Days out: Miss World on wheels

You don't have to be a motoring enthusiast to enjoy the museum at Beaulieu. Emma Haughton and her family were unexpectedly captivated.

Whatever misgivings you may have about the impact of the internal combustion engine, Beaulieu's Motor Museum is undeniably fascinating. Crammed with more than 250 classic cars and motorbikes, it's like Miss World for four wheels. The bulky Daimler 1899 12HP, the majestic, brass-and-green Bugatti 1910 Type 13, the elegant Bluebird land speed record breaker: these are the starlets of motoring, their glamorous bodywork gleaming with a shine you could powder your nose by.

But Beaulieu is not just a load of old cars. There are informative displays on every imaginable aspect of motoring - from road design to spark plugs - while a science section allows hands-on exploration of the basic principles of cars and their engines. You can also explore an old red London bus, while watching a video of its history. But topping the bill is the Wheels exhibition, a multimedia extravaganza bringing alive 100 years of motoring history. Seated in your little carriage, you're twirled around corridors of displays and blasted with the sounds and smells of yesteryear.

Beyond the museum, kids can get a taste of life in the fast lane on the Fast Trax virtual racing games, or enjoy a spin through the motoring century in the simulator. You can also take a vertiginous ride on the monorail through the roof of the motor museum and on to Palace House and its gardens. Seat of the Montagus since 1538, this stately home is packed with family portraits and other mementos, and was once the gatehouse to the adjoining 13th-century abbey, where you can now explore the daily life of Cistercian monks in its ruins.

The visitors

Emma Haughton, a freelance writer, went with her husband, Jonathan Rees, and their three boys, Joshua, seven, Flan, five, and Zachary, two.

Joshua: I loved the virtual racing because I like playing computer games, especially with steering-wheels. I liked the simulator, too; at first it pretended you were in an old motor car, and then you went in faster and faster ones until in the end it crashed. It was cool.

In the museum there was a science bit where you try things out about cars and how they work, which was really interesting.

I liked the monorail, the secret stairs in Palace House and the Wheels exhibition. There was a model prehistoric man who looked like a friend of ours called Neil. I particularly liked the bit where it was all 3D, and the hovercars on the little motorway. All the staff were very friendly and when we were sitting on this old bus a man came in and gave us all a free pen. I'd really like to go back and do everything again.

Flan: There were lots of cars in the museum, some with dummies in. They look real but they're only plastic people. I liked the simulator car when it was going into the jungle and it felt really bumpy. The monorail was quite scary when you were going, because it was so high off the ground and wobbled a bit.

I loved all the bits of the Wheels. You get into a little train and this bar comes down on your lap and you go round the track and see loads of things about cars. We went round twice because we liked it so much.

Jonathan: I really thought Beaulieu wouldn't be for me, because as far as I'm concerned a car is just something that takes you from A to B - if you're lucky. In fact I found it all completely fascinating - I could happily have spent a week there. Walking around the museum, you realise just how much cars are part of everyone's heritage. You see so many things you remember from your past - buses, signposts, old Corgi model cars. I was a bit disappointed to see there wasn't a hall of shame for our old beige Allegro, though.

All the hands-on stuff about how cars work was brilliant, but best of all was the Wheels. That was absolutely fantastic. Each little section was obviously a real labour of love, and, more than that, it was all done with humour and affection. The whole thing, Palace House included, was great, but what really made it for me was the motor museum.

Emma: I don't have a good relationship with cars. I resent being dependent on them, and am so utterly indifferent to what I drive that I can barely tell a Mini from a Mercedes. Even so, I was captivated by the sheer beauty of these old classics.

I was really impressed with the comprehensive attention to detail. Such pains had been taken to recreate all the antique household sundries in an old delivery van, for instance, and the tools and spares in the reproduction of an old garage and workshop. But perhaps the best aspect of my day was Beaulieu's staff. Reg, the principal car cleaner, reassured us that the cars were taken out for regular frolics, and he even told us the secret of their enviable shine (elbow grease). Without exception everyone we came into contact with went out of their way to be friendly and polite. It was such a refreshing change this side of the Atlantic.

The deal

Getting there: the Beaulieu Motor Museum (01590 612123) is in the New Forest between Southampton and Bournemouth, just off B3056. The nearest railway station is Brockenhurst, a short taxi ride away.

Opening times: daily, 10am-5pm; Easter to September, until 6pm. Closed Christmas Day. Some features, such as the simulator and Fast Trax virtual reality games, must be paid for separately.

Admission: adult pounds 8.50; four to 16 years, pounds 6; family ticket, for two adults and four children, pounds 28.

Access: there is full wheelchair access to the motor museum, restaurant and ground floor of Palace House.

Facilities: the Brabazon food court and bars offer a good range of food and drink at reasonable prices. You can also picnic in the grounds.