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Beginners' Guide to London with Kids

We were not the sort of travelers who needed packaging. Whatever the place, we got there ourselves, stayed where we wanted, for as long as we wanted, without the aid of cheery bus tours, happy hours, or continental breakfasts involving Danish.

Nothing, in other words, not even a baby, could have made us wander the world clutching a voucher pack.

Now, however, that child is four. She will not stop talking (most often on the subject of her favorite movies, in particular "Beauty and the Beast"). She will not sleep (so that she might have more time to act out key scenes from "Beast"). Thus when we thought London—and as Hayley, a month in advance, packed every dress, Barbie, shell, boot, and video—we thought organized deal.

We also thought of Virgin Atlantic Airways, that most kid-happy of airlines, the one with the official "fun packs" and the seatback TV screens, and the only airline on earth to openly espouse a "Zen" attitude. Basic packages—covering airfare and hotels—seemed very reasonable. And with them came a long creative list of add-on options, including museum and zoo passes, kid extras, and a stay at a converted country manor, known instantly around our house as the True Beast Castle.

And it seemed to get even more fabulous: for larger groups ("reunion," "gay"), Virgin would custom-design thematic tours. Although they couldn't do all that for just three of us, they could, said one rep, tailor the kid stuff for a four-year-old: swap Madame Tussaud's for a toy museum; exchange passes to the Natural History Museum for a children's tea.

To get to the point, when a Virgin rep followed up, I read my credit card number into the phone.

But there were difficulties getting started, and many an exasperated call to our Zen airline. Among the problems: our voucher pack was very late in arriving; it was incomplete (no toy museum, and no Madame Tussaud's, for that matter); and the vouchers they did send us proved less than clear (tube passes had to be redeemed at inconvenient stations, and so on).

"Not to worry, Miss," said the chipper ticket agent, to whom we had been screaming about our absent car seat. "You'll have your fun pack."

Well, the fun pack, as it turned out, would appear only on the return flight to New York. On the way over—bored, sulking, poking holes in a plastic-trapped scone—I glared at the seatback TV screen, on which a montage of computer images repeated endlessly. "The new lava lamp," I said. Or, as Hayley later put it, "Mom, we saw this blob already. Are we there yet?"

But upon arriving hours later in London, our high-camp bad start seemed (almost) funny. That's because Hayley could not have cared less about any of it. In my annoyance I had forgotten that kids will find any small thing—houselike black cabs, all-butter sandwiches—completely thrilling. There was not to be mere room service but "a miracle of trays." Instead of a minibar she discovered "treasures under the TV." "In English," Hayley announced after 10 minutes, "you say 'loo'!"

And I had forgotten that we'd paid for a package—the structure of a trip—and not for a fully outfitted tour, much less for an airline to act as spiritual baby-sitter. Despite the glitches, Virgin had essentially given us what we wanted: cheap fares, a spacious efficient hotel room in Mayfair, the promise of True Beast Castle. The specifics were left up to us.

And we found we didn't need to be that specific. London may seem formal, alarmingly adult, but all that politeness—that eagerness to please—is as easily directed at a child. Or look at it this way: What child could dislike a city with an extra meal consisting largely of cake?

London proved so welcoming, in fact, so cake-saturated, that weeks after our visit Hayley was still reviewing favorite parts.

Tired, both from the flight and from all that sulking on the flight, we hiked to Soho, then wandered Frith Street in search of lunch. Our choices—Bistrot Bruno, Alastair Little, Soho Soho—all seemed too smoky, too crowded, the glassware too fragile to sustain a wired child. Then, as dizziness set in, we remembered Kettner's, a group of charmingly dissolute rooms with veiny mirrors and yellowing Art Deco light fixtures, and the home of pizzas so thick they might more accurately be called puddings. We drank. Hayley drew Beast themes on the paper covering the table. The owner so admired her work, he gave her an extra lemonade. After further conversation, he gave her the tablecloth.

And so the "pizza cloth" joined us on a walk through the Strand, St. James, and Piccadilly. Hayley showed it to some German tourists at Fortnum & Mason. She displayed it at Hatchards, the bookshop two doors away, though with the help of a clerk she was persuaded that "Madeline in London" might make a better treasure—if it was read, of course, over the requisite scone pile.

After a long stop at a cafe (actual cappuccino, actual waitresses who survived the Blitz), she picked scone crumbs from her dress for blissful hours. And she was still snacking from it hours later during dinner at Al Hamra, an elegant Mayfair room serving excesses of Lebanese food to a velvet-headband crowd. In short, a kid risk. But the waiters—unlike waiters in Paris or New York, as Hayley herself pointed out—seemed glad to see her. Somehow they made fava beans and spinach sound like an excellent choice. They brought the baklava-and-sesame-cookie cart to the table. (To be fair, the next night we tried Smollensky's on the Strand, a very loud, strobe-light kind of place that is a paradise of balloons and fish fingers, and a favorite of Princes Harry and William.)


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