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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, July 24, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesSEEING THE LONDON SIGHTS WITH A 9-YEAR OLD

SEEING THE LONDON SIGHTS WITH A 9-YEAR OLD

Gallivanting grandparent Kirk Grybowski chronicles his 10-day trip to London with his oldest grandchild — covering a lot of history and science, and expanding the youngster's palate pleasures by at least one new menu item. Part 3 of a series.
Third of four parts
When I first proposed traveling with my grandsons, I asked my oldest, 9-year-old Stephen, who lives in Charleston, S.C., where he wanted to go. He replied Alaska or Disney World. Then I offered him three choices:
– A train excursion aboard the Amtrak Crescent through North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama intersecting with the Sunset Limited to Orlando and the Silver Meteor home to Charleston;
– A train and boat trip, first on the Silver Meteor to Orlando to visit Disney World, Epcot Center and Universal Studios; then on the Silver Meteor to New York to embark on a cruise ship visiting Maine, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Montreal; then riding the Adirondack back to New York and the Silver Meteor home; or
– Flying from Charleston to London for two weeks.
He chose London. So, I went looking for deals. I found a $599 special for a week in London including round-trip air from Charlotte, N.C., airport transfers and a hotel in Bayswater just off Hyde Park. We ended up paying an additional $150 for air connections to Charleston and back and $360 for extra hotel nights, all arranged through www.go-today.com.
I forwarded Stephen two web sites to study – www.LondonTown.com and www.londonpass.com – and encouraged him to roam the Internet researching various general travel sites such as www.frommers.com. His mother bought him a "Fodor's Guide to London" and I got him the "Frommer's 2000 Guide to London." Our booking agent sent him "London for less."
Stephen skimmed the guides, but studied the "London for less." This is a discount card booklet giving directions and basic information concerning key attractions, selected restaurants and shops. The idea of discounts appealed to him and he was willing to purchase a $20 meal with a $5 discount rather than a $10 meal with no discount. Needless to say, we had many discussions concerning value.
Mom and I had a discussion concerning clothes and time away from the nest. I wanted a full two weeks at least and she thought one week adequate. We compromised on 10 days. Once into the trip, we could have spent a month, as far as Stephen was concerned.
Mom bought a Lands' End bag large enough for a full change of clothes for each day as well as Stephen himself. Usually I wash my underwear, shirts and socks every few days and seldom travel with more than a week's clothing. Stephen used half the clothes his mom packed and it took two of us to carry his bag.
Food for thought
At the Charleston airport, he said goodbye to Mom and trotted off to the gate like a world traveler. Arriving in Charlotte an hour later, he needed a hamburger fix. Growing kids snack constantly, so we did McDonald's with burgers, fries and water. He doesn't eat pickles, tomatoes or lettuce and doesn't drink sodas. I knew he was a picky eater from home visits but was just beginning to learn how picky.
On the plane our seats were jammed against the rear bulkhead. Once seated, he informed me he was not feeling good. The flight became a contest to see how many times he could revisit the hamburger and french fries. Most of the time he made the bag, but a couple of times he didn't. The flight attendants kept us well supplied with damp towels and new blankets, but since he refused carbonated drinks, I couldn't get anything down his stomach to settle it.
My best guess as to the cause included a bug contacted at home, the bumpy ride, the hamburger and fear of flying. Unfortunately, I did not have any track record traveling with this child. Word to the wise: Be prepared for everything. Take Pepto-Bismol.
We arrived at Gatwick Airport around 9 a.m. London time and our hotel at noon. Gatwick is a maze and London traffic is one traffic jam after another. Our economy room was small but clean and adequate. The hotel was about 100 yards north of Hyde Park and 80 yards east of Queensway, a major commercial strip. We had ready access to two subways (Central and Circle) and the Notting Hill-to-Piccadilly Circus double-deck bus.
After showering and changing clothes, we took off to stretch our legs in Hyde Park. Our first stop was the Round Pond in front of Kensington Palace. This is the primary home of the Queen's swans who have been joined by several classes of ducks and a multitude of pigeons. There is nothing so beautiful and imperial as a flock of swans. The rest of the day was spent getting to know the park and Queensway.
By evening, Stephen's only desire was to get a loaf of bread and feed the swans, which we did. This became our evening ritual – buying a loaf of bread and dining at the Round Pond with the Queen's swans.
Many hotels include breakfast with the lodging cost. Our hotel was owned by Malaysians and breakfast consisted of dry cereal and milk, yogurt, pineapple chunks, prunes, croissants, rolls, butter, jam, a lamb/olive loaf, cheese, bread, orange and grapefruit drink, hot chocolate, coffee and tea. This selection was broad enough for most picky eaters. Stephen was happy with orange drink, dry Rice Crispies ("wet makes too much noise"), hot chocolate and croissants. After a couple days I did demand inclusion of a glass of milk.
At first we went out to eat at interesting restaurants, but I learned the hard way just how stubborn someone else's 9-year-old can be. After a couple meals throwing away everything but the chips (french fries) and hamburger, I let him order french fries and hamburger. A vacation is not the time to change habits of a lifetime.
The rule became we would eat only at restaurants he would agree to eat something in. He could order what ever he wanted to as long as he ate it, and I would eat what ever I wanted. We found Indian restaurants accommodating, and after a week his menu had expanded to include Tandor chicken (skinless chicken cooked in a clay oven). His favorite restaurants proved to be the Hard Rock Café and Kahn's Indian Restaurant on Westborn Grove just off Queensway.
Seeing the sights, avoiding the lines
Stephen's London wish list was short and sweet. He wanted to see the aquarium, planetarium and zoo. Some museums would be nice and maybe the Tower of London. The next day, therefore, we traipsed from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace, Victoria Square, St. James's Park, Westminster and the London Aquarium.
The aquarium is well done and held his interest for well over an hour. The best feature was the petting pond with several small rays and flounders. The neighboring London Eye is a gigantic ferris wheel with compartments holding at least a dozen people. Riding it gives you a magnificent view of central London. Unfortunately, there are those who are not comfortable with heights, and I didn't push it. There will be many more years in which to get comfortable with fate.
After another extensive walk through London to Piccadilly Circus, Stephen was ready for public transportation. London's bargains include the family pass, week pass and day pass on all of the subways and buses. To obtain a week pass, you must provide a color passport-type photograph. Ours were easily procured from a machine in the subway station which gives you four shots for a pound. We were quick and got two shots apiece.
The week pass cost $24.50 for Zone 1, which includes most of the city's attractions. When we visited Hampton Court, we needed an additional day pass for Zones 2, 3, 5 and 6 costing $3.68. The last day we toured, I bought one-day passes for Zones 1 and 2 costi
ng $4.16. We ended up spending about half our travel time in subways for speed and the other half on buses for short hops or the view.
The London Zoo is great. If it isn't the biggest zoo in the world, it is very well done with an amazing collection of animals. We spent an entire day and should have spent two. The place is difficult to get to, as the subway dumps you out on the road with a sign "To the Zoo" then leaves you flat. You wander around asking directions and find yourself at a bus stop two blocks east of the subway station. The bus then takes you north and, if you are bright and ask for help immediately, you get off three blocks east of the zoo entrance.
The play is the thing in London. I purchased tickets for "King and I" on the Internet. Once in London, I went to the discount kiosk at Leicester Square, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus. This is the only operation run by the Society of London Theater offering true discounted tickets the day of the play. I couldn't get a ticket to "Lion King," but I did get two excellent half-off seats to "Midnight Express." This play is done on roller blades and is a good bet to hold a child's attention.
We spent a glorious Sunday at Hampton Court. The palace is well kept, many of the staff are in period costume and there is something for everyone. The first thing Stephen wanted to experience was the maze. We had a delightful time as he lived his fantasy chasing around until he found the center, then chasing around again to find the exit. We had an early snack at the garden tearoom and blessed our good fortune when the noon crowd rolled in. We took the train, but you can go or leave via water. Stephen had had enough by 3 p.m. and opted for the quickest way back to London.
The smartest thing we did was to purchase a combined entry to Hampton Court and the Tower of London. We would visit the tower later – walking past a half-hour queue for tickets.
Back in London we visited Westminster Abbey. There were no tours, but we got to attend a magnificent organ concert. Every Sunday a different organist is allowed to use the abbey organ which, needless to say, brings out the best in the musician. Following the concert we attended the evensong service at the rear of the abbey. This was far superior to a tour – and free.
Making the rounds of the museums
Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum is a classic must. But when we arrived at 9:30 a.m., the line wrapped around the block two to four deep, while there was no line at the planetarium, so we decided to do it first. At the entrance, we found we could purchase a double ticket including the wax museum. Upon exiting the planetarium show, those of us with double tickets were instructed to pass through a special door which put us at the top of the tour through the wax museum. Word to the wise: When possible, purchase your tickets in advance.
We spent one full day at the British Museum, another full day at the Museum of Science and Technology and a third at the Museum of Natural History. When my wife and I visited Egypt, we toured the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Valley of Kings in Luxor. When we remarked about the paucity of exhibits there, we were told to visit the British, German and French museums, as archeologists and collectors from those countries appropriated the best artifacts. Having visited the British Museum, I am a believer.
The Museum of Science and Technology is one exhibit after another of interesting subjects and a vast array of interactivity. The Space section has several classic missiles, rockets and landing modules. The Flight section begins with feathered gliders and ends with a cutaway of a 747. Visitors were encouraged to shoot water rockets, work various flight mechanics simulators, crawl around selected air ships, and verify the basic theories of flight.
Stephen could name and spell every key dinosaur by the time he was 6. At the Natural Science Museum you enter under the skeleton of one giant dinosaur, then tour the Dinosaur Wing walking next to, under and over one species after another. We also did the evolution of man, the larger African animals and snakes. The museum's extensive rock and gem collection didn't interest my 9-year-old.
We began one day at the London Dungeon, a commercial take-off on the house of horrors. There are multitudes of gory scenes, many narrated by actors in costume. Of course Jack the Ripper looms large, with several evisceration scenes. My 9-year-old wanted to know just what a "lady of pleasure" was. He seemed to accept one actor's definition of "a lady who sells her affection" – a great relief to me as he had asked me several times and I kept putting him off.
Next we did the Tower of London. This is a great castle with a first-class presentation of arms, armor and the royal crowns, maces and assorted jewels. There is a legend the Tower will stand as long as there is a raven in residence, so several are kept on the grounds. I enjoyed the museum objects; Stephen went for the ravens.
Finally, we did the Globe Theater. An American put together a consortium which built a replica of the theater used by Shakespeare, about 200 yards from the original site. Stephen was disgusted at the beginning of the tour, but became interested inside the theater court. When he got home and adults asked about London, the first thing he mentioned was the Globe.
He also enjoyed the War Museum. In its front yard is 16-inch gun. The interior has a wonderful display of tanks, four stories of suspended fighter planes and excellent interactive exhibits of trench warfare and the London blitz. Entire wings were devoted to chronological exhibits of the Boer War, World War I, World War II, Crimean War and more. This museum is well worth a full day at least.
When our time was up, we were just getting our stride. We could have stayed another two weeks just revisiting the zoo and museums – and, of course, feeding the swans. His big purchases included cologne and chocolates for Mom, a toy shark for Brother and a print of London Bridge for Dad.
While Stephen was not comfortable flying home, we made it without serious incident. (For anyone ill at ease with travel, I suggest a seat on the aisle and a shuttered window.) Overall, we had a great time getting to know each other and visited many interesting spots. And this 9-year-old can now relate his studies to actual experiences.
Next: Lessons learned

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