Back in my salad days, I thought of California as more than a state. It was a state of mind. I dreamed of rolling westward across America, like Jack Kerouac, in search of adventure. I was drawn both to the journey itself and the devil-may-care lifestyle Kerouac and his friends embodied.
Big Sur, a mountain range that serves as the title of one of Kerouac’s books, likewise became mythic in my mind: mountains rising up out of the sea, windswept pines, and cozy cabins—all representing a lifestyle dramatically different from the flat landscapes of my East Coast upbringing.
Now I would finally come face to face with Big Sur. Heading south on Highway One, I drove through an amazing landscape, following a twisting, two-lane road along ridges high above a rocky coastline. I imagined what Big Sur would be like: a tourist town, a traffic light, or little more than a bump in the road.
Suddenly, I noticed my gas tank was getting low. Uh-oh. This wild, untamed corner of the world doesn’t have too many places to fuel up, I realized. When I eventually passed a small gas station, I was horrified to see gas was twice as expensive as in town.
Turns out Big Sur is more than a geographic location: it’s about isolation, being removed from the world. It’s a bit too remote for me, I decided, and pointed the car northward toward civilization and more civilized gas prices.
After filling up my rental car, I found plenty to do closer to town. In fact, Monterey County offers a variety of activities for vacationers. Whether you’re looking for up-close encounters with nature or a taste of culture, this diverse corner of California has what you’re seeking and more.
Beneath the Sea: The Monterey Aquarium
Kids Love the Splash Zone with a Coral Tunnel
Besides Kerouac, Monterey County has been home to a contingent of other writers and artists, most notably John Steinbeck, who immortalized Cannery Row, a sardine canning plant along the waterfront, now the site of the Monterey Aquarium, a popular tourist attraction with award-winning exhibits.
Much of the inspiration for the Aquarium comes from the wealth of sea life just outside the facility. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, covering 6,000 square miles of ocean surrounding Monterey Bay, is home to a spectacular array of plants and animals.
The aquarium recreates some of these habitats, making it easy for visitors to peer into the mysteries beneath the sea. A three-story kelp forest, for example, provides insight into the crucial role these sea plants play in maintaining the ocean’s ecosystems. I loved watching the giant plants dance in the sea currents.
Another favorite exhibit is the Splash Zone, where South African black-footed penguins strut and swim to the delight of visitors. Nearby children are welcome to learn about marine life with hands-on activities. Kids can crawl through a coral tunnel, climb into a giant clamshell, and examine sea creatures in a touch tank.
You can view aquatic animals of all kinds: octopi, cuttlefish, skates, leopard shark, monkeyface eel, sea lions, seals, and green sea turtles. An exhibit on the cannery is also found in the aquarium, as well as a small exhibit on John Steinbeck.
Fruitful Land: The National Steinbeck Center
Exhibits include The Valley of the World and Travels With Charley
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas is about a half hour inland. On the way I passed through Salinas Valley, which produces much of our country’s vegetables. I watched workers cutting heads of fresh, green lettuce in a field, wrapping them in plastic, and packing them in boxes, ready to ship to a grocery store near you.
Between May and November, growers in the region harvest six million heads of lettuce each day! Other produce grown here include artichokes, broccoli, onions, cauliflower, garlic, strawberries, mushrooms, and wine grapes. Over a quarter million acres in Monterey County are devoted to growing produce.
You can learn more about the importance of agriculture in this region at The National Steinbeck Center, where an exhibit called Valley of the World tells about the history and innovations that have combined to create this lush, fruitful land. Computer stations invite kids of all ages to learn about vegetables and even vote for their favorite. (Believe it or not, broccoli was in the lead when I visited.)
Most folks visit The National Steinbeck Center to learn more about John Steinbeck, one of our country’s greatest authors. Exhibits tell of Steinbeck’s youth as a hired hand working in the fields and ranches of Monterey County and his journey toward a writing career.
Themed galleries bring many of Steinbeck’s novels to life with film clips and stage settings. Having just read Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s travelogue from the early 60s. I was happy to discover in the exhibit the very truck that carried the author and his standard poodle across America and back again.
Exotic Animals: The Monterey Zoo
Meet Josef, Kolar and Kally, and Georgia, a Himlayan Baboon
My next stop was the Monterey Zoo, home to an assortment of wild animals, some of which are famous. Josef, a stately lion who lives at the compound, served as the model for Disney’s The Lion King. Other famous stars include Kolar and Kally, two of the world’s most photographed tigers, and Georgia, a Himalayan baboon who modeled for Mighty Joe Young and appeared in a Pepsi commercial.
Lisa, one of the zoo’s employees, took me on a guided tour of the compound and clearly delighted in her work with these exotic animals. She explained that one of the missions of the company was to teach conservation through education. “Lots of schoolchildren come on field trips,” she explained. “They love our animals!”
That evening I sat on my balcony overlooking Monterey Bay, listening to the waves break beneath my window and waiting for the moon to rise. Across the bay, the shore was dotted with lights, and beyond them a ridge rose up to the sky.
Patiently I waited and soon a sliver of silver light broke above the shadowy outline of the ridge, and bright moon rays soon began to warm up the inky black sky. Within moments the bay sparkled with dancing white diamonds, a train of them linking me to the moon over Monterey.
My solo journey was ending. The next day I would meet my mother at the airport and fly east across this fruitful land to my husband and children, my house, my business, my life.
But for a few days I enjoyed an adventure, perhaps not as reckless and wild as Kerouac’s or as purposeful as Steinbeck’s, but it was a trip that I needed. A breather. A chance to slow down and remember to look around me at the world that is spinning by so fast. Not taking life for granted is a lesson we all need to be reminded of. Whether it’s walking in a redwood forest in Sonoma or watching the moon rise over Monterey Bay, stop and take note.
What you Need to Know To Go
Tips for Visiting Monterey County
For accommodation options, attractions, and more, visit www.seemonterey.com.
The Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa is situated right beside the Pacific and offers unmatched views of the coastline. Visit www.montereyplazahotel.com.
Don’t miss the educational exhibits and thrilling marine encounters at Monterey Aquarium - www.montereybayaquarium.org.
Learn about John Steinbeck and his contributions to American literature at The National Steinbeck Center - www.steinbeck.org.
A visit to the Monterey Zoo will be a hit with your kids. Find out about opening hours, location, and exhibits at www.montereyzoo.org.