STATES OF INDEPENDENCE

Paul Simon was right: there is no such place as America. But the greatest wealth of the world's richest nation is its sheer diversity. Every corner of this huge country conceals a bewildering variety of experiences. You could travel the United States by popular song, from Bangor Maine to San Diego by way of Chattanooga (and all stations to Wichita), and still fail to find a place you can safely label as America.

Take one sliver of California, around San Francisco. Just like Otis, you can sit on the dock of the Bay (deftly avoiding the tourists at Fisherman's Wharf), then stretch your legs towards the Buena Vista where barmen yarn about how theirs was the joint which invented Irish coffee. In dim Chinatown basements, dim sum are devoured as greedily as alternative philosophies are swallowed by some of the locals; if my taxi was anything to go by, the role of the San Francisco cab passenger is to act as an amateur therapist while the driver indulges in a "program of self-actualization".

Turn the corner at Haight-Ashbury, the street intersection that changed the world, or at least altered the mind. Here is Golden Gate Park, with its own pack of buffalo; there is the world's biggest pyramid, the TransAmerica tower; and everywhere resides a sense that the rest of the world might as well go home when confronted by the splendour of San Francisco Bay.

Cross the world's most famous bridge, and Man's arrogance is quickly humbled by the giant trees and silent spaces of Muir Woods sprouting from the floor of a dramatic valley. A few miles beyond, off the spectacular Highway One, you stumble upon the lost resort of Bolinas, still home to the beautiful people (see page 19).

You soon discover you do not need to spend every night in an overpriced hotel or a dingy motel room, whose chief characteristic is anonymity. Don't fancy the Carlton Arms, the ultimate rock'n'roll hotel? Try an American bed-and-breakfast, classier than the British equivalent, and the decline of the dollar (even faster than the pound's) means that they are affordable, too.

The excellent value offered by the US this summer is reflected in the heavy bookings on transatlantic flights. As Paul Simon sang, we've all gone to look for America. Start a search for it in Boston, the most accessible city in the US: only six hours from Britain and, compared with much of America, a close enough approximation to the real world.

Simon Calder

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