Although writer John Steinbeck died 45 years ago, we continue to visit Salinas, Calif. — his birthplace — and surrounding Monterey County in search of the characters and settings found in his classics "The Pastures of Heaven," "East of Eden," "Cannery Row" and "Tortilla Flat." Although we can't find Doc, Junius Maltby or Lee Chong's grocery store, the essence of the Salinas Valley lingers in the blend of cultures, overcast skies, farming communities and locals who combine a passion for their work with a penchant for libations.
There isn't much to choose from in Salinas except chain hotels and motels, so make the 18-mile drive to Stage Coach Lodge in Monterey (1111 10th St., Monterey;  899-6609, http://www.montereystagecoachlodge.com. Rooms from about $135 a night). The 26 rooms feature air conditioning, microwaves, refrigerators, 42-inch televisions and Wi-Fi, are in a residential neighborhood and are about one-tenth of a mile from Highway 1, giving visitors easy access to the surrounding region. Guests are also within walking distance of Lake El Estero and a 21/2-mile jaunt to Cannery Row.
Is the Haute Enchilada Café & Galerias an art gallery with exquisite food or a fun restaurant with an impeccable aesthetic? Answer: Both. The eatery, in a former antique store, serves a Latin fusion-inspired menu featuring mole enchiladas, salmon Quimixto, sand dabs, vegetarian risotto and beer-battered artichoke hearts in a festive dining room with paintings by co-owner Luis Solano and local artists. By the time you leave, you'll wonder which is better — the food or the ambience. (7902A Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing;  633-5843, http://www.hauteenchilada.com). No single item more than $26.)
Lost Spirits Distillery (Salinas;  235-9400, http://www.lostspirits.net) makes whiskey on site and offers two 90-minute tours on Saturdays (by reservation only, $20 a person) ending with a slide show and tasting. You'll learn about peat and its importance in creating the beverage and how Lost Spirits is only one of two whiskey distilleries in the world using a wooden still, but that information becomes secondary to you after you hang out with co-owners Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta, who leave visitors feeling as if they've made new friends. The two are highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their boutique single-malt house, but it's their willingness to let guests grab a bar stool and have a sample or three that makes the event feel more like a dinner party and less like a tour. Or maybe it's the 140-pound German shepherd named Goliath that poses for pictures and never says no to treats.
The lesson learned
A trip to the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St., Salinas;  775-4721, http://www.steinbeck.org. $14.95 for adults; $8.95 for seniors, teachers, students and military; $7.95 for youths ages 13-17; $5.95 ages 6-12 and free for children 5 and younger) is essential to learning about Salinas. On display is the author's camper used in "Travels With Charley: In Search of America," family belongings and journals and letters used as inspiration for "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men." For die-hard fans, the Steinbeck House (132 Central Ave., Salinas;  424-2735, http://www.steinbeckhouse.com. No single item more than $14) is an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian residence where the family moved in 1900. Today, the home is a restaurant with seasonal menus (lunch only) and a gift shop and is available for tours and private parties.