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The Sometimes Hokey, But Still Potent, Charms of Monterey, California

The towns along the California coastline are somewhat like that line-up of starlets that was featured in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “That’s Entertainment” movies. Each one is supernaturally gorgeous, and with a kicky spirit to boot. They’re blessed with golden beaches, towering cliffs, quirky boutiques and gourmet eateries. Big Sur has its overabundance of nature sites, a surfeit of celebrities (hey, Anne Hathaway recently married here) and the New Age retreat centers that draw them. San Simeon and nearby San Luis Obispo get a beach-full of yowling sea lions and America’s most artistic tribute to conspicuous consumption (Hearst Castle). There’s the blindingly green golf courses of Pebble Beach, the movie-set like charms of Carmel (not a speck of dirt here—by law!) and just inland, acre after acre of wineries.

So most folks who come to this area of the world do so as a road trip. As they should: the Pacific Coast Highway, with its cliff-hugging curves and crystalline ocean views, is one of the most splendid roads in all of North America. But I decided to explore the area differently, settling down for a few days in Monterey, the town that traded grit for kitsch, yet still manages to maintain its historic soulfulness.

If you’ve heard of Monterey, it’s likely because of Nobel Prize-winning novelist and journalist John Steinbeck. He made the city, and its pungent fish canneries, famous in such best selling novels as Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row. So a visit to Monterey should actually start 17 miles inland in Salinas, hometown of Steinbeck and the place you’ll find the entertainingly informative National Steinbeck Center. Because Steinbeck used all of the Salinas Valley as his canvas, the museum is as much about the area as it is about the writer, and has the enormous benefit of being able to use Steinbeck’s own words for the wall text. Along with historic photos and interactive displays his life and times, the museum screens marvelous clips from the movies that were made from East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and other seminal Steinbeck works. And because Steinbeck was as much journalist as novelist, the museum touches on many of the most important events of the 20th century from the migrant work camps of the Great Depression to the battlefields of World War II. Even if you’re not a Steinbeck fan, you’ll find the museum eye-opening.

Back in Monterey, more history is on tap with a historic trail  that takes in the city’s many 19th century buildings (one was home to the American consulate when this area was part of Mexico, another the first California Congress building). If you want a guide for this intriguing lesson in the city’s past, try one of historian Thom Diggin’s walking tours (see below).


Of course, all visitors to Monterey end up on Cannery Row, which today is more outdoor shopping mall thank stinky sardine canning industrial zone. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine what it was like in the days when it had real character, both as a melting pot (home to hundreds of Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Russian and other workers) and seamy underworld of brothels and saloons.  But the wondrous Monterey Bay Aquarium almost makes up for the paving over of history. Without hyperbole, this is one of the 3 finest aquariums on the planet,  thanks to its innovative use of the bay that surrounds the facility (engineers pump in fresh water from the ocean, allowing for the growth of an indoor kelp forest, the first of its kind). Star exhibits include "Open Seas" (which has one of the largest single pane glass windows in the world, and is the first aquarium exhibit to house great white sharks in its million-gallon tank); the joyful sea otters; and the mesmerizing jellyfish tanks.

And as with neighboring towns, Monterey’s restaurants makes good use of the abundant fresh fish and produce of the area. Tops among them are Tarpy’s Roadhouse which serves up creative, vegetable-heavy gourmet American food in a 1911 roadhouse just a few miles east of downtown; the elegant Restaurant 1833, which was a contender for Best New Restaurant of the Year from the James Beard Association (in 2012), and serves up exquisite delicacies in a historic home; and the new-in-2014 Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill which features flavor-packed comfort food, 11 site-brewed ales and lagers, and dozens of other beers from around the world, in an industrial chic setting.

If You Go:

National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St., Salinas; Open daily 10am-5pm. Admission: $14.95 adults, $8.95 seniors and college students, $7.95 youth 13-17, $5.95 children 6-12.

The Original Monterey Walking Tour ( Dates and hours vary so consult the website. $20 per person.

Monterey Bay Aquarium (866 Cannery Row; Open daily 10am 5pm. Admission $39.95 adults, $34.95 students 13-17 and college students with ID, $24.95 children 3-12.

Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill (426 Alvarado St.; Open daily 11:30am-11pm. Main dishes $8.95-$22

Restaurant 1833 (500 Hartnell Street;  Dinner only, main dishes $18-$35

Tarpy’s Roadhouse (2999 Salinas Highway; Daily 11:30-3pm and 4pm-11pm. Main dishes $10—$38.