MONTEREY, Calif. - In 1945, John Steinbeck breathed life into a dried-up sardine factory strip of Monterey.
His novel "Cannery Row" turned its namesake into one of America's most famous streets.
The almost mile-long road stretches from the Coast Guard Pier to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, packing in restaurants, shops, hotels and art galleries along the way.
Tourism has replaced the once-booming sardine industry as the staple du jour. But online traveler reviews run the gamut. Some applaud Cannery Row's eclectic mix of shops and waterfront appeal. Others criticize it for being overpriced and crowded.
Cannery Row has a rare blend of subcultures that truly makes it a place for everyone.
Just try marketing that.
A survey promised hope for Diane Mandeville, vice president of marketing for Cannery Row Company.
"When they did the marketing research, I thought, 'Great, we finally get the nut,' " Mandeville says. "Then they told us what we have is an intangible. There's something timeless about it. There's something more to visit."
Something more than just the aquarium, that is.
Since 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has anchored Cannery Row. As the top-rated U.S. aquarium by Zagat Survey, it has helped coax a steady stream of tourists into the heart of Monterey.
About 2 million visitors arrive each year to see the almost 200 exhibits, ranging from otters to jellyfish, in what was once Hovden Cannery, the largest fish-packing plant on Cannery Row.
"The aquarium is a major draw," says Karen Grimmer, deputy superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. She sweeps a hand in the direction of the bay. "But it's also a way to put people in touch with all of this."
The Monterey Bay sanctuary is the largest of the nation's marine sanctuaries, reaching 275 miles from near San Francisco to Cambria. It is home to 26 threatened or endangered species and the designated protector of diverse habitats, rocky shores, deep canyons, kelp forests and so much more.
On a pleasantly warm afternoon, a quiet stroll along San Carlos Beach and the adjoining Coast Guard Pier brings what the sanctuary means into sharper focus.
Two young children splash in the water as their grandfather stands watch. A harbor seal stretches out for a nap on a boulder hugging the pier. Hundreds of pelagic cormorants, black-bodied seabirds, perch on a bank of rocks usually covered with sea lions, too.
A day later, that same tranquil stretch would hum with activity as divers dotted the beach and waters for training.
Walking the beach and pier isn't the only way to see marine life. It's not even the best way.
Kayaking: Now there's a different story.
I had never been in a kayak. The idea of putting a slab of plastic between me and the cold, often deep bay water ranked right up there with a visit to the dentist.
Bob Mannix had me reassessing that within minutes of our meeting. A tour guide for Adventures by the Sea on Cannery Row, Mannix gave me a quick geography lesson and introduced me to the various marine life we might encounter on the water.
In one photo, three dozen sea lions were splayed on a rocky shoreline.
"When you see the sea lions laying out there doing a reverse Jenny Craig, that's because they're trying not to burn calories," he explained. "They need the reserves stored in their blubber."
Added to that was a quick tutorial on how to paddle, and the obligatory how to deal with accidental flip-overs. Then we were off.
Mannix gave me a push, instructing me to paddle out and wait about 300 yards off shore.
The initial awkwardness quickly gave way to a surprise ease with the paddles. Before I knew it, I was on the open water and staring at an obscure brown blob bobbing up and down in the water.
A sea otter, Mannix told me as his kayak drew up beside mine.
Really? I drew closer but kept enough distance to respect the otter's space. He lay floating in the water, oblivious to me and everything else.
I had seen otters before; a day earlier, I stood glued to the window of the aquarium's otter exhibits. But out here, it was different. This was his ground. I was the visitor.
Farther out, we came upon the Fulmar, a research vessel for the marine sanctuary that was broadcasting live underwater footage to schools and aquariums around the country. Even farther up the bay, we crossed the backside of the aquarium, completing our tour of Cannery Row from a very different vantage point.
I could have stayed on the water all day. But there was more to do and see.