It's like jumping off a cliff. It's impossible to fully express, like describing the flavour of chocolate without ever letting it melt on your tongue. It's a giant leap -- parenthood -- and you won't remember your life before it. This is how friends, family and co-workers have described Life After Kids. See movies now, they say, enjoy the Saturday paper now, and travel now, while it's just the two of you, no diapers, no stroller, no child in the back seat yelling, "Are we there yet?"
I was six months pregnant with my first child. I had always loved to travel and wondered how a baby would change that. Already, many trips were ruled out by my growing belly: flying in bush planes, hiking at high altitudes, sipping vintages on wine tours and, of course, visiting locales where the prospect of clean water and high-tech hospitals was shaky at best. Sure, many parents I knew, including my own, didn't burn their passports when children arrived on the scene -- a ski magazine editor told me that he and his wife zipped down mountains with babies in backpacks; colleagues were planning a trip to Peru this summer with their two grade-schoolers.
Still, whatever their calm assurances, I knew travel wouldn't be the same. So, on the eve of my third trimester, my husband, Mario, and I boarded a plane for a week-long babymoon among the quiet canals and brown cafés of Amsterdam.
The term was originally coined by British birth guru Sheila Kitzinger (who writes alarming things like, "Once your baby has engaged, you can often feel the head like a coconut hanging between your legs") to describe the magical days immediately after birth when parents bond intensely with their newborns. The expression has since grown to encompass family trips taken before toddler routines and tempers set in.
But, fuelled by the generation of double-income, well-travelled couples who are finally getting around to producing offspring, babymooning has also grown to be seen as the Last Chance to Travel Before Kids (or Before the Next Kid).
Hotels have jumped on the concept, creating upscale packages for expectant parents that feature such treats as spa massages, body pillows, milk and cookies before bedtime and baskets of gourmet pickles. For instance, Amoré by the Sea, a bed and breakfast on Vancouver Island, offers a tranquil retreat on the beaches near Victoria with a Babymoon package that includes an aromatherapy facial, sparkling (and non-alcoholic) apple juice and gourmet chocolates. The Once in a Babymoon deal at Beside Still Waters Farm in Willits, Calif., offers a luxury escape in country cottages, along with a "birth and beyond" delivery kit that includes a nursing gown and all-natural nipple cream.
However, I wanted more than a well-marketed hotel fling. I wanted to check another destination off my long list, and to make time for perhaps-soon-to-end pleasures. Babymooning seemed like a last chance for romance, to enjoy uninterrupted hours in art galleries, to linger over a foreign-brewed coffee, to see a movie, to finally read A Tale of Two Cities.
While I was leaving my library of maternity books at home -- for romance's sake, and to avert awkward moments in cafés when flipping to a page of a baby crowning in a home water birth -- the trip also seemed like an opportunity to prepare for a baby: to do pushups, to finalize names, to contemplate parenting and to slip in some Kegel exercises while gazing at Dutch masterpieces.
A babymoon would be the ideal time to enjoy the amazing changes taking place and to let time slow down for just a few moments before Mario and I jumped off that metaphorical cliff.
In many ways, Amsterdam is ideal babymoon territory: It is safe, very flat and steeped in culture (the museum's washrooms are the ideal fix for every pregnant woman's dilemma). The city is easy to get to (a seven-hour direct KLM flight from Toronto) and easy to navigate, as everyone from shoe-store clerks to taxi drivers speaks English. Amsterdam is, of course, famous for its red-light district and hashish-friendly "coffee houses," but six months into pregnancy it wasn't that hard to drop two more things from the to-do list.
We arrived on a sunny Sunday morning in June. Locals kept telling us how unusual the weather was for the often-rainy city. Indeed, in the following days, Amsterdammers could be seen sitting on the front steps of their shoulder-to-shoulder canal houses, chairs out, shoes off, reading the paper in the sun.
Mario and I settled into our centrally located hotel and started to explore the dense downtown core with its long street names -- Reguliersdwarsstraat? Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal? -- shops selling stroopwafel (caramel waffle cookie and an ideal sugar hit) and wealth of museums, many a legacy of the Netherlands' time as a 17th-century trade and shipping powerhouse.
The trip's romantic quota was easily filled. We strolled along the grey-green canals and streets strangely empty of vehicles, but crowded with vigorous cyclists. We took in masterpieces such as Vermeer's The Milk Maid and van Gogh's Sunflowers. We dined one night at Het Tuynhuys, a restaurant with French-inspired cuisine and a private courtyard abloom in hydrangeas, and another morning we stumbled upon a local hangout, De Bekkerswinkel Café, in the narrow streets not far from the train station. Encouraged by the slow service, we lingered over high tea and appeltaart and savoured the "Ah, I'm on holiday in Europe" moment.
Although the intent had to been to enjoy the last moments of our old life, glimpses of the future emerged. I trolled for baby names in the art galleries: Perhaps Francesco Casanova, a favourite battle-scene painter of Catherine the Great whose work appeared at the Hermitage Amsterdam? Or Selene, goddess of the moon, visiting her mortal lover Endymion as captured by Gerard de Lairesse at the Rijksmuseum? Mario ogled the ubiquitous Bugaboo Frog strollers -- a Dutch brand -- in this high-design country. And we spied on families in transit: an American family trying to shush their youngest, a blond toddler who was rolling on the floor in the Anne Frank House as tourists moved quietly between the near-empty rooms.
One of the best and most unexpected moments of the trip came when the two forces -- baby and travel -- merged. Cyclists rule Amsterdam -- there are 600,000 bikes -- and everyone seems to get to where they're going on old-fashioned, gearless contraptions: Men in suits, parents balancing toddlers on a seat in front of the handlebars, and many very pregnant women.
Still, I was nervous. I had not ridden since a nasty encounter with streetcar tracks in Toronto. As well, all the maternity books warned of a coming "shift in balance." It didn't seem right, however, to visit Holland without a few pedal strokes.
Biking in the country was the perfect solution. We signed up with Yellow Bike Guided Tours for a six-hour day trip that took us into the northern countryside of Waterland, an area, like much of Holland, reclaimed from the sea.
After half an hour of cycling, the group -- two backpacking Aussies, an American taking a break before Columbia law school and a Canadian academic (who must have snagged the city's only bike helmet) -- was on country roads passing fields where sheep snoozed on their sides. Once I got used to the heavy, gearless bike, I felt like my old self, pursuing an outdoorsy activity.
Our guide, a globetrotting Dutchwoman named Ilsa, led us past one of the area's last windmills, past red-brick country homes with lace curtains, around a church in the village of Ransdorp where Rembrandt decorated the interior while visiting a lover.
At lunch, we stopped for classic Dutch pancakes and shared stories about Holland and travel. Toward the end of the trip, as the sun came out after a morning of sporadic rain, the group stretched out single file along a dike, a view of summer homes on one side, the sparkling water on the other. As I biked, I rolled up my shirt to let my belly -- and the baby -- feel the sun's glow. It was wonderful.
As with many holidays -- especially ones packed with expectations and plans -- there was the inevitable crash.
One day after going for brunch and then walking from the hotel to the Van Gogh Museum and spending three hours taking in the oil and canvas self-portraits and orchard views, we set off to squeeze in one more museum and find a perfect romantic restaurant. After a few minutes of walking, I realized I was out of energy. Then it started to pour rain. (One trouble with the car-limited city: You can't find a taxi when you need one.)
There was so much left to see -- the Museum Van Loon, a restored 17th-century canal home; the modern Stedelijk Museum CS; a cool Dutch shop that sells just kites -- and only one day left. But how can one visit Amsterdam and not climb the stairs into Anne Frank's Secret Annex, or spend a few minutes with Rembrandt's The Night Watch, or even walk through the red-light district where women pose like Barbies in boxes? It was the only hitch with a self-guided babymoon: the difficulty in slowing down. The old pace was gone. Already our lives had shifted. The trip -- like the physical changes during pregnancy -- was not really a commemoration of our last days as a childless couple, but in some ways a preparation for Life With Kids. Standing in the shelter of a shop doorway as it continued to pour, I knew I couldn't walk another step in my sandals. We ducked into a fast-food sandwich shop and while Mario went in search of an umbrella and flip-flops, I rested my swollen feet on the orange banquette. We finally made it back to the hotel that night, wet and exhausted, and ended up ordering room service. It was the best clubhouse sandwich I've ever had, complemented with linens, a yellow-red rose and cable TV.
The next day, on our last night in Amsterdam, I was again running out of steam after visiting three museums (old habits die hard, it seems). Out of euros and searching for somewhere romantic to dine, we vowed to walk just one more block. A restaurant called Seven Steps appeared on Reestraat, a quiet street near a canal. It was affordable, it took Visa, and the sun was out again. We sat down on the outdoor bistro chairs and ordered from the eclectic Asian-inspired menu. I chose a glass of wine, a rare treat. We admired the geraniums in the window boxes across the street and the chandelier earrings of the young waitress and listened to distant church bells. I wrote out a short list of baby names, sounding them out with first, middle, last name.
A table away, an English couple was drinking wine and dipping fries in mayonnaise. Tucked behind the mother's chair was a blue Bugaboo stroller, its occupant asleep. It seemed like a good sign.
Planning a babymoon
The energy-happy second trimester is touted as the best time to travel, as many women are past the initial morning sickness, yet not into the big and bulky stage of the third trimester and its risks of premature delivery.
Check with your airline before booking. Air Canada allows travel for women with a normal pregnancy and no previous history of premature labour to travel up to and including the 36th week. Many carriers limit or require a medical certificate for travel within a month of the due date.Walk around on the flight and drink water to ward off swelling, dehydration and deep-vein thrombosis.
Read the fine print on your travel insurance. Some companies cut off health coverage for pregnant women much earlier than airlines prohibit pregnant passengers.
Resist the urge to see and do everything on a babymoon. For some women, even in the second trimester, fatigue can set in early.
Pick a destination that's as direct as possible. Pregnancy is tiring, and enduring a six-hour layover in Frankfurt on your way to Dubrovnik is not going to start the trip off on the right foot.
Remember to gauge what you can or can't do: downhill skiing, many spa holidays, scuba diving, mountain climbing and countries that require immunization may be out.
Think of the jet lag as simply more "training for parenthood."
Last hurrah in Holland
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel 717: Prinsengracht 717; 30 (20) 427 0717; http://www.717hotel.nl. The service and attention of a five-star hotel in the cozy confines of a 19th-century home. Rates start at $580 a night.
NH Barbizon Palace: Prins Hendrikkade 59-72; 31 (20) 556 4564; http://www.nh-hotels.com. Business chic meets historical charm near the train station. Starts at about $466.
The Grand: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197; http://www.thegrand.nl; 31 (20) 555 3111. Queen Beatrix was married here. Need we say more? Starts at $610.
WHERE TO EAT
De Bekkerswinkel: 69 Warmoesstraat; http://www.debakkerswinkel.nl; 31 (20) 489 8000. Watch staff mix bread as you savour loose tea, coffee and Dutch desserts.
Het Tuynhuys: 28 Reguliersdwarsstraat; http://www.tuynhuys.nl; 31 (20) 627 6603. Romantic fine dining in an eatery with wide-planked floors; outside, a lovely garden beckons.
Pannekoekenhuis de Witte Swaen: 11/13 Dorpsstraat, outside Amsterdam in Broek in Waterland; 31 (20) 403 1525. Sixty varieties of Dutch pancakes, savoury or sweet.
Seven Steps: 7 Reestraat; 31 (20) 420 9545. Affordable, atmospheric and casual dining. Excellent fresh bread.
D'Vijiff Vlieghen: 294 Spuistraat; 31 (20) 530 4060; http://www.vijffvlieghen.nl. Upscale tasting menus featuring "new Dutch cuisine" housed in 17th-century homes that recreate the Golden Age with decorations from armour to Rembrandt etchings.
THINGS TO DO
Yellow Bike Guided Tours: 29 Nieuwezijds Kolk; 31 (20) 620 6940; http://www.yellowbike.nl. Offers bike rentals, city and countryside bike tours. The countryside tour costs around $37 a person.
Anne Frank House: 267 Prinsengracht; http://www.annefrank.nl; 31 (20) 556 7100. Quiet, nearly empty rooms filled with simple, moving artifacts (from movie stars she pasted on her walls to the heart-breaking letters her father wrote after the war).
Van Gogh Museum: 7 Paulus Potterstraat; vangoghmuseum.com; 31 (20) 570 5292. An excellent yet manageably sized museum for exploring the work and life of Holland's famous son.
Rijksmuseum: 1 Jan Luijkenstraat; 31 (20) 674 7047; rijksmuseum.nl. The Masterpieces, featuring more than 400 works from of the Golden Age of Dutch art, is on display to 2008 as the museum undergoes a massive renovation.
Hermitage Amsterdam: 14 Niewe Herengracht; 31 (20) 530 8751; http://www.hermitage.nl. Still undergoing a expansion -- only a 10th of the space is open -- this attraction will house temporary exhibits from the mother museum in St. Petersburg.
Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board: http://www.amsterdamtourist.nl; 31 (20) 201 8800.
Many hotels, especially in the United States, have jumped on the babymoon bandwagon:
Babymoon: Amoré by the Sea, Victoria; http://www.amorebythesea.com; 1-888-828-4397. Getaway includes treats such as an aromatherapy facial for the mom-to-be, a massage for the dad-to-be and a teddy bear for the baby. The package costs $250 a night (minimum two-night stay); room rates start at around $195 a night.
Once in a babymoon: Beside Still Waters Farm, Willits, Calif.;
1-877-230-2171. The package, with a one-hour pregnancy massage, includes a "birth and beyond" delivery kit for $180. Cottage rates, including breakfast, are $275 a night, or $300 including breakfast, gas fireplace and whirlpool tub. Massages for dads-to-be are available for an additional $85.
Baby on the way: Planters Inn, Charleston, S.C.; 1-800-845-7082; http://www.plantersinn.com. Three-night package includes high-end pickles, his and her massages, a carriage or walking tour, a 90-minute facial, chocolate truffles, a cigar and a teddy bear. The package starts at $2,600, with a suite upgrade available for $2,960.
Expecting you: Four Seasons, Chicago; http://www.fourseasons.com; 312-280-8800. Includes Midwest breakfast, discount on a pregnancy massage and ice cream cart for in-room sundaes. Prices from $500 a night.
Expecting the best: Barefoot & Pregnant, Larkspur, Calif.; 415-388-1777; barefootandpregnant.com. Barefoot & Pregnant has formed a partnership with the Mountain Home Inn in Mill Valley. Offers massage, prenatal yoga, birthing hypnosis lesson and guided hike. The three-day, two-night retreat costs $1,320 a couple.
The last big hurrah: Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa, Bodega Bay, Calif.; 707-875-3525 or 1-800-368-2468, ext. 5; http://www.woodsidehotels.com. Offers a relaxing getaway on the Sonoma Coast with a deluxe guest room, his and her spa treatments and fine cuisine "before you take comfort in a jar of strained carrots." The midweek package starts at $775 (weekend rates are available at an additional cost).
Stress-free parents-to-be: Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, La Jolla, Calif.; 858-550-1000; estancialajolla.com. Includes a session with a photographer, facials, hotel-branded onesie, a shopping trip with a personal shopper and spa gifts for the baby. Prices start at $2,400 for three nights.