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.
THE PART JUST OFF THE PLANE.
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.)
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?"
"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.
London packages offered by Virgin Vacations (800/364-6466) include:
Round-trip economy airfare to London (from New York, Boston, Orlando, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and several connecting cities in the Northeast); Airport transfers; Hotel accommodations, including service charges, taxes, and continental breakfast
The basic four-day London Getaway, including three nights' lodging, begins at $469 per person, double occupancy. Package price varies according to city of origin and hotel choice: if you fly from New York and stay at the St. James Court, the cost is $585 per person, double ($250 for children 2-11 sharing parents' room); at the Britannia Inter-Continental, it's $725 ($250 for children).
Choose from a menu of options to add on to your vacation: museum passes, bus or walking tours, theater tours, and the like. The Family Fun Pack add-on costs $119 per adult, $79 per child, and includes a bus tour of the city as well as tickets to the London Zoo, Rock 'n' Roll Circus, Madame Tussaud's, and a "medieval" banquet.
INTO THE COUNTRYSIDE
As can be expected, the specifics of these packages are always in flux; it's no longer possible to add on the three-day Hampshire excursion to your London Getaway. However, stays at Rhinefield House are available as part of a separate trip: the seven-day English House and Gardens package (starting at $952 per person) includes stays at Rhinefield House and two other Virgin-operated manor hotels, as well as a short stay in London.
KETTNER'S 29 Romilly St., London W1, 44-171/437-6437; lunch for two $48
AL HAMRA 31-33 Shepherd's Market, London W1; 44-171/493-1954; dinner for two $60
SMOLLENSKY'S ON THE STRAND105 The Strand, London WC2; 44-171/497-2101; dinner for two $48
where to go
HATCHARDS BOOK SHOP 187 Piccadilly, London W1; 44-171/439-9921
LONDON ZOO Regent's Park, London NW1; 44-171/722-3333
HAMLEY'S TOY SHOP 188-196 Regent St., London W1; 44-171/734-3161
LONDON TOY & MODEL MUSEUM 21-23 Craven Hill, London W2; 44-171/706-8000