Nature’s Wonders Dot Landscape In Central California
California’s central coast, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco, has long been known for its gloriously-stunning Monterey Peninsula where a gasp-a-minute 17-mile stretch of road ribbons past cypress-clad ocean vistas and craggy headlands.
Along the way, picturesque and tiny towns such as Pacific Grove, Carmel-by-the-Sea and the golf resort Valhalla of Pebble Beach add to the visual delights.
But inland lies a less-familiar traveler’s paradise known as the Salinas Valley where “America’s Salad Bowl” is festooned with all manner of working farms on which over 40 crops, including strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and garlic, grow in verdant rows that stretch to the horizon and beyond.
Here agritourism opportunities are thick on the ground (www.agventuretours.com), led by fourth-generation farm owners—many, descendants of Swiss-Italian immigrants from Switzerland’s canton of Ticino—eager to show off their wares and teach newcomers how, for instance, to grow, pick and cook artichokes to perfection. (Proud to be the epicenter of America’s artichoke-growing industry, California named its “chokes” the state vegetable in 2013.)
Other growers initiate the curious into a plethora of viticulture practices including the art of divining what kinds of grapes prosper in a certain type of soil. (The fruit from valley vineyards is so superb local vintners, for years, have supplied Napa and Sonoma winemakers with three-quarters of their grapes. A growing number of these wineries, attractively situated along a narrow 18-mile corridor at the base of a mist-kissed mountain range, encourage visits and appear to be siphoning tourists away from the more well established Napa and Sonoma wine-tasting routes.)
Visitors to the valley are often startled, then fascinated, by 18-foot-high plywood murals of farm laborers that rise abruptly out of flat fields giving the impression a new and miraculous hybrid seed now germinates giants. Art and agriculture thrive side by side in the valley—the monster people created by celebrated muralist and Salinas native John Cerney who fashioned his figures after real local workers going about everyday chores like irrigating, harvesting and thinning a new lettuce crop.
The Pacific Ocean, just beyond every rise, forms a big part of the local scene and cruises through the Moss Landing State Wildlife Area and Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve offer unparalleled opportunities for wildlife watching. Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons and other animal and birdlife thrive year-round in these protected areas. (Two good cruise outfitters: www.whispercharters.com and www.elkhornslough.com.)
And, oh joy, those beguiling and endlessly-watchable sea otters pop up everywhere. Highly social marine mammals, the furry and bewhiskered critters float on their backs in a “raft” of from 10 to 100 individuals. Sea otters possess a remarkable tool-making skill and are often seen cradling a stone in one paw while whamming a shell-encased clam or mussel against it with the other—a successful maneuver to get at the morsel of food locked inside.
In addition, four-hour whale-watching cruises into the 6,000-square-mile Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (www.sanctuarycruises.com) provide adventures aplenty as gray, blue, humpback and killer whales breach and blow; dolphins and porpoises ride the ship’s wake; and historic shipwrecks and submerged prehistoric Indian sites brood below in the deep.
The Monterey County Agricultural & Rural Life Museum (www.mcarlm.org) tells the tale of agriculture’s rise to prominence in the valley. This historic property, which focuses on the lives of valley folk around 1900, ably illustrates that era in structures such as the charming little 1887 La Gloria School, blacksmith shop, dairy barn, harvester shed, windmill, well drilling rig and a cook wagon.
Farms dedicated to the creation of artisanal cheeses and olive oil hold lively tours, tastings and cooking classes. Tourist-welcoming wineries, known for their top quality pinot noirs and chardonnays, crowd the Santa Lucia Highlands, which run north to south between the fertile Salinas Valley and the Sierra de Salinas Mountains. And the age-encrusted Nuestra Senora de la Soledad Mission (www.missionsoledad.com), founded in 1791by Franciscan missionaries—and built to serve the resident population of Esselin Indians—dot the landscape.
Many visitors look forward to stretching their legs on self-guided or ranger-led hikes into the spectacular 26,000-acre Pinnacles National Park (www.nps.gov/pinn) (America’s newest national park and a release site for the rare California condor) while goggling at the singular beauty of volcano-chiseled rock spires, massive boulders and talus caves.
Quaint and often historic bed and breakfasts, inns and restaurants, with creative chefs serving up the local provender, furnish ample opportunities for rest, repose and delicious dining. The Haute Enchilada Cafe (www.hauteenchilada.com), a perfect lunch stop after a morning wildlife cruise out of Moss Landing, proffers appealing eclectic décor and a charmer of a patio where diners tuck into any number of inspired dishes including the restaurant’s famed Peruvian Bird’s Nest entree—the concoction topped by a scrumptious hollandaise sauce that leaves guests sated and satisfied.
One other big draw lures visitors to the less-traveled-areas of Monterey and Salinas counties: This is Steinbeck country. The Nobel-Prize-winning author, born in the town of Salinas, spent the summers of his youth working on area ranches including the Spreckels Sugar Company’s Ranch No. 2 located in Soledad (which tourists can view), where he observed the miseries of migrant life and made use of his knowledge when penning his novella, “Of Mice and Men.”
Some of the numerous Steinbeck-related sites in the town of Salinas include: The handsome National Steinbeck Center (www.steinbeck.org) which houses six galleries that illustrate and explore the author’s history, philosophy, works of fiction and non-fiction, local imprint (he was not universally loved for his exposure of the plight of agricultural workers), and Steinbeck artifacts including the camper he used while writing Travels with Charley; the Cherry Bean Coffeehouse, a popular breakfast spot and coffee roaster where your morning cup of joe arrives freshly brewed (housed in the building where Steinbeck’s father operated a feed store); and Sang’s Café—the author hung out here on visits home.
Any exploration of all-things-Steinbeck would be incomplete without a short drive to the town of Monterey itself, sited on the Pacific Ocean and home to those colorful over-the-wharf sardine factories located along iconic Cannery Row (Cannery Row was also the title of one of Steinbeck’s more celebrated novels). Here Steinbeck became friends with the legendary marine biologist Ed Ricketts; joined him on numerous collecting trips; and used him as a model for his “Doc” character in “Sweet Thursday”, “Cannery Row” and other novels.
Historic walking tours of Cannery Row (the website www.seemonterey.com lists several good ones) supply a great overview of the first half of the 20th century when Monterey was the “Sardine Capital of the World.” The renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org), built in honor of Ed Ricketts on the site of a former sardine cannery, focuses on the denizens of local waters including a vast array of sharks, starfish, jellyfish, octopuses, endangered turtle species, penguins, puffins and a most intriguing kelp forest habitat.
Happily, those who thought they knew everything about the delights of California’s Central Coast have a lot of new surprises in store.
If You Go
For more information on Monterey County and the Salinas Valley, go to www.Salinas411.org. This website supplies data on both areas.