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Some people get jewellery for their 40th birthday, other people receive trips away, special nights out, fancy wine or nice clothes. My mum got a new airport.
Hong Kong's fabulous Chek Lap Kok Airport was opened on the 6th July 1998, only 12 hours after operations had ceased at the old airport, Kai Tak. It sits on top of the remains of a tiny Island located near the larger Lantau Island off the coast of Hong Kong. Much land was reclaimed in order to provide the huge amount of land needed for a 570,000 m2 (And that's the just the floor space of the passenger areas) airport, and this lead to an increase of 1% to Hong Kong's surface area. Whilst pouring tons of dirt into the sea in order to build an airport on top of it seems like a bit of a crazy idea, the airport, after a few teething problems, has grown into one of Asia's top passenger and cargo airline hubs.
DEPARTING FROM CHEP LAP KOK:
Arriving at the airport, you'll see numerous screens directing you to the check-in areas for each airline. There are 10 'aisles' labeled A-J. Cathay Pacific takes up A, B, and C and other airlines are located in aisles D onwards. Arriving at your airline's check-in desk, you'll usually find dedicated desks for First, Business and Economy class passengers, groups, and other specialist concerns. There are always plenty of staff on hand, acting as queue marshals, and answering queries. Check in is usually quick and friendly, with bilingual (English and Cantonese) and often Tri-lingual staff. Once you've checked in, there are numerous TV screens showing the status of departing flights which alternate between English and Chinese.
Once you've checked in, and wandered through some of the shops selling the usual airport paraphernalia (Food & drink, toiletries, magazines etc.) going through security and immigration is fairly easy. As security restrictions are constantly in flux, and the airport is currently renovating the immigration hall (As of October 2008), I won't say too much about it, suffice to say that the restrictions are what you'd find in most major airports these days. Visitors have to fill out a short departure card which they hand to the immigration man/woman along with passport and boarding card. There are separate lines for HK residents and visitors, which makes things run very smoothly.
From there, you step Airside, where there are lots of shops and restaurants, as well as passenger lounges and all the other facilities you'd expect in a top airport. There are duty free shops, but BE WARNED: Hong Kong doesn't charge duty on many items anyway, so waiting until the airport to buy things in the hope that they'll be cheaper is false economy. The shops there jack up their prices a considerable amount.
Because the airport is so large, and there are so many departure gates, you might find yourself having to jump on the automatic train/people mover to take you to your gate. From memory, if you are departing from gates with higher numbers (I think it's from 30 up to 70), then there will be signs directing you to the people mover. It comes every 2 minutes and will whisk you along so you'll emerge much closer to your gate. Useful if you're in a rush, or just want to ride on the train. You can of course just walk to your gate through the terminal. Many people jump on the train but I prefer to walk, as I'm going to spend the next 13 hours sitting down. If you do walk, just make sure you've got enough time to get to your gate. Maps around the terminal will show how long it takes to walk, and there are airport 'amabassadors' to guide you. Airline lounges can also be found in various locations, Cathy Pacific's lounges being among the more prominently displayed.
ARRIVING AT CHEP LAP KOK:
Arriving into Hong Kong is easy and straightforward. If you're flying on Cathay, the inflight airshow will show you what carousel your bags will be arriving on. Staff greet the flight, holding up messages for people who need to transit, and will also answer any questions you have (And run back and get things for you that you've left on the plane, as tends to happen to me because I'm not at my best mentally after 13 hours of flying)
A short walk, or the people mover brings you to immigration and the heat sensors that you walk past (A remnant from the days of panicking about SARS, where a high body temperature was a worrying symptom.) Again, there are lines for visitors and HK residents, all clearly marked. In the arrivals hall, grab yourself a trolley and position yourself at the far end of the carousel from where you enter the hall. This is where the bags first come out, and so you can grab yours straightaway. Try and see where the pilots and Cabin Crew are standing, and place yourself next to them. No long waiting times for you!
You'll then pass through immigration men, who sometimes flag suspicious people and go through their suitcases, although I've never been asked to. If you know you've exceeded duty-free limits, or have dodgy stuff with you, go through the red channel, otherwise take the green. Walking out into the greeters section is sometimes loud and noisy (Depending on the time of day) but it's easy enough to figure out where you're going. There are also a few shops and restaurants this side, as well as hotel stands and information about transport links, such as ferries to China and Macau.
The airport is really well served by transport links. The fastest and most convenient is the Airport Express, a train which takes you to Tsing Yi, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island within 24 minutes. It runs from early morning until late at night, seven days a week. It's a bit expensive (11 pounds for a return ticket valid for up to a month) but certainly convenient. If you're leaving HK and taking the Airport Express to the airport, you can actually check in at the Airport Express Stations in town, from 2 days up to 2 hours before the flight. Then, you can jump on the train with just your hand luggage and boarding pass and go straight through immigration when you arrive at the airport. Taxis run from all Airport Express stations, as does a shuttle bus that takes you to some of the more major hotels for free.
If you've got a bit of time on your hands once you've arrived, you could always take a bus. Head down a ramp from the arrivals hall to the bus terminus. Busses go to most major places (Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, Mong Kok and the New Territories). Maps are printed on each bus stand, so it's worthwhile having a look to see if they will be going where you need to go. There are hundreds of busses going throughout the day, and some that run throughout the night. It takes about 40 minutes to get to Tsim Sha Tsui on an airconditioned bus, but at 2 pounds, it's cheap and comfortable. When you're leaving HK you can ask your hotel where the nearest Airport bus stop is, there's never one too far away, but remember to consider traveling time, especially if it's going to be peak hour.
Taxis can cost up to $200 HK to take you to the airport (Most drivers won't switch on the meter and will instead give you a quote, and you can sometimes bargain a bit off it) but unless you're seriously pushed for time, can't get to an Airport Express Station easily, or have more money than sense, avoid using a Taxi.
Overall, Hong Kong Airport does what so many major airports attempt to do but seldom achieve: make you trip start and end as smoothly as possible. It's clean, big, efficient, the staff are really helpful, it wins Skytrax awards left, right and centre, and it's a perfectly nice place to hang out in for a couple of hours waiting for your flight. The best bit? Upon arrival, I've made it off the plane and onto the Airport Express in under 20 minutes numerous times. How's that for an endorsement??
Oh, and my mum was very happy with her Birthday present. It was a bugger to giftwrap, though.
Earlier this year, I found out that my fiancé would be going to a conference in Athens in June. I immediately decided that whether he wanted me to or not, I was going to be coming along. I'd never been and did a bit of Greek history and archaeology at Uni, so I leapt at the chance. Although the conference organisers did suggest some hotels based on their local knowledge, it was also possible to just choose your own, and then the organisers would reimburse you for your accommodation after. Looking through Hotelclub.com, I came across the Aristoteles hotel. A quick perusal of reviews threw up the normal range of complaining Americans, whiny Brits, and obnoxious Aussies, but I've learnt to filter out any review that starts with "I have never been so disgusted in all my life...." And the general consensus seemed to be that it was OK.
THE HOTEL-AN OVERVIEW:
Aristoteles is a C-class (Which seems to equate to a 3 star) hotel in the Omonia part of Athens. It's been reasonably recently renovated (Prior to the 2004 Olympics), and has 60 rooms, all with air-conditioning, ensuite bathrooms, TVs and phones. There's a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, free Wifi and the multi-lingual reception is open all night. The website is very comprehensive and can be found at www.aristoteleshotel.gr/profile-en.php
The hotel is located amongst the maze of streets that constitutes the area of Athens known as Omonia, which is in turn the area around Omonia square. The hotel is not easy to find if you don't have a map with you, you wouldn't, for example, just tell someone how to get there, you'd have to start drawing a map. I have a good sense of direction and soon found it easy to get to without a map, but any guidebook will have a decent map of the Omonia area in it, as there are lots of other budget hotels nearby.
The hotel is probably about 5-10 minutes stroll from Omonia square, which in turn is about 25-30 minutes from any of the tourist areas you'd want to go to (The Plaka (Old Town), the Acropolis, and Syntagma square) There is also a subway station at Omonia, and the subway is extensive, and awesome. The National Archaeological Museum is only 3 minutes from the hotel, and well worth a look.
Omonia is not the nicest of areas in Athens. It's very unlike, say, the Plaka; it's run down and not tarted up for tourists. There are some dodgy characters hanging around, however there are also plenty of normal people just getting on with their lives. Walking there both in daylight and at night I felt perfectly safe. I'm used to big cities though and they don't scare me, so I'm just mentioning this in case a very safe location is very important to you. You'll pay through the nose if it is, though.
Are lovely. It's hard to know who is the manager but there were a couple of old Greek men often on reception who seemed to know what was what. At night times, there tended to be a couple of American guys on duty; perhaps they got free accommodation in exchange for doing the graveyard shift. They both spoke Greek, and the Greek men both spoke perfect English. When leaving the hotel you left your key at reception and picked it up when you came in again and the old man would always greet you with a genuine smile. They were truly lovely and very relaxed about leaving you bags behind if you checked out in the day but weren't flying till the night, as happened with us. The housekeepers (who also helped with breakfast in the morning) spoke basic English and would probably be cool about it if you needed to ask for more towels, or something like that. The hotel will also arrange tours and excursions, so they've very used to the sort of questions and requests that visitors make.
You enter the room with an old-fashioned key (Not a keycard). The key was attached to a metal tag that you inserted into a slot just inside the room which activated all the electricity. Immediately inside was a small vestibule with the bathroom leading off to the left, and the beds straight ahead through another door.
The bathroom was pretty small, and contained a corner shower with a shower curtain, a toilet and a sink. There was the obligatory plastic stool sitting in the shower recess, which made a good stand for toiletries, as there were no shelves in the bathroom, and limited space around the sink itself. Plenty of towels were provided, and there were enough hooks to hang them all up. It was cleaned each day, the bin was emptied and the towels removed and replaced. Unfortunately the cleaners didn't seem to follow the "if you want them changed, leave them on the floor otherwise please reuse the towels" practice found in many hotels. We certainly would have been happy to reuse our towels.
The bedroom was attractive and a good size. Although I could have sworn we asked for a double room, we had two single beds instead, each with a sheet, pillow and blanket and bedcover. Each bed had a reading lamp and a bedside table. Upon one of the tables was a telephone. There was also a freestanding cupboard, chair, vanity table with mirror and a square footstool. There was a TV mounted on the wall above the beds, and a bar fridge in the cupboard. Now, you'd think that having a fridge in a hotel room would be an awesome idea, especially in a place like Athens. EXCEPT, that because all of the power in the room was controlled by that little metal tag you put in the slot, each time you left the room all lights and appliances were turned off. Including the fridge. I am nitpicking really, but it was weird and the hotel could have just saved money by not buying all these mini-fridges in the first place.
The room also had a balcony with a couple of plastic chair out there. The view was nothing extraordinary (Just more buildings) and it was very hot outside, but it was nice to have the option to go out if you wanted. I don't know if rooms on the other side of the corridor would have also had balconies. I fear not, because it seemed like the hotel backed onto the back of another building, but I can't be sure. Sorry.
Upon entering the hotel on the ground floor, there was a relaxing area with a number of sofas, a wall mounted TV and a computer in the corner with internet access. This was free to use whenever you wanted, although it was often in use. The hotel has free wi-fi everywhere. On the ground floor is also a bar-cum-restaurant. This is where breakfast is served. As the rate included breakfast, we felt that it would be churlish not to participate and to cart away as many handfuls of cake and crackers as we could possibly get away with. Breakfast consisted of a basket of bread, 2 slices of cheese and ham each, slices of pound cake, a boiled egg and a table in the corner loaded with cornflakes, milk and orange drink. There were a few women working there who would offer tea or coffee and clear up and set the tables. If the breakfast doesn't sound to appealing to you, that's because it wasn't. I hate eggs and don't much like cheese, so that left me with ham on bread, pound cake and jam and cornflakes. Ever the optimist, I'm going to say that it was tolerable, and at least it gave you the chance to fill your belly. I believe that you could also order food and drink at various times of the day there, but we never did.
We booked through HotelClub, and used some of their member dollars on the booking. The room, prior to any discounts, was Euro55 a night, and we stayed for 6 nights. But because we redeemed some of our member dollars, the total for the stay was Euro300 which, in any case, was reimbursed by the conference organisers so it was a free stay for us. But at the price of Euro55 a night, I thought it was money well-spent. Like most of Europe, prices will change throughout the year.
This hotel was convenient for what we wanted, and I enjoyed my time there. It was close to the conference venue, although a bit further from the usual tourist haunts. That didn't bother me, though. It was surprisingly comfortable with a nice tidy room, friendly staff and a free breakfast. There are many other similar hotels in Omonia but I can confidently recommend this one.
HOTEL ARISTOTELES - Acharnon 15 - Vathis Square - 10438 ATHENS - GREECE Tel. 0030 210 5228126, 5228127, 5241904
Fax 0030 210 5231138
I went to Athens in June of this year and one of the first things to sort out was how I was going to get there. I decided to give Olympic Airlines/Airways (OA) a try.
OA is Greece's national airline, and was founded in 1957. The company has expanded over the years, amalgamating with other Aviation-related companies. I have found it hard to figure out whether the company is officially Olympic Airlines, or Olympic Airways. In any case, I'm just going to refer to them as OA. They fly to many destinations within Greece, as well as to many major cities in Europe, including London Heathrow and Manchester (Although flights don't go every day from Manchester). They also fly to Toronto, Montreal and New York, as well as the Middle East and South Africa. They have a modern and expanding fleet.
PRICES AND BOOKING:
Prices vary, although they do seem to be on the cheap-ish side for an international airline. My ticket each way was £44. Once you added tax on, however, it was £180 return from Heathrow to Athens. This was only 50p more expensive than Easyjet and a lot less expensive than flying BA, although I did book kind of last minute. I booked through the website, and was pleased at the rate I found on it.
The website, www.olympicairlines.com is pretty easy to navigate around. It's not as comprehensive as some, but it offered all the information I needed. You can book and pay for flights through it (Because OA is a full service airline, there are no sneaky charges for checking in bags or checking in at the airport or, you know, breathing.), check what movies will be shown, and even check-in online 24 hours before the flight, or if you've only got hand baggage.
CHECKING IN AND BOARDING:
Due to London's crappy public transport system, I arrived at Heathrow only 90 minutes before the flight was due to depart. In any other country in the world, I would be perfectly unflustered about turning up then, but you know what Heathrow is like. Bolting up to the checkout area in Terminal 2, the OA desk was very close by. Two counters were open and there were no queues. The girls weren't particularly friendly, but neither were they rude. Bags were checked in quickly. The handling agents for OA at Heathrow are Alitalia, so you can go to their desks if you have a problem that the check-in people can't deal with.
Athens airport is nice and spacious, and check in gates were clearly marked for each flight. My flight back to England was actually delayed for 6 hours due to a techincal problem with an aircraft, luckily I checked my email the night before and was duly informed, so I just turned up to the airport 2 hours before the new departure time. There was a bit of a wait to check in, courtesy of a massive school group that consisted of far too many over-hyped ten year olds. With only two counters open for the flight, I had to wait about 20 minutes to get to the front of the line. Because the flight was delayed, OA were compensating people with.....FREE FOOD VOUCHERS! How exciting is that? (Answer: Very.) So I got Euro12 worth of food vouchers without the inconvenience of having to wait at the airport for 6 hours.
Boarding the aircraft at both airports was done quickly and easily, with very polite ground staff. Although they did make announcements that they were going to board by rows, everyone started queuing up immediately anyway. Neither of the flights was very full, so the staff just kind of shrugged and let people through regardless. The interior of both aircraft were clean, with attractive looking navy blue seats. Nothing special, but not hideous either. The seats on the airbus are arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, going down to a 2-3-2 configuration in the last 5 or so rows of the aircraft. Both times I was able to nab a row of 4 seats to myself. I have to say that the seats are some of the largest and widest economy seats I've ever sat in, you'd be very comfortable even if every seat was occupied. Even when the seat in front was fully reclined, there was still room to manoeuvre.
Because Heathrow is hell on earth, we missed our original takeoff slot by 5 minutes, and as such were pushed to the back of the queue. We were all sitting down, belted in and ready to go when the Captain announced that we would have a 90 minute wait before we could take off. To his credit, he was very apologetic and explained in detail what had happened, but there was still the fact that we had to sit on the ground for 90 minutes before we could even take off. There was nothing for it but to wait. The crew encouraged us to walk around, make phone calls if we had to, and started up the inflight entertainment. They also came around offering juice and water, so the certainly did their best. The captain gave us regular updates, and eventually we took off, after completing final safety checks.
Once the flight (finally) took off, I found the crew to be friendly and professional. They were all completely bilingual, and would make announcements in both Greek and English. Although, if they were saying something in Greek, and holding a pot of coffee with an enquiring look, you didn't have to really wait for them to repeat it in English. They were very good at noticing if you were and English or a Greek speaker, and remembering throughout the flight. Although both flights were quite empty, so maybe they wouldn't be so good at remembering during a packed flight. The crew seemed to be friendly, even taking to the time to chat with passengers and each other. Again, maybe if the flight had been packed they wouldn't have had the time.
As Olympic Airways is a full-service airline, you are offered drinks and a full meal onboard. Once we'd taken off, it was a drinks trolley with a small-ish but adeqeute range of juices, soft drinks and alcohol, although they were not accompanied by any nuts or pretzels. The meals on both legs were good; coleslaw and then a main dish of pasta- one way it was spaghetti bolognaise, and on the other it was a pasta bake. They didn't offer you a choice, just put the food down in front of you, but I'm assuming that if you were a vegetarian, or had special dietary needs, then you'd order a special meal ahead of time. We were also given a bread roll which was hard and crumbly and just kind of disintegrated when you tried to attack it with the flimsy plastic knife provided. Dessert was good, on one flight we got a caramel tart, on the other baklava! The crew offered tea or coffee after the meal, and made frequent passes with water. As it was such a short flight, I don't think they set up a snack bar in the galley, although maybe on longer flights they do.
PTV's (Personal TV's) are progressively being introduced to the fleet. Both times I was on an Airbus, which has been fitted out with them. There are about 5 channels showing a range of documentaries, movies and music video-type shows. All the shows were in English, with Greek subtitles. Flying out, there seemed to be something wrong with the system, as I could only get two channels, plus the airshow. It seemed to be an aircraft-wide problem, as even the safety video was jumpy in parts, and was cut off before the end. Flying back to the UK, however, all channels seemed to be working fine, even if the shows weren't particularly riveting (Watching Englebert Humperdinck in concert, anyone?) The crew hand out headphones at the beginning of the flight, and collect them before descent.
Pre-landing checks were officious and thorough. A small gripe- no announcements about giving out landing cards to non EU citizens when we came into London. And this time I noticed there were a lot of Americans on the flight, so we all got to immigration and then had to find the cards and hang around filling them in. It's a small thing, but it would have been nice to have received the cards on the plane, just before descent.
DISEMBARKATION AND LUGGAGE RETRIEVAL:
No problems here, and as both airports have aerobridges no horrible bus rides to the terminal. The baggage came out reasonably promptly, but it wasn't the fastest I've ever experienced.
I know nothing about OA before planning this trip, and I was very pleasantly surprised by my experience with them. Considering they're a national airline, their prices are pretty reasonable, and they fly to tons of places in Greece, including many of the islands. The seats were some of the most comfortable I've sat in for a while, and the food was tolerable (Apart from the bread rolls.) Even though both flights were delayed by significant periods of time, both ground crew and onboard crew dealt with them as best they could. It was a smooth flight both ways (Only taking between 2.5 and 3.5 hours each way, depending on weather conditions) and the crew were very professional and friendly. I'd definitely use them again if I ever go back to Greece, and if you're planning a holiday to Greece, I'd give them a try!
When booking a holiday, half the fun is deciding where you're going to stay. You can look at all the hotel websites, try to find the best prices, and...read hotel reviews. This in itself can be an interesting experience, as hotel experiences can be so very subjective. On websites that aren't as comprehensive as DooYoo, someone might leave a one line comment about a hotel, and it's up to you to decipher the tone, meaning and subtext of that one little comment. This was the dilemma I was faced with when trying to book a night in a Milan hotel a few months ago. Choosing the Hotel Verona, reviews on both Trip Advisor and Hostelworld varied between "It's great, I would stay here every night if I could! I would fly to Milan each day just so I could experience the luxuriousness that is this hotel" and "OH MY GOD, I HAVE TRAVELLED AROUND IRAQ ON A CAMEL AND I HAD BETTER ACCOMMODATION THAN I DID IN THIS PLACE!!!!!!!!! DO NOT STAY HERE EVER!" Never one to back away from a challenge (unless it's hard), I decided that I would have to see for myself and write a review.
The hotel Verona is a one-star hotel located on a back street near to Milan's central train station. It has nineteen rooms, consisting of twelve single rooms, five double rooms and a triple. There are communal bathrooms, although it seems that most, if not all rooms have an ensuite. Rooms have heating and airconditioning, a small ante-room where breakfast is served, and reception is open 24 hours a day.
LOCATION AND CHECKING IN:
The hotel is located on a small side street approximately a five minute amble from Milano Centrale (The main station). The main tourist attractions, such as the Cathedral are three or four stops on the metro, which is located underneath the central station. There didn't seem to be many touristy things around the hotel; mostly small cafes, neighbourhood shops and other hotels. Then again, we didn't really have time to explore the neighbourhood on foot. The area seemed safe to walk around in at night, although the usual precautions that you'd take in any big city would apply if you're a lone traveller.
We'd printed out all our confirmations, so there weren't any problems with checking in. There was an elderly gentleman on reception and we decided to try speaking in Italian. Eventually, when we tried to ask "Is breakfast included, if so, what time does it start?" in a combination of pidgin Italian and mime, he just looked at us pitifully and said, in perfect English "Yes, your breakfast is included, it starts at 7 in that little room next door."
Armed with our key (an old-fashioned one on a big plastic tag) we went along a narrow corridor to our room. The hotel basically takes up one floor of an apartment building, so reception is at one end of the corridor, and our room was right at the other end of it. First impressions were favourable. It was a good size, certainly big enough for two tallish people to walk around without banging into each other. The floor was blue and tiled, but spotlessly clean (if a bit cold), and the walls were just rough plaster, but painted a pale shade of yellow. There didn't seem to be any peeling plaster or paint, as far as I could see.
There were a couple of wall hooks behind the door, a freestanding wardrobe, desk and chair, and side tables next to the bed, one of which had a telephone on it. At the foot of the bed was a low-ish cabinet with a TV on it. We did end up watching a bit of TV late at night, and, let me tell you, Italian TV is HILARIOUS. Even the guidebook was like "Yeah, Italians basically watch TV just to laugh at it, because it's that bad." There weren't any English TV channels, although I think there was one or two in different European languages. The reception was a bit fuzzy at times, but it was watchable. We ended up watching "Anaconda" dubbed into Italian. It made the movie so much more entertaining.
I was dreading the bed being some horrible, creaky affair, but to my surprise it was pretty good! The mattress was nice and firm, the sheets were obviously a little old, but freshly laundered. There was a rough blanket over the top, and a bedspread on top of that. In the cupboard we found two extra pillows, which was good, as the ones provided on the bed were a bit deflated. The bed was certainly comfy enough to sleep on, and big enough that we could both spread out.
The other surprise (Apart from the joy that was Anaconda) was that we had a balcony! Well, kind of. Actually, not really. What we had was nice big wooden French windows, which opened up onto a very small balcony. Unfortunately, it looked rickety and crumbly, and looked across a courtyard into the next building, so it wasn't a place you'd really want to linger on. Maybe in summertime you might want to step out there, but we didn't bother. But it was still pretty cool, and so.....European! I've managed to convince my friends in Oz that all places in Europe have big French windows that you fling open in the morning while you're enjoying your croissants and hot chocolate, and it's actually not all that far from the truth! Obviously, I cannot comment on other rooms, so don't expect that you'll get a balcony, and if you do you'll be happily surprised.
The bathroom was plain but adequate with a sink and mirror (and good lighting), a bidet, toilet and small shower with a cloth curtain. Mini soaps were provided, as were both hand and body towels. The only method of ventilation was by opening the frosted window, which was located right next to the toilet. And looked straight into someone's apartment. So I would advise either opening it once you've vacated the bathroom, or else only a crack, unless you like sitting on the toilet and waving at the old lady in the flat opposite. Unfortunately, I do know people who would find that fun.
One of the downsides to this place was that it wasn't very well soundproofed. Normally I sleep like a log, but this time I was really restless during the night, and didn't sleep very well. I then realised that both the walls and door were poorly soundproofed, and I could hear people coming and going in the corridor right outside. Around 5 am, some lady must have come on duty on reception, and the sound of her clicky high heels on the tiled corridor drove me crazy. It's not that she was doing anything wrong, just that the sound travelled all the way down the corridor to me. I certainly wasn't expecting the hotel to be thoroughly soundproofed, and just assumed that I would sleep through the noise but for whatever reason, I was restless and so the noise was really apparent to me. Boyfriend, on the other hand, heard nothing.
I had an early flight back to Leeds, so we were at breakfast at 7 am. It was served in a small room next to reception, which was the only sort of 'common' area in the whole hotel. I don't know if it was used by travellers during the day or not. The room had a couple of computers, which apparently were free to use (We didn't bother) and a TV in the corner, which was showing Saturday morning cartoons, although thankfully it was muted.
In the corner of the room were a couple of trestle tables with the food on top. It wasn't a great selection. Mostly, it was mass-produced sweet rolls and pastries, still in their plastic wrappers. There was a small tray with some individually wrapped cheese squares, and a few slices of cold meat. There were jugs of water and milk, as well as an orange drink (It certainly wasn't juice). A young man was working in here, clearing away plates and cutlery and making coffees. The coffee machine was a big, expensive typically wonderful Italian thing, and so he was able to make coffee and tea for us. The breakfast wasn't wonderful by any stretch of the imagination, but it was adequate. Considering that it was free, it was nice to at least have something to eat and drink first thing in the morning without having to go out and pay for food.
For this stay in Milan, our only concern was to get the cheapest room available. We looked on all the usual websites that people consider, and finally booked through hostelworld.com, where we paid Euro55 for two people for one night. This was in February, which is probably the quietest time for tourism, and it was still a lot. Prices will rise during the busy season, so be warned that staying in Milan will cost a fair bit.
So, did I agree with the scaremongers, or am I bigging this place up? I have to say, I came away with a pretty favourable impression of this hotel. I knew that this place was going to be cheap, and I wasn't anticipating much. But I was very impressed that we had our own ensuite, as well as a TV and a free breakfast. If you're the kind of person who likes to stay in luxury, or are very picky about your accommodation, then you might not like it here. But if you're happy to stay in hostels or cheap hotels then I would recommend this place. With hotel prices being what they are, you might not be able to afford a 2/3 star hotel, and considering this is only rated as a one star hotel, it's an exceptional find.
Hotel Verona, Via Carlo Tenca, 12 20124 Milano
I've been a MASSIVE fan of "Have I got News for You" since I was about 9 or 10. It's often been hard work sustaining my addiction considering I never lived in the UK until a couple of years ago, but we had friends who would send us up tapes of the show. Even though we didn't really get the topical jokes, there was enough in it to keep us interested what with Paul Merton's surreal humour, Angus Deayton's unflappable style of comparing, and Ian Hislop's snarky remarks. Incidentally, Hislop is one of the people on my "Who, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?" list. All in all, I find it the perfect blend of topicality, humour, banter, and just plan meanness sometimes.
From 1990 to 2002 the HIGNFY team consisted of Ian Hislop and Paul Merton (Team captains) with Angus Deayton as host. However, in 2002 Deayton was embroiled in a nasty sex and drugs scandal and was let go as host, due partly to fears that it would be impossible to retain the flow of the game with the guests poking fun at Angus left right and centre.
Thus was born the idea of having each episode hosted by a different person, which still continues to this day. And this 2-disc DVD shows some of the highlights from the first year of guest presenters. I bought this for £20 at HMV, but prices will vary depending on where you buy it.
This disc contains full four episodes, each with its own host followed by a montage of some of the best one liners, jokes and gags from some of the other presenters to have had the job in the autumn of 2002 and the spring of 2003.
The now Mayor of London (What were people THINKING!?!) hosts an episode, made notable by his method of awarding teams coconuts rather than points. After promising Paul Merton a coconut, Boris hands them out at the end of the episodes, courtesy, as he puts it, of the "Party that keeps its promises." This episode is a lot of fun to watch, especially watching Boris' almost pathetic attempts at reading the autocue, engaging in banter with the guests, keeping order and constructing a sentence. The guests are comedian Stephen K Amos and all-around awesome person Clive Anderson
I find Martin Clunes hilarious, and so I really enjoyed this episode. He's a good presenter, and has great comic timing, as well as keeping the flow of the episode. He has quite a few hilarious lines about kebabs. There's also a photo of Ian Hislop being groped by Jordan. You really have to see it to believe it. The guests are Ruby Wax and Glenda Jackson.
I didn't really know who he was, but then I googled him. Aaah, knowledge. He does a really good job in my opinion and takes the inevitable ribbing in very good humour. Jeremy Clarkson earns my wrath by stating that Hong Kong is the worst place in the world. Oh, Jeremy. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Hong Kong. I'll show you tons of things to make you change your mind. Oh, and he also admits that he purposely ran over a fox. Bald jokes abound, what with William Hague and Ian Hislop being in the same room. The guests are the late Linda Smith and the very on-time (Especially if he's driving a very fast supercar) Jeremy Clarkson.
I think he hosts a game show! This is based on the fact that he enters through a silver curtain, plays various gamestyle-style games throughout the episode, and Ian Hislop looks just as bemused as I feel. I think you'd have to know about Bruce Forsyth to really get this, but it's still funny. The guests are Natasha Kaplinsky and Marcus Bridgestock.
Finally, for the last 40 minutes or so, there's a mix of all the rest of the presenters and guests. It's a good opportunity for the producers and the editors to choose some of the funniest bits and splice them all together. I found this really funny, and the pace was rapid and quick without feeling disjointed.
This disc has quite a few "extras" which help to give an insight into HIGNFY.
THE FULL BORIS:
This is an extended version of Boris' episode, which was found on disc 1. It's great for those who just can't get enough Boris. Personally, I think he's a bit of a twat, but my boyfriend finds him amusing, and so he appreciated all the Boris buffoonery.
This is a short extract from the set of Paul Merton's chat show Room 101. He talks to Boris Johnson (Yes, more Boris. Lucky, lucky me!) about his experiences on HIGNFY, and asks a lot of (mostly basic) questions such as whether he enjoyed his hosting stint, if he'd do it again, whether anyone tried to dissuade him from hosting etc. Boris talks about how impressed he was that the production crew managed to find coconuts so he could hand them out to the panelists, and complains about how far away the autocue is. He also has a rant about "sinister leftwing producers." Oooh. Scary. It's interesting, and good for any Boris fans.
BRUCE FORSYTH AND WILLIAM HAGUE:
This is 7 minutes long and consists of two interviews with these two guys, talking about their experiences as host. They talk about how they managed to get the gig, their fears and expectations, the amount of raw material that is collected before jokes are written and questions planned and how much fun they had doing it. It's a little boring, but worth having a look.
IAN HISLOP AND PAUL MERTON:
This is a seventeen minute segment made especially for the DVD in which Hislop and Merton give their opinions on some of the guest presenters. Things I found interesting were the facts that John Seargent was their favourite guests, just because they didn't know that he could be funny, Jeremy Clarkson told everyone he deliberately ran over a squirrel and got hate mail about it, and Charlotte Church has absolutely no idea about politics.
They also talk about how the shows are edited down by about a third, and guests' lines are kept in whilst Merton and Hislop are usually edited quite a bit. They talk about how the worst possible taste joke in HIGNFY was thankfully left behind (No, I'm not going to tell you. Go and watch it!) and they also reveal that there are no plans to find a permanent host.
You can also choose to have subtitles on or off.
So overall, this is a great DVD to own. Mine does sometimes go a bit 'fuzzy' after every segment, and I'm not sure if this is an actual flaw in the quality, or if I just spilt some jam on the DVD or something, however the quality of the DVD is generally very good. I must admit I prefer the "montage" style compilations as found at the end of Disc 1 more than the single-host episodes, just because this way you only see four presenters, and if you don't like their style of humour, well tough luck. Having said that though, the producers have picked some of the funniest moments to broadcast, and some of the most amusing gags to highlight. I was in tears of laughter whilst watching this, as it's so very, very funny! The extras are fun to watch, and, at over 250 minutes, you won't get bored in a hurry. If you do, there's always "The best of the Guest Presenters-VOLUME 2"!
Video Aspect Ratio: Feature 16:9 Anamorphic
Man Soundtrack: English Stereo
Disc 1: 168 mins.
Disc 2: 88 mins.
Subtitles: English for the hard of hearing.
I went to Italy earlier this year. Although we were going to spend most of our time in Siena, we decided to spend a night in Florence to see some of the sights. We didn't really put all that much thought into accommodation, we just needed somewhere to stay for a night, and we ended up at the Hotel Alamanni.
The Hotel Alamanni is a three-star hotel located very near to Florence's main train station and about a 15 minute walk from the major tourist attractions. The hotel has 17 guest rooms and 2 suites. There are no business or sporting facilities, but breakfast is provided in the lounge area.
The hotel is located on the Via Alamanni, a road that runs along the side of the main train station- Santa Maria Novella. The road itself is easy enough to find, but the hotel is a bit hidden away. It's actually located on the second floor of an office block at Number 35. You just go into the building and up the stairs (Although there is a small lift if you have a lot of luggage) to the second floor. It's not particularly hard to find, as long as you find the right road, make your way to number 35, and keep your eye out for the signage. It's about a fifteen minute stroll to the Duomo and the major tourist areas, but it's quite easy to get there; we just followed our noses, and both the Duomo and the Train Station are well signposted.
There was a young man on duty when we checked in, who was polite enough, if not overly friendly. He bore our terrible Italian with good grace, although when we ran out of phrases (Which was almost immediately) he switched to English, and was reasonably fluent. We had booked one of the studio rooms for the night, which includes a kitchenette, in addition to everything else you'd find in a hotel room. Our receptionist told us that the hotel was quite empty, and did we want to stay in a room in the hotel itself? The studios were in a separate building about a block further, and considering that we were only there for a night, we didn't really need all the kitchen facilities provided. We asked if he could give us a room for the same price as quoted for the studio and he said yes. So we were happy with that.
In Italy, you must register with the police if you intend to visit for more than three days. Most hotels there will fill in the paperwork for you, and this place was no exception. He took our passports and filled in all the details, we picked them up once we'd unpacked and settled into the room. Every time we left the hotel, we had to leave the room key with reception, and he was always polite and wished us a good evening/good afternoon. The lady making coffee and replenishing breakfast in the morning was extremely nice and friendly, with a good command of English.
The room was very pleasant, and much nicer than I had expected. It was scrupulously clean and fresh-smelling. There was a nice dark green carpet in the bedroom, and the bathroom was tiled in what appeared to be marble, or some kind of marble-like tiling although don't quote me on that! (My knowledge of floor coverings is sadly lacking-I do apologise) It contained most of the facilities you'd find in a medium-level hotel such as a desk and chair, fridge and minibar containing both soft and alcoholic drinks as well as snacks, a cupboard with coat hangers, a self-programmable safe, and spare blankets and pillows. The TV had a range of channels in many European languages, as well as a couple of English-language channels such as CNN and BBC world.
There was a radiator attached to the wall, which was covered with a pretty little detachable screen. Although it was on when we got to the room, we immediately turned it off, and left it off for the whole night, as I can't stand overheated rooms. There was also an air conditioner mounted on the wall, so if you stay here in the summer, you won't stifle to death. We also had our own little balcony to sit on! Admittedly, it did overlook the Via Alamanni, which was constantly busy with traffic; as well as construction work going on at the railway station; and it was too cold to sit out there for long, but I didn't care. We had a balcony and it was cool.
I have to talk about the bed, because it was so incredibly low. It was probably only about a foot and a half off the floor, surrounded by a sort of wooden ledge. Although it was low down, I have to say that it was a very comfortable bed, nice and firm, and the pillows were comfortable as well. It was just so much fun sleeping so near the floor. I managed to spend about twenty minutes by rolling from the bed to the floor and across the room, and then back onto the bed again exclaiming "Look! I feel like a giant!" As you can probably tell, it doesn't take much to amuse me.
The bathroom was a nice size and included a sink, shower, toilet and bidet. There were plenty of towels, and a couple of small tablets of soap and shower gel sachets. There was a heated towel rack which was quite a nice touch. The drainage in the shower was a bit rubbish. It never seemed to overflow all over the bathroom floor, but if you'd been in there for more than about five minutes, then you were standing in a fairly deep puddle of water. My boyfriend kept turning off the shower to let it drain before turning it on again, but I didn't bother-it wasn't much of a problem for me, and besides, I only had one shower during our stay- it might start to annoy you if you're there for a few nights. If you left the tap running in the sink for more than a few minutes, then the shower drain started making strange bubbling noises, and there was quite a strong smell of chlorine. It didn't last for long, and quickly dissipated, but it was a bit unusual, to say the least. I have no idea what the cause was, or whether this happens in all rooms, but, again, being there for only a night, I wasn't going to make an issue of it.
Breakfast was included in our room rate, so in the morning we moseyed on down to the reception/lounge area, where breakfast was served from 7:30 until 11. It was a fairly comprehensive breakfast. There was a choice of three different cereals, milk, sweet pastries, rolls and some slices of ham and salami, as well as condiments such as butter, jam, honey marmalade and Nutella. The lady who was on duty there was friendly, and was working the coffee machine. My boyfriend said that his cappuccino was pretty good and I had tea. She brought over a teapot filled with boiling water and a selection of teabags, so I could choose what kind of tea I wanted. In case you're wondering, I had a lovely Earl Grey followed by a nice Green Tea.
Because Florence is such a popular tourist destination, hotel prices tend to be completely outrageous, especially in the summer. As is mandated by law, the hotel had information in each room giving the rack rate for the room. Ours was priced at Euro450 (£335) per night. Now, that is extreme, and most rates on hotel booking websites tend to be around the Euro80-110 (£60-82) mark. However, we booked through www.wotif.com, and by a massive stroke of luck, got the room for Euro45 (£34). OK, yes, the beginning of February is probably the least popular visiting time, so the hotel was probably grateful to have anyone in the rooms, so I don't imagine rooms would be this cheap most other times of the year.
I quite liked this hotel. It was small, the staff were pleasant, and the rooms were comfortable. We were lucky to get a great deal, and I don't know if this hotel would be worth paying hundreds of Euros a night for. However, if it's a choice between this and another hotel that is unknown, at least you can be assured that the Hotel Alamanni is clean and comfortable.
Hotel Alamanni, Florence
Via Alamanni 35, Firenze
Tel: +39 055 2658 409
Fax: +39 055 2658 216
(This review also published on Ciao)
I have a habit of not being able to connect bands with what songs they wrote. I'm constantly being surprised when someone puts on a CD and I think 'Wow! I didn't know this song was by U2!" I know the band, I know the song, but I'm just unable to put a name to a face, as it were. And so it was with R.E.M. A while ago I was at a friend's house when he put on this CD.
"Wow!" I screeched. "Is this REALLY R.E.M.?"
"Uh, yes" He said. "Who did you think it was?"
"I thought this band was the one with the front man who is now a politician in Australia and is really evil."*
"No, that's Midnight Oil."
"So THIS is R.E.M." I said in wonderment.
So now I actually know who they are, I've been obsessed with them for the last month or so. It doesn't help that in the shop I volunteer at I get to choose the music, and there's an R.E.M CD in the collection. I play "Automatic for the people" as much as I can possibly get away with. I'm sure that somehow listening to R.E.M in Leeds is helping starving orphans in Africa. I'm pretty great that way, you know.
A BIT OF HISTORY:
R.E.M was formed in Athens, Georgia (US) in 1980 by Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Starting off low key, by playing in and around Athens and Atlanta, their first single; "Radio Free Europe", was released in 1981, and since then the band has gone onwards and upwards. They've got a very distinctive sound, thanks to Stipe's voice. It's hard to describe, but I would say that it sounds like he's often singing at the top of his register; as if his voice is about to crack if he sang a semitone higher. It's quite a raw voice, almost a wail at times, and often he doesn't enunciate clearly, so you don't always understand the lyrics. His voice is not your only obstacle to understanding the lyrics; he is notorious for writing lyrics that are impossible to decipher. There are words, yes, and punctuation, but it's often hard to figure out what on earth he's talking about. I think he takes great joy in doing this, so I will bow to the greatness of Michael Stipe, and try to do as little analysis of the lyrics as possible in this review (Also, because it's hard, and I don't like hard stuff.)
"Automatic for the people" was released in 1992, and the album reached No 1 on the UK charts, and No 2 on the US ones. It's commonly described as quite a dark, sombre, very reflective album, a statement with which I disagree slightly. I don't think it's particularly depressing; rather, I find it interesting, and I like interesting things. I like the melodies, the orchestration, and the overall sound of the album, and listening to it makes me feel quite good. Some may say that I've completely missed the point of the album, although I prefer to think that it's because I have the emotional and musical sensitivity of a piece of tinfoil (Get it?? Reflective? Tinfoil? Oh, sometimes I amuse myself far too much)
1. DRIVE (4:31)
Let us begin our musical odyssey with "Drive." There's quite a heavy, ominious guitar into, as well as some very serious reverb going on when Stipe sings. It's very strong rhythmically, which echoes the refrain of "tick-tock" that keeps repeating throughout the song. I especially like the introduction of the electric guitar at about the two-minute mark. It lifts the song from being mournful into something much more multilayered and more interesting melodically. Overall though, it's quite a 'heavy' song; the musical equivalent of eating a German meal consisting of meat stuffed inside meat, and then a plum pudding for dessert.
2. TRY NOT TO BREATHE (3:50)
It almost sounds like a Celtic song; with a sort of swingy, folky sound. Peter Buck on the guitar gives a nice upbeat sound, keeping the pace of it going forwards, rather than slipping back. Stipe sings well here, and I can almost imagine that he's developed an Irish lilt to his voice when singing this. It's the guitars that give this song its rhythm, and the percussion isn't too overwhelming. The lyrics are typically completely bizarre, there's something about wanting something "to fly over my grave again"? I don't really know. But it's a good song, and works well, coming as it does after the heaviness of "Drive".
3. THE SIDEWINDER SLEEPS TONITE (4:06)
This is a wonderful track. I mean, how can you not love a song that starts off with Michael Stipe singing the "ooe-oooe-oooe-oooe" bit from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"? It starts off with some lyrics about phoning home, lets us all know that the sidewinder, is, in fact, sleeping both in a coil, and on his back (I'm glad they told me this. It's always good to be informed about the Sidewinder), and then complains about how "instant soup doesn't really grab me". It's fun, and has some great guitar bits. In this song, more than any other, you certainly feel like Stipe is singing just out of his range. It does get a bit whiny up on the high notes, but the song is just so much fun, that it doesn't really matter.
Fun Fact: If you listen carefully, just after he sings "Or a reading from Doctor Seuss" (At about the 2:31 mark) you can hear Stipe start laughing, and attempt to keep on singing. Cute.
Funnier Fact: The lyrics "Call me when you try to wake her up" are repeated 32 times.
Funniest Fact: Before I actually researched the lyrics for this review, I was totally convinced that the above phrase was "Calling Jamaica". And I kept thinking to myself "Why doesn't Jamaica just pick up the bloody phone?!?"
4. EVERYBODY HURTS (5:17)
This was written by Michael Stipe, allegedly in an effort to stop teenagers thinking about committing suicide. Whilst some people find it very moving and touching, personally I hate this song. I find it mawkish, boring, and unoriginal. Lyrics like "everybody cries/Everybody hurts sometimes" just seem so bland compared to all the other songs on the album. And I know it's so the song would appeal to (mostly) teenagers and people in pain, but I am neither of those, and the song didn't 'speak' to me. It's been covered a hundred million times so maybe that's part of the reason I don't like it. I don't know. Stipe's voice seems just so harsh to listen to, compared to the very mellow instrumentals. In fact, (if you'll pardon the imagery) they way he forces and strains his voice in his effort to get the words out, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he's singing this whilst having a particularly brutal session on the toilet.
5. NEW ORLEANS INSTRUMENTAL NO 1 (2:13)
This piece consists of a guitar riff which is repeated, overlaid with various instruments and melodies. Although the song is heavy on the bass, the lightness of the melody makes this quite uplifting to listen to. I don't find it to be a depressing piece, there's something about the choice of melodies and harmonies that intrigue me. It's not very long, and a nice change of pace. I think it fits in well as the fifth track on the album.
6. SWEETNESS FOLLOWS (4:19)
According to my in-depth research (Wikipedia), Stipe has dropped hints that the lyrics could be interpreted as a rant against religious ideas that it doesn't matter if this life is bad, because there's better to follow in the next. If that is indeed true, then it's very typical of Stipe to write very "ranty" lyrics, yet set them to such a melodic and almost hypnotic score. It's probably all synthesised, but you get the impression that there's both an organ and a cello in the mix as well, and by bringing in the electric guitar at around the 2:05 mark, gives the song a completeness and complexity that's very pleasing to listen to.
7. MONTY GOT A RAW DEAL (3:17)
This starts with a very pared-back sound, just Stipe and an acoustic guitar, before bringing in the percussion and backing vocals. For some reason, this song brings to mind cowboys. I don't know why, but you can imagine it being almost a dirge or a lament for an old cowboy. It's quite slow, and I think could actually sound a little better sped up. It's not my favourite track on the album, but it's still OK to listen to.
8. IGNORELAND (4:24)
This one has a very '80's' kind of sound, with lots of electric guitars and heavy percussion. Stipe's lyrics are a bit indistinct and faint, as if someone didn't get the sound levels right, and he's being drowned out by the guitars. The lyrics are quite political, such as "They hypnotised the summer 1979/Marched into the capital brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready/Heartless and labelled" and "TV tells a million lies. The paper's terrified to report". It's got a lot of power and soul behind it, I could imagine it being used as a protest song, like some of U2's songs are. It's hard to sing along to, as Stipe sings very fast, running lines of vocals into each other. It's probably my least favourite song on the album.
9. STAR ME KITTEN (3:15)
After the powerhouse that is "Ignoreland", this is a nice change of pace. Also, for a change, Stipe seems to be singing at the bottom of his vocal register. It's so painfully low that my vocal chords are constricting in sympathy. It's about keys, and loving someone called "Kitten". It's almost hypnotic, as the backing vocalists are just sort of humming along, and the whole feeling of this song is of languidness, like you're sinking into treacle. Mmm. Treacle.
10. MAN ON THE MOON (5:13)
This song makes reference to the performer Andy Kaufman, and the song was featured in the 1999 film "Man on the moon" starring Jim Carrey. It starts off with some really slinky bass and guitar lines. It's really rhythmical, and catchy, especially with the "yeah-yeah-yeah's" that pop up frequently. The tempo quickens up for the chorus, and it becomes much more "rock-y", before slinking back down again in the verses. It's a very well-constructed song, in my opinion. Besides, Stipe does a pretty awesome Elvis impersonation, so what's not to love, really?
11. NIGHTSWIMMING (4:16)
This is my new favourite song. It's absolutely beautiful. I love the orchestration of it. There's absolutely no percussion, and it just starts off with Michael Stipe and a piano, and the song just swells with the addition of strings (Arranged by Led Zepplin bassist John Paul Jones). The lyrics themselves are memorable, evocative of a bunch of friends going for a night-time drive and then skinny dipping. Although, knowing Stipe's propensity for downright confusing lyrics, there may be a secret message to Satan in there somewhere. But there's something about the stripped-down sound of this song that lifts it to the sublime. Sublime is really the only word I know to describe this.
12. FIND THE RIVER (3:50)
Stipe sings over a strumming guitar and it's quite a low-key start to the song. It picks up during the chorus, with the addition of the backing vocals and the piano. The lyrics are fantastic; "Me, my thoughts are flower strewn/Ocean storm and Bayberry moon" there's a certain sense of dreaminess about it all. It almost reminds me of Simon and Garfunkle if they had decided to rock things up a bit. It's a very soothing song to finish this musical journey.
Overall, a written review is not going to tell you much about the sound of an album. You'll have to listen to it yourself to see what you think. It sells on Amazon.co.uk for around £4 new, and only 95p used, as well as on HMV.co.uk for £4.99. I'm just glad I finally found out about R.E.M, and listened to this album, as it is truly fantabulous. Now, if I could only figure out who sings that song that goes "doo doo doo doooooooo" in the middle, and also if I've ever heard a song by that band, you know, the famous one with those guys who sing that song........
* FYI, the frontman of Midnight Oil, Peter Garret, is now Australian minister of the environment. Although, responsibility for the two biggest environmental issues facing Australia today, Water and Climate change, have been given to people who, oh, I don't know, WERE NOT INCLUDED IN THE GOVERNMENT AS A PUBLICITY STUNT.
I remember listening to Dire Straits as a child when my dad would put his music on. Being young and foolish I would scoff at his musical tastes, snorting with derision and never dreamed that a decade later, he and I would end up with practically the same CD collection! So, I knew Dire Straits by name growing up, but it wasn't until University that I started listening to them seriously, and being blown away thinking "Damn! My dad has GREAT musical taste!"
For the uninitiated, Dire Straits was formed in 1977 by Mark Mark Knopfler (guitar and vocals), his brother David Knopfler (guitar), John Illsley (bass), and Pick Withers (drums). Their first album was released in 1978, followed in 1979 by the hugely successful album communiqué. The band's lineup changed frequently, but Mark Knopfler remained the front man until the band's disolussion in 1995. Their music is well-known for Knopfler's unique style of guitar playing, which is achieved by "picking" at the strings. You can hear his terrific guitar work in most of the songs on this CD. That, combined with his unique vocal style, is what makes the band's sound so distinctive.
"The very best of" contains some of Dire Straits' most well-known songs, although, in my opinion, there are a few songs that should have made the cut. I guess you can't have everything though, and this CD gives a great overview of their sound. There are sixteen tracks on the CD. Three are live, and the others are studio versions. I will attempt to give a brief explanation of each track, but of course this is all very subjective. I urge you to listen to the CD yourself, and make up your own mind.
1. SULTANS OF SWING
With a moody, evocative sound, this song is a great introduction to the unique vocals of Knopfler. With a basic story about a bunch of Jazz musicians who just want to go out there and do their thing in a Jazz club, his gravely voice and "singspeak" style of vocals gives this a laid back feel. It features a blistering guitar solo by Knopfler and it's really smooth. That's the best way I can think of to describe it.
When I was a student, I'd go down to the Victoria Market in Melbourne to buy cheap fruit and veg. There was always a busker there who used to sit down in his faded leather jacket and rock out with an acoustic version of "Sultans of Swing." He always looked so ecstatic to be playing it, and with good reason!
2. LADY WRITER
This is much more upbeat than the previous track. Knopfler's voice sometimes loses its strength when he tries to really sing, but the cheeky lyrics make up for it. His little chuckle after the line "but your mother was a jazz singer" is perfectly timed, and rewards those who listen to it obsessively. (Who? Me? No!)
3. ROMEO AND JULIET
An absolutely perfect musical interpretation of the play's sentiments (although this is also rumoured to be about an old relationship of Knopfler's). With one of the most haunting introductory guitar parts ever, this is my favourite song on this album. It's perfect for those who appreciate some intertextuality to your Shakespeare (Oh Romeo yeah/you know I used to have a scene with him). If you only listen to one Dire Straits song, this is the one. It's simply sublime.
4. TUNNEL OF LOVE
This song has a more instrumental sound, with a nice piano opening which leads into a more "raw" musical sound. This isn't one of my favourites, but the lyrics have great imagery (And the big wheel keep on turning, neon burning up above/
And I'm just high on this world) and Knopfler uses his vocal range to really great effect.
5. PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS
This song changes the pace with a rather slow and melancholy guitar part overlaid by the vocals. Knopfler doesn't so much as sing as speaks over the instrumentals which makes this song sound all the more regretful and haunting. The mournful guitar solo at the middle of the piece interacts with piano and bass guitar and creates a somewhat unsettling, yet strangely hypnotic sound.
6. TWISTING BY THE POOL
This has somewhat of a 50's sound to it and reminds me of the 'Monkees' and brings up images of polka-dot bikinis, huge sunglasses and ice cream cones. The backup vocals rescue this song from being drowned under the heaviness of Knopfler's growly voice. It's got an upbeat temp, a jazz/swing feel to it, but it's not a favourite of mine.
7. LOVE OVER GOLD (LIVE)
This track does not suffer adversely by being a live version, at least, in my opinion. The slow ballad-y feel of the song is livened up with dramatic drum crashes and smashes! The lyrics are moving and evocative.
8. SO FAR AWAY
This song has a brilliant guitar hook and is one of my favourites. The lyrics are wonderful, describing the frustrations of two lovers living in separate places. It has lyrics such as "I'm tired of making out on the telephone" and "You've been in the sun and I've been in the rain". It's a little bit sweet, a little bit melancholy and a little bit rocky, all in one. Knopfler's slightly off-key vocals really make this one all the more charming. Definitely one for anyone who's ever had a long-distance relationship.
9. MONEY FOR NOTHING
I personally hate the swirling synthesiser at the beginning of the piece, but once that lead guitar kicks in, it's all rock and roll from then on. The lyrics are written from the point of view of a hardware worker lamenting the lifestyles of those he sees on MTV music videos. Who can't love a song where the protagonist grumbles that rock stars get "Their money for nothing, chicks for free"?
10. BROTHERS IN ARMS
It amazing how a man with such a hard voice can make a song sound so gentle, but that's what Knopfler does in this song. It's so understated, but it's moving as hell. It tells of young men who fight together as "brothers in arms". With a slow, haunting guitar part, Knopfler's voice almost cracks in places, but this just adds to the emotion in the piece. It's absolutely beautiful, haunting, sad, and ultimately hopeful. For a song to evoke this many emotions in both its lyrics and its instrumentals is a feat of genius.
11. WALK OF LIFE
This is an upbeat song (all the better to counteract the previous tear-jerker) which sounds like good, old fashioned rock and roll. It makes you want to get down and do the twist, or is that just me? Knopfler's little "woohoo's!" make me smile, and the backing vocals enhance the song immeasurably.
12. CALLING ELVIS
A cheeky piece that has plenty of references to Elvis Presley, as well as a tight drumbeat. The "singspeak" is very much in evidence here, but it works. It's a real toe-tapping, finger clicking song with a great guitar riff.
13. HEAVY FUEL
This is real rock and roll with a heavy sound to it, and Knopfler extolling the virtues of Scotch as a hangover remedy and cigarettes for breakfast! The lyrics are funny, but musically, I find that it doesn't really stand out on this compilation. A good song for any wannabe James Deans.
14. ON EVERY STREET
The lovely piano work lifts this song from mediocrity, and the mournful saxophone is the icing on the cake. The lyrics are hard to understand given that Knopfler sometimes disappears under the weight of his own gravely voice, but it's certainly got a unique sound thanks to the wide(r) rage of instruments used in this song compared to the rest of the songs on the album.
15. YOUR LATEST TRICK (LIVE)
A great percussion introduction leads into a wonderful saxophone solo that makes me think of 80's lounge singers. The fact that this is a live recording means that you can hear the audience singing along, even to the saxophone interludes, which may annoy some listeners. Oh man, now I have an image of white-suited lounge singers smirking along to the sax in some seedy hotel bar stuck in my head. Thank you very much, Mark Knopfler. But the saxophone is as smooooooooooth as,.........well, something smooth.
16. LOCAL HEROES/WILD THEME (LIVE)
If you can get past all the screaming (which does distract from the gentle opening chords), this piece has some soothing and (almost) gentle guitar work. It's completely instrumental, and a nice way to end off the CD.
Personally, I prefer the first two-thirds of the CD, but that's just my own preferences. Overall, though, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Dire Straits and wants a compilation of some of their best songs (Although where are "Communiqué" and "Industrial Disease"???)
For anyone who has been converted, or at least mildly interested by this review, then the CD is a brilliant introduction to this band. They are unique, and it's one of the few bands I've heard where the lyrics and the instrumentals complement each other so perfectly.
I believe that the CD comes with a bonus CD featuring live performances by the band, but I was given this second hand and only received the first disc. However, I have no reason to believe that the extras wouldn't be just as good- it depends on whether or not you like hearing live interpretations of studio songs.
Overall, this is well worth it! It can be bought off HMV.com for £14.99, or found on amazon.com and eBay for varying prices.
(This review also published on Ciao under the same user name)
I hate Heathrow airport. I really, really hate it. If I'm flying long-haul I often have no choice but to depart from Heathrow, and it just makes the flight much more stressful then it should be. Thankfully if I'm flying to Europe, there's an alternative: Jet2.com
Jet2.com is a budget airline based at Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA). They started flying under this name in February 2003 and currently fly from Leeds to many destinations, including Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Sardinia and the Czech Republic. There are seventy-seven destinations in total. Jet2 has UK bases in Leeds, Manchester, Belfast, Newcastle, Blackpool and Edinburgh. Their fleet is comprised of 21 Boeing 737-300's and 8 Boeing 757-200's. They are currently enjoying a boom in business, and seem to be carrying even more passengers to even more destination, although it will be interesting to see what happens in upcoming years, as fuel prices and environmental concerns may mean that air travel becomes unpopular.
Prices for one-way tickets can vary from £4.99 (including taxes) which is offered on their website at the moment, up to a hundred quid or more depending on your destination, date of travel and how far in advance you book. I try to pick flights when I can be flexible with my dates, and have gone to Amsterdam quite a few times for £10 including taxes, which is a great deal. They are also branching out into offering accommodation and car hire, so if you want you can book your whole holiday through Jet2, although I have never done this, and probably won't in the future.
The website, www.jet2.com is pretty good, although it does suffer somewhat from that hideous affliction (mostly limited to 'cheap' or 'discount' websites) of flashing lights and horribly, HORRIBLY bright, clashing hideous monster primary colours. The main page usually lists some of the promotions that are going on at the moment, although there is a traditional "fare-finder" box as well, where you type in your desired destination and flight dates. There's also a great feature- the Low Fare finder which just lets you type in your desired departure and arrival airports, and the month in which you'd like to travel. It then shows you fares for all days that month, which is very useful if you're flexible with your flying dates, and a damn sight easier than searching for flights day by day.
Once you've chosen your flight, confirm the flight times and enter your details as they appear on your passport. The airline will very sneakily assume that you want travel insurance and that you want to check in a bag (At the completely outrageous price of £5.99 per piece of checked in baggage). It also asks if you would like to pre-book a seat (again at an extra cost.) I hate this. It's misleading (considering the prices are written in a tiny font buried away on the page) and puts the onus on you, as the consumer to personally unselect all the superfluous stuff that you don't want or need. So, before you enter your credit card details make sure you're only being charged for what you want, not what the airline wants you to want. Once you've put in your credit card details (and paid the £3 fee for credit card transactions) then you'll get sent an email with your booking details and your personal reference number. The airline says you'll need this when checking in, although I've never been asked for it. Likewise, I see a lot of travellers with printouts of the whole email, which is just a waste of paper, in my opinion. I just make a note of my booking number and hand over my passport when checking in.
CHECKING IN AND BOARDING:
As Leeds Bradford is the home of Jet2, there is a big check-in in hall just dedicated to this airline. Queuing time really depends on the time on the day. I've flown from LBA in the middle of the day and there's been no queue whatsoever, however, taking an early morning Friday flight, the queues were horrendous. If you've checked in online, or only have hand baggage, there are separate desks so you can bypass all the people loaded down with a trillion suitcases and get through. It also means you can get to the airport much later as you won't spend hours in a queue.
****TIP: If you're only going for a short trip, just take one piece of hand luggage. As long as you decant any liquids into bottles of less than 100ml and it weighs no more than 10KG, you'll get to miss the check in line; you won't have to pay the rotten, stinking baggage fee, and won't have to wait for your bags at the other end. I do that pretty much every time I travel now, and it's fabulous. Because I really, really hate the baggage fee with all my heart.****
Checking in at other airports is usually pretty easy. They may only have one or two counters dedicated to Jet2, so there might be a pretty long line, especially at busy times. But the staff are always efficient and friendly. Because the airline has assigned seating, I've always been asked if I want a window or an aisle seat. If you ask, they will generally tell you how full or not the flight is, and whether you'll be able to nab a whole row to yourself.
Once you go through the hall of utter human degradation and humiliation, otherwise known as 'security', you'll be in the departures hall. Because Jet2 has a really quick turnaround time, you might notice in Leeds that there isn't even a gate number assigned, usually because the incoming flight hasn't even arrived yet! So there's no real point in getting to the airport 3 hours early, as you'll just sit airside for ages. (Please note: I do not endorse, however, rocking up twenty minutes before departure either, because you know it will just backfire HORRIBLY)
Boarding calls are made and your boarding pass and passport are checked. Sometimes they will board by rows, other times not. I guess it depends on how full the flight is. Most Jet2 flights don't use aerobridges, as they are expensive and would up the price of tickets. So it's a bus or a walk to the aircraft depending on how far away from the terminal it is. Staff are on hand to direct you to either the fore or aft doors, and also to help with pushchairs and the like, which go into the hold for the duration of the flight. As Jet2 has assigned seating, there is no need to rush, and seats are mostly in a 3-3 configuration.
THE CREW & INFLIGHT SERVICE:
The crew are usually pretty good. They will welcome you on board, and show you to your seat if you're having problems finding it. Most of the flights I've been on have three or four cabin crew and a Captain and First Officer. The Captain will make a PA announcement welcoming you on board, and then it's over to the Cabin Crew. They are pretty good with safety checks, as well as making sure that all hand baggage is stowed correctly. If you're sitting next to an emergency exit they will come around and instruct you on how to open the doors if they are needed, although I sat by them once and was not given any instructions; thankfully my dad has told me how to open them, but it did seem like a possibly fatal oversight if a less experienced traveller was sitting there.
Once the aircraft has taken off, food and drinks are sold to you at your seat. Prices are expensive, to me at least. A deal consisting of a sandwich, mini Pringles and a drink is £5, a Kit-Kat and a tea/coffee is £2.50. Whether you want to buy food or not is really up to you. I find it a complete rip-off, especially on flights to Amsterdam, where flying time is 40 minutes. I can wait 40 minutes for some delicious Dutch pastries and hot chocolates rather than scummy inflight food. The crew are also very, very desperate to sell you something. On a recent early-morning flight I was asleep, but was waken up very energetically by a young man yelling "ANY FOOD OR DRINKS, LOVE??" It was 6AM, and I really, really really didn't want food, and I let him know that.
During the time of sales, multiple announcements are made to say they are about to sell food, that they are now selling food, that they are about to finish selling food; that they are about to open the Duty Free shop, that the Duty Free shop is now open, etc etc. It gets very annoying, to say the least, especially as they are obviously given a script to read from and it's appallingly badly written. If you're not a native English speaker (and even if you are), you might find a thick Yorkshire accent, coupled with a really old PA system, might make all the announcements unintelligible.
At the conclusion of in-flight service, the crew come around with big plastic bags to take your rubbish. As they explain, their turnaround times are short, and crew clean the cabin itself rather than professional cleaners. So they ask you to cooperate with them and throw out all your rubbish. The cockpit crew will make an announcement when there's fifteen minutes to land, and then the pre-landing checks begin. When flying into England, they make an announcement saying that anyone who does not have a British or EU passport must fill in a landing card and ask you to press your call button to receive one. This is how it works most of the time. However, on a few flights the announcement was not made at all, and I had to ask them for a card once the aircraft had landed, the doors were open and there was a huge, impatient queue behind me. If there had been other non-EU people on the plane who weren't aware of the system, then they would have gotten all the way to the surly immigration people before realising that they needed a card to fill in. I know that non-EU passengers are a rarity on Jet2 flights, but they really need to read that announcement out on every flight coming into the UK. I really don't think there's any excuse for forgetting to.
DISEMBARKATION AND LUGGAGE RETRIEVAL:
Again, you'll be disembarking from steps pushed up to the aircraft. At some airports, especially Leeds, you might be close enough to the terminal to be able to walk to it, otherwise you'll be bussed in. The bus journey can take a while, at Amsterdam Schiphol it's about an eight minute bus ride from the aircraft to the terminal. This is to be expected though, as gate fees become less expensive the further you are parked from the terminal.
After going through immigration you'll find your baggage has usually made a rather swift exit from the aircraft and is ready for you to pick up and take home. When I have used check-in luggage, it never seems to have been damaged in any way, and all identification tags are still firmly attached.
I am very very grateful to Jet2.com for being so cheap that I can fund all these European trips. It certainly makes travelling a lot easier, and overall they are a pretty decent airline. They fly to a pretty good range of destinations, although some are only seasonal (For example, they only fly to Pisa during the summer, and switch to popular ski destinations during the winter months) When everything goes smoothly (As it always has for me) then the trip is very bearable. Sure, there's a bit of the "flying bus" aspect to it, especially if you travel during school holidays, or on a Friday when it will be loaded up with people, but the airline seems to cope well. I can't comment on what it's like when things go wrong, so I don't know how well their 'crisis control' system works (Although I'm guessing it's better than BA and the BAA!) The airline makes its profit out of selling you extras, such as the baggage fee, food, drinks, duty free, charging you for choosing a seat, 'premium' travel. But it's hard to really be annoyed at it all when you're zipping off to Europe for peanuts. My advice would be to just keep your wits about you, and read everything twice, especially when booking online to make sure that you're not being charged unless you really really need to be. Eat before you leave, don't buy perfumes midflight, and DON'T PANIC. If you can keep your head, while all about you are losing theirs.....then you'll be on your way to Paris for five pounds. No baggage fee included.
(This review also published on Ciao under the same user name)
Last August we went on holiday to Nice, where there's approximately 300 days of sunshine a year, there are French women sunbathing topless on the beach, and you can dunk your baguette in your coffee and just sit back and watch the world go by. I spent weeks trying to find the perfect accommodation, looking on hundreds of websites, trying to balance out cost issues, as well as trying to find somewhere in a good location, and that had good reviews by other travelers. I finally, FINALLY made a decision and booked the Splendid Hotel through hotelclub.com five days before I left.
THE HOTEL: AN OVERVIEW
The Splendid Hôtel is a 4-star hotel located on the Boulevard Victor-Hugo in the centre of Nice, a few minute's walk away from both the main train station and the Boulevard des Anglais. There are 128 rooms within the 8-storey building subdivided into "Harmony", "Deluxe" or "Suite" rooms, each with varying degrees of luxury. The hotel has conference facilities, WiFi, internet access in the lobby (You have to pay though). On the top floor is a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, as well as a bar and separate restaurant. There's also a beauty salon and hairdressers next to the lobby area.
I have to say that the location of the hotel is fantastic. The Boulevard Victor Hugo is a reasonably quiet residential and small-business street that runs parallel to the Boulevard des Anglais, about three short blocks back from the sea. If you turn left on exiting the hotel, then the train station is a ten minute amble away, perfect to jump on a train and go to Monte-Carlo for lunch, as we did! Although the street is pretty quiet, you can often hear motorbikes whizzing up and down the streets at pretty much any time of the day or night. You can hear the traffic even if you sleep with the windows closed, but this really didn't bother us too much as we're used to city noise. It's certainly not enough noise to wake you up from sleep, but if you're particularly sensitive to noise at night, then you might want to bear this in mind.
As you enter the hotel, you pass a cute little water feature as well as some blackboards highlighting some of the dishes being served at the restaurant. There's a nice big check-in counter, and the staff are very friendly and welcoming. I had printed out a confirmation slip, and the staff just checked it and handed me my key, and that was it! It was fantastic not to have to faff around waiting to sign papers and swipe credit cards. You do that at check out, and it's speedy and professional (The concierge will also look after your bags if you check out early and have a day to kill before you go home). Check in time is 1PM, check-out is at noon, although you can negotiate to check out later for a fee if you want.
In the lobby there's also a number of chairs to sit and relax in, as well as the conference rooms, payphones, a hairdressing salon and the beauty salon. There's also a computer with internet access; we didn't use it, but I think you ask the staff and they'll give you a password and then charge you for it at the end of your session. There are two lifts going up to the rooms, as well as a spiral staircase, which might be worth using if your room is on a lower floor, as the lifts sometimes take forever to arrive. They are also TINY. They carry a maximum of five people, but the most I ever saw in the lift was four adults looking somewhat squashed and uncomfortable! If you have a lot of luggage, you might have to send people up one at a time with some of it. Thankfully, we just had an overnight bag, but it was a bit of a squish nonetheless!
I had requested a non-smoking room, and so we were given a room on the 7th floor, one of about four non-smoking floors. Our room was on the top floor, as above us was only the pool, restaurant and bar. It was a really nice little room. It had a writing desk and chair, an easy chair and small table, a suitcase stand, double bed with bedside tables attached, minibar, TV and built in cupboard, as well as a balcony with two chairs. Everything was very clean, including the sheets, towels and carpet. It was on the small side, but it didn't feel cramped at all and there was room to move around the room without bashing into things. The décor was nice, with a green and blue patterned carpet, nice wood paneling and red and blue stripy curtains. I wouldn't have given it first prize in an interior decorating competition, but neither was I kept awake at night by hideous colour schemes on the walls!
The TV had about twenty channels. The majority of them were in French, but there were also channels in German, Italian, Mandarin and English. We watched mostly BBC and CNN, flicking it on most mornings to watch the world news. The minibar had the usual combination of mini bottles of booze, as well as some bottled water. I couldn't find a price list, so I'm not sure how much they would all cost. There was lots of writing paper, and hotel information in the room, as well as information on the internet (either in the lobby, or you could pay for WiFi in your room). There was an individual aircon that was remote-control operated. This was fantastic, as we had the power to control how cold or otherwise we wanted the room (Much better than those hotels where you are at the mercy of centralized airconditioning!)
I'm quite fussy about beds in hotels, as I get backache quite often. The bed itself was pretty comfortable, even with two of us sleeping on it, it didn't sag too much, which seems to be a hazard of staying in lower-quality hotels. There were two pillows on the bed, but I found two more in the cupboard, along with another blanket. The first night I slept on the pillows but woke up the next morning with an incredibly painful neck! I must have slept in a funny position and developed a pinched nerve or something, because I was in agony the next day, and, to a lesser extent, the day after! For the next two nights, I just slept on the bed without a pillow, and that was much better. I've mentioned this just as a warning to people who might suffer from back/neck problems, but I don't know how much of the problem was due to the bad quality of the pillows, and how much was just due to me sleeping in a weird position. Whatever it was, it wasn't a huge problem overall, but it did mar my enjoyment of the hotel a bit.
The ensuite bathroom had the cutest little floor tiles, pink roses! There was a toilet, a bidet, a stool and a bath with a shower head inside, as well as towels and the usual collection of toiletries. If you wanted to have a wash, you could pull a lever and have the water run out of the bath taps, or out of the shower head that was connected to them by a hose. Unfortunately, there was no hook to hang the shower head up to, so you had to hold the shower head yourself, which was a bit annoying, especially when I was trying to wash my hair one handed! I guess the stool was there so that you could sit on it and wash yourself sitting down, but I didn't bother. It was also really hard to get the water temperature right for the shower; it seemed to always be too cold or too hot. Thankfully, because it was so hot I didn't mind jumping under a cold shower, but this could become really irritating in winter. The feature I absolutely loved about the bathroom was the sliding windows located above the bath which opened up onto the balcony. As we were up so high and there were no buildings any higher around, I had plenty of baths with the windows wide open; from which I could see the blue sky and the fluffy white clouds slowly meandering by. Bliss!
The hotel was really well equipped with lots of amenities to make our break really relaxing. Here's a quick rundown:
Up on the roof of the hotel is the pool, sun loungers and jacuzzi. The pool itself is small, probably about 10 metres long and 5/6 metres wide, so it's not really for the serious swimmer, but it was nice to splash around in. It's got a fence around it, and the pool itself is quite deeply recessed into the surrounding decking, so you have to climb down a ladder to reach the water. Late in the day the pool water does get a bit warm due to the sun, but it's still refreshing. There's also a small jacuzzi on the rooftop, that can probably seat about 4 adults, if you're all in the mood to get cozy. It's located right next to some sun loungers, and so every time we went up there I was worried that the sound of the motor would disturb the sunbathers, but nobody seemed to mind. Most of them looked asleep, anyway.
There's a bar next to the pool with good views over the city. You can pay in cash or charge things to your room. My boyfriend had a cup of coffee for Euro2.50 but he said you'd get better value coffee at the cafes down on street level.
There's also a restaurant "Chez Hugo" up there, again with great views over the city and surrounding hillside (You can't quite see the sea from up there!) It serves Mediterranean food for breakfast lunch and dinner. Breakfast costs Euro16 per person, and you are given the option of requesting it when you check in, but I declined, because I am a cheapskate. We didn't eat at the restaurant at all, but from the reviews I read on Trip Advisor, the food is quite good and reasonably priced. If anybody does end up staying there, do let me know what it was like!
Downstairs in the lobby is the beauty salon. This offers a wide range of therapies such as facials (Euro55-80), massages (Euro50-80) using Decléor products. In the room is a coupon giving you a 10% discount on any Decléor product if you've had a treatment at the Spa, so this could be good value if you're a fan of Decléor. You can also take advantage of the spa even if you're not staying at the hotel; a treatment includes use of the pool and Jacuzzi as well.
We had a very pleasant stay in Nice, which was in part due to staying at the Hôtel Splendid. It was clean and comfortable, and the room was really nice. We didn't spend much time in the room as we were busy eating our way across Nice, but we did spend one evening just hanging out, swimming and watching French TV and I certainly didn't feel claustrophobic, or frustrated, or eager to get out of there. It does seem a bit soulless, but I think that's a problem with most hotels in Nice- there are so many mainstream, middle-of-the-road places that it's hard to find something quirky and unusual. This place is slap-bang mainstream, but it has everything that you need, and no unpleasant surprises. The staff were really friendly and had tons of tourist information at their fingertips, so it makes for a very easy stay at the Hotel. Recommended as a "safe" choice for those who don't have the time, energy or money to look into more adventurous accommodation!
The sign on the door of our room charged Euro220 per night for a standard room; we paid Euro135 by booking on hotelclub.com which was probably the cheapest of all websites that I checked out (expedia, lastminute, etc. etc.) It was one of the few hotels that had rooms left 5 days before we wanted to check in, so availability doesn't seem to be a problem, although at the height of summer you might want to be more organised that I am!
More information can be found at www.splendid-nice.com or by contacting the hotel directly: 50 Boulevard Victor-Hugo 06000 Nice, France Tel: +33 4 93 16 41 00 Fax: +33 4 93 14 42 70
Before I moved to England, a friend gave me a couple of BBC cookbooks. "What a nice farewell present!" I thought. Then, she asked me very nicely if I would cook the muffins featured on page 54 because they looked really good. "No" I said. Thankfully we are still friends, and I took the BBC cookbooks with me to England and tried making things from them. I have to say, I was very disappointed with the quality of the recipes. Too often my cookies would end up gooey and runny, or hard and crispy, my meat was never cooked thoroughly, and the recipes always called for very weird combinations of ingredients, leading to exchanges such as the following:
Housemate: Why does your shopping list contain crème fraîche, pitted, sun-dried olives and lard?
Me: I'm making a cake.
Housemate: Huh? Are you crazy?
Me: BLAME THE STUPID BBC AND THEIR STUPID COOKBOOKS.
So, as you can see, it was time for me to invest in a cookbook that didn't cause me to fly into a frenzy every time I wanted to make muffins. I knew that I wanted to buy a "Women's Weekly" cookbook, so last week I sallied forth into the bustling metropolis of Leeds to see what I could see.
A BRIEF BIT OF HISTORY
The Australian Women's Weekly is an Australian ladies magazine, which manages to strike a balance between current affairs, gossip, health and lifestyle tips, and a cookery section. It was founded in 1933, and is published by the "Australian Consolidated Press." Although it was originally published weekly, it is now published every month, but, for obvious reasons, it's not called "The women's monthly."
The Weekly is best known (Well, in my family, anyway), for their food and cookery section. The Weekly boasts a "test kitchen" which is run by top-quality Home economists. They are very proud of their "Triple Test", which basically means that they cook each recipe three times to make sure that the recipe makes sense. It's a good technique, and I approve of it. The meal may not be to your taste, but at least it works. Unlike the BBC cookbooks, I've never had to alternate between black and charred or runny cookies.
They publish a range of cookbooks that are themed, or built around a certain style of cooking (Barbeque, etc). I was browsing around Waterstones, WH Smith and Boarders when I came across "501 Low Fat Recipes" and grabbed it.
I decided that by buying a fat free cookbook I could eat the same sort of things that I normally do, but just use different techniques and ingredients to cut down on unnecessary fat (As opposed to the necessary fat that is found in chocolate. It's a fact.) This book has recipes for practically everything you could want, but it encourages you to make simple, but hopefully long-lasting changes to the way you cook.
The book itself is a mammoth 369-page tome of recipes. It contains colour photographs of some, but not all of the recipes. Each recipe is followed by a nutritional guide detailing levels of (saturated) fat, protein, carbohydrates and fibre. The foreword states that they have tried to keep most main course recipes under 15grams of fat, so you shouldn't have any problems maintaining or losing your weight if you cook from this book regularly. The book is divided into sections, of which I will give a quick overview in the hopes of tempting your tastebuds!
A short introduction that dishes out (Ha!) some obvious tips on how to eat less fat and maintain your weight.
Make your own muesli! With 4 different recipes, you'll never go muesli-less again! Corn fritters with roasted tomato chilli jam, as well as grilled figs with ricotta and honeycomb are some of the more esoteric breakfast recipes. I haven't yet tried them out, but I will one day when I don't have to go to work and I have some spare honeycomb lying around the house.
This 59-recipe section is a hodge-podge of recipes. It contains a few salads, as well as dishes such as herbed potatoes and zucchini pasties which could be adapted as a main course for vegetarian guests, although there is a whole vegetarian section too! There are a few recipes for pizza, as well as pumpkin gnocchi, which looks fantastic!
STARTERS AND SOUPS
Tons of soup, ranging from Italiano style soups to typical western flavours, to miso soup and Vietnamese pho.
I don't eat seafood, so I won't be cooking anything from here, but with recipes such as paella, spicy prawns, and good old fish and chips, and salmon soufflés, there's more than enough choices no matter how you like your seafood.
Moroccan grilled chicken with couscous is fantastic and so easy to cook. It turned out just like it does in the restaurants. Again, in this section you'll find chicken done every which way. Some of the recipes, such as Creole chicken and dirty rice need a few slightly unusual ingredients, but nothing that a visit to a delicatessen wouldn't fix. If I want to make something simpler, I could make honeyed chicken stir-fry, or herb coated chicken, or ginger chicken kebabs, or.....
MAINS-BEEF AND VEAL
Quite a few Mexican recipes lurk here, as well as meatballs, pasta-based dishes, and veal cutlets.
The only thing I ever do with pork is roast it, so it's nice to read of other ways to cook it. You can put it in a risotto, use it in chilli, cook it Chinese-style, or throw it in with some fried rice.
Baaaaa! There are a lot of middle-eastern recipes in here, along with a fantastic lamb kofta with chilli and yogurt sauce, which is wonderful! Why not try a Thai lamb salad, or Korean-style lamb?
Mouthwateringly yummy recipes. This section offers 64 different recipes, so even if you're a vegetarian you could buy this book and still have loads of recipes to choose from. There's lots of different curries and noodle based dishes, a spicy bean casserole and a wonderfully photographed vegetable and cottage cheese terrine
Vanilla bean ice-cream with espresso sauce. Rich chocolate self-saucing pudding. Mini éclairs with Vanilla cream. Fig and orange pinwheels. Lime cheesecake. Pavlova.
LOW FAT PARTIES
Sssssssssssh! If you don't tell your guests, they'll never know! You can make quite a few dips, or have fun with Oysters. Or you can cook wontons, or spring rolls (Oven baked, rather than deep fried to keep the fat content down), or dumplings.
THE BACK OF THE BOOK
In the back is a small-ish, but fairly comprehensive glossary covering foodstuffs that you might be unfamiliar with, and an index.
You know what the best thing about this book is? That's it's so easy. There are so many recipes to choose from, and most of them don't need any special ingredients. It's a low-fat cookbook, but to be honest, I don't even notice that most of the time! The key to making these low-fat recipes is just making simple changes, like taking the skin off meat, using low-fat dairy products, and baking and grilling rather than frying. I might not be able to remember all that if I was "winging it" in the kitchen, but by following these recipes, I make fantastic food with very little effort, time or money.
The book is so comprehensive. Want an Asian starter, followed by a Mediterranean main course served with a traditional Anglo-Saxon dessert? Fine. Want to plan an entire dinner party around the humble fig? It's possible. Want to just drool at the gorgeous photographs? Yep, I've done that. This book costs £10 from Boarders (Although you can also find Women's Weekly cookbooks in Waterstones and WH Smith and probably other bookstores as well) and the WW does an entire range of cookbooks, so if you're looking for a specific genre of cooking then you're in luck. I can't recommend this cookbook highly enough. I am a huge fan of the Womens Weekly range of cookbooks, and I hope by the end of this review that you are too!
This review also published on ciao.co.uk
During my travels last year, I found myself in need of a bed in Hong Kong. As I'm from there, I wasn't looking for a hotel to 'enhance my HK experience', I was just looking for somewhere cheap and cheerful. I would be out most of the day so I didn't need great facilities, or a top-class restaurant. All I needed was somewhere to sleep for 2 nights. I chose the Ibis as it looked to be one of the cheapest hotels on most of the hotel booking sites I looked at (Apart from the hostels at Chungking Mansions. A word of warning: don't stay at Chungking Mansions. The horror stories outweigh the benefits of a cheap room)
THE IBIS NORTH POINT HOTEL- AN OVERVIEW:
The hotel is a part of the Ibis chain, and it's got a pretty clear ethos- clean, comfortable, and budget. They provide basic rooms with ensuite bathrooms without such amenities as tiny soaps, shoe shining kits, and other superfluous items. This helps to keep costs down, whilst giving you what you need and want. Overall, it's a pretty good strategy, although I have stayed in a few Ibis hotels and I have to say that quality can vary dramatically from place to place.
The Hotel Ibis North Point is located in North Point on Hong Kong Island. It has 275 rooms over 31 floors (Some facing the harbour, others not). Eleven of those floors are non-smoking. There's a business centre and a restaurant and Laundry service if needed. I paid HK$ 550 a night, so a total of HK$ 1100 for two nights (About £69). Price-wise, this is a budget to mid-range price for Hong Kong.
The location is slightly out of the major tourist areas, but in a place like Hong Kong, public transport is so efficient and quick that nowhere is really far from anywhere else. Bear in mind that just because it's not in major parts of town doesn't mean that it's not a noisy and bustling area. Everywhere in Hong Kong is noisy, so you just learn to tune it out, although I didn't really notice much noise when I was in my room.
It has excellent bus and subway (M.T.R) links. I flew in late at night and got a bus from the airport terminus. Bus A11 cost HK$ 40 (£2.50) and it took about 50 minutes to get to the hotel (This was rather late at night, so I can imagine it might take longer if you have to deal with traffic snarls). Getting off is easy; just stay on until the very end. The final stop is at the North Point ferry pier. If you get off and look away from the harbour to the road, you'll see the hotel all lit up and shiny; it is literally just across the road. For getting back to the airport, I just did the reverse. I noted what time the bus left (about every half hour or so) and checked out of the hotel 10 minutes before that.
The hotel is also incredibly easy to get to from the M.T.R. Just take the Island line (Blue line on the map) to North Point, take exit A1, turn right and walk about 50 steps and you're there!
I checked in quite late at night, but the Ibis chain promise that there is always somebody on reception, 24 hours a day. There was a lady on the desk who checked me in. She wasn't particularly friendly, didn't crack a smile, but she wasn't rude either. Her English was fine as she asked me for my reservation details and my passport.
The next day I got back to the hotel after a day out and my key wouldn't open my door (It was one of those swipe keys which I think were made just to make me feel like an incompetent fool when I have to go down to reception and piteously say "I can't open my door!!") There was a young man on the desk who was lovely and made me confirm my name and room number before he put my key in the machine and did some magic on it. After that, it worked fine.
Checking out at about 6:30 in the morning, I didn't see anyone at the reception desk. However, I peeked through an open door just next to the check in area and saw a staff member sitting in a small office using a computer. She straight away got up and dealt with me, so that was fine. I can't imagine the graveyard shift is very much fun.
I had a room on the 12th floor, facing away from the harbour. It was very small, but I thought very well laid out. As you entered, the bathroom was on the right with a toilet, shower and sink. It was small but perfectly fine for my needs. It had two full-sized towels and two hand towels, one of which I used as a shower mat. There was a squeezy bottle of bodywash/shampoo affixed to the shower wall and two water glasses. There was no soap rack or small ledge in the shower, which was annoying as I had nowhere to put my shampoo or personal soap bar, so they just kind of sat on the floor of the shower.
There was a small niche which held a safe, and two clothes hangers on a short rack for hanging up essentials. It also had a small pull-out cupboard which contained a kettle and teacups, as well as a couple of packets of anonymous tea, and a small bar fridge. Hong Kong water is safe to drink, and I certainly drink my fair share but each night I would boil the kettle and leave it in the fridge in order to have some nice cold water in the morning.
The rest of the room had a bed. It was certainly big enough for me to sleep comfortably and to stretch out, but if there had been two full-grown adults in it, it would have been very uncomfortable. Unfortunately, small beds are a fact of life in Hong Kong; space is at a premium, and you pay more if you want more space. Matresses tend to be very very thin, often just a foam matress on top of a wooden ledge (Which was the case here) so beware for anyone with back problems. There was a TV set into the wall next to the bed, so you pulled in out on casters and then tilted it so that it was facing you. It made for quite comfy viewing when all tucked up in bed.
The windows pointed out and created a triangular window seat, so a custom made desk fitted into that space. There was a wooden desk chair, a telephone and a few vouchers and brochures to read about Hong Kong. There were a couple of hooks on the wall to hang clothes, and enough space to walk around the bed and possibly leave a suitcase on, but that was it.
Like I said, it was a very, very small room, but the people responsible had made a good use of space. It was fine for one person, but I can imagine it would be tough going for a couple if you want to spend a significant amount of time in the room. You'd be falling all over each other, and you'd have to politely take turns stepping into the bathroom.
UNFORTUNATELY, the room was pretty filthy. I don't mind a bare and Spartan room, but I like my rooms (superficially at least) to be clean. The walls were papered with a cheap dirty white wallpaper which appeared to be peeling in many places. The bottom foot or so of the wallpaper had obviously been attacked by a toddler wielding an impressive rainbow of crayons. It really didn't look as if the cleaning staff had made much effort to scrub it off, and I have to say that this kid was no Van Gogh.
The carpet was absolutely filthy. Ostensibly a light grey colour, there were numerous stains all over it, and some of those stains really freaked me out. The carpet felt clammy underfoot and so whenever I was in the room I would wear my flip-flops, just because I didn't want to expose my bare feet to whatever bodily fluids were festering in the carpet.
The sheets, as far as I could see were clean and freshly laundered, as were the towels. However, I noticed quite a bit of dirt and hair in the corners of the bathroom, and behind the door. I just got the impression that the cleaning staff would do the basic room servicing, but what my room needed was a thorough deep clean, if not a revamp, using materials that were more stain-resistant. I may have just been unlucky, but the building as a whole looked a bit tired and worn, which was sad, as other Ibis' I have stayed in are very clean and well-maintained.
The hotel had a restaurant, which is apparently open every day from early morning until reasonably late at night. However, I really don't see any need to eat there. There is a 7-11 practically next door, so I bought myself some juice and muesli bars to eat first thing in the morning and then went out. For your information, there are 2 national activities in Hong Kong: Shopping and eating. So you'll never go hungry, and you won't need to resort to eating in scummy hotel restaurants unless you're in exceptional circumstances.
There were also some tables and chairs in the reception area with some powerpoints scattered around, and I saw quite a few people on laptops. Apparently, the hotel has WiFi, but I think you have to pay. I also noticed a couple of computers in the corner of the lobby but I never got the chance to use them. I think the deal was that they were free, as long as you asked reception for the log in details. There is also a business centre, which I believe had the rudimentary elements necessary for business people, but I didn't have a look there.
Overall, I wouldn't recommend this hotel. This is because I feel that is doesn't adequately fill the gap between budget hostels and guesthouses, and luxury hotels. If you're looking for cheap accommodation, then you'd be better off staying in a hostel or a guesthouse. You'll pay less, and you can use the money to go shopping or have a nice meal at a nice restaurant. On the other hand, if you like luxury and price is not too much of a consideration, then I would stay somewhere nicer. This is a shame, because I really wanted to like the hotel, I really did. If it's ever upgraded, or given a thorough spring clean, then I will be back. But at the moment, I'm still fighting off nightmares about those carpets.
Hotel Ibis North Point, 138 Java Road, North Point, Hong Kong.
Tel: (852) 2588-1111 Fax: (852) 2588-1123
(This review also published on Ciao UK under the same user name)
I spent the Christmas period in Hong Kong, and although I stayed with friends for some of the period, I also needed to find a hotel to stay at for 9 nights. I booked the "Harbour View International House" from the 15th-24th December.
The hotel is owned and operated by the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong. It is a 320-room, four star hotel located in the Wanchai district on Hong Kong Island. Hotel facilities are what you'd expect of most mid-range hotels, and the place has both a restaurant and a tea house.
The hotel is located right on the waterfront in the district of Wanchai. Some of you, especially anybody familiar with the "Suzy Wong" movies might know of the seedy reputation of Wanchai. It's home to a number of bars frequented by affluent expatriates, and a number of girly bars frequented by ladies who can, I believe, be rented by the hour if you so desire. It's kind of seedy, but not as explicit as, say Amsterdam (Although, what is?) There are a number of bars and restaurants in Wanchai as well, some of which do pretty amazing food.
The good news (Or bad, depending on how you look at it), is that this hotel is in a fairly benign part of Wanchai, right next door to the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Although, walk ten minutes and you'll be smack bang in the bar area.
To get to the hotel you can take the MTR (Subway) to Wanchai which is located on the Island (blue) line. Then, it's about a 7/8 minute walk to the hotel, although you do have to go over a busy road by traversing a raised footpath, and there is no way to avoid the stairs. If you're coming from the airport, then you can take the Airport Express train system to Hong Kong station, and then jump in a cab. You can also take Airport bus number A11 which stops outside the Performing Arts Academy. The hotel may be a little difficult to find the first time, but once you've found it you shouldn't find any problems for the rest of your stay.
The lobby is...adequate. There's a nice big desk for checking in, and the staff are very good at making sure you're seen ASAP. There's a concierge desk, a couple of couches and a 'computer corner'. There's also always a supply of free newspapers, and a printout giving the weather for the next 5 days. There are always staff members standing around hoping to assist you if there's anything you need. Checking in was fine and fast, as I'd booked through HotelClub, so just needed to show them a voucher.
I was given a room on the 20th floor. Although some rooms do have a harbour view, I had gotten the cheapest room available, and so I knew there was a snowball's chance in hell of having one myself. Sure enough, I had a view of an office block. There was literally nothing to look at, except for the mirrored panes of glass. I knew that I would be getting a twin room, as they don't offer singles and for some reason I hadn't been given the choice of a double room. The beds were an OK size for a Westerner, certainly my feet weren't hanging over the edge, which has been known to happen. The beds were very, very hard so I simply slept on top of one duvet, and under the duvet from the second bed.
There was a small writing desk and chair, along with an armchair and side table with a complimentary bottle of water (replaced each day), a kettle and two coffee cups. There was no tea or coffee, which was a pain. Because I was staying there for so long, I bought myself some cup noodles, instant tea and small snacks so I could have something to eat in the room rather than have to go out for a full meal. There was a TV with an okay selection of local English channels, along with Discovery, BBC and CNN. A small minibar (with nothing inside) was built into the suitcase stand, and there was a cupboard with proper clothes hangers, not those terrible ones that seem to be glued to the clothes rack. There was a thermostat so you could adjust the air-conditioning.
The bathroom was small, very small. There was the normal "shower in the bath" setup, although the bath was only half as long as a normal bath, so you couldn't really have a soak in the tub. Believe me, I tried. And I ended up squashed in there for about fifteen minutes before I realised that I looked ridiculous and got out. The things I will do for research. There were shower caps, little soaps and cotton squares provided each day. And yes, I did steal them all. I now have a supply of shower caps that should last me for about 30 trillion years.
The room was quite new and aesthetically pleasing, as the hotel has just recently completed a refurbishment of their bedrooms. The carpet was clean (See my Ibis hotel review if you'd like to hear me rant about a hotel with unclean carpets!) and the colour scheme was nice, with a couple of prints on the wall. The rooms were scrupulously clean, with a turndown service each evening.
The hotel has a restaurant and a tea house. The tea house specialises in....Coffee. No, not really. You have a wide range of Chinese and Western tea there, along with basic snacks. I didn't go, but I have heard good things about it from a couple of friends who work in the area.
The restaurant is basically a big room (You could almost imagine it being easily converted into a conference room) with lots of tables and chairs. I had breakfast there a couple of mornings, and there was a massive buffet breakfast featuring both Asian and Western food for about HK$80/£6 which was worth it, as I absolutely stuffed myself. They are also open for lunch and dinner, but there are so many good eating places around that I wouldn't bother unless you have to.
There is no business centre, per se, which seems weird as a large number of guests were obviously business people. The hotel is equipped with wireless internet hotel-wide, as well as some fixed computers in the lobby, The downside is, however, you have to pay, and rates are not cheap (about £2.50 for half an hour). There are photocopying and fax facilities, but you would have to ask the staff about that as there is no dedicated business centre. There are also function rooms that can be rented out for conferences and banquets.
I'm a pretty low-key hotel guest, and so usually I don't interact much with hotel staff beyond checking in and out. This time, however, there were a couple of occasions when I needed to speak to them. One evening, my phone rang and it was the assistant manager asking me how I liked the room, as it had recently been refurbished. I mentioned to her that there was no alarm clock in the room (You can ring for a wakeup call, but there is no clock radio, indeed, no clock at all.) but I wasn't too bothered myself as I was using my mobile as an alarm clock. She rang back five minutes later, telling me that the staff would bring up a desk clock for me when I went out for dinner. Lovely.
My mum was coming up for the last 2 nights, and we both suspected that there would be an additional supplement to pay for a second person. I asked the desk about it, and they graciously told me that there would be no charge. I was going to be out when she arrived at the hotel, but they took her name and my room number, and everything went smoothly when she did arrive. A bag of hers had been lost on the flight up, but the airport delivered it to the hotel, who kept it at reception and informed us the second it arrived.
Overall, I found the service to be excellent. The staff had obviously all received hospitality training through the YMCA itself, and it showed. They were polite and attentive all the time. Occasionally, it was a bit too much, but if the worst thing about a hotel is that the staff are TOO polite, well, then, you don't have anything to complain about, really.
I paid about £540 for 9 nights, which is probably below average for that length of time and that standard of hotel in HK. It was just before Christmas, so rates would be a bit less at low season, especially if you go through a hotel booking portal. You'll also have to pay more if that harbour view room is important to you, but it would be less than a similar view in a more upmarket hotel.
I really, really enjoyed my stay at the Harbour View International House. The staff were excellent, and the hotel was perfectly fine. This would be a great place to stay for businessmen who will be at the Convention centre alot, or those who are already familiar with HK. If you are a first-time visitor with limited time, just make sure you've got a good map and a good sense of direction, and it will be easy enough to find. This is on my list of places to stay again if I need to, and I've recommended it to several friends who live in HK as a place for their families and friends to stay when they visit. My advice would be to stay there, enjoy it, and enjoy all that Hong Kong has to offer.
Harbour View International House
4 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2802 0111
(This review also published on Ciao under the same user name)