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