Christina Ohly is no stranger to traveling with kids, but her first trip alone with her daughter Kate had to be extra memorable. They picked Paris. After Christina wrote about it, we asked for Kate's comments, which are sprinkled throughout like editor's notes.
PARIS – First of all, I am by no means suggesting that you jet off from say, Boston, for a quick weekend a deux in Paris with a nine-year-old. I don't care how good her math grades are: We're in a recession, and the euro is crumbling. But I have the great fortune to be living in London, where city gems like Paris are within striking distance, so I decided that our first ever mother-daughter foray would be to the incomparably beautiful City of Lights. And instead of making this outing a Bataan Death March of culture (my sister's term for what my family usually gets from me), my daughter, Kate, and I set off for a totally unscripted weekend of feasting and fun, with a little fashion thrown in for mom.
AN EASY TRAIN JOURNEY
We started our bonding experience on a Friday afternoon at London's St. Pancras station, home to the incredibly efficient Eurostar train. After a seamless customs check, we sat in a minimalist lounge and had tea and hot chocolate. The whole experience is calm, clean, and pleasant — the opposite of, say, New York's Penn Station on Friday at rush hour. We enjoyed the scenic journey through the countryside, our comfy seats, and endless free magazines as we sped through the setting sun. Upon our arrival at Gare du Nord some two hours later, we got into a huge taxi line, but somehow the Beaux-Arts buildings surrounding the station provided a magical diversion for both of us. Still, the smart move is to ask the hotel to book a car to pick you up, because any kid will want dinner tout suite.
The choice of where to stay in Paris can be daunting, as it is home to some of the most magnificent hotels in the world. You have extreme glamour (and price tags to match) at the Plaza Athénée, Hôtel Le Bristol (recently renovated, with a fabulous pool), and the Four Seasons Georges V — all located in the Golden Triangle area that is the 8th arrondissement. For a more cost-effective strategy in that same neighborhood, my daughter and I stayed at the Hôtel de La Trémoille, a slightly funkier version of these fancier hotels, with a bit more square footage for spreading out. Worth the price of admission was our dazzling view of the Eiffel Tower and its glittering white lights that shone on the hour every night. [Kate's note: "The coolest thing we saw was the dazzling Eiffel Tower at night. Next time, I'm going all the way to the top at midnight."]
If it's the Left Bank you love — and the possibilities for exploration, the Luxembourg Gardens, and much more are pretty enticing — try the opulent L'Hotel (see the Fathom Postcard) or the subdued Relais Christine. In Le Marais, Le Pavillon de la Reine is the tastefully chic respite from which to explore the Place des Vosges.
THE FIRST SUPPER
Since any trip to Paris revolves largely around meals, I left nothing to chance and planned a mix of hi-lo options that would please both our palates. The first night found us at Chez Andre, a warm and bustling standby one block from the hotel. This place is old school, right down to the seasoned French waitresses in their black and white girlie garb, lace curtains, and cozy banquettes. We feasted on steak frites, lentils, and salads with that perfectly simple Parisian vinaigrette — while seated elbow-to-elbow alongside Italians, Saudis, and lots of chatty Americans. Everyone fawned over my daughter — and her impressive appetite for raw meat. Our cross-cultural adventure was off to a smashing start. [Kate's note: "The most delicious thing I ate were these chocolate ice cream scoops with little rice krispie balls beneath them. We ate our dessert in a fancy hotel cafe." Christina: "The Plaza Athénée." Kate: "Yeah. It was full of grown-ups, so it was a treat to get to go so late at night. I also got to see an American rapper there. He was with his mom and dad."]
DAY ONE: Mona Lisa, Café Flore, Champs Élysées
I kept the tourism part light for this first trip and let Kate be our guide on day one. We set off down swanky Avenue Montaigne, strolled through Jardin des Tuileries, and on to the Louvre (secure untimed tickets ahead and go early, as lines grow by mid-morning). Instead of trying to see many rooms, Kate expressed interest in finding the Mona Lisa [Kate's note: "I read a book called Katie in London when I was little and it's about a museum adventure and all of these famous pictures. I remembered the Mona Lisa most of all, so I wanted to see that at the Louvre."], so we made a beeline for the Italian works of art, hitting the Winged Victory of Samothrace en route. Prep kids ahead with an online tour of the museum highlights.
On to Gothic stunner Notre Dame, with its soaring buttresses and stained glass wonders. I brought it all back to Quasimodo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which she especially enjoyed, and we lit candles for loved ones as the church services commenced en Francais.
Our next stop was the highlight of the day: lunch at Café de Flore. No matter how packed this St. Germain spot gets (it teems with Parisians and tourists alike), the food is always classic and delicious. After croque madame, haricots verts salad, a fluffy omelette, and a heavy side dish of stellar people-watching, we were ready to hit the rue again. [Kate's note: "I still think the best French fries in the world are in California. The ones you get from a cart by the rings in Venice Beach."] We strolled the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Près, popping into wonderful pharmacies. These are a must for both parent and child — the shelves are stacked with goodies, beautiful packaging, sweets galore. We ended up at the ultimate one-stop-shop, Le Bon Marché. "Department store" doesn't do justice to this emporium filled with everything from designer labels (Chloé, Vanessa Bruno, Balenciaga) and delicious foods (don't miss their macarons) to children's clothing and a toy department that is second to none. My daughter, who has little interest in shopping, was enthralled, and picked out an ever-so-chic hat/mitten/scarf combo that will keep her warm and stylish throughout the winter.
With retail done, we forged across town to Place des Vosges (one of favorite spots for just wandering) in Le Marais and ended the day with a tourista stroll up the Avenue des Champs Élysées. (The Paris Metro makes zipping around a breeze: We took the 4 line from Saint Germain to Le Marais and the 1 line from Le Marais to the Champs Elysee.) Somehow the Disney store is enticing in any language, and the views of the Arc de Triomphe, with eight lanes of fierce traffic in front of it, never fail to take one's breath away.
Our next meal was at the very Zen Japanese restaurant, Hanawa, where we grazed on the freshest sushi and teppanyaki, and generally took a break from the endless baskets of bread we'd been eating. An evening amble home — with the requisite stop for dessert at Ladurée — made for the perfect end to a perfect day.
DAY TWO: Eiffel Tower, Impressionists, The Seine
The goal of our second brisk and beautiful day: actually going up the Eiffel Tower. In all my visits to Paris, I'd never been inside, and it really is a pretty spectacular adventure. Book your tickets for the trip to the top well in advance, as they always sell out. [Kate's note: "At the souvenir shop there was an Eiffel Tower that you plug in and it actually sparkles. I'm saving my euros for one of those!"] The views from the top of Sacré Coeur, Île de la Cité, the bustling Seine, and the endless bridges below were, of course, breathtaking. And we got to learn about the world's most (justifiably) visited monument.
With time running out, we strolled the grounds of Musee du Quai Branly, a museum complex devoted to the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Kids will love running around all kinds of flora and fauna, as well as the massive modernist structure designed by Jean Nouvel. From here, we strolled along the Seine, watching runners and families enjoying their Sunday routines, before boarding a Batobus to see the sites from the water. (Bateaux-Mouches are another option.) The exquisite bridges — gentle arches, statues, gold leaf — unfolded before us [Kate's note: "You just don't see bridges that pretty anywhere."] until we alighted at our final stop, Museé d'Orsay. This converted train station, with its soaring spaces and vast Impressionist collection, is perfect for children, who seem to love paintings by Manet, Renoir, and Degas.
Though we barely skimmed the surface of Paris and its many offerings, it was wonderful to see this magical city through my daughter's eyes — as if I were seeing it for myself for the first time. [Kate's note: "Paris is the prettiest city I've ever been to. I liked that there were so many beautiful buildings everywhere. I am used to New York where there's much more gum and poop on the sidewalk."] The architectural marvels, that perfect profiterole, the nasty cab driver straight out of central casting were all wonders to both a 9-year-old and a 43-year-old alike. We've whet our appetites for many more such journeys. Next up: Seville with my 10-year old son.
[Kate's note: "On my next trip to Paris, I might like to bring my dad and my brother, Will. But maybe not."]
See the locations in this itinerary. (Google Maps)