London – the jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom. Originally a Londoner, I’d seen every filter on the city – but taking one’s kids there, and for just a few days, wipes the slate clean. Kids are a special lens on all their own – everything you ever thought you knew about the nation’s capital looks different with children because you’re no longer one travel card from any attraction, show, shop, park or restaurant. It’s not about you anymore. It’s a totally different game.
Most kids tire of walking long distances, especially in London’s humid heat, so footwear selection is an art form. Public transport is superb, but you have to be watchful as you mind the gap, commuters push, doors close, taxis pull in, and buses drive off. Restaurants have to cater to different “preferences” (read fussiness), and everyone needs a little space and a rest from time to time.
So let’s just be clear. To make the most of London with kids you need a plan, a location, a solid base, resilience and an armoury of equipment! This is, in brief, a military operation.
The first elements of a “battle plan” are strategy and planning, in this case, a hotel, otherwise referred to as HQ – and an itinerary of territories to conquer – parks, museums, sight, shops and shows. Ideally close to Buckingham Palace, and the parks, we sought a host that genuinely caters to a rainbow of ages. Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences stood heads and tails above the rest with respect to accommodating and entertaining kids.
08h00 Fortunately, on arrival at Heathrow, you can hop onto the Heathrow Express with helpful ticket sellers en route to the platform. For South Africans, kids go free, and parents at £38 per person return, and the kids kick off with a high-speed train experience. Alighting at Paddington, the swarms of commuters require a deep breath as we stepped out into a sweltering London. The Brits get a long hot summer once every decade and 2018 was the year. A brand new electric London Cab whisked us to Buckingham Palace, the new facelift to London’s taxis oozing a touch of Rolls Royce boxiness.
Dating as far back as 1701, and rebuilt in 1897, The Taj St James Hotel and Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences were originally owned by the queen and used for her guests, a stone’s throw from the Palace and walking distance of all the most significant locations: the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, St James Palace, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. A magnificent courtyard set back from the road has rightfully earned The Taj the title of London’s “inner sanctum” for business travelers and families.
09h00 On arrival, a delightful concierge whisks the children off to choose from a treasure chest of toys. A first memory imprinted – Christmas in July. They come back with a backpack of things including cuddly London bears and games. Our suite is ready early, and, as we open the door to our suite, it feels like we have our own exclusive apartment overlooking the courtyard, two generous bedrooms, large modern lounge with L-shape sofa, desk, and kitchen with large island and bar stools. The hotel’s celebrated restaurants, including Michelin-starred Quilon and contemporary European Kona adjoin, but we couldn’t foresee the girls dining on haute cuisine. They battle with basic sandwiches.
11h00 We head down to catch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, just two minutes walk away. The pomp and ceremony of the famous procession draw crowds several rows deep lining the immaculate pavements and central roundabout. Walking tours with a guide and headphones provide the historical background.
12h30 The entrance to St James’ Park lies on the nearest corner of Buckingham Palace and we decide, a little battle weary from flying, we will have a picnic under the trees, and suitably close to the pristine, innovative jungle gyms that London does so well. The Taj provides a cane picnic basket with wraps and sandwiches, fruit platters, cookies, and exceedingly generous. Sweltering, we head back to watch some TV and rest before our next mission.
16h30 The evening leans in and we decide on a trip to South Bank for a walk along the river and dinner at Giraffe would bring day one to a close. Idling Londoners enjoying a beer by the river, restaurants spilling over, Big Ben (undergoing renovation) and a whirl in The London Eye firmly place the rubber stamp of authenticity on day one. We have arrived. For other preferences, there’s also The London Aquarium, Tate Modern, National Theatre in the same area.
Day Two, 07h00: Five-year-olds wake up early, and one parent must follow suit, so we plan the day. We wake the rest of the troops and prepare for the Natural History Museum and The Science Museum. Unless you get there early the queues in summer snake slowly and, honestly, irritatingly through the most magnificent exhibits of specimens dating back to Charles Darwin – as many as 80 million – and broken into various zones.
10h00 Attracting 3.3million visitors last year, we tackled The Science Museum first and went straight to the top – a recommendation from a friend – where the interactive installations are situated. On arrival we step onto a moving platform between to illustrate the interaction between the sun, moon and earth. Animated instructors and teachers are everywhere imparting knowledge. We trial friction mats racing down metal, plastic and wooden slides in sacks, experiencing aerobatics in flight simulators and I took the 15-minute Space Descent Virtual Reality with astronaut Tim Peake. Mesmerising, I stumbled back to earth, and reality, for a milkshake at The Shake Shack before descending the floors.
13h00 The afternoon demanded a hiatus, and we made our way to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the younger kids had a ball walking in circles in the meandering trickling stream. We hop on a Boris Bike to visit Princess Diana’s Playground, a world-class pirate ship, jungle gym, sandpit, streams and energy-expending apparatus.
15h00 A matinee – we enjoyed ‘School of Rock’ – will not only overload the senses, but ensure you feel in the heart of TheatreLand. Only Broadway can compete. And it’s the atmosphere of a British theatre that is an absolute must for tweens and teens. The cult-hit movie has been brilliantly adapted at the Gillian Lynne Theatre on Drury Lane near Covent Garden, and will be running in London until October 2019. The Harry Potter Walking Tour, near Watford Junction, approximately 40 minutes away from central London, covers hotspots like Diagon Alley and the Forbidden Forest, or you can try a Butterbeer or costumes from the studio sets.
Day Three, 09h00: After a farm-to-table breakfast, English breakfast of bacon and eggs, soft toast and tea, we tackled the Natural History Museum with fresh legs. Broken into red, green, orange and blue zones, the exhibits traverse specimens from all forms of nature, estimated at 80 million in total, and including rock forms and fossils, volcanoes and earthquakes, birds, insects, mammals and human biology. But the most famous of all, the dinosaurs, steals the limelight with gigantic T-Rex installations something that will forever be a memory of a child of any age.
From there, a hop, skip and jump in an Uber to allow the tireless platoon to march without hesitation from shop to shop along The Kings Road – Muji for stationery, Zara Kids, Petit Bateau, a pit stop for a world-famous make-your-own Magnum ice cream (or Amerino), while Mum browsed an item or two at Anthropologie and a scent at Penhaligons before earning a cappuccino and French patisserie at Cafe Paul on the corner of Bywater Street. Lunch choices can range from a good old-fashioned pub lunch at The Chelsea Potter or Pizza Express will never fail to please.
14h00 Our final farewell to the superb Taj team, and we were soon on board the Heathrow Express – one mission accomplished, adieu the blue skies and sunshine, the feverish energy of traffic and tourists conquered. 72 hours in London. With kids.