It's 7:30 in the morning on a cool, overcast Sunday in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighbourhood, a wedge of upscale housing lodged securely between the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf. This is the third morning in a row my husband, Dave, and I have loaded our son, Nathan, into his stroller and staggered through the gates at Moscone playground, a five-minute hike from the hotel.
And we're not the only ones here. Other parents are wheeling in, clutching colossal cups of Jamba Juice smoothies.
Last time we visited San Francisco, we were newly married and carefree, having booked our tickets for a last-minute Easter vacation. We sipped drinks in romantic restaurants perched over the ocean, toured Napa Valley and, gasp, slept in.
Fast-forward three years.
My back hurts from lugging a diaper bag. Extra napkins equal fine dining. And we can't pass a playground without taking it for a spin. Still, there's nothing like offspring to make you feel like an adopted city's resident, ensconced in the secret club of other bleary-eyed parents at local parks. Here you can absorb a city's underlying pulse, one that's mostly ignored by tourists who come armed with checklists of cathedrals to see and nightclubs to do.
And, despite the fact that "impractical" is listed as a synonym for "romantic," new and more experienced parents with school-aged children can travel to romantic destinations -- Paris, New York, San Francisco and Montreal -- and still have a good time, if they learn how to set their expectations at kid height.
"The city ceases to have a night life," says Michael Forbes, a father in Toronto who rented a Paris apartment a few months ago with his wife and 21-month-old daughter for 10 days. "Great restaurants, cool bars and even movies are no longer options. But you do get to discover new things and new places that you may have previously taken for granted, like parks and public art."
Paris has a dual reputation for both being romantic and patronizing. But Forbes says he was happily surprised by how accommodating locals were. Waiters slipped Madeleine cookies as her parents waited for take-out meals. They accomplished quick diaper changes on the bench in front of the Louvre without suffering the hairy eyeball. His apartment's concierge found a crib.
Heather Jack, a Vancouver-based mom, also travelled to Paris with her husband and three boys and says older kids are portable when travelling -- up to a point.
"Don't be disappointed when your kids (who spent hours poring over books of Renoir and Monet before the trip) spend all of three seconds looking at the actual original paintings and sculptures in the Musée d'Orsay," she says.
Where to stay: It's as easy to rent an apartment in Paris, says Forbes, who visited www.vrbo.com to find listings. The upside? Loads of room and a kitchen to prepare meals. Staying in non-tourist neighbourhoods such as Quartier Batignolle keeps costs down and offers a more laid-back, family atmosphere.
Where to eat: Take-out rules when you have kids. Try Le Pot Lisson, (28 rue Truffaut) for bistro fare in a hurry. Or just walk into the numerous bakeries lining Paris streets for a baguette or sandwich.
Transportation: Walking is your best bet. The Métro, which opened in 1900, is not known for being stroller-friendly because of a lack of elevators and escalators.
Where to play: Paris is filled with parks. Forbes loves the Square des Batignolles, the neighbourhood haunt close to his apartment, with its antique carousel and playgrounds. "We were there twice a day," he admits. Other kid-friendly parks include: Jardin du Trocadéro and the Jardin des Plantes with its zoo.
Travelling with a toddler gives new meaning to the phrase "the city that never sleeps." But there's just so much to do in New York, that even if you are up at dawn, it hardly matters. Wander through Central Park and watch the runners pound the pavement. Visit Times Square before crowds hit. Grab some breakfast at a deli.
Matthew Younder, a father from Toronto who visited New York with his wife, Jennifer, and his daughter, Caroline, when she was eight months old, says he's amazed by how accessible New York really is.
"The days were busier and the nights quieter, but that wasn't an inconvenience. Honestly, we did the same number of things as we did when we went by ourselves," he says. His family spent the day pushing a stroller along the Upper East Side to check out the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art before dipping down to Times Square for a photo op.
"Visiting New York actually opened my eyes. We probably should have travelled more when Caroline was young," says Younder, who now has a three-month-old son.
Where to stay: Try renting a suite at Wellington Hotel (55th and 7th Ave.; www.wellingtonhotel.com), four blocks south of Central Park. Or try Embassy Suites New York (102 North End Ave., Battery Park City; www.embassynewyork.com) located next to the financial district.
Where to eat: There really is a Peanut Butter & Co. in Greenwich Village (240 Sullivan St.; www.ilovepeanutbutter.com) that serves 21 different varieties. Finish the meal with make-your-own s'mores. Younder also recommends making a quick stop in one of the city's Au Bon Pain locations for clean, kid-friendly washrooms and big comfy chairs for feeding babies.
Transportation: Walk -- and pray for good weather. The subway is also a good bet if you want to get off your feet.
Where to play: Central Park can keep you busy all day with its trails, playgrounds and Children's Zoo. But there are other parks and gardens to visit in the city. Try Bryant Park on Sixth Avenue, tucked away behind the New York Public Library.
Montreal with young kids can be a blast -- as long as you don't mind leaving your stroller at the door. Many of Montreal's old buildings offer little in the way of space for storing anything larger than a bitty purse so be forewarned, says Ingrid Jain, a Toronto mom who visited Montreal two years ago with her husband, Puneet, and her then-one-year-old daughter.
And, as Jain discovered the hard way, a small boutique hotel room in old Montreal is a formula for disaster when travelling with a baby. Alyssa, who was sleeping in a cot in the same room as her parents, awoke every morning at 4 ready to play. "It was a hotel room so I couldn't just let her cry," Jain says. "I was scared she was going to wake up the whole hotel. And at some point she must have."
Where to stay: If you don't have friends or family to crash with, the next best thing could be Le Square Phillips Hotel and Suites (1193 Place Phillips; www.squarephillips.com) where families will find one- and two-bedroom suites. You can have a crib and highchair sent up to your room. Or check www.oldmontrealapartments.com to book furnished apartments and lofts in Old Montreal.
Where to eat: Yes, you can experience a little slice of your old, carefree life. Lots of restaurant options - with inviting summer patios - can be found in Old Montreal.
Transportation: Many of the Métro stations in Montreal have escalators. The trains, however, are narrow so be prepared for a tight ride if it gets busy.
Where to play: Juliet Winters, author of Fodor's Around Montréal with Kids, and mom to five-year-old Ben, says older kids and parents should check out the newly revamped Jean-Talon market north of the Plateau (www.montrealfood.com/jtalon.html). The off-the-beaten-track collection of shops and restaurants lure customers by offering tastings of cool local treats. Or wander over to Parc Jeanne-Mance for the regular Sunday-afternoon drum jam at the foot of the Sir George Étienne-Cartier statue.
Despite the hilly terrain, San Francisco is a perfect walking city. Aimee Culhane, a Waterloo, Ont.-based mom who brought her two-year-old son to San Francisco last year, enjoyed the city's compact size, but admits her downtown hotel's neighbourhood didn't feel safe, with homelessness and alcohol addiction evident throughout much of the city's core.
"I wouldn't have walked around myself, that's for sure," says Culhane, who explored during daytime hours with her husband, John. Yet if you stay in other neighbourhoods, such as Cow Hollow or Union Street, safety concerns wane.
San Francisco and the outlying area offers activities to keep both kids and parents happy. Wine tasting in Napa Valley, only an hour away, is doable -- and still feels very grown-up -- at larger wineries such as Robert Mondavi where parents sip in open-air tasting areas and kids can run outside.
Where to stay: For inexpensive digs in Cow Hollow, only a 20-minute walk from hands-on museum, Exploratorium, try Cow Hollow Motor Inn (2190 Lombard St.; www.cowhollowmotorinn.com). With free parking and large suites, it stands out as a family-friendly establishment. But, there is street noise. Or choose from any of the Fisherman's Wharf chain hotels, from Hilton to Holiday Inn.
Where to eat: The best breakfast this side of Presidio belongs to Bay Watch (2150 Lombard St.; www.sanfranciscovisitor.com/brekfast.html) for its warm banana pancakes and the Acapulco omelette with chunks of avocado and homemade salsa. Kids are welcome. Or for burgers, try Barney's (numerous locations) where you can get a Russian burger with sautéed mushrooms, sour cream and scallions on dark rye bread. Plenty to share with a toddler.
Transportation: Take the cable car at least once in San Francisco. It hits many of the tourist destinations and is a fun ride to boot. It costs about $3.70.
Where to play: Although the Monterey Bay Aquarium is more famous, Aquarium of the Bay ( www.aquariumofthebay.com) located in Fisherman's Wharf is as fun. Families stand on moving conveyor belts that run through clear, acrylic tunnels loaded with fish. Then head over to Pier 39 ( www.pier39.com) to watch the California sea lions roar. Golden Gate Park ( www.nps.gov/goga)is also a must see. Pack a picnic lunch and visit the park's Academy of Science, Planetarium and Japanese Tea Garden.
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