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Destination Travel: Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world. —Michael Lewis, The New New Thing

As Keds-clad techsters rake in big virtual bucks and brokers hawk $3 million homes to 28-year-olds, scores of other prospectors are tripping over themselves to get in on the Silicon Valley gold rush. There are chefs rushing out to cook for the newly rich and famous, Internet-law firms sprouting up—even hucksters trying to sell Silicon Valley as the It destination for tourists. The press release for a just-published guide from Moon Travel Handbooks hypes the California valley as "the most talked-about region in the United States" and extols its "rich history, fun activities, and beautiful places." Apparently, both business and leisure travelers are "flocking" to this golden land.

At home back East, I had to wonder if I was missing something. Maybe there was more to "SiliVal" than I'd thought. I had just read Michael Lewis's book The New New Thing, which chronicles the ascent of Netscape founder Jim Clark and compares Silicon Valley in the latter half of the nineties to Wall Street in the mid-eighties. The valley comes across as a hotbed of innovation, a stamping ground for free enterprise and creative thrust. Intrigued, I packed my guidebook and laptop and set off for the New New Place.

That depends on who you ask: Silicon Valley is, appropriately, more of a virtual concept than a geographic reality. Most agree that it starts about 50 miles southwest of San Francisco, and stretches from the edge of San Mateo County (including Menlo Park and Redwood City) through Santa Clara County (including Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and San Jose)—though it has absorbed parts of Alameda and Santa Cruz counties as well. The "valley" part derives from the Santa Clara Valley, which cuts through the region; its nickname was coined in 1971 by an editor at an electronics trade journal.

Some 2.3 million people live here, many of them employed by the region's 7,000 tech companies. The median family income, according to the New York Times, is the highest in the nation at $82,000—and it's said that one in every nine households has a net worth of more than $1 million, not even including the house.

For a region synonymous with computers, which are all about memory, Silicon Valley displays very little memory of its own. You'd never know that this was, until only five decades ago, a pleasant swath of woods, apricot orchards, and pastureland known as the Valley of the Heart's Delight.

Today there's a transient, unanchored quality to life in the valley, as if its inhabitants don't want to get too attached to where they are. Lewis calls the phenomenon a "nostalgia prevention device"—a way of ensuring that emotions never slow down the biggest money machine in human history. Lewis repeats the magic word emphatically in his title, making clear that Silicon Valley is nothing if not unabashedly New. Not new as in gleaming and challenging and provocative, but new as in built quickly, cheaply, and seemingly without a single aesthetic consideration.

Let's get this out of the way up front: yes, Silicon Valley is fascinating, and it is certainly important. It is also, upon first analysis, one of the most heinous places on the planet. There appears to be no culture here, no sense of art or beauty or preservation. Most of the valley is an endless strip of cheesy restaurants, massive chain stores, and car dealerships with their triangular flags. This nightmarish landscape isn't even affordable: rents for office space in the most coveted tech spots are twice those for spaces in midtown Manhattan.

Pulsing beneath this suburban purgatory is a hyper-caffeinated vibe that's much more crazed than the surroundings suggest. Most people in Silicon Valley work Wall Street hours, including weekends; personal time is a rare luxury—which makes the notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic all the more annoying. Outside the Excite$40Home headquarters there's even a helicopter landing pad in the shape of a giant $40 symbol, though no one has yet used it to cruise above the jams in a chopper. To help employees save more precious minutes, a dentist-in-a-van trolls around the Internet campuses, performing checkups in the parking lots.

So I'm painting a grim picture. But maybe it's me. After all, some people actually like it here. My Moon guidebook gushes about this "flourishing," action-packed region. I was sure there were diamonds in the rough, positive elements in this sea of gas superstations and pastel hell (by the way, every color scheme: think tampon box).

Truth is, I did find a few saving graces.

One of them is Laura Arrillaga, a full-time philanthropist who holds three master's degrees from Stanford. She has spent her life on "the peninsula," as it's also known, and her adoration for the area is, I must admit, infectious. As the founder of SV2 (Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund) and director of her family's foundation, Arrillaga raises money for education and underprivileged kids, attempting to bring charity to a place so focused on upward mobility that it doesn't always look down.

We met for breakfast at Buck's, a power spot for Internet and venture-capital players, in Woodside, one of the area's posher towns. While nearby Atherton and Menlo Park share insane real estate prices and similar mogul enclaves, Woodside is different: more like horse country, laced with winding roads under canopies of trees. Fresh and green and removed from the highway, Woodside is one of the region's more redeeming parts.

"There's an incomparable energy here in the valley," Arrillaga tells me over breakfast. "People are in a constant state of evolution—it's not about who your mother is or where you went to school, but your ideas and contributions."


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