Here I am, a cynical Brit in Silicon Valley, surrounded by optimistic Americans who are seemingly pushing the boundaries of software and hardware engineering. All in the service of making the world a better place. Or at least, a better connected place. Meanwhile, over six thousand miles away in Italy, Ferrari are focussing on the pinnacle of European engineering, making the world a more exciting place, one 500 horsepower engine at a time. When LUSSO sent me to the West Coast of the USA to explore San Francisco and the Bay Area, I thought it only right to take along a symbol of how advanced Europe is. Well, one needs to try to fit in.
Supercars are few and far between in the Valley. America is pretty much saturated with oversized SUVs and Japanese saloons. The most expensive model in the top 25 cars sold last July was a measly $28,870. Not a sniff of sublime, high-end European engineering. Palo Alto showed some signs of hope, dotted as it is with eco-friendly Tesla Roadsters, but for the town that breeds billionaires, there’s a real lack of precious metal. It’s not because the potential road hogs are too introverted or understated.
Perhaps in a few years the landscape will change – when shares vest and these millions and billion dollar exits we’ve been reading about become actual cash – but right now the geeks haven’t inherited the Earth. Just theoretical fortunes. Until then, it’s my chance to rule these streets – in a car valuable enough to launch 20 social networks.
The new dual-clutch gearbox shifts at breakneck speeds, the acceleration compounds with every shift, there’s no respite, no lurch forward, no chance to take a breath – the 458 launches towards the top speed of 202mph faster than you can comprehend. Adrenalin and concentration fill every square inch of your head. Within 3.2 seconds, you’re at 62 miles per hour and already exceeding the inhumane state speed limit of 55mph. This might be another reason the Nerd Kings shy away from decent automobiles. They’d all end up incarcerated for constant speeding. I wouldn’t blame them.
The entire Ferrari experience has been re-imagined without rules and boundaries. Indicators, navigation and stereo controls are all driver centric, pointing inwards, your passenger is there to just look on, and nothing else. (Like myself, I recommend an extremely attractive one). Everything inside the car is staring straight at you, and as you glance out of the windscreen you rapidly realise everything outside is, as well. The striking body shape and the heavy bass growl of the 4.5 V8 engine serve to draw people’s focus straight to you. Inside, giving the San Franciscans a short lesson in world-beating style and substance, I’m smugger than Zuckerberg in the first 12 hours of the Facebook IPO.
Picture this: people standing on street corners, stealing semi-secret photos, but their view lingers. Surely the car isn’t that sensational? It is. Are they waiting for you to peel away from the lights, to fill the streets with smoke and the heavy scent of highly engineered rubber? All of a sudden you catch on: they’re waiting for you to turn the corner and try to get your £170,000 supercar with minimal ground clearance up the 40 degree incline on the road ahead.
From where you’re sitting, you might as well be trying to climb a vertical wall; the tarmac fills your entire windscreen. You reach for the control to raise the suspension, wondering whether the designers in middle-Italy had considered the far-away city of San Francisco when designing this car. Within seconds, the car is raised and you creep towards the foot of the hill, coasting slowly, interrupted by short and awkward lunges as the engine struggles to understand why you’re doing anything less than 100 mph. Your eyelids tighten, your heart beats faster and your brain wonders how much the front end costs to rebuild… but all of a sudden you’re pointing skyward, without so much as a scratch, you’re home free, you sink your foot on the pedal and you launch victoriously up the hill, the adrenalin slowly leaving your system. You slam the breaks on 50 meters later, at the summit of the hill. You then repeat the entire ordeal, approximately sixty times a day.
So why am I here? If the terrain isn’t hospitable to my vehicle, why should I bother visiting? Unless you’ve spent the last six months in the middle of the ocean, on a yacht without a satellite connection, chances are you’ve heard about what happened AFTER the first 12 hours of the Facebook IPO. And whilst you might have looked at this from the outside and laughed maniacally as every Tom, Dick and taxi driver bought in at over $40 only to see the stock plummet immediately afterwards, think of the early stage investors involved who managed to sell a stock at what was evidently twice its value, because the opportunity was exciting to the masses.
But behind stories like Facebook and the even more laughable Zynga, there are a generation of hard-working, risk averse people, killing themselves to make the next best thing, and where they’re really winning is in clean tech, energy, mobile commerce and revolutionising the media. And where we could all be winning is through investment. The opportunities can’t go ignored, but I’m not here to tell you about those. What I can do is tell you how to make sure you enjoy yourself when you come over and play the big boy’s version of Dragon’s Den.
You will mostly find yourself in one of two places: the city of San Francisco, or Silicon Valley towns like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. I spent the first half of my visit riding the Ferrari shaped rollercoaster of San Francisco’s North East corner, which encompasses the Financial District, Union Square and Nob and Russian Hills. Nob Hill is where the city’s richest settled during the gold rush of the late 19th century, including Leland Stanford who’s university is now responsible for churning out aforementioned game-changing technologists. Whilst people flocked to the city to pan for gold, the sensible ones sat atop the disturbingly steep hills, selling the equipment needed for people to go and chase their dreams. It’s a well-known fact that these entrepreneurial types made significantly higher returns from selling shovels and picks to dreamers, than anyone panning for gold. It’s hardly surprising that the venture capital community settled here.
The area provides two obvious choices for accommodation: the opulent and highly attentive Ritz Carlton, whose impressive neoclassical façade sits, with its rear half sunk, on the corner of California Ave? and Stockton, or the efficient and to-the-point Mandarin Oriental which towers half a mile eastwards on Sansome Street, above the very centre of the Financial District. If you’ve been to any Ritz Carlton you won’t be surprised, or disappointed. The seventeen marble columns of the architecturally important old Metropolitan Life Insurance building greets me at a grand and welcoming entrance, while an abundance of attentive staff know my name before I’d even reached the lobby. The exciting Parallel 37 restaurant and newly renovated The Lounge bar jut from the front and side of the lobby, keeping an atmosphere, albeit an understated and elegant one, alive in the hotel.
I would recommend the Club Level rooms, allowing one access to a dedicated concierge who awaits your every whim at the entrance to the Club Level lounge, standing guard, protecting the upper echelons of guest from those who may have charmed, won or saved their way into such a property. The lounge offers a private space to indulge in a drink or light meal at any time of day in an environment where you can take meetings and hold conversations that would otherwise have required a suite or taken place in a crowded lobby. Or to simply relax after a hard day of staring down the barrel of many a high hill in a very, very low car.
From this refined comfort, I rev up the 458 for another undulating topographical adventure towards the Mandarin Oriental. With great speed, I had checked in and was shooting 45 floors north. The Mandarin Oriental keeps a small lobby on the ground floor and then occupies the top of the tower with 151 rooms and seven suites spread over the top eleven floors of San Francisco’s third highest building. It’s not often I’ll accept third place, but in this instance, I’ll happily make an exception.
The last time LUSSO visited the hotel, we said that it had a view that couldn’t be beaten. When it comes to San Francisco hotels, this, I believe, is still true. From the 45th floor I can see the entire bay, the Oakland Bay Bridge, the tops of all but two other skyscrapers and the fog piling in. Within minutes, the bridge disappears and the hotel feels even more isolated and private. If what you look for in a hotel is a retreat to escape the city, then this is the right hotel for you. Other than leaving the city (preferably in a Ferrari), you’re not going to get much further away from the streets of San Francisco than perching at the top of the California Centre, in the crisp and comfortable surroundings of your room.
However, there comes a time when every man must venture outside of his plush city pad and this is mine. Thus, it is time to finally fire up the 458 Italia on the open road! Just kidding, obviously. The driving is much better around Menlo Park, nestled in the Redwood countryside of the Valley and its winding corners and mountainous bends allow me to experience the wonder of the 458’s handling. Solid suspension and acute feedback make the Italia highly responsive and offer a sense of control that you only get with the upper echelons of today’s automotive elite.
My destination is the Rosewood Sand Hill, exciting to me partly as it is the only other place during my trip I’ve seen another supercar, displayed as proudly in the driveway as a rare jewel in a museum. The hotel is another haven; a California Ranch-style main building with roaring fires in the lounge and bar opens out to 16 acres of lush gardens and beautiful villa accommodation, each room with its own private balcony or terrace. It is an ideal respite in between meetings, close to the highway but far from the office.
It is most certainly an entertaining space for venture capitalists – why would it not be, with Michelin-starred Madera as its restaurant. The huge terrace and sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains are a picturesque place to indulge in some seriously good West Coast cuisine. A wood-burning grill is central to the kitchen, where they produce well-crafted and artistic dishes using local and sustainably harvested market produce. The sommelier is engaging and knowledgeable and brings a fine selection of local wines (a world away from those I sample in Napa, myself).
The next morning whilst the Californians around me gently sip water, I happily tuck into my breakfast of house-made corned beef hash – utterly delicious, which sets me up for the day…to feel sluggish. Luckily, all I have to do is let my worries slip away in the spa, tucked secretly away, a spacious and plush hideaway.
A weekend free of Valley chatter and a fast car at my disposal, I’m recommended two excursions. The first, south on Highway 1 to Big Sur, said to be one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of road, seems sensible. So I opt to take the Ferrari north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Napa and Sonoma, where I can neither drive fast, nor sample more than a sip or two of wine. The temptation to ‘open her up’ gets the better of me on the open country roads surrounded by vineyards and of course, within seconds of accelerating to a mere 72 miles an hour, I am being pulled over by a state trooper with a large weapon. Though it is an indescribable amount of fun putting the Ferrari through its paces (I revel in the head-thrown-back-by-G-force stillness of my passenger) I cannot imagine owning this beauty but not being able to use to its full potential. I’m filled with sympathy for all those (virtual) rich boys. All the car-buying potential in the world – and nowhere to drive em.
Grumpy and sober and wondering where I could actually find some really good Californian wine outside of a fine dining establishment, I retreat to the Four Seasons Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. On University Avenue, my room’s vast windows might echo the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, but sadly not the vista. I look out onto the four-lane motorway below. That said, the service is impeccable and my room is spacious and perfectly appointed. An ideal spot if you’re working in Palo Alto and want to be close to the action. Note: In this case, it would be unwise to assume there is any kind of action in this small town that goes on except hours of pumping hard code writing and the only tablets being popped are iPads during meetings. I’m left feeling torn about Silicon Valley. The location, the lifestyle and the potential for even more growth all mean it’s a place any self-respecting 21st century entrepreneur should cross the plains to get to. Like the San Francisco of 1849, there’s still some gold left in them there hills. The problem is, you can’t floor a Ferrari up them. And that’s a bad thing.