Wednesday 18 April 2012

April skiing in Obergurgl and Hochgurgl, Austria

Reputedly the highest parish in Austria, the resort spanning Obergurgl and the neighbouring village of Hochgurgl, is a pretty solid choice for April skiing. Most of the pistes are above 2,000 metres and the lift system is fast and efficient - even in school holidays, you rarely have to queue. Although the central runs in both Obergurgl and Hochgurgl can get busy, the other pistes tend to be fairly quiet. A lively and scenic red run on the far side of Hochgurgl can be virtually empty, probably because you need to ride a very long T-bar lift to get to the top. Still, by the afternoon the pistes can be quite choppy and many skiers settle into one of the atmospheric mountain restaurants between 3pm and 4pm.  While the views aren't as spectacular here as in some Alpine resorts, the 15 minute ride between Obergurgl and Hochgurgl on the Top Express cable car can be very picturesque.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Esprit at Chalet Verwall, Obergurgl, Austria

Able to squeeze about 30 people into its eight or so apartments, Chalet Verwall is taken over by British tour operator Esprit for the ski season. The basement hosts the boot room and sauna, together with a well-equipped nursery. On the ground floor is a cramped hallway, kitchen and dining room, as well as one large apartment. Opposite the kitchen, you'll find a kettle, cafetiere, coffee, tea and a small fridge containing milk and beer, to which you can help yourself and pay what you think is appropriate at the end of the week. When you enter the building, you have to take off your shoes and leave them next to the main door. As you climb the stairs to your room, you'll find the lights come on illuminating spooky dolls sitting on chairs on the landings. At the top, on the third-floor, tucked into the eves, is a cosy lounge, a bathroom (with a bath) and a play room.

Nederhütte, Familie R. Gamper Hütten Gurgl, Obergurgl, Austria

Probably the most popular mountain restaurant in Obergurgl, the Nederhütte knows exactly what it takes  to keep lots of skiers and boarders happy. If the sun is out, the terrace will be choc-a-bloc with diners, demarcated from the smokers' bar by its transparent circular walls. If it's snowing, the Nederhütte's all-wood interior is warm and welcoming. A small stage, complete with drum kit and microphones, is surrounded by scores of tables of varying sizes and heights.  Kitted out in leather jackets, the Nederhütte's young waiting staff are efficient, friendly and armed with wireless devices that take your order.

Monday 16 April 2012

Krumpn’s Stadl, Schlossweg, Obergurgl, Austria

Although Krumpn's Stadl is probably one of the most authentic places to eat in the low-key ski resort of Obergurgl, it isn't the most welcoming establishment. The service can be surly and unsmiling. Worse still, smokers can light up whenever and wherever they feel like it. Even after you've ordered a round of drinks, the staff "aren't allowed" to serve tap water and a 750cl bottle of water will cost you almost five euros. Still, the atmospheric, rustic interior (all wood, adorned with aging artifacts) and the hearty food does make up for Krumpn’s Stadl's indifference. It serves a decent dish of "Viennese roast beef" (about 14 euros), topped with onions and swimming in gravy,  accompanied by sautéed potatoes and onions. Or you might prefer the very filling Tiroler Gröstl - a bubble and squeak-style dish of fried potatoes, fried egg and bacon bits, served in a metal pan, for around 10 euros. Vegetarians might struggle to finish the large, tasty dish of pasta flooded with a creamy cheese (about 9 euros). The kids' dishes are also generous and somewhat unhealthy - nippers can get a big plate of chips and chicken pieces in breadcrumbs for about 6 euros. 6/10

Crystal Lifestyle Hotel, GurglerstraBe, Obergurgl, Austria

One of the smartest establishments in Obergurgl, the Crystal Lifestyle Hotel, is a good choice for a leisurely morning coffee if you can't get onto the slopes. It's stylish and spacious lounge has large comfortable cream leather chairs, glossy magazines, funky photographs and pieces of art. A decent cappuccino or latte macchiato will cost you about 3.20 euros, while a Heisse Schokolade is 3.70 euros. Service is polished, but relaxed. 7/10 

Sunday 15 April 2012

Innsbruck Airport, Austria

Innsbruck Airport - small, efficient, picturesque and Austrian

Monday 2 April 2012

Circular walk from Downe, Kent

Beginning in the hamlet of Downe, this undulating four mile walk takes in some of the finest countryside inside the M25. Parking in the village, you follow the signs to Down House, the longtime home of Charles Darwin.  You skirt around the grounds, across a big open field, cut through a patch of bluebell wood and join a steep path, which runs alongside the road up to Cudham. In the village, you can stop for a pint in the unpretentious Blacksmith's Arms - try and grab one of the few tables in the sun at the front. Head back towards Cudham's church, walk through the churchyard, around the north side of the playing fields, past some farms, admiring the distant views of  Canary Wharf, shimmering on the horizon. When you reach Foxbury Wood, head west and follow the signpost - 11/4 miles to Downe. The footpath takes you up and down through fields and woodland, underneath sizzling electricity pylons and back to your starting point. You re-enter Downe near the school. 7/10

Prescott Hotel, Post Street, San Francisco

A venerable establishment in a central location, the Prescott is a keenly-priced four star hotel, striving to stand out from the many other hotels around Union Square. The foyer and lounge are comfortable and reassuring, rather than trendy and edgy. But a wood-burning stove, together with free water and coffee (in the mornings) make for a cosy, welcoming ambiance. The elderly lifts are showing their age (the floor buttons don't always light up when you press them) and the corridors are narrow and dingy.  Still, the innocuous standard rooms (decorated in shades of brown with white bedspreads) are well-equipped with fast, free Wi-Fi, safes, ironing boards and big, comfortable beds. Moreover, there is a long list of bits and bobs, such as toothpaste and sewing kits, that you can get from reception for free or a few dollars.  But the window might overlook a brick wall, you may lack a proper desk and the ancient air-conditioning can be noisy as it chugs into life. Moreover, there is a shortage of electric sockets, particularly if you are using bulky international adaptors. Still, the Prescott's helpful and cheerful staff seem keen happy to go the extra yard. 7/10

Scala's Bistro, Powell Street, San Francisco

Images from Scala's web site
Don't be put off by the man in the tacky red beefeater costume outside the neighbouring Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Scala's Bistro is surprisingly good for a restaurant near to San Francisco's tourist epicentre of Union Square. The cavernous, atmospheric period dining room has high ceilings and can be buzzing with scores of diners. The classic Italian menu has pizzas, pasta, salads, risotto and roast meats. The orecchiette with Italian sausage is excellent and filling, but pricey at $23.  You can wash it down with a pint of the pale ale Big Daddy IPA ($7.50) or the lighter American classic Budweiser ($6). A trip to the loo involves an elaborate expedition via a lift and a couple of grand function rooms. If you are staying in the Union Square district and don't have a weak bladder, Scala's is worth a visit. 7/10