Monday, May 08, 2006

Wannabe British

Looking into room from futuristic bathroom

Often my short trips to big cities does not involve a Sunday. This is mostly dictated by my work schedule . But I must say sometimes I plan it that way.

Perhaps because being on my own in an unfamiliar place on a day so dedicated to togetherness and having fun together do contrast my being alone much more than watching people hurrying to and from work on weekday.

This Sunday found me in London. It also found me wide awake at 6 am desperate for a decent cup of coffee and not the instant stuff available in my hotel room. I may be on the club floor but it's in name only this is a true budget hotel. Clean, great location and no frills.

I was much surprised to find all of the many coffee chains closed as my hotel was smack in the middle of the most touristy place of London just on the edge of Covent Garden.

I suspect you can live off insomniac tourists but need commuters or a large workforce to make opening at 6 am profitable. So I walked and walked and finally got on the first underground train of the day on the District Line that took me to Victoria Street Station and a wonderful cup of strong latte – I had an extra shot for my effort.

My intention had been to just dash out for the coffee and then return to my room and read a bit and savor the coffee, but I was wide awake and ready to go, when I got back so I got ready for the day.

My first chosen destination was Greenwich with it’s maritime and timekeeping traditions. I started off walking towards Bank and finally got on a bus just one stop before station. It’s such a confusing labyrinthic place and finding the Docklands Light Rail involved walking forever but I was finally on my way.

After a lovely walk around Greenwich I wandered down towards the pier and was lucky a regular clipper – sans comments in 12 languages – was ready to leave for Westminster and with my London Transport travel card I was even eligible for a discount.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to London but I believe it was my first ever boat trip on the Themes. I must admit I’ve always been ambivalent about that particular body of water. It’s the most disgusting looking water I’ve ever seen – the Seine, the Hudson the Vlata through Prague, the Mainz, the Elbe all look a lot fresher and less abused. On the other hand it has that irresistible pull from the ocean with it’s enormous tidal fluctuation. I want to follow that river.

The ride was wonderful – the development of the Docklands suddenly makes sense from that angle – riding the DLR that seems to be routed like a rollercoaster does not do anything for that area.

I disembarked at Bankside and walked back towards Tower Bridge suddenly remembering that the Museum of Design was somewhere up there. A lovely walk along the river with hordes of people mad up as pirates coming the other way. Obviously part of some charity walk.

The Museum was a very nice almost Scandinavian modern building. They do not have a huge collection but I actually enjoy smaller museums more than those where you feel overwhelmed as you enter.

By now I was ready for lunch. I had looked at the places alongside the boardwalk but must of them was Italian or a confused blend of everything that was or had been trendy the last couple of years. I wanted a traditional meal.

Found it at Butler’s Wharf Chop House – part of the Conran group.

It was a simple room with nice wide planks on the floor, oak tables, leather benches and comfortable wooden chairs.

And there I found the tourists dream of the perfect English Sunday meal.

A huge, fresh gin and tonic for a starter, followed by six small but very tasty oysters and half a pint of Guinness before I had rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, roast potato, boiled cabbage and carrot served with a horseradish sauce and half a pint of bitter.

It was a lovely meal and just what I needed after all that walking. It was not the most tender beef I have ever had, and since I don’t know British cut’s of meat I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it was very tasty.

Walking back across Tower Bridge in the sunshine I was very happy with my outing.

Friday, April 07, 2006

In greenest Africa

Looking into room from futuristic bathroom

I went to Africa with my mind made up about stuff I knew nothing about.

In other words all the newscasts and news reports I’ve ever seen or read about the continent had manifested itself in a series of preconceived notions.

I assumed Uganda would be a barren and scorched land. I was sure I would feel threatened and unsafe many times during my stay and I was sure I would be constantly exasperated by lazy people.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

True I spend some of my time living a pampered life in Kampala and on a lovely trip to Murchison Falls National Park. But I did also see quite a bit of west central Uganda.

Uganda is a beautiful green, fertile country with very diverse landscapes and stunning flora. In the capitol Kampala which is an admittedly dusty and bustling and often dirty city on every vacant lot or tiny piece of perhaps city owned land someone had set up a nursery and amazing flowers where lined up ready for buying.

All together I spend three nights in Kampala two on arrival and one right before flying back home. On all three of them I had some very nice dinners.

One was especially fine: Dinner at Khana Khazana in Kololo. A beautiful Indian restaurant with a central water feature that undoubtedly adds a bit of coolness during the hot months. This evening it was the background to the song of a thousand frogs ;)

The restaurant served some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. We were three people and got a variety of dishes, rice, bread and chutneys.

In Kampala I also had sushi. It’s not the best I’ve ever had – that price goes to Stick’s and Sushi right here in Copenhagen – but it was ok. And let me tell you, it was a bit surreal to sit that far inland eating fresh raw fish.

It had been flown in that morning from the Indian Ocean. Fish from Lake Victoria is apparently not sushi grade.

The same surreal experience hit us when we went for afternoon cappuccinos at Kampala’s Café Pap you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between that café and anyone in a European capitol – and it has free wireless internet service something many first world places hasn’t figured out yet will pull in people.

For a long weekend of wild animals, pampering and rough living my friend had booked us a trip to Murchison Falls National Park.

We took the scenic road down the rift valley escarpment to Lake Albert, made a stop in a small city to talk to a man my friend works with. He invited us home to lunch and his wife served us a meat and liver stew with chapattis and soft drinks.

I suspect the meal cost them more than a days wages and felt bad that we couldn’t wiggle out of it. But such is the customs in Uganda, as the used to be here and in most other countries I suspect: Even when you can afford it, you feed you guests good things.

So we where quite humbled by there generosity when we set off for out destination:

Paraa Lodge – a lovely two storey building high on a bluff overlooking the Nile river. In fact we had to cross in a little ferry to get there. The Lodge was rebuilt in the 90’s. The original one was visited by Hemingway in the 50’s and in fact he has a plane crash right nearby that meant he had to recuperate at the lodge.

We had a lovely first floor room with a balcony facing the river and the pool area. The décor is fantasy safari – lots of leather and canvas. Our twin beds had individual walk in mosquito nets.

A room comes with full board and that makes a stay a bit of a bargain – compared to other nice hotels in the world - but obviously it’s very expensive compared to Ugandan prizes.

The food was nothing memorable – standard hotel food. There was a choice of a three course dinner and the same with the hot lunch. My friend told me that on a previous stay every meal had been served buffet style.

The Lodge is the perfect starting point for a game drive in the park and for a boat trip up the Nile to visit the amazing Murchison Falls where the Nile narrows from 40 meters wide to pass through a 7 meter gorge and falls about 40 meters. The roar of the water is amazing.

On the two trips I saw an amazing amount of birds from tiny king fishers to the mighty fish hawk. I saw giraffe, buffalo, elephants, baboon, hippos, crocs and too many different antilopes and buks.

I did not see any bog cats and out ranger who guided our game drive was sorry about that but it just wasn’t lion or leopard weather and I was not overly disappointed.

The second night in the park we stayed at Red Chili Rest Camp

We stayed in a banda – a round hut with straw roof – much like the traditional huts in Uganda that has dirt walls – this had a round room with two beds and a bathroom with a toilet and cold running water.

After Paraa Lodge it was a bit of a cultural shock, but a nice experience to snap me out of luxury living.

And the huge open restaurant was a fun place to spend the evening drinking gin and tonics, beer and listening to backpackers and aid works from abound the world.

For the price the food was decent, hot and very plentiful. And they had the added attraction of French Press coffee.

The main purpose of my stay was to simply visit my friend who has a 9 month contract with a Danish development organization. She’s there to help Ugandans build sports organizations and perhaps develop skills that can be income generating.

While this sounds nice on paper, I personally found it surprising that money is spend on that kind of help when many communities still don’t have access to clean water.

I followed my friend in most of her daily work and we drove to many tiny places to deliver newsletters and just to touch base with the people of the organization she works for.

So many times we encountered women and children carrying huge cans of water – walking along the dusty, red clay roads. Or on a couple of occasions washing and drawing water from the banks of the Nile or the banks of Lake Albert.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Amazing design in Hamburg

Looking into room from futuristic bathroom
I’ve never stayed in a hotel before, where the toilet resembles nothing so much as the out door loo a cabin my parents once hired in Norway had.

They are called utedass – and are just a square box with a toilet seat fitted on. You don’t want to know what is in the box.

My room at Side hotel in Hamburg has a loo exactly like that – except it does flush.

This room is not for timid people slowly getting to know one another. The bathroom and the toilet have opaque sliding glass doors. Hard to soundproof glass ;)

Visually it’s stunning – I’m not impressed with the functionality of said toilet but everything else is amazing.

The water falls from the sky when you turn on the huge showerhead mounted in the ceiling over the bath.

The closets look like to fridges and everything is wood or muted earth tones.

Before booking I read some mixed reviews – about the staff not being warm and caring enough. I wonder if it’s the cultural divide between the US and Europe. The staff is perfectly nice and helpful, but they do not ask for your life story or expect to be your future friend.

I will definitely stay here again. The location is great too, and the breakfast buffet was an LC dream with lot’s of fish, ham, sausage and scrambled eggs cooked to perfection.

Now let me get started on the spa. Considering the price of square footage in any big city now a days, it’s to be commended that they have put in a pool of the size they have. It’s at least 15 meters long, which means it’s possible to get a good swim in. I’ve attempted this in smaller oval shaped hotel pools where I almost got seasick from constantly changing direction.

The pool area is like I imagine it’s like inside an Apple Ipod.

Über trendy, with bright blues, yellows and greens. There’s a whirlpool, a sauna and a steam bath close to the pool, also a small exercise room with thread mills and stuff like that.

Inside the marble walled steam bath tiny lights poking out of the natural holes and groves in the stone change color in a soothing pattern.

It’s quite simply a place to loose yourself in.

Bummer in Berlin

Lobby of SAS Radisson in Berlin

I found this review of the SAS Radisson hotel in Berlin on my computer, I do not remember exactly when I stayed there. Must have been something last year, and I forgot to post it:

I really wanted to like the Radisson SAS hotel Berlin, I chose it based on reviews and on the very nice looking photos on the website.

Hands down it’s a beautiful and stylish place. The concept of the huge fish tank in the lobby is stunning.

Being a Scandinavian myself I picked up none of that fake Scandinavian design vibe some hotels have.

My problem is the hotels service concept. I’m not naïve hotels must make money for their owners, but some places just get’s away with that in a more elegant way than Radisson SAS hotel Berlin.

Quiet simply this hotel has a very keen eye on what benefits them and their operation and not on what might benefit the guest’s needs.

When I checked in – single female traveler – I was given a room overlooking the enclosed shopping mall next to the hotel, directly above the gigantic fussball table. A neat idea, but obviously the young folks using it were not quiet.

I called the front desk and asked for a quiet room. No problem I was just asked to come down to the lobby and they would have a new key for me. The same women who checked me in met me halfway across the lobby with a new key. I was on the same floor and this new room – a standard room too – had the most exquisite view of the Berlin Dome.

Here’s my question, why would a hotel NOT give every single guest the best available room at the time of their check in. Why did I have to reject a boring room to get a great one in a very empty hotel? I’m not asking for upgrades just that hotels, like cinemas, give some thought to what their best rooms are and keep them filled.

Well, I checked my room out and liked the layout and connected to the free wireless internet. That is a great free perk for all.

My next idea was to check out the spa. I looked around for the robe and slippers that would make my visit a lot nicer. No slippers and robe – that’s for business rooms and above. This in a five star hotel, mind you.

I went down to the spa and got a nice thick towel and got in my suit and went for my swim. Again a very nice stylish look to that area. A bit small – tiny pool, tiny changing room but real estate prices are what they are so that’s ok.

At the end of my spa visit I took a quick shower and was surprised that there was no body lotion available. At this point we were five women in a very tiny room sharing two showers and so few square feet there was no room for modesty. Robes and slippers for all guest could have solved that problem instantly

Back in my room I check the toiletries, no body lotion there either. I believe this is another thing you have to be in a business room to get.

By bedtime I discovered that the only one side of the bed could operate the complex light system. A system mostly designed to make sure all lights are turned off when the guest leaves the room to save the hotel money. An ok concept, but please come up with an intuitive system.

The next morning I was barely awake when housekeeping banged on my door and burst into the room at 7.50. Less than 40 minutes later she was back just as I stepped out of the shower so we had a full confrontation. She then proceeded to inform me that I should have put the do not disturb sign on the door.

This is just not acceptable. I will accept housekeeping after 9 and I will always hang that sign out if I want to sleep later than 9.30. But two visits before 9 is just plain stupid.

So to sum up my displeasure: Radisson SAS hotel Berlin went out of the way to tell me that I was an inferior guest in the way of the smooth running of housekeeping.

Therefore I will go back to staying a Kempinski Bristol on Kürfurstendam. They have smaller rooms, they have a stupid system charging for the use of the internet and there are no architectural finess to the place. But they treat me like an honored guest at all times.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

What Blue Door?

Rubber ducks at dinner
The overwhelming color of and at the Delano hotel in South Beach, Miami, Florida is white. The building is a stunningly white, the lobby that you pass through on route to the restaurant is white with dabs of natural wood colors, and the restaurant itself is overwhelmingly white, with the soft cream colored light from candles everywhere.

So, where is that Blue Door the place is named after? Does it matter?

What matters is that everything about an evening at the Blue Door feels right. Hostess, waiter, bus boys are all doing their stuff, and doing it unobtrusively and the way it should be done.

That leaves the diners to enjoy themselves, each other, the wonderful room and the food.

Food that is divided on the menu in two major categories: New and classic – we are talking American meeting French cooking here.

My companion and I mixed and matched. She had a starter of smoked duck on assorted greens, tomato and mozzerella and I had a frois gras burger. There was nothing but praise and contendment from across the table and I was very impressed with the burger.

As an European my first thought was why? Why take a classic dish and turn it into a cliché? But it worked, it really did. Every bit was a perfect mixture of the frois gras, the caramelized onions, the glaze and the homemade brioche.

For an entrée I had Duck Exotique and she had Bouf Gorgonzola. Two perfect dishes – my duck balanced by fruity flowers and her Filét Mignon balanced by gorgonzola.

Neither of us really needing dessert but both of us wanting the meal to last a little longer and curious as to what the kitchen had to offer ordered assorted sorbets. And they really where – the waiter told us the different kinds they offered and we ordered our own special mixture. As easy as and ice cream parlor as wonderful as the rest of the meal.

All of this goodness was of course accompanied by fine drink: A classic martini for me and a Cosmopolitan for her to start with, a mellow rosë Cotes du Rohne for the starters, Beringer Zinfandel for the entrees and rosé Moet and Chandon champagne for the sorbets.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Good eats on the beach

Electric drinks
After a day of sightseeing and light shopping, my dining partner and I had a very lovely meal at Cafeteria on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

After cocktails - a girly pink watermelonmartini for me and a coconut martini for my partner we shared a starter of seared yellowfin tuna with avocado, watercress, citrus salad and yuca chips. Then she had grilled Mahi Mahi chimichuri, spicy mango chutney, plantain chips and I had the lovely fish and chips on menu. The only letdown was the wine, a very tame chardonnay.

The evening ended at the bar at The Hotel where we had martinis with electric icecubes.

Little Havana

Little Havana
This fall I made another trip to Miami Beach and I enjoyed some new and lovely meals and drinks in that tropical paradise.

A wonderful long weekend with a visit from a friend started in Little Havana - no we did not eat at Burger King, but it's a pretty good summary of the building style in that particular area of Miami.

Lunch time found us in a busy litlle restaurant - Exquisito Restaurant - obviously a place for locals we were the only ones struggeling with the Spanish menu and the only ones speaking English to one another.

We shared two dishes: Filetillo de Pollo, Arroz Blanco y Maduros- chicken pieces sauteed in a light soy sauce served with fried plantains and white rice and Enchilado de Camarones, Arroz Blanco y Maduros - shrimp in a tomatoe sauce with a hint of some kind of fruit - also served with plantains and rice.

It looked like a lot of food, when it was served, but we made pretty good dents in both dishes and ended up sharing a small very strong and sweet cup of Cuban coffee - much like it's served in Greece.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hotel Adlon

Hotel Adlon

Hotel Adlon
was build on the most spectacular address in old Berlin, Unter den Linden 1, back in 1907. Right next to Brandenburg Tor in the center of everything. It almost made it through WWII but was ravised by fire in May 1945.

Fast forward to 1997 when the new Hotel Adlon was opened in the very same spot and looking just like the old one but given the slightly less spectacular address: Unter den Linden 77.

I've always been fascinated by the story of this hotel. And always wanted to stay there.

This year I did and was not in any way dissapointed. It feels very old world but with the added touch of modern technology. I stayed in their standard room which was very spacious and overlooked a beautifully and very quiet courtyard.

Like in all highclass hotels I was escorted to the room by the receptionist and shown all the little technical details of controlling very thing.

The room has a nautical feel to it - it wasn't small by any standard, but just felt compact and with an eye to detail that is nescessary in compact spaces.

The hotel has a spa with a small but cool pool, a big jacuzzi, sauna, steambath, fitness center and of course rooms for spa treatments. It was a lovely way to start the day with a swim and a soak in the jacuzzi and then go down for the huge breakfast buffet in the restaurant overlooking Brandenburg Tor.

Lovely service and lovely food. When the price is right, I'll certainly come back for pampering weekends and I'll want to try the Lorenz Adlon restaurant in the hotel library.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Gourmet tour of Copenhagen

Rubber Ducks

Surprisingly it’s actually been quite a while since I ate at a restaurant in my hometown of Copenhagen. I may have popped in at the occasional café, but nothing memorable or worth writing about.

Well that change when my friends recently came to visit for an extended weekend.

Save for one meal, we ate everyone in a café or a restaurant.

My friends stayed on 71 Nyhavn Hotel – they liked the rustic warehouse feel to the place, but where not impressed with the service and the logistics of the place. The breakfast room is so tiny and the staff too lazy to walk far that only a fraction of the guests can be accommodated. So in spite of having breakfast included they had to go elsewhere for morning sustenance.

Fortunately the hotel is within walking distance of one of Copenhagens oldest and still most popular cafes, Café Sommersko. On the morning the arrived we had breakfast there, the returned for at least two more breakfasts and we even ended up having dinner there on one occasion.

Everything they do is simple, but good quality and surprisingly cheap for being centrally located and very popular. They even have a non-smoking section. Which is very unusual for Copenhagen.

We did try to have dinner at a microbrewery Nørrebro Bryghus in the Nørrebro part of Copenhagen. The wait for weekend reservations are five to six weeks. Instead we sampled their beer in their tap-room and had a few snack of sausage and potato wedges.

Twice we had lunch at Restaurant Jacobsen just north of Copenhagen proper. The place honors the famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. It’s a wonderful light room with a great view of the water and for lunch a modern take on traditional Danish open face sandwiches on dark rye bread.

But the highlight of the weekend was dinner at The Paul – a restaurant in Tivoli, the old amusement park in the middle of Copenhagen. It’s housed in a magnificent green house structure and has a very light and airy feel to it.

Unfortunately it was quite cold on the evening we visited and one of my friends ate dinner draped in two blankets.

The dinner was seven magnificent courses – a perfect blend of almost molecular cooking and more traditional cooking. The most outstanding dish was a quail beet salad served with a scoop of fungi ice cream. Apart form the temperature in the room it was a perfect evening. Here's the menu we had.

On three occasions during the visited we just wanted drinks. One evening we had nice drinks at Café Victor – also a Copenhagen landmark. The very same evening we made the mistake after dinner of not returning to Victor but instead going to Copenhagen’s landmark Hotel D’Angleterre for a night cap.

D’Angleterre is a member of the leading hotels of the world and very posh and old fashioned nice. Their restaurant and bar has just been renovated and completely refurbished.

We agreed it was just like being thrown back to the 80’s – dark brown and wooden tones – one wall looks like it has some kind of exotic cane mounted. A very strange look and combined with almost no light, a slightly depressing atmosphere.

But the worst part was that out certainly expensive cocktails were nothing more than fancy fruit juices. It was simply impossible to detect any kind of alcohol taste through it.

A couple of days later when we visited the bar in another hotel, we found what we craved at D’Angleterre. Library Bar at Sofitel Plaza feels very authentic and almost british. There are real books in the book cases, enough light to actually see your company and a beautiful glass ceiling.

Unfortunately we arrived just as last orders where called and ended up with just beer and champagne. We’ll have to go back and check whether or not they actually put alcohol in their cocktails.