Sunday 28 December 2008

Pitcher & Piano, William IV Street, central London

This branch of Pitcher & Piano feels like the bar of an aspirational, modern hotel. It is decorated using a mishmash of materials from transparent plastic to coarse wooden tiles to mock leather, against a backdrop of off-white walls, mixed up with the odd panel painted bright red or mustard yellow. The overall effect seems confused and incoherent. Still, the mostly be suited wide boys and girls enjoying a lunchtime drink don't seem to mind. And there are plenty of drinks to choose from: the Pitcher & Piano Drinks Blend Guide lists two dozen cocktails and plenty of wine, mostly available in two glass sizes or in a bottle. Although bitter-enthusiasts have to make do with Pedigree, lager drinkers are well catered for: A pint of Amstel, one of the five big brands on tap, is £3.30. There is also quite an extensive selection of food ranging from calamari (£5) to burgers (£7 to £14) to salmon en croute (£10). Similarly, the mellow middle-of-the-road music seems designed to appeal to as many off-duty office workers as possible. 6/10

Saturday 27 December 2008

The Bishop, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, south London

Well-placed to serve shoppers on Lordship Lane, the Bishop is buzzing on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy mix of hip and square middle class families, couples and groups of friends. The interior, with its bare black floor, its wall of mirrors and large black and white prints, is slightly Hammer House of Horror. The food menu looks good and there are some decent beers on tap, but dropping in for a drink and a snack isn't cheap. A pint of Budvar, the king of beers, for example, is £3.80, while the crisps come in fancy flavours in a fancy cylinder at £2.50 a pop. You're better off getting a bowl of fat, salty chips for three pounds. Still, the tap water is free and the young, quirky bar staff are pretty good with kids. 7/10

Monday 22 December 2008

Boswells, Russell Street, central London

In spite of the gentrified English name and a history dating back to the eighteenth century, Boswells doesn't feel much like a local institution. Rotund and cheerful eastern European women, in white shirts, serve the tables and the menu is made up of routine international fare, such as burgers, croque-monsieur, lasagna and ravioli, supported by the odd English dish, such as cottage pie and gravy. Moreover, the filter coffee (£2.20) comes continental style - strong and small. Still, for seven quid you can get a decent English breakfast made up of a couple of rashers of good bacon, two greasy fried eggs, a sprinkling of mushrooms, toast, a grilled tomato, a hash brown, a short fat sausage and baked beans. You eat at old-fashioned wooden tables surrounded by maroon walls and tourists from nearby Covent Garden. 6/10

Olley's, Norwood Road, south London

A famous fish and chip restaurant in a dilapidated row of shops facing Brockwell Park, Olley's has acquired a bit of a theme-park feel. The interior is a riot of blonde wood, exposed brickwork and kitsch tiles. The large plastic menus list just about every possible connotation of fish and chips (£9-£22), plus some tempting seafood starters, such as ginger and garlic prawns (£4.95) or grilled sardines or mackerel (£4.95). At lunchtimes, you can get a haddock, cod or Nile perch and chips with mushy peas for £7. The haddock is a tender, but modest, piece of fish, nicely-cooked in a fine layer of surprisingly ungreasy batter. The fat squidgy chips are very filling, but the side salad, consisting of shredded lettuce and a tomato slice, is lame, while the messy mushy peas are not to everyone's taste. You can wash it down with a bottle of Bud (£2.70), another beer or a glass of wine. The kids' options (£4.50 including a small drink) are pretty substantial. They include five large calamari rings caked in batter or a sea food platter, featuring mini, battered portions of calamari, goujons, scampi and fish, both served with an adult-size helping of chips. Fussier kids might opt for the long, low-meat content sausage, which you can have without batter, plus chips. The waiters, kitted out in white, are friendly, but the service can get very slow in the rare event, such as an end of term lunchtime, that Olley's is full of middle-class families mixing it with the more earthy regulars. 7/10

Sunday 14 December 2008

Christmas Carol Concert, Horniman Gardens, London Road, Forest Hill

Once a year, on a Sunday before Christmas, the hill-top Horniman Gardens stay open after dark to host a free carol concert. From this high vantage point, you can see thousands of lights twinkling across London, providing a magical backdrop to the English Baroque Choir and the Crystal Palace Band. Mostly middle class families grab the rows of seats in front of the Edwardian bandstand, while the latecomers stand around the edge in a large huddle, sometimes bobbing up and down to the music. Although parts of the audience seem to sing along with the well-known carols, most of the volume comes from the microphones projecting the powerful and pure tenors fronting the choir. The singing, punctuated by the Geordie compere, goes on for about an hour and, if you have a seat, your legs and feet might go numb in the cold night air. Still, the programme includes a few lively Christmas jingles, such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to keep the kids interested.

Santa's grotto
Nearby, a long queue snakes up to the refreshment stall, which sells tea, rudimentary hot dogs and cups of Batchelors' soup for £1 apiece. Alternatively, you can head over to the Hornima Museum cafe, which has a broader range of fancier snacks. Also near the museum, in the elegant, white cast iron Victorian conservatory, is a picturesque crafts market, selling toys and other presents, plus Santa's grotto. If you want to see Father Christmas, you need to be there early as the queue builds up quickly. But save some cash to give to the collectors' tins, as the museum puts on this enjoyable concert just to raise money for charity. 8/10

Wednesday 10 December 2008

The Langley, Langley Street, central London

A cavernous bar-cum-restaurant-cum-nightclub in the basement of a side-street near Covent Garden, The Langley is a warren of large, dark rooms and alcoves. On a week day, even in December, there is too much space and the punters rattle around, failing to create much of an atmosphere. The dining area has a series of booths big enough to sit about six, plus some standalone tables. For about twenty quid, you can order a three-course meal in advance. Among the starters, the goats cheese salad, served with shavings of tasty chorizo, is a good choice. Less impressive is the steak main course - the large portions of solid meat can be tough and the accompanying chips mediocre. For desert, you can choose a reasonable raspberry cheese cake. The a la carte menu, which is a little more adventurous, has about ten main courses, such as seambass and chive mash, costing between £10 and £20. Like the food, the drinks can be pricey - a 330ml bottle of Staropramen is £3.90. At times, The Langley feels too much like a business and not enough like a party. 5/10

Birthday party at Mile End Climbing Wall, Mile End Park, east London

A laid-back hang-out for hardcore climbers and beginners alike, Mile End Climbing Wall is a series of halls peppered with plastic holds and ledges catering for a wide range of abilities. Experienced instructors, with varying levels of patience, are available to run 90-minute birthday parties for kids aged eight and above costing as little as 10 pounds a head. After being kitted out in climbing shoes and helmets, the kids start by working their way horizontally around a small wall directly opposite the serious climbers sipping tea from plastic cups at the reception desk. Once everyone has had a go, the party heads off to another room with higher walls and big crash mats. Again, the kids climb horizontally, but the holds get trickier the further they go.

Relish the thrill
Now it gets serious. The instructors get the kids into harnesses and take them into a room where, roped-up, they try and work their way up climbing walls about 12 metres high. Two kids keep the rope taut while their friend attempts to get to the top of the wall and then abseil down. Next up, the party scales a series of ladders to get to a platform suspended high above the floor from where they will be winched down one by one. While some kids will relish the thrill, others will be racked by fear. Fortunately, at least one of the instructors is adept at coaxing both children and adults to overcome their vertigo. Finally, the party ends up in the so-called monkey room where they play games, which often involve hanging onto the walls in increasingly precarious positions. Afterwards, you can use a basic portakabin, free of charge, to serve the birthday tea. Adventurous kids will get a big kick out of this party. 8/10

Sunday 7 December 2008

No Man's Land, Duke of York Theatre, St. Martin's Lane, central London

Performed by a talented quartet of actors and directed by the acclaimed Rupert Goold, this production of Harold Pinter's 1974 play No Man's Land looks promising on paper. But in practice, even the fascinating combination of the entrancing Michael Gambon and the bawdy satirist David Walliams (of Little Britain fame) fails to ignite Pinter's meandering and sluggish script, making it hard to justify the £48 needed for a ticket in the stalls of this small, but charming, theatre. With an unchanging set - a smart, soulless reception room dominated by a large bar - the play certainly isn't a visual spectacle. Although Gambon gives a masterclass in how to mimic the overly-deliberate movements of a drunk, the lack of a real narrative means No Man's Land grinds slowly towards the interval. At least the acting is mostly first class. David Bradley, playing the aging and philosophical Spooner, is often a match for Gambon's Hirst, offsetting his grating, lengthy monologues, with the occasional one-liner delivered with comic panache.

itsu, Wardour Street, central London

An emerging chain of restaurants and shops with a garish yellow and pink logo, itsu specialises in selling fresh and mostly healthy food. Decorated like a sleek corporate canteen, the Wardour street branch has conveyor belts loaded with small dishes snaking around the small tables and benches. You can pick portions of sushi, bowls of soup and deserts off the belt. How much you pay (between £2.50 and £4.50) depends on the colour of the dish rim. You can order bigger or hotter dishes or drinks by pressing the red button on your table to summon a waiter or waitress. But the service can be haphazard and a bit dour. For example, your waitress might neglect to mention that the sashimi you ordered is off the menu until after the rest of your meal has arrived.

Subtle and moreish
The food itself is generally fresh and flavoursome, if a bit salty. Among the better dishes is the salmon shiso handroll (£4.50), which is wrapped in seaweed, and the mouthwatering chicken teriyaki (£6.25) served with a sweet sauce. Accompanied by a tangy, green herb dressing, the chilli crab crystals (£4.50) have a subtle and moreish flavour, but are tricky to eat as the filling slips out easily with the first bite, while the miso soup (£2.50), garnished with coriander, tofu, wakame and spring onions, is a bit watery and lackluster. Few of the dishes will fill you up and you will need the stodgy, but tasty, steamed rice (£1.50) and, perhaps, the green beans (£2.50) in their tough, salty hides. There are also deserts (£3.50), such as chocolate mousse or creme brulee, but they are quite small. All this soon adds up and the drinks can be pricey - a pint-size bottle of Asahi lager is a fiver, while a small bottle of water is £2.50, but you can get free iced-tap water. With a recession on, the itsu formula may need refining - on a Sunday lunchtime, the Wardour Street restaurant can be more than half-empty. 6/10

All Bar One, Regent Street, central London

Well-placed for a lunchtime pit stop while shopping for Christmas presents, Regent Street's All Bar One is a very light and airy branch of this widespread chain of bars with their trademark white walls, wooden floors, newspapers and shelves loaded with bottles of wine. The young waiters and waitresses will serve you at the solid wooden tables, most of which are near the big windows. Before noon, you can choose one of the dozen breakfast options, such as gammon and eggs or a bacon sandwich. After twelve, breakfast gives way to an extensive food menu, which includes tapas, sandwiches, burgers or 'big plates', such as salmon and haddock fish cakes or cumberland sausages. Service can be slow, very slow, particularly as the bar fills up, but your order usually comes with a smile. As well as a respectable selection of draught beers, All Bar One does decent coffee (£1.80 for an Americano) served in large cups branded Costa Coffee. But the food is hit and miss. The disappointing eggs benedict (£5.50) can be rather runny and bland. Better is the fried chorizo (£4.50), served with several small pieces of ciabatta. Although the meat can be tepid and a little greasy, it is full of salty flavour and goes well with a big bowl of lukewarm, skinny, but firm, chips (£2.50) and mayo. 6/10

Alice in Sunderland

Alice in Sunderland is an one-of-a-kind, 320-page comic book tracing the unlikely connections between the effete Oxford lecturer and writer Lewis Carroll and Sunderland, the gritty shipbuilding town in north east England. Author and artist Brian Talbot uses a bewildering array of literary techniques, from ranging back and forth across history to frequently swapping narrators, to explore how the art of story-telling is influenced by real life. The creative force behind several acclaimed adult comic-books, Talbot produces polished drawings in an impressive range of styles, supplemented by photo montages depicting the many faces of Sunderland and the surrounding area. With guest appearances by Sid James, the Venerable Bede, the Lambton Worm and George Formby, amongst many others, Alice in Sunderland is entertaining, but meandering. While the craftsmanship and the scholarship are impressive, you need to be seriously interested in either Lewis Carroll or Sunderland to really enjoy this book. 7/10

Malmaison Brasserie, Charterhouse Square, Farringdon, central London

Belonging to the Malmaison chain of smart boutique hotels, the brasserie is housed in the basement of a fine Victorian red-brick building - a former nurses' residence -overlooking a pretty cobbled courtyard. After entering through a grand white archway, you pass through a large ground floor reception decorated in dark, cool colours and head down the stairs to the slightly dingy brasserie, brightened only by a few skylights and the gleaming white tablecloths. Service by the young staff tends to be over-enthusiastic and the prices rather high. The main courses (around £17) are an unusual and contrived mix of two conventional meals, such as mildly-curried monkfish served with a clam chowder or roast saddle of rabbit, diced into anemic slices, accompanied by a stingy pot of shepherds pie and some slim orange and yellow carrots. The main courses typically need a side order of carbohydrate, such as a tray of creamy mash potato (£3.75) to fill them out. Deserts (about £6) include some respectable vanilla ice cream served with honey and a tepid chocolate sauce. Not surprisingly, Malmaison can be half-empty on a week day lunchtime as, unfortunately, you don't get what you pay for. 5/10

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Skate Cafe and Bar, Somerset House, The Strand, central London

In a cobbled square enclosed by the neo-classical splendour of Somerset House, the Skate Cafe and Bar is housed in a glass-panelled prefabricated building well-placed to watch the thrills and spills on the adjacent temporary ice rink. Skate's adjustable stools, arranged around small round tables, rise and fall with the tweak of a lever, creating much amusement for kids. Not quite so entertaining is the sometimes chaotic service at the bar or the sometimes high prices - £1.20 for a pretentious bag of crisps, £2.40 for a cappuccino in a takeaway cup or £3.20 for a cold(!) pint of London Pride in a plastic glass. Still, the bar also serves hot dogs, soup and other comfort food at more reasonable prices, while the loud pop music and the buzz of excitable skaters, including the odd recognisable television actor, makes for a good atmosphere. Set in a fine location, Skate is a good spot for winter people watching. 7/10

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand, London

A small, but world-class, art gallery housed in a wing of the charismatic, neo-classical bulk of Somerset House, the Courtauld Gallery is home to a clutch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Degas, Renoir, Pissario, Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet and van Gogh. After paying the modest five pound entrance fee, you should climb to the top of the gallery via the elegant, stone spiral staircase with its ornate banister. On the second floor is a temporary display of fairly insipid and washed-out watercolours by Turner. Much better are the permanent exhibits, such as a handful of works by Seurat painted in his distinctive style using thousands of tiny dots of colour to create a sense of motion and life. Other highlights include a beautiful study of ballet dancers by Degas, the strange, but absorbing, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Manet and the endearing Pipe Smoker by Cezanne.

Miniature ivory carvings
But the Courtauld Gallery's treasures are not limited to priceless paintings. The centrepiece of one of the 15 distinguished rooms is a glittering collection of Eighteenth Century household silver featuring an array of charming objects such as an elaborate inkwell with a little sand shaker use for blotting. Elsewhere, you will find venerable old chests and delicate harpsichords painted with dramatic Christian frescoes. Among the eye catching exhibits in the ground floor room, which is largely devoted to religious artifacts, are some extraordinarily detailed miniature ivory carvings from the Middle Ages and a handsome pair of Venetian gold candlesticks from the Sixteenth Century. Complete your visit by taking the quirky spiral staircase down to the warren-like basement which houses the toilets and a small cafe selling drinks, cakes and other fare. 9/10

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Regal Airport Hotel, Hong Kong

Right next to Hong Kong Airport, the Regal is a vast modern hotel serving the many business travellers catching early morning flights out of this busy Asian hub. The extensive lobby with its shiny floor and spaceship-style decor is dotted with seats, tables, pillars and pot plants. The unimaginative, but comfortable, rooms have grey carpets, brown wooden fittings, limp abstract prints on the white walls and compact bathrooms with naff black sinks. Still, the large flat screen televisions show 30 channels covering a good variety of languages. Via room service, you can order main meals, such as a fat and juicy 280g sirloin steak, served with squidgy, salty chips, a pleasant black pepper sauce and a small helping of peppers soaked in olive oil. Your main course comes with three warm bread rolls, but costs a pricey HK$238. You can wash it down with a small Japanese beer from the minibar for HK$50. Unfortunately, sleeping at the Regal isn't as pleasant - the air conditioning is noisy, you can hear next door's shower and the din of the odd aeroplane coming into land. At HK$2,100 for a double room, you pay a lot for convenience and some comfort. 5/10

Friday 21 November 2008

MTR Airport Express, Hong Kong

Clean, fast and high-tech train service running every 12 minutes between downtown Hong Kong, Kowloon and the impressive Airport, the MTR is the way to ensure you catch a flight on time. During the 25-minute journey, the anxious can track their progress by watching little, blue bulbs light up on an electronic sign representing the 35-km train line. A single costs a very reasonable HK$100, but bewarned there are no trains between 1am and 6am. 7/10

CotaiJet, Macau to Hong Kong

Dedicated service from Macau's newly-developed Cotai Strip to Hong Kong, the CotaiJet ferries a steady stream of gamblers and other pleasure seekers to and from The Venetian and other glitzy casinos. The streamlined modern boats leave from a new, but basic, terminal about 10 minutes drive from the main Cotai resorts. You have to catch the ferry you are booked on and get to the terminal at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Sailing about 30 times a day in each direction, the CotaiJet costs between HK$134 and HK$168, depending on whether you are travelling at peak times, for a single in economy class. When you reach the bright lights of Hong Kong harbour, you dock at the bustling and large ferry terminal, which is a short taxi ride from the city's central train station. 6/10

TurboJet ferry, Hong Kong 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 50-minute 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 grim ferry terminal where you spend up to half an hour hanging around before taking your seat on the boat. As the ferries tend to travel half-full, economy class, (HK$215, one way) is comfortable enough for the short trip and you can purchase snacks and drinks. First class (HK$315) has bigger seats, a free sugary snack and a drink, plus priority departure.

Gloomy in the dark
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

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.

Portofino, The Venetian, Macau

A newly-opened, stylish and spacious Italian restaurant, Portofino boasts an outside terrace overlooking swimming pools, giving guests at The Venetian a rare opportunity to enjoy al fresco eating. Even the large and contemporary indoor dining area is bathed in natural light. The menu features everything from antipasti to pizzas to fancy seafood dishes. Unfortunately, the very thin pizzas tend to be slightly soggy and rather bland. Moreover, the service can be very slow and erratic. 6/10

Blue Frog, The Venetian, Macau

Probably the hippest bar in The Venetian, which isn't saying much, the Blue Frog strives for a party vibe. But McSorley's, next door, is often more popular and the frog doesn't always have enough punters at its many small tables to create an atmosphere. Still, the cool, dark decor is a blessed relief from the ostentatious gold fittings of the surrounding resort. The bar sticks mostly to 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 eat, there are burgers, sandwiches, steaks, salads and other western food, plus a broad selection of hot breakfasts during the daytime. Despite its nightspot pretensions, the Blue Frog is a good venue for a leisurely brunch, particularly if you can get one of the handful of sturdy and comfortable chairs. Among the better dishes is the salmon eggs Benedict, served with squishy potatoes. While the fish can be a little anaemic, the eggs are nicely presented and taste good. 6/10

Cafe Deco, The Venetian, Macau

On the ground floor of The Venetian resort, Cafe Deco is a sprawling open-plan, open-all-hours, restaurant with 1930s-style decor, specialising in an extensive breakfast buffet (HK$192 for adults). With its huge UFO-shaped lights, zig-zagging floor tiles and black ceiling, dotted with spot-lights, Cafe Deco feels like a very-kitsch spaceship. Despite the one thousand seats, you may still have to queue for a table when the nearby convention centre is in service. Once you sit down, the numerous staff are quick to offer you an insipid coffee or tea. The buffet has everything from cereals to tropical fruits to smoked salmon to cold meats to hot western dishes to dim sum. Brits may find the omelets, scrambled eggs, rashers of bacon and sausages watery and lacking flavour. Reasonable value given the huge choice, but the food could be a lot better. 5/10

McSorley's Ale House, The Venetian, Macau

A heavily Irish-themed pub spread over two floors near The Venetian's conference centre, McSorley's brown leather armchairs, red leather sofas and wooden tables are usually occupied by groups of off-duty business people swigging pricey pints of Guinness or insipid Carlsberg lager. Inside, the noisy drinkers are surrounded by presumably-fake Irish memorabilia, brown wood, 'gold' trimmings and signs in a Celtic font, while the 'outside' tables rest on the dizzyingly-patterned carpets of the Venetian. The menu is mostly pretty standard pub fare, such as lasagna, calamari and fish and chips, plus a selection of speciality burgers. In the beef and Guinness pie (HK$95) there are some tender pieces of meat under a large and fluffy pastry quiff. The pie is accompanied by a serving of creamy, but modest, mash potato. Despite the Irish pretensions, McSorley's large screens generally show English Premiership football matches. The only things missing are daylight, folk music and the Irish. 5/10

Air New Zealand, Business Class, London to Hong Kong

Don't arrive too early for the 9pm Air New Zealand flight to Hong Kong, as the large Star Alliance lounge at Heathrow's Terminal One is a soulless place. Although the buffet includes some respectable chicken curry, you will probably eat better on the plane. Like the Virgin equivalent, Air New Zealand's business class section has diagonal, high-tech seats, which, with the help of a thin mattress and a plump duvet, turn into quite comfortable beds. Aim to be at the front of the grey, spartan cabin, where there are only window seats and it is a little quieter. The Kiwi cabin staff are warm and friendly, but service is suitably leisurely for a twelve hour flight.

Monday 10 November 2008

Quantum of Solace

The second outing of Daniel Craig as a taciturn and athletic James Bond, Quantum Solace is a brutally action-packed flick that traverses the globe from Siena to Port-au-Prince to Bolivia before a short epilogue in Siberia. The incisive cinematography, the exotic and effervescent locations and the stylish sets make for a very watchable movie. But the plot, which takes up threads from Casino Royale and has a vaguely environmental theme, is hard to follow, the acting one-dimensional, the product placement excessive and the violence somewhat repetitive. The best scene sees the camera switching repeatedly between apparently real footage of Siena's madcap bareback horse race and the invincible Bond chasing a treacherous MI6 agent through the city's atmospheric medieval street scape and buildings. At the other end of the spectrum, the last big scrap, set in an exploding eco-hotel in the featureless Bolivian desert is rather anticlimactic and contrived. Particularly unconvincing and out-of-character is the scene where Bond appears to be about to shoot his Russian-Bolivian love interest to save her from being burnt to death. 7/10

Saturday 8 November 2008

Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, south east London

Housed in a venerable old pump house, the two rooms of the Brunel Museum are devoted to the story of the construction of the first tunnel under a river anywhere in the world. The Thames Tunnel, hyped by the Victorians as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', was designed by the pioneering engineer Marc Brunel. It opened in 1843, eighteen years after construction began. It is still used by Tube trains today. Unfortunately, this modest and somewhat unkempt museum (admission £2) fails to really convey the magnitude of this achievement. Pending the completion of a new museum enabling a much-needed expansion, the exhibits today are really limited to a model of the tunnel being constructed, some paintings and a couple of small, but clever, Victorian three-dimensional pictures of the tunnel. Downstairs, you can watch a DVD about Brunel's life, while the kids attempt to make their own 3D picture. There is a tiny cafe with a semi-obscured view of the river, while outside are a couple of unassuming sculptures of Tower Bridge and a steam engine aimed at children. 5/10

Southwark Park, south east London

Another spruced-up green space originally laid out by the Victorians, Southwark Park has a convincing replica of its original bandstand, monumental gates and a boating lake. Within its 63 acres, there is also a pleasant rose garden, a wildlife garden and many attractive, well-planted and well-kept borders. But its most picturesque feature has to be the avenues of large mature plane trees that criss-cross the northern end of the park. Elsewhere, there is a playground, football pitches, a sports centre, a cafe and even a small art gallery. Although council estates and blocks of flats loom over much of the greenery, Southwark Park is an appealing open space providing much-needed relief from the urban bustle and deprivation of surrounding Bermondsey. 7/10

Friday 7 November 2008

The Tankard, Kennington Road, south London

A fairly Bohemian pub, the Tankard has attractive pained-windows and an unusual roof terrace overlooking the scrap of green grass next to the Imperial War Museum. Inside are some dilapidated pale green leather sofas, a bare, black floor, a handful of wooden tables and a couple of large mirrors with chunky ornate frames. But the distressed look is marred by a cash machine and a huge screen showing television, which is drowned out by the loud music on the stereo. The menu lists about a dozen 'oven-baked' pizzas, some featuring salmon and other novel toppings, in a choice of 12 inch (about seven to eight pounds) and six inch sizes (about three to four pounds), plus a selection of salads and side dishes. After ordering at the bar, the food can take a while to arrive and isn't really worth the wait. The Americano pizza is passable, but nothing special, while the six dough balls (about three quid) served with humus, sour cream or sweet chili, are rather hefty and stodgy. 5/10

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Hakkasan restaurant, Hanway Place, Hanway Street, central London

Haunt of the rich and the beautiful, Hakkasan is a sassy Chinese restaurant tucked away in a large basement in a backstreet near Tottenham Court Road tube station. Nod to the bouncer, make your way down the stairs and past the small squad of cloakroom attendants. You'll be directed to a table in the dark dining room, which is divided up by black wooden screens decorated with striking geometric fretwork patterns, neatly framing the many glamorous patrons. The drinks menu includes unusual and enticing cocktails, novel Asian beers and an extensive selection of top-notch wines. If you don't want to burn too much cash, eat dim sum, which is smartly presented and generally delicious. Highlights include the juicy slices of lamb, the light and crispy prawn dumplings, served with seaweed, and the very succulent seabass. Among the deserts is a melt-in-the mouth cheesecake, luscious balls of ice cream and zesty fruit sorbets. Besides the high prices, Hakkasan's only weakness is the sometimes sporadic and curt service by the army of attractive young staff. 8/10

Sunday 2 November 2008

Hampton Court Palace, south west London

The extravagant, lion-topped stone gateway, the elongated chimneys and sprawling red-brick Tudor facade of Hampton Court Palace are a remarkable and inviting sight from the busy A308 that mars this picturesque and historic part of south west of London. The path from the gates to the palace is flanked on one side by a fine red-brick terrace and on the other by a tree-lined stretch of the Thames. Up close, you are struck by the scale of this well-preserved and handsome palace, which was built by social-climber Cardinal Wolsey in the early sixteenth century before being commandeered by the egomaniac, King Henry VIII. While the grassy Base Court is being renovated, you enter via an atmospheric cobbled courtyard enclosed by weathered red-brick walls, where you may be greeted by a couple dressed as medieval aristocrats. They usher you into the extensive Tudor Kitchens, where chefs in period costume may be preparing smelly medieval meals on ancient wooden tables and roasting meat on spits in front of the huge open fire. Above the kitchens is the extraordinary Great Hall, notable for its soaring and ornate hammer-beam roof, lavishly-carved wooden screens and elaborate sixteenth century tapestries.

Blackbird Bakery, Grove Vale, East Dulwich

Pocket-sized bakery selling crusty loaves of speciality breads containing everything from olives to sun dried tomatoes, plus succulent cakes, buttery croissants and other tempting fayre. You can also pick-up a reasonably-priced, but decent, coffee, and sit at one of the handful of cushioned stools lined up at the window bar. While this stretch of Grove Vale isn't much to look at, it is worth taking the short walk down from Lordship Lane to the Blackbird for a shopping pit-stop. There is another branch opposite Herne Hill station, where the food is equally good, but the music can be a tad too loud. 8/10

Sunday 26 October 2008

British Museum, Bloomsbury, central London

The mother of all museums, the British Museum is an imposing and vast neo-classical building surrounded by the Georgian terraces and squares of Bloomsbury. The hordes of visitors are initially sucked into the striking Great Court - a large rectangular space covered by a glass roof and surrounded by cream-coloured classical facades with doorways leading into the scores of galleries packed with antiquities plundered from across the ancient world. In the middle of the court is a large, circular reading room flanked by broad spiral staircases leading up to a smart restaurant at the top. To the east are several charming and venerable wood-panelled rooms, dripping with a sense of adventure and history. Behind glass panels is a wide variety of objects, from stone age axes to eighteenth century medals, designed to show the breadth of the museum's collection. Beyond these rooms is the Paul Hamlyn library where children can pick up backpacks, which contain a series of activities based around a couple of galleries in the museum, or a colourful booklet detailing one of half-a-dozen trails, which mostly involve spotting particular artefacts.

Friday 24 October 2008

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Eleven-volume fantasy saga set in an extraordinarily-detailed and vast medieval world embroiled in a struggle between the forces of light and the minions of the Dark One. The storyline revolves around Rand al'Thor, a grim young man endowed with massive magic powers, and some equally dour friends from his home village. They reluctantly get caught up in saving the world from the chaos being wrought by the "Dark Friends" working under cover everywhere from taverns to royal palaces. These locations and the vast cast of characters are described in painstaking and, often turgid, detail. But all this effort to create a believable world is undermined by contrived plot twists often brought about by seemingly arbitrary supernatural powers wielded by weird entities, such as the all-knowing Aelfinn who reside in another dimension.

Occasionally the pace quickens
Jordan goes to great lengths to give women a prominent role in the series, but after a couple of thousand pages or so, many of the heroines begin to merge into one - nearly all the females in the books seem to moan incessantly, fiddle with their skirts or fold their arms under their breasts. Occasionally the pace quickens as Jordan remembers to include some action and there is the odd gripping passage, such as the tense and atmospheric opening to the first book. A former military man, the author is at his best describing battles, skirmishes and bar room brawls in bloody detail. This still unfinished epic, which should have been half the length, needs a good editor. 5/10

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Mangosteen, Gipsy Hill, south London

A small and simple restaurant with maroon walls decorated with black and white framed prints of Vietnam, Mangosteen is a well-established eatery in Gypsy Hill. The menu features plenty of south east Asian classics, such as fish cakes, green curries and tamarind duck. To start, the four crispy golden dumplings, containing prawns and chicken and served with chili sauce, are spicy, crispy and exquisite. Alternatively, the steamed king prawns with asparagus, covered with a tangy lime and coconut sauce, are ultra-fresh. But they don't always arrive hot. Among the main courses, the beef pho amounts to lots of noodles and some lackluster slices of meat floating around in a huge bowl of liquid. It really needs the accompanying chili sauce. Packed with fresh, juicy prawns, mussels, pasta and salad, the seafood vermicelli is a better bet.

Two courses for ten pounds
Most of the main courses are around a tenner, while the starters are between three and five pounds. From Monday to Wednesday, you can get two courses for just ten pounds, but you pay a three pound supplement if any of your choices contain seafood. The wine list, starting at 12 pounds a bottle, includes some well-known French and Australian names or you can pay three quid for a modest bottle of Asian lager. There is also a service charge of 12.5%, but the courteous and friendly Vietnamese waitress earns it. In the summer you might want to dine al fresco on the outside terrace overlooking this fairly busy thoroughfare. 7/10

Epsom Downs, south west of London

One of the best things about Epsom Downs, a stretch of rolling downland on the edge of suburbia, is the view north from the car park on the crest of the hill. The dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the skyscrapers of the city shimmer in the distance far beyond the golf course hugging the hillside. To the south, is the glistening white grandstand of Epsom race course. After crossing the road, an underpass takes you to the other side of the race track where an undulating path leads across the grass. Above you, model airplanes may be doing loop-the-loops, while kites dance elsewhere in the sky.

Thursday 16 October 2008

The Florence, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, South London

A large pub the size of a village hall, with funky decor and funky music, 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. But the tangy Weasel ale, brewed on the premises, must be an acquired taste. Head for one of the tables, flanked by comfortable brown sofa-pews, near the large front windows as the conservatory at the back is less inviting. There is free Wi-Fi and iced tap water, the bar food is pretty good and reasonably priced - you can get a deep, juicy steak burger with blue cheese mayo, plus some fat salty chips with a garlic dip, for a tenner. Quiet during the day, before coming to life in evenings when the Florence buzzes with a lively mix of local twenty and thirty somethings. 7/10

Sunday 12 October 2008

Stroll on the South Bank, central London

A riverside promenade, heavily-redeveloped in the 1950s and 1960s, stretching between Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge, the South Bank is lined with tourist attractions, restaurants, bars and cultural institutions. Sturdy black vintage lamp-posts intertwined with serpents punctuate the fine views of the handsome buildings on the north bank of the river, including the neo-Gothic splendour of the Houses of Parliament. Near Blackfriars, the narrow walkway can get uncomfortably crowded on summer weekends, especially around the Art Deco Oxo Tower renown for its top-floor posh restaurant.

Friday 10 October 2008

Coffee at Oscars, Charlotte Street Hotel, Charlotte Street, central London

Stylish, boutique hotel housed in an elegant early Victorian building with a pale green facade and awnings, guarded by a pair of matching vintage street lights. A pricey breakfast is served in Oscars bar, notable for its resplendent, technicolour wall paper. You can choose between the slightly uncomfortable, low-slung chairs and circular tables near the windows or the more formal dining area at the back of the bar. Even if you skip breakfast, a smallish cup of filter coffee will set you back four pounds. Still, it does come with a biscuit. On a weekday morning, Oscars is three-quarters full with well-heeled media types and unusually fashion-conscious business executives. Pricey, but good for people watching. 7/10

Saturday 4 October 2008

Pero, Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street, near London Bridge

Slightly surreal and highly unusual, Pero is a heady mix of puppet-show, play and musical set in an Italian village performed by a Dutch theatre group in English and aimed at children. It opens with the self-confident Sun (Annemarie Maas) and the mournful, but melodic Moon, (Guus Ponsioen) playing their keyboards and narrating, mostly in song, the life of Pero the baker and his next door neighbour Colombina, who runs a launderette. The neighbours, small childlike puppets, are controlled by the flirtatious, energetic and charismatic Inez de Bruijn and the more workmanlike, but still engaging, Timmy Velraeds. The tragic-comic storyline is echoed in the performers, garish, almost clownish, makeup and grey attire.

Embellished with charming details
While the lyrics are often amusing and absorbing, the script has its idiosyncratic moments, such as the strange repetition of the reasons why Pero and Colombina's childhood friendship hasn't blossomed into an adult romance. The music, composed by Guus Ponsioen, is mostly variations on one captivating melody performed in a series of musical styles from folk to opera. Maas' vocal talents are more than equal to the challenge. Half way through, the performance changes pace with the arrival of the amorous house painter Palantino. He wisks Colombina away on a honeymoon in the countryside, which emerges from a large black box rather like a page in a pop-up book. Pero is embellished with charming details, such as the steam that rises out of the bakery chimney and the fluffy rats that overrun its cellar. Although the performance only runs for an hour, you can get both adults and kids tickets at the Unicorn for as little as a fiver apiece. Produced by Speeltheater Holland, the overall effect is enchanting. 8/10

Friday 3 October 2008

Sun & Doves, Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell, south London

Just round the corner from the sprawling King's Hospital complex, the Sun & Doves draws a steady flow of medics on weekday lunchtimes. Inside, the spacious bar has an eclectic, but stylish, decor, an attractive black stone floor and cosy corners with leather sofas, books, televisions and a collection of videos. On the walls is an odd mix of prints and African-style art, including some narrow, painted shields, and the chill-out music is loud and moody. Out back, is a large patio with its own collection of quirky art and artifacts. You can soak it all up while surfing the Web via the free Wi-Fi. The Sun & Doves menu, which includes salmon fishcakes (£8.50) and rump steak (£9.95), is straight out of the gentrified pub playbook. There are also some cheaper staples, such as burgers, soup and sandwiches. The cream of mushroom soup contains some strange stringy bits, but is well seasoned and has some flavour. There is a generous filling in the avocado, bacon and chicken toasted sandwich. You can get the soup of the day and a sandwich (just two rounds of bread) for £5.90. The Americano coffee (£1.70) is strong, but on the small side and watch out for the optional service charge of 10%. 7/10

Freewheel, central London

On one Sunday each year, some of London's finest roads are closed to traffic to enable thousands of cyclists to follow a 6km route between Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London without dodging cars, buses and lorries. Londoners of all shapes and sizes, some in fancy dress, turn up on everything from hunking mountain bikes to sleek racers to unicycles. But the absence of cars doesn't mean they can finally jump red lights legally - stewards, holding stop and go signs, patrol pedestrian crossings, enabling the thousands of spectators to criss-cross the route. Still, cruising around the grandeur of Trafalgar Square surrounded by scores of fellow cyclists is quite an experience. Would-be cyclists wishing to ride the route are supposed to register first, but it doesn't appear to be well enforced.

Monday 29 September 2008

Standen, West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead

Late-Victorian country house lavishly decorated in the Arts and Crafts style, which means lots of carpets and wallpaper with dizzying patterns of swirling fruit, flowers, birds and other flora and fauna. Not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but the house is also packed with period fixtures and fittings, giving a good insight into how the wealthy lived at the tail end of the 19th century. The upstairs windows also offer pleasant views of rolling Sussex countryside and the National Trust, which owns Standen, lays on Arts and Crafts-themed quizzes and colouring sheets for kids.

Friday 26 September 2008

Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London

One of the hundreds of properties around London that open their doors for one weekend a year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a heavily-restored throwback to the mid-nineteenth century. The grandeur of the British Empire lingers on in its ornate meeting rooms, stately staircases and the marble splendour of Durbar Court - a covered courtyard ringed by balconies with beautifully-tiled floors and intricate plasterwork. The lavish India Office and the golden Locarno Suite, with its ostentatious arched ceilings, are still in use as offices or meeting rooms. One of the highlights is the Grand Staircase with its bronze bust of Anthony Eden, heroic neo-classical paintings and massive golden chandeliers. But all this extravagance is somewhat offset by the mundane reminders, such as the plastic water dispensers and waste paper bins, that this building has to earn its keep in the cash-strapped public sector. On Open House weekend, admission is free and the friendly security guards make you feel very welcome. 7/10

Sunday 21 September 2008

Ashridge Business School, near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

A leading business school and conference centre on the site of a medieval monastery, Ashridge now resembles a fortified stately home. As you come up the drive, you might spot off-duty executives jogging around the parkland or playing football, tennis or pitch and put golf in the extensive grounds. Inside the main building, the ancient hallway, now serving as a reception area, and the dining rooms with their high-ceilings, are well-preserved and evoke a real sense of history. But the nearby bar, which looks like it belongs in an airport lounge, is disappointingly characterless and out-of-place.

Small and unsatisfying
Served in the distinguished dining rooms, the evening meal menus strike a suitably conservative note. The scallops, served on a cauliflower puree, are fresh, but a little bland. The roast lamb with truffle gratin potatoes, asparagus, pea shoots and minted hollandaise also needs more flavour. What's more, the portions can be small and unsatisfying. For desert, the lemon tart has some zing, but the slices are meagre. The wine list is also rather limited, with most bottles costing between ten and twenty quid.

Serious thinking
There is a big contrast between the venerable, almost ostentatious, mansion and the outlying modern conference centres, which were clearly built on a budget and feel like they belong in a mid-range hotel. Still, the bedrooms are comfortable and well-equipped with ironing boards, flat-screen TVs, coffee-making facilities and other creature comforts. If you miss the brief window for breakfast in the main house, you can get good bacon butties brought to your meeting room and the machine coffee is respectable. Although the Ashridge site is blanketed with paid-for Wi-Fi access, courtesy of T-Mobile, most of the buildings lack mobile coverage. That helps make Ashridge a good place to escape the interruptions of everyday working life and do some serious thinking. 7/10

Saturday 20 September 2008

British Airways, Economy Class, London to Brussels

You start your journey at Heathrow's notorious Terminal 5, a cavernous, space-age building walled by glass and held up with gleaming white girders. Kitted out with plenty of electronic check-in kiosks, a high-tech security process and upmarket shops, Terminal 5 is actually quite a pleasant and efficient place. It is also very big and you may have to take a shuttle to get to your gate. On route, you can stop at a branch of Apostrophe to get a grilled, tepid cheese and ham croissant for £1.95 or a decent filter coffee served in a small cafeteria for the same money.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Tate Modern, South Bank, central London

Looming over the south bank of the Thames, the Tate Modern's mundane, industrial brick shell is the ideal counterfoil to the Baroque grandeur of St. Paul's Cathedral on the opposite side of the river. Housed in a former power station, the Tate Modern's vast turbine hall, a striking piece of architecture in its own right, is reserved for exhibits on a grand scale, such as the Shibboleth crack or Carsten Holler's slides, and is sometimes empty. Above it, roomy, white galleries display hundreds of modern paintings, photographs, sculptures, models and films. While many of the exhibits are weird and inaccessible, you will almost certainly find something you like. The most provocative stuff tends to be in the temporary exhibitions, some of which have an entrance charge. On some of the landings, there are engaging interactive consoles aimed mainly at children, while the walls above are decorated with a vast timeline marking the many movements in modern art from Cubism to Post Minimalism. The Tate Modern also has two good shops packed with books and other wares related to art and architecture.

Friday 5 September 2008

Escape Bar, Railton Road, Herne Hill

On weekday lunchtimes, this quirky and slightly battered bar, opposite Herne Hill station, draws in a handful of young mothers and their noisy offspring, attracted by the spacious seats, the toy collection in the corner and the tasty food. The warm roast chicken and avocado ciabatta sandwich (£5.50), served with a sprightly green salad and honey dressing, is out of the top drawer. You can wash it down with a decent filter coffee or cappuccino for £1.50. Service by the staff, decked out in Gothic black, is friendly and easy-going, but the rock, Indie or dance music on the stereo can be too loud for a lunchtime. Still, there is free wi-fi and some sockets, where you can plug your laptop in, next to the modern leather sofas, arm chairs and tables with glass tops encasing hundreds of white pebbles. On the walls are cool, abstract paintings. But the furniture has taken plenty of knocks, the patchy maroon color scheme is a bit haphazard and the back wall is covered in garish, flowery purple wallpaper. 7/10

Tuesday 2 September 2008

IKEA restaurant, Purley Way, Croydon

A bustling, self-service, first-floor canteen with solid wooden tables and views over the typically jam-packed car park, IKEA's restaurant specialises in good value staples, ultra-cheap kids meals and the odd Swedish delicacy. The hot dishes (about £4.25) include filling and passable meat balls, served with a creamy sauce and lingonberry jam, or fish in batter accompanied by peas. Both come with a choice of chips or new potatoes. The cold options include open prawn sandwiches and gravlax. There are also chocolaty Swedish deserts from 60 pence each and bigger slices of creamy gateau for £1.70 each. The children's meals (about £1.30) are usually smaller versions of the adult meals plus a free piece of fruit - an orange, apple or banana.

Neat little trolleys
You can stack it all on one of the neat little trolleys, which can carry three trays at once. And make sure you get everything you want first time, as the self-service queues can be long as weary shoppers seek sustenance. Still, once you have paid for a glass you can then fill it up as many times as you like with the soft drinks in the dispensing machines. When you are finished, you are supposed to clear your own tables - helpful signs explain that doing this will help to keep prices low. 7/10

Monday 1 September 2008

Mela, Herne Hill, south London

Occupying a prominent corner plot opposite Herne Hill station, formerly the home of the renown Three Monkeys, Mela is a roomy and stylish Indian restaurant. You cross an elevated walkway above the downstairs bar to reach the dining room adorned with stylised, but attractive, travelogue prints of India on the white walls and ornate fabrics on the chairs, crisp white table cloths and tasteful parchment menus. Some of the substantial starters (around £5) feature big chunks of heavily-spiced meat served with dips. But save room for one of the curries (between £6 and £15), which tend to come in rich, creamy sauces offset, in some cases, by refreshing peppers. The more expensive dishes include novel ingredients, such as crab or rabbit, while one of the tasty vegetable curries features plump mushrooms and sweet peas. The naan bread is thin, crispy and moreish, but the dahl can be a little runny and the big bottles of Cobra beer are also a bit watery. On a Saturday night, Mela attracts enough people to create an atmosphere, but isn't usually full. Still, with efficient and courteous service, Mela is a cut above your average Indian restaurant. 7/10

Friday 29 August 2008

Eurostar catering

If you travel on Eurostar regularly, register your journeys online and you will soon acquire a carte blanche card, which enables you to jump the sometimes lengthy check-in queues and use the business class lounges where there are free nibbles and drinks. Unfortunately, it doesn't get you round the lackluster catering on board the train. The ultra-hot cheese and ham sandwich (about £3.50), for example, is tasteless and fiddly to eat. The microwaved chicken curry (about £5.50) is a bit better, but still amounts to fuel rather than flavoursome food. At least the chocolate muffins, costing a hefty £1.70 each, actually taste of something. Eurostar is easily the best and quickest way to travel between London and Paris or Brussels, but try and avoid meal times. 5/10

Hotel Plasky, Avenue Eugene Plasky, Brussels

Functional, modern, good value and handy for visiting Eurocrats, Hotel Plasky has surprisingly large and comfortable rooms with flat screen televisions, safes, free Internet access and, in some cases, small leather armchairs. Net curtains and double glazing obscure the sights and sounds of the fairly busy road at the front. But the swirling patterns on some of the walls, the curtains and the bedspreads can be lurid and even toe-curling. By contrast, the grim, all-white bathrooms look like they belong in an East European hospital from the Soviet era. The buffet breakfast, in a clean and modern, but drab, dining room, includes passable machine coffee and orange juice, some tired scrambled egg, bread, croissants, pain au chocolat, salami, bland cheese and yogurts. At 95 euros for bed and breakfast, Hotel Plasky is easier on your pocket than on your eye. 6/10

Thursday 28 August 2008

Scheltema, Rue des Dominicains, Brussels

On a narrow pedestrianised street, near the Grand Place, packed with restaurants all offering pretty much the same thing, Scheltema's old-world ambiance makes it stand out from the competition. Among the tasteful green lamp shades, venerable wooden panelling, waiters in white shirts and black waist coats, high ceilings and wooden floors, the only incongruous note is struck by the blue plastic salt cellars, which appear to have come straight from the local supermarket. There are open kitchens at the front and back where you can see the chefs working away, breaking open the shells of crustaceans with knives.

Belgian Summer
You can nibble on a baguette and salty olives, while browsing the extensive and pricey menu mainly comprised of traditional French and Belgian dishes. The main courses tend to be 20 euros plus and you may be tempted by the Belgian Summer set meal, costing 30 euros including taxes and service and a Stella beer. It starts with some hot and comforting, but slightly bland, shrimp croquettes accompanied by some tasty fried parsley. Next up is a big steaming pot of large juicy mussels served with celery and cabbage, supported by a side order of crispy chips and mayonnaise with a bit of a kick. Service is professional and even on a Tuesday evening, Scheltema is justifiably busy. 7/10

Monday 25 August 2008

Mamma Mia!

A feel-good musical movie pulsating with Abba anthems, Mamma Mia has a top-notch cast and an extraordinarily silly plot. Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are among the accomplished actors who try in vain to submerge you in a fantastically idyllic world in which there is a song for every occasion and even octogenarian Greek ladies can do a mean disco routine. There is a lot of over-acting and Brosnan, in particular, struggles to hit all his notes, but this film has an infectious, childlike enthusiasm and sense of fun. It also looks good - the Greek island setting is magical from the cliff-top church that stages the wedding to the dramatic coastal views from Donna's hotel where most of the two day plot plods along. But it is the interaction between the agonising Streep, the exuberant Walters and the preening Baranski that keeps you watching this wacky, but vacuous, film. 6/10

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Thai Candle, Lamb's Conduit Street, Central London

Small and unusually spartan for an Asian restaurant, the Thai Candle specialises in set lunches of two courses for a tenner. Among the starters on the time-worn, laminated menus, the fish cakes are small, solid and spicy. Much better is the duck curry main course, which includes pineapple and other tangy flavours, served in a bowl with a side-helping of boiled rice. The pad Thai noodles, stocked with plenty of prawns, is also a good combination of flavours. The service is quick, but surly and adds an extra 12.5% to your bill. 6/10

Monday 18 August 2008

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. Trains run every hour. 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

National Express East Coast, London to York

If you book early enough and are organised enough to travel on specific trains, National Express can get you from London's Kings Cross to York in less than two hours for less than a tenner. With space to stroll around, free Wi-Fi and electric sockets next to the seats, this train journey certainly beats the mind-numbing slog in the car. But, if you leave it late or want the flexibility to travel on any of the half-hourly trains, you may end up paying closer to one hundred pounds. The prices in the buffet car are also high - a small bottle of water is a heady £1.30. But there is nothing to stop you bringing your own. 7/10

Sunday 17 August 2008

Raven Hall restaurant, Ravenscar, Yorkshire

Appropriately-named, 200-year-old Raven Hall sits brooding on a high clifftop overlooking a sweeping arc of coastline leading up to the red roofs of the old smugglers' village of Robin Hood's Bay. Inside is something of a time warp with old leather chairs in the foyer and smart white tablecloths and napkins in the spacious dining room. But it is the beautiful view of the vintage coastal countryside through the huge windows that will catch and hold your eye. The sluggish waiters wear white shirts and black ties, loosely knotted, making them look like overgrown schoolboys. But the food is much more polished and generally good value. For a tenner, you can have a precisely-cooked, well-seasoned piece of salmon covered in a prawn sauce and accompanied by al dente vegetables and a choice of chips, new potatoes or jacket potato. The sea bream with a fennel and langouistine sauce, a chef's special, makes for a fine combination of flavours. The children's menu includes some reasonable mini-pizzas and sausages, both offered with chips or new potatoes, plus peas and sweetcorn, for £6 a dish. You can wash it down with the free water, served in large jugs, wine or a draught beer, such as Tetley's or Fosters. Fine food in a fine setting. 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 and quirky gardens perched on a scenic 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 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.

Hayburn Wyke pub, near Cloughton, Yorkshire

The Hayburn Wyke inn is a homely 200-year-old stone pub nestling in a secluded wooded valley near the Cleveland Way, which provides it with a steady flow of thirsty and hungry customers. Outside, there is an unobtrusive adventure playground made from tyres and timber, a large lawn and some garden tables. The inside is a little dingy and service can be slow when the Hayburn Wyke gets busy on sunny lunchtimes, but the good-value, and mostly tasty pub fare, such as steak pie, shepherds pie and the gigantic 'gorilla' grill (£6 to £13) makes up for that. The steak sandwich with chips and a small side salad (£5) is a decent brunch, while respectable kids meals cost just £3.50. There are real ales on tap and the middle-aged ladies manning the bar are warm and friendly. 8/10

Family Fun Day, Royal Windsor Racecourse

Every so often, Windsor Racecourse, a compact, attractive track bordering the Thames, goes to great lengths to pull in the family punter, installing giant inflatable slides, bouncy castles, pony rides, 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, and in particular, ice creams, meaning you might not find time to place a bet. And most of the kids' activities aren't rain-proof. 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 a hefty £22 for adults and free for children under seventeen. The Grandstand is cheaper, but has fewer frills. 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. 7/10

Sunday 10 August 2008

Tenuta Pilastru, near Arzachena, Gallura, Sardinia

Spread out across a small plateau, the recently-built stone chalets of Tenuta Pilastru overlook a converted two-storey farmhouse, a sizable swimming pool and the deserted rolling countryside beyond. Not far from a craggy, granite hilltop, the wicker chairs and sun loungers in the shady gardens are a tranquil sanctuary from the bustle of the Sardinian coast. Inside the former farmhouse, guest rooms, together with the stylish hotel reception and lounge, enclose a small courtyard. From here, you can clamber up past the restaurant to a cluster of huge granite boulders, worn into weird and wonderful shapes, filled in with small stone walls to create a series of caves.

La Marmorata, Gallura, Sardinia

This picturesque spot has been commercialised within an inch of its life. La Marmorata beach is dominated by the massed and orderly ranks of sunbeds and parasols, most of them run by the huge hotel complex overlooking the sea. Parking costs 1 euro an hour and you even have to pay 50 euro cents to use the toilets. Still, plenty of people head to La Marmorata to enjoy the fine white sand, the clear, calm water and the pleasant seaward views of a rocky islet. You can escape the crowds by heading north, past the attractive wooden jetty and clambering over the boulders tumbling down into the sea. 6/10

Vignola, Gallura, Sardinia

More downmarket than many of Sardinia's beaches, Vignola's promenade is lined with undistinguished bars, shops and cafes and is bordered by a large camp site. Down at the shoreline, rental sun loungers and parasols are conspicuous by their absence. The glitterati are probably put off by the grains of sand, which are almost big enough to be small pebbles - uncomfortable in shoes, but fine in bare feet. Vignola's breezy bay is good for windsurfing and kitesurfing, there is free parking less than 500 yards from the large beach and there are fine views of the nearby Aragonese watch tower, the rugged Sardinian coastline and distant Corscia. 6/10

Saturday 9 August 2008

Aragona, Via Manganella, Castelsardo, Sardinia

Boasting an enviable position on the edge of Castelsardo's historic heart, Aragona's outside terrace, surrounded by a solid stone wall and protected by a large sun shade, has a spectacular view of the Mediterranean and the green hills lining this section of the coast. The low cover charge of 1 euro a head and the price of the food belies the quality of the surroundings - the chairs are comfortable and the tables are covered with smart red cloths. The menu has a selection of large paninis (4 euros apiece) some with tantalising fillings, such as anchovies and dolcelatte cheese, plus pasta and sea food dishes (around 7 euros). The food is nothing special by Italian standards, but it is good value and tasty enough. For desert, there is some decent ice cream costing just 1 euro for a scoop in a cone. The service can be slow at peak times, giving you plenty of time to admire the view. 8/10

Friday 8 August 2008

Castelsardo, Sardinia

One of the few settlements on the northern Sardinian coast with a real sense of history, the old heart of Castelsardo, visible from many miles away, sits proudly on a cliff top high above the sea. Narrow atmospheric streets, connected by broad stone steps and still with their nineteenth century lighting, hug the steep hill below the medieval castle. The quiet alleyways are lined with pastel-coloured houses, restrained souvenir shops selling local handicrafts and laid-back cafe-restaurants. On the north-western edge is a small, but attractive, stone cathedral with a broad terrace leading to a sturdy stone promenade with sweeping views into the great blue yonder and up the attractive green coastline. 8/10

Sunday 3 August 2008

Cala di Falco, Cannigione, Sardinia

Commanding panoramic views over the Golfo di Arzachena, Cala di Falco is a modern and comfortable resort-hotel sprawling up a hillside near Cannigione's small beaches. The rooms, suites and self-catering chalets are very spacious, but modestly furnished and garishly-decorated in pastel colours. The air-conditioning can be noisy and the showers small, but the beds are okay and there is typically a good mini-bar and safe. If you don't have young children, try and get one of the few upstairs rooms, which tend to have better views and you won't be disturbed by the echo of footsteps through the ceiling.

Friday 1 August 2008

Capo Testa, Gallura, Sardinia

The beaches flanking the causeway leading down to Capo Testa are the place to come the day after a storm. Big waves roll across the glittering, azure, shallow water and scores of locals and holidaymakers stride out to meet them. If you happen to be standing at the point where the surf breaks, you may get knocked off your feet and end up floundering in the water with the seaweed. If you prefer, you can laze on the fine sand, sheltered by the dunes behind, and scan the distant cliffs on the horizon. At the north end of the bay, some rickety stone steps lead up through the trees to a discreet snack bar where a handful of tables offer fine views across the bay. On the other side of the causeway is another attractive, but more sheltered, beach from where you can see Corsica on the horizon. There is a small, free car park, but in the summer you will probably have to park on the road and clamber through the dunes down to this refreshingly uncommercial and exceptional beach. 8/10

Pape Satan, Via Lamarmora, Santa Teresa di Gallura, Sardinia

A large pizza and pasta restaurant tucked away in a side street, Pape Satan has an indoor dining room, a courtyard with circular stone tables and a spacious garden terrace sheltered by a permanent roof. Soon after you sit down, one of the smartly-dressed waitresses will place a basket of good bread, olive oil and red-wine vinegar on your lurid green paper table cloth. Most of the respectable pizzas (8-10 euros), baked in a wood-fired oven, come with generous toppings, such as large slices of Parma ham. However, the bland strips of meat on the prosciutto pizza are not so appealing, while the sweetcorn, rocket and yellow peppers in the Chef's salad can be a little limp. As Pape Satan is listed in some guide books, many of your fellow diners are likely to be tourists. The workmanlike service, which can be a little surly, doesn't really justify leaving a tip on top of the 2 euros a head cover charge. 6/10

Santa Teresa di Gallura, Sardinia

At the most northerly point in Sardinia, there are distant views across to Corsica from Santa Teresa di Gallura's sixteenth century Spanish watchtower perched on a rocky outcrop high above the Mediterranean. You can stroll around the well-preserved tower, following the paths up and down the craggy cliffs and round to the small, but pretty, beach. A large town by Sardinian standards, Santa Teresa's modern buildings, painted in sickly pastel colours, sprawl around a small heavily-restored nineteenth-century core, housing some cobbled pedestrianised streets and squares lined with souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. 7/10

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Porto Liscia-Porto Pollo, Gallura, Sardinia

A couple of kilometers of sand cradled in a curvaceous bay, Porto Liscia is a haven for wind-surfers, who criss-cross the water against a picturesque backdrop propelled by the steady breeze. If you wander west you will find plenty of space, but the sand is quite coarse. As the countryside around the beach is virtually undeveloped, Porto Liscia attracts a bohemian crowd, many of whom congregate in the small wooden bar pumping out chilled music. At the easterly end of the beach is a road, which is lined with cafes and shacks renting water sports gear, balanced on a narrow spit of land leading down to a camp site at L'Isuledda. On the other side of the road is the smaller Porto Pollo beach, where the sand is finer and the shore serves as a launchpad for dozens of petit sailing boats and the odd catamaran. 8/10

Monday 28 July 2008

Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

The de facto capital of the Costa Smeralda, Porto Cervo is a smart, but sterile, seaside town perched on the hillsides overlooking a marina often sheltering an eyeopening flotilla of huge, state-of-the-art yachts. These vessels, which look more like spaceships than sailing ships, and their wealthy passengers are the main attraction. The town itself consists of salmon pink modern villas, luxury hotels, upmarket boutiques and cafe-bars clustered around a couple of unremarkable paved squares. A rickety wooden bridge, near the shoreline, is the only feature of any character. 5/10

Sunday 27 July 2008

Liscia Ruia, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

To reach this fashionable beach you have to drive down a very bumpy and dusty track and, perhaps, queue outside the car park (1.5 euros per hour) for 30 minutes or so waiting for someone to leave. Don't be tempted to park in any of the laybys that line the road - you will likely get a ticket. The large beach itself is a breezy arc of fine sand studded with sturdy umbrellas and padded sun loungers (8 euros each), lapped by gentle waves and backed by green scrub. The limited parking space ensures there is plenty of space to pitch your own umbrella if you don't want to pay up. Your fellow sun worshippers will mostly be prosperous Italians spanning the generations and a handful of luxury yachts are often parked in the bay. Like many Sardinian beaches, Liscia Ruia is patrolled by half-hearted hawkers, many from west Africa, selling clothes, bags, jewellery and other trinkets. A snack bar offers mediocre paninis, expensive salads, drinks and ice cream. This is not a great beach for young kids as the sea gets quite deep quite quickly, but it is a picturesque spot with some cachet. 6/10

Saturday 26 July 2008

Cannigione, Sardinia

A modern, but restrained holiday resort strung out along one side of a scenic bay on Sardinia's north-east ione has several small beaches, attractive coves and a substantial marina. From a picnic table shaded by a clump of trees, you can watch the yachts sailing in and out of the channel against a backdrop of green hills and granite mountaintops. Or you can take a pleasant stroll along the paved promenade, which winds past a row of shops, a couple of well-watered village greens and a long line of villas with verdant gardens. With a bank, supermarket, pharmacy and other amenities, Cannigione is also a handy pitstop for the steady flow of cars travelling between Palau and the Costa Smeralda in high season. 7/10