Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Bell, Eckington, Worcestershire

Despite its unusual 360 degree fireplace, inside a brick pizza-style stove, the Bell doesn't have quite enough character for a country pub. Although the young staff are friendly, their black uniforms and the Bell's polished decor, with its clean lines and smooth wooden tables, suggest chain. Still, the food and beer is quite good. You could do a lot worse than the smooth and very drinkable 6X beer, while the game casserole (£11), a rich stew of venison, pigeon and rabbit in a red wine gravy, with dumplings and a side order of veg, is hearty and filling. Moreover, there is a large selection of kids meals, including a generous ham, eggs and chips, for about £6 apiece. For desert, chocoholics will love the hot chocolate pot - a very intense dose of cocoa, topped with cream and mint. 7/10

Sunday 19 December 2010

Grand Hotel Karel V, Geertebolwerk, Utrecht

Slap, bang in the middle of Utrecht, the Grand Hotel Karel V is a luxurious and fairly-traditional establishment that may be resting on its laurels. Built in the grounds of a medieval monastery, the hotel is an ensemble of white buildings, some with tall elegant sloping roofs, which manages to conjure up a sense of peace and quiet in a prime location near the attractive canals, restaurants, bars and shops in the heart of this ancient city. However, some of the bedrooms are in a bland modern block. They are comfortable and quiet, but the decor is a bit gaudy and they have clinical laminate-wooden floors. Still, the en-suite bathrooms, equipped with showers, rather than baths, are up-to-date with heated towel-rails and smart olive tiles. There is no WiFi in the rooms and getting on the Internet via the ethernet cables can be fraught with technical glitches. However, there is free WiFi, which works well enough, in the quirky lobby, where you can admire the brash modern art from one of the blue leather sofas. The Karel V's buffet breakfast has just about everything you might want, including decent speciality breads, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. But the machine coffee is lackluster and the fruit salad lame. Overall, a bit disappointing for a "grand" hotel. 6/10

Sunday 12 December 2010

Gauchos, Oude Gracht, Utrecht

This atmospheric, almost subterranean, branch of the Gauchos chain of Argentinian-themed steakhouses is housed in an ancient cave-like building tucked away next to the wharf of one of Utrecht's two-storey canals. The emphasis, of course, is on meat and there is a wide selection of cuts of beef ranging from 225g to 1,000g. A 300g sirloin steak, served with an unusual layer of crackling, is juicy and satisfying, but quite pricey at 21 euros. You get a big choice of sauces, such as garlic, bearnaise and mushroom-truffle, and side orders, including asparagus, mushrooms, chips, baked potatoes and even corn-on-the-cob, typically costing between 3 and 4 euros apiece. With friendly, helpful and attentive waiting staff, Gauchos is justifiably popular in prosperous Utrecht. 7/10

Restaurant de Artisjok, Nieuwe Gracht, Utrecht

Located an picturesque old street, next to a quiet canal, Restaurant de Artisjok is not the place to come for a quick meal. Service can be snail-paced and may leave you gnawing your hand in frustration and hunger. Still, this elegant establishment in a 19th century house seems popular with a mix of ages and attracts locals, tourists and business people.The decor is conventional, but smart, while the imaginative food is beautifully-presented and tastes great. Specials might include half a lobster or six very fresh oysters served with a chili sauce. The fried venison steak (20 euros) is served with a delicious truffle risotto, asparagus and a very rich venison stew in a separate bowl. The classic deserts, such as tiramsu and crème brûlée, are large and cost around nine euros apiece. Service by the black-shirted waiters is jovial, but very inattentive. 6/10

Saturday 11 December 2010

CityJet, London City to Amsterdam

By far the most human and accessible of London's airports, City is a good gateway for short hops across Europe, as you can pass through this small airport in 15 minutes. The flight to Amsterdam is short, but CityJet still finds time to serve you a complementary sweet, drink and sandwich in both directions. On board, are comfortable, reclining, blue leather seats, each equipped with its own copy of the Air France (owner of CityJet) in-flight magazine. But this route sees frequent delays and changing your flights isn't easy - you have to ring a call centre and may end up paying a big premium. 7/10

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Le Gauthier, Romilly Street, central London

Housed in a discreet Regency Town House, Le Gauthier has a reverential, almost ecclesiastical ambiance, in which gastronomy, rather than God, is the focus. You ring the doorbell and stand in the hall, before the staff usher you into a very small bar, which doubles as a wine cellar, for an aperitif. Once you have pulled up a chair in the smart, mostly-white dining room, you are served a steady succession of free morsels, such as quail eggs, home-baked bread rolls (the bacon one is very good), and crab with guacamole sauce. Everything is beautifully-presented. The five course menu (3 plates £35, four plates £45, five plates £55) has several options for each course.  The crayfish velouté, served with chicken liver, truffle and chervil, can be too subtle and short of seasoning. Better are the ultra-fresh scallops served with caramelized red onions in a chard sauce. Another hit is the succulent cut of venison, served with celeriac cream and cabbage, topped with a delicate truffle garnish.  If you aren't squeamish, you are also likely to enjoy the fine, sweet foie gras, served with apple, sultanas, herbs and a calavados sauce.

Expansive and expensive
The fillet of Dover sole is a small, salty, tasty tube of fish, served with a celeriac ravioli, Jerez vinegar reduction and a beef-orange jus, while the roast lamb, served with root vegetables, consists of half-a-dozen large pellets of meat. It seems to be a mix of cuts: some quite solid and some juicy and falling apart.  The wine list is both expansive and expensive. Although the pinot noir from Alsace is light, refreshing and drinkable, it probably isn't worth £32 a bottle. Still, you can forgo desert and enjoy the free trio of homemade chocolates, including a melt-in-your mouth coconut marshmallow. Service (12.5% optional charge) by the white-shirted French waiters and waitresses is efficient, but they can seem a little stressed at times.  Still, Le Gauthier's imaginative dishes should be enough to delight most foodies. 8/10

Saturday 4 December 2010

El Vergel, rue du Trône, Brussels

A Latin-American-themed eatery with backpacker-style decor, El Vergel has a strong following among local office workers. Hand-written messages cover the walls, while the dozens of bare wooden tables wedged into two large rooms, are packed on a Friday lunchtime. The keenly-priced food, as well as the buzz, is the draw. One of the specials, costing just eight euros, is an intense, filling and delicious beef stew served with plantain, chili and rice. You can wash it down with a soft drink for a couple of euros and, on the way out, you can even buy a Latin American memento from the mini souvenir shop. 8/10

Friday 3 December 2010

Leopold Hotel, Rue du Luxembourg, Brussels

The Leopold Hotel has an old-fashioned air about it.  Apparently stuck in the1970s, the reception staff wear white shirts and black ties, while the three venerable lifts, labelled A, B and C, have to be called individually. Upstairs, the corridors are warrens and some of the standard rooms, overlooking grey flats and buildings, are cramped with small, flat-screen televisions and compact wardrobes. You have to pay 10 euros for 24 hours of WiFi access, but it works well enough throughout the hotel. The restaurant has smart white table cloths, but seemingly few customers, while the bar and brasserie is rather dull and lacking in atmosphere. Still, the Leopold serves a decent hot and cold breakfast in a large, open room with plenty of tables, each with its own big flask of coffee. Moreover, this hotel is well-located for Brussels' Europe quarter and is near an atmopsheric square with lots of bars and restaurants, populated by young Eurocrats. 6/10

Sunday 14 November 2010

Fish House Vera Cruz, Carlsbad, California

Near the quaint heart of Carlsbad, the Fish House Vera Cruz's huge selection of seafood attracts plenty of locals and tourists, even early in the evening on a weekday. Although the decor (lots of blonde wood and an mundane carpet) is run-of-the-mill, you can see the chefs working through a glass window and the food they produce is pretty good.  As in many American restaurants, the choice can be bewildering. As well as  offering about 20 or so main courses, the Fish House lets you choose your accompaniments - the cheesy mashed potato and steamed vegetables are plentiful and very good.  For the main act, the butter fish ($21.50 plus sales tax) is large, succulent and delicious. Surprisingly, given the restaurant's proximity to the Pacific Ocean, much of the fish on the menu seems to hail from the Atlantic or the Great lakes. You also get a free, warm bread roll, but the beer is expensive ($5.50 before sales tax for a pint). The mostly blond waitresses, dressed mostly in white, fly around the many alcoves, grinning at everyone and working hard for their tips. 8/10

Saturday 13 November 2010

Hilton Garden Inn, Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad, California

A low-rise, sprawling hotel built in the style of an Hispanic villa, the Hilton Garden Inn overlooks a sandy beach a couple of miles south of Carlsbad. Although there is a dual-carriageway between the hotel and the Pacific Ocean, it is still a fine spot that draws a mixture of tourists, business travellers and even the U.S. army. The big rooms have large, comfortable beds, sturdy furniture and free Wi-Fi, while the en-suite bathrooms, decorated in dark yellow patterns, have an odd air of opulence. The Hilton Garden Inn even has a free shuttle bus that will take you to and pick you up from anywhere within a five mile radius of the hotel. But you may need to wait half-an-hour for a collection. There is also free watery coffee in the morning and free cookies in the evening.  Oustide the peak season, you can get all this for less than $150 a night, but you pay more for a room with a partial ocean-view or for a full ocean view.  For an extra $12, you can eat as much as you want from the respectable breakfast buffet, including hefty omelettes and other hot food, in addition to the fruit, cereals, yoghurts and cold fare. There is also plenty of lacklustre coffee and orange juice. If its warm enough, you can have your breakfast on the terrace. Out here, there are neat flowerbeds, an enclosed swimming pool and a fine view of the sea stretching off to the horizon. 7/10

Friday 12 November 2010

Alamo car hire, Aviation Boulevard, Los Angeles Airport

One of several car hire outlets a short shuttle bus ride from Los Angeles airport, Alamo has a broad selection of keenly-priced and well-kept hire cars. But the smallest car you can hire is a four-door saloon. Overseas customers, at least, have to pay for a full tank of petrol up front, but Brits won't find that too onerous, given the relatively low cost of gas in the USA. Although this system means you will probably pay for petrol you don't use, you won't have to find a petrol station before returning the car. 7/10

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Travelodge, Aviation Boulevard, Los Angeles Airport, California

Convenient, cheap and not very cheerful, this Travelodge is a few minutes drive from Los Angeles airport. If you call reception after you land, a shuttle bus will come and pick you up eventually. Although the foyer tries to cultivate a mid-market air, this motel isn't somewhere you will want to linger. Many of the rooms are reached via grim outside corridors more reminiscent of a British council estate than a hotel. Inside, the rooms have a dated decor dominated by flowery, swirling patterns, but they are quite spacious and typically have their own balcony overlooking the functional swimming pool. With cold tiles on the floor and unforgiving lighting, the en-suite bathrooms are also hard on the eye. Still, there is free Wi-Fi and in-room coffee and the rooms can be surprisingly quiet and comfortable. The plentiful, but plain, continental breakfast is served in a very cramped room and you may have to eat at one of the outside tables near the pool. If you want a budget dinner, there is also a branch of the Denny's chain on-site.  This Travelodge runs a shuttle bus to the airport every 30 minutes and seemingly attracts plenty of jet-lagged Europeans. 6/10

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Virgin Atlantic, London Heathrow to Los Angeles

On the 11-hour daytime flight to Los Angeles, you will probably want to stay awake, so Virgin Atlantic's extensive video-on-demand service is very welcome and very useful. If you are travelling economy, check-in online early to secure a window seat, as the middle seat looks pretty cramped. The food is okay and you won't have to pay for a glass of beer or wine. You may even get an ice cream to accompany the in-flight films. For the night flight back, it is worth paying extra for premium economy, which has many of the trappings of business class. Crucially, the seats are quite spacious and they lean back far enough to let you get some sleep. Moreover, you'll be served enough alcohol to make you sleepy. When you board, you are offered a glass of sparkling wine, followed by two glasses of wine with your meal and then a Baileys or a whisky afterwards.  You also get a menu, with a choice of food. Virgin's chicken and rice, served with a smoked salmon salad and bread roll, is not bad for airline food. For desert, you might get a respectable chocolate profiterole and a lump of cheddar, plus some biscuits. In the morning, as you approach Britain, you are served passable coffee and a bagel by Virgin's still glamorous cabin crew in their starched white shirts and red uniforms. All-in-all, Virgin Atlantic remains one of the world's more civilised airlines. 7/10


Saturday 23 October 2010

Ryanair, London Stansted to Malaga

If you can get away with hand luggage, you'll avoid both Ryanair's hefty luggage surcharges and the stress of dealing with this airline's infamously unhelpful staff, until you reach the departure gate. If you check-in online and print your boarding pass, you can go straight to security. Ryanair insists you get to the gate well before the flight is due to depart, meaning you end up in a succession of queues, as people jostle for the best seats on the plane. Once on board, the seats are cramped, the food and drink are expensive and there is a steady stream of sales pitches for lottery tickets, duty free and the like from the cabin crew. As you would expect, the early morning and the evening flights are the cheapest, but you end up coming and going from Stansted at some ungodly hours. Still, you'll maximise your time in sunny Andalusia. 5/10 

Restaurante Granada, Nueva, Ronda

One of many similar restaurants competing vigorously for your custom on this pedestrianised nineteenth century street, Granada offers large portions of mostly Spanish food at keen prices. As part of the cover, you are given some saggy and salty green olives, plus shrink-wrapped rolls of bread. As you peruse the plastic menus in several languages, you may spot one of the cooks opening and closing the microwave. Among the main courses, the large mixed paella, served in a wok, is full of grisly chicken and pork, king prawns, fat mussels and clams. It is salty, but pretty good for the modest 9.50 euros a head. The mixed salad (six euros) is an eclectic mix of wafer-thin Palma ham, manchego cheese, tinned pineapple, beetroot, sweet corn, shredded carrots, loads of lettuce, sliced tomatoes and peppers. The okay spaghetti bolognese is filling, while the Spanish omelet is also substantial and passable. Granada's tacky decor, with a gold-trimmed Alhambra-theme, is reminiscent of the seventies. Even as if it fills up with tired tourists, this unremarkable restaurant lacks atmosphere. 5/10

Ronda, Andalusia

In a spectacular setting high over a gorge, the beautifully-preserved Andalusian town of Ronda is well worth a couple of days of your time. If you can find a space, part in one of the cramped underground car parks in the central shopping district and head over to the charming 19th century Alameda del Tajo park with its broad, paved promenades, lined with vintage lampposts, and lush foliage.  They lead down to the iron railings and ornate stone wall, guarding a sheer drop to the valley floor below and providing sweeping views across the hills. As it sets, the sun bathes the park in a magical light tailor-made for tourist snaps.  Follow the path hugging the cliff edge around the parador to the towering eighteenth century stone bridge with its elegant arches, which merge into the rocky sides of the canyon. Across the bridge, are narrow, atmospheric cobbled streets lined by stately white-washed town houses, some with smart restaurants overlooking the gorge. The lanes open out into a peaceful cobbled, tree-lined square surrounded by handsome historic buildings, including a convent and a striking, old red-brick church with an ornate bell-tower.

Friday 22 October 2010

Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera, Partido de los Frontones, Ronda, Andalusia

Housed in a sympathetically-extended and restored country house overlooking a fine stretch of Andalusian countryside, the Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera is both a good place to chill out and a good base for exploring the historic town of Ronda. From the terrace, where you can eat your fine buffet breakfast, there are spectacular views through the mature garden, across the verdant valley to the picturesque hills beyond. Inside, the tasteful and high-quality decor, fittings and furniture are built to last and to appeal. Arty black and white photographic prints line the cream walls, which are mostly bathed in natural light. In the central atrium, lit by a large skylight, climb the cream staircase, for an ariel view of the massive tropical plant, the small honesty bar and to admire the huge poster advertising a Ronda bullfight. The centerpiece of the garden is a well-kept swimming pool, backed by a dry stone wall and surrounded by a grassy lawn, lined with wooden sun loungers. Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera has about a dozen or so tasteful rooms or suites in all shapes and sizes. Some have open fires and their own terraces and one of the suites even has its own spiral staircase leading up to lofty bedroom with a stylish blue wooden board floor.

Painfully slow
The Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera's buffet breakfast includes decent juices, cold meats, cheeses, fruit, cereal, bread and boiled eggs. You can order coffees from the staff, but you need to toast your own bread. You can also book in for an overpriced dinner (42 euros for three courses, without wine) in the cosy dining room where the tables are covered with smart white table cloths and funky music is playing on the retro-style wooden stereo. There is a choice of two dishes for each course. Before you get going, you may be offered a  lovely little appetiser made up of creamy cheese and an anchovy wrapped around a morsel of caviar. The starters may include Andalusian soup, which contains soft and scrumptious chick peas in salty chicken stock. The main courses may include a chunky tuna steak, which can be a bit too dry and salty, while the rack of lamb may also be over-seasoned. Still the accompanying creamy mash and green veg is delicious. For desert, the chocolate cake is light and crumbly and is filled with hot oozing chocolate sauce, offset by fine ice cream. To drink, the house A Pasos 2006 red wine from Ronda is rich and velvety. Unfortunately, the portions are often too small and, if you have restless or tired kids, the service can be painfully slow. Still, the friendly and helpful Dutch proprietor seems to have no trouble attracting adult guests and diners to Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera. 8/10

Altamirano, Plaza Altamirano, Marbella, Andalusia

Marring a picturesque cobbled square in Marbella's old town with its Pepsi-branded plastic chairs,  Altamirano is a lot better seafood restaurant than it looks. Although the white facade is adorned with attractive painted tiles, inside, neon light casts the basic decor in an unforgiving glare. You might prefer to sit outside in the lovely square and watch the tourists wandering around the other nearby eateries, but you may be serenaded by an embarrassing busker, singing classic Mexican ditties. You pay a small cover charge for bread, which is a bit hard, and olives, which are also nothing special, so its worth sharing a big plate of very fresh anchovies in vinegar (eight euros).

Soft, succulent fish
The menu lists a wide selection of fish, plus dishes of the day, which are mostly priced by the kilogram and served with a couple of boiled potatoes and some lettuce leaves, shredded carrot and sweet corn. It can be difficult to figure out what you'll end up paying and the final bill may not make a lot of sense. The grilled sea bass can be served as two large crispy and delicious fillets of soft, succulent fish, but be warned they might cost a whopping 30 euros. Strangely, a similarly large plate of grilled calamari (fresh, but a little tough and chewy) can cost less than 12 euros. The waiting staff recommend that kids have a healthy plate of mixed fish, deboned, served with boiled potatoes and lettuce - great value at just eight euros ahead. After such fresh main courses, it is disappointing to find that the deserts appear to be bought frozen from a supermarket - the desert menu is just stock photographs on a laminated menu. There is also no coffee. Despite its many faults, Altamirano is probably the place to savour seafood in Marbella. 7/10 

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Marbella Old Town, Andalusia

About a square-kilometre of heavily-restored, but atmospheric, cobbled streets and alleys, Marbella's old town is close to the beaches and the resort's smart boardwalk. The remains of the Arabian castellated walls, supposedly dating from the 9th century, partially enclose an eclectic set of white-washed buildings, including an handsome and striking church, spanning hundreds of years. But you'll find yourself looking down as much as up. Beneath your feet, is an ever-changing array of elaborate patterns of cobbled stones and tiles.  You'll also find appealing tree-lined squares with vintage lamp-posts, pavement cafes and restaurants. You'll stumble upon the occasional lavishly-carved, Arabian-style wooden door and there are scores of wrought-iron balconies, decorated with flowers and pot plants, to admire.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Stuzzikini, Alderete, Marbella

A good-value Sardinian restaurant that prides itself on slow food, Stuzzikini doesn't bend over backwards to serve Marbella's big tourist market. There are no kids meals and virtually none of the standard pasta dishes on the menu, except for a meaty, home-made lasagne (8 euros). But there is a decent selection of wafer-thin 11-inch pizzas (6 to 7 euros each) topped with generous helpings of fresh ingredients. If you don't fancy pizza, try the Sardinian seafood dish (9 euros), featuring little balls of pasta, mussels, clams and slices of biscotti bread swimming in a slightly-spicy sauce. The mozzarella and tomato salad (6.5 euros) is also very good and very fresh. It is worth leaving room for the fine chocolate fondant (6.5 euros), served with a ball of vanilla ice cream. The hot chocolate sauce, oozing out of the middle of the cake, is delicious, but it comes with too many mint leaves. The dark wooden tables are scattered around several small rooms and, depending on where you are sitting, Stuzzikini can lack atmosphere. The cool, clean decor is broken up by some eclectic touches, such as the roses hand-painted on to the walls, Roman-style urns and Sardinian guide books. 8/10

La Taberna del Pintxo, Avenida Miguel Cano, Marbella

Although it is only a hundred yards or so from the seafront, the traditional La Taberna del Pinxto is a world away from the tourist haunts that line the beach. The friendly waiting staff, who don't speak English, patrol the tables offering plates of hot and cold tapas to the mostly Spanish patrons. The tasty tapas range from one to two euros apiece - the actual cost is flagged by the style of toothpick used to pin them to the accompanying bread. When you sit down on one of the high stools outside or the tables inside, you are given a basket of decent bread, which you can dip in the delicious, thick and creamy gapazio. Its also worth keeping an eye out for the warm slices of tortilla, the melt-in-the-mouth ham croquettes and the juicy slices of beef.  You can also order bigger dishes, such as the rather oily sausages in cider, moreish patatas bravas in a creamy sauce and a refreshing goats cheese and spinach salad, for about five to seven euros. The beer and water is also reasonably-priced. Its easy to eat too many savoury snacks, but if you do leave room, the waitors also have some sweet tapas up their sleeves. 8/10 

Monday 18 October 2010

The Town House, Marbella, Andalucia,

In the heart of Marbella's old town, the tall, elegant Town House hotel is aptly-named. Outside the door, are narrow, atmosphere streets and squares, but it is also just a few minutes walk to Marbella's beaches and smart boardwalk. The ground-floor lounge and bar are stylish, but small. Still, they are more than compensated for by a lovely little roof terrace with views across the terracotta tiles of the nearby houses to the handsome church tower and the mountains beyond. You can use the Town House's lift to bring your buffet breakfast (decent croissants, rustic breads, cheeses, fine cold meats, fruit etc.) up here on a tray and eat it on the padded white seats lining the walls. A scenic sun trap with lots of flowering pot plants, the roof terrace is also a pleasant place to watch the sun go down over the town, while sipping a beer or glass of sparking wine from the handy honesty bar. 

Sense of style
Containing distinguished furniture and stylish prints of enlarged postage stamps, some of the tasteful and distinctive rooms have elaborate cornicing, quirky nooks and other period features. Although they can feel a bit cramped, they are comfortable and decorated in appealing shades of white, fawn and brown. It can be expensive, but the Town House's location and sense of style is hard to fault. 8/10  

Sunday 17 October 2010

Goldcar car rental, Malaga Airport, Andalusia

Goldcar is one of a clutch of hire car firms with desks and parking bays in the bowels of Malaga airport. Booked through Holiday Autos, Goldcar's vehicles can be very good value, but they tend to be scratched and scraped. Although this kind of damage is apparently covered by the standard insurance, Goldcar still recommend you take an additional insurance package to avoid excess payments on more fundamental damage. In any case, you'll be charged up-front a hefty sum (82 euros for a Ford Focus) for a full tank of petrol and you are supposed to bring the car back near empty, which can be tricky if you are on a short break. 5/10

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Aloft Hotel Schuman, Place Jean Rey, Brussels

Having opened in September, the Aloft is a trendy and still-shiny hotel in the heart of Brussels' European district. On the outside, it looks like a fairly-funky apartment block, while the lobby has the feel of a smart and rather-lavish student common room. The reception, lounge and bar merge into one elongated loft-style space complete with modernistic and colourful furniture, flat computer screens, a pool table, cartoon-style art, exposed pipes hanging from the ceiling and blond-wood panelling. The circular reception, manned by lively, standing receptionists, is opposite a self-service canteen, where you can help yourself to breakfast or snacks anytime of day or night, charging your purchases to your room bill. The overall effect is striking and different, but not relaxing.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Capolino, Place Jourdan, Brussels

For a traditional pizzeria, Capolino has a stylish red facade and a fairly funky, but smoky, adjoining bar. However, the restaurant itself has painted brick walls, a bland white floor and neat rows of closely-packed dark wooden tables, while the stereo plays tired pop classics, such as Cherish by Kool and the Gang. The very lengthy menu features a wide selection of pizzas for around €12, as well as salads, risottos, pasta, fish and meat dishes. The highlight of the reasonable sea food risotto (€13), which needs seasoning, are the juicy mussels, while the mixed-salad (€3.25) is fresh, large and well-dressed.  You can get a pint of well-chilled Jupiler beer for €5.5 or there are Italian wines available by the glass or the bottle. Service by the weary waiters in waist-coats can feel a bit overbearing. Unfortunately, Capolino, which can be half-empty on a weekday, really lacks atmosphere. 5/10

Sunday 3 October 2010

P&O Ferries, Dover to Calais

The cheapest and most entertaining way to reach France, on a sunny day, the ferry crossing can even feel like part of the holiday.  Relaxing on the top deck, admiring the white cliffs of Dover and the extensive beaches of Calais, makes an invigorating change from sitting in the car, even if you might have to inhale a bit of fag smoke. P&O's ferries are a mixed bag. While the aging Pride of Burgundy is grim and knackered,  the refurbished Pride of Canterbury is comfortable and civilised. On the morning crossings, there can be a scramble to be at the front of the lengthy queue for breakfast. In the Pride of Canterbury's battered canteen, the English breakfast, which is charged at one pound per item, can be pretty greasy, but the sausages aren't bad. It may be tricky to get hold of tap water, while the coffee can be strong, nasty and small.  You'd be better off getting a hot drink from the on-board Costa Coffee, but you may have to queue again. 7/10

Saturday 2 October 2010

Chateau de Cop-Choux, near Mouzeil, Loire Atlantique

Set in fairly flat and innocuous countryside, but within striking distance of La Loire, Nantes and the Breton coast, Chateau de Cop-Choux is well-placed for a few days exploring a fine part of France.  Dating from before the French Revolution, the well-proportioned chateau appears handsome from a distance, but, up close, the stone work is quite plain and the box-hedge, grass and gravel surroundings don't do it justice. Still, the 45 acres of grounds has plenty of features from cordoned-off, crumbling ruins to a couple of large forest pools, reachable via a steep and dilapidated stone staircase. You can stroll through the woodland and circle back to the chateau following the grassy path that runs alongside the paddock. Moreover, the chateau's modern facilities are good - the smart swimming pool is new, well-maintained and warm enough in late August, while the tarmac tennis court is just about playable. There is even a modern conference centre.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Museum of London, London Wall, central London

Seemingly in the middle of a roundabout and surrounded by the towering glass and steel of the financial district, the Museum of London is a tour de force that does justice to the history of one of the world's great cities. Laid out in chronological order, the galleries begin with prehistoric flints, bones and skulls, before immersing you in Roman Londinium using several impressive and intricate models of Roman settlements, plus a mock-up of a kitchen and larder, complete with an unskinned rabbit, fruit and vegetables. Next-up, are the medieval galleries, which includes a model of a late Anglo-Saxon hut with rock hard beds, animal skins and cooking utensils. Then you have the War, Plague and Fire galleries covering the 1500s and 1600s, dwelling on the horrors of the Black Death and the Fire of London, as well as the cut and thrust of the Civil War. The five horrendous days of the fire are told by a video fronted by a dark model of London which lights up gradually as the flames consume the city. You'll also find ornate pistols, muskets, halberds and rapiers, as well a fine model of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre.

Friday 24 September 2010

Angers, Maine-et-Loire, France

An attractive and prosperous city straddling the river Maine in north west France, Angers has enough sights to detain you for at least a day. As well as being home to two famous tapestries series, the fourteenth-century Apocalypse and the twentieth-century Chant du Monde, Angers boasts an ancient and massive citadel with 17 imposing, circular towers made with rings of black and fawn stones. This monolithic fortress is surrounded by a moat planted with elaborate topiary and flowerbeds arranged in geometric patterns.  From near the main gates, which are reached by a stone drawbridge, there is a sweeping view of the river, lined with barges and crossed by a couple of stone bridges, adorned with flowers. North east of the citadel, atmospheric medieval lanes thread towards the striking twelfth-century white-brick cathedral with its distinctive twin spires. From the cathedral, wide cobbled steps, lined with flowers, flow down to fountains in front of the dual carriageway running alongside the Maine. It is also worth scouting around the shopping district centered on the Place du Ralliement, which is home to several popular restaurants and the Galeries Lafayette department store housed in a fine nineteenth century building with elegant black wrought iron balconies. In the summer of 2010, this square was being dug up to accommodate new tram lines and was essentially a building site. It is also worth wandering around the tranquil old courtyards near the Museum of Fine Arts with their eye catching sculptures. Angers has substance and style. 8/10

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Château de la Villatte, near Laval, Pays de la Loire

Majestically situated on a hillside overlooking rolling green countryside near the Mayenne river, the nineteenth century Château de la Villatte has a handful of lovingly-furnished guests rooms and several acres of picturesque grounds. Well cared for, the chateau has a grand, stone hallway with a billiards table and a white marble staircase with a black wrought iron banister. The landing above the stairwell has been turned into a cosy little hideaway with a pleasant window seat. Tastefully decorated in period-style, the guest bedrooms have high ceilings, tall original windows, fine wooden floors and venerable antique furniture.  They have their own bathrooms also boasting large windows and plenty of light and space.  Two of the bedrooms have a small linking corridor and can be booked as a family suite, but you can't lock your doors.

Monday 20 September 2010

La Braise, Rue Trinité, Laval, Pays de la Loire

Tucked away in an atmospheric back street in Laval's historic quarter, La Braise feels like a traditional French restaurant aimed at locals rather than tourists. Inside, the rugged white walls are decorated with lots of clutter, fairy-lights and postcards, while the tables are covered by white cloths and lit by chunky candles. On a recent visit, the sole waitress was friendly, but didn't speak English and was very inattentive as La Braise got busy later in the evening.You can eat a la carte or there is a 23 euro set menu with a couple of choices for each course. The starters can include a small, salty, but tasty, bowl of mussels, served with bacon, cheese, cream and shredded carrot. The main course options may include a kebab made up of chunks of beef, lamb, pork and veal. They aren't great cuts of meat, but are precisely cooked and are served with fried potatoes, some decent vegetables and choice of sauces, including some delicious Roquefort. One of the best options on the desert trolley is a rich, dark chocolate tart, served with a dollop of vanilla or orange ice cream. From the wine list, you can get half a bottle of innocuous Beaujolais for 10.5 euros. There is also a good selection of Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone vintages. La Braise gradually fills up with locals and even on a Sunday evening, there can be quite a buzz by 9.30pm. 7/10

Friday 17 September 2010

Laval, Pays de la Loire, France

Don't be put off by the drab suburbs, dominated by American-style drive-to stores and restaurants, Laval has a well-preserved and charming historic heart. You can park alongside the river Mayenne, which is straddled by several fine old bridges. On both sides of the river there are cobbled streets and ancient timber-framed buildings, but you'll find most of the sights on the west bank. Winding, largely-pedestrianised roads climb steeply up to the atmospheric medieval chateau and its newer (mostly nineteenth century) neighbour, next to the spacious Place de la Trémoille. Separated by a timber-framed sixteenth-century gatehouse, the two chateaux provide a picturesque backdrop to Laval's festival in late August, featuring free circus acts, bands and other entertainment. Nearby, is an attractive Romanesque cathedral and a small park flanked by the towering remains of the city's medieval stone walls, studded with imposing towers. On a Saturday, shaded by trees, locals throng around the scores of stalls that have set up for business in the sloping Place de la Trémoille. Their wares include plenty of French delicacies, which you can purchase and then consume at one of the tables outside the local bars (as long as you buy a drink). 8/10

Monday 13 September 2010

La Brasserie du Théâtre, place du Ralliement, Angers

Occupying a prominent position on one of Angers' grander squares, la Brasserie du Théâtre is an imposing establishment in a distinguished neoclassical building. Out front, are more than a dozen spacious tables surrounded by comfortable wicker-style chairs, shaded by parasols and attended by a squad of smart, young waiters. The lengthy and appealing menu has a wide selection of salads, carpaccio dishes and platters of meat and fish. Served with lots of crispy fries, the carpaccio with mozzarella (13.4 euros) is a bit bland and really needs a side salad. But the smoked salmon and goats cheese salad (11.9 euros) is fresh and generous. Children are well catered for: the Menu Enfant (8.9 euros) for sprogs under six has a choice of three simple main courses, followed by desert, plus a fruit juice or pop.  The Menu Junior (12 euros) for under-twelves is the same except the main courses, such as the seemingly home made hamburger and toast, are larger and more elaborate. The kids' fruit juices are tall and enticing, while their deserts include a hefty dollop of cream, topped with a biscuit and flanked by two balls of good ice cream, served on a specially-made plate, or a big bowl of rich chocolate mousse.  La Brasserie du Théâtre is a comfortable venue for an enjoyable family lunch in the sun, but steer clear of the raw meat. 7/10

Sunday 12 September 2010

The Derby Arms, Epsom Downs, Surrey

A whitewashed and heavily-refurbished Victorian inn standing isolated on the edge of Epsom Downs near the racecourse, The Derby Arms is a very refined pub with a predictable racing theme. But the celebration of racehorses is retrained and just about every furnishing and fitting in this unusually-polished watering hole is the epitome of quality and taste. In the meticulously-decorated bar, for example, the smart leather sofas are padded out with plump embroidered cushions, while white circular stone tabletops rest on ornate cast-iron legs. There is also a restaurant area with striped high-backed chairs and large, striking prints of racehorses and their trainers. Behind the bar are laid-back, but helpful, young blokes, while the prosperous clientele seem to be a mix of old and new money. There is an extensive and reasonably-priced menu. But if you just want a snack, you can get a small bowl of  fat chips, topped with a big dollop of mayo, for just £2.50. The drinks are also competitively-priced, with a pint of rich and refreshing Aspall cider costing about £3.50. The Derby Arms is posh, but not too pretentious. 8/10

Friday 10 September 2010

Cycling the Thames Down Link, south west London

Starting in Kingston-Upon-Thames, this well-signposted route is really designed for walkers, but much of its 15 miles can be cycled on an off-road bike to transfer from the sedate Thames Path to the challenging bridleways of the North Downs. The first half of the Thames Down Link is  mostly drab and dull. Although it follows the narrow, winding Hogsmill River, the path is often through suburban scrub land awash with nettles and you have to cross the A3 using a grim subway. But the route becomes more appealing when it follows broader paths through the more rural Horton Country Park, followed by Epsom Common and Ashtead Common. After cutting through well-kept Ashtead Park, you have to negotiate an upmarket housing estate and then cross over the M25. From here, the route is a very straight, but undulating, Roman road, making for some fun descents and stiff climbs. After working your way through pleasant deciduous woodland, you emerge near the pretty village of Mickleham, where you can get a much-needed drink in The Running Horses pub. 6/10 

Thursday 9 September 2010

The Running Horses, Old London Road, Mickleham, Surrey

Despite being just a few miles from the M25, The Running Horses has a convincing air of a rural pub deep in the English countryside. A popular watering hole in the prosperous village of Mickleham, this well-preserved sixteenth century coaching inn attracts a lot of walkers and cyclists taking on the heady heights of nearby Box Hill. It can also quickly fill up with scores of wedding guests having a swift drink before decamping to the church opposite. Inside, the decor is traditional and the young, self-assured bartenders (probably local public school boys) wear white shirts and ties. As well as a couple of cosy bars, there are some neat rows of wooden tables out front and a more formal dining room at the back. On a Sunday, you'll find a big pile of newspapers next to the old fireplace in the main bar and a selection of pricey roast meals (about £15) on the menu. But the broke or the budget-conscious can opt for the still-substantial roast beef baguette (£8.50), which is packed with plenty of sliced meat in gravy (plus mustard, if you want it) and served with a small pile of crisps and some lettuce. As well as the usual lagers, there is Adnams and London Pride on draught, while the Aspall cider, served in an odd, oversized port glass, is a refreshing option on a sunny day. 7/10

Wednesday 8 September 2010

La Table Du Pecheur, Boulevard Lenon Seche, Ancenis, France

Although this popular seafood restaurant has outside tables with views across a lazy stretch of the Loire, there is a busy road between La Table Du Pecheur and the riverside. In any case, the modern interior is pretty comfortable with smart blue leather seats and arty black and white photographs of eel fishermen on the curving wood panel walls. If you get their early, the waiting staff are friendly and attentive, but they become less accessible as the restaurant fills up. Given the good quality, good value food, its not surprising the locals turn out in force even on a weekday evening.

Fat king prawns
Among the starters, the sea food platter (about 10 euros) makes a good dish to share. It features half-a-dozen oysters, fat king prawns, shrimps, winkles and small prawns, all deliciously fresh. One of the main courses (10-15 euros) is an appetising plate of prawns, hunks of salmon and white fish, served on a bed of creamy cabbage. You can also get expertly-cooked salmon, mullet or another fish, accompanied by diced parsnips, mushrooms, mash potato and red peppers. The local Gamay La Couvretiere red wine is pretty velvety and smooth for 14 euros a bottle, while a large bottle of San Pellegrino will set you back four euros and tap water is free. The deserts (around 6 euros each) are also very good.  If you  have a sweet tooth and can't decide, you can get a crème brulée, mango crumble and ice cream served on one plate. The chocolate sponge, complete with melted chocolate inside and served with large dollops of cream and a fruit coulis, is also very generous and very good. La Table Du Pecheur is a deserved hit. 8/10

Cycling the North Downs, near Reigate, Surrey

Just off Reigate Hill, between the town and the M25 motorway, is a small National Trust car park with a refreshment kiosk and sweeping views overlooking the leafy suburbs of Reigate. Immediately west of the car park, the North Downs Way is categorised as a bridleway for several miles, which means you can cycle it. After threading its way through woodland, the route opens up, providing broad vistas of verdant green English countryside across an open field anchored by a neo-classical monument. You'll also pass an old fort designed to protect London from invaders and plenty of picturesque countryside. After a few miles, mountain bikers will have some fun as the North Downs Way starts to descend and narrow, linking up with several other bridleways in the Buckland Hills. Take the wrong turn and you might find yourself on a hair-raising descent, followed by an arduous climb back up to the ridge. If you keep heading west, you'll eventually hit a B road, which can take you to Box Hill, one of the highest points in the south east. 8/10

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Cycling the Mayenne Towpath, from Mayenne towards Laval

From the distinctive tourist office beside the river in Mayenne you can hire respectable hybrid bikes for adults and kids (5-7 euros each for a half day) and set off across the cobbles south towards Laval. Although you have to use the road for about a kilometre, you are soon on the traffic-free towpath and being treated to lovely bucolic views across this tranquil stretch of the Mayenne river. On a summer weekend, you'll pass walkers and other cyclists every kilometer or so, but the path is wide enough to mean collisions are unlikely. Every so often, you'll come to a lock usually with a picturesque old lock-keepers cottage, one of which now houses an organic boulangerie, selling beers, ciders, hot drinks and snacks. The track is mostly flat, so it is easy to just keep cycling southwards, soaking up the scenery, but the tourist office closes at 6.30pm and you won't cover the round trip to Laval (about 65 kilometres) in half a day. So, you need to be sure to turn round in good time, leaving at least half an hour for a riverside drink en route back to Mayenne. If you want to venture further, you can hire the bikes for longer periods and a useful map, available at the tourist office, shows the 68 kilometre route the towpath takes right down to Chateau-Gontier. 8/10

Monday 6 September 2010

Lunch at the Walled Garden, Scampston Hall, Malton, North Yorkshire

In an ultra-modern, glass-panelled building overlooking the meticulously-tended walled-garden, Scampston Hall's restaurant is a relaxed eatery with big wooden tables, bare brick walls, framed pressed flowers, bustling, jovial staff and very posh toilets. Prepared with care and attention, the light lunches are pretty good, but pretty light. For just under eight quid, the 'Scampston Florentine' consists of ham, spinach and a poached egg topped with Yorkshire rarebit. It is fresh and wholesome food with a good mix of flavours, but not very substantial. If you are hungry, a better bet is the Gardeners Lunch (£11.25), which is a mix of top notch ham, some fine cheeses, root vegetable slaw, red onion marmalade and decent bread.  The rustic food goes very well with a glass of the pear cider from the nearby Wolds. The kids menu (£5.75) is very short and very simple. They can choose a sausage in a bun followed by a large cookie and a glass of milk or a cheese and ham sandwich, served with raw carrots and cherry tomatoes, followed by a small tub of ice cream and some fruit juice. The very fresh and healthy food just about justifies the highish prices and smallish portions. 7/10

Monday 23 August 2010

Magpie Cafe, Whitby, Yorkshire

On a Saturday in summer, you will often have to queue in the rain to get into the near-legendary Magpie Cafe. The top-notch seafood is certainly worth a wait in the wet, but you should aim to get there by noon to be sure of a table in time for lunch.  Spread over several floors of an atmospheric white-washed nineteenth-century harbour-side building, the Magpie is a cramped, but enjoyable, place to eat. From the big windows, there are views across the harbour, towards the ruined Abbey and the narrow winding staircase is lined with arresting old black and white photos of Whitby. Service by the mostly middle-aged locals is very professional, friendly and accommodating. The waitresses will bring colouring sheets for kids and they don't rush you, despite the pressure of people standing on the steps waiting for a table.

Creamy and delicious
The massive menu is awash with local seafood and includes options to suit just about every pocket and stomach. The Magpie fish pie is superb for a tenner. Creamy mash potato and cheese strained into fine strands sits on top of prawns, big hunks of salmon and white fish swimming in a creamy and delicious tarragon sauce. If you want to push the boat out, shell out seventeen quid for the hot seafood pot, stuffed with ultra-fresh clams, crevettes, scallops, mussels, salmon and haddock cooked and served in wine and butter. Very large, very filling and very good. The Magpie isn't overrated. 9/10

Sunday 22 August 2010

Panorama Restaurant, Raven Hall, Ravenscar

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 wood-panelled dining room. But it is the beautiful view of the vintage coastal countryside through the huge windows that will catch and hold your eye. White shirts and black ties fail to conceal some of the waiters' inexperience and unfamiliarity with the Panorama's repertoire. But the food itself is more polished and reasonable value, given the majestic view. On the fairly-conservative set menu, one course is about £16, two courses £22 and three courses £27. There is typically a choice of three or four starters, such as soup and a smallish bowl of unremarkable mussels in a mild curry sauce.  Among the three or four main courses on offer recently, the sea bass was excellent, while the chicken and duck dishes were tasty enough and the accompanying vegetables nicely-cooked. The children's menu (good value at £8.50 for three courses) has pasta, fish stars and other stock favourites, but young diners can also choose one of the adult starters. When you sit down, there are large jugs of iced water waiting for you on the table, But you may want to check-out the sizable wine list or order a draught beer, such as Tetley's or Fosters, from the bar. Fair food in a fine setting. 7/10

Saturday 21 August 2010

Nunnington Hall, Nunnington, North Yorkshire

By National Trust standards, Nunnington Hall is a relatively modest country house and estate covering just eight acres. Still, the hall is a handsome and atmospheric stone building, mostly dating from the seventeenth century, surrounded by a series of luscious gardens adjacent to the river Rye in a picturesque corner of Yorkshire known as the Howardian Hills. Lacking outbuildings, the hall's National Trust reception desk, touting children's activity sheets for a hefty £2 apiece, tearoom and shop are all squeezed into the ground floor of the main house. In the large oak-panelled entrance hall, you are greeted by rows of stuffed stags’ heads, plus the morbid skins of several big cats, including a lion and cheetah, stretched out flat - trophies from hunting exhibitions by the last owner of Nunnington Hall - Colonel Fife.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

The Railway Children, Waterloo Station, central London

Set in the former Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station and featuring a 140-year-old steam train, this production of The Railway Children is an extraordinary piece of theatre. The long narrow stage straddles a section of track, flanked on each side by 500 seats rising up 11 rows. The glass and blue steel frame of the station is completely hidden by an elaborate and atmospheric set with a jet black backdrop. Two replica Edwardian signal boxes are positioned at either end of the stage, a wooden footbridge rises over the track and vintage suit cases are strewn around the floor. As the action moves from the children's London home to their rented cottage in the Yorkshire countryside, the set changes with the help of portable platforms, which bridge the track, to form rooms. These platforms, bearing furniture appropriate to the scene, are shunted up and down the track by stage hands dressed as railway workers. The tunnel, where the children rescue an injured school boy, is imaginatively created using semi-opaque black blinds, while the cast's Edwardian costumes are also elaborate and evocative.

Friday 6 August 2010

The Trek District 2010 Single Speed Hybrid

Advertised as a "ninja-quiet ride", the Trek District 2010 Single Speed Hybrid lives up to its billing thanks to its unusual and futuristic carbon-fibre belt drive instead of a conventional metal chain. You cruise along almost in silence, occasionally startling pedestrians and other cyclists accustomed to the clink of metal on metal. As well as being quiet, the belt drive doesn't need any lubrication, so it won't muck up your trousers or your hands, and it is reputed to be durable, lasting twice as long as a conventional chain. While the easyish single speed gear is perfect for a slight incline, the reasonably fit will often find their legs spinning on the flat or going downhill. Still, this bike, with its aluminium frame and carbon forks, is pretty light and it has slick, narrow road tires, so it will shift. And you can get up most hills in London without getting out of the saddle.

Thursday 29 July 2010

The Breakfast Club, Rufus Street, Hoxton, central London

Just off hip Hoxton Square, this branch of The Breakfast Club is a sprawling cafe housed in an old brick warehouse with large sash windows. Next to the door is a completely-bandaged mannequin astride a knackered old bike. With the stereo playing American Pie and other folksy music, The Breakfast Club feels part mid-west diner and part British living room from the seventies. The flooring is a mix of chequerboard lino and wooden floorboards, while the furniture includes venerable leather armchairs, uncomfortable wooden benches and school chairs, surrounded by ancient televisions, fading family photos, a parasol and large bar decorated with big plastic letters and seemingly random photographs, notes and newspaper clippings. Despite the cool, but probably contrived, ambiance, the trendy young blokes waiting on tables make a real effort to be friendly. There is also free WiFi and an appealing brunch menu. The Big Breakfast smoothie, served in a tall glass, apparently contains strawberries, bananas, oats, honey, yoghurt and milk. It is thick, nourishing and enjoyable, which it should be for £3.75 a glass. Attracting arty types, laptop-toting freelancers and local builders, The Breakfast Club resonates with the Hoxton vibe. 7/10

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Fino Restaurant, Rathbone Street, central London

A smart tapas restaurant housed in an air-conditioned basement, Fino is a good or bad choice for lunch on a hot, sunny day, depending on whether you want to talk business or soak up some summertime atmosphere. The contemporary and slightly soulless decor is predominantly blonde wood, the clientele mostly middle-aged business people and the service friendly, but unobtrusive. The most eye-catching features are the large bar, lined with scores of wine bottles, the high-backed benches and the modernist lighting. There is an extensive range of tapas starting at a couple of quid for some tasty and refreshing pan con tomate up to a ribeye steak for £21.50, while the specials can include roast suckling pig, langoustines and lobster. The platter of cold meats, such as chorizo and cured ham, is a bit of a disappointment for £12.50. Among the seafood dishes, a plate of three sizeable baked sardines (£7.50), served complete with bones and heads, goes very well with the delicious and creamy olive oil mash (£4.50). The courgette flowers, stuffed with a creamy cheese, are also a bit special, but pricey at £7.80 each. Bottles start at about £20 on the long, illustrious and very Iberian wine list, but there is also a decent selection available by the glass or half-bottle. If money is not an issue, a good summertime choice is the 2007/08 Veigadares (Albariño) Adegas Galegas (£45 a bottle), which is crisp yet rich. 7/10

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Sacred Cafe, Ganton Street, central London

One of several appealing eateries in a pedestrianized stretch just off Carnaby Street, Sacred Cafe has shutters that open right across the front, so you can sit half-inside and half-outside. The paintwork is mostly the color of coffee beans, while the tabletops tend to be small white discs with barely enough room to perch both your laptop and your brunch. Many of the seats are trendy soft, brown cubes, but you will probably be more comfortable on one of the wooden chairs. The light menu (soups, salads, sandwiches) is scrawled across a blackboard behind the bar. There is good, but expensive, coffee, with a large Americano costing £2.50. For about a fiver, you can get scrambled egg livened up with spring onions and feta cheese. Served with a small pile of toast and butter, it is a delicious combination. But you may find your enjoyment curbed by cigarette smoke wafting in from tourists sitting at the outside tables. 7/10

Monday 12 July 2010

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

It is well worth the steep climb up to this scenic and aptly-named neighbourhood. As you rise, you'll have eye-catching views of the bay and the city down the ruler-straight streets in San Francisco's grid pattern. Pacific Heights rises to 370 feet above sea level and its two small hilltop parks provide sweeping vistas over both the eclectic architecture of downtown and out to the brooding former prison island of Alcatraz, squatting in the water opposite the Golden Gate Bridge. Well-kept and ornate one hundred-year-old buildings painted in pastel colours give Pacific Heights itself an air of prosperous gentility. Upmarket Fillmore Street, the neighbourhood's focal point, is lined with quirky boutiques, cafes and restaurants. 8/10 

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Clift Hotel, Geary Street, San Francisco

Stylish and understated on the outside, flashy on the inside, the white-brick Clift Hotel is only a couple of blocks from Union Square and Market Street, San Francisco's premier shopping district. Even when the sun is shining outside, the large foyer and adjoining lounge area, with leather armchairs, is dark and gloomy. You can only just make out the centrepiece - a surrealist giant chair, which is the kind of thing you expect to find in Barcelona's hip hotels. Trying to be glamorous, but bordering on the seedy, the Clift's dark bar is staffed by waitresses in cocktail dresses, charging a hefty $8 for a bottle of beer. The decor in here and the adjacent grandiose restaurant is an opulent mix of velvet and leather. For the buffet breakfast ($26 a head), at least, the night-club style ambiance is all a bit over-the-top and oppressive, leaving you craving daylight. Instead of the buffet, you can also order some hot dishes, such as the slightly greasy corn beef hash ($12), but coffee will cost you another five bucks or so.

Poky, dated and basic
The Clift's bedrooms have paper-thin walls enabling you to clearly hear conversations next door, but they are tastefully decorated in light, pastel shades. As well as big and comfortable beds, the rooms are equipped with safes, irons and ironing boards, a large desk, flat-screen television, bathrobes, an array of lamps and just about anything else you might need. But the view from the window is likely to be a brick wall and the en-suite bathrooms can be a bit poky, basic and dated, while wired or wireless Internet access is a pricey $15 a day. Still, if you can get a discount code, the Clift's rates are good value for largish rooms in such a central location. 6/10

Friday 2 July 2010

The Grove, Fillmore Street, San Francisco

One of the most alluring places to chill out on upmarket Fillmore Street, the Grove has some uncomfortable outdoor benches well-placed to catch the evening sunshine and a rustic, stylish and much more comfy interior. The big windows ensure the mishmash of wooden beams, distressed leather armchairs, wooden floorboards and massive stone chimney breast are soaked in daylight. You queue at the bar for both drinks and food, which is fairly simple fare, such as soups, salads, sandwiches and enormous moist, tasty cookies. For less than $8, you can get a bowl of decent chilli with a dollop of sour cream, served with a little packet of crackers. The chilli's flavours are pretty good, but it can come lukewarm. There are several beers on draught, including the Czech stalwart Pilsner Urquell ($6.50 for a pint) or you can get cold bottles of Mexican beer. Some of your fellow customers will be on laptops, taking advantage of the free WiFi, but you only get 30 minutes online for every $5 you spend. Fashionable, but no-frills, the Grove tends to draw a relaxed local crowd, mixed with a sprinkling of tourists. 8/10

Wednesday 30 June 2010

Honey Honey Cafe and Crepery, Post Street, San Francisco

A slightly grungy diner near Union Square open from 7.30am, Honey Honey is a good place for a budget breakfast or lunch in the centre of San Francisco. You order at the counter, after perusing the lengthy menu, displayed on a large blackboard, which is awash with staples, such as pasta, crepes, bagels, soups and sandwiches. The tasty original crepe (about $6) is filled with melted, stringy orange cheese and onions, and is served with potatoes, salad or a small bowl of chunky fruit. The coffee is strong and cheap and there are free refills. You can help yourself to water from jugs flavoured with either lemon or orange. There is also free WiFi, accessible via a code on your receipt. Although the terracotta and green decor is a bit harsh and dated, there are a couple of tables outside where you can catch the sun in the mornings. Honey Honey is good value for this part of town and is understandably popular with both cash-conscious locals and tourists. 6/10

Tuesday 29 June 2010

United Airlines, Economy Class London to San Francisco

United is one of only a handful of airlines flying direct from London to San Francisco. You depart from Heathrow Terminal 1, which feels old-fashioned, daylight-deprived and crowded compared with more modern airport terminals elsewhere. On the way out, it is a 10 hour daytime flight, so you can probably just about stomach economy class, which is cramped for anyone approaching six foot. For the night-time flight back, it is probably worth shelling out the extra to be in the large economy plus cabin, where the seats are fairly spacious and recline further. If you wait until you check-in online the day before, the upgrade might be quite cheap or there might not be any space left. If you are lucky, you might just get upgraded for nothing. In any case, check-in early, as you really don't want the middle seat in economy.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Grounds of Greys Court, Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire

If you are approaching Greys Court from Henley, this little piece of olde England can be hard to find - the brown signposts with the National Trust symbol are few and far between. Even so, you may have to queue to get into the car park as Greys Court can get very busy on summer weekends and you should arrive before lunch if you want to be sure of a timed ticket to go inside the handsome red-brick sixteenth century manor house. But even if you miss out, the gardens and the views of the rolling Oxfordshire countryside should make the trip worthwhile. From the main lawn, there is a lovely bucolic view across to another fine old country house on the other side of the picturesque valley.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Coram’s Fields, Guilford Street, central London

A large central London square dedicated to children, Coram's Fields is an oasis of fun in the otherwise refined and intellectual district of Bloomsbury. In these seven acres you'll find everything from astroturf football pitches to elaborate playgrounds to depressing cages occuped by goats, sheep, rabbits and birds. There is probably too much tarmac and concrete for some adult tastes, but children under twelve will be impressed. The main playground, padded with bark chippings, has an imposing and solid four-storey wooden climbing frame built to resemble a house. From the top, children can glide down a twisting, enclosed metal chute. It is surrounded by other large wooden contraptions, including frames for a large swinging tyre and a row of noisy bell chimes. There is also a disappointingly-sluggish zip wire, which needs an energtic adult to gain any momentum. Other smaller swings and slides are dotted around the patch of worn grass at the heart of Coram's Fields, which is fittingly off-limits to adults without children. Dogs are also barred. On a Sunday, most of the visitors are white middle class kids hurtling around the playgrounds and engaging in a bit of argy-bargy. 7/10

Monday 31 May 2010

Riverside Terrace Cafe, Royal Festival Hall,

On a sunny afternoon, this is one of the best places in central London for an al fresco beer. Its a great vantage point to watch the boats chugging up and down the Thames, survey the imposing buildings lining the north bank of the river, the great wheel of the London Eye and the gleaming white frames of the Jubilee Bridges flanking the overland rail bridge into Charing Cross. It is also a good spot for people watching both on the terrace and on the wide embankment below - you'll see skiving office workers, exhausted tourists and dozing pensioners. You probably won't notice the harsh, boxy post war architecture of the Royal Festival Hall itself. People tend to linger at the Riverside Terrace Cafe and it can be tough to get a seat after 4pm. You don't even have to buy a drink to sit at one of the dozens of round tables, some shaded by large parasols, set out on the broad terrace. If you aren't in a group, then try and get one of the high seats overlooking the riverside below. The drinks are reasonably-priced by London standards – about three pounds for a 330ml bottle of Moretti beer, for example. If you want to get online, the free WiFi in the Royal Festival Hall can be difficult to pick up out on the terrace and you may have to head inside where there are many more tables behind the big glass windows. Again, you don't need to buy a drink or food from the self-service canteen, which stocks a rather quirky, but fairly healthy selection of sandwiches, savoury muffins and unusual cakes. 8/10

Thursday 20 May 2010

Easter Skiing in Saas Fee, Switzerland

A picturesque and mostly-pedestranised ski resort, Saas Fee is overshadowed by a glacier, which more than makes up for its smallish ski area. With pistes as high as 3,600 metres, you'll find plenty of snow around well into April. Late in the season, Saas Fee also boasts short queues, lots of sunshine, great views of stately 4,000 metre peaks and fast, modern lifts, so you'll spent a lot of time speeding down the slopes rather than standing around. As Saas Fee is quite strung out, try and stay near the hub of the lift system, which is flanked by the children's play area, plus three nursery slopes. At the top of one of the nursery slopes, a big, modern cable car leaves every 15 minutes and whisks you up to a train station at about 3,000 metres. From there you can ski a black down to one of the main piste clusters, take the frequent subterranean train up to the top of the mountain or hike through a tunnel to a series of blue and red runs back down to the middle station, where there is a snow board park and a big self-service restaurant.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Tempest at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street, central London

Bravely for a children's theatre, the Unicorn is doing the Bard. Although this production of The Tempest is aimed at children aged nine and above, even adults may find it difficult to follow, unless you are already familiar with Shakespeare's story about an exiled, vengeful and aristocratic sorcerer called Pospero. Confusingly for young kids, five of the six members of the cast play two parts, with actresses typically taking on male parts. Moreover, the costumes and the set are fairly minimal - the shipwrecked nobility, for example, are dressed in black suits, white shirts and black ties. All the action, even the many scenes on the island, take place on the sloping wooden beams of a ship with a small cabin at the back and a couple of trap doors. Children will also have to tune into the Elizabethan language and unfamiliar words, such as "doth" and "thee".

Thursday 13 May 2010

Esprit at Annahof, Saas Fee, Switzerland

Packed out in the ski season with British families shipped in by travel agency Esprit, Annahof is a compact and modern chalet hotel well-located within a few hundred yards of several lifts and the nursery slopes. If your kids are in ski school, you can sign them in, suited, booted and helmeted, with the all-British Esprit staff at 8.30am and head off for the slopes. You can pick them up at noon or pay extra for childcare through to 2pm, including a supervised lunch, or 6pm. In the evenings, you can leave your offspring in your room while you have dinner, signing them into the seemingly-secure baby-listening service, which runs until 11pm. There is a nanny positioned on each floor and they usually sit at the top of the stairs so they can see all the comings and goings - the sluggish lift is deactivated in the evenings. Alternatively, if your children are six or over, they can spend the evenings playing supervised games, watching films and doing other activities in the dedicated childcare room in the basement.  On a Friday afternoon, the nannies and ski instructors give the kids medals and certificates, before leading their pupils in a short singalong.

Friday 7 May 2010

Cafe Gletschergrotte, Saas Fee, Switzerland

Tucked away not, far off the main piste route down the mountain back to Saas Fee, Cafe Gletschergrotte has much more character than the self-service restaurants elsewhere in the ski resort. Among the dozen outside tables, well-placed in a picturesque suntrap surrounded by pine trees and mountains, is a quirky high round table encircled by seats salvaged from scrapped motorcycles - ideal for a group of teenagers. The tanned waitresses don't tend to speak much English, but it is easy enough to order by pointing at the menu, which lists a decent array of snacks, light dishes and bigger meals, including fondues for around 25 francs a head. The hearty goulash soup (just 8 francs) is good value for Switzerland, but is too salty. If you are hungry, you can supplement it with a big plate of salty, skinny chips (8.5 francs). Glasses of beer, water or hot chocolate can be had for a few francs apiece. Cafe Gletschergrotte is justifiably popular with both English and local skiers. 7/10

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Restaurant zur Mühle, Saas Fee, Switzerland

Pretty much every afternoon in season, the outside tables of zur Mühle are packed with boisterous skiers and boarders sinking beers, while soft rock blares out of the hefty sound system. In the evening, the pace slows and the noise levels wane, as families and couples settle down for dinner in one of the alcoves in the olde-worlde, wood-panelled interior. Most are attracted by the selection of lavish meat fondues, which start at 49 Swiss francs a head for a minimum of two people. When selecting your meats, remember the leaner choices, such as venison, can lack flavour - especially if you choose to boil them in water, rather than oil, in your fondue. The miniature stove arrives at your table in the middle of a turntable loaded with ten small pots, containing an array of accompaniments, including a garlic dip, a scintillating beetroot dip, horseradish cream, tinned pears, tinned peaches, pickled gherkins, pickled onions and other goodies. In case that isn’t enough food, you also get carbs in the shape of chips.

Friesian cow furnishings
The cheese fondue (28 francs) is a more modest affair, but is undoubtedly delicious. Bubbling in the fondue pot, the cheese has a mature, slightly alcoholic, flavour, which young kids will find a bit strong. You spear one of the white fluffy scraps of bread, which look like the kind of stuff you might feed the birds with it, and then dip it in the cheese. Drinks are pricey by British standards - a large beer is seven francs, while a smallish apple juice is over four francs and a mineral water only slightly less. The proprietors are very welcoming, but service by the waitress in the traditional Swiss costume can be a bit stroppy. While you cook and eat, you can admire zur Mühle's impressive collection of Alpine knickknacks, the charming lead-paned windows and the Friesian cow-patterned furnishings - even the napkins have the distinctive black blotches. At the end of your meal, the bill arrives in a little china cow. 7/10

Saturday 1 May 2010

Sophie's Steakhouse & Bar, Wellington Street, Covent Garden, central London

A large, stripped-back and laid-back restaurant, the Covent Garden branch of Sophie's Steakhouse & Bar is a popular choice for informal business lunches. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling, the floorboards are stripped and some of the walls are bare brick. You'll likely be served by a relaxed, casually-dressed, and probably attractive, young waiter or waitress. Soon after you sit down, you get a small plate of chopped salami to nibble while you read the menu. There is a limited, but respectable express menu offering two courses for £12.50, while the main menu offers everything from an intimidating 27oz porterhouse steak for £35 down to a humble 6oz hamburger for £7. The 10oz sirloin steak (£18.50) is a filling and delicious hunk of juicy meat, but the accompanying chips can be overcooked, dry and crispy. You may need to dip them in the small pot of béarnaise sauce to bring them back to life. The baked or mashed potato might be a better option, but steak and chips are natural bedfellows. The bland side salad is mostly just lettuce.  If you don't have to get back to work, you might want to dive into the sizeable and global wine list, which starts at about £14 a bottle. 6/10

Buscot Park, Faringdon, Oxfordshire

A handsome Georgian stately home, reminiscent of a fine French chateau, in lavishly-landscaped gardens, Buscot Park is something of a treasure trove for art lovers. The substantial house is awash with both modern and historic paintings, including a Rembrandt portrait and Rossetti's striking Pandora, as well as sculptures. The extensive gardens are dotted with striking contemporary and classical water features, temples and statues. Through the gates in the walled garden, you can admire a beguiling series of man-made and highly-symmetrical waterwalls cascading down from a stone goddess framed by Greek-style pillars. The undulating grounds are partitioned by very high, red-brick walls, some broad lawns, a large lake and a series of long, narrow ponds. Nearly everywhere you turn, your eye is directed down carefully-crafted corridors, lined with trees, hedges and stone walls, towards features in the distance. Serving as the cafe and National Trust reception office, is the very large stable block, as big as a row of terrace houses, with its own clock tower, rising from the tall, tiled roof.