Hotel review: The Coniston Hotel and Spa, Skipton

For years I’ve planned to recreate my version of The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s mix of sitcom, travelogue and food porn.

The idea is simple: me and Ian, one of my oldest friends, in a Land Rover; fine dining in the north of England, and talking a lot of nonsense; something we hadn’t done enough of in recent years, living on either side of the Pennines.

So finally, on this crisp winter Sunday, that plan is a reality, though I didn’t expect we’d be in said car at a 30-degree angle, seemingly on the verge of toppling over.

For the first few minutes of our off-roading experience, care of The Coniston Hotel and Spa in Skipton, I fear I’m in over my head as I get to grips with the new world of ’diff lock’ and unlearning 30 years of safe driving habits.

No matter how many eps of Top Gear or The Grand Tour I’d watched, nothing prepares me for being in the driving seat, trying to ignore everything common sense tells me.

Thankfully our instructor, more witty Yoda than Jeremy Clarkson, could not be more helpful, and what he doesn’t know about the Land Rover Defender is not worth knowing.

Ian takes over for the second phase of riding up insane gradients and through seemingly perilous brooks.

As I finish the final leg, everything clicks into place as I realise we’re not driving a normal car but a miracle of engineering. If it was suddenly capable of vertical take off, I wouldn’t be surprised.

That word ’experience’ is over-used and often unworthy in a lot of generic attractions, but this is the real deal. It’s 60 unforgettable minutes.

I think my few hours on site can’t get any better than that.

Thankfully I’m wrong.

But let’s rewind a little.

The trip to Skipton begins with Sunday brunch (a terrific sausage and bacon sandwich with a cuppa) and a chance to soak up the main dining room and that superlative-defying view.

With a roaring fire and a contended dog lolling at the feet of their happy owners, the place instantly puts me at my ease.

We enjoy a tour of the clay pigeon shooting range, and its clubhouse – a stunning Canadian log cabin-style affair which is heaving with punters either relaxing with snacks and beverages, or perusing the guns and merchandise. The whip-crack of gun shots reverberating at the clay shooting ranges is a weird, hypnotic soundtrack to the experience.

This section, like the whole operation, runs like a Swiss watch. Everywhere we go, the staff are amiable, hugely helpful and the facilities are all high end, like they were fitted that morning.

I’m not surprised companies come here for meetings and team-building exercises. All they need to do is study the organisation itself: a model of efficiency.

Later we tour the estate and realise how enormous it is, with standalone residences for those who prefer more seclusion but still want to make use of the facilities.

There’s a wealth of possibilities, from wedding receptions to archery, equestrian or just relaxing in the spa.

And we find out about the latter during a perfectly timed visit before sunset: another jewel in the estate’s crown.

Again the whole thing looks like it was fitted hours ago, with saunas, swimming pool, hot tubs, and an infinity pool looking out over a stunning vista. It’s years since I’ve experienced anything so tranquil.

I enjoy a massage that unknots assorted wound up muscles. Again expertly done, and by the time I emerge from the zen-filled state of dimmed lighting, and transcendent music (as standard), I’m more chilled out than Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski after he gets his rug back.

My room is equally spot on. Spacious and with everything you’d expect from a luxury hotel: comfortable bed; amazing balcony overlooking a breathtaking lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance; tea-making facilities (essential); mini fridge, and a bathroom to die for: heated towel rail, impressive bath and a waterfall shower.

Top tip: set the lever position at 7.05 to get a perfect temperature, unless you like recreating Bill Murray’s icy bathroom scenes from Groundhog Day.

We savour a delicious afternoon tea, with meaty spring rolls, assorted sandwiches and scones, cakes and Eton Mess.

Okay, we might not be your typical afternoon tea types; middle aged blokes savouring nibbles on tiered crockery is no doubt a comedic sight, but I’m always one for bucking stereotypes, and after all, this is not a typical weekend break.

Dinner at the Macleod dining room has a lot to live up to, and as with all hotels featuring stunning food, I expect the ball to be dropped at some point. I think no hostelry, no matter how good, can sustain a level of excellence for the length of my stay.

Again I’m happily proved wrong, as we enjoy a mouthwatering dining experience.

My slow cooked belly pork starter with apple, tonka bean and crackling (£8.50) is a dream, and the fillet of beef at £28.50 is also worth every penny. I treasure each mouthful like it’s my last meal. With Pomme Anna, mushroom purée, spinach, crispy shallots and bone marrow bon bon, it’s exactly the sort of thing Coogan and Brydon would approve of inbetween assorted impersonations.

I do know it’s left a great impression on my taste buds. Everything is beautifully cooked, and mid-meal we order a side of baby carrots, which arrive in next to no time – the perfect addition.

My dessert, A Taste of Mocha at £8.50, is also a delight. A white chocolate and Baileys milkshake, coffee mousse, espresso cookie and churro is an almost a perfect way to round off an outstanding meal. Then the white port dessert wine arrives, and it’s the final piece of the culinary puzzle.

The mix of spa, massage, food, fresh air and pottering around the grounds ensures I’m out like a light.

After a good night’s sleep and that amazing shower, it’s time for more food. Well, you have to keep your strength up for this sort of thing.

Breakfast at £14.50 is a mix mix of fruit juice, cereals and then a full Yorkshire: sausage, black pudding, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, mushroom, potatoes. All cooked to perfection; that fried bread is especially outstanding.

And this is where you came in.

The 4×4 off-roading experience, as you may have guessed, is phenomenal. And at the risk of sounding like Mr Creosote, it’s time to sample more of that amazing menu at lunchtime.

Over a pot of tea, we enjoy a sharing board of Field Food: sticky sausages with mustard and honey; warm breads, balsamic syrup; devilled whitebait with Tabasco mayonnaise… I could go on but I’m starting to drool again. At £21.95, it’s a perfect tapas-style selection for those who don’t want a full meal.

As Ian (reluctantly) goes back to work, I head to the falconry area, a short drive from the hotel.

Like the 4×4 experience, it’s one of the many attractions I’ve been looking forward to for weeks, and the sight of assorted owls and an eagle soaring over fields to land on my talon-proof glove and wolf their dinner is one of ’those’ moments.

If the 4×4 was the pure adrenaline of a great action movie, this is the ET-style sucker punch at the end of the film that leaves me (almost) speechless.

I think half an hour or 45 minutes will be enough for the experience. Sadly it flies faster than the Bengal eagle owl, just one of the stunning birds who scoffs his dinner from my hand and steals my heart in the process.

I’ve been at one of the UK’s finest resorts and spas for a little over 27 hours and packed so much in to my stay, it feels like days.

I wish I had longer.

Incredible facilities, stunning food, great staff and genuine life-affirming experiences that will live with me for years.

At the risk of sounding like a corny greetings card, I’ll leave you with this rather apt phrase.

’Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away’.

Consider me breathless.

:: With thanks to Eric the owl, and everyone at Coniston Hotel and Spa.

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Restaurant review The Cockpit Cafe, Beverley

Restaurant review

The Cockpit Cafe, Beverley

In a world where generic chains offer overpriced coffee and food, I’ll always gravitate to a themed cafe if done well. The food doesn’t just have to be great, but the place also has to have the courage of its own convictions.

Thankfully The Cockpit Cafe in Beverley has a great USP – a glorious splash of fun on a winter’s day. It indulges my passion for vintage aviation, and then some.

I’ve been looking forward to this visit since it opened in early December 2017. Now, in one of the most depressing weeks of the year, it’s just the helping of escapism my partner and I need.

Thankfully the drive from Howden to Beverley is a joy on a freezing Saturday morning; parking a few minutes’ walk from the venue is easy and relatively cheap, and the place itself is easy to find.

I love the exterior with its gorgeous graphics and welcoming facade. The interior is equally terrific with vintage suitcases for tables and elegant booths at the rear of the cafe.

It’s a pleasure to meet former air hostess-turned entrepreneur Lucie Mountain. The brains behind the operation, she drew inspiration from the 1950s, and with a passion for travel, that winning mix of great food, drink and ambience has customers packing out the venue for our 90-minute stay.

Serving food and drink from all over the world, it’s a treat to see a simple but effective menu which offers some of my favourite dishes and drinks.

And with waitresses naturally in airline attire, it’s that essential touch which helps keep the aeronautical fantasy aloft.

The day is so icy when we arrive, it demands something to warm the cockles. I go for hot Kentish Pip Firespice Ginger Cider, while Rachel has a Bailey’s Hot Chocolate.

As it always reminds me of honeymoon in New England, I opt for the seafood chowder with garlic toast. At £7.50, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m used to some chowders being a starter, but this is very much a main, filled with delicious fresh ingredients. The toast is deliciously crisp and the flavour avoids being overpowering.

Rachel chooses Baked Frittata (£5.50) – spiced sweet potato, caramelised onion frittata, with yoghurt, honey and poppyseed dressing.

“The flavours are nice and it’s cooked to perfection, but the portion of dressing is too generous,” she remarks. “In that case less would have been definitely more.”

We split a delicious Chocolate Terrine, and I savour a cappuccino, complete with plane (rather than plain) biscuit, which goes down a treat.

I was sold on The Cockpit Cafe from the minute I walked in, probably because it’s just the sort of place Beverley needs. A break from the norm and a reminder of that golden era of world travel.

“I wanted to create something completely unique to other food and drink venues in Yorkshire,” remarks Lucie.

She’s certainly done that, though I’m itching to see a huge 1950s propeller revolving fan-like from the ceiling. I’d also love to see a merch stand with the beautiful coffee cups (I’d have bought one on the day). And the delicious Chocolate Terrine is begging to be renamed “Chocs Away”. But that’s just me. Some touches are perhaps too obvious.

Yorkshire needs more entrepreneurs like Lucie, who’s done a wonderful job of taking a great idea and making it fly.

I can’t wait to return and sample more of the menu, perhaps on an evening when there’s live music.

Well worth a look, and best of all, you won’t need your passport.

Restaurant review – Oxo’s on the Mount, The Mount Royale Hotel & Spa, York

Restaurant review – Oxo’s on the Mount, The Mount Royale Hotel & Spa, York

By Roger Crow

Joanne Froggatt towers over The Mount Royale Hotel & Spa, like another remake of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Sadly one of the best actresses of her generation has not been filming a York-based version of the classic B-movie (and its comedic remake), as much as I’d love to see it. Thanks to Photoshopping, she’s one of the key focuses of a glossy magazine review which makes her look gigantic.

Joanne is one of many celebs who have visited over the years, and given the fact it’s a short walk into the heart of town, I’m not surprised it’s a haven for the stars (of all sizes).

Everywhere I look, the reviews for said hotel and restaurant are great. Impressive write-ups win me over so much, I’m considering checking in for the night.

That will wait for another time, because on this winter Sunday, my partner and I are here for lunch.

Getting here by car is relatively easy, and in a city with some car parks charging a fortune, it’s a bonus that there’s on-site parking.

However, as the sat nav takes us round the houses, I have to execute a couple of 90-degree Tron-style turns in quick succession.

It’s quiet when we rock up at 1pm, which seems odd for a Sunday, but we’re clearly early.

Julian, the master of ceremonies, gives us a warm welcome and shows us to our table.

He’s a terrific host who soon puts us at our ease and ensures every element of our two-hour stay is catered for.

Imagine if Alan Titchmarsh had added waiter and Maitre’D to his ever expanding list of skills, and you get the idea.

(I don’t compare many to the mighty Titchmarsh, but Julian has that same mix of charm, warmth and wit which is hugely appealing).

The menu is full of traditional fayre, as you’d expect for an eatery in the heart of York.

We begin with the excellent home-baked bread with artisan butters.

With two courses at £19.95 or three at £23.95, you certainly get a lot for your money, as I discover when my crayfish cocktail arrives.

It’s a tasty alternative to the beloved prawn cocktail. Delicious chunks of fish in Marie Rose sauce with more excellent bread. As I’ve not had breakfast, I enjoy every mouthful.

Rachel wisely opts for Yorkshire Blue Cheese and Poached Pear Salad, with beetroot, candied walnuts and port reduction. I’m impressed, especially as pear with anything for a starter is my idea of a nightmare. The flavours complement one another beautifully.

We’re off to a good start.

While waiting for our main, the restaurant begins to fill up, and I take in the surroundings. It’s an eclectic mix of eighties neon and tiki bar raffia in places. At one point I feel like Sonny Crockett dining in a Hawaii-themed Miami restaurant. And as someone who loves something out of the ordinary, that’s right up my street.

There’s an eclectic mix of styles that prove engaging. In one section a video screen of a roaring fire, and in the next we get the real thing, which makes me wonder if it’s footage of the neighbouring snug’s fireplace.

The spacious grounds look terrific for weddings and the like. A shame the day is 50 shades of grey, but it’s a good excuse to pop back in the summer.

(The fact it’s just down the road from the new Everyman cinema means that’s a real possibility).

My main is a feast of roast rump of British beef, Yorkshire pudding and seasonal veg with red wine jus. The staple for many great Sunday lunches, though as I usually opt for a small portion, there’s far too much for me. The meat is a little rare for my palate, but I’ll opt for a medium version next time.

With one figurative eye on my waistline and the other on the dessert menu, I admit defeat early, though the huge Yorkie pudding and fine gravy is nicely prepared.

Rachel’s Garlic Roast Tomato Risotto with mozzarella and truffle also gets the thumbs up. It tastes as good as it looks.

Dessert is a triumph, though again very generous portions mean we’re struggling to finish.

The Lemon Posset is a great palate cleanser, with pistachio nut granola, charred oranges and honey ice cream a treat for the tastebuds. (I’d recommend sharing one).

The Dark Chocolate Tart ticks every box on my list of fave dessert items, from the obvious element, to the roasted peanut ice cream and salted caramel.

Over cappuccinos we reflect on a great meal in fascinating surroundings with fine company.

In a perfect world I’d happily spend the rest of the afternoon, sat by the roaring fire chatting to our host about life and food, but that can wait for another day.

A wise man once wrote: ’The tradition of the Sunday feast accomplishes more than just feeding us. It nurtures us’.

Which is partly true. Add some great company to the equation; staff who make you hungry for a return visit, and that’s a truly great Sunday feast.

Highly recommended.

Restaurant review: Goldsborough Hall, Knaresborough

Restaurant review

Goldsborough Hall, Knaresborough

It’s a bleak November night; the busiest time of the year at work, and weeks of dental problems have left my sprits low.

I need a pick me up, though trekking 48 miles to Knaresborough at rush hour in the dark is far from fun. Blinding lights or limited visibility only adds to the woes. And I’m not even driving.

Arriving at Goldsborough Hall with a tooth that feels like it’s been tended to by dentist Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, I’m suddenly transported to another world.

I’ve had many a fine Friday night dinner, but never in a 17th-century grade II listed Jacobean manor. It’s difficult for my brain not to default to Eyes Wide Shut, and Tom Cruise turning up at a mystery mansion.

It has the PG feel of Stanley Kubrick’s final movie (without the toe-curling awkwardness and stilted dialogue). To me, most stately piles do feel Kubrickian, even if Goldsborough is a couple of centuries older than Eyes Wide Shut’s Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire.

The fact a glorious Christmas tree mirrors the stunning chandelier in Goldsborough’s hallway makes me feel cosier than slippers in front of a roaring log fire. Naturally the opulent residence has one of those too, making my woes melt like the eponymous star of animated favourite The Snowman.

Great food in a fine setting with excellent service is medicine for the soul, and it’s not long before I’m feeling better. Though maybe that’s also the pear cider working its magic.

The more I eat at fine restaurants, the more I realise that great waiting staff are part comedian, part culinary experts. It’s all in the delivery, in more ways than one.

Sarah, one of our excellent waitresses, has that quick wit and like Will, Kate and the other staff we meet at Goldsborough Hall, ensures our few hours on site are a joy.

We begin with canapés by the fire, where an adorable cat keeps trying to warm his whiskers, having repeatedly wandered in with new arrivals (us included).

Back to the food, and my mini sausage roll served on a sliver of tree trunk is delicious. (The sausage roll not the wood in case there’s any doubt).

While soaking up that warmth, marvelling at the decor, and imagining Del and Rodney replacing a chandelier for cleaning, we choose from the impressive menu.

The dining room is hugely impressive with the sort of fireplace reminiscent of Game of Thrones.

It might be weeks until Christmas Eve, but we have that festive magic feeling already.

For the starter, I opt for Whitby crab, apple, celery and pecan, all of which is terrific and the sort of dish where I savour every mouthful. This is one meal I don’t want to rush.

The freshly baked bread is excellent, especially the squid ink and apricot and pecan varieties.

My main is fillet of Yorkshire pork with roasted red pepper, Yorkshire chorizo and glazed new potatoes with a side of seasonal vegetables.

The pork is beautifully tender and the cauliflower and other veg are cooked to perfection.

For each of the courses, a wine is recommended on the menu. Chardonnay with my main for example, and Muscat with dessert.

On the subject of which, my chocolate and walnut trifle almost leaps off the page. It’s the perfect balancing act. The chocolate is spot-on without being too sweet. The crumble is beautifully crunchy and as someone who hates fruit, the rum-soaked raisins balance things beautifully. Just a shame I only manage two thirds due to my constant problem of eye-size to belly-mass ratio.

My partner Rachel has nothing but praise over her choices with phrases like “lost for words,” and “never tasted anything like it” peppering our conversation. Her olive, mozzarella and sun-dried tomato canape goes down a treat, while her main, pumpkin tortellini (which isn’t on the menu) is “absolutely delicious”.

Rachel’s dessert is also a winner: almond cream, confit pear, pastry shards and pear sorbet.

“It’s like having a deconstructed pear tart”, she enthuses.

The brains behind our dishes is Hungarian-born and raised Adam Thur, the former Head Chef at York University.

Having cooked for Royal guests and other VIPs, there’s little wonder we feel like we’re eating movie stars’ dinners. Though there’s something unmistakably Yorkshire about it all, and not just the setting.

Goldsborough’s kitchen gardens ensure the produce couldn’t be fresher, so little wonder we’re happy diners.

As we reluctantly head off, gingerly navigating around a stunning Rolls Royce, we promise to return when it’s warmer and see what the place looks like in daylight.

Great food in a wonderful setting with fine company has a restorative power. I’d recommend Goldsborough to anyone, especially as they actually cater for vegetarians instead of just offering a lame alternative.

“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients” as American culinary guru Julia Child once wrote.

I’m guessing she would have approved of Adam’s excellent menu, not to mention the outstanding setting.

Highly recommended.

Hotel Review – Conrad London St James

Five star hotels are pure fantasy. The posh coffee maker I can’t afford advertised by George Clooney. The bed that feels like sleeping on a cloud compared to a bed of nails. And the monsters and robots in the lobby that remind me of countless movies.

Okay, you won’t find the latter in most hotels. It’s a sculpture that catches my bleary eye the minute my partner and I check into Conrad London St James.

It’s around 1am, and I’ve been looking forward to this stay for months: for a couple of nights we get to live like film stars.

Friday evening, and after finishing work, Rachel and I have jumped on a train from Howden, East Yorkshire and two hours later, we’re at King’s Cross.

After a late meal and evening of music in Belgravia, we’re dragging our case a mile up the road to one of the fanciest hotels I’ve experienced. I’ve stayed in quite a few in the capital, but never this good.

The last one featured a chunky TV with no reception, and a huge cigarette burn in the duvet.

No such problems at the Conrad London St James.

Gladys on the night shift is the personification of charm as we check in. The reception sculpture of a figure climbing a ladder going nowhere is certainly an eye catcher. As is that stunning piece of art as we head for the lifts. I spot Woody from Toy Story, but maybe I’m seeing things.

We find our room on the fifth floor and the reveal is not disappointing. A spacious, luxurious area with everything you’d expect. Clooney-endorsed coffee maker; supremely comfy bed; vast (flat screen) TV; glorious bathroom with TV volume control, and a spacious shower (a choice of standard or waterfall).

Obviously there’s all the facilities needed for business types, with ports for laptops and the like, and a cheeky minibar.

Hotel minibars are always a minefield regarding what’s free and what isn’t, so slotting a small bottle of wine and tub of Pringles in with the free coffee and tea is a clever move for the owners.

(It’s worth checking the handy in-room dining booklet to ensure you’re not paying a fortune for stuff that looks complimentary and isn’t).

I initially thought paying around £215 a night for any hotel room is extreme, but that’s pretty cheap for the location and calibre of room as a friend later reminds me.

And the location is perfect for those who want to be in easy access of key sightseeing locations. Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are just around the corner.

After a good night’s sleep (once I’ve fiddled with the quiet air con), we check out the breakfast.

It’s already in full swing by the time we arrive and remarkably the gap between tables is pretty tight.

However, the food and service is excellent. Quality muesli and other cereals and a help-yourself hot and cold buffet ensure there’s plenty of choice.

I go for the full English: sausage, bacon, scrambled egg and hash browns, with a side of salmon. There’s plenty of croissants, pastries and other goodies, so little chance of going hungry.

As mentioned, that service is something else, even if it’s just a case of watching A-list hotel staff in action. One of the waiters looks like he was personally styled by Tom Ford, he’s so immaculately turned out.

Not that we’re desperate for more food, but we also have access to the executive lounge should we want it. It looks like a VIP departure lounge at Heathrow, but a nice retreat if you just want to chill inbetween meetings or shopping.

There’s no trouble finding the Tube when it comes time to head across town to Chiswick. The station is literally across the road.

Following an afternoon of fine dining six miles away, we return to freshen up and face a dilemma. We’re booked in for a meal (yes, another one) at the hotel restaurant, but want to see a West End show. The eatery opens at 6pm, and most big shows open 90 minutes later. What to do?

Thankfully we’re seated at 6pm sharp and order a ’quick’ meal. Carlos, our culinary guide, gives us a crash course in some of the hotel’s finest wines as we sample a selection of whites and reds.

I order a Blue Boar Burger as we’re in a rush, but am soon treated to a delicious bowl of cod in miso as well. Rachel samples a starter of sweetcorn, rice and asparagus with a hint of wasabi, followed by her main: Artichoke with Woodland Mushrooms, Ricotta, Spinach and Toasted Almonds.

We realise we’re not going to make that West End musical, but as none of the current shows really float my boat, I’m happy to sample the excellent food instead.

I’m stunned this restaurant is the same place where we had breakfast. Just a simple change of lighting alters the mood completely. It helps that we now have a spacious dining area of course, and I get a chance to soak up the elegant decor.

The place is spotless as you’d imagine, and though it’s still early, I love the atmosphere. Having a laugh with Carlos and our excellent waitress Marisa is that extra special ingredient not on the menu. Banter. It’s the difference between a good hotel/restaurant and a great one.

After successfully finding a good play in the West End, we return and soak up our last few hours in this extraordinary hotel.

I linger over that lobby sculpture – a stunning array of spray-painted action figures (including Woody from Toy Story, King Kong and many others) in an amphitheatre. It reminds me of the fantasy lifestyle all around me.

Our final breakfast on site is early, so there’s plenty of room at the table near where we had dinner.

After dropping our case at reception, we enjoy a brisk autumnal walk to Tate Britain, where a Ray Harryhausen exhibition pulls me in like a tractor beam. The surrounding area is a feast of landmarks, from Westminster Abbey to MI5. Along the way we see Ewan McGregor’s new film Christopher Robin in production, and are reminded of Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Case collected, we bid farewell to the mother of all hotels. The fantasy is over but it was terrific while it lasted.

As we both have big birthdays next year and fancy pushing the boat out, our days of decadence at St James’s Park’s premier hotel are now more of a new chapter than the closed book it once was.

Highly recommended.

Restaurant review – Villa Di Geggiano, Chiswick, London

“Some believe the ghost of Freddie Mercury still walks the kitchen.”

There are many memorable stories I hear during a few hours at Villa di Geggiano, Chiswick’s premier fine dining residence, and that’s one of the best.

Other tales involve former diners Depeche Mode, Will.i.am and Snoop Dogg, but I like the idea of the Queen legend being a spiritual presence on site. If it’s good enough for one of our greatest rock stars, it’s good enough for me.

Given the quality of the food and drink at 66-68 Chiswick High Road, if there was an afterlife I can think of worse places to spend an eternity. It’s a kind of magic I’ve rarely experienced in any restaurant.

My partner Rachel and I are in town as part of a 36-hour weekend session of fine dining, theatre and culture, and although Chiswick is a bit of a trek from our St James’ Park hotel (around six miles), it’s well worth the trip.

En route we pass the “I Saw You Coming” style shops lampooned by Harry Enfield; high end furniture stores for folks with too much cash, next to shops specialising in bric-a-brac. It’s clearly a moneyed area, but the good news is you don’t need to be a lottery winner to enjoy a special meal.

And there’s no mistaking the eatery when you get there. A glorious frontage in homage the Italian villa which inspired it. It doesn’t so much whisper its presence as scream proudly at you. As well it might.

The original Tuscany villa has been around for centuries, and with hundreds of years of expertise to draw on, it’s little wonder their wine is second to none.

After Prosecco and snacks offered by our excellent culinary MC Lukasz Borowski, we’re shown to our table in a glorious dining room decked out with jaw-dropping blue treelike centrepiece. (Imagine an Avatar tree rendered in Fuzzy Felt). The tactile light stands almost beg you to stroke them; they’re reminiscent of the deer antlers dotted around the room.

With a grand piano dominating the far end of the room, the style is eclectic, eccentric and stylish. Yet it works perfectly.

As does the menu, a dazzling, affordable array of pastas, steaks, and more. The wine list is a feast for anyone who loves a good tipple. I stick to my usual rule of anything over 13 per cent, and our expert sommelier does a fine job of choosing a light red; the 2015 Franz Haas Pinot Noir is ideal.

It’s lunchtime after all and we don’t want to be staggering round the streets of Chiswick like a couple of refugees from Absolutely Fabulous.

My tagliatelle starter with truffles is beautifully al dente, and the Beef Tenderloin fillet with Wild Mushroom and Red Wine Sauce is a work of art. Cooking it ’medium to well done’ is a balancing act, but the behind-the-scenes wizards nail it.

Rachel’s Tuna Steak with Grilled Pumpkin and Vegetable Gremolada is equally exquisite.

Head Chef is a fresh-faced looking Emanuele Morisi, and unlike some restaurants which are a frenzy of behind-the-scenes activity, his team are all calm under pressure. Admittedly we have arrived at a quiet spot. After racing from East Yorkshire to London and enjoying a meal near Victoria the night before, we’re glad of the calm.

Given the fact the property pretty much backs onto recording studio Metropolis, where some of the biggest artist in the world create their audio masterpieces, it’s hardly surprising Mr Mercury used to pop in for dinner so often.

When you come this far for a meal, you hope it’s going to pay off and for both of us, there’s not a weak link in the chain. From our starters to desserts, we’re treated like royalty, and could spend all afternoon chatting to grande formaggio Ilona Pacia, a kindred spirit whose love of art and psychology has ensured diners get the best possible experience for their money.

We think we’ll head back to our hotel after dessert (the Tiramisu and Chocolate Mousse with Mango and Red Chilli Chutney is to die for), but Ms Pacia’s tour of the property, and her stories about Freddie and other music legends are endlessly wonderful.

Some restaurants are all about good food and wine. For us, a visit to Villa di Geggiano is like a history and art lesson as well.

The dessert wine is out of this world, not least because of the extraordinary monogrammed glasses.

If you are dropping in for lunch or dinner, try the (deep breath) Capezzana Conte Contini Bonacossa Vin Santo Di Carmignano. The dried apricot and fig flavours will appeal to anyone with a sweet tooth.

At one point I consider staying until evening, but some of the top brass in British TV are having one of their posh meals and the team are busy prepping for their arrival, so we decide not to outstay our welcome. There’s a chance regular visitor Sir Trevor Nunn might also pop in for a bite. It’s that sort of a place.

I do know we’ll be back one day, preferably in the spring or summer when we can experience one of their outdoor music sessions.

So, we intended to stay for a couple of hours, and around four hours later we say a sad farewell having enjoyed an unforgettable dining experience.

If you want stunning Tuscan cuisine without travelling to Italy for the privilege, this is the next best thing to being there.

We can’t wait to go back.

Universal v Disney – Variations on a Theme Park

Travel – Orlando, Florida

Another autumn holiday beckons, and once more than magnetic pull of Florida sees my partner Rachel and I heading for the sunshine state.

After flying into Miami and spending a few days at Fort Lauderdale to see a David Cook gig, we head to Orlando and our obligatory pilgrimage to the theme parks.

First up is Universal Studios, a place that never ceases to amaze me. Unlike some Brits who have been coming here since the early 1990s, I made my first visit in 2002, and enjoyed many trips since, either covering the launch of The Simpsons Ride in 2008, or just for pleasure.

Universal; photo: Roger Crow

Of course the beauty of being a repeat visitor is knowing which rides and attractions to experience and which to steer clear of.

Dinner, or rather brunch at Finnigan’s Irish bar is terrific. We get there at opening time, 11am, so there’s time to enjoy The Blues Brothers show outside while scoffing fish sandwiches.

That gives us time to plan our day: tick the map of attractions that are ’musts, maybes and avoids’ as we’ve done them before.

In the ’musts’ is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which I’ve been looking forward to since our last visit in 2015.

Thanks to Express Passes, we are on in no time. Dense jungle and skulls on poles line the queuing area, and once we’re inside the ride zone, there’s the usual 3D glasses to collect before boarding trucks that take us off on the perilous journey.

With 3D films playing on both sides of the vehicle, that all important immersive experience soon kicks in as cinema’s greatest ape tackles dinosaurs and lethal beasts, while terrified and thrilled holiday makers make a series of interesting screams and yelps. Me included.

Universal: Photo: Roger Crow

It’s five years since I experienced a similar Kong ride at Universal in California, so it seems the company have taken elements of that, and merged it with new scenes from the enjoyable Kong: Skull Island movie. Or maybe it’s all new. I do know it’s a terrific experience and well worth the trip. As are most of the attractions at Universal, especially the new improved Spider-Man ride. Again thanks to Express Passes, we walk straight on, so if your time is limited (and whose isn’t on holiday?), it’s worth spending the extra money.

Rachel and I also experience the thrilling but truly bizarre Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple off through a breakneck ride through the streets. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but his comedy shtick loses a bit in translation, especially his woeful teenage girl character which the locals love, but I find hugely annoying.

All parks need at least one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. I’ve seen the place grow from stage one at the start of the decade to the gobsmacking experience it is now. In 2015 it blew my mind that Potter covers two parks, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station had been created. That experience is obviously a less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but it still amazes me the scale of the experience.

I’m not a Potter fan, but full marks to the team who created one of the greater park attractions ever seen.

As it’s autumn, or fall, the traditional Hallowe’en Horror Nights means the park becomes something a lot darker after the regulars go home. We’ve done it in the past and it’s an extraordinary experience, so if adrenaline-fuelled attractions are your thing, it’s definitely worth a look.

But what of the competition? Well, if you do nothing else in Florida, I’d recommend…

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora – Flight of Passage vlog review by Roger Crow

Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster. I was thrilled, but lost interest when nothing happened and assumed the gap between the 2009 film meant it would never see the light of day.

But Disney and Cameron never do things by halves, and finally walking round Pandora, I realise why it took so long to create. Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And it really was worth the wait.

The thought of a two-and-a-half hour queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a banshee, aka a dragon that looks like it’s burst from a Roger Dean 1970s album cover) did fill me with dread, but the wait is so entertaining, it’s never boring. Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat for the senses.

And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and into a lab, we get to see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. (I think my avatar has trouble finding my mind, it’s so blown by the experience).

For newcomers, It helps if you’ve seen the film, but is not essential.

Eventually I settle into what looks like a glorified motorcycle ride, but what unfolds after that is a stunning flight through the skies of Pandora, swooping, diving, soaring through that exotic landscape. It’s everything I hoped for in 2009, and a thousand times more.

In short: Pandora is an incredible experience.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

It’s proof of what can be achieved with one person’s fertile imagination; millions of dollars, and an army of experts, both on the design and construction side, that manage to create this behemoth of an attraction.

I was an enormous fan of Cameron’s 2009 fantasy blockbuster, like many others who helped turn it into the most lucrative film ever made. And it had to be. As the most expensive movie in history, it was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, but Cameron has long been one of the most reliable filmmakers in Hollywood, since The Terminator turned him into a superstar filmmaker back in 1984. By the time he made Terminator 2: 3-D, a thrilling park attraction at Universal Studios just around the corner, Cameron had raised the bar for theme park attractions so high, many suffered vertigo trying to match it.

But that was years ago, and in the time since, Universal created the aforementioned Harry Potter attraction that literally took my breath away in 2015 when I first experienced it in its finished form.

Just when you think that can never be topped, Disney and Cameron has created the largest, most stunning attraction ever seen.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

Inbetween rides, Rachel enjoys the best vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. My reinvented burger in a bun, a ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef, is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries you get in most parks.

Having recharged our batteries, we set off to queue for the Na’vi River Journey, in which we travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. After a 50-minute wait, we board our vessels and set sail. This is a less full-on experience both in queuing and the trip itself, so I’d recommend doing that first if you want to get a taste of the Avatar experience and then get blown away by the Flight of Passage ride.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; photo: Roger Crow

We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of the many Disney parks, but Pandora aside, it’s never dull. Though my favourite other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun and awe-inspiring.

Obviously there’s plenty to see and do at the other parks, so there’s little chance of the ankle-biters getting bored. Epcot especially is a terrific experience, not least because of the annual Food and Wine experience in which you wander round the world showcase sampling food and drink from different vendors. We didn’t get a chance this time but will no doubt be back in a couple of years.

:: With thanks to Universal and Disney for their help with this article.

Travel: Yorkshire to Miami

I can’t get no satisfaction, with Milk Jigger. London to Miami.

It’s incredible what you can do with next to no sleep. After a 90-minute drive from Howden, Yorkshire to Manchester airport after a day at work, Mrs C and I arrive at our ’park and stay’ hotel with time enough for one hour’s sleep before we’re checking our and getting a complimentary shuttle to said airport. If that sentence sounds rushed, it’s intentional.

Thankfully after bag drop, we crash out at one of the posh lounges for breakfast and a chat with the staff. It’s ridiculously early-4.45am, though we arrive 20 minutes before it’s officially open.

Breakfast, a cheeky Disaronno and Coke leaves me feeling like a hypocrite after mentally tutting at all the lager drinkers in the regular lounges. “Alcohol. At this time in a morning? Outrageous”.

It’s freezing in the VIP lounge, which costs around £30 each. It’s worth every penny for the food, booze and chance to chill out.

We fly to Heathrow, go through security again and hang around waiting for the gate.

I’m in my Captain Scarlet tee shirt; it’s the 50th anniversary this week), and get chatting to an MoD ex-pat from Harrogate on his way home to DC. Obviously a fan, he wonders where he can get one.

Twenty minutes later we go our separate ways and queue for the gate.

After a random security pat down (or was it random after my chat with Mr MOD?), we’re on board and right by the toilets of our 747. ’This should be nine hours of fun,’ I think.

It’s actually not the aromatic experience I’d feared.

Okay, it’s freezing and there’s no air nozzles, but the films are great. I sit through The Belko Experiment, which looks like an episode of Black Mirror. I told writer James Gunn as much during one of his fan chats; the sublime Anne Hathaway indie comedy Colossal, and a chunk of Alien Covenant and Life. Essentially the same movie with Life far better.

My head starts pounding two hours before landing, and dinner makes me nauseous so I try and sleep. Which happens briefly, but the thunderous clouds over Miami and unwelcome turbulence make me nervier than ever.

Irma has left its mark, so I have no idea what to expect as we finally touch down.

Thankfully customs, bag collect and shuttle pick up are relatively easy compared to a two-hour nightmare in Dallas a year before. I suspect some tourists are staying away, or we just got lucky.

After telling our shuttle driver we need to be dropped a couple of miles from our original destination, he finally finds the place and is thrilled to get a little extra on top of his pre-paid tip. That’s the thing about Florida. It’s a flexible state with some of the best service in the world.

We check in to the Courtyard Marriott on Fort Lauderdale beach (literally as sand is piled high feet from where it should be), and grab another hour’s sleep before freshening up and heading out for dinner with friends.

The first Uber of the trip whisks us to a terrific traditional pizza restaurant where we enjoy beer, wine, starter and pizzas for around £20 each, including a 20 per cent tip. Bargain.

Ft Lauderdale is rain-lashed by the time we leave. I’m feeling more human, my head has stopped pounding and the nausea has gone. This should be a fun trip.

Courtyard Marriott, Fort Lauderdale, September 2017

Day two

So, a year after meeting David Cook in Texas, the wife and I do the whole thing again in Fort Lauderdale, which is a great excuse to try out a Floridian place we’ve not been before, and see one of the nicest blokes in showbiz.

Before which, too much sun on the beach across the road from the hotel, and a calorific dinner at Bubba Gump’s (I still think it’s amazing that Forrest Gump spawned a successful food chain, though their shrimp Mac and Cheese is out of this world).

Meet and greet wth David Cook is a fun preamble as the uber fans line up behind me. I’m first in the queue, which is nice, and when he finally comes on stage, after terrific support act Kathryn Dean, the place goes wild.

Broward Center for the Performing Arts seems like a posh venue for a rock act, but it’s a great gig, even if there’s the obligatory crazies who have had too much booze, drugs or both. And they always seem to stand next to me.

After a night of semi-restless sleep due to Saturday night party goers and thumping music elsewhere, things settle.

Day three

Last day in Fort Lauderdale on a rain-lashed Sunday, so hopefully things will pick up as we set off for the semi epic trip to Orlando.

Breakfast in a freezing mezzanine cafe area means punters in shorts and tee shirts have to do a 180 and get another layer from their rooms. Me included.

Thankfully the food is pretty good at the Courtyard Marriott. Two hot teas, a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast and another involving egg white frittata came to a reasonable $36, inc 20 per cent tip. My tip to them? Turn down the AC.

The Princess Diaries – A Voyage Round the UK

“Ah don’t be bendin’ that poor fella’s ear.”
It’s a sunny Monday morning and I’m on a train from Cobh to Cork, around 15 miles away. 

It’s my first rail trip in Ireland, and fellow passengers include Jim, a keen fisherman, and his wife. (I don’t catch her name).

She ignores Jim’s advice and we talk about life, comedians and that big ship – Caribbean Princess – that has just brought me and 2,000 other passengers into port. 

Mrs Jim has never had the desire to go cruising, despite being of a similar age to many of my fellow holidaymakers. 

Not that you need to have seen 50 or 60 summers to embrace a life on the ocean waves. The Caribbean Princess treats all passengers like blue blooded travellers. 


Cobh, Ireland – photos: Roger Crow

“You’re not the Secret Millionaire?” asks Jim as we near the end of our journey. 

“I wish,” I reply, though you don’t need to spend a fortune to live like royalty. At first sight it’s not cheap, but at the same time if you tally up the cost of three daily meals for 12 days; unlimited snacks; accommodation; shows and obviously transport to assorted ports, then the price saved on flights means you can afford to, er, push the boat out a bit.

I enjoy a five mile walk round Cork (my first trip); soak up culture in the art gallery; revel in the shops, and watch the world go by over a coffee at the Opera House. 


Some of the dishes on the Caribbean Princess. Photos: Roger Crow

Though Cork feels like Dublin’s twin, Cobh proves a picturesque revelation, from the minute we sailed into port to walking the streets and scaling the steep steps. A Titanic exhibition attracts many cruisers, as well as a dockside museum and assorted pubs.

Following a lazy afternoon of sunbathing (legs like lobsters after falling asleep), we’re off again as a band plays us off from the dockside. 

The Caribbean Princess carves through the waves like a knife through butter, though many of the passengers I see hardly notice. Complex gizmos on the bridge ensure the ride is as smooth as possible. 

After a tour of the nerve centre courtesy of the Second Officer (and Paul Bettany lookalike) Stuart, I couldn’t get over the fact this town-sized ship was guided by a joystick more in common with a PlayStation. 


The Caribbean bridge. Photo: Roger Crow

As Princess is an American company synonymous with 1970s sitcom favourite The Love Boat, there’s little wonder ’Caribbean’ is like a large Californian hotel, complete with fine dining, transatlantic Scottish singer/pianist and menus in dollars. 

The experience was so immersive, this “floatel” could have been carving a path down from LA to the Mexican Riviera, like sister ship Ruby Princess which I’d enjoyed in January 2016. 

Though I’d done Dublin before, it was good to retrace old haunts even if the rain was a bit of a washout. 


Obviously you can book shore excursions and make the most of the few hours you have in any port, but a hop on/hop off bus can be just as rewarding; Princess offered a discount with one company, around 10 Euros for a day’s touring. 

Having boarded the previous Saturday in Southampton, I was keen to see if a tour of the British Isles would be as entertaining as my LA-Mexico adventure. 

The lure of a relatively local trip where I didn’t spend two days travelling and longer getting over jetlag was too good to resist. 

By Sunday, after arriving in Guernsey via tender, I enjoyed a walking tour. As a first time visitor it was a welcome surprise, whether watching yachts leaving port or getting lost in the town, it was a great way to kill a few hours.


The Caribbean Princess arrives in Guernsey. Photos: Roger Crow

Of course when all your food on board is free, it’s tempting to avoid eating anything on land. 

Horizon Court isn’t just one of those humdrum ’all you can eat’ restaurants. The food is so good you may never want to go anywhere else, though the mix of free dining and fee dining ensures there’s plenty of variety.  

And given the facilities on board, there’s little wonder I found myself gravitating back to the ship long before departure. It’s not just the great food (the hot dogs and pizza are especially good), but the calibre of movies and shows. 

Whether you watch in your room, the excellent theatre or on a large outdoor screen for Movies Under the Stars, the wealth of recent films will keep you entertained. 


I saw one staged production on this voyage, the aptly named Bravo, a high end medley of classic show tunes, opera and even a couple of Bond tracks. (Any show which features Skyfall is all right by me). 

Unlike Magic To Do, another slick Princess production featuring a narrative filled with Stephen Schwartz songs, this didn’t bother trying to link them. Just hit after hit, to the delight of gathered viewers. 

But what of the accommodation you may wonder? 

Well, my inside cabin may have had no view, but mirrors on the main walls gave the illusion of infinite depth. The bathroom was also spacious enough to shower and hang washing should you want to, while the beds ensured a peaceful night’s sleep. I’ve often thought good ship designers use Tardis-style technology for bathrooms and this was no exception. 

As we sailed from Dublin to Liverpool, my last leg, it was inevitably poignant. I’d been on board just three days but the diversion had been as rewarding as a week-long trip. 


As I left the Caribbean Princess in a rain-lashed Liverpool and my soaked lobster legs carried me to the train station, I knew that one day I’d have to try the entire voyage, taking in the rest of the ports including Glasgow, Orkney and Normandy as well. 

I hope that Jim and his wife give the cruising lark a try sometime, but for now my “excess baggage” (care of Horizon Court) meant another gym was called for. 
Travel Facts: In the spring and summer of 2017 Caribbean Princess will be back in the UK to sail the British Isles again. 

Sample itinerary: Sunday June 18, 2017 – 12 nights

Southampton | Guernsey (St Peter’s Port) | Cobh | Dublin | Liverpool | Belfast

| Glasgow (Greenock) | Orkney Islands (Kirkwall) |Invergordon | Edinburgh | Paris/Normandy (Le Havre). 

Prices start from £1,499pp (based on two people sharing an inside stateroom).

:: With thanks to Princess Cruises for help with this blog post. 

Back in Orlando- part three

It takes a lot to impress me. I’m of an age where I’ve seen a lot, especially when it comes to theme parks. But I always live in hope that one day I will be impressed by new attractions.   Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The last time I was at Universal Orlando was around three years ago. I’d grown tired of the same old rides and thought the Harry Potter attraction and ride was good, but after a couple of visits my interest had started to wane. 

  
The same old Universal, Orlando? Video: Roger Crow

So that was Christmas 2012, and what a busy lot the Universal team have been in the interim. 

Aside from an expanded Springfield, the second phase of their Potter expansion is astonishing. A staggering feat of design, engineering and construction on an immense scale. 

  
Diagon Alley, King’s Cross Station, the Hogwarts Express, Escape from Gringotts ride and countless shops are worthy of a park on their own. 

The attention to detail is remarkable, no rush job this. Unlike some park attractions where fake wood has been painted over construction material like MDF, and you can see the gaps, this was pretty flawless. No mean feat over such a huge physical canvas. 

  
Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The Hogwarts Express links you from one Universal park to another, and the onboard entertainment does a great job of keeping you in that universe for the duration. The Gringotts ride is breathtaking without inducing nausea (unlike some rides) and added touches like a fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts bank is incredible. Yes, you soon run out of superlatives at an attraction like this. 

 

Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

Enough gushing. I’ll just say that for years Universal seemed like a poor cousin to the Disney parks, but this added attraction, together with the Transformers ride, has made it a serious player once more.  

 

Transformers 3D ride Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

And with the Skull Island King Kong attraction set to open in summer 2016, I’m guessing the team at Mouse HQ are really going to have to pull something out of the bag to compete.   

Skull Island under construction at Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow