Planet Steinbeck Revisited
By Mike Marino (Writer/Journalist)
The Golden Goddess of Northern California stands by the side of the road, thumbing a ride to the bucolic Monterey Peninsula. The Peninsula is the orbital center of Planet Steinbeck, the writer who took us on travels from the Mother Road to the Cannery Row, not to mention his travels with a dog named Charley and Baja bound marine biologist, Doc Ricketts.
The peninsula is a geographic strand of pearls, with towns strung as decorative beads along the windswept Pacific shoreline. These towns abound with cultural diversity in such gargantuan quantities that they nourish the individuals inner craving for culture, outdoor activities and history. In fact, when it comes to artistic expression, it’s not merely a cultural cornucopia of art and literature, but a bonafide full scale Art Attack!
Ground zero in this seaside adventure, is the town of Monterey itself, where once, King Sardine ruled his mighty rows of canneries, made famous in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” Today, you can embark on a coastal journey of discovery that includes an avalanche of art galleries, museums, and for the outdoor aficionado, seaside pathways and gardens that are famous for fantastic arrays of California flora. These cliff side and coastal hikes offer up displays of Monet-like imagery of windswept cypress trees, looking for all the world to be objects proudly painted on a Pacific canvas. The shopaholics and those with a penchant for the gastronomic, can get their need fix, as shopping and dining is truly eclectic. It has over two dozen restaurants where cuisine is an art form, and nightclubs and pubs aplenty. Think it’s all about sardines? Think again. Classy wine country tours abound for the vinophil, and you can develop your own “Grapes of Wrath” Wine Country tour in a vino limo (the Joads would be green with envy!) and combine elegance with good taste as tours can be customized to visit either Monterey’s Wine Country or the vineyards of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains.
Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” of 1945 has changed from it’s “glory” days of gritty sardine canning. Today, it has magically morphed (thanks to tourism and marketing) into a center for not only shopping and dining, but it holds the door open for exciting exploration of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. Take the Monterey Aquarium for example. While many aquariums may be high grade sirloin, this one is prime rib! It’s one of the premier aquariums in the world, with educational programs for the whole family designed to teach about the unique aquatic animals and plant life of this delicate marine eco-system from tiger sharks to hot pink flamingos! Along with this world class aquarium, there are enough outdoor adventure and eco-activities to feed the eccentric tourist machine around the clock.
Whales are the undisputed rock stars of the marine world, and you can board a whale watching vessel at Old Fisherman’s Wharf on the bay and set sail for a real Herman Melville fantastic, fun and safe experience of a lifetime (minus the harpoons!), by getting up close and Moby Dick personal with these magnificent creatures. Touring the area by sea can be accomplished by renting a kayak to traverse the shoreline in peace and solitude, or opt to take a guided kayak tour to explore the marine life along Cannery Row or Stillwater Cove.
Mariners depend on the coastal beacons, and one of the oldest still operational lights on the Pacific Coast is a stone lighthouse located at Point Pinos at the northernmost tip of the peninsula that originally fired up it’s light in 1855. Further down the coast south of Carmel is the Point Sur light station in the Point Sur State Historical Park. It first saw sea time service in 1889. For the true daughter or son of a beach, there are plenty of beachy keen ocean views to satisfy the visual feast demanded by those who choose this Garden of Art just East of Eden.
You can stay in town at a charming B&B or Four Star it in luxury. If there is a bit of mountainman or woman in you and you want to flex your rustic muscles, you can pitch a tent at a primitive site with a (not so primitive) picnic table and a fire pit at the Big Sur Campgrounds. Cabin rentals add a touch of knotty pine attitude with a fireplace nestled lovingly in the arms of the redwoods while the Big Sur River rushes to the Pacific Ocean. They also have RV accommodation’s for the Winnebago Warriors.
Down the road in Carmel, the former man with no name, Clint Eastwood, purchased and refubished an old Spanish Mission that today is a hotel that welcomes visitors to a stay that will certainly “make your day.” The Mission Ranch Hotel, before it was a hotel in the 1850’s was one of the earliest of California dairies, which was big business in the area. You’ve all seen the TV ads, “California Cows are Happy Cows!” At one point it’s residents also farmed potatoes, to feed the hungry legions of gold miners in the Sierras. The creamery on site cranked out cheese and butter for the county’s needs, but today, is home to the restaurant which is part of the Mission Ranch.
The Eastwood Project began decades ago, when development began it’s encroachment in the mid-1980’s and like his spaghetti western hero persona, Clint Eastwood, for just a few dollars more bought the ranch to protect it from the developers drawing boards. Only the best of the best craftsmen were hired to accomplish the renovation and today the restaurant and hotel retain the ambiance of the 1840’s. The former bunkhouse is now one of the buildings where guests can “hang their hats” for the evening, in rooms snug in a surrounding o cypress trees, gardens, and a patch where not antelope roam, but sheep that “work” the ranch.
Planet Steinbeck has a lot to offer, from the urbane to the rustic to the majestic. Fine cuisine in a four star restaurant or cooking over an open campfire on the beach. Open a fine bottle of wine from one of the local wineries or unscrew your favorite bum wine on the beach, Steinbeck style. It’s journey to a literary fourth dimension that can be the experience of lifetime.
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