDING

What's wondrous: How, you might ask, can a pedestrian bridge over the Sacramento River hold a candle to an internationally known icon like the Golden Gate Bridge?

Think of it as the story of a little city that could -- with the help of a fairy godmother.

The little city is Redding, population 90,000. And the fairy godmother is the McConnell Foundation, whose endowment of $400 million underwrote the $23.5million cost of a crowd-stopper of a span designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

The Sundial Bridge, which opened three years ago at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, is a thing of beauty and grace rendered all the more remarkable for the fact that its 217-foot, angled steel pylon functions as a gnomon, making it in essence the world's largest sundial.

More than a million pieces of broken Spanish tile add textural interest to the 700-foot span, which also features a transparent green glass deck that casts skittering dapples on the surface of the river below.

The Sundial Bridge has put Redding on the map both as a tourist destination in its own right and as a gateway to Mount Shasta, Lake Shasta, Lassen National Park, the Sacramento River National Recreation Trail and other regional destinations. And that, in our book, is wondrous.

By the numbers: The 700-foot-long suspension bridge, attached to its pylon by 14 cables, took five years to build. Its ecologically sensitive design is intended to reduce interference with the salmon that swim and spawn in the river below.

How to visit: Drivers coming from Sacramento on Interstate 5 should exit at Highway 299/44, go west toward downtown Redding and Weaverville, exit at Auditorium Drive and follow the signs.

Information: Turtle Bay Exploration Park, (530) 243-8850 or www.turtlebay.org.

--Janet Fullwood

NAPA VALLEY

What's wondrous: Motorists entering Napa Valley on Highway 29 from the south pass a knoll topped by "The Grapecrusher," a huge bronze sculpture by artist Gino Miles.

It has stood there since 1987. Had Miles been commissioned to sculpt a tribute to the valley's industry during an earlier era, he might have cast someone pruning a peach tree, milking a cow or harvesting wheat instead of crushing wine grapes.

Just 30 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest, Napa Valley was formed to be farmed. Its proximity to San Francisco and its Mediterranean climate, accessible water and diverse soils have given rise to all sorts of crops -- walnuts, olives, apples, prunes, pears, figs, even mulberry trees for silk worms.

Fur trapper George Calvert Yount settled in the middle of the valley in 1836, and two years later planted the valley's first domesticated grapevines. In 1861, Prussian immigrant Charles Krug founded the valley's first commercial winery.

The growth of Napa Valley's wine trade has been neither steady nor smooth. Today, however, it's at its most vigorous. Nearly 400 wineries are scattered through the valley, on the bracketing Mayacamas and Vaca mountains, and in neighboring valleys. (The "Napa Valley" appellation on wine labels extends far beyond the valley itself, including 14 subappellations, such as Howell Mountain, Chiles Valley, Mount Veeder and Stags Leap.)

By the numbers: Although Napa Valley produces just 4 percent of California's wine, it accounts for 27 percent of the value of the state's yearly wine sales. Last harvest, Napa County's 45,275 acres of wine grapes generated nearly $470 million in revenue.

How to visit: The southern tip of Napa Valley is about an hour's drive west of Sacramento via Interstate 80 and highways 12 and 29.

Information: Maps and information about individual wineries are available at the Web site of Napa Valley Vintners (www.napavintners.com). For $3.50, the group also sells a map showing member wineries; call (707) 963-3388.

--Mike Dunne

GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

What's wondrous: There is no greater symbol of California than the art deco span built between 1933 and 1937.

Named for the opening into San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, through which millions of dollars in gold and billions of dollars of every sort of goods have traveled over the last 150 years, the Golden Gate is one of the world's most familiar icons, on the same level as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and the Taj Mahal.

It is also a wonderful destination, with spectacular views from the bridge in every direction: north to the Marin Headlands; south to San Francisco; east toward San Francisco Bay and the Berkeley hills; and west to the wide Pacific.

Visitors can access the bridge from north or south. There are parking lots on the east side of the highway at both ends. Pedestrians use the east side of the bridge; the west side is for bicyclists only.

The views of the bridge from those lots are spectacular, but there are other fantastic perspectives: up from Crissy Field on the south side and down from Conzelman Road on the north side of the bridge in the Marin Headlands.

It's nearly as impressive from below, the view up from Fort Point on the San Francisco side revealing the vast structure from a less-familiar angle.

Wherever you go to see it -- and we recommend taking a few hours to wander, especially on the San Francisco side -- be sure to wear a sweater and a windbreaker, especially during the summer. The Golden Gate doesn't channel just a lot of water and goods, but also prodigious amounts of wind, usually at high speeds. In the summer, fog can obscure the bridge's towers.

By the numbers: The bridge spans 1.7 miles and the two towers rise 746 feet above the water. The two main cables from which the bridge is suspended are 36 inches in diameter and 7,650 feet long. Each cable contains 40,000 miles of wire. Eleven men died during the bridge's construction.

How to visit: Limited free parking is available at both ends of the span, although the lots can be jammed during summer.

Information: (415) 921-5858 or www.goldengatebridge.com (includes a webcam that shows current conditions).

--David Watts Barton

THE CALIFORNIA MISSIONS

What's wondrous: Taking in one mission, any mission, is a slice of history. Taking in all 21 in a two-week swoop, as my husband, dog and I did last fall, is the whole enchilada, a fiesta of culture, color and Catholicism that drives home what it took to settle this state and why its population is where it is. A tour of the missions also gives the briefest of glimpses of what California was before Europeans came and changed it forever.

You could call it a pilgrimage, but even the less spiritually inclined find a lot to admire in almost all of the missions.

There's really no way to generalize about the missions. They aren't all owned by the Roman Catholic Church; two are state parks; two require check-ins at a gatehouse; some are beautifully restored, others are in ruins, and one is just a scale model of the original.

Santa Barbara is the most beautiful; La Purisima and San Antonio de Padua the most missionlike. La Purisima alone would be worth a trip for one of its Mission Life Days, with docents in period dress tending the animals that live there (www.lapurisimamission.org).

The least-preserved are San Miguel Archangel, which has not opened its main chapel since an earthquake struck three days before Christmas 2003, and Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, which is mostly in ruins.

Most have a statue of Father Junipero Serra somewhere on the property, although he founded only nine of them. And one is the resting place of Bob Hope, who, when his wife asked where he wanted to be buried, answered: "Surprise me."

By the numbers: The string of 21 missions begins in San Diego and ends in Sonoma. Entrance fees range from free to $7, with many on the honor system.

Information: www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page--id=22722 or www.missionscalifornia.com.

--Lori Korleski Richardson

HEARST CASTLE

What's wondrous: Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst's fairy-tale castle is one of the largest house museums in the Americas. The mining heir and San Francisco Examiner founder had the means to acquire anything money could buy and, fortunately, good taste to go with it.

Operated today by California State Parks, the sprawling Mediterranean Revival estate is a repository of thousands of European antiquities. The sumptuously furnished main house is surrounded by 127 acres of gardens set about with Greco-Roman sculptures and antiquities. The celebrated Neptune and Roman pools still evoke a bygone era of no-holds-barred glamour.

But a tour of the castle is more than a lesson in high living. It's a glimpse into an era at least partly defined by a hard-driving, iconic personality whose artistic legacy continues to inspire.

By the numbers: Hearst's San Simeon ranch once encompassed 250,000 acres along California's central coast. Architect Julia Morgan designed the hilltop castle in 1919 and worked with Hearst to enlarge the estate into the 1940s. The main house, at 60,645 square feet, contains 38 bedrooms and 41 baths.

How to visit: Hearst Castle is about 250 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1. Four regular tours, wheelchair-accessible tours, evening tours and special events are offered. The Experience Tour, recommended for first-timers, costs $24 general, $12 for children ages 6-17.

Information: www.hearstcastle.com. To reserve by phone: (800) 444-4445.

--Janet Fullwood

BALBOA PARK

What's wondrous: Oh, where to begin? Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the United States. We're talking much bigger than New York City's Central Park and more than 100 acres larger than San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Forget about seeing it all in a day. Figure on a week to explore and enjoy Balboa Park's attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, more than a dozen museums, botanical gardens, a golf course, concerts and musicals and to absorb its eye-popping Spanish Revival architecture.

But that's not all. Train buffs can board the park's miniature railroad (a rare model G16). The Balboa Park Carousel, with its hand-carved animals, hand-painted murals and military band music, is a family favorite.

Spend quiet time at one of the several gardens sprinkled throughout the park. Once recharged, visit the San Diego Natural History Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display through Dec. 31, San Diego Automotive Museum, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum or the San Diego Air & Space Museum. If none of those piques your interest, there are many other museums to explore.

By the numbers: Balboa Park checks in at about 1,200 acres. Central Park is 843 acres and Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres ... The San Diego Zoo houses more than 4,000 animals, representing more than 800 species and subspecies ... The parks's Zoro Garden today is a butterfly garden. However, it was designed as a nudist colony for the California-Pacific Exposition in 1935.

How to visit: The Balboa Park Visitors Center is at 1529 El Prado, a few miles from downtown San Diego. Southbound from Interstate 5, take the 10th Avenue exit, turn left at A Street, left again on Park Boulevard and follow the signs to Balboa Park.

Information: (619) 239-0512, www.balboapark.org

--Dan Vierria

DISNEYLAND

What's wondrous: It almost didn't work. The dream nurtured by the creator of the Mickey Mouse cartoon character wasn't that outlandish: to build a park both adults and children could enjoy. But realizing the vision was another story, and in 1955, when Disneyland opened to a comedy of errors, the naysayers almost had their day.

Since then, more than 500 million people have visited the 160-acre Anaheim theme park dubbed the "Happiest Place on Earth." Today, the sun never sets on a Disney empire that includes 11 theme parks worldwide and countless more built by competitors based on Uncle Walt's hugely successful formula.

Disneyland isn't the largest Disney complex by far, but it clearly has a clinch on the nostalgia department. Stories passed from generation to generation have become part and parcel of many Californians' cultural heritage. The memory machine goes into overdrive whenever a favorite attraction such as Pirates of the Caribbean or the Submarine Voyage is updated.

Yo-ho! And don't we all wish we'd bought stock back in the day?

By the numbers: Disneyland opened in 1955 with 18 rides and attractions in five themed "lands"; today there are more than 60 attractions in eight lands. The upper stories of Main Street buildings are constructed in five-eighths and one-half scale to create a forced perspective.

Disney's California Adventure theme park opened next door to the original in 2001.

How to visit: Travel packages including airfare, rental car, hotel and theme-park tickets are a popular way to go. General admission ranges from $63 for a single day at either park to $199 for a five-day park-hopper pass good at both.

Information: www.disneyland.com, (714) 781-4565 or see a travel agent.

--Janet Fullwood



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