Monday 14 December 2009

The Crown & Garter, Inkpen Common, Berkshire

An understated country pub dating from the 17th century, the Crown & Garter's bars and restaurant are fairly plain with simple pine furniture. The period clutter and memorabilia you find in many other old pubs are noticeable by their absence. But the food is straight out of a traditional cookbook. On a Sunday lunchtime, the main courses include classic English staples, such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or fish, chips and mushy peas, priced around £10 or £11. Perhaps the most unusual option is the Dorset crab and spinach lasagne, which is a creamy, well-balanced and satisfying dish. Another winner is the steak and kidney pudding, which is packed with delicious chunks of slow-cooked meat wrapped in a coating of suet and doused in a fine stew. It goes well with a pint of Ramsbury Gold, a flavourful, hoppy real ale. In December, the main courses are accompanied by terrines of precisely-cooked broccoli, carrots and sprouts. Children can have a half-price, half-size roast, chicken nuggets and chips or sausage and chips. The pricey deserts (£6 each) are not quite so generous or tasty. You might find the average bread and butter pudding, swimming in custard, a disappointment after a top-notch main course. Still, with welcoming, polished service, the Crown & Garter is a fine pub-cum-restaurant. 8/10

Monday 7 December 2009

Vintage Pretty, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, south London

A cramped and popular cafe owned by the green grocers next door, Vintage Pretty's food is ultra-fresh and generally excellent. If it is early enough, you might be tempted by one of the hot breakfasts, such as the salty, but succulent, kippers (£7.25), served with two professionally poached eggs on chunky slices of tasty toast with lemon, slices of cucumber and wild rocket. The lunch options, include a couple of specials, such as moussaka, deep-filled paninis and thick, flavoursome soups, such as roquefort and broccoli. There is also a children's menu with inexpensive comfort grub, such as beans on toast or fish finger sandwiches. To drink, you can get some exotic freshly-squeezed fruit juices for £3, a carton of Ribena for £1.25, coffees for about £2 and tap water for nothing. The country-cottage style decor features pine tables, benches and chairs, plus flowery cushions and framed adages. Service by the young, polite staff can be very slow during busy periods, such as a Saturday lunchtime, when your fellow punters will be mostly well-heeled locals taking a break from browsing the local boutiques and food-stalls. 7/10

Caltrain, Silicon Valley, California

Cruising through Silicon Valley between San Francisco and San Jose, the leisurely Caltrain runs just once an hour at weekends and stops at stations every few miles. A return ticket from Belmont to San Francisco costs a very reasonable $8.50, but the ride into the city through mostly unremarkable and ramshackle suburbs takes just under 50 minutes. On board the steel-plated train, the upper deck of some of the carriages has an open atrium running down the centre, meaning you can see the passengers below through the steel railings. From the last stop in San Franciso, it is about a mile walk up 4th Street to the main shopping drag around Market Street and Union Square. 6/10

Saturday 5 December 2009

Sofitel, Twin Dolphin Drive, Redwood City, California

Tucked away in a suburban district of Redwood City, a tranquil lagoon separates this Sofitel from the oil-drum-style towers of the headquarters of the software giant Oracle. Unfortunately, this French-owned hotel is a three mile walk from the open waters of San Francisco bay and about a mile from the nearest public transport - the Belmont Caltrain station. Right now, the keenly-priced rooms, which can be had for just $120 a night, are good value - you get a big bed, a big flat screen television, an iron and ironing board, a sofa and a quiet air conditioning system, all decorated in an innocuous white and cream colour scheme. The en-suite bathrooms, with pot plants, vertical strip lighting and speckled sink top, are a little more daring and are equipped with a respectable shower. The only things missing are a safe, a mini-bar and free WiFi - you can pay T-Mobile about eight bucks for a day online.

British Airways, London to San Francisco

If you take the 2pm flight from Heathrow, you'll be in San Francisco about 5pm local time, meaning you probably shouldn't try and sleep on board. If you are travelling in the cramped economy cabin, you probably won't sleep anyway. Make sure you check-in online as soon as possible to get a half-decent seat and you might want to bring your own sandwiches - the airline grub isn't particularly appetising and the chicken curry could leave you with a dodgy stomach. Still, you'll probably welcome a free Heineken, a Grolsh or a mini bottle of tolerable wine to help you ease into the eleven hour flight. Fortunately, the on-demand video system is pretty good with a broad selection of movies and television, including some quality sports documentaries, such as the absorbing Thriller in Manila in which Joe Frazier relives his titanic fight with Muhammad Ali. While you work your way through the videos, the crew will keep you hydrated with water or orange juice. When you finally get to San Francisco, it can take a while to answer all the questions and fingerprint checks involved in U.S. passport control, but there are plenty of taxis on-hand to whisk you to the city or to Silicon Valley.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Tate Britain, Millbank, central London

Housed in an imposing neo-classical building overlooking the Thames, the Tate Britain is the place to come to see five centuries of British paintings and sculptures. The words "Everything's Going to be Alright" (an exhibit, apparently) are spelt out in neon letters incongruously above the four pillars guarding the main entrance. Inside, the art is surrounded by plenty of space on the brightly-painted walls and on a Sunday afternoon, many of the 30 galleries are pleasingly empty. One of the best rooms, entitled John Constable: The Struggle for Recognition, has a fine series of early nineteenth century pastoral landscapes which really show off Constable's skill in portraying dramatically-lit, cloud-filled skies.

Sunday 15 November 2009

The Prince Regent, Dulwich Road, south London

Opposite Brockwell Park and stranded half way between Brixton and Herne Hill, the Prince Regent is an inviting and popular gastropub that has retained most of its Victorian ambiance. It has outside tables, in the shadow of two stocky antique lamp posts, while light floods in through the large windows into the 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 newspapers, the well-thumbed books and the pile of board games. On draught are a couple of real ales, plus a handful of well-known lagers, such as San Miguel (£3.50 a pint) and Becks (£3.10). If you want something soft, the cloudy apple juice is good and is served with a slice of apple wedged on to the glass.

On a Sunday lunchtime, the Prince Regent quickly fills up with mostly middle-class locals attracted by the fine roasts served up by a French chef. While you read the menu, you get hunks of fresh and nutty, brown bread served with olive oil. The selection of a half-dozen main courses include a substantial serving of roast chicken with roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, mange tout and a light Yorkshire pudding in gravy (£11) - all well-seasoned and very tasty. The rich, slow-cooked beef bourguignon (£13) is also delicious, but the large cod and chips comes with a bit too much batter, while the roast beef is pricey at £16. If you haven't had breakfast, you might be tempted by the brunch menu, which includes a couple of thick slices of lean ham, two fried eggs and some fine chips (£6). You can also get a traditional English fry-up or some more exotic options, such as kedgeree. Service can be sluggish, but the Prince Regent's food is generally well worth waiting for. 8/10

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Anglesea Arms, Selwood Terrace, central London

Popular with sleek, well-heeled twentysomethings, the Anglesea Arms' heated outside tables and front bar can be buzzing early on a week day evening. The dining room, downstairs at the back, has a more sedate atmosphere, but you may still need to book in advance to secure a table. There is a wide selection of drinks, including real ales, such as the spicy Doom Bar and the local stalwart London Pride. But the chirpy service by the lone waitor in the dining room can be erratic and even forgetful - some drinks orders might never appear. The menu is gastropub through and through. The starters (£4 to £6) include a well-seasoned watercress and lentil soup and a nicely-balanced squid and chorizo salad, but both are on the small side. Among the main courses, the rich and very meaty beef burger (about £12) with smoked cheese and salty, chunky chips is tasty and very satisfying, but should really be accompanied by a proper side salad and a better quality bap. The sausages and mash is nicely-presented, but is not very substantial for the similarly-hefty price tag. Not great value, given the slipshod service and the slightly stingy portions, but the Anglesea Arms is a cosy pub with a lively atmosphere. 6/10

Sunday 8 November 2009

Ty Mawr, near Lisvane, Cardiff

Set on high ground with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and suburbia, Ty Mawr's setting is a cut above that of the average Brains-owned pub. The large interior, split between a bar and restaurant, is full of wooden beams and blackboards. The menu, which ranges from Welsh cawl to swordfish steak to Texan chilli, is suspiciously long and international, but the food is generally excellent, given the low prices. On a Sunday lunchtime, you can order a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb (£12), which is a generous hunk of delicious meat that falls easily off the bone, lying on a bed of creamy mash potatoes doused in gravy. It is accompanied by slightly over-cooked carrots and broccoli. Both the scampi, served with chips and a salad of well-dressed cherry tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, and the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding (£8), also make for tasty and filling plates of food. Alternatively, you can get a moist piece of fish, caked in a thin and light batter, served with fat chips and some minty, mushy peas. There is a dedicated kids menu or children can have slightly smaller versions of the adult meals for just £4.50 and most will struggle to finish their plate.

Mini doughnuts
The deserts include a small mountain of mouthwatering and moreish chocolate sponge full of hot chocolate sauce, served with ice cream and a strawberry. Among the four deserts on the kids menu, all just 99 pence, is a big bowl of decent ice cream or four mini doughnuts served with a chocolate or strawberry sauce. The drinks are also very reasonable - a pint of Brains bitter, which is smooth and refreshing for an ale, is £2.35. Unsurprisingly, it can be tough to get a table inside on a November Sunday, but there are plenty of tables outside, if the sun is shining. From here, there are fine views and you can keep an eye on the kids running around the playground or the big, bumpy, grass lawn, which is good for a kick around. 8/10

Caerphilly Ridge, near Cardiff

Overlooking Cardiff and the Mouth of the Severn beyond, Caerphilly Ridge rises more than 250 metres just a few miles north of the city. From one of the small car parks, you can walk through the picturesque woodland clinging to the hillside and it is worth making the steep climb through the trees up to the top. From the clearings on the ridge path, you can see the white superstructure of the Millennium Stadium rising above the cityscape in the distance. Caerphilly Ridge is a good place to head for a scenic stroll within easy reach of the Welsh capital. 7/10

The Barrage Walk, Cardiff Bay

If you have kids, the round trip from Cardiff Bay to the playground on the barrage, enclosing the harbour, makes for an invigorating two mile walk. As you head towards the attractive waterfront of Penarth in the distance, you can survey an eclectic mix of ultra modern and nineteenth century architecture. Lined with old-fashioned lamp-posts, the route takes you past the space-age glass and steel of the Welsh Assembly and a Norwegian white clapboard church, housing an arts centre and coffee shop. Outside the church is a striking, but amorphous, mosaic statue of a sailor. Further along, the wide path is lined with ugly and high mesh fences, patches of wasteland and disused Victorian warehouses and docks. But look back across the yachts in the bay and you'll see a red brick Gothic harbour building, which looks a bit like a Rhineland fairytale castle, against a backdrop of the gleaming gold armadillo-shaped Cardiff Opera House. Further around is a row of handsome Victorian terrace houses flanking a large and smart white apartment block with a funky arc mounted on its flat roof. As you approach the barrage itself, you come to an imaginative wooden playground with a nautical theme. The centrepiece is a shipwreck, with colourful bunting hanging from its masts and barrels strewn around, half-buried in the sand. From here, you get a fine view of the grassy mounds of the islands in the middle of the wide open waters of the mouth of the Severn. If it also had a coffee shop, it would be a great spot for both adults and kids to pass an hour or two. 7/10

Le Petit Parisien, Grove Lane, south London

Stripped-back and laid-back pub-cum-brassiere with overt French theme and funky music, which can be cranked up quite loud. The bar has upright, but comfortable, leather seats, while the restaurant has a bunch of small wooden tables. The decor is fairly bare, except for a few pot plants, some small French prints and the numerous spherical lights hanging down from the ceiling. Many of the signs and labels are written in both French and English. As you would expect, there is a good selection of French wines by the 175ml glass (between £3.75 and £6) and continential lagers, such as San Miguel (£3.50 for a pint), Becks and Leffe, on tap. There is a keenly-priced bar menu and you can get a bowl of economy peanuts for 50 pence. Le Petit Parisien attracts a variety of punters, from small groups of young people to middle-aged loners either reading books or using the free WiFi. The young staff, some French, some English, are friendly and chilled. It is the sort of place where the chef hangs around the bar, in between orders, fiddling with the stereo and chatting with the bar staff. 6/10

Natural Kitchen, New Street Square, central London

Occupying a corner of this smart square of new office blocks, the Natural Kitchen has big windows, high ceilings and plenty of space. Wicker baskets, bare-brick walls, hessian sacks and metal pales give this cafe a highly-stylised rustic ambiance. It is divided into two areas - one laid out like a restaurant with square tables for four and the other with big, long tables, lined with benches. The canteen-style section is where you can eat food ordered at the counter. Served in a cardboard box, a fist size, piece of cold, but tasty, chicken, or a fat slice of quiche, accompanied by two helpings of salad, costs about £6. The lightly-seasoned tomato salad and potato salads are both fresh and tasty. To drink, you can choose one of the array of soft drinks, from coke to flavoured waters, in the large chilled cabinet. Jazz music is piped over the speakers in the ceiling. If you are looking for a lunchtime alternative to sandwiches, the Natural Kitchen is not a bad bet. 7/10

Friday 30 October 2009

Cambewell Grove, south London

Running in a straight line for about a kilometre up hill from inner city Camberwell towards the more genteel suburb of East Dulwich, Camberwell Grove, lined with large mature trees shading distinguished eighteenth century terraces, is one of south London's most atmospheric roads. At the north end, a developer has sympathetically converted a Victorian school into apartments, while also building some imitation Georgian terraces alongside it. Further up the hill, the original four or five-storey Georgian terraces are interrupted by a small modern council estate, but much of the road looks pretty much like it would have done two hundred years ago. Towards the top, the brown bricks and cast iron balconies of the Georgian architecture give way to elegant Regency houses, painted various shades of white and, in some cases, pink. The grandest residences sit on Grove Crescent, a rough private road that curves around a wide grassy border next to the main drag. Camberwell Grove sees a fair bit of traffic, but it is calmed by a series of speed humps and some traffic lights, where the road is supported by a weak bridge over a railway line. Neighbouring Grove Lane also boasts a handsome eighteenth century terrace set well back from the road and partly hidden by very mature front gardens. 7/10

Saturday 24 October 2009

The Canteen, Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road, central London

An onslaught of clean, modern lines and right angles, this branch of The Canteen, embedded into the back of the modernist Royal Festival Hall, has rows of sturdy wooden tables, mostly flanked by uncomfortable seats or benches with virtually no back to them. There are also tables outside sheltered by large parasols, but the floor-to-ceiling glass windows ensure that the interior is flooded with daylight. At pains to stress the authenticity of The Canteen's free-range ingredients, the menu is made up of unashamedly British fare, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Staples include a large leg and thigh of golden roast chicken with a great pile of chips and some garlic mayo (for about a tenner), smoked haddock, spinach and mash (£13) and walnut, tarragon and roast chicken salad (£9.50). The specials might include a modest chicken and mushroom pie, with light fluffy pastry, some delicious creamy mash potato and appetising buttery cabbage, for about a tenner. If you are still hungry, one of the classic deserts, such as treacle tart and cream, will set you back between five and six pounds. Coffees include a good, strong latte. Although service by the young multinational staff can be painfully slow and even forgetful, the fine food is good value and the The Canteen buzzes on a Friday lunchtime. 7/10

Oliver, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, central London

It would be difficult to ask for more from this extravagant all-singing, all-dancing production of Lionel Bart’s adaptation of Charles Dickens' renown novel about the grim underbelly of Victorian London. Together, the cast and orchestra number about 100 and, during the big set piece songs, such as Consider Yourself At Home, the stage is a whirling mass of carefully choreographed activity that will have you trying to watch four cameos at once. Some of the individual performances are also from the top drawer. Two parts humour, one part melancholy, British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, who has taken over from Rowan Atkinson, plays Fagin to near perfection. The comic noises Djalili makes in between sentences, his languid dance moves, mimicked by the smallest of his gang of pickpockets, and his rich repertoire of facial expressions will have you chuckling out loud. Another standout is Tamsin Carroll, the "alternative" Nancy, who has a fine voice, gusto and a fluid, convincing acting style. Ross McCormack is full of sparkling energy as the Artful Dodger and Steven Hartley's Sykes is hoarse, but suitably menacing. The standout scenes include a rousing chorus of Oom Pah, Pah amid the drunkeness and debauchery of the ale house and the amusing introduction to Fagin in his intricate, multi-level underground lair, which is a maze of cubby holes, adorned with rows and rows of silk handkerchiefs.

Friday 16 October 2009

National Express train, London to Newcastle

Book well in advance to get a reasonable price for a return ticket on the fast and busy east coast line from London, up through Peterborough, York and Newcastle, to Edinburgh. Fortunately, your advance booking comes with an automatic seat reservation or you might end up sitting on the floor in the luggage-strewn corridors between carriages. Although there are electric sockets next to most seats and free WiFi on board, the connection is intermittent as the train speeds its way north. The landscape on route is mostly flat and dull, there is no longer an on-board magazine and the drinks, snacks and mediocre sandwiches, available from the buffet car or trolley, are pricey. Still, the train is the fastest and most convenient way to get from central London to Newcastle. 6/10

The Cannon, Earsdon, Tyne & Wear

The Cannon is an old-fashioned, well-kept pub surrounded by stone nineteenth century houses, opposite a distinguished church in the endearing village of Earsdon. Inside, there is maroon upholstery everywhere, while the tables can be cramped and the stools small, so be choosy about where you sit. The walls are lined with prints of very dated paintings of pastoral scenes in ornate gold frames. But what pulls in the dozens of elderly regulars is the keenly-priced food and hand-pulled beers. The real ales include Directors (a fine, smooth pint) and Pedigree, while there is the usual array of lagers.

Proper mushy peas
Most of the main courses (around six to eight pounds) are served with a choice of chubby chips, decent new potatoes or a jacket potato. On a Saturday lunchtime, the corn-beef hash pie sells out quickly, but the hungry will find the mediocre Highland sausages, served with melted cheese, bacon, proper mushy peas, onion rings and sweet corn, is quite an appetising combination. There are also several different variations on fish, chips and mushy peas. The fish tends to be wrapped in light and relatively-healthy batter, while the flesh inside is succulent. Or you can opt for a large, crisply-cooked baked potato with a prawn mayonnaise topping, a substantial side-serving of tuna, and stacks of fresh salad. There aren't any children's meals and, oddly, the staff insist that you pay in cash straight after your food arrives, rather than when you order. 7/10

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Skyride, central London

It only comes around once a year, so it is well worth taking this opportunity to ride past many of central London's most famous landmarks on traffic-free roads. Unfortunately, you'll be joined by tens of thousands of other cyclists on the route from Buckingham Palace along the Mall, which then skirts Trafalgar Square before swooping down Northumberland Avenue to the Victoria Embankment. It is tempting to watch the cruise boats on the river, but you'll need to keep your eyes trained on the kids swerving around in front of you and the human traffic-lights who frequently raise their stop signs to let pedestrians cross the road. A mile or so downstream, the route turns up to St. Paul's Cathedral, before looping through part of the City, where the mass of cyclists thins out a little. You pass an enthusiastic band of drummers as you enter the "noise zone" inside the Upper Thames Street Tunnel where all the cyclists ring their bells and shout - a lot of fun. Then you head to the Tower of London where you do a sharp turn into the return trip directly along the river, making for a 15 kilometer round trip.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Red Lion Inn, Stathern, Leicestershire

On the outside, the Red Lion Inn is an unremarkable pub with pebble-dashed walls painted a slightly garish cream. But on the inside, this is a busy seventeenth century inn with low ceilings, wooden beams and plenty of character, serving decent grub at a leisurely pace. There are several rooms each decorated in country kitchen-style with checked table cloths, checked serviettes tied up with string, flowery cushions and wooden spoons hanging on one of the walls. The extensive a la carte menu lists British dishes sometimes with a twist, such as smoked haddock, bubble and squeak and Welsh rarebit.

Smells and tastes great
On a Sunday, the set lunch (£18.50) is made up of three courses with three choices per course. The starters include a small, but tangy and ultra-fresh salmon terrine, with a crisp salad, spring onions and capers. One of the best mains features chunky slices of fatty, but delicious, beef served with a stilton hollandaise – a lovely combination. It comes with tasty al dente mini-carrots and fine roast potatoes, let down by dry, tough Yorkshire puddings, all doused in gravy. Vegetarians will struggle as even the sea bream is served with salad laced with chorizo. For pudding, the hot apple and blackberry crumble in a white ramakin dish, next to a miniature bowl of tepid, runny custard, served on a wooden board, smells and tastes great. The portions are just big enough to fill you up. On the kids menu (£6.75), is a selection of four dishes, such as battered fish and chips or cheese and tomato pizza. To follow, there is a selection of three deserts, including sticky toffee pudding. Reassuringly, all the kids food is billed as home made, using fresh ingredients. The Red Lion's beers on tap include London Pride and IPA, as well as lager stalwarts, while the young staff are friendly and exceptionally polite. Children can work off their lunch in the large, well-equipped playground in this pretty village with a handful of Georgian buildings. 7/10

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Notting Hill Carnival, West London

An enormous Caribbean festival held every August bank holiday in streets lined with beautiful Regency and Georgian mansion blocks, interspersed with arty shops, cafes and the occasional brutal council estate, Notting Hill Carnival is surreal, absorbing and overwhelming. Even on the more laid-back, less-crowded and child-orientated Sunday, this swanky suburb is awash with party animals blowing whistles, swigging beer and inhaling the odd joint. In amongst the gangs of teenagers and twentysomethings, you'll spot groups of bemused tourists, a few families and even the odd haggle of pensioners without their hearing aids. Get to Notting Hill before noon if you want to secure a front-row spot to watch the parade of decorated floats, fantastical costumes, towering puppets, throbbing sound systems and charismatic MCs that edge along the mile-long route, which encloses a grid of streets dotted with scores of sound systems, food stalls and Red Stripe vendors. As the floats pass, the music can be loud enough to make your rib cage vibrate. This memorable, and sometimes magical, parade is marred only by the mundane support lorries and the scarcity of steel bands - the original Carnival soundtrack.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Jazz in Regent's Park, central London

For about six consecutive Sunday afternoons in July and August, Regent Park's tall, elegant bandstand is the venue for free jazz concerts by accomplished vocalists and musicians. You can soak up the mellow music and the sunshine lying on the grass, which is speckled with dry duck poo and feathers, or sit in one of the traditional wooden deck chairs (for which you have to pay) or bring your own rug. Food and drink from the nearby cafe is pricey and the queues at the takeaway counter can be 20 minutes or more. It might be quicker and cheaper to trek over to the small Tesco near Baker Street tube. Still, you'll enjoy the chilled-out atmosphere, the long shadows and the lovely setting between the serene lake and the spectacular and colourful flower displays in the nearby borders. 8/10

Empuries Beaches, near L'Escala, Catalonia

A series of arcs of clean fine sand overlooked by extensive Greco-Roman ruins, woods and fields, Empuries' beaches are rarely too crowded, even in the height of summer. To the south of the hamlet of Sant Marti, the fairly sheltered bays are good for swimming or messing about in the pedalos (12 euros for an hour). By contrast, north of the village, waves frequently crash into the much more open and windy beach, which has far-reaching views across to the mountains and resorts on the other side of the Gulf of Roses. Behind the beaches are showers, a couple of grim portaloos and tasteful wooden boardwalks, which wind their way through the picturesque dunes between San Marti and the edge of L'Escala. In an idyllic setting, Empuries' beaches are well worth travelling to. 8/10

Carrilet, L'Escala, Catalonia

Kitted out to look like a blue steam engine with a couple of carriages, the carrilet road train runs from Playa Montgo through Riells to L'Escala, past the fine beaches in front of the ancient ruins at Empuries, before terminating at the tiny clifftop hamlet of Sant Marti. Riding on the wooden benches in the partially-open carriages is a fun, if bumpy, way to travel and the convoluted route includes some sweeping views across the coastline and the Gulf of Roses. But, with its lengthy stops, the carrilet, which only runs once an hour in each direction, isn't exactly quick. Moreover, the ticket prices are confusing and expensive - families taking a round trip might be better off buying the discounted bundles. 6/10

Swimming pool, Can Miquel, Platja de Montgó, L'Escala, Catalonia,

If the kids tire of negotiating the stones under the water on Montgo's beach, this hotel's pristine outdoor swimming pool makes for a refreshing change. Surrounded by well-watered grass, luscious plants and red tarmac, the fairly shallow water flows around an island reachable via a small bridge - perfect for hide and seek. A day pass for adults costs 3.50 euros and for children 2.50 euros, but there is an additional charge for sun loungers. 6/10

Can Miquel, Platja de Montgó, L'Escala, Catalonia

In the summer season, you might need to be at Can Miquel by 8pm to grab one of the tables on the terrace overlooking the beach and the pretty bay. Otherwise, you may have to settle for one of the more mundane inside tables with cream cloths and smart napkins, but less atmosphere. The house rosé wine is under 7 euros a bottle, but it tastes like pop, so go for something pricier from the lengthy Spanish wine list. Among the smaller dishes, the sea food tagliatelle (about 8 euros) is made up of dark green pasta swimming in a rich fishy sauce mixed with a smattering of clams, prawns and mussels. For something bigger, sea food paella (15.50 euros per head) is hearty, but is salty and can taste a little burned - rather disappointing for the price. Alternatively, there is the fatty oven-cooked shoulder of lamb (16.60 euros), which is served with roasted asparagus, courgettes and potatoes. Unfortunately, the latter can be under-cooked in the middle and burnt round the edges. Kids might like the spaghetti bolognese (about 7 euros), which is large and comes with a generous helping of mince sauce. You can finish with one of the substantial deserts for about five euros or children might prefer one of the prepacked ice creams. Service is competent, but can be unenthusiastic. 6/10

Can Coll, Placa Major, Sant Marti D'Empuries, Catalonia

On an August evening, you may have to wait for an outside table in Sant Marti's pretty square where diners at Can Coll and its competing restaurants sit cheek by jowl. Service kicks off with some lame bread and a bowl of garlic butter, costing 75 euro cents a person, But the big wicker chairs with blue cushions are very comfortable and there is a lively atmosphere. The menu lists perhaps 20 pizzas (around 9 or 10 euros) with thin bases and a wide variety of toppings including walnuts, pine nuts and salmon, as well as the usual cheeses, anchovies, olives, hams and salamis. Alternatively, you can order a hefty slab of goat's cheese on a bed of very fresh salad (about 8 euros) or calamaris (9 euros) - an unaccompanied pile of fried squid rings with a lemon on the side. There is a large and commercial desert menu printed with photos of the extravagant sundaes, some costing the best part of 10 euros. But the drinks are reasonably priced - a 33cl beer costs 2.40 euros, while 50 cl of water is also 2 euros. Can Coll is a well-drilled operation and its waiters are unfailingly polite, but they can alternate between being inattentive and trying to hurry you as more potential customers arrive in the square. 7/10

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Torre Laurentii Restaurant, Placa Paula Armet, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Catalonia

In summer, head for one of Torre Laurentii's handful of tables in the pleasant leafy courtyard with an attractive fountain decorated with a Gaudi-esque blue and green mosaic. The cover (1.25 euros each) includes some crispy bread served with an olive and white bean dip. In addition to the standard menu, the waiter will list some seasonal dishes, which in August tend to revolve around tomatoes. For something a bit different, try the refreshing gazpacho (5.5 euros) served with a twist - olive oil ice cream. Another special is the mozzarella and tomato salad (8 euros), which includes at least four varieties of tomato, some green, some yellow, some dark red and some tomato-coloured. The flavour differences are subtle, but the array of colours looks good on the plate. The main courses include a neat pile of slow-cooked and juicy lamb (14 euros), topped by sweet, caramalised onions, on near-perfect, creamy mash potato. The rabbit and mushrooms (12.5 euros), again served with fine mashed potato, is expertly cooked and well-seasoned, but needs some green vegetables. The ravioli (8.5 euros, made with large sacks of fresh pasta filled with gorgonzola, is a good choice, if you aren't too hungry, but the salmon carpaccio (7 euros), doused in a vinegar, is rather bland.

Torre Laurentii Hotel, Placa Paula Armet, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Catalonia

A very stylish boutique hotel housed in an venerable villa built into the ancient stone walls of a medieval village, Torre Laurentii is meticulously run by an American of Cuban extraction and his Catalan wife. With just seven rooms, the hotel has plenty of communal areas, including two lounges and a very wide stone terrace, with big comfortable wicker armchairs, overlooking a well-tended, enclosed garden. Throughout the sympathetically-restored building, original features are mixed tastefully with modern additions and amenities. On the second floor, the grand suite has its own private terrace commanding views across the village and the surrounding wooded hills.

Monday 24 August 2009

Albanya, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

Although Albanya itself is unremarkable, on a hot summer's day, it is worth walking a little way west along the road out of the village to a bridge over the river Muga. From here, you can take a steep path down to an idyllic spot with fine clear water for paddling and swimming, surrounded by picturesque rocks. You can then head back up the path and follow the road a little further to an open meadow, from where you will find another trail down to the river. On this lovely stretch of the Muga, if you are wearing suitable footwear, you can have a lot of fun paddling through the cool stream and scrambling across the rocks. Follow the riverside path a little further north west and you will soon find a well-trodden route down to another bathing spot where local campers cool off by wallowing in the small waterfalls and tame rapids. If you need refreshments, climb back up to the road and head for the camp site, complete with swimming pool, restaurant and ice cream stall. 8/10

Samuga Restaurant, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

On long summer evenings, Samuga's metallic tables, across the quiet road from the restaurant, are a good spot to soak up the atmosphere in Sant Llorenc's lively central square. While kids ride past on bicycles, you scan the appetising menu featuring traditional Catalan dishes. The hungry should consider starting with the assortit torrade, which features slices of toast topped with wild boar pate, anchovies, salami and chorizo, warm goat's cheese and duck pate - all delicious and very generous for six and a half euros. The hors d'oeuvres - a big plate of salad, calamari, cold meats and cheeses - is also great value for five and half euros. Among the mains, the salty paella (just eight euros per person) is served in a rich brown sauce containing chunks of lamb and sea food, plus a few rather scrawny prawns. Better is the cod on a bed of spinach (10 euros), with the delicious, succulent fish enlivened by pine nuts, sultanas and tomatoes. But in the suquet de rap (also 10 euros), the flavour of the fish can be overwhelmed by the sauce. The deserts include a caramel biscuit (4.25 euros), which is creamy, sweet and good, but fairly modest, while 2.75 euros buys a slab of ice cream between two wafers. Water is quite pricey, but you can get a large and refreshing beer for a reasonable 3.5 euros. At the start of the meal, the young bohemian staff, who are courteous and fairly attentive, bring out a small bowl of olives and bread for which you pay one euro per head. Good food, good atmosphere and good prices. 8/10

Saturday 22 August 2009

Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

Nestling in the wooded foothills of the Albères mountains, Sant Lorenc de la Muga is partially enclosed by medieval stone walls, punctuated by fortified towers and several evocative gatehouses, still with portcullis. At the heart of the village, is a sizable tree-lined square enclosed by a pleasing jumble of stone houses, low-key restaurants, shops and period street lamps. One end of the square is dominated by a huge cafe-cum-social club selling cheap coffee and beer, which you can drink on the raised stone terrace. On summer evenings, the offspring of the Barcelona residents that own holiday homes in the village, tend to cruise around on their bicycles watched by the locals hanging out in the square and surrounding streets.

Playa and Punta Montgo, near L'Escala, Catalonia

Small, picturesque, sandy beach and bay enclosed by whitewashed villas on one side and green forests and scrub land owned by the Spanish military on the other. The bay shelters a flotilla of small yachts, but towards the shore, the shallow water and lack of waves make the beach very popular with families. Unfortunately, a major storm has strewn stones and boulders across much of the waterfront, making it tricky to wade out to sea in bare feet. The same storm flattened many of the trees that were planted as part of a major programme to smarten up Playa Montgo. While some of the surrounding roads are still strewn with litter, the beach front car-park has been replaced by an attractive promenade and there is fun to be had scrambling around the rocks or up the path to the steep cliffs owned by the military. The energetic should hike up through the villas to the top of the point, where there is a small stone tower and grand 360 degree views taking in the Gulf of Roses and the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. You can continue to enjoy the sweeping view across to Roses by taking the bracing, vertiginous cliff walk through undeveloped scrub land towards Riells. 7/10

Train from Barcelona to Flaca

Travelling in clean, air-conditioned carriages, this journey to Flaca, the closest station to the northerly Costa Brava resort of L'Escala, takes about one hour 40 minutes, if you get one of the hourly faster trains. In Barcelona, you can pick up the Flaca train from Sants station (make sure you queue at the medium-distance desk for tickets) or from the more central Passeig de Gracia station. At just 15.50 euros for an adult return ticket and 10.40 euros for a child return to Flaca, this train, which also travels through Girona and Figures, is a good way to venture into northern Catalonia. 7/10

Friday 21 August 2009

Hotel Petit Palace Museum, Carrer de la Diputació, Barcelona

On the outside, the Petit Palace Museum is a distinguished nineteenth century building. On the inside, it is very much a funky twenty-first century hotel, conveniently-located on the southern edge of Barcelona's smart Eixample district. The centrepiece of the stylish foyer is a grand piano, framed by white pillars, lit by arty blue lighting and flanked by big leather armchairs and sofas. On hand, are several Internet-connected laptops for the use of guests and some weighty books about Catalan artists, while opposite the lifts is an amusing mini-sofa in the shape of some big red lips.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Ciudad Condal, Rambla de Catalunya, Barcelona

In a prominent corner position on the huge junction where Rambla de Catalunya crosses Gran Via de l'es Cortis Catalanes, Ciudad Condal is an upmarket and bustling tapas bar. As you walk in, your eyes are drawn to the smart refrigerated counters displaying dozens of plates heaped with a mix of tempting ready-made canapes and very fresh ingredients. If you can, try and get a table near the front, which has more daylight and atmosphere than the tables further in or upstairs. Most of the furniture, fixtures and fittings seem to be made from the same warm brown wood, but bizarrely, the back wall is lined with illuminated Coke and Sprite bottles.

Monday 17 August 2009

Transbordador Aeri del Port, Barcelona

As long as you aren't seriously scared of heights, you should try and take this longstanding cable car ride from Montjuic high over the port to the beach side neighbourhood of Barceloneta. As you wait to board, the aging cables can creak and sway alarmingly, but the staff remain nonchalant. Suspended about seventy metres over the harbour you can scan Barcelona's eclectic architecture taking in the statue of Christopher Columbus, mounted on a towering plinth at the bottom of Las Ramblas, to the brooding medieval towers of the Gothic quarter to the elegant spires of La Sagrada Familia high above the city rooftops stretching across to the distant hills. Below you, scores of yachts form neat rows in the marina. Half way across, the distinctive red cable car, which can carry 19 people, passes through a central tower next to the World Trade Centre before reaching the tower at Barceloneta beach where you may have to queue for the small lift to take you down to ground level. A single fare is nine euros, but small children travel free. 7/10

Sunday 16 August 2009

Caliu Restaurant, Carrer d'Allada Vermell, Barcelona

One of several restaurant-bars with tables strewn around the quiet Carrer d'Allada Vermell, Caliu seems to attract mostly bohemian tourists looking to drink in the open air. The small wobbly tables are surrounded by a few wicker chairs and uncomfortable wooden stools. The peckish might fancy a bowl of a dozen fat green olives stuffed with anchovies (2.50 euros) or the mozzarella salad, which comes with some substantial slabs of cheese, small brown olives and slices of big juicy tomatoes, but it is pricey at 9 euros. If you need something bigger, you can try the gourmet dish (14 euros) - a plate of very tasty smoked salmon, serrano ham, hard cheese, and chorizo sausage. If you are on a budget, fill up on tomato and olive bread for 1.50 euros a plate or the warm, moreish tortilla at about 4 euros for a hefty slice. The drinks are also quite pricey with a 33cl beer costing about 3 euros and a 50 cl bottle of water, 2 euros. Sometimes there isn't enough waiters or waitresses to cover the tables and you may end up without enough plates to eat off. 6/10

National Palace, Montjuic, Barcelona

Perched on Montjuic and built in 1929 for the Universal Exposition, the monumental National Palace with its lavish neo-Gothic towers appears much, much older from the foot of the hill. Approaching from the north, you can climb the steep slope to the main entrance using a combination of escalators and broad stone steps. Outside the palace is a small, trendy cafe with tables providing a sweeping panorama of the city, stretching from the nearby fountains and Italianate towers of the Fira exhibition complex and the handsome former bullring behind, right up to the gleaming towers of Tibidabo in the distant hills north of Barcelona. The palace houses an acclaimed collection of art spanning a millennium of Catalonia's history. You have to pay to look at the paintings, but you can stroll into the handsome main hall for nothing. Gleaming white, this wide open space has an enormous vaulted and ornate ceiling held up by intricately-carved neo-classical pillars. Well worth a look. 8/10

Saturday 15 August 2009

Museum-Monastery of Pedralbes, Baizada del Monestir, Barcelona

A well-preserved and evocative fourteenth century Gothic complex tucked away in a residential suburb of Barcelona, Pedralbes Monastery is a peaceful sanctuary from the bustle of the city. The centrepiece is a graceful garden courtyard, arranged around a large circular pond, enclosed by two-stories of cloisters with surprisingly-slim pillars holding up elegant archways. In the courtyard is a striking Renaissance well with an intricately-carved stone arch. You can peer in on several of the small rooms that made up the nuns’ day cells and wander around the refectory, the kitchens, the infirmary and some museum-style galleries given over to exhibiting some of the monastery's more precious artifacts. One of the many subterranean rooms has a series of slightly unsettling illuminated models of scenes from the last supper and the crucifiction. Entrance to the monastery for adults is a reasonable six euros, while kids are free. Be sure to also look in on the dimly-lit and atmospheric fourteenth church, which is open between 11am and 1pm, slightly up the hill, with its fine stained glass and high vaulted roof. 7/10

Friday 14 August 2009

Barcelona Bus Turistic

One of at least two outfits providing open top bus tours of the extraordinary city of Barcelona, Bus Turistic operates three different slightly overlapping routes, on which you can hop on and off as the mood takes you. The blue route covers off much of the inner city, crawling around the unremarkable Sants station before climbing up Montjuic to the grandiose National Palace and the 1992 Olympic venues, before heading down to the port and skirting around Las Ramblas and the beguiling Gothic quarter. The red route takes you to Gaudi's audacious modernist cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, before heading off north west to some of the sites on the edge of the city, such as the peaceful Gothic monastery of Pedralbes and the vast Nou Camp football stadium. The much shorter green route hugs the coast, taking in some of the modern architecture and sculptures redeveloped for and since the Olympics.

Thursday 13 August 2009

La Taberna del Cobre, Argenteria, Barcelona

One of a handful of restaurants with outside tables on a pedestrianised square shaded by mature trees, La Taberna Del Cobre sells a respectable selection of mostly competitively-priced tapas. Avoid the measly 'smoked fish on toast' for 3 euros and opt for the only slightly more expensive and very flavourful Catalan sausages, which are as big as crayons. You get about a dozen. The patatas bravas is also generous and moreish, if a little spicy. Skip the modest and somewhat disappointing anchovy salad (about 7 euros) and pay just eight euros for a big helping of salty paella - chunky grains of rice mixed with peppers and snippets of sea food and topped with two large, juicy king prawns and half-a-dozen mussels. Alternatively, try the deep fried calamari rings - unhealthy, but tasty and filling. You will need plenty of water or San Miguel, which comes in 33cl bottles for about 2.50 euros. The square has a good ambiance marred only slightly by the ugly modern building housing the oddly-named Cheese Me restaurant opposite La Taberna Del Cobre. 7/10

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona

Less than 15 minutes walk from the bottom of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, this long and curving sweep of fine sand is studded with stylish young city-dwellers and some less stylish tourists for much of the summer months. Overlooked by the high-tech white frame of the Arts Hotel and a neighbouring skyscraper, Barceloneta Beach is home to some wacky and very substantial sculptures, including a large, shimmering golden fish and a crooked block of four metallic cubes with windows. One stretch of sand backs on to a series of cafes and restaurants below a broad steel promenade lined with palm trees, while another stretch merges into a wide wooden boardwalk. In mid-summer, Barceloneta Beach is the place to take a break from sight-seeing, people watch and cool off in the crystal blue sea. 8/10

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Dusk, New Street, York

An incongruously bohemian cafe-bar in amongst the chain stores and restaurants in the heart of touristy York, Dusk is squarely aimed at the student market. It has a laid-back vibe, battered toilets, free Wi-Fi, cheap drinks for students and soulful music. As well as the main bar, there is also a large seating area upstairs and a handful of tables on the pavement outside. Quiet during the day, Dusk is reputed to get lively in the evenings. 6/10

Slug & Lettuce, Low Ousegate, York

A very roomy bar with large windows overlooking the river, York's branch of the Slug & Lettuce chain is popular with local office workers and tourists, particularly on Monday lunchtimes when food is half price. Inside, there are bare brick walls, inoffensive Ikea-style fittings and decor, plus loads of tables and chairs. The creamy and cheesy fish pie, served with some willowy green beans and crispy ciabatta, is good comfort food, while the ultimate burger (about a tenner) is a generous "mini-skyscraper" of meat, cheese, onion rings, mushrooms, bacon and bread. Served with chips, it should fill you up. Fosters, John Smith and other mainstream beers are on tap, while cheerful young locals wait on tables. Not exactly the place to soak up York's history, but a respectable pit-stop. 6/10

York Minster Tower, York, Yorkshire

Inside York Minster, a sign warns visitors that only the "very fit" with a head for heights should pay four pounds and climb the 275 steps to the top of its monumental central tower. In reality, you can be a reasonably unfit vertigo-sufferer and still make it to the top with the help of the iron hand rail. But don't think about turning around half way - visitors are sent up in 30 minute batches as the stone spiral staircase is tight and there are very few passing places. Half way up, you have to traverse a narrow, but safe, steel walkway between the first spiral staircase and the even tighter second one that takes you to the roof of the tower which is enclosed by a mesh cage. Even so, there are captivating views of the Minster's splendid twin Gothic towers, the tight-knit streets and lanes of the walled city below and the distant green countryside, punctuated by a couple of clusters of cooling towers. Every few yards, there is a magazine-sized gap in the mesh through which you can take photos. Panels tell you what you are looking at and how far it is away, including both notable buildings in York and ripples on the horizon, such as Leeds, the North Yorkshire Moors and the Yorkshire Wolds. 7/10

Northern Rail, Hammerton to York, Yorkshire

This sluggish twenty-minute journey, covering less than 10 miles, costs a whopping £4.80 one way for adults - you pay on board. Moreover, the trains only run every 30 minutes in the morning rush hour and every hour for the rest of the day. Although some of the carriages do have bicycle racks, this service is a sorry reflection of the state of Britain's railways. 5/10

The Tea Room at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales

Occupying one of the larger rooms in medieval Bolton Castle, this tea room serves up historical atmosphere. One wall is dominated by a large stone fireplace blackened by centuries of use and a circular cast iron chandelier hangs from the centre of the high wood-beamed ceiling. On a large table is a buffet of cakes, scones and pies. A hefty slice of squidgy, sweet and delicious banoffee pie costs just £1.70, while you can wash it down with tea, coffee or even a bottled beer. For something a bit different and quite refreshing, try one of the Luscombe's organic fizzy drinks whose exotic ingredients include Madagascan vanilla and Sicilian lemons. 7/10

The Farmer's Arms, Muker, Yorkshire Dales

A traditional pub in the Swaledale hamlet of Muker, the Farmer's Arms' front terrace makes for a good suntrap for walkers or cyclists looking for a lunch-stop. On a Sunday, there are roasts on offer (about £7.50 a dish) or you can opt to have your meat in a bap with a side salad for about a fiver. The roast beef is succulent and moreish, while the bread is soft and fluffy. The ploughman's lunch comes with generous helpings of several cheeses including the crumbly and subtle variety from nearby Wensleydale. You can also get a side order of chips for £2.50, but they can be a bit too crispy. Still, Theakston's renown Old Peculier is among the pub's staple beers and the Farmer's Arms is popular with visitors to the Dales looking for some keenly-priced, but filling, grub. 7/10

Yorkshire Dales Cycle Way

Also known more prosaically as Regional Route 10, the Yorkshire Dales Cycle Way is a 130-mile loop through one of the most scenic and timeless areas of England. Mostly on quiet, largely traffic-free, country lanes, the heavily-undulating route, waymarked by blue signs featuring a ram's head, includes many gruelling, highly-aerobic climbs. To pass from one dale to the next you typically need to climb from the valley floor at around 200 metres up to about 500 metres in the surrounding hills. Still, at the top, you usually get a grand view of the green, green slopes, criss-crossed by dry stone walls and untouched by modern development. Then you can enjoy a fast white-knuckle descent into the next dale where an age-old pub or sedate tea room will be waiting. With few really flat stretches, the Yorkshire Dales Cycle Way is not a route for the faint-hearted, but it is a lot of fun. 8/10

The George Inn, Hubberholme, Skipton, North Yorkshire

A real time warp pub, the George Inn has small, cosy rooms with stone walls decorated with brass artifacts, a flagstone floor, low ceilings, ancient fireplaces and black and white prints on the wall, including a portrait of the young George Best. On a Saturday night, your fellow patrons will likely be a mix of walkers passing through the dale and middle-aged couples sitting in semi-silence. The George Inn stops taking food orders around 8pm, but if you arrive in time, the pub grub menu includes scampi, lasagne, steak and other stock dishes. The Black Sheep casserole (£10) is rather runny, but comes with a fair helping of lamb and is served with some crispy chips and a side-plate of over-cooked potatoes and saggy vegetables. There is also a selection of large traditional English deserts. On tap are some local ales, such as Golden Pippin and Black Sheep, several lagers and a very refreshing dry cider. 6/10

Hartrigg House, Buckden, Skipton, North Yorkshire

An elegant railway hotel dating from the 1880s, Hartrigg House is now a bed and breakfast with a big garden and fine views across the pastoral idyll of Wharfedale. When you arrive, you are offered a cup of tea in a dainty china cup and a buttered scone with jam in the guest lounge. You can stay in a homely twin room with a pleasant view through a large sash window (£67 B&B for two), but your bathroom, featuring a huge air bath, is on another level and doesn't have a shower. One of the other bedrooms is en-suite. For breakfast, you can choose from several hot dishes ranging from a smoked salmon bagel to a full English consisting of a perfectly cooked and presented poached egg, meaty bacon, tasty stewed tomatoes, sausage and black pudding. On a small table there is also a buffet with a selection of juices, figs in syrup, chopped pineapple, yoghurts and cereals. Hartrigg House is run by a friendly and self-deprecating lady, with the help of her husband and, when he is back from university, a chirpy student. 7/10

Sunday 28 June 2009

Ganapati, Holly Grove, Peckham, south London

A spartan, yet colourfully decorated, neighbourhood restaurant serving authentic south Indian cuisine, Ganapati has bare wooden tables and talkative, teasing staff in traditional costume. On weekend evenings, there are two sittings at 7.30pm and 9.15pm. The menu is varied and stimulating. Among the starters, are some rather dry vegetarian street snacks (£4.50) consisting of a couple of small fried potato balls and a couple of patties both laced with spices and served with much-needed dips. The pappadoms, served with four diverse pickles and chutneys, are more filling. Among the mains, the Malli Varutha fish curry (about £11) with rice is quite spicy and fiddly, but delicious. Equally impressive is the Banana Leaf Thali - a classic south Indian dish served in a myriad of multi-sized metallic pots containing a fish, meat or vegetable curry, pickles, chutneys, rice, yoghurt and other condiments. To drink, you are given a large metallic flask of tap water with matching beakers. Or you can have a fruit lassi for about £3, or a 330ml bottle of cobra beer for £3.25. Ganapati also sells several unusual beers from the Meantime brewery, while wine starts at about £13 a bottle. Note, there is also an obligatory 10% service charge. All in all, good value for a taste of genuine southern Indian food. 7/10

Saturday 27 June 2009

Carrie's War, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, central London

Images from
With austere period costumes, a wistful ambiance and an elaborate set encompassing two two-storey houses, Carrie's War effectively evokes the stoicism and upheaval of 1940s Britain. Early on in the play, Carrie and her whinging brother Nick are evacuated to a Welsh mining valley in a railway carriage that descends silently from the ceiling and departs in a cloud of smoke. Unfortunately, Sarah Edwardson and James Joyce's slightly over-the-top acting and adult-sized children's clothes can break the spell.

Friday 26 June 2009

Restaurant Paganini, Vasterlanggatan, Stockholm

Overlooking a pleasant cobbled street in the old town, a table beside the open windows in Restaurant Paganini is a good place to watch tourists wandering by on the long summer evenings in Stockholm. Inside, the ambiance is cosy and romantic - there are candles on the small tables, which are mostly occupied by couples. Restaurant Paganini serves good chianti and chablis by the glass (around 120 krona each), as well as by the bottle, which is a good thing given the high prices in Sweden. On the menu, there is an array of Italian dishes, including pasta and carpaccio, plus some Swedish dishes, featuring cuts of reindeer (298 krona), which is quite like beef, but even leaner and drier, and elk. The food is competent, but not spectacular, while the service by the young Swedish staff is welcoming and efficient. 6/10

Arlanda Express, Stockholm

Connecting the main airport to Stockholm city centre, Arlanda Express trains, painted a gaudy yellow, run every 15 minutes during the day in the summer. With a journey time of just 20 minutes, they are easily the fastest way to cover the 40 kilometers. Right now a special offer enables two adults to travel together one way for 250 Swedish krona, while a single adult fare is 240 krona. The Arlanda Express is quick and comfortable: Don't even consider a cab. 7/10

Nordic Sea Hotel, Vasaplan, Stockholm

Right next to the central station and the Arlanda Express terminus, the Nordic Sea Hotel couldn't be more convenient for travellers coming in from the airport. But with the exception of the gimmicky bar made out of ice, it doesn't have a lot of character - the lobby and breakfast room may remind you of the airport you just left. Moreover, the keenly-priced, but aptly-named "express rooms", could give you cabin fever. You won't want to hang around: They are small and claustrophobic - there are no windows and the air con isn't very powerful. At least, they come with free, fast Internet access and reasonably comfortable beds, while the decor is restrained and easy-on-the-eye. The buffet breakfast is quite good, with a decent selection of hot food, including some tasty lamb sausages, plus the continental stables. 6/10

British Airways, London Heathrow to Stockholm Arlanda

At Heathrow's terminal five, the security queues can be long and tiresome first thing on a Monday morning and you have to take a bus from the gate to the 7.30am Stockholm flight, so make sure you check-in online (early if you want a window seat) and arrive at the airport by 6.30am. You can take a small holdall on board, plus a laptop bag, so you may be able to avoid putting luggage in the hold. The two-hour flight to Stockholm is popular with business people and the plane can be crowded, but BA's blue leather seats are fairly spacious and you get a free sandwich and a hot or cold drink. On the way back, security at Arlanda tends to run smoothly and quickly, but the pricey food in the cafes can be lackluster, while the cappuccinos tend to be bland and lukewarm. 6/10

The Wellington, Waterloo Road, central London

A big patriotic pub, opposite Waterloo station, with several large rooms and high ceilings, The Wellington has plenty of space and lots of television screens for watching football, cricket or rugby. The walls are lined with pictures of Napoleonic battles, Wellington paraphernalia and pithy quotes from the Duke, while model canons line the raised alcoves. The usual international lagers are on tap (Fosters about three quid a pint), plus a few real ales. A good place to watch England or the British Lions play, but, on match days, The Wellington's boisterous atmosphere can be diluted by the stray tourists and pensioners tucking into the pub grub. 6/10

Monday 15 June 2009

Strada, Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, central London

With big round mirrors mounted on a wall cladded with thin strips of bamboo above sturdy wood panelling, the decor in this two-storey branch of Strada conjures up Japan or Scandinavia. But the food is all Italian. As you sit down, one of the waitresses will bring over complimentary, filtered water in minimalist bottles and they don't seem to mind if you drink nothing else. Among the starters, the Cesto di Pane Misto (£4.50) is a selection of rather dry and disappointing breads rescued only by the accompanying bowl of olive oil. The antipasto misto - mouthwatering mozzarella, parma ham, pepperoni and flavourful tomatoes - is much better, but pricey at £6.50. The pizzas with their wafer thin bases, fresh, appealing toppings and big diameters are also a cut above those served in most pizza chains. Even the kids' pizzas (just £4.50) are large and alluring.

Fresh and vibrant sea food
Less generous is the pumpkin and butternut squash risotto (about £10), topped with very slim strips of pancetta. It is creamy and pleasant, but lacks some punch. The excellent sea food risotto (about £11) is also a tad small, but the mussels, squid, prawns and clams are very fresh and vibrant. Although service (optional 15% charge) can be sluggish, it is friendly and attentive, particularly to children. A short walk from the tourist honeypot and boutiques of Covent Garden, this branch of Strada makes a good lunch stop on a family day out. 7/10

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Coffee Republic, Exchange Square, Broadgate, central London

Mostly housed in a greenhouse-style building in a futuristic pedestrianised square, this branch of Coffee Republic has outside tables overlooking a big voluptuous black statue, the steel and glass architecture of the surrounding banks and part of Liverpool Street station. In the distance, you can hear the sound of the station tannoy and trains pulling in and out. The Americanos (about £1.50 for a large beaker) are strong and full of flavour. When you buy a coffee, you can pick up a tasty cheese and tomato twist or chocolate twist for an additional pound. Also on offer is the usual selection of cakes, sandwiches, muffins, smoothies etc. You can get online via the pair of (paid-for) terminals or use your own laptop to connect to the free Wi-Fi, sponsored by Lufthansa, by getting a username and password valid for 20 minutes from the counter staff. 6/10

Sunday 7 June 2009

National Garden Scheme at Choumert Square, Peckham, south London

A mews hidden away in the back streets of Peckham, Choumert Square is two terraces of around twenty modest mid-Victorian workers cottages facing each other across a flagstone path. Period street lamps, colourful facades and some tiny, but luscious, front gardens add to the special ambiance of this unusual street. Surprisingly, there is even room for a handful of mature, gnarled trees. Once a year, as part of the National Gardens Scheme, the householders set up stalls selling tombola tickets, glasses of Pimms, lavish cakes, homemade lemonade, nick-nacks and other wares for charity. At the far end of the mews, a woodwind and brass band plays cheerful tunes in the tiny square where there is just enough room to sit down with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. On the day the square opens for the scheme, admission is £2.50 for adults and 50 pence for kids. 7/10

Saturday 6 June 2009

Pizza Express, Dulwich Village, south London

Housed over two floors of a Victorian building, this branch of Pizza Express is still sporting sash windows, elegant fireplaces and other period features. But, at busy times, the interior can feel cramped as mildly-stressed, black-shirted waiters and waitresses try to weave their way from the open plan kitchen through the too closely-packed tables. Early on a Saturday evening in the summer, diners may be surrounded by boisterous kids' birthday parties, families and even the odd group of twentysomethings dolled-up for a big night out, while a handful of people queue at the door.

Elaborate platter
As well as the usual pizzas, pasta and salad dishes, the Pizza Express menu now includes an elaborate meze (about £9) of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, hot and succulent slabs of bread, wafer-thin cured meats, small chunks of mozzarella, parmesan shaved over sugarsnap peas and peperonata sauce, all served on a slate platter. The three-course kids' menu, which is also good value for six quid, starts with dough balls and a smattering of crudite, followed by a choice of small passable pizzas or pasta dishes and then creamy, sweet sundaes. To wash it down, you can get iced tap water for nothing or pay about £2 a pop for fruit juices, while adults may prefer to reach for the bottles of Peroni or the fairly-priced wine list. 6/10

Tuesday 26 May 2009

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

The spiritual home of posh English gardening, Wisley is an impressive showcase for the formidable skills and knowledge of the Royal Horticultural Society. In May, the green-fingered will hardly notice the fine imitation Tudor manor house that serves as a laboratory and the gateway to the 240 acre site. Instead, they will be transfixed by the extraordinary variety of plants and flowers that pack borders carefully-designed to provide a mesmerising mixture of colour, foliage and structure. Melded into the contours of the Surrey Hills, the gardens flow up banks, past ponds capped with water lilies and straddled by quaint bridges, around an undulating Alpine meadow, charming stone steps, rockeries and venerable old trees. To the south, Battleston Hill and Weather Hill, where the lauded rose gardens are now being redeveloped, both make for good vantage points for a sweeping view of the extraordinary array of landscaping and planting below. Urbanites in search of ideas should wander around the self-contained series of small gardens each designed around a theme, such as "rooms" or "pot plants".

Spectacular, high-tech glasshouse
Right now there is also a cheerful display of tiny themed gardens, just a few square feet, designed by local schools. One of them features characters from children's stories, such as Robin Hood and Peter Rabbit, while another is full of lavishly-painted pebbles. The fruit field and the arboretum in the south west corner are among the least colourful, but most peaceful, parts of Wisley. From here, you can follow the spiral path up to the top of the newly-planted fruit mount or head down the straight grassy path to the semi-circular lake in front of the spectacular, high-tech glasshouse. Inside are tropical, temperate and desert zones, each densely-packed with strange and eye catching plants. Steps, ramps and lifts enable you to get up amongst the treetops and survey everything from on-high. Entrance to Wisley costs £8.50 for adults, a fair price, but you will probably spend as much again in one of the several cafes and restaurants dotted around the site. And if you want a souvenir, there is also a pricey gift shop and plant centre. 8/10

Friday 15 May 2009

Green & Blue, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, South London

A stylish and atmospheric wine shop with bare brick walls, Green & Blue also has a laid-back bar with green cast iron tables, free Wi-Fi and some electric sockets where you can plug your laptop in. But most of the punters, with the exception of the odd toddler, are more interested in sampling the wines or one of the bottled British beers. There is also coffee, tea, a selection of Mediterranean snacks, platters of cheese, meat and fish, pies, sausage rolls and salads. The moist cakes are delicious, but the garlic bread and cheese straws are lackluster. Service by the black-shirted staff is cool and efficient. 7/10

Saturday 9 May 2009

Blue Mountain Cafe, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, South London

The striking mosaic on the Blue Mountain Cafe's front terrace draws you into this quite funky and cramped local eatery. The long, narrow dining room's centrepiece is an open and noisy bar, where hot drinks are prepared and served one-by-one by the slightly eccentric and meandering young staff. A large creamy cappuccino costs two pounds and a cafeteria of filter coffee a hefty £3.75, while kids' drinks, such as apple juice, milk or a 'babychino', all cost around one pound. The diverse selection of bottled beers (around three quid each) includes Budvar and Whitstable Bay Organic Ale.

Doorsteps of toast
The food menu includes jerk chicken (£8) - a generous piece of tepid meat in a fairly tame sauce served with some delicious and spicy rice and roasted plantain. Equally filling is the mezze platter (£7), made up of sun dried tomatoes or artichokes, grilled and salty haloumi cheese, a battery of olives, heaps of pitta bread, plus humus and aubergine dips. Among the half-dozen options on the kids menu are some doorsteps of toast with baked beans and egg mayonnaise sandwiches served in thick white bread. But save some room for a slice of one of the sumptuous and plump cakes on prominent display near the door. The Blue Mountain Cafe is understandibly popular with young families and couples and you may struggle to get a table on a Saturday. 7/10

Monday 4 May 2009

Hughenden Manor, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

A red-brick, eighteenth-century manor house with fussy little Victorian parapets, Hughenden Manor isn't particularly striking or attractive. But it is the former country home of Benjamin Disraeli, billed as "Britain's most unlikely prime minister" and it pulls in the crowds. On a sunny spring Sunday, the National Trust sometimes issues timed entry tickets and you may have to wait two hours to get inside the house. In the meantime, you can wander around the orderly garden with its displays of white tulips standing to attention surrounded by forget-me-nots, play croquet on the immaculate lawn or go for a walk. A two-mile round trip takes you up to a high vantage point next to a stone monument to Disraeli, from where you can survey the suburbs of High Wycombe encroaching on to the farms and woodland around the manor. Alternatively you can wander down through the many trees, past the elegant Georgian vicarage, the early seventeenth century almshouses and the parish church to a leisurely river where cows laze on the banks. Or you can head for the restaurant in the original stable block, which has a cobbled courtyard that makes a fine sun trap.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset

The view from the top of Gold Hill, a steep cobbled street bordered by quaint cottages and by the walls of ruined medieval abbey, against a backdrop of rolling countryside, is an instantly-recognisable image of rural England. It has been used in television commercials, including the highly-nostalgic Hovis advert featuring a boy in a cloth cap pushing his bike up the cobbles, plus calendars, chocolate boxes and other tourist memorabilia. But once you have gazed at that famous view for 30 seconds or so, there isn't much more to see. 7/10