That was only the beginning. Looking over the hotel register, Haven glowed even more brightly. 'You're in the Butterfly Room,' he said, leading me to a violet-painted doorway and opening the door with a flourish. As the name promised, this lemon-painted chamber was full of tiny blue butterflies (well, paper ones at least); there were butterflies hanging from the window, pasted to the walls and covering a mosquito net over the bed. 'It's my favourite room,' Haven confided with a wink.
Of all the strange scenes that California has to offer, few have such a pedigree as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. In the late Sixties, this impressive old neighbourhood, spreading from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, was where the hippie movement was born and died. For a brief, highly publicised moment, it was the Mecca of the American counter-culture. And today, if your're going to stay in the Haight, as it's affectionately called, you can't beat the Red Victorian for psychedelic local colour - although some of the old hippie principles may have been left by the wayside.
Owned by artist and ex-hippie Sami Sun-child, the Red Victorian takes no reservations unless you have a credit card and has double rooms up to USdollars 135, payment in advance. But despite the mixture of Flower Power and Nineties economic pragmatism, the Red Victorian exerts a perverse fascination.
Each of the rooms is decorated with its own Disney-like theme. Across the hall from the Butterfly Room is the Redwood Forest Room, wallpapered with a single, giant photo from Yosemite National Park and sprayed full of pungent pine incense. The Japanese Tea Garden Room is decorated with rice-paper screens and bamboo; life-size dolls and flowers fill the Flower Child Room; the Golden Gate Room is decorated in the style of a turn-of-the-century San Francisco bordello; while the Peacock Room is complete with several reclining lounges, ostrich feathers and a hookah.
Instead of a Gideon Bible, each room is equipped with Sami Sun-child's book Peace Pilgrim (about her solitary walk across the United States to promote peace) and another called Planethood. I made my way to the shared bathroom - called the LOVE Bathroom, if only for the word written in giant green letters over the wall, reflected into infinity by dozens of surrounding mirrors - and washed my hands with moisturising hypo-allergenic soap. The soap, of course, was on sale in the foyer, along with a panoply of hippie paraphernalia, from peace pendants to T-shirts that advertise 'Crew Member of Spaceship Earth'.
Like the rest of Haight-Ashbury, the Red Victorian is living on the memories of 1968, when San Francisco became famous for the hippie Summer of Love and World's First Human Be-In - a week-long acid party hosted by poet Allen Ginsberg, looking messianic with his huge black beard and flowing white robes. Thousands flocked here from all over America to join the City of Brotherly Love, and the new hippie movement was proclaimed around the world by a delighted media. Stories of free love and LSD made great copy, but when media interest died the Haight slowly wilted.
Today the Haight is a mixture of sleaze and nostalgia. You can still meet ageing hippies playing guitar in the streets or young people wearing flares, heart-shaped sunglasses and fur-lined waistcoats. Dotted around the street are shops with names such as Cloud Nine Cafe and Far Out Fabrics. Even the newsagents sell bongs for smoking marijuana and posters of the Grateful Dead.
But the sense of returning to the Age of Aquarius doesn't last forever. Outnumbering the hippies - and just about everybody else in the Haight these days - are hordes of the homeless. At the opposite end of the social scale, squeezed between the hippie stores are French clothing boutiques and elegant, expensive restaurants, signs of the attempted gentrification of the neighbourhood in the Eighties. For years the traditional residents of the neighbourhood have been locked in a battle with San Francisco's yuppies over the wooden Victorian buildings that line the Haight's streets like castles - this was one of the city's few neighbourhoods to survive the great earthquake and fire at the turn of the century. The newer residents have formed a Haight Improvement Association to keep out vagrants. ('As ifthe place needs 'improving',' snorted one character in the Anarchist Bookstore. 'It's like moving to the airport and then complaining about the noise.') But the Red Victorian seems a million miles from such conflicts, in a New Age netherworld of its own.
It's an impression that artist-owner Sami Sun-child does nothing to dispel. She was to be found taking tea in the Pink Parlour, reclining on a couch between potted ferns and yet another life-size doll. Now in her late fifties, Sami Sun-child sported the same glazed expression, out-to-lunch eyes and fixed grin as her minion, Haven. 'How wonderful to meet you,' she gushed, before explaining her life story in an unnaturally high-pitched voice.
Sun-child left a well-known Hawaiian commune in the late Seventies to restore the Red Victorian. Once a popular San Francisco hotel, it had fallen on bad times after the Haight's post-68 drug riots. An artist by profession, she set up the new-look bed-and-breakfast to double as a gallery for her work. The colourful messages over the walls - from 'Be One With Yourself' to 'I Am Beautiful and I Accept This' - were her so-called Transformational Art, intended, she explained, to implant their messages into the viewer's subconscious and thus transform his or her personality. The average price? About dollars 1,500.
'We are a family of travellers who are changing the world,' Sun-child wanted me to know, pointing out that this hotel was only part of a masterplan. Hanging nearby was a plastic globe of the world, with tiny silver hearts placed over the major cities.
Sami hopes to have bed-and-breakfasts in each place, so that guests can 'network', raise their consciousnesses and make sure the planet doesn't drift into nuclear holocaust. So far she has linked with hoteliers in Bangkok, St Petersburg and Copenhagen, although she hopes to have hundreds of like-minded New Agers working together eventually.
'It's just a dream at the moment,' Sun-child told me, looking off into space. 'Just a dream inside my head.' I could hardly disagree. So I left her in the parlour, listening to endless twangs of her New Age melodies.
The Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast is at 1665 Haight Street, San Francisco. Tel: 010 1-415 864 1978. Doubles range from dollars 55 (for the Butterfly Room) to dollars 135 (for the Peacock Room).
GETTING THERE: Fly with American Airlines (081-572 5555) to New York from pounds 290 return and to San Francisco from pounds 370 return (book at least 7 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days, maximum stay 1 year). Virgin (0293 562000) Apex fares start at pounds 240 return to New York and pounds 387 return to San Francisco via LA (at least 21 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days, maximum stay 1 year). Virgin Late Saver fare to New York is available before 13 March; book within 3 days of travel and go for pounds 198 return (minimum stay 1 Saturday night). BA (081-897 4000/
0345 222111) Apex return fares to New York start at pounds 240, San Francisco at pounds 324 (at least 21 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days, maximum stay 1 month). Trailfinders (071-938 3232) offers New York return from pounds 184, San Francisco from pounds 219.
FURTHER INFORMATION: United States Travel & Tourism Administration, PO Box 1EN, London W1A 1EN (071-495 4466). New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019 (010 1-212 484 1200). San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, 201 Third Street, Suite 900, San Francisco, CA 94103-3185 (010 1-415 974 6900).
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