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Destination Travel: Silicon Valley

Arrillaga is stylish, charming, and witty, and makes me remember that the key asset of Silicon Valley is pure brainpower. Granted, most of these forward-thinking geniuses don't seem so compelling when they're spewing techspeak at a keg party, but it is inspiring to consider the collective intellectual wattage of the valley.

Unfortunately, all those brilliant minds and quirky personalities are not reflected in the public or private architecture. Even the $8 million houses in Atherton, Woodside, and Menlo Park often look as if they've just landed from outer space. Or they're plain hideous. Clearly people spend so much time at the office that home is merely a question of function over form, or of tacky ostentation over simple taste. That may change now that some billionaires are flying in architects from New York and Paris to create their dream homes—on $4 million tear-down lots.

Aside from praising the valley as a whole, the Moon handbook offers reverent chapters on each specific town, its history, and its cultural contributions. For example, you may not know that the town of Gilroy—at the far southern end of the valley proper—is celebrated far and wide as the garlic capital of the world. Every July, "crowds come from all over" to take part in the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, where they sample garlic ice cream or buy garlic perfume before piling onto shuttle buses to haul their pungent booty home. (I hope the bus drivers have oxygen masks.)

The guidebook also raves about the Stanford Shopping Center—don't use the m word; the locals will kill you. It's a beautifully landscaped assemblage of upscale boutiques, department and specialty stores, and a spa. It feels like a nice shopping street curled up into one dense area, and as far as I could tell, it's the center of action for the valley.

While the valley's restaurant-and-bar scene is not expanding as quickly as the wealth and the population (nightlife doesn't exactly bloom when hardly anyone has a life at night), there are a few interesting places to hit for people-watching purposes. My friends and I happen to love computer geeks (studly pretty boys are sooo last century), so I've come to the right place: the mecca of dorkdom. Many of these oatmeal-socked worker bees complain that they can't meet women—perhaps because Silicon Valley is said to have topped Alaska as the region with the highest ratio of men to women in the nation. Needless to say, the boys are on the prowl. And though there aren't so many females to be found here, a good percentage of them are on full-fledged husband safari.

I spent a night out with a group of girlfriends in Palo Alto, where the singles scene is concentrated, in bars like Nola. In New York, guys don't look twice at me in a bar unless they're coming over to ask about my friend. I'm pale with brown hair; I'm no Barbie. But at Nola, men were swooping in to try to pick me up. While I basked in the attention, a friend reminded me they weren't worth pursuing: this was probably their only night out of the office for the week. Oh, well.

For a town where you don't have to look like Barbie to get attention, it's worth noting that until recently Palo Alto was home to the biggest collection of Barbie dolls in the world. Some 21,000 of them were displayed in a museum near Stanford University—the engineered beside the engineers. But the collection was sold to Mattel, and the girls are now propped up in Los Angeles, where they may feel more at home.

It's been said that if Barbie were a five-foot-seven-inch woman, she'd be unable to stand up—under normal conditions, her proportions would simply not balance out. And it struck me: maybe this fantasy world of inflated IPO's, billion-dollar valuations, and negative bottom lines is not so different. The pressures of a real-life marketplace would cause its distended frame to keel over. History will show whether it will all come crashing down like a certain wide-eyed doll.

But then, Barbie's been around for a long, long time.


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