It’ll be hard to top one American family’s Fourth of July weekend – a four-generation clan from Arizona traveled to Paris to spend the night in the Eiffel Tower.
Scott Kuhne, a Phoenix-based IT salesman, had originally planned to spend the holiday weekend in “a little house rental, by some lake in Georgia,” he tells PEOPLE. But after winning a special contest, his close-knit family’s travel plans took an unexpected turn.
Kuhne, 56, was racing a truck in the Baja 500, when he received a message saying he was a finalist in one of this summer’s most unusual contests: the chance to spend July 4th, sleeping in the Eiffel Tower.
Sponsored by Homeaway.com, Kuhne had seen a news story announcing the contest in his paper and, in the spur of the moment, he submitted an intriguing reason for wanting to win the exclusive overnight. (Kuhne is one of four winners around the world and the only one from the United States.)
Kuhne shared the night in the Eiffel Tower with his 77-year-old mother, his two daughters, son-in-law and his 14-year-old granddaughter.
“My family’s love of Paris started in 1953 when my grandmother brought my mom here when she was 13,” he explains. “None of us would have ever dreamed that six decades later, my grandmother’s child, grandchild, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchild would not just be together in the city we all love, but actually get to spend the night inside the Eiffel Tower.”
Kuhne was actually out of the country when he learned he was a semi-finalist and had only a few hours to return additional information before a rapidly approaching deadline.
“I was in the middle of the Mexican desert and there’s not a lot of cell phone coverage out there,” he laughs. “I’d been out of touch for about 40 hours, and we came to a scheduled pit stop. There was a little bit of signal and I thought ‘I’m a salesman, I ought to check my email.’
“I found this note about the contest. I couldn’t believe it.”
That started Kuhne’s second race – “a near 100-mile search for WiFi,” he recalls. “I actually found this tiny little seafood restaurant place – just ten patio tables and a sign saying ‘WiFi’ – in San Felipe.”
Kuhne’s submission (a wish to hold a four-generation reunion in Paris; a city which all six eventual members of his travel party had visited – but never together) eventually won. The only problem? He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until the contest results were announced.
He just asked his family – who live in various states – for their passport information and to trust him for a while.
Overlooking Paris from the open-plan Eiffel Tower apartment, Kuhne’s son-in-law, James Bauer, 33, says, “Everybody, if Scott ever tells you, ‘Don’t make any plans on the Fourth’ – listen to him, okay?!”
“My first reaction was, ‘Are you sure it’s not a scam? It couldn’t be real. Are you sure it wasn’t some Internet scam?’ ” Kuhne’s daughter, Dawn Cooper, tells PEOPLE.
The 2,000 sq. ft. apartment is a luxury living space with private bedrooms, dining facilities and a bar with 180-degree views. The first-floor apartment also contains a giant 10-foot diagonal TV and a foosball table.
After taking in the views, the family started a series of surprise experiences, including hair and makeup styling, an elegant private dinner featuring traditional French dishes and entertainment from a French comedian.
Breakfast the next morning came from La P tisserie des R ves, the bakery led by legendary French chef Philippe Conticini. The experience ended with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Eiffel Tower, during which the family explored parts of the Tower the public doesn’t get to see.
The family didn’t sleep much on their overnight – “just two, four hours each,” Kuhne tells PEOPLE. “Everyone sat around and we watched the day become the night, watched the lights come on all over the city. We were able to see the whole cycle of the night.
“Later, we saw the lights go out on the Ferris wheel around one and saw them go out around the city in pockets.”
After a few hours of sleep, the entire family was awake to “watch the sunrise together, which was just an incredible experience,” he continues.
During the course of the evening, after tourists left, the family members explored the eerily empty Tower.
“You’re up here alone, and I didn’t realize how high it is,” says Kuhne’s mother, Marge Carlson of Edina, Minnesota. “It’s absolutely surreal.”
“We’ve all been to Paris at one time or another,” the retired flight attendant continues, “but never like this, not four generations.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this. This was an all-night bonding in our sleepwear.”
Kuhne’s daughter, Jessica Bauer, who is seven-months pregnant, is already making plans to continue the family’s travel tradition, saying she and husband James will have to bring their one-year old son Nolan to Paris “in 10 years.”
Looking over the city through panoramic windows, Kuhne says with a smile, “This has been like Christmas. In July. In Paris.”