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California Dreamin' Part III: San Francisco to the Valley of the World, Just $41 a Day

Take a road trip through the sunny and fertile Valley of the World in California.

The beautiful River Road is the main scenic reason to visit "The Valley of the World," as John Steinbeck called this part of America. (The Salinas native coined the phrase in a work that would later become East of Eden.) Just across the mountains from Monterey and the Pacific, the unbelievably fertile lands here contain, among other things, the artichoke capital of the world (centered in Castroville), the lettuce capital of the US (80% of the nation's crop), wineries that cover 40,000 acres, and land that produces more vegetables than any other region in the USA. (And yet the Salinas Valley is just 20 miles by 90 miles in area!)

The year-round average temperature is 68, in summer in the 70s, in winter the 60s, but night temperatures drop to the 50s in summer, to the 30s in winter. As the weather is suitable for agriculture, so it is for the production of marvelous wines and the softening of spirit that comes with warm weather.

Getting There

The northern entrance to the Valley is just 101 miles south of San Francisco, 58 from San Jose. Take US 101 straight to Salinas, but from there, use the River Road (also known as G 17) to enjoy the area at its best.

Note: if you pick up the colorful Salinas & Salinas Valley brochure in a rest stop, gas station, hotel, or restaurant along the way, you can get savings of 20% on wine at participating wineries, or discounts from $1 to $5 on several of the places mentioned in the Highlights and Events sections, below. That includes the Steinbeck Center & House, Wild Things, The Farm, and two events, the Rodeo and the Air Show. The brochure is also available at the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce at 831/424-7611. You can e-mail or visit the Web site at For information about the county outside the valley (such as Carmel or Monterey towns), try the Monterey County Visitors Bureau at 831/649-1770, Web site

River Road

If you need just one reason to visit the Valley, consider the historic River Road, a scenic former stagecoach route that will take you back in time. Spanish soldier-explorers were poking around here as early as 1769, and along this route five years later the first settlers came with Juan Bautista de Anza enroute to the presidio of Monterey. There are century-old farmhouses, an early mission, former Spanish and Mexican rancho properties, and an historic hot springs along River Road. But the best part is that you'll be passing through Monterey's wine region, with vistas of some of the world's most bountiful (and beautiful) farmland.

The route starts just two miles south of Salinas at the junction of Highway 68 (the road to Monterey) and River Road (also known as County G-17). For much of the drive, you will be running alongside parts of the Salinas River.

At the one-mile mark, you'll see the remains of the Spreckels Company's sugar mill, largest of its kind in the world when built. About a mile later, you'll start seeing old ranch houses dating from the 1880s. At the five-mile mark, you'll be well into the fertile valley described by Steinbeck in East of Eden.

At 15 miles, though, the fun begins with the first of the estate vineyards. (See "Vineyards" below for details on wine tasting and tours.)

At about 29 miles, the name changes from River Road to Fort Romie Road, so don't get confused. At 31.3 miles, you'll find the Mission Soledad, founded in 1791, one of California's original churches, but what you see today is a reconstruction.

At 34.9 miles, the name of your route changes to Arroyo Seco Road, just past the stop sign at the intersection of Fort Romie Road. A bit further on (at Clark Road), turn west and drive about 11 miles to Paraiso Hot Springs, an historic mineral spa first known to the area's Native American population. In the late 1880s, it became a fashionable place, consisting of a hotel, cottages (some of which still stand today), and a dance hall. At one time, this place was called "The Carlsbad of America," because of its restorative qualities.

When you reach 54.2 miles, at the Elm Avenue Bridge west of Greenfield, you've done the entire route. To get back to US 101, cross the bridge and continue to Central Avenue, which leads to Greenfield and the highway. To go west to the Carmel area, return to Arroyo Seco Road and turn left on G-16, which becomes Carmel Valley Road and eventually comes out at US 1.

Wineries, Tastings & Tours

There are eight wine-growing areas in the county, and at least 38 vineyards. Many (about 35) are represented in the wine tastings at the "Taste of Monterey" shop in Salinas, just in front of the Steinbeck Center (127 Main Street, phone 831/751-1980, Web site But it's far more fun to drive the River Road, stopping in at wineries along the route and get a feel for each place. In addition to the tastings, you can go on tours at several of the spots.

The range of wines runs the gamut from Cabernets to Viogniers, but the county is perhaps best known for it's Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Though many wineries offer free tastings, there is often a small charge ($3 for six wines, for example), to deter the busloads of tourists who drink much and buy nothing.

Note to drivers: You don't have to swallow the wine, just taste a bit in the usual manner and then spit it out. Save the imbibing for a glass when having a meal at the end of the day.

Six wineries in the Salinas Valley that have tasting rooms are as follows, arranged from north to south:

Hahn Estates, three miles east of the River Road on Gonzales River Road. Location is 37700 Foothill Road, Soledad, phone 831/678-2132, Web site Daily tastings are offered from 11 to 4. The second vineyard, Smith & Hook, owned by the Hahns, can also be found here.

Paraiso Springs Vineyards, 1.1 miles west of Fort Romie Road where it meets Arroyo Seco Road. The address is 38060 Paraiso Springs Road, Soledad, phone 831/678-0300, Web site Tastings daily from noon to 4.

Jekel Vineyards, one mile west of Greenfield off the Walnut Exit on US 101. Address is 40155 Walnut Avenue, Greenfield, phone 831/674-5525, Web site Daily tasting from 11 to 4.

Scheid Vineyards, at 1972 Hobson Avenue, Greenfield, just west of US 101. ("Look for the American flag.") Daily tasting 11 to 5, in summer to 6. Phone them at 831/386-0316, Web site

The sixth, Chalone Vineyard, is east of Soledad, 6.2 miles up Route 146 from Metz Road, at the corner of Stonewall Canyon Road. Tastings Sat. & Sun. 11:30 to 5, phone 831/678-1717, Web site

Note: For more information on the wineries here, contact the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association, phone 831/375-9400, or see the Web site at

Other Places Worth a Look

The National Steinbeck Center is the biggest museum I have ever seen in the USA dedicated solely to an author. The size of modern presidential libraries, it offers a fascinating look, not only into the writer's life and works, but to the history of this valley since his birth in 1902. The center, at the top end of the city's Old Town main drag, has been open since 1998 and has rejuvenated the neighborhood, which is now filled with quaint shops, antique malls, and restaurants, all in turn-of-the-(last)-century buildings. Admission $7.95, $1 off for seniors and students with ID, $2 off for young people aged 13-17, $3.95 for kids under 13, free to children 5 and under. Open daily except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Contact the Center at One Main Street, Salinas 93901, phone 831/775-4720, Web site

The Steinbeck House, birthplace and boyhood home of the 1962 Nobel Prize-winning author (Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, etc.), is just down the street a few blocks from the museum. There's a wonderful dining experience to be had here, where you may be served tasty comfort food (such as a delicious ham and asparagus timbale) by cheerful volunteers from the Valley Guild (see restaurant listings, below). Guided tours are available, too. They're at 132 Central Avenue, Salinas, phone 831/424-2735, Web site

The Farm is just that, not the famous euphemism used by CIA agents to refer in public to their training grounds in Virginia. You can experience a working farm, walking through the fields and picking fresh produce if you like (the hard work is optional). Pet some farm animals or take a tractor ride, and taste locally grown organic produce. Tours operate April through November, daily except Sunday, between 9 and 6. They cost $5, $3 for children under 16, under 2 free. But there's a $25 minimum fee, so you need five adults or a combination of two adults and five kids, etc., to make up a little group. (Or you can pay the $25 minimum all by yourself, if you wish. If you want to come by, just look, and take photos of the two-dimensional sculptures, there's no charge.) They're located just west of Salinas on Highway 68. You can't miss them, as giant 18-foot figures by artist John Cerney dominate the landscape, depicting men and women hard at work in the fields. Phone The Farm at 831/455-2575, or visit the Web site,

In this valley, "the Salad Bowl of America," you can easily buy what they don't export to the rest of the USA and the world. There are two farmers markets in Salinas: Open year round is the Monterey Bay Certified Farmer's Market, Northridge Mall Parking Lot, 831/796 North Main Street, Sundays from 8 AM to noon, phone 831/728-5060. Open from April through November is the Salinas Oldtown Farmer's Market, in the 300 block of Main Street on Wednesdays from 3 to 8 PM, phone 831/758-9272.

If you're really into the "Green Acres" lifestyle, visit the Monterey County Agricultural and Rural Life Museum in King City, down south on US 101, at 1160 Broadway, San Lorenzo Park. It features indoor and outdoor exhibits, historical buildings. It's open daily, 10 to 4, phone 831/385-8020, Web site

If the kids must have a look at imprisoned animals, take them to Wild Things, where there are over 100 exotic animals, as well as a few "movie stars," including Josef (George of the Jungle) and Brandi (Grizzly Mountain). Daily tour at 1 PM. Admission $7, $5 for children aged 14 and under. 400 River Road, Salinas, Web site "Don't phone ahead, just show up," they say.


July 19-22 look out for the California Rodeo Salinas (phone 831/775-3100 or 800/771-8807, Web site

July 27-29 the Gilroy Garlic Festival happens just up the road, US 101 (phone 408/842-1625).

August 2-5 is the prestigious Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, celebrating the 99th anniversary of John's birth right here in town (phone 831/796-3833).

September 14-16 sees the California International Air Show in Salinas (phone 831/754-1983,

On October 20 the California State Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off takes place in Salinas (phone 831/449-1062).

On December 7 you can view the Old Town Holiday Parade in Salinas (phone 831/758-0725).


Lodging in the Valley means mostly chain brand names. (There's only one B&B on the entire River Road, for instance, and it's out of our range.) But these are all clean, in some cases newly remodeled, and convenient. All have corporate and government rates, and some have AAA and AARP prices, so be sure to ask.

Lowest in price is the Motel 6, 140 Kern Street, Salinas 93905. You can't beat the price, which is $45 for a double, year-round. Rooms are smallish and the amenities and facilities are few. But we hope you'll be out of your room most of the time, enjoying what this marvelous breadbasket of a valley has to offer, anyhow. Phone them at 831/753-1711.

Cheapest of the best is the Good Nite Inn, 545 Work Street, Salinas 93901. This is part of a California chain of some 13 properties. For just $64.99 year round, you get a reasonably large room, continental breakfast, free local and 800 calls, free Showtime, ESPN, and CNN on your TV. Hotel facilities also include a pool and spa. The property is currently being renovated, a few rooms at a time, and work should be finished by early summer. Call 831/648-3466 or 800/NITE INN Ext. 33, or visit the Web site,

The Best Inn, at 109 John Street in Salinas, is very nearly that, with newly remodeled rooms and year round prices of $89 for a double room, including continental breakfast (with bagels, cereals, and more). Each fairly big room has color TV (with HBO, CNN, ESPN, and other channels), air conditioning, phones, and dataport (free local calls). Some rooms are nonsmoking, and rooms with microwaves and refrigerators are also available. Phone the inn at 831/424-4801 or 800/BESTINN, fax at 831/758-1300, Web site At the Holiday Inn Express in Salinas, the price for a double is $88 except in summer, when it rises to $99. Rates include a continental breakfast with fruit, bagels, muffins and more. The fairly large rooms are air-conditioned and have 25" color TVs with HBO, as well as phones. Some rooms are nonsmoking. Free wine and cheese in the afternoon, too. Located at 131 John Street, Salinas 93901, phone 800/HOLIDAY.

Toward the top of our budget level is the Laurel Inn, also in Salinas. It's attractive, with a large pool and a diner, the Black Bear, on the premises. The rates, which are only $78 for a double in spring, go up to $100 in July, unfortunately, and then there will be a two-night minimum stay. The average-sized rooms have the usual amenities for a standard hotel in this category. Contact the inn at 801 W. Laurel Drive, ZIP 93906, phone 831/449-2474 or 800/354-9831, fax 831/449-2476, Web site


Most of the acceptable restaurants are right in Salinas, many of them along Main Street, stretching away from the Steinbeck museum's front entrance.

The Steinbeck House, birthplace in 1902 of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize-winning author, serves its only meal, lunch, in a former bedroom. The cost is $10.50 for entree with soup or salad and, beverage, tax included, dessert an additional $4. Entrees include such items as asparagus quiche, pasta Italiano, chicken with broccoli or "white chili." Wine and beer are available. Closed Sundays. The house is at 132 Central Avenue, Salinas, phone 831/424-2735, Web site again

The cheapest good breakfast in town can be had at First Awakenings, 171 Main Street (Oldtown), phone 831/784-1125. For just $3.50, you can get the traditional breakfast of two eggs on an English muffin, with homestyle potatoes. Pancakes start at $3.75, omelets at $4.25. At lunchtime, you can get a classic Reuben sandwich for $5.95, a variety of salads starting at $5.50. Sandwiches are served with homestyle potatoes, fresh fruit and salad, in any case.

At the fairly fancy One Main Street, right at the Steinbeck Center, you can get soup and a half sandwich starting at $6.50 (home made soup du jour and a ham and swiss, for instance). Salads start at even lower prices, $4.95 getting you a Salinas Valley version. They serve only lunch (11 to 3), but for a heftier meal, you could try Sparky's spaghetti and meatballs, said to be one of John Steinbeck's favorites on the Western Flyer (a rail train), costing $7.95 today. For a real treat, spend an extra $3.95 and have a big plate of Gilroy Garlic Fries, tossed with fresh garlic from Gilroy, the "Garlic Capital of the World", and parsley. The name is the address, and the phone is 831/775-4738.

Portobello's, at 1366 South Main Street, phone 831/753-0797, specializes in an eclectic grouping of food. Our hero here is the Our Hero! Sandwich at just $4.75. You could choose a burger, starting at $6.25, with your choice of chips on the side. An order of three salads and french bread goes for just $6.25.

La Fogata says it has the "most unique Mexican food in California," and that may be so, with a Sunday special of barbecued goat going for $6.50 and up. The breakfasts have appeal, a choice of eight combinations costing just $4.99 each (e.g., huevos con chorizo, eggs with sausage). At lunchtime, you could have two tacos for just $3.50 or order burritos (a choice from nine types, including the "Yoshi burrito," with white chicken, rice and cheese) for $4.25. Located at 232 Main Street, phone 831/757-5690, open 10 to 9, closed Tuesdays.

At Spado's, Italian food is the thing, with cheese ravioli at lunchtime going for only $6.99, the same price for three other pasta entrees. Pizzas begin at just $5.99. The same pasta dishes are available at dinner for $9.99, the pizzas from $7.99. They say they were "voted the best restaurant in Salinas" for the past five years. Contact Spado's at 66 West Alisal, phone 831/424-4139.

The Golden Fish Seafood Restaurant, 221 Main Street, phone 831/422-4946, has a few fish entrees under $10, a rarity in decent places these days. You can get fish & chips at lunchtime for just $6.95, or, for dinner, fried calamari or sole at $9.95. At dinner, such entrees are served with homemade potato salad or black beans, with seasonal vegetables, tartar sauce and salsas. Since you're in the world capital of this vegetable, you might want to order a side of fried artichoke hearts, for $5.95.

Hullabaloo is a bit pricey, but if you want to go where the trendy people in the Valley go, this is it. "Bold" American cooking featuring local produce and wines, and a full bar, are the highlights here. At lunchtime, sandwiches start at $6.95 (turkey on fogatsu, with fries), but, at dinner, the cheapest entree is a burger at $7.95, most items being in the $13.95 to $23.95 range. 228 Main Street, phone 831/757-3663.