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