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This is not an anti-Hong Kong rant, but visitors should be aware of what they should, and should not, expect when staying in this unique place. 1. Expense - this is a frighteningly pricey place, on a par cost-wise with New York and London (and sometimes pricier). Hotels are a major expense, and, unless you're willing to pay top whack, often disappointingly characterless. If money is no object, then the Peninsula is without peer - classy, understated and with the best service in Hong Kong. If money is a very big object, then the premier choice is without doubt the Salisbury YMCA next door. This is actually a hotel, and a very efficient and pleasant one at that, and offers the same views as you'll get for four or five times the amount at the neighbouring Peninsula. Food and drink can also be very expensive. A beer in a bar can be the equivalent of £5 or more, so look out for special offers. Also, most bars run happy hours until 8pm or 9pm, which can half the cost of drinking. Food, too, can be surprisingly costly. Even the Cantonese restaurants can cost considerably more than you'd pay in London or Manchester, though there are bargains around if you're prepared to eat in the back street noodle shops. Shopping is massively overrated in Hong Kong. If your idea of heaven is the greatest concentration of big-name designer boutiques you've even seen, or you long to browse through tourist tat and cheap nylon clothes in overhyped street markets, than you'll be laughing. But if you desire something in between these two extremes you're going to be disappointed. And the prices aren't any better in the majority of places than in any western city. On the plus side cost-wise are the taxis - cheap, plentiful and reliable, even if many cab drivers speak remarkably little English considering how long the British have been around here. The public transport system and wonderful old Star Ferries are also extremely effi
cient and cheap. 2. Culture? Hong Kongers have the memories of goldfish. All the fiercely pro-British businessmen pre 1997 are now equally vociferous Beijing supporters post-handover - what matters to them is their business interests, and that's about it. And business rules Hong Kong - money is the only god. If something makes money it's good, if it doesn't it's bad, or, at best, irrelevant. Thus, lovely old colonial buildings will be bulldozed without a second thought to make way for hideous tower blocks - few Hong Kongers think further back than yesterday - today and tomorrow is what matters. So, museums, galleries and the like are really not a priority. For a major city of six million people, the selection of cultural attractions on offer is pretty pitiful - just a handful of less-than-impressive institutions. What IS wonderful about Hong Kong - and it receives shamefully little publicity from the tourist board - is the wild country in and around it. About 40% of the area of Hong Kong is countryside, and remarkably beautiful countryside at that, criss-crossed with a well-organised network of hiking trails, and offering the chance to see spectacular scenery, wildlife and fauna. 3. An international city? Can any place where 98% of the people are from the same ethnic grouping be international? Hong Kong's small international community thinks it's considerably larger and more important than it is. The fact that it keeps itself to itself probably reinforces this idea, but it is in fact remarkably parochial. The western and Chinese cultures may survive alongside each other, but they have remarkably little interaction. Many westerners remain prejudiced against the Chinese and, equally, many Chinese have little regard for westerners. It's a strange relationship that has survived a long time but creates an odd atmosphere in Hong Kong. This is a fascinating place, but don't expect the sanitized tourist br
ochures to represent an accurate portrayal of it - you'll be disappointed.
The £25 million London Aquarium is a sure-fire hit with kids. The three-level displays aim to recreate a wide range of aquatic habitats from around the globe, and show off an impressive range of the world’s marine life (more than 35,000 specimens in total – stroking the semi-tame rays is a highlight). Look out for the 25-metre freshwater stream, the Pacific(this iswhere you’ll find the sharks), Atlantic and Indian Ocean displays, and recreations of a coral reef and a mangrove swamp. A bit pricey, though.
Sainsbury's really seems to have lost the plot in recent years. The quality and range of its food is still pretty good, but it's in other fields where it's being left behind - nowhere more so than in net shopping. The site is badly designed and hard to navigate, it takes an age to download and is prone to crashing. Equally seriously, the delivery system is simply not efficient enough. I actually prefer Sainsbury's food to Tesco's, but when I last tried to secure a delivery slot from Sainsbury's, there wasn't one available for four days - I then went to the Tesco site and managed to get a next day delivery. No contest. I shopped at Tesco. Sainsbury's is losing a lot of loyal customers by its laggardliness. It takes years and years to build up a reputation; but it can be gone in the blink of an eye.
Tesco Direct still seems to be ahead of the pack in terms of online supermarkets - in terms of ease of website navigation and delivery service. Sainsbury's are struggling to keep up - I wanted some shopping the next day, and Sainsbury's couldn't deliver until four days later; Tesco, however, were able to deliver the next day. Fast delivery is absolutely key to people continuing to use a service - I actually prefer Sainsbury's food, but will continue to use Tesco until JS bucks up his delivery speed. Tesco isn't without glitches though. It doesn't seem to be able to cope with goods that come in different weights and prices. For example, parmesan cheese is only listed as £16 a kilo, so you have no idea what size piece you're going to get. Also, goods listed on the website are frequently not in stock at my local store, and I don't know which ones until the delivery arrives, making it very difficult to plan a meal if you're not sure your're going to get all the ingredients. Another disadvantage of net shopping over doing it in person is that you miss all the special offers. Still, for all that, Tesco is trying hard, and will no doubt aim to iron out these creases in the future.
I am in no way an apologist for the rail industry, but a lot of this alarmist talk about how unsafe the railways are is seriously warping the debate. Of course, Railtrack should do everything in its power to make train travel as safe as it can possibly be, but the fact remains that travelling by train is still by far the safest means of getting around. Thousands of people are killed every year on Britain's roads, yet it is precisely because there are so few fatalities on the railways that those that do occur attract so much attention. Again, this is not to say that even one death is acceptable, and my profoundest sympathies go to those bereathed by the Paddington crash, but it is impossible to make any form of transport 100% safe. I travel to work by train every day, and feel far, far safer doing so than risking travel on the roads.
Londonspy.com is a great independent London links website, providing direct links to a huge range of quality sites on all aspects of London. Navigation is simple and intuitive: the home page leads to six scrollable pages on accommodation, eating, drinking and shopping, museums and sights, entertainment, general information and London community. Each page is then further split into subcategories. For each link, there is a brief but useful editorial description. They boast that you only need two clicks to get direct to the site you are looking for and it's true. If, for instance, you are looking for the Tate Gallery, you click on 'Museums, galleries & sights', then scroll down to the Tate, click, and you're through to the Tate's site. Add to this an extensive online bookshop (linked to Amazon) on titles related to the capital, and some excellent themed London walks that you can print out and do, and you have the best London links site on the web. Try it!
Internet magazines face a problem - they have, broadly speaking, two audiences. One is the techie/would-be-techie site builder, the other is the surfer. These aren't, of course, mutually exclusive categories, but often the casual surfer will be turned off by endless in-depth technical articles on HTML, while the person who wants to increase their design and site construction expertise won't be bothered with basic how-to-get-on-the-web type features. This is where .net comes in. No other mag manages to reconcile these two types of reader so well. Of course the advanced programmer probably won't find enough here to be of interest, just as the complete novice will probably need something more basic, but there's a huge middle ground between these two extremes, and .net has made it their own. Add to this a readably witty prose style, and plenty of humour (but not of the puerile variety) and you have the best net mag on the market.
So Ron is gone... The only questions is, what took him so long? It was always clear what a self-centred bully he was, which raises the question of 1) Why he wanted to go on the island in the first place, and 2) Why he was chosen to go to Taransay. The first question might always remain a mystery, since he clearly never had any desire to live in a community, adapt, tolerate or do anything that he didn't want to do (his comment about why he wouldn't help with planting potatoes says it all - 'why bother with all that work when you can buy a bag from Sainsbury's?'). The answer to the second question may well be far more sinister. It was clear from the very beginning during the selection process that Ron was not going to be willing to put himself out in any way, or do anything which he personally didn't fancy doing. So why on earth was he chosen if not in the hope that his attitude would inject some of the much needed tension that all TV docusoaps thrive on? Wouldn't it have been boring if everyone had liked each other and got on swimmingly. Call me cynical, but I really can't see any other reason why that man was there...
And so Craig wins, and the nation goes crazy. It was a victory for Middle England over Metropolitan England (& Ireland); for conservatism over liberality; for cheeky chappyness over kooky quirkiness; for a transparently simple character over an intriguingly opaque one. You know who you’d rather have round to dinner, but who would you want with you in the trenches? And who could resent Craig’s victory after witnessing the genuinely affecting moment when he hugged the girl to whom he’s donating the prize money. A real choker. Perhaps the best man won after all.
Hurrah for M&S's new ad campaign! After a long, complacent slide into the doldrums in recent years, everyone's favourite undies store has finally got its act together again. Depicting a naked frolicking size 16 woman, revelling in the fact that she is utterly normal, and that the anorexic stick insects that pass as fashion role models are the freaks, is a major step in the right direction for fashion advertising. A far greater range of sizes are promised, and that can only be majorly good news for the millions (no exaggeration) of British women who have been brainwashed into thinking that anything over size 10 = whale.
OK, OK, OK! What a vehement selection of comments the Star has provoked! There's plenty of truth in all of them, of course - it is a pathetic, insipid, irrelevant piece of toilet paper. At least in its early days it made an attempt at humour (Hitler and Elvis Found on Dark Side of Moon, that sort of thing), though those halycon days are long gone (heavy irony). But what amazes me is that anyone can get up the energy to rant about it. It's been around ages, it's been dire for ages, and there will always be morons who'll want to 'read' this sort of drivel with never a hope in hell of grasping the meaning of the word 'condescension'. Depressing but true.
Londoners are tube obsessed. Nothing sells a house more than proximity to a tube station. Having no tube nearby is (to many people) like being, literally, off the (tube) map. Yet, with the exception of driving, there can be no more frustrating way of getting around London. Overcrowded, unreliable, uncomfortable, expensive - and you don't get much of a view, do you? I've taken the tube to work for many years, but am now living in South London, where the underground network still fears to tread. I get an overground train, then a bus to work, and arrive so much more relaxed and ready to face the day than when I travelled in by subterranean sardine can. I always get a seat (although I am aware that not every train traveller is so lucky), read a book or gaze out of the window. You might not be able to predict exactly the moment you'll walk through the office door (could you if you travel by tube?), but leave enough time so it doesn't matter if the journey takes a little longer. Life's way too short to start the day stressed. Slow down. Look at the sky. Smell the roses.
I'm just getting into this well organised online gaming site. Most games are trad (chess, draughts/checkers, etc) and have well-established and well-run little communities. I'm a backgammon player, so have explored that part of the site to the fullest. On registering (a very simple process), you're assigned a nominal rating, which then goes up or down depending on whether you win or lose, and the grade of the person you've just played - eg you get more points for beating someone with a higher grade than you than a lower one. The community's organised into a number of colour-coded levels (within which there are three or so 'rooms' which can take up to 100 players at a time). You can go into any room you like, but you'll probably find that players with a much higher rating than you refuse to play you (the consequences of a loss to you being too great), so you're better off sticking with players of your own level. It's a popular site, so you'll never be without people to play. And there's a chat facility too - some players use it a lot, some not at all. All in all, an excellent, fun site, though it can run slowly at times.
One of London’s ever-growing band of chic (and pricey) boutique hotels, One Aldwych opened in 1998 in a prime spot close to Covent Garden. The décor is expansive and sleekly modern, but what distinguishes the hotel from its competitors are the 350 contemporary paintings and sculptures which are scattered throughout the building. There’s also a health club and pool, and two excellent restaurants: Axis and Indigo. One Aldwych is an effortlessly stylish place to stay for those who want a little more dash for their cash.
Irish budget airline Ryanair is probably the least frill-bedecked of all the low-price airlines. Like Go and EasyJet, no tickets are issued (you simply quote a booking number at the check-in desk), but, unlike these two, seats aren't allocated. This means that there is usually something of an undignified scramble at the gate to be first on to the plane and bagsy your preferred seat. That aside, though, there really is nothing to complain about, and some of the fares are astonishly low (I've seen a £35 return fare to Verona). Because Ryanair uses fairly small planes, it can make use of smaller regional airports, and offers an excellent range of destinations. A hitch is that these airports are often a fair distance from the destination they are supposedly serving. I've just returned from Venice (£105 return), but the tiny airport used was actually in Treviso, a good hour's bus journey from La Serenissima. But there is a reliable (and cheap) connecting bus, and small airports mean minimal delays in boarding and disembarking. Overall, an excellent service.