Monday, 25 February 2008

Thames Path, Canary Wharf, London


From Westferry Circus there are steps down to a broad, smart riverside path heading north-west around the bend of the river. From here, you can crane your neck up at the towers of Canary Wharf or peer at the distinctive, rocket-like Gherkin office block shimmering in the distance. Following the Thames Path, you pass some eclectic modern architecture housing the Four Seasons Hotel, a health club and a series of apartment blocks, one with a rack of unusual terraces built on a steel platform overlooking the river. From the jetty, fast passenger ferries tear through the water upriver towards the City. After half a mile or so, you are forced to turn in from the river and continue along Narrow Street, home to some elegant Georgian houses and a couple of long-standing pubs with views of the river. 7/10

Royal China, Westferry Circus, Canary Wharf, London


With a fine position overlooking a bend in the river, this branch of Royal China is justifiably popular at weekend lunchtimes with young families and groups of adults. As you can't book, you may have to pitch up 45 minutes before you want to eat. You are given a number securing your place in the queue so you can walk along the river and build up an appetite. Inside, Royal China is a large restaurant, manned by a well-drilled platoon of efficient, but sullen, staff who just about earn the 13 per cent recommended service charge. The decor is pretty standard for a Chinese restaurant - red Chinese lanterns hang from the ceilings and large prints line the walls, but the smart white tablecloths are a pleasant change from the paper variety you find in many oriental eateries. The dim sum (from £2.40 per dish) is generally excellent. The Vietnamese spring rolls are crispy, delicious morsels and the steamed prawn and chive dumplings also stand out, but the white, puffy chicken and mushroom buns can be slightly cloying and sickly. The main courses aren't quite as appealing. For £10.80, you get about ten fat, fresh prawns resting on some large chunks of chicory, while the honey-roasted pork (£7.60) comes sliced on a bed of rather limp lettuce. 7/10

Museum in Docklands, West India Quay, Canary Wharf, London

The venerable brickwork and the sturdy wooden floorboards make this vast Georgian warehouse a fittingly evocative home for an absorbing, five-year-old, under-visited museum. You start on the top floor with the Romans and work your way through the history of London's once thriving port. The exhibits on floor three are fairly ho-hum until you reach the powerful and deeply disturbing section dedicated to explaining how London prospered on the back of the slave trade. The audio presentation, which depicts a slave master trying to dehumanise his charges, pulls no punches. Some of the panels document the forced separation of families and the brutal way in which disobedient slaves were branded or forced to wear iron masks.

Sailor Town
You will probably descend the stairs depressed by what we are capable of. The second floor begins in the 19th Century and is home to Sailor Town - a life size and rather spooky recreation of a poverty-stricken East End street at night. Even on a Sunday afternoon, you may find yourself stalking the raggedy paving stones of this dark, gloomy alley alone, peering into a primitive living room, window-shopping at the mildly-grotesque Animal Emporium or entering the tiny, spit and sawdust pub. The rest of this floor uses more conventional means, such as models, display panels and videos, to narrate the next 150 years of the roller coaster history of London's docks.

Forage among the pebbles
Finally, down on the ground floor, there is a large and unusual children's area, called Mudlarks, in which your kids can try on a diver's mask, haul sacks of grain or forage among the pebbles of a stream. You can get refreshments at the modest ground floor cafe, adjacent to a large model of HMS Northumberland. Admission to the museum is £5 for adults (free for children) and the tickets are valid for a year. Well worth it. 8/10

Saturday, 23 February 2008

All Bar One, Kingsway, central London

Perennially popular, light and airy bar well-positioned to serve local office workers. Fills up early and it can be tricky to get a seat, particularly when tables are reserved for leaving drinks or birthday parties. On tap is a broad range of pricey beers, including Amstel, Staropramen and other strong European lagers. Perhaps the best thing about this chain is the relatively-swift table service by the young, white-shirted staff, meaning you don't have to break off conversation to go and queue at the bar. 6/10

Pizza Express, High Holborn, central London


A large branch of the ubiquitous Pizza Express chain offering the usual broad range of passable pizzas and pasta dishes. Service can be leisurely and the food (around £6 of £7 each) slightly overcooked. The egg embedded in the Fiorentina pizza, for example, can be hard-boiled. Avoid the dingy downstairs, which suffers from the low ceiling and the lack of daylight. 5/10

Friday, 22 February 2008

Salcey Forest, near Hartwell, Northamptonshire

Given over to recreation, this is a large and popular tract of ancient woodland bordering the M1 motorway, laced with marked walks, cycle-ways and even orienteering routes. From the large car park it is less than a mile to a substantial wooden walkway that rises gradually from the ground to a vertiginous viewing platform above the treetops. From there you can see the sprawl of Northampton in the distance and the flattish and mostly featureless countryside beyond the wood. Although it is supported by steel poles, the steady stream of pedestrians can make the walkway move up and down alarmingly. Near the main car park is an imaginative children's playground with some unusual wooden kit and a cafe selling good baked potatoes and sandwiches for a few quid each. The cafe doesn't accept cards and there can be long queues to order at weekends. Moreover, most of the tables are outside, meaning even a hot drink won't necessarily warm up you up. But Salcey is worth a visit for the treetop walk alone. 7/10

El Cangrejo Loco, Port Olimpic, Barcelona

The two-level, sprawling Crazy Crab is more upmarket than many of the restaurants clustered down on this quay. To start, there is the usual selection of tapas, but weighted heavily towards seafood. For a main course, make sure you try one of the baked fish dishes, which come in very large portions of succulent, filleted white flesh. Near perfect, except it can be seasoned a little heavily for some tastes. If it is a weekday and you don't want to go a la carte, for 22 euros before tax, you can choose two starters, one main course and a desert from a surprisingly broad menu. There is also an extensive wine list, which includes a dozen cavas and a dozen champagnes (the latter starting at about 40 euros a bottle). The decor isn't very imaginative, but the harbour views and the ultra-fresh seafood more than compensate. 8/10

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Avenida Palace Hotel, Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, Barcelona


A pompous and somewhat tacky hotel with swirling gold staircases and marble pillars rising out of the old-fashioned foyer. The tired bedrooms, decked out in red and brown, have very thin walls through which you can hear your neighbours' conversations, ablutions and television quite clearly - not conducive to a good night's sleep. In any case, the beds and pillows are too hard for a four-star hotel and even in the non-smoking rooms you occasionally pick up the faint waft of cigarette ash. The en-suite bathrooms have old-fashioned, temperamental fittings and black and yellow speckled basin tops vaguely reminiscent of vomit. If you are at the rear of the hotel, the view - of the backs of modern buildings - is unusually drab for Barcelona.

Costa Gallega Restaurant, Passeig de Gracia, 71, Barcelona

Vast, atmospheric tapas bar with high ceilings running deep into this 19th Century building. At the front, there are large delicatessen-style glass display counters, cured meat joints hanging from the ceiling, a bar and a casual eating area. Head towards the back for more formal dining with tablecloths. On offer is an extensive selection of tapas including patatas bravas, anchovies, chorizo and other classics. Many of these dishes are fried and unappealing to look at and greenery is hard to find. But the food is fairly-priced and tastes good accompanied by a pint or two of San Miguel served in solid glass pitchers. Service can be sluggish, so sit down well before you get hungry. 7/10

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Cafe Sal, Paseo Maritimo de la Barceloneta, Barcelona

Relaxed waterfront restaurant, below the coast road, with a terrace right on the beach. Cafe Sal has a laid-back vibe and a retro feel with lots of metallic fittings, a late evening DJ and high chairs lined up along the bar. The reasonably-priced food is a fusion of Latin and Asian cuisine. To kick-off, the efficient and friendly staff serve some rich and tasty humous with crudit├ęs. Among the starters, the thin seafood Thai soup is pleasant, but not spicy enough and has too much spaghetti floating in it. By comparision, the chicken tandoori main course, which unusually comes wrapped in a tortilla and has plenty of juicy meat, is delicious. To finish, there is a small, but intense chocolate mousse, which hits the spot. 8/10

Monday, 18 February 2008

Navarra Restaurante, Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona


With metallic tables and chairs, padded out with red cushions, carefully positioned on the pavement to catch the midday sun, Navarra is a great spot for people watching. A steady stream of chic shoppers walk past on their way to the nearby El Cortes Ingles department store on Placa De Catalunya. You may get plenty of time to survey the scene, as service at Navarra can be snail-like - the waiting staff can take 20 minutes just to rustle up a menu. Still, there is a good selection of seafood starters, such as grilled crayfish (10 euros before 7% tax) and grilled prawns. The main courses are mostly stock tourist favourites, such as seafood paella, duck confit (13 euros) and a large, juicy hamburger with a disappointingly thin and weak Roquefort sauce and salty chips (9 euros). Ice cold, but watery, San Miguel beer is available in sturdy litre or half litre (5 euros) glasses. Passable food, fine location. 7/10

EasyJet, London Gatwick to Barcelona

At Gatwick, EasyJet has plenty of desks open and short check-in queues for the lunchtime flight to Barcelona. Even though you can also get through security quickly, you still need to be at the airport early - EasyJet tries to close the gate up to 40 minutes before departure time. There are no allocated seats, but you can pay for "speedy boarding" to catch the first bus ferrying passengers over to the plane. On board, the seats are narrow, but legroom is okay for a two-hour flight for anyone under six foot. Around you, the orange staff uniforms, orange trimmings and orange safety card give the cabin the ambiance of a fast-food joint, which is appropriate given the food on offer. The underwhelming menu includes a squidgy, red-hot pizza that lacks flavour and tends to make a mess of your face and hands. You can follow-up with an excessively sweet cappuccino or a watery coffee and a pricey Mars chocolate muffin.

Discounted perfumes
In-flight entertainment is primarily the cabin crew, on commission, cheerfully trying to sell lottery tickets, discounted perfumes and other special offers over the tannoy. You can hide behind the surprisingly respectable in-flight magazine, which is strewn with typos, but has some decent travel photos and punchy descriptions, aimed at young party goers, of the cities EasyJet flies to. For the mid-morning return flight, the check-in wait at Barcelona can be up to 40 minutes as about a dozen EasyJet flights depart around this time. Still, passage through security is swift and, at both Gatwick and the Barcelona, EasyJet gets you and your baggage off the plane quickly. Despite the lousy food, this is budget travel at its more palatable. 7/10