'It has the feel of a benign dictatorship': Inside Silicon Valley, land of the geeks
By Chris Leadbeater, Travel Writer
CREDIT: © 2015 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP/BLOOMBERG
“Do you know the way to San Jose?” Dionne Warwick’s 1968 question was bittersweet. Held aloft by Burt Bacharach’s stirring melody and soaring strings, this global hit single was a soulful sugar-lump, but its tunefulness partially disguised its sense of despondency. It voiced the frustrations of a wannabe who had thrown herself at Los Angeles – only to find herself, her ambitions crushed, hankering for the familiar comforts of her home city.
Half a century on, the flow of the song’s narrative might be reversed. Not because LA has ceased to be a whirlpool that draws in dreamers and desperados; more that San Jose has itself become a magnet for the ambitious and gifted. What was once a woozy figure among fields has become, in some ways, the centre of the Earth; the capital of “Silicon Valley”, where the planet’s prime technology companies hold court. Warwick’s star-chaser might still seek San Jose in 2016 – but she would not be returning to her roots in failure. She would be armed with an Ivy League degree in computer programming, ideas for a digital start-up, and plans for multi-millionaire status before turning 30.
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This 21st-century mix of commerce and cleverness is one of the reasons British Airways launched the first direct flight between the UK and San Jose earlier this year – a daily service from Heathrow which effectively declares that, although San Francisco lurks a mere 55 miles to the north-west, its Bay Area sibling is now a destination in its own right.
That, at least, is the theory. However, when my flight touches down, I am not immediately convinced that British Airways does know the way to San Jose – or that I have found it. While the approach to San Francisco offers that fabulous blur of skyscraper and oceanic blue, and LAX throbs with the gritty proximity of the metropolis, Mineta International Airport gives just the tireless thrum of the freeway and the hard lines of the railroad yard.
The hotch-potch that lies beyond does little to support the statistic that San Jose is the third-largest city in California by population (smaller than LA and San Diego). The centre appears to be little more than a handful of blocks. And while there are fragments of urban brightness, there is also a grey smudge of fast-food joints and car lots as I head four miles west on West San Carlos Street in search of the “second Downtown” of Santana Row. Here, there is a roar of restaurants and bars outside the Hotel Valencia, but somehow the information revolution seems far removed.
CREDIT: JERDAD - FOTOLIA
It takes a drink at El Jardin for me to realise that I am looking for the soul of the situation in the wrong place. San Jose does not cut and thrust in its middle but in the suburbs to the west – the “sleepy” towns of Cupertino, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View and Menlo Park. It has been that way since the Second World War when the production of military hardware, a need for affordable homes in central California and a steady stream of savvy graduates from Stanford University (close to Palo Alto) began to transform a land of agricultural bounty into a realm of creative minds.
The new BA link is appealing, as it can mean a swift dash to the beach at Santa Cruz (see panel, below). But it is worth dallying in San Jose first – not least because, in this era of social media and smartphones, Silicon Valley has become a tourist destination, with visitors rolling along the area’s (still largely) residential roads to peek at the new masters of the universe.
CREDIT: © 2016 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP/BLOOMBERG
There is a giddy murmur on the lips of the small crowd at the doors of the Apple Store when I arrive at the tech titan’s “campus” in Cupertino. It is a quiet Saturday morning, but the 10am click of the locks sparks a polite stampede. Within, all is clean design and pale wood – Apple computers, tablets and watches arranged at perfect right angles. Conwyn, my guide in this i-Valhalla, is on hand to help me understand the wonders of the terrazzo floor and use of “renewable energy sources”. “Our T-shirts are 100 per cent Pima cotton,” he says seriously. “From top to bottom, everything is purposeful – this is the only place in the world where you can buy an Apple-branded mug. You cannot buy them online – you cannot buy them anywhere else.” Prices for these porcelain totems start at $25 (£17).
CREDIT: © 2016 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP/BLOOMBERG
It is easy to mock the earnestness of a brand that has become arguably the planet’s most influential, not least when its headquarters – named “Infinite Loop” after the computer programming sequence – resembles an unremarkable out-of-town business, a fat halo of parking spaces around six office units. But to visit Cupertino is also to glimpse the power Apple wields. Its wealth is clear in the new “campus” under construction, to a Norman Foster blueprint, two miles west on East Homestead Road. Due for completion next year, at a reputed cost of $5 billion, this circular edifice resembles a spaceship landed among housing developments. It is a distant cry from the boyhood home where Steve Jobs co-founded the company in 1976. This white-painted bungalow – and its famous garage, where Jobs toiled at prototypes – still stands four miles away at 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos, an unshowy bungalow in a one-storey maze.
CREDIT: JOSH EDELSON
Such locations can be found under your own steam, but it helps to have assistance in the labyrinth. In the passenger seat next to me, Sharon Traeger is just such a torchbearer. A resident of the San Jose area for four decades, she provides detailed tours, including a day-trip that focuses on its digital developments.
“Nothing stays the same for long around here,” she says. Nonetheless, she takes me back to the beginning, to the squat property at 367-369 Addison Avenue, in Palo Alto, where, in 1938, David Packard and his wife allowed William Hewlett to live in their garage, and computer firm Hewlett-Packard came into being. On the pavement in front, a telltale brown sign indicates that the house is on America’s National Register of Historic Places – described as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley.” Yet soon we are fleeing the past for the future, flitting east into Mountain View. “Ignore the Microsoft office on your left,” Sharon warns as we flit by. “It isn’t based here. It’s a Washington company. But if you are a tech brand, you have to have a base here. You must have a visible presence.”
Google certainly has that. Its “Googleplex” – two huge adjacent complexes in Mountain View – is a masterpiece in visual triggers. “Googlebikes” in the search engine’s particular shades of blue, red, yellow and green, wait everywhere, ready to carry workers about the site at eco-friendly speed. A Street View car idles under a tree. The store one-ups Apple by touting Google skateboards as well as clothing and crockery.
CREDIT: © 2016 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP/BLOOMBERG
It has the feel of a benign dictatorship. Security staff let visitors stroll the paths, asking me if I’m “having a nice day” as a way of telling me that they’ve noticed me – and my car’s registration. The same cannot be said of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s progeny may be the kingpin of social media, but there is an anti-social undercurrent to its premises, on the edge of San Francisco Bay in Menlo Park. Scowling men on bikes guard the Frank Gehry structure that acts as the firm’s nerve centre, off Bayfront Expressway. This does not deter visitors who pose for photos by the raised-thumb “like” billboard which advertises the address of the main cluster of buildings as “1 Hacker Way”. Few inspect the back of the sign, where the ghostly words “Sun Microsystems” are visible, an echo of the offices’ previous owners, devoured in a corporate takeover in 2010.
CREDIT: BROOKS KRAFT
Nearby, Palo Alto is a rewriting of all rule-books. It enjoyed its key growth spurt in the Twenties as an accommodation hub for Stanford professors, but has long cast off dusty studiousness for something shinier. B8ta, on Bryant Street, stocks the latest innovations – drones for domestic use; Google Cardboard, a low-cost headset that makes your phone “wearable”. Beam, on University Avenue, sells robots. And is staffed by them. True, these slow-gliding contraptions are effectively giant flat screens on wheels which allow their controller to “see” and act remotely as they would on a video conference call. But when I speak to Yashar, the sole sales assistant – whose disembodied face floats towards me as I enter – he replies from San Diego. The buying process can be done with a few clicks, he advises. “What if I tried to steal a robot?” I ask playfully. Yashar laughs. “Then I could lock the door behind you from here, and call the police,” he says. “And all our robots have GPS. But you can try…”
This is an oddly tiring experience and it is a relief to return to the less questing San Jose and find that I have misjudged the city. What seemed drab before is alive on a Saturday night. Fans are massing for a San Jose Earthquakes fixture – an unusual sight in the US, but a common one in a metropolis which, with a large Hispanic demographic, has embraced “soccer”. The excitement ebbs into San Pedro Square Market, with its cornucopia of eateries.
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Where there is soul, there is substance. At the heart of the complex, an adobe house dates to the time of San Jose’s foundation, on November 29 1777, by conquistador José Joaquin Moraga – as the first non-religious, non-military settlement in Spanish California.
With this, I am drawn back to the old San Jose, dozing amid furrows and fruit. Interstate 280 pulls me west again, and I go up into the Santa Cruz Mountains, the road twisting, grapes framing the camber. Here, wine, not computers, reigns – Cooper-Garrod, a family-run operation where children can take pony treks across grassy slopes while their parents try supple reds in the lodge; Ridge Vineyards, an oasis at 2,300ft, where the air is cooler, but vinophiles are present in number anyway. This feted producer’s 1971 cabernet sauvignon came fifth in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” – a blind tasting that compared French and Californian vintages. The latter won.
I order this wine’s 2013 successor, and go outside to admire the view: Silicon Valley at my feet. At this height, everything is visible and Apple’s new campus is unmissable. What will emerge from its corridors? I take another sip of ruby-hued ambrosia and decide that, if the tech taste-maker’s next brainwave is as good as the contents of my glass, it will be essential indeed.
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) flies daily from Heathrow to San Jose. Return fares from £528.
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Valencia, at 355 Santana Row in San Jose (001 408 551 0010; hotelvalencia-santanarow.com), offers double rooms from $409 (£317), including breakfast.
What to do
Sharon Traeger (001 415 264 0853; traegertravel.com or toursbylocals.com) runs four-hour guided tours of Silicon Valley from $63 per person. The Tech Museum, at 201 Market Street in San Jose (001 408 294 8324; thetech.org), is open daily 10am-5pm; admission $24.
Cooper-Garrod (001 877 923 4616; cgv.com) is open for tastings – from $10 – weekdays noon-5pm and weekends 11am-5pm. Ridge Vineyards (001 408 868 1320; ridgewine.com) is open to the public on weekends, 11am-5pm. Tastings from $5.
From Silicon Valley to the sea
One of the joys of using San Jose as a gateway to California is that it offers simple access to some of the state’s best beaches – without the need to go into San Francisco or cope with the passport queues at its busy airport.
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The lovely small ocean-front city of Santa Cruz (santacruz.org) is a 33-mile drive south along State Route 17. Here is a place for lazy days on the sand of Main Beach, or for wallowing in the kitsch Americana of the Boardwalk (beachboardwalk.com; day-passes $34/£24) – California’s oldest theme park, dating to 1907, where wooden rollercoasters still rumble and rattle. Next door, the Dream Inn (001 866 774 7735; jdvhotels.com) offers room-only doubles for $299.
A further 45 miles south, Monterey (seemonterey.com) is a seaside haven where Cannery Row – made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel of the same name – has transformed itself from fish-packing district to nest of bars, restaurants and hotels.
The Spindrift Inn (001 800 841 1879; spindriftinn.com) offers double rooms with breakfast for $249. Monterey Bay Sailing (montereysailing.com) runs one-hour cruises ($39) for sightings of the grey, humpback and killer whales that pass through.