In the land of orchids

A day trip to a tropical rainforest? It's easy if you go to Kew, as Harriet O'Brien found out when she talked to the Palmer family

A serious place, and seriously good fun: the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew present a satisfying package. The fact that this is a place of important scientific research and conservation (with a staggering collection of more than 40,000 different living plants) is part of the pleasure of coming here.

There's no need for Kew to pander to its visitors with Millennium Dome- like theme park elements - the trees, plants and hot houses are in themselves spectacular and intriguing.

The only problem is where to start. Even when there isn't much in leaf or bloom outside, there's an enormous variety of life to see indoors, much of which will have particular appeal to children: the Evolution House, showing the story of plant development over 3,500 million years; the Princess of Wales Conservatory, where 10 different climates are regulated, and where marine life can be seen in a number of aquaria; the Temperate House, with its teas and citrus trees; and, of course, the Palm House, dating from 1844 - a magnificent arrangement of wrought iron and glass arching over a rich abundance of tropical vegetation and, on the lower floors, more fish and marine plants. In addition, Kew's Orchid Festival, showing at a variety of locations in the gardens, is on display until 29 March.

The visitors

Sally Palmer, a social worker, took her children Christopher, 10, Katherine, nine, and George, seven.

Sally: Kew is very good value if you spend some time here - it's not a place just to dip into quickly. There's so much, you hardly know where to begin. We wanted to look mainly at tropical plants because of school projects on rainforests, so we concentrated on the Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Palm House.

Quite apart from the plants, the architecture at Kew is stunning, especially the Palm House. It's such a fine example of great Victorian engineering - the walkway at the top, with its wonderful aerial views, is a particularly good feature. In fact, for me, the Palm House is a far more pleasurable building than the 1986 addition of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, however cleverly that has been designed to regulate numerous different climates.

We came to Kew mid-week, which was perfect: there were no crowds, everyone was very good-natured, and the children had ample space to wander around among the plants. They came away with an overall impression - and enthusiasm - rather than in-depth botanical knowledge. And on a cold, windy day, they certainly appreciated what a humid, tropical climate feels like.

George: It was lovely coming here on a dreary day and going to the tropical places - you get really warmed up. And the food was very good at the Orangery restaurant.

I liked the Princess of Wales Conservatory best; the cacti there are fascinating - some are spiky, some hairy, some flat, some thin. Some even just lie flat along the ground. We also spent some time looking at the fish ponds and tanks in this glasshouse - it was very colourful. I'd like to come again.

Katherine: I liked the orchids in the Princess of Wales Conservatory - the whole place looked really pretty. And there was a display of bubbling mud there which was fun. I liked the fish, too - all you expect to see are plants and then you think, "Oh great, fish as well." They made it all seem much more real.

I learnt a lot by looking, but there are notices as well that teach you a bit, like what shape palms can be. I liked the cacti best - there were so many different kinds; some are tiny, some humungous. My favourite was one with white spikes that looked blue in some lights.

Christopher: The best glasshouse for arrangements was the Princess of Wales Conservatory. There were so many beds of exotic plants - really exotic.

I hadn't realised there were such different shades of green. It was amazing to see so many varieties of trees, plants and flowers - furry, spiky, even plasticky. And the flowers had such good colours; they really stood out. The fish were fine, but I didn't think they were the point of the garden. They blended in well with the background.

The Palm House was very big. There were interesting containers for the plants, depending on size: flower pots, barrels, huge plastic pots. Some palms had red stalks, some were very, very tall, some tiny. The big bamboos were really interesting - if it's hot they grow at least 1m every day. They had cut away a section on one bamboo so you could see inside. It was hollow. You can climb some spiral steps to look at the big plants from on top. There was a thin balcony running around the big greenhouse and at the other end another set of steps, and it was fun looking down from there.

Kew is a brilliant place to visit. I'd like to come back, especially in the summer - if it's a sunny day there'll be wonderful flowers outside as well as indoors.

The deal

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey (0181-332 5000) is a short walk from London's Kew Underground station (for the Victoria Gate) or Kew Bridge railway station (for the Main Gate). There is a car park beside the Brentford Gate.

Opening hours: daily 9.30am-4.30pm. The glasshouses close before the gardens; for exact times, call 0181-940 1171.

Admission: adults pounds 5, concessions pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.50 (a variety of Friends' membership or season ticket are also available)

Refreshments: two restaurants, the Orangery and the Pavilion, serve reasonably priced hot food and snacks. There is also a bakery near the Brentford Gate and a coffee shop at the Victoria Gate.

Toilets: are well signposted and cater for those in wheelchairs.

Shops: serious plant books as well as (non-kitsch) Kew mementos can be bought at the Orangery shop or the bigger shop at Victoria Gate.

In the hothouse

Other spectacular glasshouses to visit include those in:

Birmingham Botanic Gardens, Birmingham (0121-454 1860). Open 9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm Sun. Adults pounds 3.80, children pounds 2.10

Plantasia, Swansea (01792 474555). Open Tues-Sun, from 10am to 5pm. Entrance: adults pounds 1.70, children pounds 1.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Inverleith Row, Edinburgh (0131-552 7171): open daily 9.30am-5pm, entrance is free.

Tatton Park, Knutsford, Cheshire (01565 654822). Tues-Sun, 11am-5pm (last admission 3pm). Admission to the park pounds 3 per car - a further charge is made for entrance to the gardens: adults pounds 2.80, children pounds 1.80 (special rates for National Trust members).

Wallington, Cambo, Morpeth, Northumberland (01670 774283). The house itself is currently closed but the grounds are open to the public from 10am to 4pm daily. The "season" starts in April, when entrance to the house and grounds costs pounds 4.80 (pounds 12 family ticket), grounds only, pounds 2.80; children half price. National Trust members enter free of charge.

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