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