VACATIONING IN A COLLEGE TOWN
Palo Alto, California
Home of Stanford University, it's stimulating, well-heeled, progressive - and surprisingly full of budget breaks for students and other wallet-watchers
Most tourists to San Francisco completely miss a wonderful addition to their trip: Palo Alto. An hour south of the larger city, in a bucolic landscape dotted with high-tech firms, is Stanford University and that adjoining graceful, leafy town. Anyone who has ever wondered where the computer revolution began would be interested to spend time in this, the cerebral cortex of Silicon Valley. (Stanford alumni include the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and Sun Microsystems, not to mention Chelsea Clinton.) With the redwood-filled Santa Cruz Mountains and empty beaches less than an hour's drive to the west, and popular tourist towns like Santa Cruz 60 miles to the south, a visit to Palo Alto makes complete an exploration of the stunning San Francisco Bay area. The sprawling, pastoral Stanford campus itself (a.k.a. "the Farm") is regarded as not just the most beautiful on the West Coast, but as home to a heady intellectual ferment that visitors can easily avail themselves of (though unlike rival Berkeley across San Francisco Bay, Stanford is more about understated elegance than in-your-face activism). And despite the gold-rush price inflation generated by the dot-com boom, the subsequent bust and softening of the economy has also softened many local prices - cheap deals abound if you know where to look.
Down on the farm
Established in 1891, Stanford now has 14,000 students who enjoy a 13-square-mile campus of grassy fields, eucalyptus groves, and rolling hills. If for nothing else, Stanford is worth visiting for its stunning Spanish-colonial-inspired sandstone architecture, with red-tiled roofs, Romanesque archways, and enclosed courtyards.
First stop: near the Main Quad, where Visitor Information Services (650/723-2560, www.stanford.edu), in Memorial Auditorium, welcomes visitors on weekdays - more than 150,000 annually. Pick up a free map for a self-guided tour or a free student-led walking tour; one departs here daily at 11 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. (a daily golf-cart tour at 1 p.m. is only $5 per person).
Browse the huge and impressive Stanford Bookstore (open daily, 800/533-2670), just a stone's throw away from the Main Quad, or head to the Humanities and Social Science collections (nearly 2 1/2 million volumes), housed primarily in the Cecil Green Library (650/725-1064); visitors are allowed seven free entries per year, but cannot check out books. Peruse the historical documents in the beautiful, high-ceilinged rooms.
Take the $2 ride up the elevator in the landmark, 285-foot Hoover Tower (open daily, 650/723-2053) for a panoramic view. The tower also houses part of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, with items of Herbert Hoover, Stanford's most celebrated graduate.
The magnificent - and free-Cantor Center for Visual Arts (Museum Way, off Palm Dr., 650/723-4177; Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.) should not be missed, with 27 galleries, an outdoor sculpture garden with the best Rodin collection outside of Paris (open even when the museum is closed), a twentieth-century collection including Georgia O'Keeffe, California landscape paintings, and even an Egyptian mummy.
To get the lowdown on what's happening performance- and events-wise, check the calendar of free or nominally priced events at the Stanford ticket office in Tresidder Memorial Union (650/725-2787); highlights include jazz and electronic music concerts, and special film series. Also check the calendar in the two free campus rags, the Stanford Daily and Stanford Report, or call 650/723-0336; log on at http://calendus.stanford.edu and http://livelyarts.stanford.edu.
If it's a good lecture and debate you crave, check out the Presidential Lectures and Symposia Web site at http://prelectur.stanford.edu or call 650/725-1219. These free talks by renowned scholars like Marjorie Garber and Gayatri Spivak include intellectually challenging topics like "Cosmologies and World Views."
The tree-lined suburban town of Palo Alto (pop. 61,500) is one of America's most well heeled. It's connected to Stanford via University Avenue, which is Palo Alto's main vein and the center of a European-flavored, tres chic downtown catering to the socially conscious locals. University Avenue intersects the main north-south drag of El Camino Real and Middlefield Avenue, with ultrafabulous mansions nearby.
Stanford operates the Marguerite shuttle (650/723-9362), free to all comers on weekdays all year long. Its various routes go across campus, to the Stanford Shopping Center, to Downtown Palo Alto, and to the two local Caltrain commuter rail depots, where you can catch trains going to San Francisco or San Jose. Another option is biking, the favorite mode of local travel (the area is flat with well-marked bike routes). Rent bikes at $25 to $50 a day from Palo Alto Bike Station (95 University Ave. at the Caltrain depot, 650/327-9636). Get a map of routes at the chamber of commerce (see box).