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.