As any parent can tell you, when you’re traveling with kids, getting there is (and better be) at least half the fun. Fortunately, here in Northern California, we’ve elevated unusual and entertaining modes of transportation to an art form. On an average day, you can ride a cable car halfway to the stars, take a gondola to a high-altitude swimming pool, drive a talking car, and cruise a lake on an old-fashioned steam paddlewheeler. Here are some of my favorite ways to sight see when the getaway needs to be equal parts journey and destination.
San Francisco’s historic Muni F-line is a fleet of lovingly restored streetcars that hail from all around the world—Zurich to Melbourne, Milan to Philly. Each car still bears the markings and design details of its native city, and for $2 you can ride one up and down Market Street and all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, getting a city tour and a rolling lesson in mass-transit history along the way. My personal favorite, “The Boat,” is a 1934 open-air car built for seaside resort service in Blackpool, England, that Muni brings out on sunny days. It’s hands-down the most fun—and the best bargain—you’ll find on public transportation this side of the Mississippi (415/974-1948; www.streetcar.org).
The Tahoe Queen, an authentic Mississippi River paddlewheeler, is something of a Lake Tahoe institution. Thankfully, it’s come a long way from my childhood days when it was more of a funky novelty. Fully restored, three stories high, and sporting expansive picture windows and an open top deck, the Tahoe Queen offers scenic history cruises across the lake to Emerald Bay, as well as sunset and dinner-dance cruises. This summer, they added the Mark Twain Cruise, which features Twain—who once described Lake Tahoe as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords”—and a cast of historical characters. .
TQ’s sister, the MS Dixie II, is a 570-passenger paddlewheeler that does Sunday brunch cruises in addition to scenic tours and dinner-dances. Whichever you choose, kids will be fascinated by the sight of the giant paddlewheels spinning and churning through the water (the lake’s not too shabby, either). Both cruises depart from South Lake Tahoe (888/896-3830; www.zephyrcove.com).
Okay, it’s a cliché, but you gotta ask yourself—when was the last time you rode a cable car? The little trollies that toddle up San Francisco’s steep slopes are not only America’s only moving National Historical Landmarks, they’re by far the most entertaining way to get from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. Invented in 1873 by Scotsman Andrew Hallidie, cable cars were an ingenious solution to scaling San Francisco’s formidable hills. They work via a motorless underground cable-grip system—essentially getting pulled up by a cable that is continuously wound and unwound around enormous wheels.
Start out at the Powell Street terminus and for extra thrills, hang off the running boards, Doris Day-style, until you reach Washington and Mason streets. Hop off for a pit stop at the Cable Car Museum, where you can see Hallidie’s original 1873 trolley, along with the powerful turbines that keep the cars humming along at a steady 9.5 mph. Then get back on and hang tight for the rollercoaster descent into Fisherman’s Wharf.
SEGWAY TO THE WINE COUNTRY
Touring wineries is usually about as popular an idea with kids as visiting the dentist, but that’s because you haven’t toured on a Segway. In Sonoma Valley, you can rent these two-wheel personal peoplemovers (think electric scooter, without the balancing) via Sonoma Segway (707/938-2080; www.sonomasegway.com). Tours of wine country run $99-$129 and include an instructional lesson, visits to wineries and cheesemakers, a complimentary bottle of wine, and lunch. Kids must be accompanied by a parent, but they get to drive their own vehicle—guaranteed to reduce the whining on your way to the next vineyard.
With all those precipitous hills and neighborhoods with names like Little Italy and Chinatown, San Francisco is like a life-size Disneyland. Tour it in a GoCar (800/91-GoCar; www.gocartours.com) and you’ll feel like you just bought a book of E-tickets. The bright-yellow mini-electric cars come with a built-in talking GPS system, that in addition to helping you navigate the city’s notorious one-way streets, offers a narrated guide to sights and attractions, throwing in history and stories along the way. Three different tours are offered in San Francisco, which you can do at your own pace with as many stops as you please (you can also turn off the narration and just use the pre-programmed satellite GPS). The three-wheeling two-seaters hit top speeds of 35 mph, making for a leisurely tour. The best part—they’re small enough to squeeze into even those notoriously tight San Francisco parking spots.
BIKE AROUND THE BAY
Even jaded locals get teary-eyed crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a glorious golden afternoon, when the red towers frame the city skyline like a lifesize postcard. Sure, you can drive it, but to truly savor the experience, you need to take it slow. You can walk across the east side sunrise to sunset, or even better—bike across on either side (depending on the time; see http://goldengatebridge.org/bikesbridge/bikes.php for details). Later, you can ferry back across the Bay to Fisherman’s Wharf on the Blue & Gold Fleet (415/705-8200; www.blueandgoldfleet.com) from Sausalito or Tiburon, going past Alcatraz Island and getting up close and personal to the bridge’s impressive underside.
With five outlets at Fisherman’s Wharf and one at Union Square, Blazing Saddles (415/202-8888; www.blazingsaddles.com) is a good bet for families. The 25-year-old company offers a huge inventory of rental bikes that include baby trailers, tag-alongs, kid tandems (kid gets the front seat; steering and brakes in the back), and even triple tandems. Plus, their multiple locations make it easy to pick-up and drop-off when kids poop out.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on your favorite family getaways in Northern California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.
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