London is a wonderful, exciting lollapalooza of a place, but sometimes you and your family want to leave the city behind for an afternoon.
Here are six ideas for one-day getaways. All the destinations featured are a short train or car ride away from central London.
Fancy a trip to the beach? And how about touring a royal pavilion with Indian domes and minarets, munching on fish-and-chips made of that day's catch, and sampling hard candy called Brighton rock at a Victorian pier? Brighton, the United Kingdom's "pleasure dome," is about 60 miles south of London and offers a day out with sea breezes, local bohemian color, architectural wonders and a little something for the child in all of us.
WHAT TO SEE
The Royal Pavilion is a Taj Mahal-like structure with domes, decorated minarets and lacy ironwork. The pavilion's lavish interiors feature Chinese motifs of gilded dragons and faux-bamboo staircases.
Two museums are worth a visit - the Brighton Toy and Model Museum has old model trains, scale-model airplanes, plus collections of antique dolls and dollhouses, teddy bears and tin-plate cars. Over 10,000 antique toys are on display and the museum periodically offers authentic Victorian "magic lantern" shows.
The National Museum of Penny Slot Machines on the beach near Brighton Pier is Britain's only public vintage penny arcade. The museum houses more than 40 fruit machines, fortune tellers and strength testers dating from 1895 to 1945. Just 50 pence buys you seven old pennies so you can play with the machines.
Then of course, there is Brighton Pier. The theme park on the sea is perched on a promenade that offers rides and exceptional ocean views, and arcades and booths selling candy.
Leeds Castle, Kent
Leeds Castle is about 50 miles southeast of London in Kent, a lovely and bucolic county. Built in the ninth century as a royal manor, Leeds Castle was transformed by Henry VIII into a pleasure palace for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
WHAT TO SEE
While adults will appreciate its splendid gardens and rich tapestries, children will love the enormous Knight's Realm Playground with a wooden castle, Maiden's Tower and Secret Tunnels. Older children will enjoy a balloon ride, which provides stunning views of the countryside and the castle. There is also a challenging maze, secret grotto and an aviary that features falconry demonstrations and rare black swans paddling in the moat.
For animal lovers, Leeds Castle has the weird and wonderful dog collar museum. Poet Alexander Pope provided the collar inscription for the dog belonging to King George II's son: "I am his Highness' dog at Kew: Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?"
A perfect destination to enjoy the tranquillity of nature, Kew Gardens is the jewel in the crown of British public gardens. Considering Britain is the land of horticultural obsession, that is saying something.
WHAT TO SEE
Set in a leafy London borough, Kew Gardens is a 300-acre site with one of the world's largest Victorian glasshouses, featuring a delectable variety of rare and edible plants. In a steamy jungle atmosphere, kids can see bananas growing on trees, coffee beans ready to be picked and coconuts dangling. The lacy Victorian wrought-iron staircases allow you to walk among the treetops.
If you want to experience life as a hobbit, the Badger Sett has food stores, sleeping chambers and nests connected by human-size tunnels.
For the history lovers, Kew Palace on the garden grounds is a must-see. Recently reopened to the public after 10 years of restoration, it is intimate as palaces go.
If the 300 acres prove too much for your feet, there's a steam train to take you around.
After taking tea with the Queen, you can build a model spaceship. Well, not quite, but almost. Windsor Castle, west of London, is one of the Queen's official residences with a magnificent art collection, while LEGOLAND in Windsor features more than 50 rides, shows and workshops about - you guessed it - building with LEGOs. This is a kids' paradise, primarily aimed at the under-12 set, and it takes all day to visit.
WHAT TO SEE
At the Robolab workshop, children are shown how to build their own animated machines, or they can watch master model builders. Miniland uses 35 million of the ubiquitous plastic blocks to reproduce the Tower of London and Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Amsterdam and many other famous European landscapes.
Besides building, children can pan for "gold," "pilot" a hot-air balloon and learn some magical tricks. If the kids want a "driving license," they can drive a LEGO car around tracks complete with traffic lights and road signs.
Harry Potter and "Alice in Wonderland" fans won't be disappointed. The medieval colleges exude history, and the students give Oxford an air of youth and vitality.
WHAT TO SEE
To get a lay of the land, take an open-topped bus tour of Oxford right from the train station. Your ticket is valid all day, and you can hop on and hop off. If your children are old enough to handle a walking tour, Oxford-on-Foot offers themed tours, including ghost walks, J.R.R. Tolkien tours, and of course, Harry Potter sojourns.
Wild about Harry? Take a tour of the Duke Humfrey, part of the Bodleian Library, which served as Hogwarts library. It's all old bookstalls, manuscripts and leather folios chained to the shelves (open daily by private tour only, www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk).
The cloisters at Christ Church College also were used in the Potter films. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll and author of "Alice in Wonderland," was a mathematics professor at Christ Church. You can visit and follow in the footsteps of Carroll or the boy wizard through a "Behind the Scenes" tour, which must be reserved (www.chch.ox.ac.uk).
If the weather is fine and your children are older, consider punting down the Thames. (Punts are shallow-bottom boats propelled by long poles.) Punting is Oxford's classic recreational activity and a great way to explore the city and surrounding countryside.
Watercress Rail Line (Thomas the Tank Engine)
The Watercress Line is a steam engine heritage line that runs from Alton to New Alresford in Hampshire, southwest of London, named because it was used at one time to transport locally grown watercress to London.
WHAT TO SEE
The normal steam train runs take you through 10 miles of glorious English countryside, with cream teas onboard, or a "real ale" tour. At Easter and in August, a special train appears from the Isle of Sodor - Thomas the Tank Engine. Arrive early and bring a picnic lunch because this is a popular all-day event. Reserve tickets via e-mail (email@example.com).