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Best town in California to live?

March 2008

We're planning on moving from Chicago after living here our entire lives (we're now in our mid-30's). We have 3 kids, ages 5,3 and 1. We're looking for a place with an emphasis on natural beauty and a real connection to the outdoors. Our kids will most likely attend a Waldorf school. We want a progressive, liberal community. I'd love to be near the ocean and as long as I'm fantasizing, have it be warm enough to swim in! We can spend about $750k on a home. We want an easier pace of life--more walking, less driving and commuting. Does such a place exsist in California? If so, please help us find it! We'd be forever grateful!


My husband and I moved from Chicago 19 years ago, initially to San Francisco, then 6 years later, after we had 2 kids, to Berkeley, where we currently live. Just about anywhere in the Bay Area has a better connection to nature than Chicago. Based on your criteria, you should consider Berkeley--it is close to Tilden and other regional parks, the ocean, is a liberal community and has neighborhoods with walkable amenities.

One of the main problems may be finding all this in a desirable neighborhood in the price range you mention--for this, you may need to consider a more suburban community further East (Contra Costa County), or North (Napa county). I'm not sure where the closest Waldorf school is located. I'm sure you will get lots of opinions on the best community, and if you are flexible, you should check out all of them before you decide. translplanted Chicagoan who loves California


first of all, CA is a huge state! reading your description, the santa cruz area comes to mind in norcal. it's nature-oriented and by the beach without being too out of the way like the very north parts of CA. btw, the water is SO COLD!!! unfortunately, you need lots of money to live in santa cruz, but i think the cities just outside of santa cruz are more affordable.
You might look at some of the communities in the Santa Cruz mountains; that will get you your outdoors and Waldorf... Even just in outer Los Gatos there is ''the mountain school'' which would place you nicely for community. well, you won't get your warm-to-swim in oceanside home, but you have to head to SoCal for warm oceans in CA. outside
I read your question and thought of Santa Barbara, where I lived for 6+ years. It may be bigger than you have in mind, but I thought it is worth mentioning. In case you don't know the town is nestled between the ocean and 3000 ft mountains. That may not sound so high for mountains, but consider they are starting at 0 ft. So you have views of those mountains from everywhere. Tons of hiking trails. All kinds of beach experiences. Wonderful cultural opportunities. Sigh. Many places where lots of walking is possible, particularly near downtown, also in an area called the Mesa.

Politically/cultural it is interesting. There are various contingencies. There is certainly a progressive/liberal one, which I was part of. There were certain places that these people shopped, hiked, went to the beach, celebrated. So I found that I ran into people I knew constantly. I liked that small town feel.

Good wishes with your decision. Karin


We have lived in Santa Cruz for about two years now and I think it fits all your criteria except for the warm water. Many people swim without a wetsuit, but I wouldn't say the water is warm. Santa Cruz is a wonderful place to raise a family, and you could get a good house in your price range here. There is so much natural beauty around that we rarely spend money on ''entertainment'' for our family. We spend every weekend at the beach, hiking in the redwoods, going for walks, biking, or taking short drives to the state parks (Big Sur, Big Basin, Ano Nuevo, to name a few)in the area. We are an hour and a half south of San Francisco and half an hour from San Jose. There are great services and events for families here. The Live Oak Family Resource Center offers great programs for toddlers that meet there as well as in the local parks, making it really easy to meet other families here. Capitola has many festivals; both Santa Cruz and Capitola have outdoor concerts on the beach, free, all summer long. There are Waldorf schools here, as well as many options for private, public, and charter. The community is very unique with many progressive thinkers, lots of holistic healing, and great availability of organic, locally-grown produce year-round. I feel so lucky to be here.
You might find it helpful to take the quiz at http://www.findyourspot.com/ -- it asks questions about your preferences, politics, things you want access to, etc. and recommends towns. I think you can limit results by state and definitely by region. I did it just for fun (no move planned) and felt it pretty much nailed the recommendations. Apparently I Should Be in Oregon
I must say that I was surprised that not more folks responded to this question. Now I feel compelled to weigh in!

Your question is so broad. I have lived in Southern CA and now in Northern CA. I prefer NoCal for many reasons, mostly related to traffic and smog. That being said, there is plenty of traffic in NoCal! Depending on how large a community you want, and whether you have jobs that are transferable (e.g., are you self-employed?), you may want to consider Arcata (where Humboldt State is located). I tried to re-locate there for about a year, but couldn't find a job. Housing prices have jumped tremendously in the past few years, but with the downturn, your range will definitely get you a home there. It is right next to the ocean, and completely remote: a six hour drive from the Bay Area. It's a terribly liberal place.

Other recommendations are Nevada City (northeast of Sacramento); again, tough to find jobs, but close to Auburn, Grass Valley, and Placerville. There is no ocean, but many amazing river confluences with camping, and not far from Truckee, which is another beautiful but outstandingly expensive (your $750K may not get you much) and job-tight.

Sacramento is turning into a fine little city, and jobs are plentiful due to the Capitol, Sacramento State University, and UC Davis (both medical center and the university, in Davis, which is 11 miles away). Davis is nice too, but very White and somewhat smug. The recession is staying somewhat at bay in Sacramento, and housing prices have plummeted--so again, your money would get you quite a bit.

Aptos (just south of Santa Cruz) is just lovely, and Marina (about equi-distant between Santa Cruz and Monterey) is turning into a nice little community. You may be outpriced in Aptos, but Marina could be a good bet. A friend lives in Marina and works in Monterey (at CSUMB) and her commute is not too long.

Best of luck! always looking for the next adventure


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