We were in trouble as soon as we got out of the car -- and things went downhill fast. The owner of the Wisconsin bed-and-breakfast grimaced at the sight of our two small, messy children sucking Tootsie Roll Pops. Matt wasn't yet 4, Reggie just a toddler.
"I hope they aren't going to eat those things inside," said this man, who had gushed over the phone about how much he loved children.
I immediately realized mistake No. 1: I'd neglected to ask exactly how often he hosted young kids.
We decided to take a tour of the extensive grounds while Matt and Reggie finished their lollipops. That, it turned out, was mistake No. 2. Our always rambunctious Matt promptly pushed the owner's cat into the goldfish pond. The kitty wanted to go swimming, he explained.
Despite our profuse apologies, the furious owner ordered us to leave immediately, lambasting our parenting skills all the way to the car. We were too shaken to try to salvage the weekend. We drove home four hours to Chicago.
Flash-forward 10 years.
This time we have four kids with us -- our three plus a friend -- when we unexpectedly need a place to spend the night in New England. "We get lots of kids. You'll be very happy here," promises the innkeeper over the phone.
I was dubious, but they had a pool, and we were all anxious to get out of the car.
As soon as we drove up and the kids tumbled out of the back, we were greeted by a hearty welcome. I relaxed immediately. In fact, I'm happy to report our stay at the Franconia Inn turned out to be one of the high points of the trip.
Not only were there plenty of other kids around, but each of ours was made to feel like a valued guest -- from the children's menu in the dining room (breakfast is included) to the available board games and the cartoons on the big-screen television downstairs. Of course, the pool helped, as did the bicycles, croquet set and riding stable next door. (Call the Franconia Inn in Franconia, N.H., (800) 473-5299.)
"There are times couples are disappointed and complain it's not quiet enough," acknowledges Alec Morris, who co-owns the inn with his brother. But, as the entire travel industry now knows, families are very good business.
And more of them are opting for the B & B or small inn route, innkeepers agree. Certainly, it can be more fun to stay at a castle in Scotland, a Southwestern adobe house or a New England farm than in a standard motel. They can be cheaper than a comparable hotel, too, typically between $75 and $125 for a family of four, including breakfast.
"Families like that personal touch, to feel they're an instant part of the community," explains Pamela Lanier, whose "The Complete Guide to Bed & Breakfasts USA and Worldwide" (Ten Speed Press, $16.95) includes some 20,000 listings. More than half of those listed accept children -- a significant change from a decade ago, Lanier notes. (Find kid-friendly spots at www.travelguides.com)
Choose the right place and you'll also get the inside dope on kid-friendly restaurants, the best playgrounds, coolest shopping, most popular baby sitters and all the information you need about the zoo, children's museum, amusement park and other area attractions.
But pick the wrong B & B, and you'll be as miserable as we were in Wisconsin that weekend. You'll be just as unhappy if you're after a quiet, romantic getaway, and there's a noisy toddler in the room next door.
That's easy to avoid: Choose one of the many antiques-filled places that don't welcome children under 12 or at all, suggests Sandra Soule, author of "America's Great Little Inns" books (St. Martin's Press). Look for the national guide for $19.99 or visit www.inns.com on the Web. In the books and at the Web site, find a special icon to identify the family-friendly places.
How to find out if a B & B truly welcomes kids and doesn't just tolerate them?
"Ask if they've got a crib or a children's menu, even if you don't need them," suggests Soule. "Those are real buzz words."
Do they have a cottage set aside for families or a "family suite"? Are there children's toys, games and an outdoor play area for them?
The Highland Lodge in Vermont has a supervised play program anchored at a playhouse. At the Country Life B & B in Hempstead on Long Island, Wendy Duvall keeps a "bag of Barbies and a suitcase of little cars." There's a swing set outside.
"I've never had a bad experience with kids," says Duvall. (Call the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, Vt., at (802) 533-2647 or Country Life at (516) 292-9219.)
If you have problems finding child-friendly accommodations, consider calling Innpoints Worldwide at (800) 401-2262. The agency represents more than 600 small B & Bs, inns and hotels across the country and abroad and can tell you which ones welcome children. You can also book at innpoints.com on the Web.
The Professional Association of Innkeepers International also maintains a list of recommended properties. Write to PAL, P.O. Box 90710, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93190.
Taking the Kids invites questions, comments and stories about your family travels. While we can't answer every letter, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns. Write to Taking the Kids, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.