Tuesday, 31 December 2013

St George Wharf Tower, Vauxhall Bridge, central London

Space-age blocks of flats in the shadow of the new St George Wharf Tower on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge. At 50 stories high, the tower is apparently the tallest all-residential building in the UK.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Stepping Stones Walk, Box Hill, Surrey

The Burford Spur
Although the National Trust's Stepping Stones Walk is only a couple of miles, it incorporates a very steep ascent and descent, plus plenty to look at, so you'll need more than an hour.  Next to the Burford Bridge Hotel, there is a public car park and a gate into some woodland at the foot of the Burford Spur - an open stretch of land that climbs up to Box Hill. As you haul yourself up the grassy slope, you'll pause to turn around and take in the sweeping views north. As you near the top, you'll be engulfed in more woodland surrounding an old fort. You emerge next to the bustling National Trust visitor centre, complete with cafe and toilets. If you buy a coffee, be aware that there aren't any litter bins on the rest of the walk.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Angler Restaurant, South Place Hotel, central London



A Michelin-starred fish restaurant on the seventh floor of a smart modern hotel in the city, Angler is surprisingly good value. In the run up to Christmas, Angler offers a three course festive menu, with a complimentary glass of Devaux Grande Reserve champagne, for £45. Soon after you sit down, you might be brought an anonymous, yet tasty, appetiser, followed by some mouthwatering warm ciabatta bread. Among the starters, the crab cannelloni, served with buttered leeks, lobster and ginger bisque, is subtle, but delicious. The tubular cannelloni appears to be topped with black caviar, as well as the bisque.  For a main course, the perfectly cooked seared salmon, served with chestnut puree and queen scallops bourguignon, provides a fine balance of flavours and textures. For a desert, there are a couple of tempting sweet options on the festive menu, but the British cheese selection can make a fine finale. You get a blue cheese, a creamy cheese and a hard cheese, plus biscuits and raisin bread.  The a la carte menu is equally interesting and thoughtful. Without exception, the dishes are beautifully presented and the service is well-polished. On the massive wine list, the bottles start at about twenty quid, but the 2012 Sauvignon Gris, Kadun Vineyard, Vina Leyda (£36), from Chile makes a good accompaniment for fish. It is crisp with some zing. Predominantly white and silver, Angler's decor is cool and contemporary, yet comfortable. Large sloping windows illuminate the long dining area, while a patterned mirrored ceiling reflects light on to the crisp white tablecloths. Angler deserves to be a destination restaurant. 9/10

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, Kalanchevskaya Street, Moscow, Russia

The view across Komsomolskaya Square from one of the upper floors of the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya 

One of seven neo-classical skyscrapers erected in the Russian capital in the Stalinist post-war period, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya is an imposing Baroque-Gothic style building near the inner ring road. Although the hotel's sheer scale means it might belong in an Orwellian nightmare, the towering cream spires can give the building the air of a fairytale castle.  With an extraordinarily high and ornately-carved wooden ceiling held up by marble pillars, the grandiose lobby is illuminated by ostentatious chandeliers and light fittings. The incongruous wicker armchairs appear lost in their palatial surroundings.  The gilded conference rooms also seem to be hangovers from a bygone era. 

Restaurant April Cafe, Bolshaya Spasskaya, Moscow

Images from April Cafe's web site
Tucked away in a residential area with large apartment buildings, April Cafe can be hard to locate. In an unlikely spot, near Moscow's inner ring road, is a carefully and expensively designed restaurant. The eclectic interior mixes timber, glass, plastic, huge prints and even fake grass to create a slightly surreal ambiance. In December, the red fairy lights and a wildlife documentary, playing on the big screen, accentuate April Cafe's eccentricity. The menus offer a broad selection of dishes, covering both international and Russian cuisine. As well as the price, each dish is annotated with two or three mysterious numbers, which may signal the weight of the key ingredients. Although it can take a long time to arrive, the decent food is precisely and attractively presented. To start, the herrings (210 roubles), served with hot boiled potatoes and spring onion, are very fresh and have zing. The lamb stew (590 roubles as a main course) isn't as good, however. Firstly, it doesn't look like a stew - it comes as pellets of lamb and vegetables, coated in sauce, neatly arranged on a plate. Secondly, the meat can be bit tough in places.  For desert, the mixed chocolate desert (270 roubles) will be a real hit with cocoa lovers. Although far from perfect, the April Cafe is good value for Moscow. 7/10



Monday, 2 December 2013

Premier Inn, Gatwick North, Surrey


Just a short walk from Gatwick's North terminal, this new Premier Inn promises a good kip before an early flight. There are scores of rooms in the eight or nine floors rising above Gatwick's car parks. The Premier Inn puts a big emphasis on automation, but the check-in isn't that intuitive and you may need the help of the solitary receptionist. Decorated in Premier Inn's purple hue, the rooms themselves are large and quiet with comfortable beds and flat screen televisions. And there is in-room WiFi, but you have to pay for it. Frustratingly, you can't open the window and it can get stuffy even with the air conditioning chugging along.  The en-suite bathrooms are spacious, but utilitarian. Still, the Premier Inn is good value and you shouldn't miss your flight. 6/10

Monday, 25 November 2013

North-East Kent from the Air

An aerial view of the seaside resorts - Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate - packed into the headland of Kent's north east corner.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Kensington Palace, Kensington Gardens, central London

Built in the second half of the seventeenth century, Kensington Palace has been home to Princess Diana, Will and Kate and other members of the Royal Family. Although it is a magnificent building, the Guide to the Architecture of London quotes architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as saying: "Never did any monarch of the age...build a less ostentatious palace."

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Albert Bridge at Dusk, Central London

Built in the 1870s, Albert Bridge is one of London's most distinguished and elegant river crossings. It connects upmarket Chelsea with slightly less upmarket Battersea.

Portobello Road, Notting Hill, west London

Reputedly home to the world's largest antique market each Saturday, Portobello Road is also well worth visiting during the week. Its brightly painted shops are crammed with all kinds of curiosities.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Bonfire Night at Dulwich Park Sports Club, south London

A blazing bonfire gives way to fireworks at Dulwich Sports Club's annual bonfire night celebration. For a five pound entry fee, you get to watch a large stack of pallets go up in flames, followed by a fair firework display. You can also buy beer, burgers, hotdogs, mulled wine and fish and chips from local stalwart Olley's.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Autumn in Amsterdam


Dappled sunshine on the Keizersgracht canal

Grand Cafe Mynt, Nieuwendijk, Amsterdam



A spacious and shiny cafe on one of Amsterdam's grungy central shopping streets, the Grand Cafe Mynt isn't all that grand. The predominantly brown interior is a tad dowdy and utilitarian, but spotlights and the daylight flooding through the glass facade brighten the place up. Multiple screens playing music videos attempt to entertain the clientele, which seems to be mostly bemused tourists. The uninspiring menu is a bit pricey, particularly if you miss the breakfast service, which ends at 2pm. The chicken club sandwich (8.5 euros), with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, chicken filet, cheese, bacon, egg and mayonnaise, can be lame and limp. Still, the Grand Cafe Mynt's coffee is okay for about 2.75 euros, while the service by the young waitresses is surprisingly friendly for a cafe on the tourist trail. But you'll find better, more atmospheric cafes near the canals. 5/10

Brasserie Bâton, Herengracht, Amsterdam


A cool, tasteful cafe overlooking a particularly picturesque Amsterdam canal, Brasserie Bâton does decent coffee and cakes.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Palos Verdes Inn, Redondo Beach


A very tired hotel in a good location, the Palos Verdes Inn is in sore need of a major facelift and refit. The decor is battered and the scores of plain rooms are noisy - the walls are paper thin and the doors aren't well sound-proofed, so bring some ear plugs. The dated, almost bling, lobby isn't the kind of place you want to linger. The lifts are slow and knackered, while the room balconies overlook the car park. Still, the hotel does offer a distant sea view and comfortable beds.  Although the en-suite bathrooms are basic,  they do the job and the rooms are spacious enough. The free wi-fi is good enough and there is free ice at the end of the corridor.  Although there is no in-room safe, you will find an iron and ironing board in the wardrobe. This substantial, keenly-priced hotel even has a small gym and an ugly pool with a concrete surround inside a massive greenhouse. The Palos Verdes Inn is only a few minutes walk from South Bay's fine broad beach and the staff are helpful, but it needs some tender loving care. 5/10

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Mediterraneo, Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, California


On Hermosa Beach's main drag leading down to the oceanfront, Mediterraneo gets pretty busy on a Tuesday evening when it touts a buy one, get one free, deal on certain dishes. If the tables outside (under heaters) and inside are full, the welcoming staff might offer you a seat at the bar, which is actually pretty comfortable - the high stools have backs. And you'll probably prefer the cosy buzz inside on a chilly October evening.  There is a dizzying array of beers on draught, available in a bewildering variety of prices and sizes. A 14oz glass of Estrella is $7, while 18oz of Weihenstephaner Hef from Germany is $8 and 16oz of Mission Dunkelweizen, a rich beer from San Diego, is $8. But there are many others, some of them pretty strong and expensive. But the bartenders keep you supplied with iced water.  The menu mostly offers tapas-style dishes and, if you are hungry, you might need four each.  The chorizo on cocktail sticks is greasy and small for $7, but has a fine flavour. The tortilla (also $7) is large, succulent and delicious. For about six bucks, you can get a couple of substantial meat balls in a spicy sauce or four cheesy risotto balls, with a salsa sauce on the side. The latter, which really melt in the mouth, are particularly good. There is also a decent selection of fish tapas, such as pan-roasted salmon and steamed clams.  Each dish arrives whenever it is ready, rather than all together.  On a Tuesday evening, Mediterraneo serves up a heady cocktail of food, buzz and beer. 8/10


Monday, 21 October 2013

Back on the Beach, Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica


If you have cycled up The Strand from Redondo Beach, Back on the Beach makes a good pit stop before the return ride. It is a large clapboard cafe with outdoor tables intruding on to the massive expanse of sand, so you can watch the cyclists cruising past. But you can't just sit down - you have to go round to the front of the cafe and speak to the underworked receptionists. The waiters are busier, filling your cup up with the passable filter coffee ($2.75). On the breakfast menu, the Spanish omelette ($11.75 before tax and tip), served with squidgy potatoes, and some kind of sweet pancake, is a bit soggy and doesn't have much flavour. It comes on a plastic plate and can be disappointing. Still, this is a fine place to kick back and soak up some Californian beach vibe. 7/10

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Downtown Los Angeles, California

An aerial view of the towers of downtown Los Angeles as they catch the setting sun

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Windsor & Eton, Berkshire

Trans-Atlantic flights leaving Heathrow can provide a fine aerial view of Windsor & Eton 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Brixton Village Grill, GrandVille Arcade, south London



One of a dozen or so lively restaurants competing for business inside this hip arcade in the heart of Brixton, the Grill's hearty meat dishes have made it popular with middle class south Londoners. On a Friday evening, it can he hard to get a table either inside or outside this buzzy Portuguese-English eatery. If you have to sit out in the arcade, you'll need your coat, but there are some eerie orange heaters to warm you up and you'll enjoy the vivacious Brixton Village vibe. Each main course (about a tenner apiece) comes with two accompaniments. The choice is hand-cut chips (a little soggy, but delicious all the same), basmati rice (really good) and a heavily-dressed, but slightly disappointing salad. Although the spare ribs are enormous, they can be pretty fatty and lacking in flavour. A better choice is the tasty piri-piri lamb chops, which are well seasoned and spicy. However, you only get four smallish pieces - not quite enough, especially if you go for the rice, rather than the chips. For the hungry, the succulent spring chicken is probably the best option. You can get lager on tap in a plastic glass for £3.50 a pint or you can get beer by the bottle. Tap water is free, while the bustling service is warm and welcoming. 8/10

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Duke’s Head, Lower Richmond Road, south London



A grand old pub overlooking the Thames, the Duke's Head can be rammed with prosperous Putney punters on a Saturday afternoon, even in October. If both the Duke's Bar and Rowing Club are packed, you can retreat with your pint of Young's real ale into the pleasant and quieter Coxswain dining room. If you are peckish, go to the bar and can get a cold sausage roll (£3.50), which is pastry-heavy and meat-light. It tastes surprisingly good. With its dark wood panelling, the Duke's Bar has retained the air of an old-fashioned pub, but the comfortable dining room has had a smart makeover.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Grand Hotel Imperiale, Lake Como, Italy


On the shores of Lake Como, the Grand Hotel Imperiale seems to be popular with English pensioners in October. And it is not hard to see why. Although it can have a dated feel, the hotel has verdant gardens around a lovely terrace and swimming pool with views across the water to the heavily-wooded hillsides on the other side of the lake. A stone pergola, period lampposts and railings add to the charm. A tunnel takes you under the lakeside road, so you can reach the shore without having to brave the traffic. Built in the 1920s in the Art Nouveau style, the Grand Hotel Imperiale's bar and lounge area, with their high ceilings and grand windows, have retained their period feel. But the foyer is strikingly contemporary with black pillars, stark open staircases and a bright red wall behind the reception. From the foyer, an atrium rises up several floors, illuminated by a shaft of daylight in the roof.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Imperialino restaurant, Grand Hotel Imperiale, Lake Como, Italy

The view across Lake Como from the bar in front of the Imperialino restaurant
In an enviable location on the shores of beautiful Lake Como, the Imperialino has tables inside (a glass box) and outside on a terrace with charming views across the water. The tables are covered in thick white tablecloths, the plates are heavy and the table decorations are elaborate. The reasonably-priced menu is decidedly Italian, but it has some unusual dishes and the food is refined and well-presented. However, it doesn't blow you away. The blueberry and shrimp risotto, for example, is pleasant, but the flavours are quite subtle and the portion is modest for 14 euros. Moreover, service by the formally-attired waiters can be a bit uptight.  If you try and order a hot desert (between 10 and 14 euros), for example, you might get a stern warning that it will take 15 minutes to come. The Imperialino may be a tad complacent, but in such a stunning setting, it can probably afford to be. 7/10 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Tour of Britain, Final Stage, Central London



The final stage of the Tour of Britain saw Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Nairo Quintana and other big names race ten times around a 8.8 km circuit of central London.   Sky ensured that a break, including general classification contender Jack Bauer, couldn't get far enough ahead to challenge Wiggins' iron grip on the gold jersey. Led out superbly by Alessandro Petacchi, Cavendish won a bunch sprint.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The London Palladium, Argyll Street, central London

Grade II listed, the ostentatious neo-classical London Palladium is renown for its variety shows. It can seat more than 2,200 people.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Aux Armes De Bruxelles, rue des Bouchers, Brussels

Photos from Aux Armes de Bruxelles' web sites
One of a string of restaurants in the back streets near the Grand Place, Aux Armes De Bruxelles serves up traditional Belgian dishes to the tourists and business travellers thronging around this part of the city. The ambiance is fairly formal - with lead panes, stain glass windows, wood panelling and old-fashioned lighting and lampshades. The sea-food heavy menu features oysters and lobster, plus a good selection of starters, as well as meat and fish main courses, ranging from 18 euros to 55 euros. While you are choosing, the waiter will offer you a decent bread roll. To start, the herring marinated in white wine (about 10 euros) is fresh and tangy - it really teases the palate. It is smartly-presented, but you don't get a great deal of fish and the dish is padded out with salad and a pile of coleslaw. Among the main courses, the sirloin steak (about 25 euros) is a good choice. You get a big chunk of juicy meat, while the béarnaise sauce on the side is lovely. The steak comes with a small bowl of fat chips.. Service by the polite waiters is polished and attentive. Aux Armes De Bruxelles isn't cheap, but it does offer a fine taste of Belgian cuisine. 8/10

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Casa Talia, Via Exaudinos, Modica, Sicily




Casa Talia serves a sweet breakfast with a view

Occupying a clutch of converted houses hugging a steep hillside opposite the historic heart of Modica, Casa Talia is a tasteful boutique hotel in an enviable location. Its stylish rooms each have their own patch of garden with sun loungers, sheltered by fig trees, offering views across to Modica's captivating Cathedral of San Giorgio.  Artfully furnished with surprising materials, colours and fabrics, the ancient stone rooms have been overlaid with a high-tech veneer, including centrally-controlled lighting, air-con, touch-sensitive keys and reliable WiFi. Bold, thought-provoking black and white prints adorn white-washed panels. One of the family rooms has a mezzanine level reached by a minimalist staircase sheltering a fridge and hidden cupboards. Behind the bed and a heavy door is a cool, contemporary bathroom with a refreshing rain-head shower. Covered in premium cotton sheets, the beds are comfortable and you should sleep well surrounded by the thick stone walls. 

Modica, Sicily

Taking over Corso Umberto, Modica's occasional curio market is packed with collectible knick-knacks, books and paintings.



Aside from doing a roaring trade in the local crunchy chocolate, Modica is a pleasingly relaxed and uncommercial town that still caters largely for locals, rather than tourists. Yet this Unesco World Heritage site is awash with ancient alleyways, steep stone steps, grand palazzos and decent restaurants tumbling up and down its slopes.  On a Saturday evening, rather than hiking up through the maze of streets, you can take a tour in a tiny old Fiat Cinquecento. If you are in Sicily, try and get to Modica. 9/10 

Scicli, Val di Noto, Sicily




Nestling in a valley in southern Sicily not far from the coast, Scicli is one of the eight Baroque towns in the Val di Noto Unesco World Heritage site. A laid back place with some beautiful churches, handsome palazzos and a crumbling castle high on a hill, Scicli is well worth a day trip.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Church of San Pietro, Modica, Sicily




Reconstructed in the years after the massive 1697 earthquake that wrecked much of southern Sicily, Modica's Church of St. Peter has a beautiful Baroque facade.  Statues of the twelve apostles watch over the flights of steps up to the massive doorway.

Sampieri beach, southern Sicily


A gentle arc a couple of kilometres long, Sampieri beach has a wide swathe of soft orange sand. Although it can be busy near the village of Sampieri,  there is plenty of space in the middle, as long as you steer clear of a cluster of tangerine-coloured sun shades and loungers in front of large beach-hut. Moreover, there are some decent dunes and the land behind the beach is largely undeveloped. There may even be some head-height waves to keep the kids entertained.  You can park for free just off the SP 66 and walk through the greenery, crossing a lane, before you hit the beach. 8/10

The Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica, Sicily


Many, many flights of steps lead up to the stunning Baroque facade of Modica's Cathedral of San Giorgio. Built after the earthquake of 1693, the ornately carved rich cream stone looks pristine after what must have been a recent restoration. High up the hillside, the elegant bell tower is a majestic image of Modica. If you are lucky, you might see a wedding part congregate on the steps in the sunlight on a Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the small gardens in front of the cathedral are litter strewn and in desperate need of tender loving care. 

Pizzeria Ristorante La Contea, Via Clemente Grimaldi, Modica, Sicily


One of the most popular restaurants in Modica, Pizzeria Ristorante La Contea has dozens of tables in the ancient alleyways just off the main drag. Although these backstreets aren't well lit, the large numbers of diners generates a welcoming buzz. Get here early because service can be slow, sporadic and mistaken-ridden (the staff may confuse orders between different tables). Even though you pay a cover charge of 2 euros a head, your table might not get any bread. But the waiters are friendly and relaxed, given the large number of diners they have to cope with: There is also a warren of rooms inside. Moreover, the food is excellent. The dishes are made using really fresh ingredients, including succulent pasta, while the pizza bases are thin, crispy and delicious. The chicken, ricotta and pistachio pizza (7 euros) is superb, while the taglieri (thin strips of pasta) frutti di mare (9 euros) is loaded with seafood, including a chunky king prawn and some decent mussels. The house red wine is just about drinkable and is very cheap at 3 euros for a half litre. Water is almost as expensive at 2.5 euros a bottle. You'll enjoy eating here. 8/10

Monday, 26 August 2013

Ancient Greek Remains, Siracusa, Sicily

The surprisingly-extensive remains of the sixth century BC Tempio di Apollo

Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily



Siracusa Cathedral, Sicily

Solid pillars and saintly statues adorn the front of Siracusa Cathedral

Ortigia Harbour, Siracusa, Sicily


A tall ship visible down one of the atmospheric old streets leading down to Ortigia's harbour. Surrounded by the Mediterranean, Ortigia has a breezy promenade lined with elegant eighteenth and nineteenth century palazzos.

Gran Caffè del Duomo, Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily


Situated in one of Sicily's finest squares and offering respectable pizzas at keen prices, Gran Caffè del Duomo makes for a ideal lunch stop for weary sightseers. The cover charge is two euros a head, but a big margherita pizza is just five euros, while a romana pizza is six euros. A large, cool beer will set you back just 3.3 euros, while a shaded seat with a view of Ortigia's grand cathedral and surrounding palazzos is priceless. 7/10  

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti, Corso Umberto, Modica, Sicily


As you walk down Corso Umberto in the evening, there can be quite a buzz from the diners packed into the dozens of tables outside Osteria dei Sapori Perduti. This lively trattoria has waiting staff in smart white shirts and black waistcoats weaving their way round the distinctive chequered tablecloths, while more casually-dressed staff take orders and the owner prowls around in a proprietary manner. The book-like menu is packed with photos and explanatory text. It is meat-orientated and the portions are generous. The house antipasti (7.8 euros) includes fried rice balls, lasagne, excellent creamy ricotta with bread, aubergine, bruschetta, sausages, hard boiled eggs, olives and other tasty morsels - if you order two, it is quite a spread. Among the main courses, the veal stew (7.3 euros) is rich and hearty, while the pork has a liquorice flavour, which might be a little strong for kids. Be sure to order the moreish patati cunzati (4.5 euros), a sicilian dish of thinly-sliced fried potatoes with onions, olives, capers and vinegar.  The local white wine in a carafe is pretty good for 3.2 euros, while the cover charge is a reasonable 2 euros a head. You will probably need go inside the sprawling and grand palazzo to pay. If you are hungry and like hearty Sicilian food, Osteria dei Sapori Perduti is the place to come. 8/10

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Taverna Nicastro, Via S. Antonino, Modica, Sicily




With tables laid out on the steps of a quiet road high up in Modica, Taverna Nicastro is well away from the main tourist sights of this fine old town. But it is worth hunting down, as the food is authentic and the service is friendly and helpful - the waiters may even show you ingredients they can't translate. The antipasti of the house (8 euros), which includes cured ham, cheeses, lasagne with ricotta and four fried rice balls containing meat and egg, is fresh and tasty, as is the grilled vegetable antipasti (6 euros), featuring spicy sun-dried tomato, aubergine drizzled in olive oil and marinated onions. The concise menu might also offer some peppery, fennel sausages, served with fried potatoes (about 8 euros). It's pretty good, but the flavours might be too strong for kids. Another decent dish is the pasta with ricotta, in a chilli and sausage sauce (8 euros). Better still, is the rabbit stew with olives, capers, fried potatoes, tomatoes and carrots. There are some bones, but the flavours make a delicious combination and it's a fine dish for eight euros.  You can get a half-litre carafe of harsh red wine for five euros or dip into the more pricey wine list.  Although Taverna Nicastro feels like a neighbourhood restaurant, it has made it into the Rough Guide to Italy. Still, its location means it doesn't get particularly busy even on a Saturday night in August. 8/10

Marina di Modica beach, Sicily


Although it is surrounded by low rise suburbia, the one kilometre long Marina di Modica beach feels wide open and spacious.  You can park on a rough patch of gravel near where a big swampy pond cuts into the beach. There are acres of soft orange sand and, even in August, there is plenty of room for ball games and the like, particularly at the eastern end. At the western end, there are some some dinghies and wind surfers. But the sea can be very gentle. 7/10

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Relais Parco Cavalonga, near Ragusa, Sicily



Clinging to a hillside south west of Ragusa and well placed for sightseeing and sunbathing, Relais Parco Cavalonga combines a smart hotel with eight self-catering apartments. Although each apartment is different, they generally have tastefully furnished bedrooms and living areas with sturdy wooden furniture, attractive floor tiles, neutral colours and plenty of space. There is reasonable air-con in the rooms, but no Wi-Fi - you need to go down to the reception for that (and it is a steep walk back up again). 


Friday, 23 August 2013

Beach of the Randello Forest Reserve, near Punta Bracetta, Sicily


It is well worth seeking out the 3km tract of fine sand in front of the Randello Forest Reserve.  You can leave your car in one of two small, but smart, free car parks, just off the SP85. From here, you walk for about half a mile along an expensively-paved road through the eucalyptus, pine and myrtle woods, past empty picnic tables and showers, and down towards the beach. Although there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the substantial dunes, most of the beach is clean and the fawn sand is very comfortable. Even on a sunny day in August, the middle stretch of the beach is largely devoid of people. The sea is shallow, but there can be enough waves to keep the kids amused. A rare beast, Randello is a pleasingly empty and spacious Mediterranean beach. 8/10

Al Buco, Coso Vittoria Emanuele, Noto, Sicily


Housed in a fine Baroque palazzo and with tables laid out on the flagstones opposite the steps leading up to the elegant Chiesa di San Franceso, Al Buco is in an enviable setting. Although the host is helpful and the service is well-drilled, your order can take a while as tourists quickly fill up the 20 or so tables, covered with crisp white tablecloths. If you have kids, aim to get there by 8pm. Be sure to order one of the decent pasta dishes priced at about eight euros. The thin tubular pasta in a thick pesto sauce has a really rich, satisfying flavour, but the portion is on the small side. The penne pasta with prawns is also excellent. The mixed meat grill (10 euros) contains decent veal steak, a respectable pork chop and fennel sausage, while the mixed fish grill (15 euros) includes three precisely-cooked king prawns, some slightly bland swordfish and juicy squid. If the baked lamb is off, the rabbit casserole (10 euros) is a pretty tasty substitute. The cover charge of two euros a head includes plenty of bread, so you won't need a plate of what can be slightly soggy potatoes (three euros). A half-litre carafe of reasonable house white wine costs just four euros. The rare combination of a superb setting and good cooking makes Al Buco a great trattoria to soak up Sicilian history, while sampling the island's cuisine. 8/10