If you’re an arts and culture snob, a road trip to Salinas and Monterey can connect you with literature, history and the fine arts. The six or seven hours it takes to get there (minus rest stops) are relatively painless.
Once you’ve made sure your car is loaded with snacks and beverages, get on the road. Leave early enough, and you’ll bypass Los Angeles traffic settling into a countywide parking lot. Arrive in the much calmer Santa Barbara, buy an industrial-size cup of coffee to celebrate that you’re halfway to your destination, and then get driving again.
When you’re half an hour from Monterey, stop in Salinas, the birthplace of America’s greatest writer, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. You can have a meal in The Steinbeck House (132 Central Ave., Salinas, 831-424-2735; steinbeckhouse.com) during the week or go on a guided tour on Sundays. Just a couple of minutes away is the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St., Salinas, 831-775-4721; www.steinbeck.org), an interactive museum about the author’s life and work that celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Less than 10 minutes from there, Steinbeck’s ashes are interred in the family grave at Garden of Memories Memorial Park (850 Abbott St., Salinas). Devotees leave pens and pencils, pinecones (symbols of human enlightenment and regeneration), and tattered copies of his books. If you decide to bring flowers, chrysanthemums make a certain literary sense. It’s not easy to find, so you may wander a bit if you haven’t looked up the grave online.
Thirty minutes later, you’re in Monterey.
Present-day Cannery Row bears little resemblance to the skid row filled with alcoholic philosophers in Steinbeck’s colorful novel. The canneries closed after World War II when the sardine industry went belly up; developers bought them up in the late ’60s to mid-’70s. Turned into a spot aimed at shopping and dining, tourists now outnumber the prostitutes. Fictionalized as the character “Doc,” Steinbeck’s best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, was a central figure in Monterey’s history. The city periodically has tours of Pacific Biological Laboratories (800 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831-646-5640; www.monterey.org/museums/City-Museums/Pacific-Biological-Laboratories), the rustic building that used to be his laboratory, with a bevy of concrete specimen tanks in the back, hidden from the street. Formerly a drinking club and genesis of the Monterey Jazz Festival, the lab was given to the city in the early ’90s for preservation. Open to the public only once a month (and then not every month), check the museum website to make sure your trip coincides with this rare opportunity. A short walk from the museum is a memorial marking where Ricketts was killed by a train when his car stalled on the railroad tracks (Drake Avenue and Wave Street, Monterey).
Ricketts’ mission continues with the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831-648-4800; www.montereybayaquarium.org). The bay is filled with otters floating on their backs and harbor seals basking and lazing in the sun. Inside the aquarium itself are exhibits that give you the opportunity to get a closer look at sharks, kelp forests, sea turtles, jellies, penguins, fish and more sea otters. Admission is pricey, but it’s cheaper, less crowded and more entertaining than Disneyland. AAA and your hotel may offer discounts, so look around.
Infamous surrealist Salvador Dalí lived in Monterey (and New York) for eight years while escaping the Nazis during World War II. The city is also home to the Dali17 Museum (5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, 831-372-2608; www.dali17.com), the “first permanent Dalí exhibition located on the West Coast and the largest private collection on exhibition in the United States,” according to its website. It holds more than 300 pieces of art, with a gallery devoted to the artist’s more graphic adult work.
After all of that culture, you can wind down at Old Fisherman’s Wharf (1 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, (831) 238-0777; www.montereywharf.com). Shops have something for every tourist’s taste, good or bad: saltwater taffy, seafood restaurants of varying pricepoints, too many T-shirts, a plethora of refrigerator magnets, jewelry, even sexy mermen ornaments during Christmas. There’s also a small community theater at the end of the peer. Wharves have a tendency to be cookie-cutter things, but in our less than humble opinion, it’s cleaner than the wharf in San Francisco, the parking is easier, and the food is better.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.