Saturday, 13 January 2018

Summer in Scotland: The Isle of Islay

Portnahaven on Islay
Islay has to be the most famous whisky producing venue in the world. The more attentive readers among you will notice a complete absence of whisky in this post, but never fear I have a dedicated Islay whisky blog coming up!

On our first day on Islay we headed down the western side of the island. Our first stop was at Port Charlotte where we visited the Islay National History Centre and the Museum of Islay life, both of which were charmingly stuck in a bit of a time warp but interesting to look round none the less.
Machir Bay
After Port Charlotte we headed to Portnahaven (top photo) at the tip of the western peninsula which is a quaint, and exceedingly quiet, little fishing village. On the way home we stopped for a walk on the almost endless beach at Machir Bay.
Langoustine at The Lochside in Bowmore
Our best meal of the holiday was at The Lochside Hotel in Bowmore. From the outside it looks like a slightly rough pub, but looks (or my prejudice) is utterly deceptive as inside is a modern bar and a large dining room looking out to sea. I ordered an enormous place of sweet langoustine that I enjoyed devouring and Becks had some equally excellent scallops. We were lucky to get in without a booking, so make sure you reserve a table if you are in Bowmore.
Highland cow on The Oa
While on the island we also did a walk round The Oa peninsula which is a huge RSPB nature reserve. The reserve is home to the American Monument which commemorates two troop ships that were sunk in 1918 during WWI. Unsurprisingly we saw quite a few American tourists making a respectful visit to the memorial.

During our walk I took the above picture of a highland cow which made it to the final of the photography exhibition held by the Islay Book Festival!
American memorial on The Oa
Becks at the lighthouse near Port Ellen
In the afternoon of our walk round The Oa, we also walked around the headland from Port Ellen to beach known as the 'Singing Sands' (below). The sun came out while we were at the beach and it looked almost tropical, but looks can be deceptive as the water was absolutely freezing! I lasted a matter of seconds in the sea, but did manage to find a shallow rock pool which had been warmed by the sun and made for a much more pleasant paddle.
Singing sands
On the blog I generally follow the principle that if you can't say something nice, it's better not to say anything at all. However, I'm going to break my own rule to say that I was unimpressed by our stay at The Harbour Inn in Bowmore. The staff were lovely, and the breakfasts were very good, but the rooms were just not up to standard. The impractical layout and the fact they were a bit tatty round the edges were a minor annoyance, but worst by far was the fact the mattress was shockingly worn out and sagging, completely incompatible with a good nights sleep. If you are thinking of staying check they've replaced the mattresses.
Port Ellen beach

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Summer in Scotland: The Isle of Arran

Machrie Moor standing stones
Back in the summer we spent ten days travelling round Scotland, starting off with a couple of nights on the Isle of Arran.

On our only full day in Arran we did a lap of the island in our dinky little hire car. We started off by visiting the standing stones at Machrie Moor, a neolithic site with multiple sets of standing stones within a relatively small area. We had the area almost completely to ourselves and saw lots of pink foxgloves on the walk to and from the stones.
Pink foxgloves
Continuing round the island we saw a new distillery being built (which we learned the following day was owned by the Arran distillery) and then stopped for a walk along the beach in Whiting Bay. We parked opposite the Arran Art Gallery and decided to pop in before we continued our drive round the island. I didn't have much hope for the gallery, but it was actually really good with lots of pictures and prints that we wanted to buy. We ended up buying four pictures that the shipped back to London for us at reasonable rates. I'm pleased to say we still like the pictures several months on!
Arran distillery
On our final morning on Arran we took the tour at the Arran Distillery. Having tasted one of the first bottles that the distillery produced I have to say that I don't hold their whisky in particularly high regard. They seem to be doing really well so you probably should take my opinion with a pinch of salt! Their tour was very interesting and they gave me a dram to take away (which I still haven't tried).
Copper stills inside the distillery
The distillery make a big thing about being independent and making non-peated whiskies, so it gave me a wry smile to learn that the distillery we'd seen under construction was owned by them and was being set up specifically to make peated whisky.

Lochranza Castle
From our short time in Arran, I'd say the food was a bit mixed. We had a nice evening meal at The Stag's Pavillion, but the most pleasing surprise was discovering The Sandwich Station. They make really good sandwiches on locally baked sourdough bread and using interesting local ingredients. I think the sandwich bar would holds its own in any city in the UK and was not the dry white bread and soggy lettuce I was expecting!
Lochranza sandwich station
One of the strangest things about Arran, in a nice way, was the number of red swings that were dotted around the island in completely isolated locations. Why build a swing where there are no nearby houses to make use of them?
There were swings all over Arran
We left Arran on this small ferry heading towards the Isle of Islay.
Leaving Lochranza by ferry

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Antwerp weekender

Crane on the banks of the Scheldt
Back in July we hopped on the Eurostar and headed for Antwerp, a city that is pretty perfect as a weekend break destination. Historic architecture, interesting museums and markets, high walkable, friendly, vibrant regeneration and some decent food were all in evidence.

So what did we get up to?
St Anna's foot tunnel
We started our trip with a wander by the riverside heading through the St Anna tunnel across to the west side of the Scheldt river. I was expecting the foot tunnel to be a bit like the Greenwich foot tunnel, but it is a much, much bigger brother.

We got a free pedestrian and cycle ferry back to the eastern side of the river after a short wander.
A mix of Antwerp building styles
On the second day in the city we walked from our hotel to the excellent Plantin-Moretus Museum. The Plantin and Moretus families were some of the most influential printers in Europe, who had one of (the?) first automated printing pressed in the world four hundred year ago.

The museum is a clever presentation of how their house and offices looked at the time and was very enjoying to look around. All of the daughters in the family were taught to read, uncommon at the time, so that they could help proof read in the business!
Plantin-Moretus Museum
From the old to the new, in the afternoon we headed to the ultra modern Museum aan de Stroom, slightly to the north of the city in an area of the docks which is now being regenerated. There is a gallery space on nearly every floor and we bought a ticket which allowed us to wind our way up through the building looking at each exhibition. I have to say that some were more interesting than others.

Museum aan de Stroom 
On our third day we started by checking out one of the large weekend markets that was right next to our hotel before strolling Stadspark and the diamond district (very much closed on a Saturday) to the main train station. It truly is a very impressive train shed.

We also spent the day doing quite a lot of meandering round the historic parts of the city, popping into chocolate shops and visited the Sint-Pauluskerk church.
Antwerp City Hall

Having had enough of the old, we walked back up to the docklands area around the Museum aan de Stroom to see some of the new. The regeneration is slowly creeping northwards and we found ourselves at the De Panick bar. Located in an old warehouse it was definitely a hipster bar and the type of place that will probably be flats in ten years time as the, but we enjoyed it!

De Paniek bar
For all the good things about Antwerp, one thing we didn't really work out was the dining scene. The Europeans all eat really late, right? Lots of places seemed to close early and the ones that were open seemed to stop serving relatively early. We never did figure out what the locals did, but we did stumble into De Arme Duivel / The Poor Devil at just the right time one evening to have a lovely café meal.
Steak tartare at The Poor Devil
On our last morning we visited the Rubens House Museum before making a last minute decision to try and fit in the Red Star Line Museum before our train. The Red Star Line museum was a fascinating account of all of the emigrants that passed through Antwerp on their way to the New World. The guidebook was correct that there isn't a lot of English in the museum, but it was still very much worth while a hurried visit.


Buying a Eurostar ticket to Brussels includes a free transfer to Antwerp, but you did have to change trains.

We stayed at the Theatre Hotel which we thought was a pretty good choice as it had a central location, large but dated rooms and a big continental buffet selection.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Freak Scene, Farringdon

Chilli crab with avocado wanton bombs
Back in early September Becks and I had a quick after work dinner at Freak Scene in Farringdon. The restaurant is run by Scott Hallsworth who has some serious pedigree having been head chef at both Nobu in London and Melbourne.

Freak Scene was originally being billed as a pop-up but has since become more permanent (I'm pretty sure). When we went, presumably thinking they were only there for a short time, they'd barely done anything to decorate the interior since the previous tenants of the building had left and the seating was canteen style complete with plastic red plates. This isn't meant criticism, Sydney gave me a love of rough around the edges Asian eateries with tasty food and keen prices. Which is exactly what Freak Scene serves up.

Writing this I'm not quite sure why I haven't been back yet...
Black cod tacos (top right) and Seared beef salad with pomegranate, onion-peanut ponzu and garlic crisps

Miso grilled aubergine with caramelised walnuts

Red duck curry with lychees

Freak Scene
91 Cowcross St

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Afternoon Tea at the Langham Hotel

Palm Court at the Langham Hotel
Last weekend we decided to go for afternoon tea at the Langham Hotel. It is one of the more expensive options in London, but not excessively so and it also gave us the chance to try some of Cherish Finden's baking. Considering how brutal her judging is on Bake Off Creme de la Creme, surely it must be good?

We spend a very pleasant three hours sitting in their afternoon tea room, listening to the piano being played and being well looked after. Pro tip, ask for a cushion to put behind your back as their seats are quite deep.
Selection of sandwiches
Rather than being given a tiered cake stand and letting you get on with it, you are each served a plate of sandwiches, followed by warm scones and then a plate of cakes. We were offered additional sandwiches and scones before our plates were cleared at the end of each 'course', but there was no way we could fit any extras in.

I'm only a very occasional tea drinker, but it appears they take their teas seriously with several exclusive blends. They brew the tea before bringing it to your table, which has the upside that you don't get an over stewed pot, but the downside that your tea can take quite a while to arrive.
Plain and fruit scones
From the sandwiches the classic ‘prawn cocktail’, iceberg, potato bun, tomato powder was my favourite. Becks isn't a big prawn fan so I got to have two.

For me the stand out cake was the Rikakaka - Crunchy sable, tonka and orange cream, fresh cherries (bottom centre in the photo below).
Cake selection

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Our last two days in Japan: Yanaka, a final bit of shopping and possibly our best meal in Japan

Becks outside the Tokyo National Museum
It was our final two days in Japan and we were both suffering from a bit of fatigue and the sad realisation that we weren't going to be heading back to the UK as refreshed as we would have liked. The fatigue spilled over into a general apathy towards taking photographs so there aren't many!

Our first stop was the Tokyo National Museum. I could no longer tell you anything that we saw inside.
A traditional sake house in Ueno
We then drifted over to the suburb of Yanaka where we saw the above traditional sake house and stopped for lunch in the Kayaba Bakery (I think). Refuelled we walked through Yanaka cemetery which was recommended in the guide book although was a little bit underwhelming for these two tourists as we didn't understand who any of the famous people buried there were. We did see some of the cemetery cats though.
Tokyo tower from Yanaka cemetary
We came out of the cemetery near the top of Yuyake Dandan, which is a pedestrianised stepped street which has beautiful sunset views and lots of gift shops and eateries. It is was mainly full of Japanese tourists with a fair smattering of internationals like us. We picked up a few ceramic gifts in one of the shops and generally enjoyed looking around. Things that are overtly touristy usually put me off but I liked Yuyake Dandan.
Pear caramal flan cronut from the Dominique Ansel bakery
On our final full day in Japan we caught the train over to Shibuya and started with a look round the Hikarie 8 building which is connected to station and contains a few small galleries, exhibitions and arty shops. None of the galleries were very big but we did see a few cool pieces. Nothing had a price on and was too scared to ask home much anything was!

After our short spot of culture we headed over to the Dominique Ansel Bakery to try a world famous cronut. I was very grateful to discover that the bakery itself was nothing like the stories I've heard about the version in NY with huge queues and everything sold out by early in the day. When we arrived the bakery was reasonably full but we were served almost immediately and able to get a seat relatively easily.

The cronut of the month was 'pear caramel flan with cinnamon sugar'. All I can remember was the overwhelming sweetness and it really wasn't that pleasant. Much nicer was the pistachio and raspberry dream that we also bought and looked as pretty as a picture.
Pistachio and raspberry dream
After the bakery we walked a different way back to Shibuya along a street that I'm pretty sure I also walked down on my only other visit to Japan, a work trip back in 2007. In Shibuya we did a bit of shopping, picking up some mementos for ourselves from the homeware chains Tokyo Hands and Loft.

For our final meal of the holiday we decided that we'd just go somewhere local to our apartment in Gotanda. We did our usual indecisive meander, ruling out lots of places, but failing to make a positive decision until we inexplicably decided to head into a small place that we couldn't see inside and only had a Japanese menu outside.
Our final meal, somewhere in the Gotanda back streets
It was the first place that restaurant of the whole trip where there wasn't either an English or picture menu. Our waitress spoke as little English as we did Japanese, and I was getting very negative vibes from the other side of the table. Thankfully, another waiter came over with his phone and used Google Translate to help describe a few words from the menu and help us order a little less randomly. It turned out to be one of our best meals in Japan and the first dish to arrive, whitebait just like they have in NZ, got me out of trouble with the person opposite.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Tokyo: Odaiba Island

Random Transformer on Odaiba
The previous day (unblogged) we'd travelled up from Kyoto to Tokyo on the bullet train and checked into our Air BnB apartment in Shibuya. The only tourist thing we'd done of note was to visit the Tokyo local government offices which has a free observation floor at the top of their building.

As much as we were loving Japan, we were both beginning to feel a bit oppressed by the large cities that we'd been living in for the last ten days. Heading out into the countryside felt like a bit of a slog, so we decided instead to head for the man made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay in search of some greenery. It would be completely over selling it to say that we found the lungs of Tokyo, but there was enough open space and leisure activities to keep us interested.
Becks checking out a Toyota GT86
We took the monorail (?) out to the island and started by aimlessly drifting round the green edge of the island. I vaguely suggested popping into a couple of places, but Becks was quite firm that she wanted to spend some time outside. I was therefore shocked, and absolutely delighted, when Becks suggested going into a building that contained a huge Toyota showroom.

The showroom had every production car they make in Japan, some of their vehicles from the American market, a mobility section, some race cars and also future concepts type area. I've always fancied a GT86 so made a beeline for those first. Sadly it was a bit uncomfortable to sit in. It's a bit annoying when boring practicalities get in the way of your dreams.
Trying out an oculus rift
Next up was the future zone where I had a go in a safety simulator wearing a virtually reality headset. The virtually world I entered wasn't that cool, but I'd never tried an Oculus Rift headset before so that was a definite win. In the future zone I really wanted a go in one of their one person electric concept vehicles but there was a very prominent sign up saying that you had to be able to understand safety messages in Japanese so I wasn't allowed to give them a try.
Inside Bills Odaiba
As well as wanting to escape the big city for the day I had a hankering for the familiar so was looking forward to lunch at Bills, one of my favourite cafés from Sydney. It didn't have exactly the same vibe as Sydney, but the interior of the café was definitely more Australian than Japanese.
The Aussie breakfast
The menu was broadly familiar to anyone who has been to one of the Sydney restaurants. I had the 'Aussie breakfast' which isn't on the menu back home, but their famous scrambled eggs definitely are. Rebecca had the ricotta hotcakes which definitely are one of signature dishes.
Ricotta hotcakes
After lunch we headed to the western side of the island to promenade up and down and to enjoy being beside the water. The pavement was absolutely packed with people who were glued their phones playing Pokemon. It was near the peak of the global craze, but I was still shocked at how many people there were playing.
Volleyball competition on the beach
I'm not quite sure what put the idea in our heads, but rather than catching the light rail back into the city we decided to walk over the Rainbow Bridge back into the city as the sun was setting. It was worth it for the sunset views of Tokyo Bay though.
Walking back over the rainbow bridge

Fuji TV building as the sun began to set
Before heading back to our apartment for the night we decided to swing by Akihabara. This was one of the first suburbs I visited on my previous visit to Japan with work some ten years ago and I remember it being a really intriguing place. Maybe we didn't quite chance upon the right streets this time, perhaps it was because we arrived late in the day and some places we already closing down, but I wasn't particularly impressed by Aki this time round.