A child's-eye view of London

The Thames River cruise was one of Michaela’s favorite things.

by Dee Poujade, Portland, OR, photos by Michaela Gonzalez

Okay, I’ll admit it. Ever since my first trip to London in 1985, I have been an addicted Anglophile. Starting with the occasional visit and progressing to once-yearly trips — even spending three months in the English countryside the summer after my retirement — I have to keep going back.

In 2003, when I returned from my extended trip, my then-four-year-old granddaughter, Michaela, asked plaintively, “When will you take me to England?”

“I think that would be a fun trip to take when you are about seven,” I replied blithely, figuring that was a long way off. Well, Michaela didn’t forget, and shortly before her seventh birthday she reminded me of my promise.

The first thing I did, after confirming with her mother that it was okay to make the trip, was post a question in ITN’s “Person to Person” section asking advice on traveling with a young child. I received many helpful suggestions and, with those in mind, I began planning.

Getting started

As we could only take a week for the trip, we decided to base ourselves in London and see as much nearby as was practical, with an eye to covering more ground on future trips.

Taking the recommendations of an ITN reader, we booked a mini-flat at Astons Apartments (31 Rosary Gardens; 800/525-2810, www.astons-apartments.com), an “apartment hotel” located in Kensington, a short walk from the Gloucester Road tube station. While our flat was quite small — consisting of a bathroom, two twin beds, a table and chairs, and a small built-in kitchen — it was comfortable and well suited to our needs. We paid £781 (about $1,640) for a week’s stay. (Apartments also can be rented by the day.)

A visit to Windsor Castle included a history lesson. — Photo by Dee Poujade

We visited a nearby Waitrose supermarket upon our arrival and stocked up with breakfast supplies, drinks and snacks. Our routine was to cook breakfast every morning and eat our other meals out, although we easily could have made sandwiches to take with us as we toured the city.

Michaela turned out to be a great traveler. Because we live on the West Coast, I always try to book nonstop flights from a West Coast city, which I believe provides the best opportunity for a long, uninterrupted “nap.” Thus, we took a commuter flight from Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, B.C., then flew overnight from Vancouver to Heathrow, leaving Vancouver at 7 p.m. and arriving in London at about 12:30 the following afternoon.

We both slept on the flight and arrived refreshed enough that napping was not an option. Instead, after settling into our flat and doing our grocery shopping, we joined my friend Doris, who lives in Kensington, for dinner.

After a good night’s sleep, the adventure began. One of the many excellent pieces of advice I’d been given on traveling with a child is to take things slowly and try not to crowd in too much. Prior to the trip, we had reviewed several books on visiting London with children and so had a few ideas of the “must sees,” which included the zoo, Windsor Castle and “maybe” the Eye (“if it doesn’t look too scary”).

Seeing the sights

Michaela’s photo of the Tower Bridge as the tour bus crossed it.

One of Michaela’s favorite planning tools was the Guy Fox London Children’s Map I’d purchased at a bookstore in London on an earlier trip. It came with stickers (such things as “ride a double-decker bus,” “see a Beefeater” and “ride on a boat”), which she used to track our activities. Her goal for the trip was to use all the stickers, and, except for the “mummies” (we never quite got to the British Museum), she succeeded.

A “sophisticated” traveler, I’d never before bothered with the hop-on, hop-off London tour buses, but I thought they would be a good way to introduce Michaela to the city, saving some walking while letting her decide where she wanted to spend more time.

The bus tickets (around £17 per adult and £8 for kids four and up) are good for 24 hours, so we decided to activate ours in the early afternoon of the first full day, leaving open the possibility of an additional bus ride the morning of the second day. As it turned out, we rode the full circuit of the bus that first afternoon, then took the included Thames River cruise — another kid-pleaser. By the way, these buses offer both recorded and “live” guides; we both highly recommend the “live.”

Traveling with a child

A different perspective of Big Ben.

Reactions I’d received from friends who knew I was taking this trip ranged from “Oh, what fun!” to “She’s too young; it will be a challenge.” The former were right. Michaela turned out to be a wonderful traveling companion, and I’m sure she’ll remember the trip for a long time to come.

She learned about English history from my friend Christine, a retired teacher who took us on a day trip to Windsor Castle, and she loved seeing “Billy Elliot” and “Mary Poppins” on the stage.

She learned how to read the tube maps, how to figure out where our stop was and how to look for a guard to let her through the barriers at the stations. I was using a Travelcard/Oyster card which allowed accompanying children under the age of 11 to ride for free, but we had to find guards to let her through the automatic arms.

Because it allowed free rides for children, the Travelcard was one of the few bargains on this trip. London is an expensive city in the best of times, and at the time of our August ’07 visit the exchange rate was about 2.1:1. I have an account at a U.K. bank that I use when spending time there, and I find it easier to not even think about what things are costing “in dollars.”

The expensive admissions (The Tower, The London Zoo, Windsor Castle) were offset by free attractions, such as the Princess Diana playground in Kensington Park (adults must be accompanied by a child under 12) and the Natural History Museum, where we toured the dinosaur exhibit.

We ate lots of ice cream and found that “familiar” food was best. Unlike her grandmother, Michaela didn’t care for scones with clotted cream and jam, but she did share my fondness for sticky toffee pudding. We found children’s menus widely available; generally, it cost about £5 ($10.50) for an entrée, beverage and ice cream. Fortunately, most of the children’s menus included a pasta option; she loved the mac and cheese at Planet Harrods.

Getting around

During our week in London we walked a lot. We also rode every mode of transportation the city had to offer: bus, tube, taxi, private car, canal boat, riverboat and train. Michaela loved the Eye and pronounced it her favorite part of the trip. (She forgot about its being potentially “scary” when she saw how slowly it moved.) Other favorites were the boat rides (we took several), the zoo and “Billy Elliot.”

Michaela and “Mimi” (Dee) on the Thames River cruise.

We climbed to the Stone Gallery at St. Paul’s (277 steps) and would have climbed the Monument (300-plus steps) but it is closed for renovations until December 2008.

The legalities of taking Michaela out of the country were a bit tricky and I was glad I’d consulted with a family law attorney prior to the trip. We carried a notarized letter from Mom authorizing Michaela to travel with me, plus a Power of Attorney in case I had to obtain medical care or a replacement passport for her. We also had a court order signed by both parents giving permission to travel.

In Canada, where we had to go through passport control even though we were only “in transit,” the Immigration official wanted to see everything. The Immigration official in London was only interested in the notarized letter. On the return trip, the officials all asked if I had parental consent but nobody checked my papers!

Lessons learned

The trip opened Michaela’s eyes to a world wider than she ever knew existed, and it will, I hope, be the first of many such trips for her. It opened my eyes too.

The most valuable lesson I learned is to slow down and enjoy the moment — a lesson Michaela taught me on our last day in London.

We had just visited the Tower and were enjoying an ice cream cone by the river’s edge.

“Do you want to take a boat ride or go to the British Museum?” I asked her.

“Right now,” she replied, “I just want to eat my ice cream.”