x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

When the playground is where it's at

These days the most compelling travel attractions are playgrounds in city parks. It is the new paradigm.

I took a trip to northern California last autumn with my husband and daughter, who turned a year and two months in October. We flew into San Francisco and then drove north through picturesque vineyards laden with ripe grapes. The leaves on the vines turn a bronze-red, and the grapes are dark purple, almost black, and sweet. The pastoral valleys are surrounded by 100m- tall redwood trees, and the highway criss-crosses the beautiful Russian River. But I didn't pay attention to all that.

These days the most compelling travel attractions are playgrounds in city parks. It is the new paradigm. "Are we staying within walking distance of a park?" has become the biggest question for guidebooks and internet searches. Where can we burn an hour see-sawing, swinging, sliding, merry-go-rounding, and excavating? The geopolitics of playgrounds are studied by parents, while children simply make friends in slap-dash temporary treaties of allegiance.

Abu Dhabi, in this respect, is alluring. My daughter has started exploring the various jungle gyms at the Family Park at the Corniche and Khalidiya park. Though she is not at the monkey bar stage, she can clamber up ladders and "wheee!" down slides, swing on the swings and play in the sand. I'm always looking for ways to run her into the ground, and while travelling it becomes both harder to do and even more important for her happiness.

The best playground in all of San Francisco is called Julius Kahn Park in the Presidio, which used to be an army base and is now a nature reserve and Letterman Digital Arts Center. The playground has two play areas, one for little kids and one for big kids, and has enough activities to occupy short attention spans for long periods of time. But I was raised on this park, so I am not objective. When I was a kid, there was an elderly French woman who watched all the kids; we called her Madame. This was where I learned to swing by myself, balanced on metal poles, got sand in my eye, the wind knocked out of me and chased other kids across wooden bridges.

Nowadays, Julius Kahn Park has a climbing wall and multi-coloured plastic slides, and there are more 50-year old first-time parents (not just mothers anymore) hovering around with lattes and BlackBerrys. The kids are more likely to run around in Burberry denim jackets and less likely to dig in the mud. All in all it's great for kids, and being there conjures my childhood memories. In San Francisco, a close second is nearby - Mountain Lake Park, which receives a more eclectic mix of visitors. It's good to have at least two on the list for variety. For the most objective playground reviews, visit www.yelp.com.

In some ways, the Julius Kahn Park of my childhood is more like the Family Park of Abu Dhabi on a Friday afternoon, minus the kebabs grilling on charcoal stoves. That loaded merry-go-round and the impatient lines by the swings, the kids sliding down the dizzying circular slide and the sense of fending for yourself that is upheld until the critical moment when a parent comes to the rescue; that's what I'm talking about.