Bixby Bridge, Big Sur

Education Vacation: Literary Haunts and Beatnik Jaunts on the California Coast

February 01, 2011
by Sarah Amandolare
Despite having lost some of its counterculture luster, the central California coast is an intriguing area of the country to visit and maintains a free-spirited allure. Along the Pacific Coast Highway, between Salinas and Big Sur, discover the setting for John Steinbeck’s novels, visit the family-friendly Nit Wit Ridge and learn about a woodsy Jack Kerouac hideout.


TripCart gives a nice overview of the central California coast, outlining the various cultural highpoints that make the region stand out, such as Washington Square in San Francisco, where writers and intellectuals like poet Dylan Thomas convened in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the favored literary attractions in the area are the Robert Louis Stevenson House and the Hearst Castle, a massive study in Spanish architecture built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Those seeking an inside glimpse into famed Silicon Valley should stop at the Computer History Museum near San Jose.

Historical and Literary Stops in San Francisco

It’s easy to fill your California coast itinerary with San Francisco attractions. The city by the bay can be pricey, but there are less expensive, worthwhile experiences to be had. For example, take a $22 guided walking tour of the Barbary Coast Trail, a nearly four-mile path through several neighborhoods and districts, including Chinatown, North Beach and Ghirardelli Square. Along the way, you’ll see where the Gold Rush began in 1848, and a barstool where Kerouac sat.

Or peruse the shelves at the landmark independent bookstore, City Lights. The historic shop was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin in 1953, becoming the “the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore.” A City Lights publishing company followed in 1955.

The California of Steinbeck and Kerouac

Novelist John Steinbeck was clearly inspired by the wild California landscape. A map called “Steinbeck Country,” created by Sonoma State University, depicts the towns that were settings for Steinbeck’s works, including the Carmel Valley, the Great Tide Pool on the Monterey Peninsula, and Steinbeck’s birthplace, Salinas.

Visitors might find Big Sur to be peaceful, magnetic and restorative. For Jack Kerouac’s main character in “Big Sur,” however, the untamed stretch of West Coast began as “a haven … from his public self as King of the Beatniks,” but became a restless place that drove him frantically back to San Francisco again and again. A 1962 review of “Big Sur” in The New York Times describes the author’s “isolated cabin on the California coast,” and offers insight into Kerouac’s connection with the area.

California Coast with Kids

In an article for Travel + Leisure, Margaret Talbot describes a family road trip along California’s Highway 1. Although she began in Los Angeles, Talbot concludes in San Francisco, covering a significant stretch of the central coast. Among the family-friendly stops is Nit Wit Ridge, a house filled with “found objects – beach glass, pebbles, abalones shells,” located in the “pretty beach town of Cambria.” The quirky house was built by Art Beal, a “half-Klamath Indian,” she reports.

Other kid-centered San Francisco attractions are described in a findingDulcinea feature article on the city and its famous hands-on science and art museum, The Exploratorium. Kids are also sure to gaze in quiet awe at the Golden Gate Bridge; photos and additional details of the memorable landmark are included in the article.

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