That’s what it cost us for a room in Salinas, California. Salinas is about 150 miles south of San Francisco and sits along California’s central coast. Salinas is eight miles from the Pacific Ocean and has a temperate climate . Salinas is known as the salad bowl capital of America. So why did the Hampton Inn in Salinas cost so much? Was it the PGA tournament at Pebble Beach being played this weekend? Nope. Was it the proximity to Monterey and the tourist attractions of Cannery Row? Apparently not. The Hampton Inn in Salinas cost us $327 a night, and it was a dump. Most patrons staying here are contract workers on someone else’s dime. It costs so much because they can charge so much.
Lillian and I made a quick trip to Salinas for a mini vacation. After sitting in Southern California for over a year, we wanted to go somewhere – anywhere.
I know what you are thinking. Half of you are saying I’m not complaining, and I’m just bragging. ‘He just wants people to know he can afford to spend that much and stay in a dump.’ The rest of you realize that I really am complaining. ‘He’s cheap and likes to complain. For him, complaining is an art form.’ He’d complain about someone handing him a free 5-dollar bill. Both of you are right.
We wanted to take a train ride. I’ve been thinking about riding the train instead of flying. So a quick trip to Salinas was our test run. And, except for the overpriced dump of a hotel, it was wonderful.
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight travels from Los Angeles to Seattle and takes about 32 hours. We opted for the six-and-a-half-hour section from Oxnard in Ventura County to Salinas. Shortly after leaving Oxnard, we traveled right along the Pacific Coast. Our first stop was in Santa Barbara. The views of the ocean and downtown Ventura were amazing. After Santa Barbara, the train continues along the coast through Lompoc and Vandenberg AFB. The Rocket Launch Complexes dot the countryside, and the uninhabited land stretches for miles. While Lillian and I’ve stayed on many a military base, mostly Army and Navy while traveling the country in our RV, going to the Air Force Base in Vandenberg is like coming home. After the apocalypse, the zombies will have a hard time getting the security clearances they need to find you on Vandenberg. Shortly after the Base, the train heads inland to San Lois Obispo. Up over a short mountain range, and you are in wine country and Paso Robles. The land was lush and green because of the recent rains, and the fields were planted with enough food to feed the planet. By the time we reached Salinas, it was dark. But unlike driving for seven hours in a car, we were rested and grateful for the experience.
We opted for a private room on the train. Actually, it was what Amtrak politely calls a Roomette. Now, this is a space about the size of a small closet with two chairs facing each other. The chairs make into a single bed, and the upper bunk folds down when you want it. Unfortunately, the upper bunk doesn’t have enough headroom to sit up, so to get in, you kind of have to jump up, roll, and hope you don’t roll out. Once you’re up there, a safety harness keeps you from falling into your partner’s lap. The bathroom is down the hall, and a shared shower is on the first floor.
We upgraded to a private room to live through the entire Amtrak experience. Free meals in the dining car and access to the observation car were included with our room. This made the ride relaxing and civilized. We got four decent meals out of our round trip and were attended by four of the politest and most accommodating servers we’d ever experienced. The food was so-so – to good, depending on the item you selected. The white tablecloths and a real fork made the meals enjoyable. Safety tip, don’t bother with the ‘Signature Flat Iron Steak.’ Before dinner, at the previous stop, the cook could be seen beating the meat on the track. He should have left it on the track so trains would run it over and the next train could pick it up. The observation car is terrific, the views are spectacular, the seats comfortable, and the feel is first class. Take the train if you have the time and can spare the money.
John Steinbeck is my favorite American author; Salinas was his boyhood home. The National Steinbeck Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is exceptionally well funded and financially backed by California State University at Monterey Bay. The museum tells the cultural legacy of the prolific author by showing life and displays dedicated to his significant works. I enjoy the writings of John Steinbeck. His writing style is easy and not overworked. It builds from simple observations to a profound understanding of the human condition. His characters are rich and colorful, you may not like all of them, but you will know them. Here are a few factoids about Steinbeck’s works: first, his classic “The Grapes of Wrath” was named after the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Also, one of his last works, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” is named after Shakespeare’s Richard III. So now you all can be literary snobs like me.
His Boyhood Home
As incredible as the museum is, it only takes a few hours to do it justice. This leaves you plenty of time to eat lunch at the Steinbeck House. The food is excellent, and the service is even better. Kathie was our server and mixed the iced tea 1:3 with a delicious combination of sweet to unsweetened. I found that it paired nicely with my tuna fish sandwich.
The Monterey Aquarium
With an afternoon to spare, we headed to Monterey by bus. While the trip took a little less than an hour, it cost us $4. That’s $2 a ticket. Not being accustomed to public transportation, this was a great introduction. The driver and passengers were amiable and gave us great advice on navigating the bus routes. The aquarium sits at the end of Cannery Row and is a massive institution. Lillian and I have visited Monterey several times but never saw the aquarium. I’ve always been shocked at the price. When we were first married, the cost was out of our league. Now it still seems steep. See the previous section about me being cheap. Today’s entrance fee is $59.95. If that seems high, it quickly justifies itself once you enter the sprawling series of buildings. The cost of maintaining and improving the exhibits must circle in the millions per year. The experience more than justifies the price. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
We finished our epic day with a quiet dinner at a French restaurant. Not bad, quite good, actually. We elected to Uber back. Not two bucks but not an hour either.
All told, this trial run on the train to Salinas and then Monterey was a relaxing and civilized way to enjoy a small slice of America, as I said. If you have the time and can spare the cost, take the train.
I’m already planning our next mini adventure. Maybe we’ll go to San Francisco just to have the best Irish Coffee on the planet. Till then.