From the “blue platter” of Monterey to the “round comfortable oaks” of the Gabilan Mountains, literary inspiration is everywhere, it seems, on the Monterey Peninsula of California’s Central Coast.
At least it was for Pulitzer- and Nobel-Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who used the towns of his youth — Salinas, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Spreckels — as backdrops for his stories of ranch workers, down-on-their-luck migrants, and colorful misfits.
In a letter to a friend in 1933, Steinbeck, then a young author, talked of his plans to write the story of the whole Salinas Valley, including its small towns, farms, and ranches.
“I can see how I would write it so that it would be the valley of the world,” he wrote.
Today, a half-century after Steinbeck’s death, a visit to his “valley of the world” will not only give you a glimpse of the author’s world of lettuce fields and farm workers, but also of sandy beaches bracketed by rocky cliffs, quaint Victorian neighborhoods decorated with butterflies and lanterns, windsurfers riding crashing waves, and scenic oceanside trails.
Certainly, the area is having a modern-day moment now, thanks to the star-studded HBO series Big Little Lies.
But the recent attention is far from the first time the coastal community has been in the literary spotlight. Long before the region became synonymous with the dramas of the Monterey Five, its beaches, rolling hills, and rocky ocean cliffs were known simply as Steinbeck Country.
Here are eight fascinating things to do in Monterey County that will bring you to the heart of Steinbeck’s world.
1. Make A Pilgrimage To The National Steinbeck Center
Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas, and it is in the center of that agricultural town about 20 miles northeast of Monterey that visitors can take a virtual walk through Steinbeck’s life.
The National Steinbeck Center, located next to the historic buildings of Old Town Salinas, offers a series of captivating displays that tell the story not just of Steinbeck’s life, but also of how his family and friends, along with the land and the ocean, influenced his stories.
Many of the displays focus on East of Eden, the Salinas-based novel that the author reportedly considered his masterpiece. Other displays offer fascinating tidbits about Steinbeck’s other famous books — The Grapes of Wrath, The Red Pony, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men — as well as the movies that were based on the books. Photos of movie stars Henry Fonda, James Dean, and Robert Mitchum offer a glimpse of Hollywood history.
Steinbeck wove loving descriptions of the environment into his witty but sometimes grim tales. The National Steinbeck Center’s website emphasizes the profound impact the coastline had on his writing: “His prose of place is chiseled, precise. The Gabilan Mountains are tawny hills dotted with ‘round, comfortable oaks.’ Fog ‘sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.’ Meadowlarks sing ‘like water.’ Monterey Bay is a ‘blue platter.’”
With its fun and interactive ambiance, the National Steinbeck Center is a worthwhile stop — even for those who remember little of their high school lessons on Of Mice and Men or The Pearl.
2. Lunch At The Steinbeck House
For an even more intimate look at Steinbeck’s early life, you can visit his childhood home, which has been converted into a charming luncheon spot, The Steinbeck House. It’s located a short walk from the National Steinbeck Center.
Steinbeck was born in the Victorian home at 132 Central Avenue in 1902, and he is said to have written portions of The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat in an upstairs bedroom overlooking Central Avenue. In the early 1970s, a group of civic-minded women organized the Valley Guild and opened a luncheon-only restaurant in the historic home.
Today, diners can choose from creative appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, and entrée selections and sit among the furniture and family photos of the Steinbeck family. The slightly fancy lunch makes a perfect end to a morning spent exploring Old Town Salinas and the National Steinbeck Center.
3. Take In The Victorian Vibe In Pacific Grove
The community of Pacific Grove, located on the very tip of the Monterey Peninsula, also figured prominently in Steinbeck’s writing. After he married, he and his first wife, Carol, moved to a cottage in Pacific Grove, where he worked on manuscripts. He later bought a cottage just blocks from the beach.
Today, that cottage still stands on 11th Street in Pacific Grove, among the town’s many Victorian-style homes and businesses. The Steinbeck Cottage, and a host of other historic properties, are available for rent on Airbnb.
A visit to Pacific Grove in mid to late July will put you in the midst of the lovely Feast of Lanterns festival, when hundreds of colorful Chinese lanterns decorate the trees and businesses about town. And an October visit will coincide with the massive gathering of monarch butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
4. Stroll The Famous Cannery Row
Perhaps no street looms as large in Steinbeck’s writings as Cannery Row, the sardine-canning district that he described as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
The waterfront row was the setting of Steinbeck’s popular 1945 novel, Cannery Row. No longer a sardine-canning location, Cannery Row has evolved into a tourist area, with shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels crowding the streets. Take a seaside seat in one of the eateries, such as the Sardine Factory or Paluca Trattoria in the nearby Fisherman’s Wharf area, and you will be in for a culinary treat and a gorgeous seaside vista.
Cannery Row is also where you can take in the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, billed as “your window to marine life.” There, you can view sea otters, penguins, sharks, and jellies. Plan for long lines in the summer, and set aside 2 to 3 hours to view the aquarium. Answers to frequently asked questions are available here.
5. Admire The Ocean Views At Point Pinos Lighthouse
For a more serene oceanside setting, the 1855 Point Pinos Lighthouse is the perfect next stop. Located on the northernmost tip of the peninsula, Point Pinos is one of six lighthouses that were built along the coast shortly after California statehood was ratified.
As the oldest continuously operated lighthouse on the West Coast, Point Pinos is a great stop for history buffs. It was strategically important because before its construction, the point had proven dangerous to sailors who mistakenly believed they had reached Monterey Bay. It is also beautiful, offering expansive views of the bay’s blue waters.
6. Soak Up The Sun At Asilomar State Beach
If a scenic oceanside walk is what you’re after, the cliffs and sandy stretches at Asilomar State Beach could be just the answer.
Located on the Monterey Peninsula in Pacific Grove a short drive from the Point Pinos Lighthouse, Asilomar is a narrow 1-mile strip of sandy beach and rocky coves. A coastal walking trail, the Asilomar Coast Trail, is open to pedestrians.
7. Fall In Love With Lovers Point
For family beach fun, there is a lot to love at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove. Picnicking, fishing, swimming, water sports, and surfing are among the offerings.
Visit Lovers Point on a warm summer day, and you’ll see couples in kayaks, kids slurping soft-serve ice cream cones from The Grill snack bar, and teenagers climbing the massive rock formation at the tip of the Point. That’s not even to mention the fun evening atmosphere, when bands set up at the Beach House Café for the Lovers Point Concert Series.
Park amenities include a large lawn area, a beach volleyball court, a children’s swimming pool, sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, a concrete pier structure, a restaurant, and a snack bar.
8. Explore The Monterey Bay Area
Following the route of the former Southern Pacific Railroad line that connected Monterey’s fishing village to the rest of Northern California, the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail winds along the coast and offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
The 18-mile paved trail runs from Pacific Grove in the south to Castroville in the north. A number of spots are available to rent bikes, kayaks, surreys, and in-line skates, including Adventures by the Sea.
The Monterey Bay area has a wealth of other offerings as well, including wineries, the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway 1, surfing, golf, and whale watching. Check out the options at the Monterey website.