Could it be? Silicon Valley as the next hot travel destination? Jill Kopelman ventures to the capital of geekdom to find a disarmingly strange landscape—but uncovers some pockets of amusement amid the sprawl.
Jason Schmidt

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."

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.


Maybe you're here on business. Maybe you're visiting your old college roommate whose firm's IPO just bought him a 24-room mansion in Woodside. Or maybe you're only passing through, and want to wring some pleasure out of this land of workaholics. No worries: It can be done. Here, a sybarite's guide to the best Silicon Valley has to offer.

Bistro Vida 641 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park; 650/462-1686; dinner for two $75. A mammoth bistro with a terrific French menu (coq au vin, moules frites, and other classics). The tarte Tatin and bread pudding are beyond belief.

Chantilly 3001 El Camino Real, on the border of Redwood City and Atherton; 650/321-4080; dinner for two $75. Although the pastel color scheme is a bit much, the service is excellent and the French and Italian food is exquisite, from onion soup to melt-in-your-mouth pesto-tomato gnocchi.

Le Papillon 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; 408/296-3730; dinner for two $100. A bit on the stuffy side, with a decidedly older crowd, but the food is delicious, from wild-mushroom ravioli to the house specialty: Grand Marnier soufflé.

Spago 265 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto; 650/833-1000; dinner for two $100. The real deal. Wolfgang Puck's nod to Silicon Valley's power crowd parallels his Beverly Hills and West Hollywood landmarks as the scene to be seen at. The California-Mediterranean menu offers more choices than any other in the area (try the sashimi and grilled rack of lamb with phyllo, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh), and the Robert Rauschenberg murals and pretty patio make for a fun, eminently colorful setting.

St. Michael's Alley 806 Emerson St., Palo Alto; 650/326-2530; brunch for two $25. A popular little place that serves very good dinners and an excellent weekend brunch, courtesy of an attentive and friendly staff. The artwork might give you a migraine, but you could cure it with some fresh orange juice, one of St. Michael's good omelettes, or an order of thick-sliced French toast.

Il Fornaio 520 Cowper St., Palo Alto; 650/853-3888; dinner for two $100. Though it's part of a chain, this yummy Italian comes off like a family-run trattoria. A smiling staff, an intimate, country-rustic interior, and brick-oven pizzas to die for.

Higashi West 632 Emerson St., Palo Alto; 650/323-9378; dinner for two $50. This hot sushi spot is bustling with Internet capos and VC dons, who come here to feast on maki while scoping out the few females. Perhaps the best sushi in the valley.

Little Store 3340 Woodside Rd., Woodside; 650/851-8110; dinner for two $46. In the heart of Woodside's horse country, this rustic charmer is the place for comfort food: baked chicken stuffed with chorizo, amazing quesadillas, and hearty salads.

Buck's 3062 Woodside Rd., Woodside; 650/851-8010; dinner for two $65. Known for its smashing breakfasts, this ornament-laden, all-American joint is jam-packed at all times. It has become the de facto hangout for the venture-capital crowd, who like to hash out deals over the famous coffee cake.

Hotel Avante 860 E. El Camino Real, Mountain View; 800/538-1600 or 650/940-1000, fax 650/968-7870;; doubles from $265. The valley's rather staid hotel scene got a boost this summer from the trendy Joie de Vivre group, known for its cool and quirky boutique hotels in the Bay Area. The Avante's 91 stylish guest rooms are outfitted in cherrywood and warm earth tones; in-room amenities range from CD players and high-speed Internet ports to Slinkys and Rubik's Cubes. A second Joie de Vivre hotel, the Wild Palms, opens in Sunnyvale this winter (910 E. Fremont Ave.; 800/538-1600 or 408/738-0500, fax 408/245-4167; doubles from $265).

Fairmont San Jose 170 S. Market St., San Jose; 800/866-5577 or 408/998-1900, fax 408/287-1648;; doubles from $149. The lobby's marble columns and Phantom of the Opera chandelier are your first clues that the Fairmont is a cut above the usual valley hotels. This 541-room haven of luxury pampers guests with five in-house restaurants, a tropical rooftop pool, and a first-rate health club.

Garden Court Hotel 520 Cowper St., Palo Alto; 800/824-9028 or 650/322-9000, fax 650/324-3609;; doubles from $299. The prettiest hotel in the valley, with a beautiful courtyard and a prime location smack in the middle of Palo Alto.

Stanford Park Hotel 100 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; 800/368-2468 or 650/322-1234, fax 650/330-2796;; doubles from $295. A warm, clubby hotel adjacent to the Stanford campus, with a pool, business center, fitness room, and lobby with fireplace. It's all pleasant and quaint, if a bit too new-looking.

Cowper Inn 705 Cowper St., Palo Alto; 650/327-4475; doubles from $70. A cozy bed-and-breakfast in a restored Victorian, only a five-minute walk from downtown Palo Alto.

Juut Salonspa 240 University Ave., Palo Alto; 650/328-4067; packages from $180. This modern, serene spa in Palo Alto has a full menu of soothing services, from aroma body wraps and sunless tanning to rejuvenation treatments and replenishing facials—not to mention the blissful massages.

LaBelle 36 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto, 650/326-8522; also at 95 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto, 650/327-6964; packages from $275. At both elegant locations, LaBelle seems to offer everything under the sun. The highlight is the "Tuscan Wellness Retreat," a five-hour indulgence that includes a grapeseed body scrub, clay wrap, massage, facial, and pedicure.

Stanford Shopping Center Palo Alto; 800/772-9332 or 650/617-8585; It certainly is pretty, and beside the cute footpaths and flower beds you'll find Tiffany's, Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Max Mara, TSE Cashmere, and countless other upscale shops.

Tech Museum of Innovation 201 S. Market St., San Jose; 408/294-8324; San Jose's endlessly diverting technology museum has some great interactive exhibits that both kids and adults will get into, along with the IMAX Dome Theater.

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia 214 California Dr., Burlingame; 650/347-2301. A hidden gem. No bigger than your living room, this colorful little box of treats has the Seinfeld "Pez" episode running on a loop, a behind-the-scenes video tour of the Pez factory in Orange, Connecticut, and an archive of hundreds of dispensers collected from around the world—some for sale.