Mother Nature worked overtime on the rugged Monterey Peninsula, a surf-and-wind-sculpted wonder of cliff-lined beaches, sandy dunes, rocky shores, and deep ocean bays. Pacific Grove (aka Butterfly Town, U.S.A., famous as the resting stop for migrating monarch butterflies) and Carmel-by-the-Sea are big attractions, but the old fish ing town of Monterey, forever immortalized by Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck, remains the peninsula’s biggest draw. Every September, it hosts the Monterey Jazz Festival, a huge three-night affair that attracts more than 500 greats from around the world and is the oldest ongoing jazz festival in the nation. In June, the Monterey Bay Blues Festival also lures top talents from all over the world.
Once famous for whaling and sardine canning, Monterey was also California’s first capital and retains more than 40 buildings built before 1850. Today, Monterey’s most popular attraction is the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row, the alley of sardine canneries that thrived in downtown Monterey in the 1930s and ’40s and the setting for John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row. The hard-luck world he describes is vanished (most of the canneries closed by mid-century due to overfishing), replaced with shops and restaurants that make for an enjoyable stroll.
Closely modeling a natural environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to 550 species of marine animals, including sharks, penguins, and a dazzling rainbow of fish. Four curious sea otters (rescued and unable to survive in the open ocean) cavort in a land-and-sea exhibit, while nearby, a comical crew of blackfooted penguins dive into chilly waters. Then there are the mesmerizing jellies, fantastic works of living aquatic art, displayed to reveal their brilliant colors. Check into the Old Monterey Inn. a beautifully renovated half-timbered Tudor built in 1929, with just ten perfectly appointed rooms.
Nearby Salinas and its surrounding landscape (sometimes referred to as “Steinbeck Country”) was the birthplace and early home of John Steinbeck best known for his 1939 classic The Grapes of Wrath, which chronicled the hardships of migrant workers in California during the Depression. Here you’ll find the National Steinbeck Center’s exhibits linking his life with his literature, and frequent showings of films based upon his novels. Two blocks west is the Steinbeck House, an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian where Steinbeck was born.