San Francisco seen from the Fairmont's historic main wing suites.

At the Fairmont Hotels & Resort’s flagship property, the beautiful Fairmont San Francisco, my family was lucky enough to find out what the “Affordable Luxury for Families” concept was all about.

The Fairmont, recipient of several historically accurate facelifts since its 1906 opening, boasts its original grandeur without sacrificing any of the modern conveniences one might expect from a luxury hotel. With high-speed Internet access tucked into Georgian armoires, satin and brocade furnishings and a combination of chinoiserie and contemporary art in the public areas, it is once again the palatial inn designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1906. 

Your kids may be the first to appreciate the Fairmont’s over-size Corinthian columns: both the slender pair which support the limestone porte cochere and the gold marble ones which grace the lobby and main restaurant. Their bulk kept the original building, commissioned by James Graham Fair (a silver millionaire from Nevada) from collapsing during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. However, Mr. Fair’s Fairmont was gutted by the massive fire that followed and required another year to reopen. If you have history-minded older kids, check out the intensive SF City Guides tour of the hotel.

Fairmont Luxury for Today’s Families

Since then the Fairmont San Francisco has continued to welcome government, hosting every U.S. president since William Howard Taft, visiting dignitaries, and even the diplomats who drafted the 1945 United Nations Charter under its roof. Celebrities frequent the ‘Western White House’ as well; Louis Armstrong, Roseanne, Shirley Temple Black, Judy Garland, Ernest Hemingway, Mick Jagger, the Dalai Lama, Willie Mays, and even Tony Bennett, who debuted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on its Venetian Room stage in 1962, have all been guests. (Yes, there’s a Tony Bennett Suite.)

If the huge scale and ornate gilding doesn’t impress your brood, spend time in the hallways admiring the framed photos of yesteryear. That helped us quickly understand what luxury means to kids; it’s a whole other lifestyle, where no one has chores and everyone is pampered and indulged. In a Fairmont, luxury means down pillows, silk fringe, generous toiletries, plush robes, and pampering children’s amenities such as mini bathrobes, baby bathtubs and an Ollie the Otter Amenity Kit with no-tears hair wash, cleansing soap, toothbrush & paste, bubble bath and gentle lotion.

Mixing Culture with Cuisine at Tonga Room

We didn’t mind that the original swimming pool, which resembled San Francisco’s arcaded Sutro Baths, had been converted in 1945 to a tropical lagoon for the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a Polynesian theme restaurant. Even today, when the Asian cuisine restaurant’s rattan seating, faux palms, plastic grape clusters and sculpted totems are back en vogue, and the next generation of children celebrate special birthdays, most mouths still drop open when lightning strikes. Yes… every half hour, rain pours down, thunder clatters and lightning illuminates the silky black ceiling above the lagoon pool in the famous Tonga Hurricane.

After 8pm nightly, a live band performs on a moving boat while kids and couples of every age dance under the knotted ropes of the schooner bar. The family can also take advantage of Happy Hour, where a wide assortment of dim sum, Indonesian spring rolls and other hot hors d’oeuvres accompany the famous Mai Tai, virgin or rum-laced exotic drinks with, of course, little paper umbrellas.

Family Friendly Dining at Several Venues

High Tea is another culinary and cultural adventure which caters to kids. It takes place daily in the Laurel Court, an elegant, three-domed, stained glass parlor that dominates the hotel’s lobby and inspires ‘inside voices’ at first sight. Service includes miniature tea cakes and puddings on gleaming silver with hot chocolate in bone china, and includes cookie dough and cutters so kids can make their own treats and have them baked while they wait. Prices may seem outrageous, but parents don’t often find such an appropriate or joyful venue in which to teach old-fashioned manners.

At the delicious something-for-everyone buffet breakfast served in the same elegant Laurel Room, kids under 5 eat free; those under 12 are half-price, and those 12+ pay the full tariff. If that’s too much of a fuss at breakfast, there’s a stylish grab n’go cafe as well.

An alternative we heartily approve for tired or fussy kids is room service, our family’s favorite luxury. At the Fairmont, you not only get the kind of deluxe digs that qualify as their own tourist attraction, you also get a varied and affordable room service menu offering special Children’s Menus for under-12s. We can vouch that room service – whether its pancakes decorated with bacon to resemble a clown face or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – arrives promptly, is delivered cheerfully, and is garnished with a rose in a bud vase.

Another fun fact, since 2010, Fairmont San Francisco, in partnership with Marshall’s Farm, has been raising honey beehives, first in the culinary garden and now on the roof, where 9 beehives along with a pollinator hotel produce enought home-harvested honey to use in the kitchens and for making craft beers.

Fairmont’s Rooms

In San Francisco, the tastefully furnished, large suites boast powder rooms or walk-in closets befitting long-ago families who spent the entire summer living at the hotel. We were particularly enchanted by the historic main wing when we learned its ultra-wide carpeted hallways had been built to accommodate the girth of women in hoop skirts, walking side by side. Book a family suite with a king-bedded bedroom and you’ll have a living room with balcony, plus a double sofabed, and the ability to connect your suite (based on availability) with single or double rooms. In addition to flat screen TVs and modern conveniences, rooms have a Nespresso setup and tea kettle. A fridge or rollaway are available on request, fees apply.

We found all of the Fairmont’s facilities welcome families. If you elect to stay in the pricier Tower Rooms located in the 20-story wing built in 1963, you’ll have splendid views over the city and, when it’s not foggy, out to Alcatraz Island. There are also Fairmont King or Double Queen-bedded rooms with a sofabed that will accommodate everyone.

Between the wings is a sprawling terrace that’s home to the on-site fitness club and spa area, accessible to guests and local members, that’s run by an outside company.

Other family amenities include private babysitting arranged in advance by the concierge staff (and The Fairmont was the first hotel in the United States to have a Concierge!), or through Bay Area Child-Care Agency (415/309-5662); cribs, highchairs and strollers are no extra charge.

A Weekend to Remember

What did we get out of our two-night Fairmont stay? Classic style, superb service, memorable food and great fun, plus true relaxation and a rich, shared family experience.

 

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