NATIONAL STEINBECK CENTER
It is always a challenge to commemorate a life, never mind a writer's life. Unlike museums devoted to sports legends or war heroes, a museum that honors a man of arts and letters must reflect his quiet, solitary pursuit. Which is to say that such a repository may be unbearably dull. How delightful, then, is the National Steinbeck Center at the end of Salinas' Main Street, a place whose undercurrents deliver shock after tiny shock -- here an arc of unknown history, there a jolt of social commentary. The museum is just a couple of blocks from where townspeople burned Steinbeck's books, enraged at his perceived betrayal of them and agriculture, the economic star then and now ($3.5 billion worth of crops in 2006) of Monterey County's show. Never mind that he was a hometown boy -- you can see his Victorian birthplace just up the street from the museum and have lunch there -- he was Judas to the growers and landowners portrayed unsympathetically in "Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden." The modern-looking center may seem incongruous with the unpretentious persona of the author, whose work won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. But like his books, it shines a light on the issues, using film clips and displays that are muted set pieces, occasionally somber but never dull. To see this place and the fields that surround Salinas is to understand that Steinbeck's so-called Valley of the World is really the Heart of California.
Info: National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas, CA 93901; (831) 796-3833, www.steinbeck.org.
-- Catharine Hamm
2. Mosey on to San Marcos Pass
THE COLD SPRING TAVERN
San Marcos Pass, Santa Barbara County
This is more than a tavern. Born as a stagecoach stop in the 1880s, the Cold Spring sits in the mountains 10 miles outside Santa Barbara on California Route 154. Owned by the Ovington family since 1941, the property includes an upscale restaurant (with buffalo, venison and rabbit and other dinner entrees at $17.50 to $28.50); and a rustic bar with a massive stone fireplace at one end. Most Sunday afternoons, the bar and patio fill with blues lovers and bikers (many of them Santa Barbara millionaires in disguise). They gather around the acoustic duo Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, who have played here for more than 15 years. Order a tri-tip sandwich ($7.95) from the oak pit rig around the side. Wash it down with a can of Coors ($3) or one of the four California brews on draft (up to $7). Guard your seat. Some summer Sundays, 400 of those tri-tip sandwiches are sold.
Info: Cold Spring Tavern, (805) 967-0066, www.coldspringtavern.com.
-- Christopher Reynolds
3. Moonlight grunion runs
CORONADO BEACH, WITH GRUNION RUNNING
Coronado, San Diego County
Grunion runs are a great tradition, made greater by the many nonnatives who suspect the whole thing is a con. To set them straight, head for Coronado Beach, which runs along the near-island's Ocean Avenue, within 100 yards of the stately old Hotel del Coronado. This will be a moonlight adventure, because the grunion, a 5-inch-long, blue-green-silver fish found from Baja California north to Santa Barbara, run only at night, at high tide, two to six nights after new and full moons, between March and September. (The state Department of Fish and Game predicts run dates at www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/gruschd.asp#runs.) Once ashore, these thousands of grunion lay and bury millions of eggs in the sand. (The eggs wash back out to sea and hatch a few weeks later.) The grunion are edible, but if you want to grab any, you'll need a fishing license. It's easier to check out the free show at Coronado Beach (or Silver Strand State Park, four miles south), then repair to the Hotel Del's Babcock & Story Bar for a nightcap. It's open until 1 a.m., full moon or no.
-- Christopher Reynolds
4. Sandpiper Golf Club