The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
Q. My eight-year-old son, Luke, has already decided that he is going to be a marine biologist when he grows up, and has elected to do a school project on some aspect of the subject. I am thinking of taking him away for a couple of days to a sea-life centre where he can immerse himself (so to speak!) in his subject. There seem to be a lot of them, so can you suggest one that is a good blend of education and entertainment, and is also in a pleasant location?

Kirsty Munro,

Carlisle, Cumbria

A. You are right, there has been a definite burgeoning of these so-called "sea life centres" in Britain over the last two or three years - some of them more imaginative and educational than others. The London Aquarium (0171-967 8000), which is housed in the former County Hall on the South Bank, is good. There are about 40 different tanks (each dedicated to a different region of the world and its marine habitat), which should provide a huge amount of research material for Luke's project. If you go there, he should ring the above number, ask for the education department, and explain what he is doing; somebody will then help him out.

The aquarium is well-styled, with a walkway spiralling through the tanks, observatories and various interactive displays. Another feature - more- or-less mandatory in sea-life centres these days - is the "touch tank", where rays float to the surface and stick out their snouts, as if begging to be stroked. You can touch them, comparing their spiky, abrasive backs with their soft, slimy underbellies. This is very cute, though as Luke probably already knows, the prosaic explanation for the creatures' apparent display of affection is that they are equipped with heat sensors and are attracted by warmth. The aquarium is open every day and costs pounds 7 for adults and pounds 5 for children.

My second suggestion is Deep-Sea World at North Queensferry in Fife (01383 441880). Although not as extensive as the London Aquarium, it is the place to go for sharks. You come face to face with them - tiger sharks mostly - in a submarine acrylic tunnel more than 100-metres long. They glide by, only inches from your face, flashing razor teeth. You can touch the small sharks - and other live exhibits such as starfish and lobsters - in the large rock pool.

It is worth co-ordinating your visit with feeding time, when divers hand-feed some of the sea creatures. Deep-Sea World is open daily throughout the summer. Tickets are pounds 6.15 for adults, pounds 3.75 for children.

However, the best aquarium of this kind I have been to is the Nausicaa Marine Centre (00 33 321 309999) across the Channel in Boulogne. It is pretty easy to get to, with direct crossings from Folkestone on Hoverspeed (0990 240241). You don't need to take your car across, as Nausicaa and pretty well everywhere else in the town, is within walking distance of the port. If you opt for the Le Shuttle tunnel crossing (book in advance on 0990 353535), the Calais terminus is about 20 minutes' drive away.

Nausicaa is the largest sea experience museum of its kind in Europe, and sits on the Cote d'Opale beach looking across the Channel. You could spend a whole day there, exploring the thousands of exhibits, and the e-created marine and coastal environments.

Language is not a problem. Youngsters are guided everywhere by Raya, a bilingual, wall-mounted cartoon thornback ray, who pops up all over the place. There is also something of a campaigning theme to Nausicaa, the subject being marine pollution.

This might provide Luke with an interesting and serious-minded topic for his project. For example, in a tropical lagoon, made steamily authentic with artificial heat and humidity, you learn sobering predictions, such as that 70 per cent of the world's coral is under threat. As you go round, Raya also constantly praises responsible marine environmental practice, and fiercely chides pollution.

Nausicaa is open daily and is FF65 (about pounds 7.25) for adults, FF45 (about pounds 5) for children. The modern two-star Hotel Ibis (00 33 321301240) is ideal for families, with a welcoming attitude to children and a good kids' menu.

Q.Because I am 6ft 7ins tall, I find long-haul flights in economy class absolutely impossible, and feel that business class is not so much a luxury as a necessity - particularly on overnight flights such as the one I am about to take to South Africa. However, on this occasion I am travelling with my six- and nine-year-old children. Can you give me any advice on getting cheap business-class fares for children, or how to get them upgraded?

F Stewart,


A.It is possible to get good deals on children's fares in business class. Companies such as British Airways (0345 222111) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111) offer fares that work out at 50 per cent of the adult business class fare, whereas in economy children's fares range from between 60 to 70 per cent of the adult fare. South African Airways is also currently offering a deal whereby when you buy one business class ticket, your companion travels for half-price.

However, as half the business class fare is the same price as the full- price children's fare, in this instance it might be better to book one adult ticket and two children's tickets for maximum flexibility.

There is also a ruse you might consider if you don't want to fork out the business class fares for your children, which are, of course, still substantially more expensive than economy fares.

I note that your kids are both over six. Six is the minimum age that children may fly as UMs (Unaccompanied Minors). So book yourself into business class and, under a separate booking reference, your children into economy. When you check in, explain the situation and fill out the appropriate forms registering them as UMs. You could also request seats at the front of the economy cabin for the children, and at the back of the business class for yourself, so that you might only be a few feet apart.

The children would then be looked after as if they were travelling on their own, though you would also be able to pop back and check up on them as often as you please.

One other option you could think about is Virgin Atlantic's "premium economy" class, on the Heathrow to Johannesburg route. You'll get bigger seats and more leg room (38 inches) than in economy, although not the business-class trimmings.

With prices roughly half of the other airlines' business class rates, exactly how much leg room you require will be the deciding factor.

South African Airways' business class provides you with 45 inches, British Airways only 40 inches. But Virgin's Upper Class has 55-60 inches legroom, so for roughly the same price as the other two airlines' business-class fares you can have over 10 inches more leg room. It is definitely worth considering.