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Insider: Berkeley

William Meppem

Photo: William Meppem

The last time I was in Berkeley, someone had just lopped the heads off all the downtown parking meters and stuck flowers in the poles. "For a few moments, it brought back the spirit of anarchy," a friend remarked rather wistfully. Wedged between San Francisco Bay and the coastal foothills, this small city still occupies a mythic place in history, synonymous with sixties student activism, flower power, and political correctness so extreme it's rumored that the city council once debated renaming manholes "personholes." But these days the revolution is about lifestyle: eating and shopping are political statements. Co-ops and collectives are thriving, and restaurants assure diners that their food is all environmentally correct. It's tempting to poke fun, but I've rarely eaten so well. The weather is nearly perfect year-round, too. Here are a few favorite places.

RADICAL RETAIL
The formerly industrial Fourth Street has recently been gentrified with chain stores like Banana Republic and Restoration Hardware, but Telegraph Avenue, which leads to the University of California campus, is still Berkeley's slightly seedy counterculture hub. Marc Weinstein, co-owner of the multigenerational Amoeba Music (2455 Telegraph Ave.; 510/549-1125), plays Donovan records and sports the long, curly hair of an aging hippie.

Across the street are two bookstores, Cody's (2454 Telegraph Ave.; 510/845-7852) and Moe's (2476 Telegraph Ave.; 510/849-2087), whose fervently loyal customers buy and sell everything from cookbooks to manifestos.

Other great shops — and points of view — are all over the map. "Political correctness is all in your head," intones the laid-back clerk at the Bone Room (1569 Solano Ave.; 510/526-5252), where the merchandise includes baboon skulls, emu eggs, and a 10-foot python skin.

More in keeping with the Berkeley vibe are Global Exchange (2840 College Ave.; 510/549-0370), a multicultural craft shop that extols "Building People-to-People Ties Through Alternative Trade," and the Berkeley Potters Guild (731 Jones St.; 510/524-7031; weekends only), whose wares run the gamut from whimsical sculpture to Zen-utilitarian ceramics.

THE BIG SLEEP
On my first visit to Berkeley in 1970, I slept in a VW van. This time, I upgraded to the sprawling 279-room Claremont Resort & Spa (41 Tunnel Rd.; 800/551-7266 or 510/843-3000, fax 510/848-6208; www.claremontresort.com; doubles from $270). The walk to my room seemed to take longer than the drive from the airport, but the view encompassed massive royal palms, the shimmering bay, two bridges, a mountain, and at least three counties. Though the 1915 Claremont may have the powdered cheeks of a grande dame, she's still a free spirit: the sea bass with tofu and shiitake I had at lunch was dubbed the Energizer, and the newly renovated spa has treatments inspired by the native origins of the multi-ethnic staff. What could be more Berkeley?

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