Sunday, 31 March 2013

Esprit in Chalet Alpenblume, Obergurgl, Austria

A four minute walk from the Festkogel gondola, Alpenblume is a well-located, but fairly basic, chalet-hotel in Austria's highest parish. It is taken over by Esprit, the British family ski operator, in the winter season, so its 20 or so rooms can be packed with families and the British staff tend to be in their early twenties.  Unless you are in one of the spacious suites in the new wing, the rooms can be pretty cramped and stuffy. Although they have (small) en-suite bathrooms and balconies, they can lack storage space, chairs and other facilities, such as a safe. The free Wi-Fi can also be very intermittent upstairs. Still, the communal dining rooms, with their "Tyrolean knotty-pine panelling", and comfortable lounges, are pleasant enough. The continental buffet breakfast usually features some decent bread rolls and a fruit salad, but the rest of the spread can be mediocre - highly-processed cheese and ham, cornflakes, coco-pops. passable yogurts and fruit juices. Moreover, the filter coffee isn't great and you often have to wait. You can order porridge, but it doesn't get good reviews.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Skiing in Obergurgl and Hochgurgl, Austria

A mid-morning view from Festkogl, at 3,038 metres, the highest point in the ski area above Obergurgl. From here you can take a mixture of a winding blue, a fun red and a tame black down to the Plattachbahn chair lift.

The Top Express - the eight-person gondola connecting the ski areas of Obergurgl and Hochgurgl - glides over tempting off-piste slopes between the settlements. The journey takes eight minutes to cover 3.6 kilometres. In April, at least, you rarely have to wait more than a minute to board.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Die Nederhütte, Hütten Gurgl, Obergurgl, Austria

A well-oiled operation, Die Nederhütte seems to feed hundreds of hungry skiers every lunchtime with wholesome food served at speed.  The goulash soup (7 euros), containing a chopped up frankfurter, is salty, meaty and tasty.  The cheese dumplings, served with parmesan cheese, salad and beetroot, get good reviews. The children's spaghetti bolognese is huge. While the food is fine, it is something of a sideshow to the apres ski - the Nederlumpen, the house band, led by the owner, cranks out rock music for a couple of hours, several times a week. Kicking off around 4.30pm, their set, a frenetic mix of unrecognisable Austrian numbers and well-known classics, such as I'm Gonna Be by the Proclaimers and Surfin USA by the Beach Boys, has the clientele (including the odd pensioner with only one leg) dancing on the tables in their ski boots, their helmets hanging from the rafters. With the place throbbing, the waiters in their leather waistcoats weave through the dancers, keeping the beer and schnapps flowing. To get a seat, you may have to get to Die Nederhütte by 3.30pm or so. Around 6.30pm, half the place empties. The happy punters either ski the floodlit blue piste back into Obergurgl still singing or catch the ski-doo laid on by Die Nederhütte. Unforgettable. 9/10

Kirchenkarhütte, Hochgurgl, Austria

Only reachable via a steep and lengthy T-bar lift, Kirchenkarhütte is a simple and traditional mountain watering hole in a very picturesque spot. From the sun terrace, there are far-reaching views up the valley towards the mountains around Obergurgl. If the weather is closing in, grab one of the dozen wooden tables in the cosy interior, which is a cross between a country cottage and a log cabin - there are antlers on the walls, plump cushions, sheepskin rugs on the wooden benches, lead-paned windows, delicate curtains and even the odd cuddly toy. You have to order at the till and there can be a long queue even though the grim-faced men behind the counter work hard to keep things moving. But the well-kept toilets are on the ground floor, so you don't have to brave stairs in your ski boots. The blackboard menu offers simple fare, such as goulash soup (less than 5 euros), sausages, frankfurters and bread. But it is tasty enough and keenly priced. The most elaborate thing on the menu is the Brettljause (about 10 euros), an assortment of cold meats and garnishes. Even though it is in a ski resort, Kirchenkarhütte feels pleasingly remote, as a mountain restaurant should. 7/10

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

David's Hutte, Gaisbergweg, Obergurgl, Austria

A short walk or ski from Obergurgl, David's Hutte is a traditional Austrian restaurant seving hearty Tirolean fare. There are some outside tables overlooking a chair lift, a piste and the scenic "Magic Forest" - a maze of trails through the trees. Inside, you may have to wait to claim one of the chunky wooden tables, which are enclosed by solid wooden walls and vintage lights hanging from the beams above.  David's Hutte remains true to its roots. To celebrate a diner's birthday, the waiters and waitresses, who wear lederhosen or long skirts, play an ancient collection of percussion instruments. The flagship dish is a large serving of meaty ribs (13 euros), topped with a "special sauce". It arrives on a big wooden board with garlic bread and a small salad with gerkins. The gröstl (about 9 euros) - a traditional Tirolean fry up of potatoes, pork and egg - is also very good and very bad for you. If you want something slightly less fatty, David's Hutte also does big bowls of impressive pasta. The comfort food goes very well with a pint of the smooth Starkenberger pilsner beer. A fine place for a filling lunch that will take the edge off your skiing. 8/10 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

London to San Francisco, British Airways Economy Class

Unless you  pay extra to reserve a seat in advance, you need to check-in online bang on 24 hours before your 11 hour British Airways flight departs for San Francisco.  Aim for one of the window seats in the two rows at the back of the airplane. These berths have more elbow rooms than the others, mainly because there is no middle seat.  The screens embedded in the headrests are small, but the in-flight entertainment system has a big selection of films and TV programmes.  In both directions, you get a passable three-course meal, plus a couple of drinks, early in the flight. The hot pasta dishes are not bad and probably a safer choice than the chicken curry.  However, the white wine (Val de los Frailes, Verdjos 2011) is lacklustre and you might be better off with a beer. You also get a snack, such as a sandwich or a cake, as you approach your destination. The seats don't recline very far, so you may want to take a neck cushion for the over-night return leg. The best thing about this flight is the views out of the window. On the way out, you can admire the snowy wastes of the Arctic and, on the way back, you may get some spectacular vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco. 6/10

Friday, 22 March 2013

Honey Honey Cafe & 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 scanning the lengthy menu, displayed on a large blackboard, which is awash with staples, such as pasta, crepes, bagels, soups and sandwiches. Unfortunately, the salmon omelette ($9.25), served with a pile of roast potatoes, can be overcooked.  But there is free WiFi and jugs of iced water, flavoured with cucumber or orange. The coffee is strong and cheap and there are free refills. 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

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Hotel Fusion, Ellis Street, San Francisco

Conveniently located near Union Square, the Fusion Hotel isn't as glamorous as its name or its web site suggests. Although the small lobby tries to look chic and there are funky little video screens dotted around the hotel, the basic rooms have thin walls and can be noisy, particularly if you are next to one of the chugging ice machines. They can also be small, without space for a desk, and dingy. Still, the free Wi-Fi is good and you get a large safe, a respectable flat screen TV, an iron and ironing board. The decor is innocuous and the en-site bathrooms are functional. The free self-service continental breakfast is in a converted bedroom. The buffet features a large pile of bagels, which you can toast, pastries, small muffins and respectable cereals. There is also a fruit juice machine and filter coffee. But you have to eat standing up, so you might grab a bagel and have a proper breakfast in Starbucks or a nearby cafe.  Although the staff are helpful, the Fusion Hotel will only appeal to people on a tight budget. 6/10

Annabelle's, Fourth Street, San Francisco

A tasteful, old-fashioned bar and bistro, Annabelle's is housed in an elegant 1913 building with high ceilings, tiled walls, a mosaic floor and a pleasant vibe. Although the service is friendly and attentive once you are seated, the staff seem to struggle with bookings for large parties and they don't like to sit more than a dozen around one table. The menu has an Italian flavour, featuring pizzas, lobster and mascarpone ravioli ($25), rigatoni pasta, rack of lamb and other meaty dishes. Among the starters, the soup of the day might be stingy for $8. For a main course, the half roast chicken ($20), served with cheesy mash and sprouts with bacon, is reminiscent of a Christmas dinner. Still, it is succulent and generous - if anything, there is probably too much chicken and not enough mash. Annabelle's also serves a selection of Californian wines by the glass (starting at $8) and an array of draught beers, such as Sam Adams ($5) and Guinness ($6). 7/10

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

LuLu Restaurant & Bar, Folsom Street, San Francisco

Behind a white, modernist facade, LuLu is a large, looming restaurant with stark decor.  Boasting a wood-fired oven, LuLu touts rustic Provençal food, pizzas and pasta. The lengthy menu has plenty of appealing dishes, but be careful what you opt for.  Choose the ricotta gnocchi ($17), with butternut squash and hazelnuts, and the waiter might steer you towards the duck ravioli instead. If you stick with the gnocchi, you might get a modest portion that leaves you wanting more. The gnocchi is surprisingly sweet, but the combination of flavours work very well. LuLu, which also boasts an extensive wine list, seems like a good place to experiment with the taste buds, but it isn't cosy. 7/10 

Happy Hour at Puccini & Pinetti, Ellis Street, San Francisco

Early in the week, Puccini & Pinetti's happy hour pulls in plenty of punters. Offering half price drinks in the vicinity of Union Square seems to be a hit with tourists and this Italian restaurant is likely to be buzzing on a Tuesday evening. If you aren't famished, skip the full menu, and order one or two of the bar snacks - the chunky meat balls, in a Bolognese sauce with grated mozzarella ($5), are pretty filling. The garlic fries (also $5) - skinny McDonalds-style fries topped with sizeable pieces of garlic - also hit the spot. During happy hour, you can get a pint of Peroni or Anchor Steam for just four bucks. Even when Puccini & Pinetti is full of tourists, the service can be really helpful and friendly. The wood and white decor plays it safe, but the funky background music adds to the convivial buzz. 8/10

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Kings Arms, Roupell Street, central London

A charming pub tucked away in the historic back streets east of Waterloo station, the Kings Arms is seriously popular with office workers on a Friday evening. The cream brick walls of the rooms and bars are lined with black and white photographs, vintage kitchenware, antique mirrors and tankards, conjuring up a bygone era. At 6.30pm, it is pretty much standing room only and tables in the dining area are hard to come by. But you might secure a stool next to one of the high benches.  If you can find a place to perch, the Thai chicken green curry, served in a bowl with a pile of steamed rice and a token salad, is full of flavour. It costs just £8, so the portion isn't massive and you might be tempted to buy another one. The respectable pad Thai noodles, on the other hand, are substantial. The service by the Asian waitresses can be random and haphazard - you might get the wrong bill, which isn't that surprising, given the shoulder-to-shoulder eating arrangements. There are some unusual real ales, such as Rev James, Partridge and Amber, on tap, as well as bog standard lagers, such as Amstel and Fosters. 8/10

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Lombok, Half Moon Lane, south London

An unassuming local restaurant serving an array of Asian food, Lombok is the place to go in  Herne Hill for a respectable Thai curry. The menu offers a broad list of dishes from across Asia, including Thai green curries, red curries, taramind duck, Singapore chilli crab, wok fried chicken and pad Thai noodles. The curries tend to be a choice of chicken or king prawn. The starters can be a bit disappointing - the dim sum, for example, may be lame, while the chicken wrapped in seaweed can be a bit dry - - it really needs the accompanying soy sauce. The main courses, which tend to come in big portions, are better. The delicious, rich and filling Massaman curry (about £9)  - one of the chef specials - is served in lamb, beef or chicken variations and includes potatoes, onions and peanuts. A bowl of good steamed rice costs £1.70, while Tiger or Singha beer is about £3 a bottle. The service can be a little gruff, but is efficient and quick. Lombok is robust enough to ride out a recession or two. 7/10

Friday, 1 March 2013

Rialto Hotel, Carrer Ferran, Barcelona

Well located in a historic building in the heart of Barcelona's buzzing Barri Gotic district, the Rialto Hotel doesn't have to try very hard and it shows. The whole place sorely needs a facelift and kitting out with amenities, such as WiFi that works, safes that are big enough to hold a laptop and irons and ironing boards. Frustratingly, the electronic locks on the room doors can be flaky - it might take a dozen attempts before you get the green light. The rooms are a fair size, but they can be uncomfortably stuffy as the air conditioning may be ineffectual. Although the large en-suite bathrooms are fairly contemporary and the showers quite powerful, the pastel patterned curtains and bedspreads in the bedrooms belong to a different era. The safes (2 euros a day for a key) are inadequate, the hotel won't lend you an iron and the large number of bedrooms means the hotel can be noisy. There are no mini-bars, so you'll have to buy cold water from the vending machines on floors 2 and 5.

British Airways, London Gatwick to Barcelona

Seemingly taking on EasyJet on the popular leisure route between London Gatwick and Barcelona, British Airways has some keenly-priced flights to the Catalan capital. With BA, you can carry on hand-baggage of up to 23kg, as long as it will fit in the overhead lockers, plus a laptop bag that can squeeze under the seat in front. On board, space is tight and the middle seat is to be avoided - if you pay in advance, or check in online as soon as it opens 24 hours before departure, you should secure a window or aisle seat. During the 90 minute flight, you are offered a respectable sandwich and drink, plus insightful in-flight magazines covering business and travel, featuring fine writers, such as Deborah Ross. Better still, British Airways uses Barcelona Airport's Terminal 1, which is more convenient for trains and buses into the city than the terminal EasyJet uses.  In any case, a taxi into the heart of Barcelona is pretty reasonable at about 30 euros. 7/10