MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — I’m riding a bike down the Stevens Creek Trail, a sun-dappled, paved route that twists through the forest and switchbacks up and down highway overpasses before levelling out into estuary flats.
The trail is crowded with joggers, high-end baby-carriage pushers and other cyclists. “On your left,” I say as I pass the pedestrians. “Bike up,” says a jogger in return, as I round a bend just in time to see another cyclist in my path.
In the distance, across the grassy flats, is the huge skeleton of a 1930s-era naval airship hangar at Moffett Federal Airfield, where Google tests WiFi balloons, and another massive building that’s home to wind tunnels for NASA’s Ames Research Centre.
This is not how I pictured Silicon Valley.
A wooded creekside trail you can walk or cycle along to the Google campus? Clusters of trees with nesting white egrets?
I had imagined vast parking lots surrounding low-slung, flat-roofed rectangular buildings, asphalt baking in the sun. But Mountain View, where Silicon Valley’s first silicon semiconductor laboratory was established in 1956, where the first 50 Apple computers were sold from the original Byte Shop computer store, and where some of the world’s largest tech companies have their headquarters, turned out to be nothing like that.
Oh, the tech-industry presence is definitely big here — the Google campus or “Googleplex” alone is 3.1 million square feet of office space — but in place of vast parking lots, there are huge courtyards filled with pots of native grasses and colourful oversized Adirondack chairs and hammocks.
Bikes painted in Google’s distinctive yellow, green, red and blue are lined up at racks to ride between the many buildings.
And downtown Mountain View itself is a pleasant surprise: a tree-lined main street called Castro with four blocks of sidewalk eateries and boutiques on both sides, ending at the Caltrain station, where you can catch a train and be in San Francisco in an hour.
Our bike ride, which takes less than 30 minutes from the downtown core, winds past the Google campus and a mobile home park where many Googlers live to escape astronomical rents and house prices (median is $2,600 US for monthly rent, $1.5 million for a house), before the creek trail hooks up with the San Francisco Bay Trail in grassy estuary flats on the eastern edge of Shoreline Park.
The 283-hectare park, on the site of a former dump for San Francisco garbage, is home to a saltwater lake, golf course, trails and grassy hills popular with kite flyers — it’s easy to see why, when you note how the trees bend in one direction. It’s also a great area for bird-watching and critical habitat for the small remaining local population of western burrowing owls.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and a sunny, warm day, so the park is packed with holidaymakers paddling around the 20-hectare artificial lake in pedal boats, kayaks and canoes. Many of them are young families, and you can hear lots of different languages — tech workers are a diverse lot, hailing from all over the world.
This area was historically home to orchards — farmer and rancher Henry Rengstorff operated a ship landing in the area that was key in Mountain View’s development. His circa-1867 Victorian Italianiate home, Mountain View’s oldest historic house, was moved to the park and restored, and is a museum that’s open for public tours (unfortunately it was closed the day we were there). Another cultural draw of the park: the nearby Shoreline Amphitheatre, with its enormous double-peak white roof, is hosting everyone from Steely Dan and Flight of Conchords to Weezer, the Dixie Chicks and the San Francisco Symphony this summer.
But of course, Mountain View’s biggest claim to fame is Google, which supplies downtown’s free WiFi. A steady stream of mostly young men, many of them speaking languages other than English, wander around the campus, taking selfies in front of the iconic Google sign, dinosaur and android statues. Our Google friend tells us you’re not technically allowed to use the ubiquitous bikes, but with no security guards in sight, most tourists just hop aboard and go.
It’s well-known that the 20,000 Googlers who work here get three meals a day and snacks on campus, but the list of other amenities is lengthy and astonishing: a batting cage, a putting green, tennis courts, a four-lane bowling alley and even a free mobile hair-cutting service. Coffee and juice bars on campus mean they don’t have to bump shoulders with Linked-In staff at the nearby Starbucks, although they can always talk startups at the Red Rock Café downtown.
If they want to have a walking meeting, there’s always the nearby Stevens Creek Trail — or for team-building, they could take the six-person bike.
We follow our Google visit with a tour around the Stanford campus in nearby Palo Alto, a leafy, exclusive enclave with large, expensive-looking houses, home to Stanford professors, new millionaires (or billionaires) who have sold startups, and those smart enough to have bought in early.
We walk from the Palo Alto train station down a long avenue of palms toward the low, warm yellow sandstone buildings of the main quadrangle. The mosaic-covered Stanford Memorial Church, built by Jane Stanford after the death of her husband Leland, is impressive, as is the Rodin sculpture The Burghers of Calais.
The campus is dotted with families on what I dub the “aspirational Memorial Day weekend tour.” In fact, a newly arrived Mountain View mom — a Spoogler (or spouse of a Googler) — tells me that it’s not uncommon for teens here to take courses at Stanford during high school, after receiving extra tutoring in physics and math in elementary.
The academic pressure is so intense, some kids have thrown themselves in front of the Caltrain. I noticed at least one sign by the tracks with the number for a suicide hotline.
Back in Mountain View, though, the mood is festive as young families unwind on a Saturday night at the Bierhaus, a busy European and craft-beer gastropub with long wooden tables on a huge outside patio. My kids instantly discover that inside are shelves full of clear plastic-lidded boxes of toys and puzzles. These are definitely Mountain View toys, though — jenga and the kind of brain-twisting puzzles you might find at Science World.
In summer, they close Castro Street for live music and dancing on what’s called Thursday Night Live. There’s even a Sunday morning farmers’ market in the Caltrain parking lot.
But just when we’re starting to think we’re in some funky Gulf Islands community, something happens on our last night to remind us we’re really in Silicon Valley. As we’re walking back to our friends’ place from eating in the outside garden of a Mexican restaurant, we see a little white car drive by. A large computer screen is visible between the passenger and driver’s seats, and the driver is leaning back, arms folded.
At last: a Google self-driving car.
If You Go:
Transport: A $15.50 US day pass will get you to and from downtown San Francisco on the Caltrain, which takes about an hour each way. If you’re travelling with kids or seniors, be sure to press the “eligible discounts” screen item (we didn’t figure that out until too late). Kids are half price, as are seniors.
Trains leave from the foot of Castro Street and are double decker. Sit on the upper level for a great view of the downtown cores of several small towns en route, and the colourful “little boxes” perched on green hillsides as you get closer to the city. Don’t be surprised if every single one of your fellow passengers is engrossed in an electronic device. The folksy announcers are aware of this, too: When the train arrives at its final stop in San Francisco, they advise passengers to “send that email and close your laptop.”
Where to stay: There are lots of options in the area, but Dinah’s Garden Hotel in Palo Alto gets high praise from locals. Rooms start at $139 US and there’s an outdoor pool with a poolside restaurant.
Where to go: If you’re a real tech buff, check out the Computer History Museum (computerhistory.org), which explains why computing history is more than 2,000 years old. See a one-ton 1959 “minicomputer” and a working computer operation from the 1960s, including keypunches, printers, card readers, sorters and tape drives, with sounds.
Eagle Park pool is a large, clean, well-run outdoor swimming pool downtown, adjacent to a park and playground. Our kids loved it. Kids: $4 US; adults: $5.
Weather: Temperatures here are higher than in the often fog-socked and cool San Francisco. Daily temperatures from June through October generally rise above 24 C. In late May, temperatures zoomed into the low 30s.