Family-friendly city … epicurean extravaganza … adventurer’s paradise … can’t decide which appeals to you? There’s no need to decide when choosing Northern California, for it’s easy to get three completely separate experiences — and mini getaways — on one vacation.
Start in San Francisco and grab a City Pass, which saves an average of 42 percent per person. While the rates of $89 for adults and $66 for kids ages 5-11 may seem a bit high, it means you can enjoy all of the most iconic attractions in just three days, including an unlimited-use cable car and Muni bus pass; a narrated one-hour harbor adventure cruise past the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz; entrance to the hands-on aquarium; and entrance to the Exploratorium or de Young Museum. Plus, you get VIP access and skip ticket lines at all except for the iconic cable cars. There’s also free transport and fun at the Presidio Trust, part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. This former Army base transformed into a mixed-use complex with a large green parade ground that hosts food trucks and movie nights in the summer, free programming year-round (like guided shuttle tours around the 1,480-acre enclave with campgrounds and hiking paths) and is also home to the Walt Disney Family Museum. Getting here is free from the city center via the PresidiGo Tunnel system, plus it offers one of the best — and quietest —panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s that bridge you’ll cross to head to Wine Country after a few days. Sonoma is just about an hour’s drive and your kids are sure to want to take a video or two as you cross, heading first toward Petaluma, one of the oldest cities in California (listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Its charming Victorian homes and downtown area with cowboy boots and curios make it the perfect base for exploring more than 195 wineries, Point Reyes National Seashore and Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, where these towering giants live up to 1,000 years. It’s not the only place where large things loom — Peanuts fans rejoice when visiting the Charles Schultz Museum and the world’s biggest collection of Snoopy artwork, located in the heart of Sonoma County where the cartoonist lived and worked.
Napa offers both parents and kids a fun alternative to the traditional swirl and spit visit, with the family-friendly Napa Valley Wine Train and its 1920s-era Pullman cars. There are special rates for kids at lunchtime (with apple juice for tasting, too!), and best of all, no one has to drive for the hop-on, hop-off, three-hour itinerary. For some retro fun, stay at Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, a fun throwback roadside motel redesigned to celebrate the great American road trip. Funky designs, a pool and spa make it a bit more of an upscale (but not stuffy) experience, great for families.
The next day, hit the road for some curves, winds and twists en route to Tahoe. The scenic drive is about three hours, but there’ll likely be few requests to turn on a DVD in the back seat due to some stunning scenery. No matter what the weather is, there’s always something to do, although January is great for value since it’s Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month. Several resorts, like Tahoe Donner Downhill and Diamond Peak, offer packages with equipment and lessons starting at just $39 for kids. Inns like Cedar Glen Lodge even get in on the action, with 20 percent discounts on stays of three nights or longer, and a shuttle that picks up guests at its lake-view location for Northstar and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Squaw hosted the Olympic ski events in 1960. Even if you’re more bunny slope than black diamond, there’s plenty of fun here at the tubing hill and mini snowmobile track for the smaller kids.
If it’s relaxation you’re in for, you don’t even have to leave the ranch, so to speak, if you nest at The Ritz-Carlton, where kids can ski in and ski out at North Star and lifts are literally right out the front door at this luxe village-like resort. Mom (and Dad) can chill at the spa and enjoy a romantic dinner at Manzanita with the little ones in tow, thanks to a hearty kids menu. There’s even a daily s’mores-making session at the communal fire pit for guests during the winter, where in the in-house “marshologist” talks about the history of the beverage and dishes up some house-made white fluffy treats as well.