Sunday 30 December 2007

Telegraph Hill Park, Nunhead, London

Surrounded by quiet Victorian roads, this small, but appealing park is perched on the side of a hill and is in two sections. At the top of the hill, the upper section has a couple of basic tennis courts commanding sweeping views across much of south and central London. This park once housed an optical telegraph that was used to convey news of victory in the Battle of Waterloo to the British military's top brass. The lower section has an unusually good, mostly wooden children's playground featuring a long and fast slide embedded into the side of the hill and a couple of imaginative climbing frames. Nearby, are a couple of well-restored ponds, a basketball court and some toilets. A good choice for a Sunday afternoon potter with the kids. 7/10

Monday 24 December 2007

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The New Wimbledon Theatre, London

A rambling and lackluster production of Snow White which fails to bring out the best in its eclectic cast. Soap star Ross Kemp, as the evil henchman, has been given few good lines and, in any case, he lacks comic timing. By contrast, comedian Bobby Davro delivers some very funny asides as Muddles, but his acting is lame and it can feel like he is sleepwalking through the pantomine. The lowest and least imaginitive point comes when he has the audience standing up and sitting down while singing 'My Bonny Comes Over the Ocean.' The seven dwarves do their best with a lame script, while Snow White and her prince sing a few bland songs. It is left to the flirtatious and magnetic Rae Baker to salvage the show as the wicked queen. She is in all the half-decent scenes with the exception of one, which has Ross Kemp, Bobby Davro and the prince squeezed onto a bench doing a camp dance routine, while singing along to Ghostbusters and trying to ignore the audience shouting: 'He's behind you'. Perhaps the best thing about this production is the venue - a traditional, atmospheric and ornate theatre with a vertiginous upper circle. Ticket prices range from £13 to £25. 5/10

Wednesday 19 December 2007

The Forge, Garrick Street, London

An odd mix of bare brick walls, turquoise chairs and smart white table cloths, the Forge is a popular lunch venue with besuited businessmen. The extensive menu has some imaginative starters including a tasty truffled duck egg served with ham (£7.50) and there are more than a dozen modern European main courses to choose from. The juicy rib eye steak with Bearnaise sauce (£16) is packed with flavour, but the accompanying chips are thin, salty and crispy. Vegetables, such as green beans and spinach, can be ordered as extras at about £3 to £4 a pop. There is a vast wine list and service is slick and professional. Undoubtedly a high-quality restaurant offering plenty of choice, but the Forge may be a bit too businesslike for anyone not on an expense account. 7/10

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex

These extensive landscape gardens, designed in the eighteenth century by the aptly-named Capability Brown and now owned by The National Trust, are awash with lakes and ponds. A myriad of pathways wind their way through conifers, rhododendrons and azaleas, crossing small bridges, several of which overlook picturesque waterfalls. Although the Gothic Sheffield Park House isn't open to the public, it provides an eye catching backdrop to the gardens. In winter, when ice spreads across the lakes and the trees and shrubs are dusted with frost, the garden has a serene beauty, yet attracts few visitors. Adult admission is £6.30, while National Trust members get in free. 7/10

Monday 17 December 2007

Joe's Kitchen, the Glades shopping centre, Bromley, London

Substantial bistro which puts a lot of effort into attracting young families. The white t-shirted waiters and waitresses bring young diners a modest activity book and small toy, there are at least a dozen high chairs stacked in the corner and there is an unusually generous and extensive kids menu (£4.25). The cheesy pasta, served with chicken, broccoli and sweetcorn, is not bad, while the ice cream pudding is pretty good. A small drink, such as apple juice or coke, is also thrown in. Unfortunately, not all the adult offerings are as appealing. The potato and leek soup (about £3) can be bland and watery, while the bread in the cheese and ham toasties (about £4.50) is lightweight and anemic. The bizarre festive smoothie, which has a huge head of froth, lacks intensity and isn't worth the £3.25 price tag. Still, the sturdy pine furniture, an extended bare brick wall and the retro posters make for reasonably stylish surroundings. 6/10

Sunday 16 December 2007

Griffin Inn, Fletching, East Sussex

With several log fires, distressed furniture, boisterous clientele and friendly young staff, the Griffin Inn is a warm and convivial gastropub in which to shelter from a cold winter's day. There is a smartish restaurant at the back, but, if you have the budget, you can eat very well in the atmospheric bar. The pheasant with pancetta and a creamy potato mash (£14) makes for a fine, flavoursome lunch, while the expertly-cooked cod(£13) is succulent and comes with lovely, chunky chips and a little too much batter. For kids, you can purchase a small portion of the cod and chips, sausages and chips or pasta and Parmesan cheese for £6. Among the deserts, the apple and pear crumble (£6) with ice cream is sweet and satisfying, but would be better with hot custard. On tap is Harveys, a weak, but refreshing Sussex ale. Service can be sluggish and a little haphazard at busy times, leaving you to survey the pictures of the Inn's cricket teams past and present that are plastered all over the walls. Upstairs, are some comfortable rooms with ancient beams, homely cubby holes and creaky floorboards. Outside is a beer garden with sweeping views over the pastoral Ouse valley. The Griffin is pricey, but pretty much everything an English Inn should be. 8/10

Friday 14 December 2007

Shanghai Blues, High Holborn, central London

A stylish Chinese restaurant, buried inside a Grade II-listed building, with eye-catching reception staff and an air of exclusivity. Inside, there is no daylight, but the lighting is cool and the decor is an attractive blend of minimalism with traditional fittings, such as Chinese lanterns and ornamental Buddhas. On the menu, is a broad selection of dim sum (around £4 a dish), which is typically delicious - the dumplings are light and appealing, while the seafood and the meat dishes have delicate and nicely-balanced flavours. There is also a selection of larger dishes, but the inevitable crispy fried duck can be stringy and coarse. Still, a good option for a good lunch. 8/10

Hamburger Union, Garrick Street, central London

You queue to order and pay before taking a seat at one of the brown tables, decorated with bright yellow bottles of mustard and red plastic tomatoes, laid out in this spartan, but modernistic cafe. The chorizo burger with rocket and peppers (£5.25) is full of colour and flavour, but the chunky chips (£2.25) are a little too salty and crispy for everyone's taste. A pint-sized bottle of Hooky beer (£3.25), a chilled cross between a larger and ale, is a refreshing way to wash down the food. This is McDonald's for grown-ups or anyone with taste-buds. 7/10

Grafton House, Old Town, Clapham, London

On a Friday or Saturday night, the revellers in this cavernous bar dress up much more than those in the other Old Town drinking holes. Glamorous, dolled-up women mix it with sharply-dressed blokes. Although most of the clientele prefer to stand-up and mingle, there are some comfortable leather armchairs and sofas dotted around the premises. There is a wide and unusual selection of bottled and draught beers, but the bar staff seem to specialise in champagne cocktails, mojitos and other lavish drinks which go down well with the splashy punters. 7/10

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Pizza Express, Borough High Street, London Bridge

Split-level branch of this long-standing chain tucked away near the south side of London Bridge. There is the usual extensive range of pizzas and pasta dishes for adults, but perhaps the best thing about Pizza Express is its four course children's menu (£5.45), which is ideal for kids under eight. To start, there are dough balls with butter and a few pieces of cucumber and red pepper. Next up, there is a choice of three respectable pizzas (about the size of a small plate) or a pasta dish, followed by a sundae in a pot and a 'Bambinoccino' - a kind of cappuccino, minus the coffee. To drink, the 500ml bottles of water (£1.70) should be big enough to slake the thirst of two small sprogs. Better still, the attentive staff are tolerant of young kids' tendency to spray food around the place and shred the napkins. They certainly earn the optional 10 per cent service charge. 6/10

Monday 10 December 2007

Duck!, The Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street, Central London

Retelling of the Ugly Duckling parable set on Hampstead Heath and interwoven with a story about two children from a broken home. This imaginative play has some powerful messages about rejection and self-realisation for the target audience of kids aged seven and above. Although it has a few sluggish moments, there are also some very memorable scenes, such as the ugly duckling's encounter with two jive-talking geese who have formed their own gang and Celtic queen Boudicca, who clambers out of her grave to see off a fox who is about to devour the main character. The cast of eight have put a lot of effort into mimicking the mannerisms of the waterfowl they depict -their heads move in a staccato pattern and flap their arms when they get excited. They are also very versatile and energetic, playing perhaps two dozen characters between them, as well as singing and even playing the saxophone. The modernistic Unicorn theatre has bench-style seating, which isn't numbered, so it is best to get there early and aim to get near the unusual oval-shaped stage. Tickets for the first week cost just £5 each, but have now risen to £14.50 for adults and £9.50 for kids. Still good value for a two-hour performance, punctuated by an interval, that will keep most pre-teen children captivated. 8/10

Sunday 9 December 2007

The Peasant, St, John Street, London

An ornate and well-preserved Victorian boozer now enjoying a second-life as a gastropub. Too far north for City workers, it can be quiet on weekday lunchtimes, but the intricate and beautiful mosaic floor, open fire and elaborate wall tiles make up for the lack of punters. On the menu is a fine plate (£11.50) of high-quality chorizo and hams, served with sweet figs and large capers. The Baked Colton Bassett Stilton (£6.50) comes with a delicious walnut dressing, but there is too little cheese. The pan-fried chicken supreme (£9.50) with pine nuts sometimes arrives without the promised sweetness of the sultanas. The creamy parsnip mash(£3.50) makes for a tasty side order, but like the main courses, it can arrive barely warm. Still, there is a good range of beers on tap, including the mighty Czech Budvar. 7/10

Breakfast at the Tate Modern Restaurant, South Bank, London

Panoramic views encompassing St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millenium Bridge and the skyscrapers of the Square Mile make it well worth hiking up the stairs to the seventh floor of the Tate Modern or queuing for the lift. If you come on a weekday morning, you should be able to get one of the high black seats lined up against the bar, overlooking the river. As you would expect, the decor is minimalist and stylish, particularly the exceptionally slimline floorboards. Although the lattes are pricey, tepid and small, the fresh orange juice is good and the Danish pastries are light and tasty. 7/10

Monday 3 December 2007

All Bar One, north end of Regent Street, London

A roomy bar with huge windows, stripped floors, plenty of tables and scores of shelves each stacked with a different wine. This a welcoming and airy branch of the All Bar One chain with plenty of continental beers on tap, including Leffe, Peroni and Staropramen. Food is mainly salads, burgers (about £8), sandwiches and a big selection of tapas (£3-£5), including sweet waffles. But the char grilled lamb burger, which comes with onions, charmula spice, beef tomato and skinny fries, is bland and tepid. The shoppers and office workers that frequent this branch are served at their tables by a small army of white-shirted waiters and waitresses. Good for a drink, but skip the food. 6/10

Iniquity, Northcote Road, Clapham Junction, London

Full-on-bar throbbing with partying Clapham singletons and would-be singletons on a Friday or Saturday night when Iniquity's DJ plays strident pop anthems from the last two decades loud enough to persuade some of the tipsy punters to dance on the tables. A pint of beer is about four quid, but no one cares how much they are spending in the highly charged atmosphere. Unfortunately, Iniquity begins to close around midnight - too early for a party venue. 7/10

The Eagle, Chatham Road, Clapham, London

When you walk into this traditional pub, serving a wide range of rotating real ales, you could be forgiven for thinking you had teleported from Clapham to somewhere deep in the English countryside. Join the regulars propping up the bar or lounge on the large deep red leather sofas to admire the Victorian fireplaces and other period features. The Eagle has lively bar staff and, on weekend evenings, there is usually a noisy crowd of good-natured drinkers in their late-thirties sinking a few jars. 7/10

Queen's Head, Downe, Kent

Unpretentious and friendly little pub with old-fashioned fittings and patrons in the pretty village of Downe just beyond the suburban sprawl of Bromley. The best tables are beside the windows, but one table at the back of the bar has some very comfortable and battered red leather swiveling chairs. There is a selection of ales on tap, such as local brew Spitfire, and a small food menu. The beef and Guinness pie (about £8) comes with an off putting large pasty quiff, but the stewed meat below was juicy and rich. Deserts (£3.50) include a suspiciously neat, but passable banoffee pie. The children's menu (£3.50) is basically a selection of chicken nugget or fishy dinosaur-style dishes, which have an almost plastic appearance, followed by ice cream. Little nutritional value, but enough to keep the kids quiet, while you enjoy a pint of beer. 6/10

Sunday 2 December 2007

The Venetian, Macau

Monstrous in every sense of the word, The Venetian is a colossal building decked out in an ostentatious and seemingly endless succession of patterned carpets, faux Rococo paintings, vast ceiling frescoes and gold chandeliers. There are two huge, lavishly-decorated lobbies on the ground floor, but the focal point is a vast casino, which is a sea of roulette tables and slot machines. One floor up, is an extensive shopping and eating district made up of canals lined with smart retail outlets and a wide variety of eateries, ranging from street food stalls to flashy restaurants. Opera-singing gondoliers ply their trade on the canals, while street entertainers in eighteenth century garb entertain the passing shoppers. Above them is a fake blue sky complete with clouds giving the impression of perpetual, but slightly gloomy, daylight. While you can easily find anything from a Gucci handbag to a Sony camcorder, it is much more difficult to purchase more ordinary items, such as shampoo or headphones, at a reasonable price.

Monday 26 November 2007

Grand Edo, The Venetian, Macau

Sophisticated and stylish Japanese restaurant overlooking one of the Venetian's canals. The food is delicious and varied - succulent and flavoursome fish and beef dishes are expertly prepared by a chef with almost mesmerising skill on a hot stove in front of you. For those who prefer their Japanese food raw, there is also plenty of sushi and sashimi to choose from. Each dish is served on traditional, heavyweight Japanese platters to diners often sitting on high chairs around a bar, which can make conversation with anyone other than your neighbour tricky. Prices are justifiably on the high side and the atmosphere is fairly low-key, but the Grand Edo's food makes it well worth a visit. 8/10

Friday 23 November 2007

Madeira Portuguese Restaurant, The Venetian, Macau

One of a cluster of restaurants in 'St Mark's Square' - part of the Venetian Resort's faux Italian cityscape. The Madeira has tables 'outside' so you can sit under the fake sky in perpetual fake daylight. You might prefer the light and cool interior, but bewarned a singer with large sun glasses tirelessly and cheerfully serenades the tables, while unrelated pop videos play silently on a large flat screen in the background. The tapas is also a mixed bag. The meat and fish dishes can be bony and stingy, but the vegetable dishes are well prepared and the deserts are good enough. There is also a respectable wine list.5/10

Thursday 22 November 2007

The Blue Frog, The Venetian, Macau

The cool, dark decor of The Blue Frog Bar & Grill is a blessed relief from the ostentatious gold fittings of the surrounding Venetian Resort Hotel. This is first and foremost a drinking den, but disappointingly, there are no local beers on tap and you have to make do with the standard international drinks brands, such as Carlsberg and Kilkenny, at international prices. A double Baileys, for example, will set you back about HK$120. To line your stomach, it is well worth choosing from the wide selection of burgers, sandwiches, steaks, salads and other western food. The juicy, salty ribeye steak is delicious, but the accompanying vegetables are a little too al dente. A newly-opened spin-off from the original Shanghai Blue Frog, the Macau branch could do with a few more punters. But the friendly, attentive staff and the funky music, which is cranked up loud later on, still make for a buzzy, night out atmosphere. 7/10

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Cafe Deco, The Venetian, Macau

Billed as the largest restaurant in Asia, Cafe Deco is a sprawling 1930s-style establishment lit by huge bizarrely-shaped lights and specialising in an extensive breakfast buffet (HK$190 for adults). Despite the hundreds of seats, you may still have to queue for a table at busy times. Once you sit down, the numerous staff are quick to offer you coffee or tea. The buffet has everything from cereals to tropical fruits to smoked salmon to cold meats to hot English and Chinese food. While the scrambled eggs, rashers of bacon and sausages don't look very appealing, they are actually quite tasty. Reasonable value given the huge choice, but bewarned the buffet closes at 11am sharp. 6/10

Monday 19 November 2007

Macau Old Town

An atmospheric blend of Chinese and Portuguese history and culture percolates through the busy shopping streets below the ruined, but striking, facade of the seventeenth century Jesuit Church of Mater Dei and the nearby stone fort from the same era. You can reach the eerie facade, the symbol of Macau, by wandering through narrow streets lined with tiny food stalls stacked with exotic and aromatic morsels. From the church, you can stroll up through the fort's crude stone walls guarded by aging canons. At the top, there are 360 degree views of Macau's forest of scruffy apartment blocks sprinkled with the odd plush casino-hotel or futuristic skyscraper. As you descend into the streets below, you will stumble on the occasional elegant colonial villa or church overlooking streets and squares paved with distinctive waves of small black and white tiles. Tucked away in one of the back alleys, you may also find a serene shrine to Confucius, lit up by scores of lanterns. Although, there are few real sights, Macau's historic heart is well preserved enough to justify at least a half a day of wandering. 7/10

TurboJet Sea Express, Hong Kong International Airport to Macau

After you arrive at Hong Kong airport, you can transfer to the ferry as if you were transferring to another flight, meaning you don't go through passport control and the ferry staff will move your luggage from the plane to the boat. But the crossing to Macau only takes place seven times a day, so you may have a couple of hours wait anyway. You are bussed down to the utilitarian ferry terminal where you spend half an hour hanging around before taking your seat on the boat. Economy class, (HK$180, one way) is comfortable enough for the 50-minute trip and you can purchase snacks and drinks. First class (HK$280) has bigger seats, a free sugary snack and a drink, plus priority departure.

On the way back, you have to pay HK$20 more for either class. You go through passport control in Macau, pick up your bags at the airport and then check-in for your flight at one of the transfer counters inside the airport. While the ferry trip can be gloomy in the dark, at one end you get a sweeping view of the neon extravagance of Macau's waterside casinos and at the other, the towers of Hong Kong look like rows of computer servers glittering in the distance. 6/10

Friday 16 November 2007

British Airways, Club World, London Heathrow to Hong Kong

Check-in early online to ensure you aren't bumped down by British Airways' outrageous overbooking policy. If you take a late evening flight, you should find Heathrow's Terminal 1 quiet, enabling you to sail through security. But, at that time of day, the large BA lounge is often running low on food, magazines and newspapers. On the plane there is a three-course meal of variable quality to look forward to. The shrimp and prawn terrine with a green salad is crisp and fresh, but the fish cakes can be dry and disappointing. While you eat, there is plenty to watch on the on-demand entertainment system, including some well-made documentaries, such as the seductive Sandrine's Paris. The smooth Beronia Reserva Rioja 2001 is a good sleep-aid and the 12 hour flight gives you plenty of time to get your head down on the nearly-flat bed. But it will be late afternoon when you reach Hong Kong's futuristic airport and you may struggle to sleep the following night.

For the return leg, you can await your flight in the Qantas lounge, which is equipped with excellent showers, stacks of newspapers, and a respectable selection of cold, but tasty, snacks and drinks. Or you can wander around the airport's good selection of shops in search of presents. Again the food on the BA flight is a lottery. The Greek feta cheese salad would be at home in a good restaurant, but the stir-fried beef comes with a lump of congealing rice. In the morning, the fruit is fresh enough, but the hot breakfast isn't very appetising - the scrambled egg, for example, is watery and has a green tinge. At Heathrow, your flight may fall foul of the early morning congestion, forcing the plane to circle round and round London or wait on the tarmac until a gate becomes free. 6/10

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Kozzy Cafe, Red Lion Street, Central London

Popular and crowded lunchtime cafe offering a vast range of keenly-priced, breakfasts, sandwiches, omelettes, burgers, pasta and other simple dishes. Kozzy's successful formula boils down to swift service and competent food delivered in large portions. The £4.15 lasagna, for example, is rich, tasty and creamy and it comes with a small finely-chopped salad enlivened by a salsa sauce. The cafe's large windows make for a light, airy space, but the decor is a mishmash of stripped floors, black Formica tables, steel chairs and pipes splayed across the ceiling. Soft drinks and coffee, but no alcohol. 7/10

Thirst, 53 Greek Street, Soho, London

Compact, dark and throbbing bar with a small dance area downstairs playing repetitive funky house. Don't try asking for Abba, as a sign above the turntables says 'No Requests'. Frequented by a cosmopolitan mix of sexually-charged punters in their early to mid-thirties, including eastern Europeans, south Asians and the odd punk. Drinks are pricey at about £3.50 for a bottle of beer and £2 for a bottle of fizzy water. There is also a lavatory attendant on the look out for tips and there can be an entrance charge after 10pm. Still, Thirst, open until 3am, does decent canapes for a private party and it has a friendly and inclusive vibe. 7/10

Saturday 3 November 2007

Virgin Upper Class, Nairobi to London

At Nairobi airport, your Upper Class ticket entitles you to use the 'premium' lounge, which Virgin shares with other airlines. It is pretty basic. There is one slow Internet terminal, lots of sofas, some meagre snacks, a narrow selection of drinks, the odd newspaper, a couple of TVs showing CNN and some very ugly chandeliers. The cafe near gate 14 has better food, better decor and you get a view of the military helicopters parked on the runway. At the gate, you have to go through security a further two times, but Upper Class passengers can jump the queue and the Kenyan airport staff are very helpful and friendly.

Friday 2 November 2007

Hotel Serena, Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, Kenya

The kind of smart, upmarket hotel that makes it far too easy to forget that there are people living in squalid slums across much of this city. The fittings and furniture, mostly made out of a dark wood, are plush, while the rooms are large and comfortable. The upper floors even have a nice view of a tree-lined avenue leading up to Nairobi's shiny business district. Although some of the kit, such as the showers and the TVs, is a bit dated and temperamental, there is WiFi and complementary fruit, wine and a welcome drink. The Serena also has extensive, well-tended gardens and an abundance of friendly, laid-back staff. Service is leisurely, forcing you to unwind and slow down, so order food and drinks well before you get hungry and thirsty. For 'fast' food, such as burgers, pasta and sandwiches, head for the tables around the pool, but the very large cheese and bacon burger can be tepid and dry, while the accompanying chips are too salty. Still, this is a chilled-out spot to have one of the excellent and filling mango, banana or other tropical fruit smoothies. And the evening buffet in the restaurant has a wide selection of decent food. Particularly flavoursome are the Indian dishes, such as the prawn tikka masala. All in all, a good hotel, but, at $350 a night, the Serena is also expensive and highly indulgent by Kenyan standards. Like most international hotels in the developing world, guests, of course, occupy a bubble, heavily-insulated from real life in the surrounding city. 6/10

Tuesday 30 October 2007

British Airways, World Traveller Plus, London Heathrow to Nairobi

Closer to economy than business class, World Traveller Plus essentially means more food and drinks, wider seats and greater legroom than economy. The main meal is served on one tray and includes a starter, such as a mackerel salad, a choice of two main courses, such as a spicy and tasty chicken tagine, and a fairly-appetising pudding in a supermarket-style plastic pot. With your meal, you get a miniature bottle of wine, which is just about drinkable. There are also free soft drinks and beer, newspapers, night bags, blankets and miniature pillows.

But getting any sleep on this eight-hour flight is tough as the seats don't recline very far and you end up lying on your back. In any case, the breakfast service wakes you up about an hour before you land, which is too early given it only takes 10 minutes to eat. You might get five grapes in a plastic bag, a cheese and cucumber croissant, a cranberry yoghurt drink and some coffee. At Nairobi, you leave the plane ahead of the economy passengers, enabling you to get near the front of the fairly fluid visa and passport queues. But baggage reclaim is slow and will probably take the best part of an hour. There are plenty of cabs and it only costs about $20 to take the 45 minute ride into town. 5/10

Friday 26 October 2007

Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey

A large and handsome 18th century red-brick mansion containing an extraordinary collection of antique harpsichords and early pianos, associated with great composers, such as Chopin. These beautiful instruments, together with a jumble of furniture and paintings, are arranged almost haphazardly around the few downstairs rooms that are open to the public. Hatchlands' owners still use some of these rooms - the lounge has a modern phone, TV and recent family snaps - and the fireplaces sometimes contain last night's embers. Four walks, ranging from 30 minutes to two hours, are laid out through the rolling parkland and woodland that surrounds the house. There is also an atmospheric cafe, serving tea, cakes, jacket potatoes and other snacks, housed in the original kitchen, which still has many of its period fittings, including a framed poster of the strict rules Hatchlands' domestic staff had to follow. Run by the National Trust, admission to the house and grounds is a reasonable £6.60. 7/10

Heathrow Express, London

This is the best way to escape Heathrow, but Paddington station, the terminus in central London, isn't very convenient for the West End or the City. At Heathrow, there is a station close to terminal 4, but the station for terminals 1,2,3 is at least a 10-minute walk from Departures and Arrivals. On board, you have to sit through a series of very loud announcements. To avoid the chattering television screens, you need to find the 'quiet' carriage. Still, the trains go every 15 minutes, you always get a seat and it takes less than 20 minutes to get to Paddington. A standard single is £15.50 if you buy a ticket from the machines or you can pay £17.50 on board. You can stump up an additional tenner for first class, where there is more space, complementary newspapers and tables to work at. But it is hardly worth the extra for such a short journey. 6/10

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Empire Hotel, Midtown, Manhattan, New York

Well-located near Central Park, the Empire Hotel overlooks a busy junction where drivers hoot their horns well into the evening. Inside, there is an unrelenting succession of gold and brown furnishing and fittings, including large gold curtains in the lobby and brown wallpaper, decorated with silver trees, in the corridors. The bedrooms continue the ostentatious theme with mock tiger-skin arm chairs, big flat-screen televisions and large star-shaped mirrors, but they are very compact given the $500 plus room rate. There don't seem to be any instructions in the room, so you spend a fair bit of time figuring how to turn on lamps or ring reception. Eventually, you might discover there is fast, free WiFi and plenty of other amenities available, such as an iron and razors, but housekeeping can be sluggish bringing them. In the morning, you get a basic buffet breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit juice in a spartan dining room with no place settings. 5/10

Sunday 21 October 2007

Taxi ride, JFK Airport to Manhattan, New York

On leaving JFK, be wary. As you come out of arrivals, guys in suits might try to lead you away from the taxi rank. They may claim there is a taxi strike on and entice you into one of their 'limos' for a one-way fare to Manhattan of more than $80. The flat rate fare in a genuine yellow licensed cab is $45 plus $4 toll and tip, which is good value considering the traffic in and out of Manhattan is usually appalling and it can take 90 minutes to get to or from JFK. But the taxi drivers, who are generally taciturn, don't provide much in the way of conversation to take your mind off the brake lights in front. 5/10

British Airways, Club World, London Heathrow to New York JFK

The security queues at Heathrow's Terminal 4 aren't too bad, so you will soon be in one of the wicker chairs or armchairs admiring the water feature in BA's crowded, but slightly funky, Pavilion Lounge. On offer is a wide range of drinks, soup, bread rolls, ham, cheeses, salads, noodles and other snacks. There is also BT Openzone WiFi, a respectable range of magazines and newspapers and free use of computer terminals, but the Internet access on these can be very slow. On the plane, you get one of a pair of seats, which face in opposite directions, so some passengers disconcertingly take off backwards. For privacy, you can raise a frosted glass screen between the two seats and this unusual design means you can get in and out of your window seat without disturbing anyone. There is just about enough length and width to ensure you can get some sleep. You are given a washbag-come-wallet with toothpaste, face cream, socks and other bits and pieces. And there are even pictures in the toilets.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Roath Park, Cardiff

A favourite route for local joggers, one lap of Roath Park makes for a three-mile, gently-undulating run. At one end, the park is dominated by a large boating lake, complete with its own lighthouse, an elegant jetty, a flock of aggressive geese and a fleet of traditional wooden rowing boats. Despite the fairly busy surrounding roads, the hills rising in the north make for a scenic outing on the water. There is also a large playground with an exceptionally long slide at the southern end of the lake and further south, a stylised wooded glade is dissected by a road. The glade then bleeds into sports fields and another playground at their south-east tip. Roath Park seems to be very well-used and appreciated by the locals. 7/10

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Amelia Trust Farm, Whitton Rosser, Five Mile Lane, Walterson, near Cardiff

Run by a charitable trust to help disadvantaged young people and those with learning difficulties, this working farm generously offers free access to all and sundry. At the main entrance, is a children's playground, a cafe, a large enclosure that is home to a couple of dishevelled donkeys, various hen coops, rabbit pens and pig stys. You can stroke most of the animals or watch them being fed. Follow the path into the surrounding woodland and you will soon reach an adventure playground, complete with a wooden house raised seven feet off the ground - ideal for boys wanting to reenact jungle warfare. The path goes further, passing fields containing horses and sheep, before reaching a picturesque pond where tadpoles breed in large numbers. Scattered around the farm are informative signs and park benches dedicated to the deceased, sadly some of them children. Although it is free, Amelia is run by volunteers and donations are encouraged. Alternatively, you could buy some of the free-range eggs. 7/10

Monday 15 October 2007

Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve, near Cardiff, Wales

Shaded by trees, this tranquil mile-long path runs between a dilapidated, but charming, canal and a natural river. Once an impressive feat of Georgian engineering, this artificial waterway has succumbed to nature - fallen trees wallow in the water and lillies float on the surface. If you start at the Whitchurh Hospital end, you can return via the Taff Trail, which runs alongside Cardiff's main river. The Taff is more open and not as scenic as the canal, but it is worth stopping at the noisy weir to watch the salmon trying in vain to jump up through the cascading water. Even though suburbia is never far away, the round trip makes for a fine semi-rural, three-mile walk on the edge of Cardiff. 7/10

Friday 12 October 2007

The Japanese Canteen, High Holborn, London

As the name suggests, this bustling cafe has basic decor, uncomfortable plastic stools, semi-neon lighting and there is a cold draught from the frequently open door. The staff behind the counter shout 'yes please', you order and then go and collect your food when your number is called. On the menu, teriyaki dishes and curries feature heavily, while sushi and drinks are available from a fridge. You can buy a bento box for £6.45, which comprises teriyaki or a curry, plus rice, sesame spinach, seaweed salad and miso soup. Despite the modest surroundings, the food is of a high standard. The salty chicken teriyaki, for example, comes with lots of meat, spring onions and some fresh, chunky noodles doused in a thin sauce - a delicious combination served in a cardboard box with wooden chopsticks. There are also plastic spoons and forks available for the less adept. 7/10

Friday 5 October 2007

Battersea Park, London

One of London's most picturesque and best-equipped green spaces, Battersea Park has extensive facilities, including astroturf football pitches, tennis courts, an indoor arena, a children's zoo, a huge adventure playground and a sizable boating lake that stages a regular fountain display. The park also has a riverside location, offering good views across the Thames to upmarket Chelsea, and a striking peace pagoda complete with a serene gold statue of Buddha. And thanks to a recent refurbishment, its fine old trees now shade an appealing subtropical garden and many other areas planted with an impressive array of flowers and shrubs. Bordered by imperious red-brick 19th-Century mansion blocks, Battersea Park is ideal for a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll. Perhaps the only thing that lets it down is the main cafe, La Gondola al Parco, which is a bit grimy and pricey. 8/10

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Pavilion Tea House, Greenwich Park, London

The solid wooden tables outside this cafe, situated at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park, are surrounded by greenery and have a good view of Canary Wharf's skyscrapers. Unfortunately, a flock of bold pigeons descends on any leftovers and the seats are scarred with dried bird poo. But it is still worth lining up at the counter in the cafe for the good-value, freshly-prepared food. A slightly-spicy and filling shepherds pie is served with a great pile of al dente carrots, mangetout and green beans for just £6. Also on the menu are other light-lunch staples, such as a steak sandwich at £7.50 and fish cakes at £6.50. Kids' dishes, such as the pasta in a vegetable and tomato sauce (£3), are simple, but healthy. And the Pavilion Tea House has a license, just in case you fancy a beer with your meal. 7/10

Tuesday 2 October 2007

The Eagle, Farringdon Road, Central London

One of London's first gastropubs, the Eagle, like its customers, is dishevelled in a trendy kind of way. Tables and chairs are strewn randomly around the green and cream bar, while a battered leather sofa with no springs huddles in one corner. The open kitchen is tucked behind the bar, so you can watch the laid-back chefs at work. As the Eagle is packed most lunchtimes, you may have to share a table. Order at the bar choosing from the ever-changing menu scrawled across the blackboards above the kitchen. The lavishly-described main courses, which cost around a tenner each, are rubbed out as and when the chefs run out of ingredients. The menu typically features hearty dishes, such as rabbit stew with potatoes in a creamy white wine sauce topped with rosemary, or roast haddock with purple sprouting broccoli. The food is full of flavour, but the portions aren't particularly generous - some of the rabbits used to make the stew, for example, must have been pretty scrawny creatures. 7/10

Saturday 29 September 2007

Cittie of York, High Holborn, London

Stepping from bland, congested High Holborn into the Cittie of York is like travelling back in time. Everywhere you look there is wood, very dark, old wood, embellished with 200-year-old fittings and the white rose emblem of York. If it weren't for the odd fruit machine, the main bar could pass for the dining room of Hogwarts in a Harry Potter film. There is a very high wooden beam ceiling, huge wooden casks above the bar, stained glass windows, wrought iron grills and one wall is lined with ornate, wooden cubicles, which sit four people around a table and look like large confessional boxes. At the front of the pub and downstairs in the cellar, there are two more smaller, intimate, but less remarkable bars.

Respectable light lunch
On tap, there is a range of eclectic Samuel Smith beers, lagers and ciders, complemented by a respectable light lunch menu, which features a range of 'special sandwiches', such as toasted ciabatta with dolcelatte, mushroom and roast red peppers, served with salad and fries for £5.50, a selection of burgers at £6.50 and jacket potatoes at £4.50. Perhaps the best deal is a traditional sandwich, such as Stilton and red onion, with one of the soups of the day, for £5.50. The soups come in large bowls, but the spicy, almost sweet beef mulligatawny broth, was a little thin and disappointing - even a couple of pieces of meat floating amid the grains of rice would have made all the difference. Still, the Cittie of York is an extraordinary pub. 8/10

Hollywood Arms, Hollywood Road, Chelsea, London

Attractive Victorian pub with high ceilings, large windows, ornate archways and a buzzy atmosphere, near the Fulham Road and in the midst of Chelsea's cafe society. Downstairs, the walls are decorated with arty prints of Hollywood icons, such as Clint Eastwood as a grizzled cowboy from a spaghetti western, and upstairs there is a spacious room that can be booked for private parties. But drinks prices are as inflated as the local house prices - a pint of Peroni, for example, costs almost four quid. 6/10

Monday 24 September 2007

Siena, Tuscany

Even by Italian standards, this is an evocative, beautiful and atmospheric city drenched in character and tradition. Siena is, of course, renown for its summer Palios - madcap and downright dangerous bareback horse races around the tight corners of the stunning cobbled central square, the Campo. But Siena can surprise and delight throughout the year. Visitors might stumble upon a street party or a procession bedecked in flags bearing the colours and animal of one of the city's 17 medieval districts or contrada. Dressed in tights, pointy-toed shoes, tunics and other medieval garb, young residents play drums, whirl flags or blow trumpets while marching through Siena's narrow streets or encamped in one of its many timeless squares.

Castello di Leonina Relais, near Siena, Tuscany

A heavily-restored, red-brick fortified manor house on a hilltop commanding archetypal Tuscan views of rolling fields laced with roads lined with the distinctive spear-shaped cypress trees. The rooms, each named after one of the contrada in nearby Siena, are comfortably and tastefully furnished in a traditional style, but they don't get much daylight and can be cramped. The sofa bed in one of the junior suites (210 to 250 euros a night), for example, isn't big enough for two young children. Still, there are good communal facilities, such as a decent swimming pool 400 yards up the road, free mountain bike rental, a very picturesque terrace and a pleasant stone courtyard. The breakfasts are big on cheese, cold meats, pastries and cakes, but there is no hot food, the fruit can be ropey and coffee is in short supply. At lunchtimes and evenings, the restaurant serves a very limited number of Italian dishes at an exceptionally-leisurely pace, but the views from the terrace are captivating, while the food, when it finally arrives, is generally excellent and reasonable value given the quality. Fresh Strozzapreti pasta with a vegetable sauce and braised beef in a red wine sauce, for example, both cost 12 euros. There is also an excellent wine cellar, stocked with rich, if pricey, local vintages. All in all, a good, but expensive, place to chill out for a long weekend. 7/10

Thursday 20 September 2007

Ristorante Gallo Nero, via del Porrione, Siena

An unassuming and keenly-priced restaurant in one of the historic streets not far from the Campo, Gallo Nero is popular with lunching locals. Try and get a table in the ground floor room, which is dark, but atmospheric, rather than upstairs, where the very low arched brick ceiling and small windows can bring on claustrophobia. The menu has a range of Italian staples or you can opt for one of the 'medieval' dishes, which include duck, pear or similarly earthy ingredients. But the best value has to be the promotional menu - a large glass of table wine and two courses, such as fresh spaghetti with a bolognese sauce or a white bean, tomato and sausage casserole for just 10 euros. It is simple, but tasty food. Kids will probably be happy with a pasta dish with a glass of mineral water for 6 euros. Gallo Nero is staffed with good-natured young waiters who speak excellent English. 7/10

Wednesday 19 September 2007

British Airways, Economy, London Gatwick to Bologna, Italy

This flight takes less than two hours, but tends to be preceded by a lot of faffing about. Even though it is quick to check-in online or at one of the BA self-service kiosks at Gatwick, there are still lengthy queues to drop-off baggage and get through security. And afternoon flights seem to be prone to delays of about an hour or so. If the flight is full and you aren't in any great hurry, British Airways may offer you 170 pounds to wait for the next one. When it is finally time to board, you cross a futuristic new skywalk with fine views across Sussex countryside to some smart new outlying gates in Gatwick's North terminal.

On board, economy passengers are given a comfortable dark-blue leather seat, a glossy BA magazine, featuring well-known journalists and plenty of arresting photos, a sandwich and a drink, while kids also get a colouring book, a pack of cards or some other toy. But all these diversions shouldn't stop you admiring the birds' eye view of the momentous snow-topped Alps. The flight crew are friendly, but uncompromising on safety, even threatening to ask the captain to delay landing until a two-year-old boy sits down in his seat. And you might have a lengthy wait for your bags, particularly at Gatwick. 6/10

Friday 14 September 2007

Axis Restaurant, One Aldwych, the Strand, Central London

Descend down a spiral staircase into a sheek, subterranean restaurant that is as contemporary and cool as the One Aldwych hotel it belongs to. Around the crisp white tablecloths and the black chairs, the walls are decorated with dramatic, abstract images. Axis serves compact, well-presented and thoughtful 'Modern British' food, expertly cooked and seasoned. For example, the la carte main courses, which ranges from about £15 to £22, include a poached egg nestling on a fillet of haddock mounted on a round bed of mashed potatoes and leeks, providing a appealing mix of flavours. Delicious, but it won't fill you up. The coffees are also excellent and served with exquisite petite fours, such as a tiny, but intense lemon meringue pie. Service is slick and professional and Axis is a good choice for an expensive evening meal, but at lunchtime on a sunny day you might prefer somewhere with natural light. 7/10

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, South London

A small, but world-class art gallery housed in a squat early-nineteenth century, purpose-built building with glass roofs, Dulwich Picture Gallery has a fine permanent collection including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Poussin, Gainsborough and Canaletto. Scores of ostentatious gold-framed landscapes and portraits are crammed on to the deep red walls in the main galleries, while temporary exhibitions are typically given more space in the side galleries. The current exhibition 'The Changing Face of Childhood' features a series of mainly 18th Century paintings of foppish children posing with early cricket bats, pet animals and the odd beggar. While an interesting reflection of the era, these are probably not the kind of pictures you would want on your wall. The Gallery (admission £4, plus a charge for the temporary exhibitions) is surrounded by some pleasant gardens and an upmarket and pricey cafe/restaurant. 8/10

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Chartwell, Kent

Steeped in memories and stuffed with artifacts associated with Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, his longstanding family home, is an extensive memorial and museum to Britain's war time Prime Minister. Much of the surprisingly-modest house, now owned by the National Trust, is laid out as it was when Churchill lived there. The walls are laden with his paintings, photographs and other mementos of his extraordinary life. On the sturdy desk in his study, for example, there are framed black and white photos of King George VI and a youthful Queen Mother. A handful of rooms have been turned into a museum gallery displaying an emotive collection of Churchill's hats, uniforms and medals, plus his monogrammed slippers. Nearby is Churchill's studio, which is littered with his mediocre watercolours, interesting more for their subject matter than their artistry, and more World War Two paraphernalia, including some metal chess pieces made out of the remains of a German V2 rocket.

The Dolphin, Sydenham High Street, South London

The drab facade to this recently-refurbished pub is deceptive. Inside, there is a large, attractive bar, decorated in a mostly minimalist-style with cool, dark walls, stripped floorboards, leather and wooden chairs. Out the back, is a large, heavily-landscaped and immature garden surrounded by walls propped up by red, iron girders. This substantial, enclosed space makes the Dolphin popular with young families and the garden can feel like a creche, but a giant game of Jenga and a giant set of dominoes in one corner distracts the kids. Service by the youthful staff is friendly and attentive, but somewhat confused, particularly when it comes to running a tab. The quirky menu includes an impressive array of Iberian cured meats (£8.50), served on a wooden chopping board, and a large slab of tepid, rare beef (£11.95), accompanied by a dry and crusty Yorkshire pudding, a couple of salty roast potatoes and some delicately-steamed vegetables. Still, an intense and rich chocolate pot for desert will take your mind off what has gone before. 6/10

Monday 10 September 2007

Cantina Vinopolis, Bank Side, near London Bridge

Neighbouring the foodie haven of Borough Market, this stylish restaurant is part of the Vinopolis wine emporium built underneath a Victorian railway viaduct, giving it an impressively-high vaulted ceiling made with thousands of bare bricks. Among the starters in the set menu (£30 for three courses), the tuna capaccio with salad has a delicious salty flavour, while the duck and foi gras terrine is rich and satisfying, if somewhat unethical. But the main courses are less appetising - the corn-fed chicken is dry and dull, while the accompanying spiced cabbage and new potatoes are also bland and a little rubbery. The lamb shank, accompanied by cherry tomatoes, pea puree and sugar snap peas arranged in a pretty pattern, is a better bet. Of the deserts, the substantial plate of cheese and biscuits stands out. Fittingly, Cantina Vinopolis has a huge wine list stretching over 30 pages, including an extensive choice of full-bodied desert wines. While the service can be sluggish and sometimes inattentive, Cantina Vinopolis still makes for a memorable meal. 7/10

Friday 7 September 2007

St. James's Park, London

The most picturesque and royal of London's Royal Parks is best enjoyed on a sunny Sunday when the neighbouring Mall, a broad avenue running down to Buckingham Palace, is closed to traffic. Take the tube to St. James's Park station, walk past the grand eighteenth century terraces and into the park, which absorbs hundreds of amblers easily. Cross the modest bridge over the tree-lined lake, pausing to admire the dreamy views of the distant, grandiose palace and the weeping willows huddled over the water. Stroll up to the north edge of the park and down the Mall towards the extravagant neo-classical Victoria Memorial, complete with fountains and giant black statues, facing the gates of the Queen's equally monolithic residence. Then return to the park for a coffee or ice cream at one of the very tasteful, upmarket cafes. 8/10

Tuesday 4 September 2007

The Florence, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London

A large, recently-refurbished pub, the size of a village hall, with funky decor, hip, young staff and its own micro-brewery. The Florence's focal point is a 'Cheers-style' square bar, serving an impressive range of premium beers, including the German wheat beer Erdinger and the renown Czech pilsner Budvar. Each tap around the bar has a small label describing the beer to the uninitiated. Elsewhere, the pub is furnished with trendy, but comically-uncomfortable seats, which are so deep they encourage you to lounge right back and away from the person you are talking to. Probably the best drinking den in Herne Hill, but as yet, the Florence doesn't attract enough drinkers, even on a Saturday night, to fill its wide open spaces and create a buzzy atmosphere. 7/10

Lombok, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London

Compact, good-value south-east Asian restaurant serving flavourful, spicy curries and other Thai dishes. There are at least a dozen starters (about £4) to choose from, ranging from a refreshing seaweed and shiitake mushroom soup to a rich satay in a peanut sauce. The wide selection of main courses (about £8) includes a mouth-watering and eye-watering red roast duck curry and some fine king prawns with ginger and lemon grass. The pick of the side dishes is the tasty and filling pud Thai noodles (£6). Bottles of Singa and Tiger beer are the ideal way to cool down tingling taste buds and the efficient and friendly Asian waitresses will keep you stocked with tap water. Lombok, which also offers a fast takeaway service, gets a steady flow of customers most evenings and your fellow diners will probably be a smattering of couples and families.8/10

Saturday 1 September 2007

The Ship and Whale, Gulliver Street, Rotherhithe, London

An handsome and intact Victorian pub unsullied by fruit machines, televisions or other forms of modernity. Deep purple patterned wallpaper, wood panelling, framed black and white prints and ornate chandeliers - the decor is soaked in tradition and nostalgia. Near the bar, old British coins, such as the shilling, the sixpence and the crown, are mounted in frames. Outside, in the beer garden the emphasis is on comfort - good quality iron-cast furniture is shaded on sunny days by a marquee. But the best reason to come here is the excellent and generous food. When the barbecue is up and running, you can gorge on a rich, succulent beef burger in a tasty bap, accompanied by a lavish potato salad and a flavoursome tomato salad, for just £8.50. Alternatively, you can opt for one of the expertly-cooked beef or tuna steaks again accompanied by a top-notch salad. Service is laid-back, but friendly. A fine gastropub. 8/10

Cycle and Foot Path, Tower Bridge to Greenwich, London

Beginning on a high amidst the Victorian splendour of Tower Bridge and the futuristic City Hall, shaped like a warped egg, this five mile route metaphorically goes downhill. Loosely following the Thames footpath, it threads its way through the redeveloped warehouses and wharfs lining the river. Today, these cavernous brick buildings house trendy apartments and some upmarket shops, but they still retain enough of their maritime period features to be a reminder of London's historic role as a great trading port. The further east you go, the less the route follows the river as private developments force it to turn inland. Walkers and cyclists wanting to catch a glimpse of the river and Canary Wharf's towering office blocks have to make sometimes tortuous and frustrating detours to the river and back. Still, several appealing, well-preserved 19th Century pubs line the route and the baroque grandeur of Greenwich's Royal Naval College makes for a picturesque finale. 7/10

Friday 31 August 2007

The Fine Line, Northcote Road, Clapham Junction

A former bank now kitted-out as yet another light and airy bar. But the decor is more ornate and imaginative than rival chains such as All Bar One or Pitcher & Piano. Most of the clientele are in their late twenties, affluent and not noticeably edgy or trendy. Even on a Friday or Saturday night, there is room to maneuver and the table service is efficient and friendly. The beers, such as Staropramen, and the snacks are pretty standard for this type of bar and a little pricey, but the food menu is more distinctive and varied. A reasonable meeting and eating place to start a big night out. 6/10

Wembley Stadium, north west London

A vast and almost magnificent edifice rising above a grim, run-down part of northern London, the new Wembley Stadium is a fitting, if grotesquely expensive, replacement to its historic and much-loved predecessor. The semi-circular arc that rises from the retractable roof and swoops across the sky makes the stadium a distinctive landmark for miles around. When you first enter one of the stands, you will catch your breath as you take in the 90,000 seats all within close proximity and with a good view of the hallowed turf. Each fan is allocated a plush and comfortable red seat, yet the atmosphere is as charged as ever. There are two huge screens, which replay goals and good chances, at each end of the ground and the stadium is flush with toilets. Unfortunately, leaving the new Wembley isn't much faster than it was with the original. The crowds and the scarcity of transport links mean it can easily take more than an hour to get down Wembley Way to the Wembley Park tube station, which is only about half a mile from the striking and serene bronze statue of Bobby Moore in front of the stadium. Even so, this is a fine home for the England team and the pressure is now on the players to demonstrate it is also a fitting one. 8/10

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Roy's Bakery and Coffee Shop, Front Street, Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear

Well-stocked with a broad range of traditional British loaves, stotties, buns, pasties, sausage rolls and cakes, Roy's is something of an institution in Tynemouth and has a loyal following among residents and children from the local public school. The middle-aged ladies in aprons serving behind the counter are both friendly and efficient. There are tables inside and outside on the wide pavement, which can be a suntrap on the few warm days Tynemouth enjoys. The food is simple and fattening, but prices are low - a coffee, a fluffy cheese and onion pasty and two ice creams cost just £3.50. 7/10

The Studio, Front Street, Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear

Behind the Georgian facade of this town house on Tynemouth's main drag is a homely tea room decorated with dozens of amateur water colour paintings, which are for sale at modest prices. Most menu items are good value and of generous proportions - a large hot chocolate topped with plenty of whipped cream is just £1.50. But there are exceptions - a slim slice of the excessively sweet home-made cakes can cost a chunky £2.50. Service is equally erratic, swinging from warm to dour depending on the waitress, one of whom has trouble adding up a bill. Still, the Studio is a pleasant place to shelter on a wet or windy day and there is a good view of the pretty garden from the tables at the back. 7/10

Sunday 26 August 2007

Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear, England

Anchored by a moated and ruined medieval castle and priory perched on a headland overlooking the river, Tynemouth is one of the most picturesque and prosperous places in the North East. Front Street, the Eighteenth Century high street, is now home to an eclectic collection of cafes, bars, restaurants and off-beat shops. To the north is a grand Victorian crescent overlooking the sea and to the west are some fine Georgian terraces. On a clear day, you should stroll down to the priory and then along the pier (if it's open) or up to Collingwood's Monument - a statue of a local naval officer, who served with Nelson, mounted on a monolithic stone dais. Climb up the steps for a good view across the river to South Shields. Tynemouth is also blessed with a couple of small beaches protected by rocky coves and a large, well-preserved Victorian station, which hosts flea markets at weekends. If you are out on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening, you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with hordes of enthusiastic middle-aged drinkers, partying like they are still 25. 8/10

X60 Bus, Newcastle to Scarborough

Running just once a day and only in the summer, this aging double-decker bus provides a bumpy, but relatively quick ride (2 hours 45 minutes) between Newcastle and the seaside resort of Scarborough. If the traffic is good, the driver seems to ignore the schedule and the bus can get in early. From the top-deck, there are good views over the purple-tinged wilderness of the heather-strewn North Yorkshire Moors and of Whitby and its haunting ruined abbey. In theory, a family could do a day trip with a North East Explorer ticket for just 14 pounds, but in practice you wouldn't want to spend five hours of a single day on this bus. 7/10

The Hatless Heron, Church Street, Whitby

An unusually restrained and upmarket cafe-bar in cobbled streets below the Abbey, The Hatless Heron stands out from the cheap and cheerful fish and chip restaurants that predominate in Whitby. Rather than plastic seats and Formica table tops, the Hatless Heron has wooden and leather furniture. But this place isn't snobby or expensive. The attractive young staff are friendly and helpful, recommending free tap water above the pricey bottled variety, for example. There is a wide range of snacks available. The baked potatoes (£3.50), which come with the usual range of cheese and ham fillings and a reasonable side salad, washed down with one of the premium lagers on draught, make for a good-value lunch. 7/10

Friday 24 August 2007

Whitby, Yorkshire

An atmospheric, but rough seaside town with cobbled streets, high harbour walls and a replica tall ship, overlooked by a ruined abbey. Despite the many tacky arcades, shops and attractions riding on Whitby's tenuous link with Dracula, the swashbuckling and smuggling of the Eighteenth Century lingers on among the steep narrow alleyways and traditional pubs. The town is awash with fish restaurants, but the pick of the shoal is the Magpie Cafe. Ignore the rain and join the queue outside to enjoy the ultra-fresh seafood at reasonable prices. Afterwards, cross over the bridge to the other side of the harbour and thread your way through the eclectic mix of shops in the cobbled streets before climbing the 195 steps up to the church in front of the Abbey. From there you get a sweeping view of Whitby's piers, the higgly-piggly rooftops, elegant Regency terraces and the moors beyond. Bewarned, the grog flows freely in Whitby at weekends and you might see the odd scuffle. 8/10

Station Tea Rooms, Cloughton, near Scarborough

Many of the old station signs and other railway paraphernalia remain intact around this long, slim, well-preserved stone building, which looks like a film set from 'The Railway Children'. You can sit in the beautiful garden, surrounded by a pristine lawn, lovingly-tended flower beds and a couple of ponds, or in the snug inside room. Although the food is simple (toasted and ordinary sandwiches, salads, soup, cakes etc.), it is made with high-quality ingredients, such as fine cuts of beef and delicately-cooked salmon. The Tea Rooms don't serve alcohol and the opening hours are limited (even in summer, it is closed Thursdays and Fridays), but it is popular with cyclists travelling the disused railway line between Whitby and Scarborough and its reputation attracts a steady stream of locals. 8/10

Cober Hill, Cloughton, near Scarborough

A rambling Victorian hotel with a modern conference centre building behind it, Cober Hill is set in large, well-tended and quirky gardens perched on a hillside overlooking the sea and the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. A battered tarmac tennis court, a half-size croquet lawn, a substantial kids playground, a table tennis and pool hut, a clock golf lawn and many other facilities are dotted around the gardens. Cloughton Wyke, a rocky bay amid the cliffs, is just a 10 minute walk away down a picturesque minor road and Cober Hill is well-placed for exploring the eastern side of the Moors.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Cleveland Way, Cloughton Wyke to Hayburn Wyke

This rewarding four mile round-trip follows the cliff-top footpath, which climbs several hundred feet above the sea to offer fine views over the rolling fields to Scarborough castle and the headlands beyond. The trail has plenty of twists and turns surrounded by pastoral, timeless scenery - a throwback to a more leisurely, less-crowded era. The path, which mostly stays a safe distance from the cliff edge, is well-maintained, but some of the stone-step descents can be treacherous when wet. Even on bright summer days you will only pass a handful of other walkers. Stop at the Hayburn Wyke pub, which is a few minutes inland from the Cleveland Way, for refreshments. 8/10

Hayburn Wyke pub, near Cloughton, Yorkshire

A homely early nineteenth century stone pub nestling in a secluded wooded valley near the Cleveland Way, the Hayburn Wyke Inn serves a continuos trickle of thirsty and hungry customers. Outside, there is a small and unobtrusive adventure playground made from tyres and timber, a large lawn and some garden tables. The inside is a little dingy, but the good-value, tasty and fresh pub fare, such as steak pie, seafood bake and the gigantic 'gorilla' grill (£6 to £13), prepared on the premises, makes up for that. The steak sandwich with chips and a small salad (£5) makes a decent brunch, while good-quality kids meals cost just £3.50. Although the coffee choice is limited to filter or filter, there are real ales on tap and the middle-aged ladies manning the bar are warm and friendly. 8/10

Tuesday 21 August 2007

TransPennine Express, York to Scarborough

Despite the Express moniker, this is a leisurely 50-minute journey providing far-reaching views across the Vale of York - a wide valley of fields and hedgerows bordered north and south by gentle, tree-lined slopes. The interior of this modest train isn't so gentle on the eye - furnished in lurid purple, it tends to be packed with pasty and puffy English holidaymakers heading for the slot machines and beaches of Scarborough. Book well ahead for the cheapest tickets and opt for first class if you want a bit more space and a lantern on your table. 6/10

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Thames Path, Kew to Richmond, London

Despite being just six miles from central London, much of this raised footpath feels like a serene riverside bridleway deep in the English countryside. On one side there is the greenery of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, while on the other swans and boats glide past trees and parkland, punctuated by occasional houses and riverside apartments. On sunny weekends, however, the tranquility can be broken by mountain bikers trying to speed past walkers without falling into the river 25 feet below. Across the river, you can see Syon House, a sixteenth century stately home, followed later by a pink neo-classical boat house next to the picturesque waterfront of Old Isleworth. After three miles or so, you reach the ornate Richmond Lock bridge, the first in a series of bridges as you venture into handsome Richmond. Here, people mill around the riverside cobbled streets, pubs and cafes, which make for a good refreshment stop before hiking a mile or so upstream to see the stately elegance of Ham House built in 1610. 8/10

Monday 13 August 2007

Taberna Etrusca, Bowchurch Yard, the City of London

Large, fairly upmarket, Italian restaurant tucked away in a quiet alleyway in the financial district. You can choose a table in the kitsch interior, decorated with elaborate plasterwork and religious murals, or in the covered courtyard. In both cases, there isn't much elbow room and you can easily eavesdrop on the other clientele - a mix of pin-striped city workers and more ordinary folk. You sit down to crisp white table cloths and napkins, plus a basket of crusty bread to dip in a saucer of olive oil while you peruse the menu. Some dishes are pricey, but they tend to be expertly-prepared and come in well-judged portions. Both the carpaccio sedano (fine slices of beef topped with flakes of parmesan) starter for £8.75 and the main course of chicken stuffed with ricotta cheese on a bed of mash potatoes and spinach (£11.75) are full of flavour. There is also an extensive list of Italian wines to choose from and service (12.5% on your bill) is professional and efficient. 7/10

Friday 10 August 2007

Hyde Park, London

Central London's largest green space, Hyde Park is 340 acres (about 200 football pitches) squeezed in between Kensington and Mayfair. While it attracts lots of visitors, many on roller blades, it has plenty of secluded spots in which to escape the bustle of the City. There are enticing avenues lined by large, mature trees criss-crossing the park and a scattering of interesting monuments, but the northern half is rather flat and featureless. The southern section is dominated by the Serpentine boating lake, which is bordered by a lido, several smart, tasteful cafes and premium ice cream stalls. Further south, is the Princess Diana Memorial fountain - a fast-flowing artificial stream, made out of Cornish granite, that loops back on itself. You can sit on the banks and dangle you feet in the ice-cold water, but yellow t-shirted wardens are quick to stop anyone trying to stand up and paddle. 7/10

Thursday 9 August 2007

Royal Windsor Racecourse, Family Fun Day

Every so often, Windsor Racecourse, a compact, attractive course bordering the Thames, goes to great lengths to pull in the family punter, installing giant inflatable slides, bouncy castles, a tent offering expert face painting and a miniature farm. Once you have paid the admission fee for the course, all these goodies are free. The downside is lengthy queues for the face-painting, in particular, ice creams and at the bars, meaning you might not find time to place a bet. A ticket for the buzzing Club Enclosure, which is in line with the winning post and offers a prime view of the closing stages of each race, is £18 for adults and free for children. Even on a 'Family Fun Day', this enclosure, with a dress code insisting that men wear a shirt with a collar, attracts groups of raucous, but good-natured and sharply-dressed lads and bubbly, dolled-up ladettes. 8/10

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Hotel Wilson, Place Wilson, Dijon, France

A three-star hotel has been shoe-horned into this timber-framed seventeenth century post house on the edge of a pretty green square just outside Dijon's historic core. While the foyer area and lounges, which are sprinkled with vintage suitcases and trunks, have character, the decor in many of the bedrooms (doubles from 75 Euros) and bathrooms is dated and unimaginative. Still, some of the rooms retain their original wooden beams and most are a reasonable size, quiet and comfortable. Breakfast for adults and children is a hefty 11 Euros a head and you might prefer to eat in one of the more atmospheric pavement cafes in the middle of Dijon. Similarly, it costs 9 Euros to use the private car park in the interior courtyard, but you can park right outside the main entrance for free. 6/10

Monday 6 August 2007

Villa Romana, rue Quentin, Dijon

A lively and popular Italian restaurant that is one of the most inviting of the eateries packed into the streets surrounding Dijon's covered food market. You can choose to sit outside or inside amidst the funky deep orange decor. The pizzas (8 to 10 Euros) are pretty good, as is the three-course Menu Decouverte (18 Euros), which has several options for each course. The mozarella bruschetta to start came with a nicely dressed salad, while the chicken kebab main course was served with a flavoursome sauce and a mountain of succulent green beans. The pudding options include some high quality ice cream in adult flavours, such as coffee or rum and raisin. There is also a two-course (7 Euro) kids menu, which is basically a pasta dish, some ice cream and a drink. Service is friendly, but erratic and sluggish as the over-stretched waiters and waitresses sometimes forget basics like glasses to go with bottled water. 7/10

Saturday 4 August 2007

Dijon, Burgundy, France

Prosperous Dijon has an exceptional concentration of historic and atmospheric streets, squares and alleyways. In the well-preserved centre you can easily walk for 10 minutes and barely see a building built after 1900. And to its credit, the city hasn't given itself over to tourist tack - the streets are blissfully free of souvenir shops or fake 'attractions'. The mostly-pedestrianized Place de La Liberation is the focal point of the city and a fine spot to enjoy breakfast or a coffee in one of the pavement cafes, while admiring the rows of fountains and the grand and elegant Palais Des Ducs - the original seat of power of Burgundy's medieval Dukes. Another good place to refuel is one of the many restaurants and bars in the streets around the extravagant food market at Halles Centrales. But first build up an appetite by wandering around the rest of the city, which is awash with attractive squares and fine, well-preserved town houses, many with half-timbered frames or intricately-tiled roofs and ancient churches. 8/10

Friday 3 August 2007

L'Auberge des Lavandes, Place General De Gaulle, Villecroze, Provence, France

Although it is run by a middle-aged Norwegian couple, this hotel and restaurant, housed in a 19th century terracotta building with bright blue shutters overlooking a picturesque village square, is dripping with French style and character. The winding stair case leads up to en-suite bedrooms (53 Euros for a double) with high ceilings containing an eclectic mix of aging, distressed furniture and Impressionist prints. Make sure you have dinner in the ground floor restaurant, which has tables in the square. Both the starters, such as fish soup or pate, and the main courses (lamb, trout or fillet of pork in a cream sauce) in the 20 Euro menu use high-quality ingredients prepared and cooked with precision and skill. But the highlight of the meal has to be the sumptuous deserts, such as the moist, light chocolate cake containing an inner reservoir of rich chocolate sauce, a fine creme brulee and a tangy apple tart. Get to bed early, as a deafeningly loud machine is sometimes used to clean the square from 6am in the morning. By the time you eat your simple breakfast (5 Euros for bread, coffee, jam, baby bell cheese and orange juice), your head should have stopped ringing and you will be able to soak up the idealized Provencal ambiance. 8/10

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Restaurant Musiques, Setcases, Catalonia

This establishment dominates the quaint little square in the heart of the medieval village of Setcases, which is marred only by a couple of coin-operated rides for kids. Choose one of the outside tables in the square rather than those in the more dingy upstairs room and try to ignore the brusque proprietor who hangs around the doorway to the restaurant. And avoid the tapas. 'Patatas' for 3 Euros turned out to be 20 Pringles crisps in a bowl, while half a tin of pitted olives will also set you back 3 Euros. For 4.5 Euros you can get a limp green salad and 6 Euros will buy you a modest plate of cold meats. And you pay 7% tax on top of these prices! While the four-course menu (12 Euros) only has a couple of options for each course, it has to be better value than the tapas. To be on the safe side, just buy a beer and eat somewhere else. 4/10

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Vall de Núria Rack Railway, Catalonia

This leisurely train journey (15.85 Euros Return for adults) winds its way from Ribes de Freser up into the mountains, past crags and forests, providing dramatic views in all directions, only marred by the mind-numbing lift music inside the carriages. For the most enjoyable ride, grab one of the seats next to the driver. At the top, you alight next to a vast, forbidding, almost Stalinist, building that sits on the site of a medieval religious sanctuary. Today, it houses a hotel, five restaurants, including a cheap and cheerful canteen, several auditoria, a high-quality wildlife photography exhibition, a small museum and a souvenir shop. Outside are some ski lifts, a boating lake, an open expanse of grass, where school parties play games, and a small farm. For 7.50 Euros, kids can take a pony ride around the farm and a go on the tubby, which involves sitting in a large inflatable tyre and hurtling down a plastic track. Included in the price of the train ticket is a sedate cable car ride up to a youth hostel higher up the mountain. From there, footpaths lead up the surrounding summits. The adventurous should also consider walking back down to Ribes de Fraser along the enticing footpath that runs alongside the river and the railway line. 8/10

Setcases, Catalonia

Set half way up a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains, Setcases is an attractive mixture of crumbling farm buildings, cobbled alleyways, smart apartments, rustic restaurants and modest hotels. In winter, the village serves as a base for skiers tackling the VallTer 2000 resort further up the valley. In summer, Setcases makes a good starting point for some sensual riverside walks - colourful butterflies flutter around an array of wild flowers bordering the grassy footpaths leading off the quiet road through the valley. A particularly pleasant amble alongside the Riu de Carboner, an idyllic mountain stream, begins about a kilometer or two north of Setcases. 8/10

Hotel La Coma, Setcases, Catalonia

Modern, but attractive and solidly-built, hotel blanketed with hanging baskets of flowers and offering fine views of the mountains surrounding Setcases. Popular with the elderly and young families. Tasteful and understated rooms are kitted out with very solid wooden furniture and many have balconies overlooking the small car park, the large children's play area, outdoor pool and the forested slopes further down the valley. But you may need to remove the plastic waterproof mattress covers to get a good night's sleep. Half board is great value at 54 euros per person. It includes a buffet breakfast, which you can have on a sun-drenched terrace, featuring a wide variety of tasty cold meats and cheeses, and simple three-course dinners, generous and competently prepared. One of the best starters is anchovies, roasted peppers and aubergine on toast, while main course highlights include a flavoursome veal and mushroom stew and a succulent shoulder of lamb. Staff are fairly friendly and the hotel is well-placed for some lovely riverside walks. 8/10

Monday 30 July 2007

La Palmera, Passeig Lluis Albert, L'Escala, Catalonia

This recently-refurbished restaurant appears to have big aspirations, but it doesn't quite deliver. It is across the road from the sea front promenade, but most diners don't quite get a sea view. Instead, you can watch crayfish and lobsters living out the last hours of their lives in fish tanks next to the windows. The inner walls are lined with surrealist prints of variable taste, while the loos are fitted in an odd mishmash of contemporary styles. If you order the three-course, 20 Euro, menu, the head waiter will probably give you an exasperated look over the top of his heavy-rimmed glasses. Still, you get a bottle of ordinary wine, bread and water thrown in. To start, you can do battle with a large, intimidating plate of crustaceans or opt for something a little less demanding such as the goat's cheese salad. The main courses include a run-of-the mill paella, while the ice cream desert appears to be straight out of a supermarket tub. Although the 8.50 Euro children's menu is good value - respectable cannelloni or macaroni followed by well-cooked fish in batter and ice cream to finish, adults should probably go a la carte and choose carefully. 5/10

Empuries Beach, near L'Escala, Catalonia

A rare find in the Mediterranean - miles of golden sand mostly without a concrete backdrop. The presence of the partially-excavated remains of an Ancient Greek and Roman settlement and a nature reserve has limited the development between the medieval hamlet of Sant Marti and the full-on resorts much further up the coast. As a result, there is typically plenty of elbow room between the towels and sun-shades on the beaches, which are very clean and offer far-reaching views across the Gulf of Roses. This is an exposed stretch of coastline ideal for water sports - wind-surfers zip across the sea, kids frolic in the sizable waves and the sky is dotted with colourful kites. At the southern end near the ruins, you can take a pleasant stroll along well-maintained paths and board walks through the sand dunes and pine trees. Car parking is available for 1 Euro an hour or you can catch the pricey and sluggish, but fun, toy-town 'road train' from L'Escala. 8/10

Sunday 29 July 2007

Can Miquel, Platja de Montgó, L'Escala, Catalonia

On a sunny evening, opt for one of the dozen outside tables, overlooking the small beach and the attractive bay, rather than the less enticing tables inside the modern, undistinguished building. The waiters can be slow to seat diners and a little disinterested, but service is swift once you order. The food isn't very imaginative, but the portions are generous and the ingredients fresh. Any starter featuring the local anchovies is a good bet, while the hearty mixed paella (13 Euros each), which must be shared between two people, contains plenty of lamb, sausage meat, crustaceans and other seafood. A refreshing and uncomplicated accompaniment is the Amat Sauvignon Blanc (7.50 Euros a bottle). A local institution and a step up from the other restaurants in the immediate vicinity, Can Miquel also makes a good place to take a break from tanning on the beach for lunch, coffee or ice cream. 7/10

Peix Blau, C. La Torre, L'Escala, Catalonia

Tucked away in a back street, this unassuming restaurant is worth seeking out for the traditional seafood Catalan five-course menu (25 Euros). The courses are finely-judged and make for an interesting and tasty meal - as long as you like seafood and don't mind it salty. Fresh anchovies on toast to start, followed by a salad with a delicately-cooked sardine as a centerpiece and then a big plate of shell fish in a garlic source. Next up is a suquet with big hunks of fish and potato swimming in the stew, followed by a delicious apple tart accompanied by ice cream. And there is a tiny coffee to finish. The house rose wine is refreshing, but somewhat bland. Black and white prints of old fishing scenes in L'Escala decorate the walls. Although the traditional decor and atmosphere is undermined by the flat screen TV in the centre of the restaurant, a visit to Peix Blau is an economical way to sample good quality Catalan cuisine. 8/10

Friday 27 July 2007

Can Coll, Placa Major, Sant Marti D'Empuries, Catalonia

One of a clutch of restaurants that have taken over the hamlet of Sant Marti's quaint square facing the village church. While well-positioned to serve undiscerning beach goers, Can Coll has plenty of regulars, as the food is a cut-above the usual tourist fare and the service, overseen by the watchful proprietor, is swift and friendly. Most diners order one of the large selection of pizzas, which come with generous toppings and are good value (6 to 10 Euros), from one of the dozen or so outside tables protected by sun shades. The Sicilian, which has a sprinkling of pine nuts, raisins and walnuts, is one of the more unusual toppings on the menu. Aside from pizzas, the other dishes available include a great hunk of goat's cheese surrounded by a substantial salad and bread. This is a pleasant spot to shelter from the often ferocious sun over a cold beer and on a Saturday you might see a wedding party posing outside the Ancient church opposite. 7/10

Playa and Punta Montgo, near L'Escala, Catalonia

Small, but picturesque, sandy beach and bay enclosed by whitewashed villas on one hillside and green forests and scrub land owned by the Spanish military on the other hillside. The bay shelters a flotilla of small yachts, but towards the shore, the shallow water and lack of waves make the beach ideal for small children. As you would expect, the sand can get very crowded near the sea line. Debris is removed from the beach every morning, but the surrounding roads are litter-strewn and some of the cafes scruffy. The energetic should hike up through the villas to the top of the point, where there is a small stone tower and grand 360 degree views taking in the Gulf of Roses and the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. You can continue to enjoy the view across this vast bay by taking the bracing, vertiginous cliff walk through undeveloped scrub land towards Riells. 7/10