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Hmmmm.... Could I be the only one out there striving to create a family vacation that seems to have an impossible list of criteria? Our young family of three desired something: 1.) cheap, but luxurious 2.) limited travel time, but far enough away to feel exotic 3.) relaxing, but not boring 4.) entertaining, but not draining 5.) appealing to a range of ages from 2 - 36 and 6.) quality time together, but individually fulfilling as well.

After much research and a little luck, I am happy to report that we just returned from a wonderful four day get-away in San Francisco that left us utterly sated for under $1000. Locals know that the first weeks of spring and the last weeks of fall are often the best time to travel to Northern California coastal towns, and we found San Francisco abounding with sun and cherry blossoms this March. Here are the other secrets to our perfect vacation:

1.) Hotwire and Four Star Intercontinental Mark Hopkins

Finding something that is cheap but luxurious is actually possible thanks to last minute hotel deals offered through travel websites such as Hotwire and Expedia. I wasted - ummerr- used several nap sessions searching the web for the best price for a four star hotel in downtown San Francisco offering breakfast and a hors de oeuvres hour. However, I could have saved myself the trouble and a few extra dollars if I would have immediately begun with Hotwire. We took the blind deal of selecting dates, location, and a star rating and were rewarded with a three night stay at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel on Knob Hill.

Before we ever packed our bags, this hotel started earning brownie points with our family through its wonderful concierge tour videos. Highlights of of the hotel and San Francisco are featured on the company website. While we normally spare our two year old son from screen time, I thought showing him the short video would help prepare him for our time away from home by building some excitement about our trip.

We were enthused after the video, and found the hotel to live up to its every proclaimed charm. Room 226 was spacious, clean, and offered a great view of the city. I especially savored the mounds of feather pillows and bedding! Most importantly, the hotel club floor package (just $60 a day for our entire 2.5 family) offered breakfast, afternoon tea, appetizers and cocktails, AND a dessert hour. Food selections included fresh strawberry smoothies, salmon, espressos (we are now Americano addicts), and other high quality selections that matched or topped what we normally serve at home. The club room with its comfy couches, board games, and dining area became our second home for snack time, resting, and playing quiet games. We hardly had to break our home rhythm with all these amenities. Daddy-o snuck away in the evening and made the most of the cocktails and desserts, while the little man and I opted for a soak in the sumptuous tub.

Knob Hill proved an optimal location situated in between two cable car lines on the edge of Union Square and Chinatown. We walked or found easy mass transit whenever we broke free of the hotel's spellbinding offerings to hit the streets. Try this hotel!

2.) San Francisco - Cosmopolitan City in Our Backyard

Sonoma County parents can count themselves lucky for having a first rate cosmopolitan city just a short 54 miles from our county center. Tahoe crossed our minds, but the heavy snow of this time of year could equate hours of waiting in the car or cozying up around a fire - dreamy for two adults, but a two-year-old's idea of hell. San Francisco is just a short trip away and offers a variety of attractions for kids, shopping opportunities, dining, and sightseeing for all.

I wanted to learn more about what attractions might be toddler appropriate, and I wanted to brace my toddler for the hustle and bustle of fast city life. A trip to the children's branch of the Central Santa Rosa library proved many resources exist for parents planning a trip to this international travel destination. Picture books and stories about the city such as Wow! City! by Neubecker and Pop's Bridge by Payne gave us images of subways, taxis, buildings, bridges, parks, and diverse people. Around San Francisco with Kids by Fodor also gave us names of restaurants (e.g. Pearl City Chinese Food - great!) and parks to visit. When we saw Golden Gate Bridge, our little guy yelled out "Look - Pop's bridge!"

3.) Golden Gate & Other Local Parks - Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots

We considered getting CityPasses but later opted to skip the $54 for each adult and just buy a 3 day muni pass for $18 each. Children under five get into most attractions for free and don't pay to ride the public transit. We wanted to stay flexible about our plans, and decided not to go for the one price for all attractions deal. The Japanese Tea gardens ($5 cash only for adults - free for all before 10 am) was also not a part of the package.

When we saw the huge line at the California Academy of Sciences, we were glad we decided not to buy the CityPass or advance tickets to the museum. Running free at the Japanese Tea gardens was much more our family's style. Unlike the museum, this lovely, old manicured garden was almost free of tourists midweek. We were tuckered out after an hour of spying fish, observing birds, and sipping tea. $5 of fun for an hour felt about right and we were glad we didn't pay $26 per adult for a quick romp around dino bones.

Golden Gate Park's free park attractions such as the botanical gardens also made for great sightseeing. We discovered all kinds of green glory on our walk between the paid park attractions.

The next day we took another subway ride from Union Square back to the park to discover Stow's Lake. This decades old lagoon features an island in the middle, hundreds of turtles, a waterfall, a Chinese Pavilion, and much more. Locals seemed to know about this secret side of Golden Gate park, as mothers jogged behind strollers and elderly folk put in exercise walking and talking. However, the boat house and bike rental shop were eagerly awaiting their first tourists when we arrived. For just $18-24 an hour, a family of four can rent a boat or a family style bike. (Boathouse: 415-752-7869; accepts visa/mastercard.) (Bike Rentals: The boathouse also features a snack bar with old fashioned popcorn and hot dogs. After burning off calories pedaling a boat around the lake for an hour, we found ourselves famished and feasted on snack bar treats on a picnic bench near the lake. See map of the park.

Knob Hill also houses two community parks: Huntington Park across from the Grace Cathedral and St. Mary's Park on Powell and California Street. Finding swing sets, fountains, and cherry trees steps outside our hotel made our little one's day! These parks offered our family an easy reprieve from all the hard work of vacationing.

4.) Cable Cars & Subways - A Novel Family Delight

While driving to San Francisco is easy for Sonoma County families, driving and parking in San Francisco is not! Leave the car with the hotel and discover the joy of using mass transit. My train fanatic husband and toddler were thrilled to hop on a cable car or to ride a subway. In this city, transit is so widely used that a new Cable Car or bus comes by each stop every few minutes rather than every hour. The Cable Cars are very popular, but if you can manage to jump on at a stop outside of Union Square, your family is sure to be delighted! Our little one is still talking about those buses and trolleys!

5.) Out of the Closet, Guy Fieri, and a "Pack-Pack"

Our final tip for making a stellar vacation plan is to work in a little fun for each member. While I had my eye on a fast mommy only get away to hit the thrift stores like Out of the Closet on Polk and California, my husband had his heart set on trying some of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-in's and Dives. I was happy to suck down a milkshake and gorge on a huge burger at Joe's Cable Car in exchange for some shopping time in the city! The little one didn't really care about clothes or fries, but he his needs warranted consideration as well. We made sure to make him a small back-pack (he calls it a "pack-pack") filled with art supplies, an interactive book, and a small doll. (Thanks, Soule Mamma for the inspiration! See her blog for pictures of these items. He was able to pull out his toys and disappear into play whenever the activities got too adult for him. These elements of our trip are the highlights we still talk about today.

Happy planning your own vacation!


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