Sunday 31 December 2017

Giants of Smooth, The Hideaway, Streatham

Backed by top-notch session musicians, Noel McCalla and Dionne Bennett were supposed to take south Londoners on a tour of the celebrated jazz of Al Jarreau and George Benson. Although the former received plenty of air-time, Benson's music only made one appearance in the two-part set, which also featured an unusual version of John Lennon's Imagine and a couple of Randy Crawford numbers. McCalla's patter can be a bit wayward, but his charismatic vocals are impeccable, while Bennett's voice has plenty of power and depth. However, the highlights were the seemingly improvised instrumental interludes, particularly from the un-billed pianist and lead guitarist. At just £15 a ticket, this gig was a bargain, given the breadth of talent on stage. You should also budget for a splurge on the respectable food and alcohol at the Hideaway. The grilled breast of Jerk chicken, served with coleslaw, salad and chips (£15) is a good option to soak up the lager. Although you have to arrive very early to claim a seat near the stage, most of the tables have a good view of the musicians and the service is pretty fast and smooth. Live music at the Hideaway works very well. 8/10

Tuesday 26 December 2017

The South Bank, Bermondsey, Central London

An eclectic collection of river boats dock on the South Bank in the shadow of Tower Bridge

Monday 11 December 2017

Dusk in Dulwich Park, South London

After  a day of rain, snow, sleet and more rain, the weather in south London clears to reveal a vibrant red sky

Friday 8 December 2017

Trinity Restaurant, The Polygon, Clapham Old Town, south London

Images from Trinity's web site

Bringing a touch of West End class to Clapham's Old Town, Trinity Restaurant offers fine dining in tasteful and spacious surroundings, presided over by a small army of well-drilled waiting staff. The refined decor of the downstairs dining room is matched by the crisp white table cloths, smart crockery and generous tables and chairs. In the evening, you can opt for three or four courses from the set menu at a cost of £55 and £68 respectively, before a discretionary service charge of 12.5%. You'll also be served various appetisers, as well as some mouthwateringly light and warm bread rolls during the meal. To start, the tuna, served with crab salad, apple and smoked almond milk, is vibrantly fresh, while the second course of smoked eel pissaladiere, served with red wine, garlic and olive oil, also makes for a scintillating mix of flavours. Even better is a third course of raised beef short rib in a rich and sumptuous Bourguignon sauce - the slow cooked meat is a tender and time-honoured tribute to a French classic. For desert, the rum baba, served with Madagascan vanilla cream and semi dried grapes, makes for a lovely mix of textures and tastes. The wine list is very extensive, but also expensive, starting at around £30 a bottle. The Specogna Pinot Grigio (£52 a bottle) is surprisingly pink, but still crisp and dry. It is very pleasant, but over-priced. Although it could break the bank, Trinity Restaurant is a good option for a special occasion. An extraordinary amount of thought and care has gone into conceiving the dishes, the cooking and the on-plate presentation. Trinity is smart, but not stuffy. 8/10

Saturday 11 November 2017

Mountain Biking in the North Downs, Kent

A section of the North Downs Way, near Grangers Hill
In November, you'll find plenty of muddy bridleways and bumpy farm tracks in the hills around the south east section of the M25. As the North Downs can be pretty steep in these parts, you may have to get off and push in places. But the countryside can be picturesque (as well as puncturesque) and there are a clutch of handy train stations around Warlingham from where you can cut through the extensive grounds of Woldingham School to get to the crest of the North Downs.

Friday 10 November 2017

Beginning, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, Central London

Images from the National Theatre web site
A stripped-back production in many senses, Beginning involves just two actors, one set and one long, long scene. It can be intense. Depicting the aftermath of a house party, the play portrays an elaborate and feisty courtship between the hostess and a male guest she barely knows. One of the conceits is that the pair seem poorly-suited to each other - she is the managing director of some kind of agency with her own flat in Crouch End, while he still lives with his Mum in Essex. There is little chemistry. The result is long, awkward silences, twitchy body language, restless movement and continual shifts of position, as Laura and Danny manoeuvre around the open-plan lounge and kitchen, strewn with party debris, eating, drinking and trying to decide whether to touch each other.

Friday 3 November 2017

The Park, Square Marie-Louise, Brussels

Near the centre of Brussels, the park in middle of the elegant Square Marie-Louise is dominated by a small lake with a fountain, an artificial cave and mature trees.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Darwin Forest Country Park, Darley Moor, Two Dales, Matlock, Derbyshire

A Center Parks-style camp on the edge of the Peak District National Park, Darwin Forest Country Park has rows of wooden lodges, an indoor swimming pool, a gym, tennis courts, an amusement arcade, a soft play area, an archery track, a restaurant and other activities on site. You have to pay to use these amenities, but the charges are pretty reasonable. Although the bedrooms can be very compact, the newly-built lodges, some of which have hot tubs on their verandas, are comfortable and well-equipped with spacious living areas. The site itself, which still has lots of tree cover, is adjacent to a patch of woodland with a 2km running track and a "trim trail".  Moreover, the attractive town of Matlock isn't far away. 7/10

Friday 22 September 2017

Trafalgar Square, Central London

Now partly-pedestrianised and lined with grand buildings, Trafalgar Square has become a popular place to hang-out for tourists and locals alike

Kennington Road by Bike, South London

A tree-lined boulevard with a generous bus lane, Kennington Road is a popular route for cyclists heading to and from central London

Sunday 17 September 2017

Walking on the South Side of Winchester, Hampshire

From the ancient heart of Winchester, you can wind your way past the cathedral, Winchester College and out into the countryside surrounding the bucolic river Itchen. Thanks in part to the College, the south side of Winchester is a harmonious mix of elegant old buildings and lush water-lands. 

Cyclo-cross at Herne Hill Velodrome, South London

Cyclists weave their way through a maze-like cyclo-cross course at Herne Hill Velodrome

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Sedona, Arizona

Surrounded by red rock and cowboy country, Sedona is a touristy town in the midst of some other-worldly scenery. One of the most popular activities involves off-road tours in pink jeeps.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Kimpton Amara Resort and Spa, Amara Ln, Sedona, Arizona

A comfortable and low-key resort in the heart of red-rock country, the Kimpton Amara has spacious and well air-conditioned rooms gathered around an outdoor pool with views of the remarkable landscape. Early evening, the staff hand out free glasses of wine in the tasteful lobby. 

Coffee Pot Restaurant, Highway 89A, West Sedona, Arizona

 A bustling restaurant away from Sedona's touristy heart, the Coffee Pot serves a very wide selection of breakfast fare, including omelettes, pancakes, burritos and waffles, at keen prices. The service is no-nonsense, the coffee is strong and the food filling. But, bizarrely, this long-standing institution has its own gift shop.

On the Road in Sedona, Arizona

With striking red sandstone formations almost everywhere you look, Sedona is a memorable place to go for a drive or a cycle. Spiritualists have imbued this distinctive landscape with healing powers turning Sedona into something of a hotspot for health tourism.

Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona

If you can find a place to park on the right stretch of the A89, you scramble down to Oak Creek at the base of the canyon and have a dip in the water. The river is deep enough for teenagers to jump in and cool off. In August, you won't be alone.

Monday 28 August 2017

South Kaibab Trail, the Grand Canyon, Arizona

To get to the South Kaibab trailhead from the Grand Canyon visitor centre, you can catch a free shuttle bus or walk a mile or so east along the South Rim.  From the water point at the top, the rocky trail descends sharply, zig-zagging its way down, opening up a series of spectacular vantage points. In the middle of the day, there is little shade and you should bring plenty of fluids. As you descend, you'll get a new perspective on the great depth of the canyon and vertigo-sufferers might find some stretches a little daunting, particularly if you have to pass fellow hikers or even a mule train. The walk down to Oo-Aah Point is only a mile long and a descent of about 600 feet, but the climb back up is still a challenge at noon in August. You can descend further on to Cedar Ridge, Skeleton Point and even the Colorado River at the base of the canyon, but the National Parks Service maintains you shouldn't attempt the latter two on a summer day hike. 8/10

The South Rim, The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Although some sections of the South Rim can be mobbed in August and the heat can be intense, there are plenty of viewpoints where you can escape the crowds without hiking too far.  With a bit of local knowledge, you may even locate the secluded, but spectacular Shoshone Point, which has been set-aside for booked functions. When this area hasn't been reserved, you can park your car at the start of the Shoshone trail (off Desert View Drive) and hike a kilometre or so through the woods to a rocky spur protruding out into the canyon. Although there may be a handful of fellow visitors, you'll find the experience quite different to the hustle and bustle near the visitor centre and the shuttle bus routes.  If you suffer from vertigo, you might find the spur itself a bit scary, but it does offer sweeping 270 degree views of the awe-inspiring Arizona landscape.

The Mountain Star, the Kendrick Park, the Coconino National Forest, Arizona

About one hour drive from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Mountain Star is a holiday let in a very picturesque spot off the 180 Highway, at an altitude of 8,000 feet. A three bedroom property with a vast balcony, enormous windows and plenty of living space, the Mountain Star is one of a small cluster of houses in an open field with distant views of the San Francisco Peaks. However, the sense of space comes at a price - reaching the top floor bedroom, which isn't en-suite, involves scaling a ladder. The Mountain Star can also feel a little cluttered, but the contents are quirky and often useful. In fact, this charismatic property is equipped with telescopes for viewing the star-studded night sky, scores of DVDs, plenty of kitchenware and reasonable WiFi. An off-grid development made mostly of wood, the Mountain Star employs solar panels for power and water is delivered in tanks. Even so, it is a comfortable place to stay and the owner has plenty of good tips for making the most of your time at the Grand Canyon. A memorable rental property in a very memorable location. 8/10

Sunday 27 August 2017

The Strip, Las Vegas, Nevada

A dizzying array of architectural whimsy, in-your-face advertising, scantily-clad, half-cut tourists and a congested four-lane highway, Las Vegas' Strip is an assault on the senses.

Las Vegas Skyline, Nevada

Views of Vegas from the Marriott's Grand Chateau hotel, which has a rooftop bar on the 38th floor

Saturday 26 August 2017

Lake Mead, Nevada

On route from Las Vegas to the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead shimmers in the distance

The Hoover Dam, Nevada

Dating from the Depression era when America was emerging as a global power, the Hoover Dam took less than five years to build into the rugged and barren landscape south east of Las Vegas, where temperatures can soar into the forties in the summer.  You can park your car for about ten bucks, but the one hour tour costs a further $15 a head. You can wander around parts of the creamy concrete structure without paying, but the best vantage points are off-limits without a tour ticket. Apparently the Hoover Dam has been rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders. And it still feels like something out of a 1970's sci-fi movie.

Friday 25 August 2017

Santa Barbara Ocean Front, California

Blessed with a warm climate, a south-facing coastline and views of rolling hills, Santa Barbara's waterfront is a picturesque and pleasant place for a stroll. The fine sands of the elongated East Beach and the shorter West Beach are separated by Stearns Wharf, a fairly uncommercial wooden pier jutting out into the ocean. Although you have to navigate some busy roads to get here from Santa Barba's downtown, it is well worth the walk - the sand can be almost empty even on sunny August days, leaving plenty of space for ball games and the like.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, California

Built in 1929 in the Spanish colonial style, Santa Barbara's County Courthouse is freely open to the public. You can admire the atmospheric and spacious interior, which features elaborate frescos and tiling, and wrought-iron lamps, before climbing the clock tower for views across the rooftops of the city and down to the Pacific. 

Thursday 24 August 2017

Old Mission Santa Barbara, California

Dating from 1786, the Old Mission in Santa Barbara continues to house a small community of Franciscan friars, an atmospheric church and an evocative museum set in twelve acres of gardens, complete with some ancient trees. The museum recreates the threadbare living quarters of the eighteen century mission, while telling the story of the friars' partnership with the native Americans that lived in this region, the Chumash. Although you probably won't spend much more than an hour t the Old Mission, a visit is a good way to connect with Southern California's past,  and is worth the $9 adult admission charge

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Cannery Row, Monterey, California

With the sardine canneries that used to line this waterfront long gone, Cannery Row is now firmly on the local tourist trail, which is anchored by the pricey, but prestigious, Monterey Bay Aquarium. Even so, this is a pleasant place to wander  - many of the original buildings remain intact and now house boutiques and restaurants, and there are sweeping views across the bay. One focal point is the new bronze monument celebrating American writer John Steinbeck and other local heroes and entrepreneurs credited with reviving the locale following the collapse of the sardine industry. The street was renamed after Steinbeck's famous novel, Cannery Row, which is set in Monterey during the Great Depression in the thirties. 

Tuesday 22 August 2017

The Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

The extensive fine white sand and tree-lined dunes on the crescent-shaped beach is one of the best reasons to visit Carmel.  Although the golf course overlooks one stretch of the sand, the shoreline is pleasingly undeveloped and, even in August, there is plenty of space to sunbathe. When the kids get restless, they can climb a gnarled old cypress tree for a commanding view across the mile-long beach or play volleyball on one of the marked out courts.

17 Mile Drive, Monterey Peninsula, California

A toll road that hugs the coastline between suburban Monterey and twee Carmel, the 17 Mile Drive is supposed to be a scenic delight. But when the sun isn't shining, it isn't that special. You can park your car at various vantage points and survey the Lone Cypress, Bird Rock and other low-key landmarks. Rather than paying the 10 dollar toll to take your car, consider riding it on a bike - the traffic moves slowly enough to make cycling the smooth tarmac reasonably safe. 

Sister City Park, Monterey, California

A peaceful and picturesque spot overlooking a small sandy cove and Monterey's wharf, Sister City Park is on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail - a scenic cycle route.

Monday 21 August 2017

Chris' Whale Watching Tours, Monterey, California

One of the cheaper whale watching tours operating out of Monterey, Chris's expeditions tend to employ a fairly compact boat with a single deck and limited seating.  When the whales appear, you'll find yourself jostling for elbow room with your fellow passengers. And be warned it can be pretty chilly out in the bay, even in August, while some passengers can struggle with sea sickness.  Yet the seasoned crew members are genuinely enthusiastic about the sea life out here and they get pretty animated when describing the habits of the whales that frequent the bountiful waters above the two mile deep Monterey Canyon. Although one of the skippers can trail off mid-sentence, they are a knowledgeable team and are in contact with other tours out in the bay. You are pretty likely to glimpse humpback whales, which are fairly common on this stretch of coastline, while some tours also encounter the massive blue whale and spot the sinister fin of a killer whale cutting through the sea.  The boats have to keep a respectful distance, so bring along a pair of binoculars or a good zoom lens. The tour, which costs $39 for adults, takes about three hours and is good value by the standards of California's tourist industry. 8/10

Sunday 20 August 2017

Monterey Car Week, California

Monterey Car Week is known for its auctions of rare vintage cars. In 2017, a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 is reported to have fetched more than $22 million.

Monterey Municipal Beach and Wharf, Monterey, California

A touristy town on California's central coast, Monterey has a broad sandy beach sheltered by handsome trees and a built-up bustling pier, known as Fisherman's Wharf.  The waters around the pier can be thick with jellyfish, as well as being home to scores of sea lions, yachts and fishing trawlers. When the sun is out, a tour of the Municipal Beach and Wharf makes for a fine early evening stroll.

Saturday 19 August 2017

Glacier Point, Yosemite, California

To get to Glacier Point, you either have to embark on a very tough hike up the Four Mile Trail (a gain of 975 metres) from Yosemite Valley or you drive a 16 mile cul-de-sac off the road down to Wawona. Although this vantage point can be busy even at 7pm in the evening, the views across this exceptional national park are wide-ranging, jaw-dropping and captivating. If you want to escape the crowds, Washburn Point, about a mile down the road, also offers some spectacular vistas, but has far less parking and is much, much quieter.

Walking through Yosemite Valley, California

Although you are never that far from a car park or a road, Yosemite Valley can be a stunning and secluded spot for a stroll. Meandering alongside the lovely Merced River, a series of trails take you past some renowned beauty spots, such as Yosemite Falls and El Capitan Meadow.  Occasionally, you might run into a coach load of tourists or even a wedding, but there are plenty of quiet corners. The valley stretches far enough for you to walk all day, but you'll need to carry a fair of bit of water.  If you run out of steam, you may be able to catch a free shuttle bus back towards Yosemite Village and most of the car parks.

Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite, California

There are a handful of giant sequoia trees surviving in Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite National Park. You can reach the sequoias by strolling a mile or so down an old road into the valley. When you first see one of these ancient wonders, it will take your breath away - they are huge across every dimension. In the grove, you'll also find a couple of dead sequoias - one you can walk through and one lying prone, which you can climb on. The hike back up the road is physically demanding, but you will be glad you made the effort. 

Walk up to Nevada Fall, Yosemite, California

The popular and steep Mist Trail up to Nevada Fall makes for a memorable hike, taking in some majestic scenery. On route, you'll pass massive boulders strewn across the mountainside, clamber up spray-soaked steps and gape at the ever-present rainbows. Taking in two spectacular waterfalls, as well as various picturesque pools and footbridges, the Mist Trail is aptly named.  Although the initial path to Venal Fall can get crowded, particularly in the afternoons, the numbers thin out as you embark on the second stage up to the crest of Nevada Fall. There are broad sweeping views from the top and plenty of stone slabs on which to sit and rest your weary legs. You can take the gentler, but longer, John Muir Trail back to the valley floor. After offering fresh vantage points of Nevada Fall and the mighty granite cliffs, this quieter trail follows a series of switch-backs down through the forest. Although the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls is about 2.5 miles, the John Muir Trail back is four miles. During the course of the hike, you'll ascend and then descend 610 metres, so carry plenty of water and allow plenty of hours. But you'll enjoy almost every minute. 9/10

Friday 18 August 2017

Tunnel View, Yosemite, California

The majestic granite cliffs of Yosemite illuminated by early evening sunshine.

Big Oak Flat Road, Yosemite, California

View of the Merced River and Yosemite Valley from Big Oak Flat Road

Vallejo Street, San Francisco

Celebrating diversity: Examples of San Francisco's elaborate and whimsical residential architecture from the early twentieth century

Thursday 17 August 2017

The Italian Homemade Company, Union Street, San Francisco, California

A buzzy eatery swarming with twentysomethings, the Italian Homemade Company sells a selection of stock pasta dishes, salads and hot sandwiches for between 10 and 13 bucks. You place your order via an iPad, which asks you for a tip before you have even been served, and then hope you can find a place to sit. If you can secure a table, you'll find the pasta is fresh and tasty, while the sauces and accompaniments are generous, if a tad salty. You shouldn't go away hungry. The meatballs with Piadina flatbread ($13), for example, is a big plate of food.  This isn't fine dining, but the Italian Homemade Company works well for families with ravenous teenagers. 7/10

Alamo Square Park, San Francisco, California

Alamo Square Park is famous for its view of the Painted Ladies - an elegant row of pastel coloured nineteenth century houses that contrast with the twentieth century backdrop behind. But the lofty green space in the middle of the square offers fine vistas in nearly every direction. It makes for a memorable stop on any tour of San Francisco.

California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

With 46 million scientific specimens, the California Academy of Sciences claims to be the only place in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, all under one living roof. 

San Francisco Botanical Garden, The Golden Gate Park, California

With adult admission of $8, San Francisco Botanical Garden is one of the most reasonably-priced of the city's many attractions. It is also one of the most relaxing. A series of themed gardens take you on a botanical tour of much of the world, while a sprinkling of handsome mature trees provide shade from the summer sun. It is also pleasingly uncrowded, allowing you to sprawl out on the expansive lawn.

1428 Haight Patio Cafe & Crepery, Haight St, San Francisco, California

A bohemian American eatery offering a wide range of lunch and breakfast options, the 1428 Haight Patio Cafe & Crepery serves tasty fare in big portions at reasonable prices for San Fran. The menu features burgers, sandwiches, omelettes, crepes, salads, pancakes and more, with most dishes costing around 13 bucks, while tap water is available for free in big jugs. It also has a sunny patio at the back of the building where you can chill.  All good. 8/10

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, California

Historically the beating heart of San Francisco's counter-culture, the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood still draws hippies and bohemians to its quirky shops and restaurants.  Squeezed between Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista Park and the Panhandle, this vibrant district is also in one of the greenest areas of the city. Awash with colour and full of character, 
Haight-Ashbury is a vibrant antidote to the soul-less malls of Middle America. 

Ellis Street, San Francisco, California

In the heart of San Francisco, Ellis Street retains a certain old world charm despite the rampant commercialism and tourist invasions.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Lombard Street, San Francisco, California

The famous zig-zags of Lombard Street now thread through a luscious garden planted with flowers and shrubs. Although some high-tempo car chases have been filmed on this remarkable stretch of road, in reality this end of Lombard Street is much more tranquil than the western end of this lengthy thoroughfare, which runs right across San Francisco.

Chinatown, San Francisco, California

The largest Chinatown outside of Asia dates from California's Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and feels deeply entrenched in the city. Right in the heart of San Francisco, Chinatown's alleyways and thoroughfares are an eclectic mix of Asian and American architecture. Although it is a major tourist destination, the district feels authentic and many of the shops and restaurants are aimed at locals, as much as visitors.