Friday, 23 May 2008

InterContinental, CityStars, Cairo

Just ten minutes from both the airport and Cairo's aging convention centre, this plush, modern hotel complex is a favourite with business travellers. The excellent "Meet and Greet" service (160 Egyptian pounds) will get you a visa and through passport control and customs quickly and into a modern car, equipped with your room key, so there is no need to check-in at the hotel. With 774 rooms, the InterContinental CityStars has a suitably large foyer and outdoor pool decorated with Cleopatra's needles, sphinxes and other mock Egyptian antiquities, plus a substantial, well-equipped gym, housed in a pyramid, and a couple of decent restaurants - Japanese and Lebanese. The unusual lifts take some getting used to - you press the button for your floor before you board. A screen tells you which lift to take and then it automatically goes to your floor.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Shogun restaurant, Intercontinental, Citystars, Cairo

Cool, dark and mostly minimalist Japanese restaurant with a large fish tank, the Shogun has plenty of appealing sushi and sashimi dishes on the menu or you can watch one of the chefs adroitly prepare teppanyaki right in front of you. Tables are set in traditional Japanese style with chopsticks and the food is served on stylish white crockery. As an appetiser, you might be given a spicy fried calamari courtesy of the chef. Among the starters, the five Japanese spring rolls, stuffed with vegetables and served with a spicy sauce, are very crispy, very hot and very nice. You can follow that with the Shogun Special (about 140 Egyptian pounds) - a refreshing soup, followed by a platter containing a delicate piece of white fish, bite-sized chunks of succulent meat (the beef is particularly good), fried rice and a salad. To drink, there is saki and Japanese beer or the local Sakara Gold. Unfortunately, some of your fellow diners will probably be lone business people and you might get plenty of time to lap up the subdued atmosphere as the main course, in particular, can take a while to arrive. Still, the food is excellent and, unlike some places in Cairo, you probably won't get a dodgy stomach. 7/10

Taxis, Cairo

Decked out in black and white, most of Cairo's taxis are classic cars sporting dozens of dents, scrapes and scratches - the battle scars of 20 or 30 years on this crowded city's crazy roads. Inside, these ancient vehicles often lack working seat belts and air conditioning, so the driver typically winds down the windows treating his passengers to lungfuls of traffic fumes. But you won't notice, focusing instead on the white-knuckle ride through Cairo's chaotic roads. Taxi drivers typically give no quarter, hooting their horns to warn other drivers that they plan to squeeze through an impossibly narrow gap to convert two lanes into three. Turning left, which usually involves filtering into a wall of cars while doing a tight U-turn, is even more alarming. To add to the drama, pedestrians blithely thread their way through the moving traffic, narrowly avoiding being squashed into the tarmac. Although you can typically negotiate the fare down to less than 5 Egyptian pounds a kilometre, the drivers do expect a large tip and they don't give receipts. More modern taxis, known as limousines, are available from many hotels, but they also drive like maniacs and cost a good deal more. 5/10

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Pyramids, Giza, Cairo

One of the best known sights on the planet, the Pyramids exert an almost magnetic pull on nearly every first-time visitor to Cairo. Even so, it is still possible to see the last surviving wonder of the ancient world in virtual solitude. At 5pm midweek in May, you may find the only people left on this extensive site are a handful of tourists, some bored policemen in their white uniforms and a couple of polite boys selling sandwiches. Before the site closes at 6pm, you can gaze at the hundreds of thousands of huge blocks that make up these massive, legendary edifices in peace, unencumbered by the chatter of hawkers or other gawkers. Only up close, do you fully appreciate the majesty of the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, which are spread out across a plateau rising above the city. Although the enclosed site (admission 50 Egyptian pounds) butts right up against a bustling suburb of Cairo, it also borders the desert giving these extraordinary 4000-year-old tombs an appropriately desolate and featureless backdrop. However, the Sphinx, its features softened by age and pollution, is something of a disappointment. Dwarfed by the pyramids it guards, this enigmatic statue is flanked by scaffolding and surrounded by a jumble of steel fencing and stone viewing platforms.

Sangria Bar, Casino El-Shagara, Cornish El-Nil, Cairo

In an enviable elevated position overlooking a wide and fairly picturesque stretch of the Nile, Sangria is a fine spot for a dusk-time drink. There are several garden terraces, one of which has a row of bar stools facing the river, furnished in tasteful Arabic style. The menu features a large and varied mezze spread, which includes flavourful Asian dishes, such as calamari in sweet and sour sauce, more subtle local appetisers and large baskets of bread roles. It can be difficult to fit all the plates around the bizarre channels that run through the middle of Sangria's low heavy tables, seemingly made from concrete. On a warm evening, you should make room for a bottle of Sakara Gold, a slightly sharp local beer served ice cold. Later on, Sangria draws in a dolled-up, Westernised clientele on their way for a boogie downstairs at the Absolut bar. 8/10

Saturday, 17 May 2008

British Midland (BMI) Business Class, London Heathrow to Cairo.

After getting up early for the 9.15am flight, the mediocre croissants and muffins in the British Midland lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 1 don't make for a very appetising breakfast. Still, there is coffee and orange juice and passengers lugging laptops can get online via BT Openzone for £6 an hour. On board, the business class cabin is showing its age. The seats only recline half way, while not all their video screens work properly and the accompanying headphones can be difficult to fit into the sockets. The lackluster in-flight magazine won't hold your attention for long, but, if the video screens are working, you can watch a handful of recent films, such I am Legend, or TV programmes shown on a loop. The mostly female staff, which range from brusque to ebullient, are dressed in smart, intense blue uniforms that match the cabin upholstery. They serve up plenty of drinks, but on the way back from Cairo, the white wine and beer can be too warm.

The three course meal, served on white table cloths, comes with a choice of two substantial starters, both served with a large and admirably-crisp bowl of feta cheese and herb salad or cous cous and bean salad. The salmon tartare with citrus crème fraîche is refined, fresh and tasty, while the rare smoked duck comes with some spicy mango sauce that packs a kick. Among the mains, the beef "pie" has little in the way of meat, no pastry and is accompanied by overcooked peas, beans and potatoes. But the potato-crusted seabass, basmati and wild rice with red peppers is almost a revelation - the carefully-chosen trimmings are a fine complement to the perfectly-cooked fish. To follow, the pick of the deserts is a slice of mild brie and a hunk of delicious creamy coastal cheddar with an assortment of biscuits and red grapes.

If you sit on the right side of the plane on the outward leg, or the left side on the return leg, you will be able to admire the Pyramids, marking the border between brown urban sprawl and yellow desert. At Cairo airport, the queues for tourist visas, passport control and customs move reasonably quickly unless several flights land at once. Before the five-hour flight back, British Midland business class passengers can use the Air Egypt lounge at Cairo airport. 7/10

The Uplands, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, south London

Spacious and unpretentious spit and sawdust pub on a corner plot with a large sunny outside terrace overlooking rows of terraced houses. The gentrication of East Dulwich continues apace and the Uplands has had a coat of bold blue paint, leather sofas installed and the toilets are spick and span. But it still has a noisy, salt-of-the-earth clientele with genuine saarf London accents. There is a sizable menu made up of burgers and other pit-stop food. The "Works Burger" (about £7) contains surprisingly good quality beef, topped with bacon, cheese and a salsa sauce, all enclosed in a large bland bap, accompanied by salty chips and a token salad. It goes well with the Carling Extra Cold, Fosters or other big brand lagers on tap. The children's menu has a choice of half-a-dozen staples, such as a big bowl of spaghetti mixed with shavings of ham for three quid. 6/10

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Wheatsheaf, Bough Beech, Kent

Ivy-covered, fourteenth century pub on the edge of a hamlet in the shadow of the North Downs. Inside are low ceilings, large Tudor fireplaces and ancient wooden beams decorated with animal heads, vintage weapons and other rural paraphernalia from yesteryear. Outside, is a large and well-tended beer garden with uncomfortable wooden tables and adjoining benches that fill up quickly on a summer's day. Popular with diners, the Wheatsheaf serves large portions of mediocre food lacking polish or flair. Unfortunately, the classic Sunday roast (about £12) - two large slices of fatty rare beef accompanied by potatoes, a coarse Yorkshire Pudding and vegetables - is dull and can be served lukewarm. The beef and vegetable curry (also about £12), served with a large poppadom and slab of naan bread, also lacks inspiration and heat. The ricotta and leek pasta (£8), which comes with a crispy cheese topping, garlic bread and salad, is more appealing.

Unusual and rustic ciders
Still, the kids meals (£3.85 for a main course followed by ice cream) are a bargain. Children can order two bog-standard sausages supported by some fat chips and a lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad. Or there is a smallish helping of penne pasta accompanied by a bread role, but no vegetables. On tap, are beers from Harveys and other local breweries, plus some unusual and rustic ciders. Service by the young, well-spoken, black-shirted waitresses and waiters is courteous and friendly, but a long queue can form at the bar, where you may be warned that food orders will take up to half an hour. 6/10

Ightham Mote, Ivy Hatch, near Sevenoaks, Kent

Postcard-perfect, moated manor house dating from the fourteenth century, Ightham Mote nestles in a peaceful valley only a few miles from the suburbia of Sevenoaks. Owned by the National Trust, the miniature stone bridges across the moat, the cobbled courtyard and the ancient timber frames of the manor house quickly conjure up a bygone era.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Walk through Happy Valley, near Coulsdon, Surrey

Follow Ditches Lane out of Coulsdon and park your car on the high ground of Farthing Down, which commands wide views over some rolling chalk downland and the ancient woodland of Happy Valley. The well-signposted walks take you into woods littered with fallen-trees, many covered in moss, surrounded in late spring by thousands of bluebells. Soon the trees give way to the open valley floor - a gentle and attractive green basin popular with local dog walkers. One of the paths leads across a couple of fields to a picturesque church dating from the eleventh century set in a longstanding graveyard in the hamlet of Chaldon. You can walk back through the valley for a pleasant round-trip of about three miles. Although Happy Valley is inside the M25 and you are never far from suburbia, at times it can feel as rural as anywhere in south east England. 7/10

Friday, 2 May 2008

Prince Regent, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill

Opposite Brockwell Park and stranded half way between Brixton and Herne Hill, the Prince Regent is an inviting Victorian pub, which draws in a sizable contingent of drinkers and diners. It has outside tables, in the shadow of two stocky Victorian lampposts, large windows, a cosy, wood-panelled bar adjacent to a dining room with an array of big, sturdy wooden tables. The laid-back atmosphere is accentuated by the funky music, the window shelves lined with well-thumbed books and the occasional punters playing Jenga. On draught is the innocuous Black Sheep plus a guest beer and a handful of well-known lagers, such as San Miguel, Carling and Staropramen.

The Prince Regent is renown for its brunch menu, featuring a range of hot breakfasts, including kedgeree and the traditional English fry-up. For lunch or dinner, several dishes can be ordered as starters or main courses, including impressive salmon fish cakes, which are hidden under a forest of lettuce and surrounded by a delicious celeriac remoulade dressing. The starter version, which comes with just one fish cake, costs about a fiver. But a side order of fat chips, about the size of a man's forefinger, costing a hefty £3.50, can be disappointingly small, under-cooked and rather salty. Scrawled across the blackboard is a clutch of gastropub-style specials, such as rump of lamb or braised rabbit, costing a tenner upwards. The beer is also a bit pricey, suggesting the Prince Regent's success may be going to his head. 7/10