Geek Retreat: The Best of Silicon Valley

Years ago, my husband and I drove the California coastline from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As we cruised by funky Santa Cruz and picturesque Carmel, beheld the jaw-dropping cliffs of Big Sur, snaked across rolling vineyards in Santa Barbara, and watched the sun sink into the ocean in Malibu, I realized that the legendary Pacific Coast Highway passes through some of the most exotic and romantic landscapes I’ve ever seen — and I travel a lot.

Since then we’ve had a couple of kids, and we recently took them for their own California experience. This time we explored the valleys instead of the seaside — but we fell in love just the same.

Here are some of the highlights from Silicon Valley:

Palo Alto is proof that all suburbs aren’t created equal. This pristine village, home to the tech boom’s wealthiest players as well as Stanford University, offers a prime vantage point for observing Silicon Valley at work and at play.

Big-name luxury hotels known for their child-friendly attitude are plentiful in the area, but I recommend basing your family at the Garden Court Hotel. Located in the center of the city, this home-away-from-home is within walking distance of restaurants, playgrounds, and a great farmers market.

The handsome, recently renovated rooms are also spacious enough to sleep a family of four (tip: book one overlooking the quiet courtyard). In the morning, rub shoulders with hoodie-wearing millionaires at popular Philz Coffee or sit outside at Coupa Cafe for a latte and excellent eggs. (They also make great to-go empanadas for picnics.)

Strolling the country club-quality campus at nearby Stanford can eat up a the better portion of a day, but highlights include the mini-labyrinth in the Stanford Memorial Church and the Clock Tower, where future engineers can watch the clock’s mechanisms at work through glass.

Other attractions require a car, but are well worth the extra effort. Google’s Mountain View campusGoogle’s Mountain View campusGoogle’s Mountain View campus is open — and impressive. Though outsiders can’t enter the buildings, it’s fascinating to see executives who look like college kids riding “Google bikes” to their next meeting. And on-site outdoor sports complexes and fun sculptures, from life-size dinosaurs to super-sized Android creatures, provide the perfect backdrop for family photos.

Nearby, also in Mountain View, is the Computer History Museum, with cool interactive exhibits and historic data processors that will make kids wonder how their parents survived in a pre-iPad age. The Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo may be less closely linked to the area’s tech heritage, but it’s fun nonetheless for kids exhausted by dad’s search for Steve Jobs’ garage.

Stop by the Saturday morning Palo Alto Farmers Market to pick up some fresh snacks or simply soak up the ambiance. After you’ve had your fill of healthy produce, pop across the street to the Chocolate Garage, a tiny, high-end chocolate shop to sample a constantly changing olio boutique sweets from chocolatiers around the world. Though I’m not a chocolate fiend, even I found myself taken by a hard-to-find Patric signature blend topped with Prussian blue salt.

With foodie haven San Francisco an easy 30- to 40-minute drive from Palo Alto, it’s tempting to head to dinners in the city, but the ‘burbs have plenty to offer as well. (Plus, mom and dad don’t have to argue over who gets the great Napa pinot and who drives home.) Stop into Reposado, a spacious and buzzing Mexican eatery in Palo Alto, for upscale takes on South-of-the-Border classics, killer margaritas, and an affordable kids’ menu.

For classic American fare, try the Palo Alto Creamery, a diner so iconic that Marissa Mayer had a playhouse-sized version built for her son. Over the top? Yep. But that’s Silicon Valley, and even if you’ll never be able to afford to live here, it sure is fun to see how the geeks have truly inherited the Earth.

New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when she’s hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ