In John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row,” Doc’s lab is a shrine to marine biology that gets trashed by well-meaning friends intent on giving him a whale of a party. While “Cannery Row” is often lauded as one of Steinbeck’s more humorous works, few know that Doc was a real person — Ed Ricketts — and that his lab still sits, modestly, on the street that Steinbeck made famous. But while the city is forever tied to the Nobel Prize-winning author, Monterey is not just about Steinbeck.
This is, after all, where California hosted its first constitutional convention in 1849. It’s where Jimi Hendrix ignited the Summer of Love with a fiery guitar in 1967. And, let’s not forget, it’s where the 1989 classic “Turner & Hooch” was filmed. (Okay, maybe not classic, but Tom Hanks was in it!)
Most of all, though, Monterey is a city inexorably tied to the sea. And while today’s Monterey might not be “a stink,” as Steinbeck described it (luckily), the city’s fishing past is still evident even long after it catered more to tourists than fishing fleets.
The intersection of Monterey’s past and present is most evident on Cannery Row (named after the book), where the Monterey Bay Aquarium, drawing from the city’s marine history, has become a world-renowned research hub featuring more than 35,000 sea creatures for public viewing. While most land-living creatures see kelp as clumps of seaweed on the water’s surface, the aquarium’s hypnotic deep kelp forest reveals the magical world that lies beneath these vibrant underwater communities.
Outside the aquarium, the Monterey Bay is one of the best places in the world to witness breathtaking marine wildlife. At times, you can see majestic whales merely driving along Ocean View Boulevard or sitting on the balcony of a well-placed hotel. But whale charter boats offer the most picture-worthy moments, gliding among 100-foot blue whales, dolphins and orcas. The bay’s abundance of marine life almost guarantees every boatload will see something memorable.
On land, a casual stroll through Monterey’s neighborhoods reveal historic homes with charming architecture. Just south of the city, in Pacific Grove, is one of Monterey County’s best-known historic buildings: The Point Pinos Lighthouse, built in 1855, is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the Western United States. Easy to see from the road, the lighthouse, which has on-site museum exhibits, is a painter’s dream.
With lots of beachfront trails and easy-access beaches, Monterey draws the outdoor enthusiasts who want to hike, bike, dive, kayak or surf. The Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, which snakes along the waterfront, offers gorgeous views of rocky coast and thick patches of colorful flowers set against the staggering blue water of the bay.
Monterey is also far enough from the big city to offer laid-back cruising opportunities, and few cities offer this much unobstructed coastal viewing. The best route extends along the coast to the south, leading to the 17-Mile Drive. The drive (which does cost $10.50) offers views of the 250-year-old Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world, and Pebble Beach Golf Links, where Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods experienced some of their most memorable rounds.
But while there’s more to Monterey than Steinbeck, the author’s presence here envelops the city like a thick fog. Steinbeck was right when he called Monterey a “nostalgia,” because its past is a vital to its appeal.
If you read “Cannery Row” before visiting, walking by the old Ed Ricketts lab, Pacific Biological Laboratories, will have greater meaning. Steinbeck’s friend was not only his muse but also an inspiration for the aquarium that hovers next to it and an important part of the city’s character.
Ricketts died unexpectedly after he was hit by a car three years after “Cannery Row” was published. And when Steinbeck and another friend peered in Doc’s safe, they found a bottle of whiskey and a note that read: “What the hell did you expect to find here? Here’s drink for your troubles.”
If you decide to tour the lab, maybe remember that note. And as you grab a bite at Sly McFly’s afterward, offer a toast to Doc, Steinbeck and that massive whale you saw earlier.