WRITER Jack Kerouac in his seminal novel On the Road wrote of the fabulous white city of San Francisco and her eleven mystic hills framed by the blue Pacific with its advancing wall of potato-patch fog.

Those haunting words fresh in my mind began a trip to explore the homes, haunts and inspirations of writers of the West Coast of America. From its bustling cities, small towns and mesmerizing coastline, each has offered some of the world’s greatest writers a place to work, play and create. Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and many others that made up the Beat Generation of writers all have links to San Francisco. Jack London and Mark Twain also spent time wandering its hilly terrain on route to penning some of history’s classic literature.

A short ride down the coast brings you to John Steinbeck country. Land that helped forge such classics as Of Mice And Men, Cannery Row and East of Eden.

Further still brings you to the refuge of Henry Miller in Big Sur. Then, as you begin to cut in-land and head to the hot, dusty roads leading to America’s party city of Las Vegas, you don’t have to look far before Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas begins to take shape.

This particular part of the world created iconic moments in literary history and fed the minds of writers, poets and musicians who gravitated towards each other. Not only did they take inspiration from their surroundings, but they successfully immortalised them on the page.

My trip down the West Coast began in San Francisco. My wife and I had three days before we picked up our rental car and were determined to take in the city’s unique character.

Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, Big Sur and Dharma Bums, hitchhiked his way to the Pacific regularly in the late 1940s and early 50s to gather with friends and fellow writers. They included poet Allan Ginsberg and author William S Burroughs.

After happily wandering the streets of the city’s China Town we eventually found City Lights Bookstore, a popular meeting place of the group, though it is hard to know if the bookstore or the bar next door, called Vesuvio, was the real draw - the latter now offering tourists a Karouac cocktail. The drink is packed with different spirits, apparently in homage to the unfinished drinks the novelist would mix together to consume at the end of the night.

A short walk from City Lights took us to the door of the Beat Museum. Here we were lucky enough to meet its founder Jerry Cimino.

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A clear passion for those now running the attraction, the two-floor museum offers a collection of rare books, donated items of clothing, and brilliant displays on individual writers and the role they played to help mould a different social attitude that would eventually grow into the Hippie movement of the 60s.

Seminal to this was Alan Ginsberg’s work Howl and the trial of its publisher, City Lights owner and still city resident Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for breaching obscenity laws. The subsequent legal victory that ruled in favour of the work proved a massive step in altering censorship laws while also reflecting changing attitudes across the nation.

That trial, the women that inspired the group and Kerouac’s biggest muse, friend Neil Cassidy, all have sections devoted to them in the museum. Cassidy’s later links to Ken Kasey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also helped link the Beats to the Hippies and other counterculture movements that followed. A newer attraction is the car featured in the recent film version of On The Road starring Kristen Steward, Kirsten Dunst and Sam Riley.

Our other days in the city were spent cycling the Golden Gate Bridge, visiting the island prison of Alcatraz and strolling around the piers at Fisherman’s Warf.

A particular highlight proved the North Beach neighbourhood that is still packed with bustling bars and simple diners. Artists display their work in Washington Square and the area’s characters still roam the warm nights.

After our time in this unique location we pick up our car and quickly headed out of the busy city and began our drive down the coast.

Soon the freeway is replaced by a smaller road, the tall tower blocks replaced by breaking waves and misty coastline.

Our next stop was Monterey, this time to embrace a part of California that inspired Steinbeck.

After arriving in Monterey we quickly headed to Cannery Row, the long, sea-front street that was once a hive of industry as fishing operations delivered their haul to be canned for distribution across the globe.

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Though the buildings now play host to upmarket restaurants and independent stores, a few remnants of a different time still remain.

It was here in the 1930s that proved the inspiration for Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday novels.

His close friend Ed Ricketts formed the basis of marine biologist Doc while the people he met living around the fishing hub also lent themselves to Steinbeck’s other characters.

The buildings mentioned in the book still stand to this day and it near these where we met Cannery Row historian and tour guide Tim Thomas.

He walked us from one end of the road to the other, from the stunning sea front to the adjacent street as he explained the areas remarkable past.

Soon after we head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and marvelled at the wide array of sea life.

Large tanks for sharks and tuna are complimented with shoaling fish, penguins, jelly fish and more. It’s a place that takes pride in educating visitors on the wildlife that lives along the conservation area along this coastline.

After spending the afternoon discovering the changing fortunes of the region - from early settlers, big business and eventual overfishing all the way through to today’s thriving marine life - we headed for food at Schooners Kitchen and Bar as the sun begins to set.

Schooners offers diners award-winning seafood with panoramic views of the ocean.

We devoured an octopus starter before tucking into tuna and scallop dishes. The meal was enjoyed with a delicious, locally-produced white wine.

Surely there can be no better place to eat in Monterey. It perfectly captured the town in one delightful sitting. Fresh seafood and local wine all served overlooking the splendour of this seafront haven.

That night we checked into our accommodation at the Asilomar Conference Centre a short drive from Cannery Row in Pacific Grove. Here the Steinbeck link continued as the grounds were home to his family's cabin where he penned his 1941 work Sea of Cortez.

The hotel was just a few minutes from the beach and offered the perfect base for exploring not just Cannery Row but also the nearby Big Sur coastline.

The next morning we got up early and began to drive what is often described as the most beautiful stretches of coast in the world. It’s fair to say we weren’t disappointed.

The road winds its way south while offering breathtaking views of the vast ocean out to the right. Here are plenty of spots to pull over and enjoy watching the waves crashing angrily against the grey rocks. All the while the coast juts out ahead and mist settles at the base of each fjord-like peninsula.

After driving for an hour we came to the main village of this area and pulled over to enjoy a Greek-style kebab at Big Sur Roadhouse. It was a great lunch spot and came just at the right time after the drive.

Quickly after lunch we arrived at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a bookstore set up in tribute the controversial author of the Tropic of Cancer, another famously banned book due to its sexually explicit content.

Big Sur not only hosted Miller but also linked many of the writers of the region.

Kerouac came here often, most famously when penning his late book whose title bears the name of the area. He came to this part of the coast and hiked in its wooden hillsides as he battled the alcoholism that would eventually play a part in his early death at the age of just 47 in 1969.

Later writer Hunter S. Thompson, himself now a firm cult icon for his raucous writing and no-nonsense journalism, once worked as a caretaker for a nearby Spa resort.

The area offers blustery beaches, nature parks and brilliant waterfalls for anyone wanting to get closer to the natural wonders this part of the world has to offer.

As we pull over at the side of the road and hike the short distance to McWay Falls, a thin waterfall that cascades upon the beach below, we suddenly catch a glimpse of a Humpback Whale passing by close to the shore, pushing above the surface as it quietly makes its way up coast.

Our next stop a day later took us further into Steinbeck’s world. We headed in-land to Salinas where he was born and where now hosts the National Steinbeck Centre.

The rolling farmlands where he set Of Mice and Men soon begin to rush past, great swathes of open space bursting with crops of all kinds are framed only by distant hills. The great landscape that proved his inspiration, second only perhaps to the people that inhabited it, opens out and welcomes you quickly away from the usual tourist routes.

First, a must-visit location for any fans of the popular writer is surely the home where he was born that is now a beautiful eatery offering guests home-made cuisine.

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We were greeted at the door by two of the many local volunteers that help maintain the home and serve those that come to enjoy food made with the wide array of local produce.

Patterned carpets and floral wallpaper adorns each room. We see Steinbeck’s old bedroom and enjoy old family photographs on the walls.

The house has been lovingly restored to match the period and a host of simple yet delicious dishes are soon served after we take our seat.

Fully fed, just a short walk takes us to the National Steinbeck Centre that showcases his work with well laid out sections devoted to each publication.

The two attractions complement each other perfectly. If his home is about the man himself and his family, the museum turns the spotlight onto his work.

That night we make the short drive to Vision Quest Ranch B&B.

Guests can meet all sorts of wild animals here and our room for the night is a big cat-themed hut overlooking the elephant enclosure. The place aims to give guests the feel of being on a safari and it very nearly manages the illusion as we fall asleep with the roar of the nearby lions.

Perhaps the biggest treat was when our breakfast arrived the next morning being delivered by elephant.

Five of them, all rescued some years before from a circus, are now the star attraction here. They help educate the many schoolchildren that visit.

Two of them accompany their keepers as they drop off our breakfast basket before we are given the chance to return the favour by feeding them ourselves. Each majestic animal takes turns to delicately pluck a piece of carrot from our hands.

We soon pack up our things once more and head south again. This time our destination is Cambria, our chosen destination to rest up for the night before attempting the long drive east into Las Vegas the following morning.

The drive gives us chance to savour the coastline once again, this time without stopping we push the car on and enjoy letting the landscape roll by.

Cambria was to be the calm before the Las Vegas storm and it didn’t disappoint. If there is a more beautiful and scenic stopover point in this stretch of coast, I’d love to see it.

We pull up to our accommodation for the night, Squibb House B&B, and are soon marvelling at the beautiful setting. As we enter our room we are instantly calmed by piano music being played on speakers near the door. A balcony, complete with two rocking chairs, offers another place to rest and relax.

Though it is hard to pull ourselves away, we head to the nearby Moonstone Beach and stroll along its beautiful boardwalk as the sea crashes away to our left and the daylight starts to slip away.

Before the sun sets completely we head for the main street and walk among its independent stores and quaint cafes.

In the town’s East Village, we stop off for wine tasting at Fermentations. We sample the region’s famed tipple one after the other and chat to locals and visitors alike as we sit at the bar. It was a perfect way to end our stay in California before turning our sights to the desert.

The next morning we leave early and head to Las Vegas - our final stop.

Soon the hilly, green coastal landscape is replaced with arid dusty roads. We power on, air conditioning cranked up as the temperature reaches 100 degrees.

I imagine ‘Fear and Loathing’ protagonists Raoul Duke and his attorney on their crazy ride and soon our persistence is rewarded as Sin City rises up, glowing in the distance.

We drop off the car and hit The Strip. It’s an attack of the senses. Outside bakes, the casinos are cool, music is everywhere, gambling key. We visit each hotel to marvel at their unique theme. We win at roulette, lose at poker.

That night we choose to venture away from the flashing lights and crowds slightly and head for an Italian restaurant just off The Strip.

Now run by Gino Ferraro, Ferraro’s is well-known for its authentic Italian dishes. The waiters talk about the family links here and we listen to a live pianist as we look over the massive wine list and menus.

Soon we are tucking into lamb and pasta dishes as the tables continue to fill around us. This place is clearly a favourite among the locals here and it’s easy to see why.

Early the next morning we are collected from our hotel and taken to a nearby airfield where we can be transported by air to see the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon.

The Papillon tour company has been ferrying people in helicopters to see these wonders, both natural and man-made, since the 60s.

Soon we are swooping over the dam then heading onward still to the canyon. Even from up high it’s hard to capture the scale of such a place. It’s a must-see attraction and there really is no better way than from the air.

Our pilot cuts in from time to time to talk us through the history of the region and explain some of the small towns we see along the way and the fascinating stories on how people came to make this isolated part of the world their home.

That night we head to Fremont Street, the place that started it all. The first hotel was here, the first paved street and the first gaming license. Now this party street in Downtown Vegas makes The Strip look quiet in comparison.

Street performers wow the crowds, bars separate the casinos and it all takes place under a flashing canopy high above.

For a birds-eye view of the action the brave can pay for a zip line ride from one end to the other.

The Slotzilla zip line is 114 feet high and launches riders in a horizontal position, as if they are Superman, flying 1,700 feet at speeds faster than 35 miles per hour.

It’s a crazy and unique end to a beautiful journey.

So, be it the South Coast Beats that played together among San Francisco’s streets, the isolated party paradise of Vegas that Thompson feasted on, or the winding, foggy roads of Big Sur high above the sea along Highway 1; each writer shared a common element, no matter the era, of being able to flourish among the freedom that this part of America once offered them.

And though, indeed, those times are long changed, a taste of that freedom, that creative energy, that passion, can still be had even today for anyone willing to take the time, walk the streets, rent the car, and just go.

However, on this occasion, perhaps leave the guide book behind and replace it with a novel or two, because no-one quite captures this part of the world like those writers who once made it their home.

Travel Facts:

Accommodation at: Asilomar Conference Centre, Pacific Grove (www.visitasilomar.com), Vision Quest Ranch, Salinas (www.visionquestranch.com), Squibb House, Cambria (www.squibbhouse.net).

Food at: Schooners Coastal Kitchen and Bar (www.schoonersmonterey.com), Big Sur Road House (www.glenoaksbigsur.com/roadhouse), The Steinbeck House (www.steinbeckhouse.com), Ferraro’s Restaurant (www.ferraroslasvegas.com).

Also see – The Beat Museum (www.kerouac.com), Waterfront Cannery Row Tours (email timsardine@yahoo.com), Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org), National Steinbeck Centre (www.steinbeck.org), Papillon Flights (www.papillon.com), Slotzilla (www.vegasexperience.com/slotzilla-zip-line).