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Tales by the riverside; It doesn't matter when you visit, London always has plenty to offer. NOREEN COLTMAN and her family sampled some of the capital's finest tourist attractions on a recent trip and discovered there's far more than the Olympics taking place this year.

Byline: NOREEN COLTMAN

IWISH I'd had my camera in hand when hubby and I told the children where our day would take us.

It was Saturday morning breakfast time when middle child piped up with "What are we going to do today?" My reply was simply: "don't know, we could pop on a train down to London and stay in a luxurious hotel - fancy it anyone?" Three little faces looked at me with confused expressions - could it be true? Well, the sight of a suitcase with their clothes and my youngest's cat and dog soft toys, imaginatively called Cat and Dog, was enough to convince them.

And so an hour later the five of us stood on the platform at Newcastle Central Station ready to catch the East Coast train to London's King's Cross.

After a leisurely and relaxing journey we arrived in the capital. We could easily have travelled by Tube to our hotel, but as this was a weekend full of treats we hailed a taxi so we could show the children just where we were heading.

Our destination was the five-star Marriott County Hall hotel. Situated on the south bank of the Thames, it really couldn't have been in a better location.

With the London Eye as a next door neighbour and views across the river to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, you could be forgiven for not wanting to leave you room and opting instead to watch the magnificent view as the colours and light altered throughout the day.

As our taxi drove approached Westminster Bridge we took a turn through a stone archway which led up to the spectacular and private entrance to the hotel.

There, a smartly uniformed doorman greeted us and took our bags. We walked into the grand and opulent reception where hubby and I tried to keep the children in check - their excitement was building rapidly. "Don't show us up" I hissed at them.

We'd booked a family room - a double-double, and the hotel had installed a put-up bed to ensure each of the children had their own place to sleep.

The room itself was beautiful and despite having two doubles and single bed it was still very spacious.

But it was the views outside which grabbed us. It was impossible to stay away from the windows.

But after hearing Big Ben chiming 4pm we had to tear ourselves away and head off to Westminster Tube station for our first weekend booking - Madame Tussauds.

Since visiting a very poor waxworks - I hasten to say NOT Madame Tussauds - as a child I'd never fancied this particular tourist attraction. But as the experience includes a 4D Marvel Heroes show it became a 'must' on our agenda.

Continued The displays were very good - I have to admit - with all the stars to please my children. My 10-year-old daughter had her picture taken with Selena Gomez, while my son was grabbed by the Incredible Hulk. All three had their picture taken with the Queen and Prince Phillip, with David Cameron outside No 10 Downing Street and then they joined the Olympic team to hold the eternal flame, but it was the model of the North East's own pop princess 'wor Cheryl' who won their hearts.

The display changes throughout the year at Madame Tussauds. This month diver Tom Daley will be making a splash when a new figure of the seventeen-year-old athlete is unveiled. The model will be one of the most dramatic to be featured, capturing Daley in a special set mid-dive as he soars from the diving board towards the water. Royal fans will be able to see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who will arrive in time for their first wedding anniversary in April. The tour takes in not only the waxwork stars, but a black cab 'taxi' ride through the history of London - a gem in itself. From there we headed into the planetarium cinema for the 4D experience - something which can be described with difficulty.

With interactive seats and fabulous 3D you feel like you've not only watched the film, but starred in it as well. The children loved the visit and after two hours we had to drag them away as we were booked into Giraffe restaurant back at London's Southbank - just a stone's throw from our hotel. The restaurant was very family-friendly with plenty of dishes to suit a multitude of young tastebuds. Despite it being Saturday night - probably their busiest - and having had three powercuts all in short succession I was surprised to find such friendly and welcoming service. I've never seen my children so enthusiastically tucking into their dishes - and the bill didn't break the bank either.

After that it was an early night for all five of us. We headed back to the hotel to see the turn-down team had already arranged our room, closing the curtains, putting lamps on and setting Dog and Cat on their pillows. The children slept like logs. The next day we were booked into the Executive Lounge for breakfast - a self-serve affair with plenty to offer. From bacon and eggs to a vast range of fruits and yogurts to a range of breakfast cereals - well, it would have been impolite not to try everything. From there it was a short journey to the London Aquarium which is located in the same building as County Hall. I couldn't believe the range of aquatic life on show, 500 species in all, from tiny seahorses to massive turtles. The new shark reef experience is something to behold. In celebration of one of nature's most magnificent but misunderstood creatures, visitors start their journey with a walk on the wild side across the new, extended Shark walk.

This glass walkway literally allows you to walk above a stunning school of 16 sharks, including two 2.8m brown sharks and a group of 10 sleek black tip reef sharks, as they swim inches beneath. Just as much as the sharks will have you quivering with fear, the family of Gentoo penguins will have you quivering with laughter. They arrived in London last year and have been a major draw to the centre. From the depths of the ocean we then headed out onto the water ourselves, taking one of the EDF Thames cruises with commentary up to Tower Bridge and back before heading into the sky on the famous EDF London Eye. Both were thrilling experiences providing fantastic views of the capital city.

We later headed up to South Kensington for a visit to the amazing Natural History Museum - where really you could easily spend a week - before heading back to our hotel for our second and final night in London. It was with heavy hearts that we checked out of the hotel the next day. The staff were amazing - very polite and courteous, yet quite chatty with the children. I really could get used to this way of living. The experience was unforgettable, and the children loved every minute. Then there was just enough time to visit Platform 93/4 at King's Cross Station for a quick photo before boarding our East Coast train back to Newcastle, each of us filled with wonderful memories of a very special weekend indeed.

PLAN YOUR DREAM WEEKEND We travelled by East Coast train to London: standard advance returns from North East stations to London, booked online via www.eastcoast.co.uk, start from pounds 30. Times and fares also on 08457 225225 or from staffed stations and rail travel agencies. Our accommodation was at the Marriott County Hall Hotel. Prices vary throughout the year and packages and promotions are offered by the hotel. For information tel: 020 7928 5200 or visit LondonMarriottCountyHall. co.uk For Madame Tussauds visit: www.madametussauds. com/London/BuyTickets/ Tickets/Default.aspx - for tickets. For opening hours and map go towww. madametussauds.com/ London/PlanYourVisit/Default. aspx For the Sea Life London Aquarium go to/www. visitsealife.com/London/Ticket -Prices/ For opening times go towww.visitsealife .com/London/plan-your-visit/

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CAPTION(S):

VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE The five-star Marriott County Hall Hotel with the London Eye next door, photographed from Westminster Bridge GRIPPING The Incredible Hulk at Madame Tussauds ROOMS WITH VIEWS The view of the Houses of Parliament FASCINATING The Sea Life London Aquarium, including the family of Gentoo penguins
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 25, 2012
Words:1568
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