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Beginners' Guide to London with Kids

THE DRIZZLE PART.
The next day we used our one extant "fun" Virgin voucher. And thus the Drizzle Part became the Stupid Zoo Part. Zoo officials had never seen a Virgin voucher, or ANY voucher apparently, and they pondered it for so long that Hayley grew bored, then tired. However, the mere mention of Hamley's Toy Shop—and the monstrous Disney store nearby—instantly revived her.

THE DOLL-AND-SWAN PART.
Day three proved "much more better." We skipped—okay, she skipped—the length of Kensington Gardens, fed entire swan families, climbed statues, and, after touring the Orangery gardens, found a playground filled with uniformed school kids. Hayley learned how one swings on a tire while wearing a dress. She ate ice cream because, as she explained, the "Englishes" eat ice cream everywhere. She agreed to leave only because the nearby London Toy & Model Museum was soon to close. (Yes, it does exist; it's actually fun for adults; and kids can ride on toy trains and a Victorian "roundabout," or carousel, out in the yard.) It became the day's undisputed best part.

The favorite part for the over-fives: the prompt 6 p.m. arrival of our hotel baby-sitter (Mary Poppins by way of Guyana). As she and Hayley experienced the miracle of room service, we raced out.

THE CASTLE PART.
In the morning we drove south to Brockenhurst, one of several villages trailing southwest of Southampton in a postcard blur of tearooms, pubs, and gardens—where the "Englishes," as Hayley noted, "stand on line to take a picture of some rose." Brockenhurst hides inside the New Forest, once the hunting grounds of William the Conqueror and now a wildlife preserve. This means that animals—horses, goats, cows—wander freely, or, as signs politely inform, ANIMALS MAY APPEAR AT THE MOST UNEXPECTED MOMENTS. (Our directions from a local pub owner included the phrases "go through the puddle" and "watch the goat.")

After rain squalls, wrong turns, and some passive resistance moves from the goat, we arrived at Rhinefield House, an 1890 manor built on the ruins of a royal hunting lodge. Like the two other Virgin-operated manors, Rhinefield functions these days as a resort, a weekend retreat for London couples, and a convention center. Yes, that means the ballrooms are at times crammed with smoking, cake-eating hordes. But the east wing is closed off for time-shares, the west reserved for guests, and beyond a few sets of heavy glass doors this setting is serene. Two lounges—one airy and light-filled, one subdued and clubby—look out over the formal gardens. The sound system alternates Debussy with Ravel. The staff members, who seem to have studied diction with the BBC, address guests by name.

In other words, at True Beast Castle, Virgin redeemed itself.

Waiting for us, or for Hayley, were chocolates, fruit, mineral water, a teddy bear, and two yellow ducks for her bath. Our corner room—facing a swing and slide set—included a do-it-yourself tea setup, biscuits, thick robes, and many magazines.

And though the place is unmistakably formal—ties, pearls, hushed tones—no one seemed to mind the presence of a child prone to long, rather loud conversations with herself. Wherever we ate, in the baronial Armada restaurant or in the lounge, there was a "Bambi's" menu. Serving our pre-dinner drinks one night, our waiter (who seemed assigned to us like a valet) gave Hayley a tiny glass of Champagne. At dinner it took two waiters to make the official presentation of the ketchup. In short, nothing could have spoiled the Castle Part. Not even our departure.

As we were leaving, a desk clerk informed us that she'd charged us the weekend room rate. We reminded her about our voucher—that it meant "prepaid"—and she replied, "Yes, well, I've never seen that kind of voucher." We pointed out that it said VIRGIN, a word that matched the one on her uniform. "Yes,'' she said, "it does. But this voucher comes from . . . overseas.''

Agreeing to resolve the matter later (which we did), we returned to London by way of Winchester. After a grown-ups' night out, we spent our last morning where Hayley wanted to be: at Buckingham Palace. But waiting for those guards—or the queen or the Beast or whoever showed first—Hayley got too hot. She stripped to her underpants, hoisted herself onto the palace fence, and yelled out, "Mom, you know, I like this place! The city. What's it called again?"

"London."

"Yeah. And you have loo. And the elevators are called ups."

Lifts. And, yes, she had forgotten just then how you said french fries. In three weeks' time, I figured, she would have forgotten the loo. In three years, she might not remember any of it. But by then we—and perhaps Virgin Atlantic—would be ready to go again.

BETSY ISRAEL is a screenwriter and journalist currently at work on a cultural history of single women.

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