Twelve years ago, Laura Kass and her husband made a stop in Morro Bay.
The Kasses were headed to Santa Rosa with plans to rent property there. It took one brief stay at the Inn at Morro Bay, in full view of the misty Morro Bay Estuary and pelicans strolling near the hotel, to convince them otherwise.
"I said, ‘This is amazing!' " said Kass, who now lives in Arroyo Grande. "It's just beautiful here."
Kass isn't alone in her love of a region that's so rich in manmade and natural wonders.
When The Tribune invited readers last month to name the Seven Wonders of SLO County, we received about 370 valid submissions from county residents eager to praise their favorite local spots.
Atascadero Mayor Tom O'Malley was among dozens of Charles Paddock Zoo supporters who mailed in entries, making the Atascadero landmark the county's most popular write-in candidate.
"If I had been thinking, we would have been passing them out at Colony Days," O'Malley said about the entry forms, only half joking.
Other readers shared treasured places to meditate and explore, from the apple orchards of See Canyon and Pismo State Beach's Monarch butterfly groves to the wildflower-strewn Carrizo Plain National Monument.
While some griped about noisy all-terrain vehicles at the Oceano Dunes and the sticky, icky walls of San Luis Obispo's Bubblegum Alley, most agreed that we're lucky to live here.
"It seems that many people take this area for granted," wrote Korie Goodman of San Luis Obispo. "The mixture of rolling hills ... sandy beaches and small-town living all within our great climate is hard to come by."
So, on this page is what made the list.
It's unmistakable, an iconic peak that defines the city of Morro Bay and forms a giant signpost for the lush Morro Bay Estuary.
"New York has the Statue of Liberty. We've got Morro Rock," Arroyo Grande resident Doug Shore explained. "It's sort of this big monolithic structure."
Morro Rock also belongs to the county's ancient chain of volcanic peaks, the Morros.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
From the vantage point of a rock alongside San Luis Obispo Creek, Donna Gibson says, the Catholic mission's importance comes into full view.
"It's a unique experience in San Luis Obispo," the Atascadero woman said. "You see the mission as the center of the town and the beginning of the town. That whole historical fact is right before you."
Although some readers accused it of being an eyesore — "I don't think a pink rock building is beautiful," said Linda Lawler of San Luis Obispo — Alex Madonna's legendary inn drew enough admirers to make the list. The men's bathroom even garnered a couple nods for its famous waterfall urinal.
Raise a glass to the popularity of SLO County's fabulous wine country. Readers voted for their favorite spots to sit and sip, from the Edna Valley and San Luis Obispo to the lush hills of vines along North County's highways. Cathi Evans of San Luis Obispo said she enjoys driving on the wine country's scenic back roads even more than tasting at the wineries.
When out- of-towners visit Brian Yellin, a native of North County, he knows exactly where to take them: Hearst Castle.
"Hearst Castle, hands-down, is one of our wonders," said Yellin, who praised William Randolph Hearst's mansion for its collection of art and architecture.
The Atascadero man recalls escorting his South Carolina cousins around the castle. "These folks were walking around with their mouths hanging open pretty much the whole tour," he recalled. "It was pretty funny."
Montaña de Oro State Park
"My all-time favorite place in the county is Montaña de Oro," Nipomo resident Rick Tibben wrote. "It's just an incredible place; every time I go out there, I learn something new."
He's spotted snowy-white egrets staking out a pool and watched as a great blue heron stalked a snake just 10 feet away. Other readers praised the state park's numerous hiking and horseback riding trails.
San Simeon-Piedras Blancas coastline
From scenic Ragged Point to the historic Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, readers love the rugged shores of the North County coastline. Grover Beach resident Shirley Roth wowed her British nephew by showing him the bellowing elephant seals lounging on the sandy stretches of the San Simeon coastline off Highway 1.
"It's so spectacular," she said.
Charles Paddock Zoo
Only after a packet of 50-plus entry forms landed on our front step did we realize there might be an organized movement to promote the Charles Paddock Zoo, 9305 Pismo Ave., Atascadero, as the county's eighth wonder.
Zoo director Alan Baker led docents, visitors and employees in an effort to put the city-owned zoo, established in 1955, on the map. It worked.
"It just goes to show that the zoo is pretty well-loved," said Baker, who admits Tribune entry forms might have shown up at a Kiwanis meeting or two. "We feel we are a needed treasure on the Central Coast."
Zoo supporters weren't the only ones who rallied local troops to push a pet cause. Morro Bay Estuary came in second on the list of write-in candidates, buoyed by nature-lovers who praised its ecological and cultural richness.
"How could you leave Morro Bay estuary and wetlands off your list?!" wrote Mike Multari of San Luis Obispo. "It is probably the most significant single ecological resource on the Central Coast!"
Added Los Osos resident Dean Sullivan: "There is nothing more breathtaking, either."
Tribune columnist Lynne Schmitz used her Oct. 19 column to extol the virtues of Mission San Miguel, one of California's oldest and loveliest missions. Schmitz voted for the San Miguel mission eight times before the contest ended; of course, only one vote counted.
As zoo director, Baker said he didn't mind the competition: "When you start thinking about it, there are some amazing things here on the Central Coast."