Monthly Archives: March 2017

Why did I bring my friend to Club Chinois in Mayfair, London

Glitzy, spritzy, sexy and highly entertaining are the words that spring to mind when I think back to my evening at Club Chinois last week.

Located on the lower level beneath the already well-established Park Chinois jazz dinner and dance restaurant on Berkeley Street, it’s an altogether different style of evening out.

The simple brown doors are held open by a curiously dressed door man and give no hint to the immediate change of scene once you enter.

Lots of deep red, plush fabrics, smiling faces, a world apart and reminiscent of a bygone age once lived during the 30’s in Shanghai. We followed the red carpet downstairs to Club Chinois where the shimmering space stretches out to the dimly lit yet dazzling dining area.

Club Chinois is the latest creation by Alan Yau, the gourmet maestro who produced diverse and highly successful establishments such as the Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha, Soho’s Duck and Rice and, yes, Wagamama. Yau’s vision for Club Chinois is to get away from the jarring atmosphere of modern club culture. It certainly does that.

Once seated on a purple velvet banquettes aside a gold mirrored table, it wasn’t long before a lady wearing a trench coat and a pink bob hair-do indicated to say nothing. Then she whispered “have you brought the money”.

Beside her was an opium smoking vixen who passed by every so often, as did a pair of usherettes selling who-knows-what. All were smiling knowingly. It was ridiculous but so funny. And unexpected.

I double-checked and no this wasn’t a Mayfair speak easy – we were blending into the entertainment. Huge columns of gold leaves reached from wood floors to carved wood ceilings, while subdued lighting and well-mixed DJ music in between acts, all worked to create a highly ambient boudoir-style décor feel.

Food is delicious and as appetising as its heritage would suggest. The style was a blend of Chinese and French dishes that were ideal for sharing. It was a tad dark, so I had to get my iphone torch out to get a better look at the menu. I felt less embarrassed when I saw others doing the same.

Throughout the evening a tapas of entertainment come and went, sometimes a singer – a Sam Cooke sound-alike, or a sexy lady who comes out of a suitcase with an array of magic tricks and even a suggestive flamenco dancer.

It seems anything goes, entertainment-wise. But a word to the wise: it becomes more raunchy as the night wears on. If your date is faint of heart, choose an early evening dinner booking and move on.

But my date was enthralled. So after dinner, we gave up our table and we stayed on milling by the gilded bar for a long, heady night drinking cocktails (from £15 each). Mine was a Mochito and Manhattan served by suave men in white tuxedos. His, a tomato juice – he was driving.

From this vantage we continued to watch the show and chatted happily to others who, like us, had also slipped into a sort of nirvana.

Verdict: We spent almost four indulgent hours at Club Chinois and every moment bubbled with surprise and entertainment. It was time well spent among an affluent, young(ish) crowd who had unravelled into smiling friendliness. As for the date, a week later he is still talking about it.

Surfing in the Philippines

Siargao: one of the top 10 surf sites in the world

In everyday parlance, “on Cloud 9” means feeling elated, on top of the world, but for surfers it’s more than this. Cloud 9 is the name of the most famous wave in the Philippines, and Siargao Island is regularly rated as one of the top 10 surf sites in the world. That alone was enough to make me book the succession of flights — two days in total of travelling — which would ultimately bring me to Siargao.

There are, as yet, no direct flights to Siargao from Manila, but that’s part of what has kept Siargao and its coastlines pristine. And it means that this tropical island with its warm climate remains a paradise ringed by coral reefs and sand bars and which makes it the ideal place to dive and surf.

Dive and surf in Siargao

The sea is omnipresent, wherever you go on Siargao. When you lie in bed, you hear the waves breaking on the shore. When you walk out, it is always in view. And when you want to hop from one picture-perfect island to the next, the only way to do so is by boat.

But back to Cloud 9, the raison d’être for my trip. Its thick, hollow tubes make it ideal for surfing, especially from November to April when the waves have plenty of swell. These extra inches of water lift surfers comfortably above the reef, which otherwise lurks perilously close to the surface of the water.

I sailed out to Cloud 9 from Siargao Bleu with a handful of other surfers, our boards, and a clutch of hangers-on who would sit on the beach and watch. The boat was wooden, styled like a traditional fishing boat, but with a roaring motor onboard. We dashed across the tops of the waves, bouncing up in the air when we hit one straight on, then crashing back down with a thunk. It was scarcely past breakfast, but still a few beers were being passed hand to hand. The anticipation was building.

Turning into the bay, half a dozen surfers were already riding Cloud 9. They must have headed out at daybreak to get the waves to themselves. The boat had a shallow enough draft to pull close to the beach, so we kicked off our sandals and and paddled the last few metres. The water at most was knee-deep.

Walking along the monsoon-battered pier takes you past most of the coral and to within 200m of the peak. The air temperature was already warming up, and though the water was still cool, dropping into it hardly made us flinch. Unlike at the bitterly cold surf spots of northern Europe, here there wasn’t a wet suit in sight.

It was time to ride Cloud 9, and I faced it with slight trepidation. It’s not a ride for beginners (there are plenty of easier waves nearby), as you have to be confident and nimble on the surf board. Professional surfers compete on Cloud 9 during the annual Siargao Cup, an international surfing competition, and they make it look effortless. I can assure you: it’s not!

But there’s something about riding this wave which makes it top all others. The speed and height of Cloud 9 definitely provide an adrenalin kick, but its joy is also in the wider context. It’s in the warmth of the sun on your face or your back, the clarity of the water, and the fact that when you fix your gaze ahead, it falls on a tropical idyll.

Surfing is hungry work, and by mid afternoon I was worn out and starving. I staggered back up the beach to meet our boatman. Whilst I’d been surfing, he’d cooked up a veritable feast. Freshly grilled tuna, caught just hours before, is the sort of ingredient which culinary heaven must be made from. Accompanied by steamed rice and huge slices of pink-red watermelon, it was Philippine cuisine at its freshest and finest.

Almost too full to move, let alone get back on a surfboard, we made our way back to the boat. Unlike the morning when we were in a rush to reach Cloud 9, now there was no such hurry. The boatman sensed this, and we motored back at to Siargao Bleu at a considerably more leisurely pace.

Approaching the resort, the boatman cut the engine and the boat began to drift. The broken water settled, and looking over the side we could see probably to a depth of 15 metres and quite possibly more.

Tropical fish, stingless jellyfish, and sea snakes swum about, completely unperturbed by our presence. Encouraged, we grabbed snorkels and masks, and slid ourselves overboard. The water was so clear we could see every detail of the creatures around us, admiring their colours, form, and agility. It felt like an aquarium, only this time we were inside the tank and could reach out and touch the fish.

Tourism development is a balancing act. If you don’t create enough infrastructure, enough opportunities for things to do, then people won’t want to come. On the other hand, if you build too much, and visitors come by the thousand, you can damage the environment, spoiling the places and experiences which made it a desirable destination in the first place. Thus far, Siargao has got the balance right. Of course there are bigger, brighter, and more luxurious resorts in the Philippines. But what they gain in facilities, they lose in atmosphere and quality of experience. The purpose of a tropical island retreat is to get away from other people, to appreciate the beauty of the sea and the sand, and to feel at peace. When you swim or surf, you don’t want to be competing for space. Thankfully, in Siargao you won’t have to.

5 street food in North India you should try

For many first-time travellers to India one of the greatest pleasures is discovering its amazing street food. Surprisingly, there’s infinitely more to subcontinental cuisine than the rather bland offerings of tikka masala and chicken korma.

Street food, whether sweet or savoury, fiery or mild, is eaten by all and it’s not unknown for there to be lively debate amongst friends and family about which is the best. As well as giving your stomach a treat, trying street food helps support hard-working vendors, many of whom have been plying their trade with great skill for many years. So here’s our guide to the best street food of northern India – try each one with a steaming cup of the nation’s rocket-fuel, masala chai.

1.Pav Bhaji – soul food

This food for the soul originates from the western state of Maharashtra. Pav bhaji really comes into its own further north in winter however: in a place like Maharashtra, where temperatures rarely drop into single digits in December and January, winter isn’t really a thing! Toasted white rolls (the pav) are dunked into a smooth blend of mashed potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green peas, and peppers (the bhaji) – with lashings of butter having been mixed into the bhaji before serving. Hearty and – possibly – healthier than your average street-fare, pav bhaji is pukka (first-class) grub!

 

2.Panipuri

Panipuri, also known as golgappa, is probably one of the region’s most common street foods. In fact you can find varieties of this ubiquitous treat across India, and its exact origins are hotly contested. If you already know some Hindi you may recognise the words pani and puri, meaning water and bread respectively.

Don’t be put off; this isn’t as dull as it sounds. To make it, hollow puff-pastry balls are fried and then filled with a green-coloured spiced and peppery water, potatoes and chickpeas. It may look unusual and slightly messy to eat, but it’s very refreshing on a hot day.

 

3.Gajar ka Halwa – food gets you hooked

Grated carrots might not immediately sound like the most promising of starters for a sweet dish, but we promise one bite of this Mughal-era treat will have you hooked, even if eating mounds of it probably won’t improve your eyesight! Throw in some dates, almonds, raisins and sugar, pour in milk and gently simmer until it’s all absorbed, and you have the makings of an excellent pick-me-up if all that exploring has tired you out.

 

4.Fried Duck

If you’re travelling to the north-eastern state of Assam, then kudos to you fellow explorer! With such a keen sense of adventure and independence, you probably don’t need much advice on what to eat. But just in case, we recommend sampling some fried duck at a road-side stall. The people of Assam are confirmed carnivores, so you’re sure to have an authentic five-star experience without the eye-watering bill at the end.

 

5.Jalebis – food worthy of a wedding

As distinctive a feature of the streets of north India as rickshaws, stray cows and chai stalls, these golden, glistening pieces of deep-fried syrupy goodness are the stuff of dreams for those with a sweet tooth.

Jalebis were brought from the Middle East and adapted over time –with spectacular results. They are a firm favourite at weddings and festivals, although we suggest not indulging in more than one or two if you plan on doing anything else for the rest of the day.

Follow Jane Austen’s struggle across the whole of England

It’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and Britain is celebrating. Even the Bank of England has produced a new £10 note which features a portrait of this most prolific writer.

After all who has not heard of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility”. two of her all time greats that have inspired generations of readers and indeed TV viewers.

We suggest ways to follow in this great author’s footsteps.

Jane Austen and Hampshire

Jane was born in Steventon in Hampshire. She is also buried in the county’s Winchester Cathedral. She did most of her writing in Hampshire and even penned her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, here. So, it makes sense that this county is the focal point for the Jane Austen 200 commemorations.

Start your trip at Jane Austen’s House Museum (her former home) and Chawton House Library in the village of Chawton, which is hosting changing exhibitions, talks, activities and other special celebrations up until December.

In the meantime, Winchester Cathedral is running “Tours and Tea” every month until November exploring Jane’s life and in Basingstoke.

Follow in Jane’s footsteps in Bath

The South West Spa city of Bath is a great place to get to know Jane Austen, where she lived between 1801 and 1806. The city’s perfectly preserved Georgian architecture remains unchanged from the streets depicted in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Visitors can step back in time with a free downloadable audio walking tour of the city In the footsteps of Jane Austen, that includes extracts from her novels and letters, which brilliantly describe Bath as it would have been in its Georgian heyday. Be sure to stop off at the Jane Austen Centre, located in a Georgian town house just a few doors down from where she once lived and home to an exhibition of costumes, manuscripts, and film clips to bring the author’s world to life and explore the city’s influence on her work, as well as the all-important Regency Tea Rooms (£11 per adult and £5.50 per child).

And for true enthusiasts, visit between 8-17 September to join the largest gathering of Jane Austenenthusiasts at the Jane Austen Festival. Previous years have seen fans donning full regency garb at the Grand Regency Costumed Promenade, meeting their very own Mr Darcy at the Country Dance Ball, and dancing their sense and sensibilities away at the Regency Costumed Masked Ball. 2017 will see the 17th edition of the annual festival. Tickets on sale now.

Explore Jane Austin’s seaside sojourns in Lyme Regis

Jane is known to have visited and loved Lyme Regis. In her letters to her sister Cassandra she described walking on the Cobb and tellingly her last novel Persuasion was set in the Dorset seaside town.

It’s easy to explore the area especially with a guided tour with Literary Lyme who offers a several walking tours of Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast that follow in the footsteps of several authors who lived or visited Lyme Regis. In the mix is a visit to the Golden Cap, the highest point in Southern England, which features in a film adaptations of  Persuasion – 90 minute tours cost from £10 per person.

Literary Trails and film buff locations in Berkshire

Jane Austen went to school at Abbey Gateway, Reading between 1785 and 1786. It was the only time in her life she lived away from home.

To get an insight explore the area on a Readipop Reading Literary Trail, a free walking tour developed by a group of young locals, as part of a heritage project called Reading on Tour to uncover Reading’s hidden history.

Film buffs may like to visit the 18th-century Palladian mansion of Basildon Park. It had two roles, one as Mr Bingley’s house, Netherfield and the other it was the dreamy location for Darcy and Elizabeth’s first meeting in the 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew MacFadyen as Mr Darcy.

With both its impressive exterior and many of its indoor spaces featuring in the lavish production, Basildon is instantly recognisable to fans. Entry to Basildon Park costs £14 per adult; £7.50 per child.

Movie tours and your own Regency House party in Kent

The Austen family had many links to Kent and Jane’s father was born, attended school and later taught in Tonbridge where a Jane Austen Walk. The author travelled often within the region stopping off in Dartford and a regular guest at Godmersham Park near Ashford, where her brother Edward lived.

Jane and her family were regulat visitors to Goodnestone Park and gardens. Set amidst 14 acres of 18th century parkland, the house retains a lot of original features from Austen’s time taking guests back to the dinners and dances she would have attended there.

As well as being home to Austen’s heritage, Kent is home to a number of locations for well-known film and TV adaptations of her books.

BBC’s adaptation of “Emma” starring Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller showed off the idyllic village of Chillham, which represented 18th Century Highbury and Squerryes Court in Westerham, which doubled as Emma’s family home.

The Keira Knightley big screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice also found its home in Kent with Groombridge Place in Tunbridge Wells providing the perfect visualisation of the Bennet’s family home. Visitors can take in the gardens and enchanted forest year-round (from £10.95 per adult and £8.95 per child).

Jane Austen by the sea in East Sussex

The seaside town of Brighton makes an appearance in Pride and Prejudice as the place where the flirtatious Lydia Bennett flees with her roguish lover, George Wickham.

The author’s relationship with coastal resorts is explored in an exhibition “Jane Austen by the Sea” at The Royal Pavilion (until 8 January 2018) looking at life in Brighton during her time, to mark the bicentenary of her death.

It paints a picture of the fashionable watering hole in the early 1800s, when it was a thriving garrison town featured in Austen’s novels alongside other towns all along the south coast.

Curator Dr Alexandra Loske has gathered items including highlights such as King George IV’s personal, specially-bound copy of Emma at the Royal Pavilion for the first time, a mourning brooch containing a lock of Jane Austen’s hair, one of her music books, and important rare manuscripts and letters including unfinished novel, Sanditon, set in a seaside town in Sussex.

These sit alongside prints, paintings and caricatures of the resorts and fashions popular with coastal visitors in Austen’s lifetime, and original Regency costumes from Brighton & Hove’s own collection.

Jane Austen on the big and small screen in Derbyshire and the Peak District

Quoted by Austen herself as there being ‘no finer county in England than Derbyshire’, it is fitting that the region has featured widely in Jane Austen adaptations.

Perhaps one of the most famous is Lyme Park, which included Colin Firth’s famous lake ‘Mr Darcy’ lake scene in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the big screen, Chatsworth House was used as the location for Pemberley, the residence of Mr. Darcy in the filming of Pride and Prejudice in the 2005 Keira Knightley film adaptation of the book. It is believed that Jane Austen based her idea of Pemberley on Chatsworth House, as she wrote her novel while in nearby Bakewell (of cherry and almond tarts fame), which is considered to be the inspiration behind Lambton.

It is also believed that Jane Austen once stayed in local hotel The Rutland Arms whilst visiting the area and revising the final chapters of Pride and Prejudice. True fans can opt to stay in the Jane Austen Four Poster Room (from £157 per weekday night, or £195 on the weekend, including breakfast) and guests staying for three nights or more can receive free tickets to Haddon Hall, another location used in the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
www.visitpeakdistrict.co.uk

Take a Pride and Prejudice tour through Wiltshire

The Keira Knightley film production of Pride and Prejudice features the 18th-century landscaped garden, Stourhead, and one of its enchanting temples.

The Temple of Apollo, set above the tranquil lake, was used as the location for Mr Darcy’s first and futile proposal to Lizzie. Lacock, a wonderfully preserved village dating from the 13th century, played the village of Meryton in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.

It was here that the Bennet girls, in particular Lydia and Kitty ‘whose minds were more vacant than their sisters’, shopped for bonnets, sought the latest tittle-tattle from their Aunt Philips, and hoped to attract the attentions of the officers – in particular a certain Mr Wickham.

The six-part BBC adaptation of the novel also used Luckington Court in Wiltshire, which now offers dedicated tours to show fans filming locations around the house.