Sunday 31 August 2014

The Bed Report 9: Ibis London Blackfriars Accommodation Review

When I first visited London back in the 1990s, I spent most of my time in the West End or the City.

In recent visits, however, I've spent more and more time south of the Thames and in East London, as those areas have been regenerated and moved onto the traveller's radar.

It seemed fitting, therefore, that I should stay at the Ibis London Blackfriars this time, a contemporary hotel right next to Southwark Tube station (itself a shiny example of New London).

As you can see, the hotel's exterior on Blackfriars Road doesn't look like much...

... but the interior is distinctly cool and contemporary:

Beyond reception, the lift took me to my 11th floor room.

I'd stayed in an Ibis before (most recently the Ibis Seoul Insadong), so I knew the mid-range hotel room would likely be compact.

It was. But as was the case in Seoul, a lot of thought had gone into the design. What I found was a sleek but simple space with a contemporary look:

There was also a typical London view, ie a mix of old and new buildings with a few famous structures as part of the collection:

The bathroom was a self-contained curved "capsule" located at one end of the room, containing a shower, sink and toilet in a bright white interior:

The room was small but manageable. Once Narrelle and I had unpacked our gear into the open shelves and hanging space near the window, we could move around fairly easily.

Speaking of the window, it could be opened - something I'm always thankful for.

Other positives include a kettle with tea and coffee making supplies, and a desk along the wall with the view. The free wifi maintained a reasonable speed, though there was also the option of paying for a faster service.

One negative was the under-supply of power sockets, a bit surprising in a 2012-built hotel. There were only three accessible in the room, and one of these was in an awkward location about 20cm above floor level near the door.

This situation was mitigated a little by a USB socket under the TV which could be used to charge devices; I connected my iPad to this and left it in the magazine rack beneath to recharge.

I've saved the Ibis Blackfriars' best asset for last. On heading back downstairs, I discovered a magnificent and diverse selection of seating in the lounge/cafe/bar behind reception:

This was a very pleasant zone which had people socialising it it all day long, with a relaxed vibe that made it a delight to sit around in.

It effectively counteracted the guest rooms' smallness, by providing a spacious environment in which to unwind.

I liked the ground floor space so much that it'd likely tip my choice in favour of this hotel, in any competition with a similarly-priced hotel containing larger rooms.

Helping along this positive feeling was the the hotel staff, composed mostly of young Europeans who were uniformly cheerful and helpful.

As a result, the Ibis London Blackfriars hotel exceeded my expectations for mid-range accommodation in the British capital. I'd recommend it for your next UK visit.

Just the Facts:
Ibis London Blackfriars, 49 Blackfriars Rd, London SE1 8NZ, UK
Phone: +44 207 633 2720
Rates: Rooms from $185 per night.

Disclosure time... for this stay I was given a discounted accommodation rate by Accor Hotels. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Monday 25 August 2014

Meaty Goodness: Gentlemen's Afternoon Tea in Mayfair, London

I've never had a sweet tooth, though I'm not sure if that's due to nature or nurture.

We didn't have a lot of sweet foods around the house when I was growing up in the Western Australian countryside, so perhaps I never developed a taste for sugar.

Whatever the case, it's left me cool on the idea of afternoon tea. Though there'll always be a few sandwiches provided as part of a fancy hotel's afternoon tea, they'll play second fiddle to the cakes.

Not so in the Gentlemen's Afternoon Tea, served at the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair, London.

There's a distinctly earthy and robust nature to this afternoon meal, as we discovered when the first course arrived and looked like this:

Clockwise from top left, we had a Welsh rarebit sauce to be dipped into with the crossed cheese sticks; a ham hock terrine; a beef and ale pie; and a wild boar sausage roll.

This first course came with a glass of whisky. Of course.

On a more traditional note, the whisky was succeeded by tea from this inventive menu (I had the Borengajuli Assam):

Round two of the Gents' Arvo Tea consisted of these cheddar and crispy bacon scones:

And finally, a sweet component in the form of a sticky toffee pudding with walnuts; whisky fruit cake; and whisky chocolate truffles.

As you may have gathered, the Athenaeum makes a lot of its whisky expertise, being home to a whisky bar and a whisky sommelier.

The verdict? It was all good, and I suspect a lot more filling than the classic cake-based afternoon teas I saw at other tables. As we ate late for an afternoon tea, about 5.30pm, that was dinner sorted.

It struck me that this would be just the afternoon tea for the James Bond of Ian Fleming's books. Fleming loved describing the sensual pleasures of food and their part in Bond's highly disciplined life, and this sort of beefy fare would have been par for the course.

Apt, as we were eating it in Fleming's old stamping ground of Mayfair.

Of course, you can go too far in applying the "gentleman" tag. Narrelle said she also enjoyed the Gentlemen's Afternoon Tea; she loved the complex tastes, the whisky and the "mature and sophisticated" experience.

And she didn't end it giddy from a sugar high, she added. Stirred, basically, but not shaken.

The Gentlemen's Afternoon Tea is £34.50 at the Athenaeum Hotel, 116 Picadilly, Mayfair, London. More details at

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by the Athenaeum Hotel.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Are Museums Boring?

We were talking dull museums on Twitter today.

It started when someone enthusiastically endorsed this article from the UK's Daily Telegraph, "21 Reasons Why I Hate Museums".

Aside from wondering what had happened to articles structured around a mere five or ten points, I found myself in two minds about this piece.

On one hand, I kind of agree with its main point.

Too many people trudge around museums while on vacation out of a sense of duty, regardless of whether the exhibits are engaging or they're interested in its subject matter.

To my mind, this approach is a hangover from the 19th century idea that travel should always be educational and instructive.

By contrast, I've been in cities where I've read a description of the major museums, and then decided I'd rather go on a walking tour or hang out in an interesting neighbourhood.

I can't speak highly enough of this latter strategy, if thought and research is applied to the selection of neighbourhood. I've had some great articles result from simply exploring in this manner (eg my day hanging out in St Roch, Quebec).

On the other hand, I feel the Telegraph article is unfair in dismissing museum visits altogether.

For my money, there are two key elements which must be in place for a museum visit to be a highlight of your holiday:

1. The museum has a creative and stimulating approach to addressing its subject;
2. The subject is something you're personally interested in.

The second point is really the most important, as a personal interest in the subject matter will excuse a fair bit of dodgy presentation.

As proof that interesting museums exist (at least for me), here are twelve accounts I've written of museums which were personal highlights because the above elements were in play:

What about you? Which museums moved you, and why? Leave a comment below.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Doctor in the House: Doctor Who Press Conference, Sydney

When I received my invitation to the Sydney instalment of "Doctor Who: The World Tour", a whirlwind series of press conferences promoting the new series of the BBC science fiction TV series, I jumped at the opportunity.

Setting up a separate piece of travel writing research and some business meetings in order to justify the journey north, I flew up yesterday. This morning, heading toward the Dendy Cinemas near the Opera House, I suspected I'd found the right location when I saw this:

We would see more of that blue box later, in completed form.

Meanwhile, our miscellaneous group of mainstream media, freelancers, bloggers and fans (well, we were probably all fans of the show), were ushered into a cinema theatre after signing a non-disclosure form which I couldn't actually read in the dim light.

I think it said something along the lines of "If you disclose any spoilers from the following screening, the BBC will arrange for the deletion of your personal timeline."

So I can't tell you anything about what happened after Adam Spencer stood in front of the screen and announced we were about to view episode 1 of Peter Capaldi's first season as The Doctor.

I will say this: it was very good. As foreshadowed, they've given this incarnation of The Doctor a darker, more serious character, a turnabout from the energetic high spirits of The Doctor as played by Matt Smith.

A very welcome development from this change is the deepening of the character of Clara, as played by Jenna Coleman.

Now matched with a Doctor old enough to be her father, it was necessary we see the consequences of that shift in their relationship - and the episode, "Deep Breath", does an excellent job of repositioning her from Doctor's larky playmate to a more substantial companion.

The episode is spoiled a little, in my opinion, by writer Steven Moffat's ever-present need to include emotional button-pushing (please don't tell me what to feel, SM, I can work that out myself). Other than that caveat, it's a solid start to a new era.

After the screening, Capaldi and Coleman took to the stage for the press conference proper, fielding questions from the audience. They were confident and thoughtful in their answers, and clearly have a warm working relationship.

I asked Capaldi about his Doctor speaking in the actor's natural Scottish accent when fellow Scot David Tennant had chosen a standard English accent for the role.

"We did try some other options," he responded. "But I wanted to bring the role to myself, not cover it with layers."

Some other random quotes of interest I jotted down from Capaldi:

"The very first thing i had to do [when filming], was go into the TARDIS for the first time. It's not really bigger on the inside... there's me, Jenna, and a prop guy with a smoke gun."

A joking comment on the period before his ascendance to the role was announced: "I was pleased that no-one mentioned me, but also peeved that no-one mentioned me. A little insulted."

On knowing what lies ahead in the series: "I'm particularly kept in the dark, because I've asked to be kept in the dark."

"I didn't have a lot of input into the character of The Doctor. I trust Steven [Moffat] implicitly as a writer."

Coleman confirmed that the two knew little about the storylines ahead, other than the episode they were working on at the time.

She also commented on how interesting it had been as an actor to adjust to acting opposite a new character who was also an existing character.

Challenged by Spencer to each produce three words to sum up the seaon of episodes ahead, Coleman said "Good versus bad". Capaldi, more cryptically, came up with "tiny / listen / beware."

After the presser, we trooped out to quayside on Sydney Harbour for a photo call, with TARDIS and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. I'll leave you with a selection of shots:

As the photo call broke up and Capaldi and his minders headed off in the direction of the Opera House, I said "Good luck, Peter" and he shook my hand.

That makes three Doctors I've met over 20+ years, including Peter Davison in 1983 and Sylvester McCoy when he was in Melbourne a few years ago, playing (of course) the fool in King Lear.

Wonderful chap, all of them.

The eighth season of the 21st century edition of Doctor Who commences on 23/24 August worldwide, with the screening of "Deep Breath" (on ABC1 in Australia).

Disclosure time: On this trip to Sydney I was hosted by Travelodge Wynyard.

Friday 8 August 2014

Give My Regards to Broadway (LA)

On my visit to Los Angeles last year, I was surprised to discover that the city had a Broadway.

Not as famous as its New York namesake, it declined along with the rest of LA's Downtown in the postwar era, to become a street of tatty discount stores operating out of the foyers of old movie theatres.

But oh, those theatres.

As LA is the home of Hollywood, this long thoroughfare became a flagship of the cinema industry, being lined with ever more extravagant picture palaces as the early 20th century wore on.

Eventually nearly all of them succumbed to the downgrading of Downtown LA (What's the opposite of gentrification? Degentrification?) and became sad shadows of their former spectacular selves.

Now, thankfully, the good times are coming back, as Los Angelenos rediscover the appeal of the Downtown. Broadway's theatres and cinemas are gradually being renovated and being put back into commission, either as cinemas, or as music and theatre venues.

Below are a few of the gems I saw along Broadway last summer, in the company of local tour guide Tony Hoover (and you can find his company's LA tours by clicking here).

This was once Loew's State Theatre, at 703 South Broadway. It opened in 1921 to showcase the films of Metro Pictures, which later became the "Metro" bit of MGM. It's now a church, believe it or not, but is likely to be restored as a theatre in the next few years:

At 800 South Broadway, this somewhat humbler edifice is the Tower Theatre. Opened in 1927, it was the first cinema in Los Angeles to be wired for talking pictures and hosted the premiere of the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer:

I was impressed that such a relic of early cinema had survived. Even more so with the next cinema, The Rialto Theatre at 812 South Broadway. This place opened in 1917, and gained its impressively long neon marquee in the 1930s. Sadly the building was now looking rather worn:

The 1926 Orpheum Theatre, at 842 South Broadway, was decidedly more cheerful to look at. Its bright signage was an indication that the place was in full working order, its interior having been thoroughly renovated in 2001:

The next major theatre heading south was the United Artists Theatre at 929 South Broadway. Opened in 1927 an an outlet for the studio created by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, it had plenty of star power behind it:

Finally, Tom led me back to the Los Angeles Theatre at 615 South Broadway, opened in 1931 and designed to be the most spectacular cinema in creation:

The facade was impressive enough, but once inside I found myself standing within an extraordinary space.

Above me were vast glittering chandeliers, their light showing off heavy red curtains, painted columns, delicately curved iron lace and decorative plasterwork.

It was a magnificent interior, and felt as if it had been lifted whole from one of Europe's great baroque palaces, rather than belonging to an old cinema in downtown Los Angeles.

"It’s like it was modelled on the Palace of Versailles," I muttered to Tom as craned my head to take in the decorative detail.

"It was," he replied. And it really was, intended by the architect to echo the glory of French Baroque. Crazy. But beautiful crazy. A great tribute to the golden age of film.

The Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour takes place every Saturday at 10am, fee $10. Click here for more details and to book.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Historic Launceston by App

I'm in Launceston, Tasmania, for the first time in six years, being hosted by the Launceston City Council as I research a story about cider for a major newspaper.

While here, I also decided to test out the city's new Launceston Heritage Trail: Cameron Street iPhone/iPad app.

Because Launceston is Australia's third-oldest city, it has a splendid array of Georgian and Victorian facades which have somehow escaped the march of progress.

There's a particularly good selection of these along Cameron Street in the city's heart (see screenshot at right), so the app focuses on that thoroughfare.

The great advantage of an app over the traditional printed tour brochure is the wealth of information you can squeeze in, and the flexibility with which it can be presented.

The cleverest element of this Heritage Trail app is its juxtaposition of then-and-now photos of the buildings being highlighted. So an on-screen image of the current Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (1887) dissolved into this:

... and looking up from the screen, I could see this:

The journey east along Cameron revealed a nicely diverse collection of colonial buildings, from elegant public institutions to gritty industrial edifices. I won't add any more screenshots, but here are some of the structures featured along the route.

Next after the gallery was the local Supreme Court building. It had started life in the 1870s as Struan House, the home of a prosperous businessman, then later became a hospital before being incorporated into the court complex (it's the building on the left):

You may notice that I was walking along Cameron Street on a wet afternoon. As I progressed further east and the drizzle increased, I felt ever more strongly that I was walking the streets of a provincial market town somewhere in England, rather than Australia.

But onward to Macquarie House, an attractive 1830s warehouse which had somehow survived demolition even though it's located right on the city's Civic Square:

A block further east I found two significant public buildings. First, the 1867 Town Hall:

... and across the street, the clock tower of the 1890 Post Office. The tower, however, dates from 1910. Due to penny-pinching, the original construction budget didn't include enough cash for a clock. Twenty years of pressure from locals finally led to its addition:

A block further on was Trinity Church, a bulky red-brick place of worship which was opened in 1902 but not completely built until 1986:

And nearby, the former Cornwall Hotel, now known as the Batman Fawkner Inn. This old pub belonged to John Pascoe Fawkner, and it was within its walls that Fawkner and John Batman independently planned to sail across Bass Strait and found the settlement which became Melbourne:

Two more buildings finished the app's collection - the excellent 1895 Crown Mill, lit by the new-fangled electricity to which Launceston had access:

... and near the corner of Cameron and Tamar Streets, the grand 1891 Albert Hall, built for an international exhibition and still in use as a performing arts venue:

There was one noticeable flaw in the app's layout, especially when standing on a cold wet street trying to shield the iPhone from rain.

The explanatory text for each sight is broken into a short "Story" section and a long "Further Reading" section.

However, the short intro tends to be the start of an essay, rather than the expected pithy overview of a building and its significance. I often had to scroll through a fair bit of the "Further Reading" section to discover basic facts about when a place was built, for example.

The app is also very focused on great civic buildings. As I walked along the route I also spotted some interesting but less grand commercial buildings I would've liked to learn more about.

On the positive side, the fade from old to new photos is an excellent idea and helps orientate the user, especially when the building has undergone some expansion over the years (as you can see in the images of the art gallery above).

Also, the extended text, offering a history of each building and its owners, would be an interesting read before or after the tour.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, and it was good to walk the route in my own time. The new Heritage Trails app is a great way to add context to Launceston's visual appeal.

Download the Launceston Heritage Trail: Cameron Street iOS app free at this link (NB it doesn't appear to be available for Android devices yet).

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by the Launceston City Council.