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Hishyeness

Hishyeness
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Member since: 20.05.2009

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    • XMI X-mini II / PC Speaker / 155 Readings / 147 Ratings
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      19.04.2012 16:55
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      A great compact sound solution for mobile devices

      When my Philips portable speakers packed up six months ago while I was decorating my flat (spilling a large quantity of paint over it probably didn't help) I started looking for a replacement unit, mainly to use with my Apple devices (iTouch, iPad and older generation iPod Nano). Although my Philips unit provided a decent mix of good price, great functionality and decent portability, technology had moved on in the four years since I had bought it, and I was pleased to find that good things came in much smaller packages. After a bit of research, I settled on the X-Mini II capsule speaker, which is available from on-line retailers for as little as £12.99. I was initially sceptical - mostly because of the cheap price point and size - but I need not have worried. The X-Mini is a marvel of engineering, and completely lives up to its tag-line of "Sound Beyond Size". ~~~~~~~~ IN THE BOX ~~~~~~~~ The X-Mini comes packaged with a multi-function USB cable, a small instruction booklet (with minuscule writing that's challenging to read), and a small black felt drawstring bag to keep it all in. The unit itself is about the size and shape of a Clementine - about two inches in diameter in its closed position, and about three inches tall when it is fully deployed. It has a smooth matte black finish, with the internal driver finished off on the top with a mirrored red dimple - rather reminiscent of a red brake disc peeking out from under the alloy rims of a luxury sports car. Its minimalist look is enhanced by the paucity of buttons and clever storage. A short three inch cable with audio jack stows neatly in a groove in the base, which has three rubber feet for stability. If you're looking for a longer connection, the eighteen inch USB cable (included) also has a 3.5mm jack attached, and can be used instead. There is an on/off switch, an audio jack that lets you daisy-chain the speaker with another X-Mini (or two), an integrated volume dial, and a USB plug for charging and audio. To open the speaker, you simply twist and release and the top pops up to reveal the accordion-like speaker within. To close, you push the two halves together and twist again until discreet raised lines on each half are aligned with a satisfying "click". ~~~~~~~~~~~ FUNCTIONALITY ~~~~~~~~~~~ The unit is charged by attaching the USB cable to a powered port. A small red light on the bottom of the unit turns blue once the unit is charged, which usually takes around two hours. To use the speaker, you simply plug the audio jack into the headphone port of the relevant device (I use it for my iTouch and my work PC). Volume can be controlled using the dial on the unit or on the audio device it's plugged into (or both). When in use and not connected to power, the light will glow blue, dimming in intensity as the charge runs down. The charge (from an in-built rechargeable battery) usually lasts an average of eight hours, depending on volume of playback. The self-powered X-Mini II delivers a surprisingly rich and rounded sound, demonstrating none of the "tinny-ness" usually associated with MP3 speakers. It's not going to fill a huge room or wow an audiophile, but it is extremely effective given its size and its price point. There is little distortion, even at high volume levels, and a very satisfying level of bass that's off-set nicely by crisp and sharp delivery of sound. Also, given its size, weight (around 80 grams), clever design and great build quality, it is super-portable and so lives permanently in my work rucksack when not in use. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ SHOULD YOU GET ONE? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ If you need a compact, durable, great sounding portable speaker that can attach as easily to your MP3 as it does to your computer or mobile phone, then you'll be hard pressed to find a better product. At its average price point of around £14.99, its astonishing value for money and packs much more punch than its 2 watt rating (and size) would suggest. Highly recommended. Quick Update: The unit now comes in a host of different colours as well. © Hishyeness 2012

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        19.12.2011 12:54
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        An unmissable free ferry ride for Working Girl and tourist alike...

        We often take things under our noses for granted. As a Londoner, it usually needs a foreign visitor to lift me out of complacency to visit places like the National Gallery and the Tower of London. It was much the same during my thirteen years in New York during the Eighties. An unexpected opportunity to visit the Big Apple arose last week, and I was determined to scratch a seventeen year itch by finally taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry (the Ferry). Staten Island (also known as Richmond County) is one of New York's five boroughs (along with Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan) and is geographically situated on the New Jersey side of New York Harbour. The Ferry has been operated by the City between lower Manhattan and the northern tip of Staten Island for over 100 years, first commencing service in 1905. The route covers just over five miles, and takes around 25 to 30 minutes depending on harbour traffic. It is, first and foremost, a commuter ferry, carrying around 20 million passengers a year to and from New York's so-called "forgotten borough". It's the most direct route to the City for most Staten-Islanders, whose only other connection to New York is over the majestic Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the gateway to New York harbour. However, given the fantastic views of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the East River Bridges and the Brooklyn riverside, the Ferry has become a practically mandatory destination for tourists. The downtown Whitehall ferry terminal, next to Battery Park was completely refurbished in 2005, and is easily accessible from the South Ferry (1,2, & 3 train which runs up Manhattan's West Side) and Bowling Green (4,5 and 6 train running up the East Side) subway stations. The instantly recognisable orange-liveried Ferry offers a twenty-four hour, free (yes, that's completely free) turn up and go service every fifteen minutes during busy times and thirty minutes, most other times. Visitors from the UK will despair at the lack of obvious queuing system. There is usually a fairly inelegant rush to get on board. Although the main deck is wheelchair and pushchair accessible, the upper decks are not. For commuters, a seat, or position, on the bow is the holy grail (quickest to get off) and for tourists, the starboard (right) side outbound and port side (inbound) narrow outside decks are prized for the best views of New York, Lady Liberty and Jersey City. It can get very windy and nippy in the winter months, so warm clothing is essential if you plan on braving the elements. Once on board, there is generally plenty of space and seating available (depending on time of day) for those not fussed about the coveted vantage points. A full service snack bar operates on board, providing much needed coffees and snacks. Information points around the deck exhort the charms of Staten Island, but as an ex-New Yorker I remain to be convinced. The half-hour ride is relatively smooth. The ferry we took on both legs was the newest in the fleet, the MV "Spirit of America" which has been in service since 2006 and was built to deliberately echo the more traditional designs that have plied the route for a century. It is one of eight ferries currently operating. More information on each of them (if you're interested) is available at www.siferry.com. Before docking at either terminal, its popularity with tourists is evident from the announcement requesting that all passengers making an immediate return journey leave the Ferry and re-board at the gate. This is easily accomplished (the route is clearly signposted) and is done for both security reasons, and to give waiting passengers an equal chance of getting on board. The Ferry is well worth the time and effort and makes a great budget alternative to expensive ferry tours such as the Circle Line. My voyage was at sundown on a clear day, making for some spectacular light behind Lady Liberty on the return journey. By the time we approached lower Manhattan, the skyscrapers in the Financial District were twinkling with light, with the still-unfinished Freedom Tower (the replacement for the fallen Twin Towers) festooned with multicoloured Christmas lights from top to bottom. Unmissable and highly recommended. ©Hishyeness 2011

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          18.10.2011 17:30
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          An excellent Abu Dhabi hotel with excellent leisure facilities

          Recently, business travel has taken me to some exotic places, but in keeping with most work-related travel, this usually means getting very well acquainted with your hotel with very little exposure to the "outside" world. Such was the case with my recent trip to Abu Dhabi, when I spent six nights at the well-appointed, 400-room Beach Rotana hotel. In this case, I was grateful to be shielded from the unrelenting heat and humidity outside, and took the opportunity to make a detailed exploration of the property I was staying in. The Beach Rotana is located beside a man-made lagoon, with a private beach and outdoor pool, play and fitness facilities. Like most of the UAE, it offers a strange juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous. On the one hand, the layout of the leisure area evokes images of sweeping Caribbean and Indian Ocean resorts, on the other hand, across the lagoon, is one of the largest construction projects in the United Arab Emirates, as the new Abu Dhabi financial district emerges from the sands of Suwwah Island. ~~~~~~~~ Pitching Up ~~~~~~~~ The front entrance of the hotel is not that impressive, but such was this Westerner's desire to escape the searing heat that I am probably doing it an injustice. Once inside however, the vista is one of understated opulence, with marble floors, water features, high domed ceilings, and the hustle and bustle of a busy and somewhat cavernous lobby. There is an obligatory over-priced hotel shop selling expensive nick-nacks and a few snacks and sweets, and the raised central area hosts "Café Columbia" serving coffee, tea and pastries. Check-in was efficient, but the oily obsequiousness of the male receptionist was almost Fawlty-esque in its execution. With rooms assigned and card keys secured, we set off to explore our accommodations, practically fighting off the ministrations of several bell-boys eager to earn a few Dirhams by porting our negligible amount of luggage. I managed to get to the lifts without resorting to physical intervention (I am not a patient sort, so this was a considerable achievement) and when I reached my room, I was delighted to find it spacious and well thought through. ~~~~~~~~~~ Getting Settled ~~~~~~~~~~ The Beach Rotana is a five star hotel and it shows in every aspect. The room was very tastefully decorated in understated tan, light brown and gold hues, well proportioned, and with all mod-cons present and correct (including stocked mini-bar, large LCD TV, hair dryer, WiFi access, fruit bowl, up-market toiletries from L'Occitane, a selection of pillows, room safe, and real wood hangers). The only down-side was that the AC unit refused to push the temperature below 20C for some reason, but I wasn't bothered enough to have it looked at. Two complimentary 500ml bottles of mineral water are provided and refreshed every day. The room offered plenty of storage with a generous wardrobe and chest of drawers, and a pair of bedside tables on either side of the king-sized bed, one of which contains a Quran and a prayer rug. The hotel does a turn down service, leaving a flower and sleep-related quote on a card on the bed - a nice touch. The bed itself was very comfortable, and in spite of my usual first night troubles in a new bed, I had no problems sleeping. While lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling I saw a discreet arrow pointed in a seemingly random direction. It took me three days of wondering before I made the connection with Mecca. ~~~~~~~~~ Food Options ~~~~~~~~~ Breakfast is served in the Essence restaurant on the ground floor, which is situated in the atrium of the main wing (there is a separate lift block for the "luxury" wing of suites and executive rooms). It is a buffet-style offering, with most international palates catered for, and it offers a similar service at lunch and dinner as well. Most of the food was good, but short of excellent, with some of the cold meats and cheeses looking a little worse for wear. The hotel has a number of dining options that are available to both residents and non-residents. Given we were pretty much confined to the hotel for our meetings, we managed to visit most of them including the German style Brauhaus, offering weissbier on tap and sausages on the menu, the Rodeo Grill catering to meat lovers, Prego's for Italian-style pizza and pasta, and up-market India Indigo. There is also a fish restaurant called Finz which is sited mid-water over the lagoon, Japanese Benihana, and French-Polynesian Trader Vic's. For those looking for less expensive (fan)fare, the Beach Rotana has a dedicated entrance into the Abu Dhabi Mall, whose food court features international greats such as Hardees, Popeye's and McDonald's, along with a number of outlets serving local food. Room service is also available for those who can't (or won't) venture out of their rooms. Alcohol is only served in hotels (and one or two very select bars) in Abu Dhabi, and the hotel doesn't want for outlets serving it. ~~~~~~ Facilities ~~~~~~ The hotel also has an on-site spa, a large, airy and well equipped fitness centre, and the aforementioned pool complex with a kiddie pool, main pool with on-water bar, a covered children's play area and the beach. There are two large segregated changing rooms, which each incorporate a sauna and Jacuzzi - there are no shared indoor facilities - and a deckchair-side bar service available throughout the complex. The beach is pristine despite the ugly view opposite. Bathing in the Gulf is like taking a warm bath. The water is quite saline, making for exceptional buoyancy. ~~~~~~~~~~~ The Money Part ~~~~~~~~~~~ I was booked in on a corporate rate, which came in under £110 per night (including breakfast and free WiFi for the stay) but normal rates for standard rooms are not too far off this. It's the extra's which are expensive and rack up quite quickly. Internet access is relatively expensive (about £6/hr - but this is in keeping with international hotels of this standard), the mini-bar extortionate, and the food prices in the hotel restaurants rarely less than £50 per head. The UAE is not a place for bargains as almost everything is imported. ~~~~~~~~ Finishing Up ~~~~~~~~ All-in-all, despite a few niggles, I found the Beach Rotana experience a memorable one. Staff are very attentive (sometimes a little too much, but you get used to it), the facilities are outstanding and child-friendly, and the room rates much more reasonable than I expected. There is talk of us returning to finish our business in early December and I, for one, am looking forward to it. ©Hishyeness 2011

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            13.06.2011 09:20
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            A taste of North Africa and the Middle East in the City

            ~~~~~~~~ POSH NOSH ~~~~~~~~ One of the benefits of being in a decent sized corporate enterprise is that you get to dine out on the company's dime on a fairly regular basis. As our office is located in the City of London, there is no shortage of fine dining establishments to try, many of which are eye-wateringly expensive, even by City standards. You could argue that this makes a review of a place like Kenza of limited practical use to a majority of readers, as few are blessed with bottomless wallets, bankers bonuses or a rich aunt to dine out with. That said, whilst Kenza will set you back a fair wedge, it's not outrageous by London standards and could conceivably fall into the "special night out" category. Or could it? Kenza (which means "treasure" in Arabic apparently) is located in Devonshire Square, a traffic-free series of connected courtyards teeming with shopping, bars and eateries that is located between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Along with Kenza, the area boasts the Cinnamon Kitchen and a Marco Pierre White steakhouse. As expected, it's very popular with the professional crowd, as trains and tubes home are just round the corner. The entrance is off the main courtyard and down an unassuming side passage - just walk toward the red carpet - the only thing of real colour in the alley. Parking in the area is difficult at best, so public transport is your best bet. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ FIRST IMPRESSIONS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The ornate entrance, which leads to a softly lit spiral staircase, is small taste of things to come. It leads to a fabulous basement dining room richly and lavishly decorated with fabrics, soft furnishings, and intricate Moorish art. The room offers a variety of seating arrangements such as long tables, private booths, and secluded corners, with a private dining room also available for small groups. Our party was seated at a long table, with each dark red napkin adorned with a single red, silky rose petal. Once seated, our drinks orders were taken by a distinctly Eastern European looking waiter. There is an intriguing selection of cocktails available (menu on the table) but beer was limited to either Efes (Turkish) or Cobra (Indian) which didn't really seem in keeping with the theme. The menu provides a broad variety of familiar hot and cold meze, and a large selection of grills and bakes for the main courses, but as a party, we had a set menu (at £29.50 per person) for the evening, so my interest in some of the items proved a little academic. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ MOOR-ISH MEZE ~~~~~~~~~~~~ While we waited for the cold meze to commence, we were served our drinks and provided with some excellent green and black olives, some crudités and a tahini-based dip I was unfamiliar with. A short while later, we were served delicious warmed pitta bread, along with a pretty good hummus, a fantastic baba ghanoush (a tahini and aubergine dip) and a decent tabbouleh nestled on a romaine lettuce base. After a short interval, the hot stuff followed - a patata harra (reminiscent of patatas bravas in tapas, but a LOT spicier), deep fried lamb and bulghur kofteh filled with mince, onion and pine nuts (a personal favourite of mine) and sambousek - a delicious concoction of shredded chicken with onions and walnuts. So far so good. The food was effortlessly matching the lushness of the décor. Portions were very well sized, leaving plenty of room for the mains to follow. ~~~~~~~~ BELLY-FLOP ~~~~~~~~ Once the hot meze was demolished, there was something of a pause. The piped music, which to that point, was a rather incongruous mellow house mix, suddenly changed tack and started blaring out cheesy Arabic pop. The reason for the change of pace soon became apparent as three scantily clad belly dancers started to make their way through the dinning room wiggling for all they were worth. Now, I'm as red-blooded as the next man and given my Middle-Eastern roots, am quite used to this almost obligatory exposition in such establishments, but the only possible connection these nubile and well proportioned young ladies had with North Africa was probably a summer holiday charter flight to Marrakesh from Stansted airport. The whole performance seemed a little twee and forced, and frankly, could have been done without. The female diners studiously ignored them, whilst their male partners kept eyes down, with the occasional surreptitious sneak peek so as not to offend their dates. The only really interested party seemed to be a group of about ten lads with a bit too much Cobra in the system, but even they got bored quickly. After about ten minutes of strutting their stuff to some distorted wailings over the in-house speaker system, the dancers withdrew, never to return. The music reverted back to mellow house and it was as if the whole thing never quite happened. Surreal. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ MIDDLING MAINS ~~~~~~~~~~~~ A short while later, our mains arrived - a veritable mountain of various barbecued meats piled on a plate of rice and salad. It looked quite promising but unfortunately, in keeping with the dance performance it followed, it was something of a disappointment. Apart from the spiced minced lamb (kafta lahmé) everything was too dry and more than a little overcooked. The lamb cubes (lahem meshoué) which should have been quite tender were especially stringy - much more in keeping with a High Street kebab house than a City eatery charging a premium for it. The chicken cubes were quite flavourful and well marinated, but the taste was let down by its texture. Only copious helpings of the garlic and harissa sauces provided saved the main from mediocrity. At this point - 9pm on a Tuesday night - most of the early punters had been and gone, and no one seemed to be coming to take their places. I was surprised to learn that the restaurant is only open until 10pm. In any event, it seemed the waiting staff had disappeared with them, as we barely saw anyone for five minutes at a time. Fortunately, we were absorbed in our own company, so this wasn't really an issue, but garlic sauce makes one thirsty and there didn't seem to be much interest in keeping us plied with drink. Eventually, the equivalent of a North African chaiwallah appeared with a pot of sweet mint tea (he was from Sri Lanka, but let's ignore that for the moment) and made a grand performance of pouring the tea from a great height into the glass cups on his bronzed tray. With the tea dutifully distributed, we were plied with a tall desert stand filled with Turkish Delight, some decent baklava and sweets, and a large helping of fresh fruits. I'm happy to say that the beginning and end were much better than the middle. Now apologies for the next bit, but I felt it worth an honourable mention. The excessive consumption of liquid in various forms led to an inevitable sojourn to the karzi, which proved to every bit as decorated as the dining room. The main feature of the WC, if you can call it that, was a large communal bronze urinal which was set too high up the wall. At just under six foot, I am not a small chap by any means (stop sniggering at the back - I mean in height!) but found the facility uncomfortable to use and am sure those shorter than me would not even try. Otherwise, the toilets were immaculately looked after. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ TRAGIC OR TREASURE? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ So, is Kenza worthy of a special night out? Given that the a la carte menu offerings average around £5.50 a plate for the meze, £18.00 per main and £6 for puddings, a couple could expect to part with around £50 a head (including a £1.50 per person cover charge and the "discretionary" 12.5% gratuity added to your bill). Cocktails are priced around a tenner, which is average for this neck of the woods. There is no doubt you are paying for its location (a hop and a skip to Liverpool Street), its décor (certainly interesting and different) and its lack of competition (there are very few of these joints in London, never mind the City), but even with all of the quibbles I have included in this review, overall, its still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. That said, food-wise there is better value to be had elsewhere in London - such as any of the Marroush empire in the less salubrious surroundings Edgware Road, but Kenza has its place and is worth a look. Recommended - for the dining room if nothing else... ~~~~~~~~~ FINE DETAILS ~~~~~~~~~ Kenza 10 Devonshire Square London EC2M 4YP 020 7929 5533 reservations@ kenza.com www.kenza-restaurant.com Mon - Fri 12:30 to 3:30pm (Lunch) Mon - Sat 5:30 to 10pm (Dinner) Closed on Sunday © Hishyeness 2011

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              07.06.2011 11:37
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              The quintessential Maryland blue crab experience right on the Chesapeake.

              ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ BACK ON THE CRAB ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A recent trip to the USA for a three day conference near our corporate headquarters presented an eagerly anticipated opportunity to indulge in some shameless nostalgia. I spent most of my formative years and early adult life in New York and at various other cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, most notably Boston and Washington DC. It was the proximity of our offices to the latter that had me particularly excited, as the agenda promised a trip to Maryland's state capital, Annapolis, home of the US Naval Academy and, perhaps more importantly for me, Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, a local institution rightly famed for its Maryland Blue Crab, freshly hauled in from the waters of the Chesapeake. Crabbing is an experience that first timers will either love or hate. The concept is as simple as it is rustic. You get a bushel of freshly steamed crab, seasoned with a local spice called "Old Bay" (a heady mix of several ingredients including mustard, paprika, bay leaf, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt, and ginger) a mallet for cracking the shell and not much else other than cold beer and fries. My first experience of crabbing was over 20 years ago in a dock-side establishment in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, so I was very much looking forward to more of the same. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ECHOES OF DELIVERANCE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Getting to Cantler's is as much of an experience as eating there. Having spent an hour or so walking the picturesque streets of downtown Annapolis and trying the local beer, we boarded a mini-bus, which took us on Route 450 across the Severn River (quite a bit smaller than its namesake in Wales) onto the 648 for a little while, before turning down Forest Beach Road. At this point, I could hear faint strains of "Duelling Banjos" take hold in my overactive imagination as we travelled down a single lane road that offered a wide variety of scary looking accommodation, interspersed with some lush looking houses. Before long, we pitched up at Cantler's on Mill Creek and clambered out of the bus. The trip took no more than 15 minutes, and given its location, you really need a car or taxi (or boat, should you be so lucky!) to get there. Cantler's is a family run business that has been around since 1974. It's eponymous owner worked as a waterman on Chesapeake Bay. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ GREAT ATMOSPHERE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ First impressions confirmed my expectations. We passed through a small porch impressively decorated with both local and national awards and acknowledgements, into a cosy dining-room lined with bench-like tables covered simply with plain thin cardboard table cloths. The restaurant has an outside area right on the creek, but given the size of our party and the forecasts of rain, our organiser opted for prudence and booked us an area inside. In the event, it didn't rain. The restaurant has an obvious nautical theme, and its wood interior and low ceilings give it a real faux-shack feel. The area to the left of the door is dominated by a large bar (which serves food and snacks at bar side stools) and the constantly swinging door in and out of the kitchens. There is a natural bustle and busy-ness to the place that just adds to the atmosphere. Service was immediate and attentive, with several young ladies in Cantler's T-shirts (yours for only $17.95 in a variety of fashionable colors!) making the rounds on our tables - there were eighteen of us - to explain the system. We had signed up for one of their "Feast" packages, which included the aforesaid crabs, generous helpings of steamed shrimp (prawns to us Europeans), giant, olympic-sized onion rings, lashings of French fries and tubs of coleslaw, along with buckets of canned beer on ice, including the unlikely-sounding Yeungling's, which put me in mind of an Oriental Jedi Padawan learner, but is in fact, the oldest continuously operating brewery in the US, operating up the road in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (and anglicised from the German name "Jüngling"). This was all to be polished off by a selection of home-made deserts. A swift crab-cracking tutorial followed before service commenced and we were left to our own devices. Incidentally, those in the party not partial to seafood or alcohol were offered suitable alternatives, so everyone was more than adequately catered for. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ HARD WORK FOR SCANT REWARD ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ You soon realise that you'll most likely never have to work harder when you've paid to eat. Maryland Blues are around five to seven inches across and getting into them requires a bit of muscle and graft. That said, there is something oddly primeval and satisfying in taking a large wooden mallet to a crustacean, and you kind of get into the flow of things. What they don't tell you is that you'll end up making an almighty mess, so make sure you don't arrive in your Sunday best. My sense of vanity and propriety disappeared after five minutes when I saw my boss elbow deep in crab remains hacking away with real purpose. The crabs themselves, once you get into them, are perfectly cooked and seasoned, so that dipping them in the little pots of drawn butter provided almost seemed like sacrilege. Given the crustaceans are the main event, its easy to forget the sides. The onion rings were delicious - real, giant rings of onion covered in a delicate and flavourful batter that didn't overwhelm them. Even the standard French fries were a cut above the ordinary. Only desert was a teeny bit of a let-down, with the archetypical local version of death by chocolate being wheeled out, and proving a little too rich and sickly sweet after three or four forkfuls. I finished the meal with both my belly and my inner Neanderthal thoroughly satisfied, and even succumbed to the subtle marketing by snapping up a dark green T-shirt to mark the occasion. There is a display of the "merchandising" in a glass cabinet between the toilets, which, incidentally, were quite small and cramped for a restaurant the size of Cantler's, and as such, not particularly clean. ~~~~~~~~~ THE DAMAGE ~~~~~~~~~ As I was on a corporate junket, I didn't get a peek at the bill, but if you go a la carte starters go for around $10, sandwiches around $12, and mains from around $20. Soft drink refills are free, and as mentioned before, they also do a limited menu of steaks, ribs and chicken for "land lovers". This being the US, tipping is expected, with 18% added for service to groups of ten or more (we easily qualified). If you're planning on going, their web site (www.cantlers.com) is a must visit, providing directions, booking details, opening times, recipes and several how-to guides on buying, preparing and eating crab. Parking on-site is limited, so car-pooling is suggested, and if you're lucky enough to be going by boat, there is free mooring for patrons. They are open seven days a week, and will not take bookings during their busy season, so its first come first served. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A CRACKING EXPERIENCE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ So is Cantler's worth the diversion? Absolutely. Its reputation as a local institution had me worried as in my travel experience, you either end up with a overrated tourist trap, or, if you're really lucky, a place that's worth every accolade and moniker attributed to it. I'm happy to report that Jimmy Cantler's fine establishment is very much the latter. Sure, your hands will be stinking of crab and you'll be sweating out Old Bay for a few days, but it's well worth the experience - and that's what it is really - a social experience that's perfect for a fun night out or as a work jolly, provided no one is too fussy to join in. Highly recommended ~~~~~~ DETAILS ~~~~~~ Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn 458 Forest Beach Road Annapolis, Maryland 21401 Phone: 410-757-1311 http://www.cantlers.com © Hishyeness 2011

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                23.05.2011 14:41
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                An excellent eco-friendly night light that saves money in the long-term.

                ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I HAVE A SECRET TO TELL ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ For those who have children with resident closet-monsters, or simply want to avoid the toe-stubbing pain of negotiating the midnight visit to the little room, a night-light is an essential and useful accessory. We have been through a variety of them in the past, with varying degrees of success. Most were the plug-in variety with changeable light bulbs and themed covers, but they often did not last very long, protruded too far from the wall, or didn't give off the right amount of light (too bright or too dim). Another issue was the fact that they tended to remain on all night (and usually all day by default) slowly helping to tick up an ever increasing energy bill. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ FROM MY ELECTRICAL WELL ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ As such, I was most intrigued to discover the "Moonlight" from Ecozone, the same folks who developed Ecoballs and Magnoloo (www.ecozone.com). It was different to anything else I had seen before, and, true to its name, it boasted impressive eco-credentials and the promise of significant energy savings (we usually have three night-lights on at any given time). What makes this product different is that instead of a conventional bulb, it uses an LED panel that never needs to be replaced. The product is based on technology developed by NASA to light-up cockpit panels, hence its on-packaging claim of "space age technology". ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ IT'S A SIMPLE MESSAGE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Moonlight emits a soft, greenish glow that paradoxically manages to be fairly bright but diffused enough not to penetrate your eyelids when you close your eyes. That makes it very practical for kid's bedrooms, hallways, or anywhere else that needs to be lighted discretely at night. Its only limitation is that it can't be used in potentially wet or humid areas (i.e. outdoors or in bathrooms). It is extremely energy efficient, with the manufacturer claiming it will cost between 0.5p and 1p a day (depending on your electricity tariff) - a rate of around 2.3 Kilowatt hours per year. By comparison, a standard 7 Watt night-light runs at 61 Kilowatts hours per year. That makes for some impressive looking maths. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ AND I'M LEAVING OUT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The panel itself is modern-looking and very thin - about the thickness of an iPhone - and does not extrude much, blending in well with standard white socket plates. The other advantage is that the LE panel is cool to the touch, and doesn't emit heat that can burn inquisitive little hands like standard bulbs can. Given how slim and durable it is (i.e. no bulb to break) it can be easily packed for travelling and has proved a godsend to us in hotel rooms while taking the little ones on holiday. We currently have our infant son in our room and use the Moonlight to do nappy changes and feeds at night without having to fumble in the dark or turn any of the main lights on. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THE WHISTLES & BELLS* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ At around £9-10 (currently available from a variety of on-line outlets such as Amazon and Ocado, and on the High Street at Lakeland) it is not exactly cheap, but it will pay for itself in the long-run. Ecozone, who are a UK based business founded in 1997 - are confident enough in their product to offer a 3 year guarantee - they replace it free during that period if it fails for any reason (provided it has not been damaged or misused). From their literature, the product is clearly intended to be usable 24 hours a day for the full three year period. We have now used our first two for over a year, and ordered a third in March. The product is very useful, durable and has given us hassle-free service so far. Highly recommended. © Hishyeness 2011 (*with a tip of the hat to TMBG for the paragraph headings)

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                  16.05.2011 13:41
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                  A good option close to Baltimore's international airport, but damned with faint praise...

                  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ DIFFERENT SHADES OF GRAY ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ As a business traveller, my choice of hotel is usually dictated by corporate policy and the location of the meetings I am travelling to, so I rarely get to stay anywhere scenic or interesting. The Westin BWI is a case in point. Located on the outskirts of Baltimore Washington International Airport, it is situated in a "hotel corridor" populated by almost every hotel brand imaginable. Externally, apart from the prominent signage, it's hard to tell one property from another. Each company tries hard to offer some unique aspect or variation of service, but to be frank, they strike me as much of a muchness. ~~~~~~ ARRIVAL ~~~~~~ The Westin is, as its full name suggests, very close to BWI airport, one of three major airports that serves the Washington DC metro area. Baltimore is north of DC, but transport links (road, rail and bus) from the airport make it a decent base for exploring the nation's capital. The hotel, in common with most, runs a free shuttle service that picks up guests from just outside the arrivals hall, and from there it is less than ten minutes to the property. There is plenty of available parking on-site for those who need it. I arrived at around 8:30 in the evening on a Sunday, so reception wasn't particularly busy. Check-in was quick and efficient, and two key cards were issued for my room on the sixth floor. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ FIRST IMPRESSIONS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The hotel is very modern in style with white, polished stone floors, lots of dark woods and earthy décor and furnishings. Opposite the reception desk is a pebbled wall water feature meant to exude a sense of calm and relaxation to the place, but I found the idea a little forced. To the right of reception is a small kiosk selling "Sundries" which I used to re-acquaint myself with some of my childhood favourite sweets (Butterfingers and a Hershey Bar if you must know). Further to the right is a large, well-equipped gym and swimming pool complex, neither of which I used during my three night stay, but they seemed well-maintained and very clean. The ground floor of the property is characterised by high ceilings, plenty of natural light and comfortable seating areas. The services are completed by the "Luminous" restaurant, which serves as a breakfast venue by day and a bar by night. There are a couple of departure boards showing flights for BWI in the communal areas which does nothing to distract from what is very obviously, a typical airport hotel. ~~~~~~~~ THE ROOM ~~~~~~~~ Rooms are spacious, tastefully decorated, and, in my case, dominated by the large king sized bed that proved to be every bit as comfortable as it looked. I usually have trouble sleeping the first night in a hotel bed, but the Westin was a happy exception - its no wonder they call them "Heavenly Beds". The chore was getting out of it in the morning! The mini-bar was not stocked, but complimentary bottled water is provided and refreshed on a daily basis. There is also a Starbucks filter-coffee machine in lieu of a normal kettle, and it was a real treat to brew a fresh cup first thing in the morning. The large wardrobe contains a safe, an iron and ironing board, and plenty of storage and hanging space. A large LCD TV sits on top a long chest of drawers, and the desk provides enough space, plugs and cubby holes to work comfortably should the need arise. There are various lighting options around the room, but I had two small niggles. Firstly, the light that can be operated from the door is barely bright enough to get you into the room, and second, there is no switch by the bed to turn it off. It's been a while since I've stayed at a hotel absent this arrangement, and it was something of a surprise. ~~~~~~~~~~~ THE BATHROOM ~~~~~~~~~~~ The bathroom is large and well appointed with both standard mirror above the sink and a magnifying mirror for make-up and shaving. There is the usual selection of toiletries (soap, shower gel and shampoo) and accessories, and a nice array of white, fluffy towels. The shower head was a very strange two headed arrangement, with one directly above the other, but water pressure was excellent and did much to blast away cobwebs from the flight and the social events of the night before. Although the shower curtain is the thin white type that I hate, the bath is widened at the shower end, so it's more of a cubicle. The sides of the bath are also quite low making it dead easy to step in and out of. ~~~~~~~~~~ FOOD & DRINK ~~~~~~~~~~ As I was there for a conference, I only had breakfast in the restaurant on my final day (we were separately catered for outside our conference suite on the other days), and was (happily) expecting the usual American buffet overkill and abundance of choice. As such, I was a little disappointing to find that the breakfast offering was very understated and much more akin to the continental style we are accustomed to in Europe. The only available hot food was an "egg bar" making fried eggs to order and omelettes, as well as a waffle press where you could make your own. Other than that, there was nothing remarkable or impressive about it. I ordered some poached eggs (which, counter-intuitively came from the kitchen rather than the egg bar) and when they arrived (it took almost 15 minutes) they were reasonably well cooked, but came in a bowl that was awash with water. ~~~~~~~~ FACILITIES ~~~~~~~~ WiFi is available throughout the building - it is free in public areas, but charged at USD $9.95 a day if you use it in room. Apart from selling junk food, soft drinks and microwaveable snacks (there is a small microwave provided) the Sundries shop has a good selection of tourist information. One noteworthy leaflet gets you a discount book to use at the local Arundel Mills outlet mall, which is around a 15 minute cab ride from the hotel and will cost around USD $25 each way. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ FINAL THOUGHTS ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Despite its proximity to the airport, the hotel is not under the flight path and the windows are soundproof, so once you are inside, you'd have no idea that BWI is less than a mile away. Service was decent, but like much of the establishment, there was very little to distinguish it from any other Starwood property, or, for that matter, any other major hotel chain serving the business and executive market. Prices are reasonable and comparable with similar properties in the area (around USD $199 per night excluding taxes and charges). All in all, my three day stay was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. This property will mainly appeal to travelling business people attending conferences or visiting the many businesses in the immediate vicinity of the airport, but there is not much here to commend it to anyone else. Recommended. Sort of. © Hishyeness 2012 (Returning for a second stay in May 2012 and will update accordingly)

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                    27.04.2011 12:44
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                    A good all-round all-in-one, but there are better available at the asking price...

                    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ALL IN ONE OR NONE FOR ALL? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ With space at a premium in our household, finding a compact, high-functioning all-in-one home office device that does more than just go through each of its motions is something of a challenge. As a fan of hi-fi separates, I am a firm believer in specific tools for specific jobs, so I am not easily convinced that a combination printer, scanner and copier can be a master of all of its trades. Ideally, such a device should provide high quality photo and document printing, a variety of inputs, true wireless capability, ease of use and truly innovative and practical functionality (as opposed to gimmicks and gadgets that barely get a run-out - admit it, how many of those washing machine programmes do you ACTUALLY use?). That's a tall order, and with an already perfectly adequate (and sometimes exceptional) Canon MP640 nestling in my home office, a few months back, I was offered an HP Photosmart Premium e-All-In-One C310 for free, and the opportunity was way too good to turn down. I will deliberately try to keep stats (such as pages printed per minute, resolutions etc.) out of this review, and concentrate instead on the experience of using the machine (in any case, these stats and technical specifications are readily available here - http://tinyurl.com/6ju5a48 - on HP's official site for those who dig that sort of stuff) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ GETTING UP & RUNNING ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The printer arrived in a sturdy branded box from HP, and the surprises started as soon as I started unpacking. HP have gone to great lengths to make the packaging as eco-friendly as possible, using a re-usable shoulder bag and a zip up pouch to enclose the printer and its bits respectively. Whilst neither will be gracing a Milan catwalk, there is a little bit of geeky chic about them. As with most of these devices, removing it from the box is a two-person job, mainly due to bulk rather than weight. It took a few minutes to peel off all of the protective films, locate the two-piece power cable and get it up and running. The printer comes with an adjustable touch-screen display (a nice step-up from the scroll wheel I am used to using on my Canon) which guided me through the whole set-up process, which was simply and clearly explained. This included installation of the cartridges (which, in common with other manufacturers are not full capacity out of the box), paper, print head calibration, wireless connection to my router and wireless test report. The time from unpacking to getting the printer ready for operation took, at most, ten minutes. The printer is wireless, which means it can be sited almost anywhere in the house and run off the home network - all you have to do is to find the space for its not inconsiderable 18"x12" footprint (with the paper tray sticking out an additional six inches at the front). For those who prefer a "hard" connection, the printer has a USB 2.0 input, but you will need to source your own cable as one is not provided. A CD-ROM set up disk is included, along with brief "getting started" type instructions in booklet form (offered in a plethora of European languages), so between these and the pictorial guide for cartridge replacement sited next to the printer carriage, HP seem to have all of the bases fully covered. They even provide a handy wallet sized card with details of the print cartridges the unit uses. Installation of the drivers and software is fairly straight-forward, if a little time-consuming. I still have a fully working HP Photosmart 8250 and little seems to have changed in loading times - the initial software set-up still seems to take an age (over 20 minutes). The touch screen takes a little getting used to, and is probably a little too unresponsive for my liking, but once you get the hang of it (i.e. understand its foibles) it seems to get easier to use. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ INNOVATIVE OR DERIVATIVE? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ One of the unique features of the unit and ostensibly one of the reasons for the "e" prefix in its name, is the ability to access web services directly from the touch-screen via a number of branded "apps". These include a variety of content such as kid-orientated stuff from Disney, DreamWorks, and Crayola (ex. colouring and games that can be printed off) to practical travel guides, weather forecasts and access to HP's Snapfish and Google's Picasa web-based photo services. It's a nice touch, though I have yet to make it a first destination for such information, preferring instead to use my laptop or desktop PC, whose screens provide much more space for editing and viewing. You can check for updates and new applications direct from the touch screen and download them to the unit, however, choose a quiet time to do this as the update process can take awhile, and you can't power off or use the C310 while it is underway. The unit provides a handy countdown during the update process, but it is prone to "hanging" so isn't very accurate. In my limited experience, it can take two or three tries to get it to update properly. Another reason for the funky prefix is the ability to print to the C310 "anywhere, anytime... even on the go" - HP's words, not mine, but a very good précis of a key selling point. In order to enable the functionality, you access the web address provided, add your printer using a unique code provided during the set-up process (this is only valid for 24 hours, but a new one can be generated at any time), and then set up an "allowed sender's list" to identify the e-mail addresses that can use the unit to print. You can then print by sending an e-mail, with the document or photo to be printed as an attachment, to a designated e-mail address. Unfortunately, you can't customise the e-mail address after registration, and as it is a series of hard to remember random letters and numbers, HP seem to have missed a trick. The system itself works remarkably well - the unit knows when you are sending a photo or document and prints from the appropriate tray. Of course, the downside is that you need to make sure you have enough of the right paper loaded in the right tray, otherwise you could end up printing a fifteen page document onto A4 photo paper. I have found this feature especially useful to print straight from my Blackberry, without the fuss of transferring photos or documents from one device to another. Photos dry practically instantly (the exception seems to be deep, concentrated blacks which are prone to smudging if handled too early), so there is no danger of one sticking to another if you give it multiple print jobs. That said, not everything will print. Several jobs I sent by e-mail from my work PC (graphics rich presentations and large photos) exceeded the 5MB (or ten attachment) size limit, but generally, most documents seem to come through fine (I have had some issues with sizing - especially with Excel or similar spreadsheet applications). You can use the web-based print centre to keep track of what has printed and what has been discarded, but HP send a confirmation to the source e-mail address either way. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ BACK TO THE DAY JOB... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The paper/photo trays are at the bottom of the unit. The lower compartment is accessed by lifting off the smaller, photo-specific tray, and can accommodate around 125 sheets of A4 paper or photo paper. The upper compartment uses photo paper only and takes around twenty pages of varying sizes, up to a maximum of 5"x7". You can set it to print duplex (both sides of the paper) and it does so by printing one side, spitting out the paper, and then pulling it back in to do the other side. Print quality on documents is very good with no sign of bleed on decent quality paper, but as with most ink-jets, it's best to let the ink dry for a few seconds before handling, otherwise it is prone to smudging. Likewise, with photo printing, colour reproduction, saturation and detail are very nicely captured. I have been diligently printing off the best of my Armenia photos from last summer with good results. The photocopying (both in colour and black and white) and scanning functions are easy and intuitive to use. The flatbed scanner accommodates up to A4 size paper. Both functions are accessed from the "front page" of the touch screen and provide easy to follow walk-through's for ease of use. You can scan to a file on your chosen destination PC, or directly to a memory card in a bewildering array of formats. The unit accommodates Sony Memory Stick Duo, MMC and SD cards in a slot at the front, allowing you to print direct (or scan onto) without the need for a PC. In a refreshing change from the industry norm, when installing the software on the CD-ROM provided, HP seem to have refrained from clogging your PC desktop with bloatware. Apart from a shortcut to "shop" for HP supplies, the three other icons give you: (a) quick access to the web-based HP ePrinter Center; (b) link to download HP Photo Creations (which I haven't tried) and, perhaps most usefully, (c) the HP Solution Center, which provides a one-stop shop for diagnostics, settings, functionality, and the obligatory special offers. The program is easy on the eye and equally easy and intuitive to use. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ IS IT WORTH THE PREMIUM? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Having read some of the feedback on the HP site, I have not experienced any of the print head clogging problems others have reported, and have found the unit reliable and effective. It compares well with my incumbent Canon for print speed and quality, with the added features providing something different from its Japanese rival. However, whilst it does many things pretty well, it doesn't really stand out in any particular area. Its performance and features are best described as above average. It still offers decent value for money provided you manage to get hold of at a substantial discount to its £179 RRP (It's going for £99 at John Lewis at the time of writing (i.e. April 2011)). It's five separate print cartridges (two of them black) allow for individual replacement, it runs fairly quiet, duplex printing cuts down on paper costs, and in standby mode it uses very little electricity. If you are looking for a solid all-rounder that would be at home in a document-heavy home office environment, with the ability to copy and scan to an acceptable level, then the C310 is an option. If it seems I am trying hard to enthuse, it's because I am. Ultimately, for the RRP there are better options available, and one of them, my trusty Canon, is winking conspiratorially at me from the corner of my office. © Hishyeness 2011

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                      07.04.2011 16:07
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                      An excellent, well-sited and value for money hotel, especially for overnight and short stays.

                      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ SERIAL OVERNIGHTER ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ It's not often that I resent being put up in a hotel for the night. However, when the stay(s) in question come in the middle of a tortuous month-long deal negotiation that involves fourteen hour days, several all-nighters, and an intimate knowledge of most of the take-away establishments in our corner of London's Square Mile, staying over becomes a necessary chore rather than a pleasure in of itself. That said, over the course of the last three weeks, I have stayed at the Hoxton Hotel nine times and now know the place inside out - to the extent that I have invented a bingo game based on the rooms I have been assigned during my various stays. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ URBAN ÜBER-COOL ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ First things first. Apparently, the Hoxton is not a hotel, but rather, an "Urban Lodge". Situated in über-cool Shoreditch, on the fringes of the City, the marketing bods have even to reversed the last "N", ostensibly to add to its chic cachet. That said, gimmicks aside, the Hoxton is rather different from its competitors in the immediate area (Travelodge. Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza Shoreditch and the Hilton Islington are all within reach and at a similar price point). It's strap-line is "Luxury where it matters, budget where it counts" and, on every level, it measures up very well against this claim. My place of work has a corporate rate of £139 per night (before VAT), but, apart from its periodic (and well documented) £1-a-night room sales (which I have never managed to take advantage of) their rack rate is a reasonable - for central London - £169 per night. You notice the difference in emphasis and style as soon as you walk in the front entrance. The lobby area is a wide open and high-ceilinged space that accommodates some widely spread seating areas, large rustic wooden tables and a roaring fireplace, as well as the discreet reception area and the Hoxton Grill - an excellent, American style bistro that, as expected, majors heavily on meat and is usually heaving later in the week. In keeping with the "urban" theme, staff are dressed in checked shirts reflecting the predominantly brown, yellow and grey motif. Check-in is quick and efficient, and staff will explain the workings of the hotel if its your first stay. You'll get an electronic card key and a card with your room number scribbled on it. ~~~~~~~~~~ FUNKY ROOMS ~~~~~~~~~~ The décor is quite funky, with exposed brickwork and piping, lots of metal and bold, coloured lighting. Rooms are sleek, relatively minimalist and polished, with a double or twin bed configuration adorned with the hotel's signature "Rock, Scissors, Paper" cushions and a stylised representation of a London landmark on the wall (St Paul's mostly). Tea and coffee-making facilities are provided, along with a carton of fresh semi-skimmed milk in the fridge. You are also given two bottles of Prêt-a-Manger still spring water for free - which makes a refreshing change from the usual hotel practice of charging you an arm and a leg. I found the beds very comfortable, although the pillows are a little too soft for my liking, and the bedside lamps don't offer much help if you're planning to read for a bit. There is a desk in every room, above which is a large fold-out mirror and a 28" flat-screen LCD TV with a generous selection of channels, although the picture quality is not particularly clear. The desk has a drawer, which is always left open when you enter the room, that holds a pencil, bottle opener, coffee and tea, a hairdryer and a guide to the immediate area around the hotel. Wardrobe space is limited -it'll do for a couple of days, but much more than that would prove a stretch. Soft drinks, snacks and small bottles of wine are available at reception, but, rather astonishingly, they are no more expensive than what you would pay in the convenience stores across the street. As part of the service, you also get proper down duvets, leather headboards, free WiFi everywhere in the hotel, and a free hour of phone calls to most places. The bathrooms are functional but stylish, with nice, fluffy white towels, toilet paper that's kind to your derriere, a generous bar of Pears soap, and complimentary toiletries. However, the best part is that the Hoxton has dispensed with the bath, and replaced it with a very nice tiled shower enclosure with a rain head shower and a separate hosed nozzle to help you get to (ahem) hard to reach areas. Even the bathroom mirror is treated so it doesn't steam up. Carrying on the Prêt theme (the Hoxton is owned by Sinclair Beecham who also co-owns the sandwich place), whilst a typical £20 hotel buffet breakfast is not included in the rate (the Hoxton Grill do a £10 All English or a £5 bacon butty) you do get a "light" breakfast which includes 250ml of freshly squeezed orange juice, a banana and a pot of granola topped yoghurt and fruit compote in the morning. The system is quite cool (well, it would be, wouldn't it?). There is a brown paper bag on the desk. You simply tick off whether you want breakfast for one or two, and what time you want it (between 6am and 9am), place the bag on a hook outside your door, and viola! it's there in the morning. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The owners have made a real effort to break normal hotel conventions - such as heading the bill "the Damage", doing away with mini-bars, and making their in-room signs humorous and irreverent (ex. each one is headed "Stupid Sign No...), but it's not change for the sake of it. They have really struck the right balance between providing the extras people actually want, and cutting back on the things they don't. For me, the most important thing was to get a good night's sleep before battle commenced again the following day, as well as the efficiency of check-in and check-out. Trust me, when you roll up at 4:30am after sixteen straight hours of hard bargaining, the last thing you want is some trainee in the graveyard slot pfaffing around trying to get your room sorted (Hilton Islington, take note!). Staying at the Hilton up the road on a number of other nights (when the Hoxton wasn't available at short notice) provided an excellent contrast and reference point, and pound for pound on value, service and facilities, the Hoxton would win every time. It doesn't have a gym or pool of its own, but you can use a local partner for a fiver, its location on Great Eastern Street, near Old Street station gives it excellent transport links (Liverpool Street is also a 10 minute walk away), and the "Internet Café" in reception, which has a variety of different sized Apple Macs, is free to use (although they are always busy). Having experienced excellent and consistent quality, and value for money in nine of its 205 rooms, I can't recommend it highly enough. ~~~~~~ DETAILS ~~~~~~ The Hoxton Hotel 81 Great Eastern Street London EC2A 3HU 020 7550 100 www.hoxtonhotels.com Check-in from 14:00 Check-Out at Noon Late check-out at £5 per hour until 16:00 Luggage storage available Front entrance is NOT in Congestion Zone Rear Entrance (Willow Street) IS in Congestion Zone There is no on-site parking All major credit cards accepted Room service available (though very limited overnight) © Hishyeness 2011

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                        10.03.2011 16:24
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                        A perfect companion to the Kindle, but as of March 2011, ruined by a serious technical issue.

                        ~~~~~~~~~~~~ KINDLE SURPRISE ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Having dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints to my wife in the run-up to Christmas, it was almost inevitable that I would get a much desired 3G capable Amazon Kindle as a present. The additional gift of an official black leather Amazon cover from my in-laws was a very nice surprise. I could think of no better way to dress up this impressive e-Reader, but would have been very reluctant to spend the eye-watering £29.99 asking price myself. Amazon also do a cover with an integrated light (£50.99). This is a review of the non-lighted version (DooYoo lump both in the same category). ~~~~~~~~~ LOOK & FEEL ~~~~~~~~~ The cover comes in a well protected cardboard box with a set of pictorial fitting instructions. The first thing that hits you is the distinctive, earthy new leather smell. There is nothing quite like it, and even after almost three months of ownership, it still has it. The cover is tightly stitched, and the dimpled "pebble-grained" black leather provides a firm and tactile grip. The outside back cover features an elasticated black band with a small leather tab (discreetly embossed with "Amazon Kindle" on both sides). The band fits into a groove on the front cover, providing a secure, but easy to use closing mechanism. To open, you simply lift the tab to pull the elastic out of the groove. The cover can be bought in seven different colours - black, chocolate brown, burnt orange, burgundy red, steel blue, apple green and hot pink. The inside of the cover is lined with dark charcoal-grey microfibre, which more than adequately protects the Kindle screen and case from scratches and scuffs. Just off the spine of the cover, on the back panel, are a pair of black metal clips which are used to secure the Kindle into place. The bottom clip is fixed, but the top one is spring-loaded. You simply fit the bottom clip into the slot provided on the Kindle, push the top spring-loaded clip down until it engages in the top slot, and then let go. The mechanism is very simple, but the amount of tension in the clip is well thought out and keeps the Kindle secured in place. The cover is only about a centimetre wider than the Kindle itself, but it doubles the overall thickness of the device. However the trade-off seems well worth it, especially given that it is still quite lightweight with the cover on. The only minor complaint, from a functional point of view, is that the leather spine is a little too stiff to allow the cover to be folded back comfortably on itself. This is not unlike how you would read a hard-cover book, so it's not really a big problem. However, it is marketed as being capable of being folded like that, so I would have expected a bit more "give". Otherwise, on external appearances alone, the product exudes quality and appears to be a more than worthy companion to the Kindle. The only real issue appears to be whether it represents value for money at the RRP. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ BOOTS & RE-BOOTS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ For the first few weeks, I used the Kindle without a problem. However, out of the blue, it started doing strange things. It would lose the page I was on, inexplicably freeze, randomly reboot, rapidly drain power, or fail to turn on, requiring a hard re-boot to get going again. Naturally, I was disappointed, so I followed up with Amazon, who suggested a software upgrade to the latest version. This seemed to make the Kindle more stable, but again, after a few days, the old problems came back. I assumed the problem was a faulty Kindle, and decided on a little web research before taking the draconian step of returning it for a replacement. To my surprise, after a little digging, I found many people were having the same issue - and the one thing they had in common was a non-lighted official Amazon Kindle cover. A rumour was circulating that the metal clips used to secure the Kindle to the cover were causing some kind of static interference, causing the Kindle to exhibit the symptoms described. It seemed counter-intuitive and faintly ridiculous, but the obvious thing to do was to take off the cover and see if the problems still persisted. I was surprised when they didn't. The Kindle operated hitch-free for over two weeks, yet, as soon as I put the cover back on, the issues returned within hours. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ INSTANT SUPPORT ~~~~~~~~~~~~ At this point, articles started appearing in the US technical press about the issue, along with the welcome news that Amazon.com - in the USA at least - were offering instant refunds to affected customers. Not only that, but they were issuing promotional vouchers so you could upgrade to the official lighted version for free, which apparently does not suffer from the same problem. As such, I contacted Kindle support, explained the issue, and was delighted when their customer representative confirmed that Amazon were operating the same policy in the UK. I was told to dispose of my original cover, a voucher was added to my account, an e-mail link was sent for the replacement product, and I ordered it. The whole process, from initial call to confirmation of order took less than five minutes. The lighted cover arrived the next day, and I've been using it without any hint of a problem for almost three weeks now. ~~~~~~~~~~~ COVER BOTHER ~~~~~~~~~~~ Unsurprisingly, the non-lighted version of the official Amazon Kindle is no longer being sold via the web-site. It doesn't seem like they've hit the second-hand market yet - probably down to Amazon's very generous replacement policy. That said, I am disappointed that Amazon have - as yet - not publicly admitted there is a problem, so have not advertised it, or issued a recall, preferring to deal with it on a complaint by complaint basis. Rating this product is difficult. From a quality and build point of view, it's exceptional, but given its fundamental purpose is to cover a Kindle (it can't be used with anything else) the problem with the clips makes it a practically useless, but rather nice smelling and swanky looking bit of leather. It is very unlikely that Amazon will sell this version again until this curious issue is sorted out, but when it does re-appear, you should - hopefully - be able to buy with confidence. At £29.99 you'd certainly hope they'd get it right second time, because this otherwise high quality product is a perfect, bespoke companion to the Kindle, and deserves to do well. In the meantime, if you still have one, get on to Amazon for a replacement. Not recommended - at least until clip issue is fixed - after which, recommended highly. © Hishyeness 2011

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                        • Sony MDR EX38IPB / Headphones / 89 Readings / 86 Ratings
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                          09.03.2011 13:12
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                          A great, value for money replacement for Apple's iPod headphones.

                          ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ RELUCTANT REPLACEMENTS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ When my excellent Sennheiser CX400 II in-ear headphones started playing up, I reluctantly began looking for a replacement. Having bought the Senn's for a knock-down price of around £18, I was dismayed to find that they had risen to around the £40 mark, so I set about finding a comparable pair for around £20. I have had a good experience with Sony Fontopia in-ear headphones in the past, so, encouraged by a number of positive on-line reviews, and its suitability for the iPod, I settled for Sony's MDREX38IPB model. A few clicks of the mouse later, and a pair were winging their way to me from Amazon for £17.79 (reduced from around £40). I was very happy with my CX 400's, so was very interested to see how Sony's effort would compare. I tend to be quite brand loyal, and it felt like something of a betrayal to buy Sony instead of Senn. As such, I was almost subconsciously determined to find fault with them to confirm my fickle folly. That said, these 'phones seemed almost as determined to prove themselves worthy. ~~~~~~~~ IN THE BOX ~~~~~~~~ The product arrived in a heat-sealed blister pack (the kind that takes half a toolbox to get into), and includes a small instruction leaflet, a selection of interchangeable silicon ear buds (small, medium and large), a cable tidy, and a small pouch to keep the 'phones in when not in use. The silicon on the inside of the ear bud - which attaches to the nib on the headphone - is colour coded to avoid confusion. The product comes with the medium buds fitted, but replacing them with the larger or smaller versions is easy enough. They pop into place securely without making you feel like you are forcing the issue. ~~~~~~~~~~ DESIGN & FEEL ~~~~~~~~~~ The 1.2m cord is quite generous, and to keep it from getting unmanageable, Sony have provided what they call a "cord adjuster". This is a relatively unsophisticated bit of hardened and rubberised silicon which looks vaguely like a docking cleat on a boat, but with two notches at each end of the cleat, which are used to secure the cable. To shorten the cable, you wrap as much of the cable as you need around it. It's useful and secure, especially as one of the biggest issues with in-ear 'phones is the "rustling" noise that can transmit along the cable when it hangs loose. Less cable means less interference. That said, even though it is light, it acts as a bit of a dead weight on the cable, swinging pendulum-like unless you can secure it. This is where it compares a little unfavourably to the CX 400 - which had a clip on clip that allowed you to secure the cable on you to prevent it from moving around too much. Suffice it to say, I have solved the design problem by cannibalising the clip from my Senn's to use with these 'phones from Sony, but most will not have this quick fix available. At a Y-junction, the cord splits into two symmetric cords, terminating in the left and right ear buds which are clearly marked. There is also a small slider which allows you to adjust the cord after the split. On the left cable, about two thirds of the way up, is an in-line "remote" - essentially a rocker switch which allows you to adjust volume, pause a track, go back a track or skip forward a track. The volume up/down are indicated clearly by a +/- symbol, and the rest of the functions are used by clicking the middle of the switch either once (pause), twice (go forward a track) or three times (go back a track). The switch is pretty responsive, and you can feel a discernable click as you depress it. The only issue - for me at least - is that the remote is a little too far up the cord, so its just out of my sight line. I have to hunt for it with my hand and bring it to eye level to operate, which sometimes makes me inadvertently tug the ear bud loose. That said, even with this minor irritation, it is a vast improvement on my Senn's, which had a tricky and imprecise in-line volume slider with very little variation in volume, and no other functions. The Sony is clearly built with the iPod in mind (and is advertised as such) and the ability to control it without having to keep diving into your pocket is a big plus and a major selling point. Make sure to check your iPod model for compatibility as only the newer versions seem to be supported (Nano 4th Gen, Touch 2nd Gen, Classic 120GB and Shuffle 3rd Gen). ~~~~~~~~ IN THE EAR ~~~~~~~~ My musical tastes are pretty eclectic and stretch from thrash metal, 80's synth driven electronica, classic rock, and jazz to classical music, so I need my headphones to be able to cope with System of a Down as deftly as Miles Davis and Rachmaninoff. Fortunately, the Sony delivers very nicely on all counts. The key is to ensure you have selected the right ear buds to get a good seal and prevent sound leakage. You will know if you haven't, as the output will be quite tinny and seem a little distant. With the buds properly in place you get a good, deep bass, and vibrant treble. The "Gladiator" official soundtrack which features a good contrast of booming martial drum and brass set pieces and quieter moments of more contemplative strings and wind instruments is a good benchmark - and these 'phones pick out the nuances impressively. The silicon makes them really comfortable to wear, and provided your ears are clean, they stay in quite securely. I have never got on with the standard iPod headphones, which I find uncomfortable and tinny - so these make a very worthwhile upgrade. They tend to be fairly good at isolating noise, so they are perfect for use on the tube and train, managing to block out most sounds so you can concentrate on the music. It's good news for the ears all-round, as this noise reduction means you can listen at lower volumes. The only down-side is the interference you get from the cable rubbing against your clothes, but that's a "feature" of this kind of design and one that should be accounted for if you are thinking about buying them. These buds are best used when you are relatively stationary so avoid this kind of design if you're looking for an exercise pair. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ CONTENDER OR PRETENDER? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ After five months of almost everyday use, these Sony 'phones have really grown on me, so much so that I don't miss my superlative Senn's one little bit. Apart from a couple of design niggles (positioning of in-line remote and lack of clip) these 'phones deliver a significant aural upgrade on the standard white ones packaged with Apple products, and represent excellent value for money - provided that you can find them for less than the £40 RRP. Although the Amazon deal I bought them on has long since expired, they are still available at the time of writing (March 2011) for £17.79 from Play.com with free delivery. Well recommended. © Hishyeness 2011

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                            01.03.2011 16:36
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                            A practical and portable baby barrier for use away from home.

                            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ CONTAINING MR MISCHIEF ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Having a precocious, 17 month old toddler with no sense of danger is hard work. He is constantly getting up to all sorts of mischief as he explores the world around him, and the stronger and more wilful he gets, the harder he is to contain. His sister before him was much the same, so it is no wonder that our home has become a veritable showroom for baby gates. You can't negotiate more than two rooms in our house before having to open or close one, but the inconvenience is more than off-set by our peace of mind that he hasn't toddled off into yet another perilous situation. However, that sense of peace doesn't usually extend to visits to child-free houses, and, in particular, to either of his two sets of grandparents. Our son sees every staircase as a challenge, and it is very difficult to stop him from trying to climb them. As such, we decided to add to our burgeoning collection of baby gates by investing in a travel version. Having scoured the market in typically fastidious fashion, we settled on the offering by Danish company BabyDan, called the "Gate to Go" (G2G). BabyDan have been making child safety gates since 1968, and now specialise in a broad range of child safety and containment devices for inside and outside the home, including bed guards, travel cots, and playpens. Their products are readily available from a number of on-line and high street stockists such as Amazon, Kiddicare, Mothercare, John Lewis and Argos. The G2G is currently available for between £25 and £30, which compares favourably to a similar product from competitor Lindam (£25). ~~~~~~~~~~ GOOD TO GO? ~~~~~~~~~~ The first thing to note about the G2G is that it is more of a barrier than an actual gate. It doesn't have a swinging door mechanism, and comes in one piece which is adjustable and pressure mounted. A zippered, cushioned and hard-wearing grey nylon case is provided (a pink version is also available apparently), and features an adjustable shoulder strap with a sliding padded part that makes it easy and comfortable to carry. The gate slots into the case quite snugly, and it can take a bit of effort to zip up properly. When folded up and inserted in the case, the G2G measures around twenty-eight (28) inches long, nine (9) inches wide and two (2) inches deep, so it takes up very little space in a car boot, and can easily fit into larger suitcases if you need to take it away on holiday with you. At 2.3kg (about 5lbs) in its travel case, it won't eat up too much of your luggage allowance either. However, one note of caution - the case is integral to the gate in the sense that it's the only way to keep it secure and contained in its folded up position. It doesn't "lock down" and there are no straps or tabs to prevent it opening up again, so its awkward to store without the case. ~~~~~~~~~ EASE OF USE ~~~~~~~~~ The main part of the gate is made of grey nylon mesh, which is strong, yet easy to see through. The moving parts at the sides, which allow the gate to fold down into a manageable size, are fully encased in nylon, ensuring that little fingers don't get caught in them. Assembling the gate is straightforward and intuitive - you simply pull the sides apart and hyper-extend them a little bit until the locking mechanism clicks into place. There are three adjustable rubber pads which you screw in and out to adjust to the width of the opening you want to insert it into (the fourth, at the bottom, is spring-loaded and doesn't adjust). There is a good range of movement on each of the adjustable pads, allowing the gate to fit openings between twenty-eight (28) and thirty-six (36) inches, which will account for most standard sized door frames. You need to make sure that you do the adjustments with the locking lever in the "up" position. Once you have a secure fitting (which can take some time to get right) you push the lever down until it locks into place and - viola! - you have an instant toddler barrier in place. A more detailed set of instructions is provided with the gate. As long as the rubber pads are in contact with a solid, non-slip surface, they will withstand an impressive amount of battering. BabyDan suggest that the G2G is suitable for up to 24 months - which will cover both crawling infants and newly walking (and running) toddlers - and that sounds about the right age range. That said, I have walked into it once or twice by accident (my fault - its easy enough to see if you are looking!) and have not dislodged it. The small nylon mesh also cushions small impacts and can't be climbed, although that doesn't stop Mr Mischief from trying. Dismantling the G2G is much easier. You disengage the locking lever by simultaneously pressing a discreet button next to the handle and lifting it up, which can easily be accomplished one-handed. Next, on each side of the gate, there is a prominent padlock symbol on the nylon encased frame, under which there is a concealed release button. You press one side and accordion it down first, and then the other, to reduce it to carry case dimensions. One quick tip - make sure the rubber pads are fully screwed into position, otherwise, the G2G won't fit inside its case. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ MR MISCHIEF CONTAINED? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The G2G is a very useful bit of kit with some nifty features, and its few drawbacks are necessitated by its compact design and intended use as a travel barrier rather than any fundamental flaw. As a baby barrier, it boasts impressive portability, great security and relative ease of use. That said, although it calls itself a "Gate to Go", it's not really a baby gate in the strictest sense. If you want to keep an area of a house off limits to an inquisitive toddler, it works well, though its use is pretty much confined to doorways and stairways with banisters which it can be fitted against. Unfortunately, it is not really suitable for high traffic areas, as it is inconvenient to have to remove it and replace it each time you want to get in and out. To point out the obvious, that means it should not be used (and is not intended for use) as a permanent stair gate. You'll need both hands to use it, so in our house, with Mr Mischief on the rampage, and his mum attending to his newborn little brother, we use traditional baby gates that can be operated one-handed. In short, if you're looking for a temporary safety barrier to take away with you to the grandparents, or on holiday, the G2G will certainly do the job. As log as you understand its limitations, you won't be disappointed. Highly recommended. © Hishyeness 2011

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                              26.02.2011 15:59
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                              Armenia's only international airport

                              ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ACCESS TO ARMENIA ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Almost all international visitors to Armenia will arrive at Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport, which is about a 20 minute (and 12km) drive from the city centre and its main hotels. The airport, originally built in 1961, has undergone extensive renovation and remodelling, but still retains the original concrete-dominated, monolithic features that seem so beloved of Soviet-era architects. Visitors from the UK and most of the European Union will require an entry visa, which can be obtained electronically in advance from the embassy, or can be paid for immediately before passport control on arrival. It costs the equivalent of around £8 to £15 Pounds (depending on exchange rates) but payment is only accepted in the local Armenian currency (Dram). For reference, its actually cheaper to buy the visa at the airport rather than at the embassy. ~~~~~~~~~ CASH IS KING ~~~~~~~~~ You will need immediate access to cash to pay for your visa, the luggage trolleys and also your cab fare. Helpfully, there are exchange facilities run by Conversebank (a major Armenian bank) available - at typically unfavourable rates - both before and after passport control, and given the difficulty of obtaining the Dram abroad, you will have little choice but to change some at the airport. That said, rates in town are much better, so don't be tempted to change too much. Cash is king in Armenia and although credit card usage is more and more prevalent, almost nowhere outside the main city centre will accept cards, so make sure you bring enough cash (or have access to cash) for the entirety of your stay. The best cards to bring are Visa or MasterCard, especially as American Express is almost unheard of in Armenia. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ COLLECTING YOUR GEAR ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Once you clear passport control you are (strangely) directed through a new shop, aimed squarely at tourists, which sells the usual stuff (cigarettes, alcohol, perfumes etc.) that you would expect to find in the duty free - on departure. The luggage carousels are just after the exit from this shop. Waiting times for your luggage are generally minimal given the infrequency of flights to Yerevan. If you have more than one pull-along and need a trolley, there is a small charge for using them, as well as a paid-for porter service. Most uniformed airport staff speak a smattering of languages, so communication (at this point) should not be an issue. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ GETTING INTO TOWN ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Taxi ranks are clearly signposted from the terminal in English and Armenian (Armenians have their own unique alphabet and the script is indecipherable to most Westerners) but drivers speak very little English. Fortunately, most of the city centre hotels are well known, so this is not usually a problem. There is no train service to the centre of town, and given the chaotic and unpredictable bus system, as well as the language barrier, there is no other practical way to get into Yerevan. Fortunately, taxi's are dirt cheap, and the drive into town should not cost you more than £7 to £10. There is no need to tip - it is not expected and taxi drivers, remarkably, never seem to have the right amount of change. It is best to negotiate a fixed fare before you leave, to avoid "misunderstandings" later. Car hire desks are situated in the arrivals hall - but it is much better to get a car and driver than go it alone. Armenians treat their highway code with indifference and disdain, so accidents are common. ~~~~~~~~~~ HAPPY TRAILS ~~~~~~~~~~ On the way back, make sure you ask your taxi driver for the airport, as Zvartnots is also the name of a medieval church near Etchmiadzin. Check-in is relatively straightforward, but there are few on-site distractions so don't expect to be able to wile away the hours with shopping. An arrival time two hours before your flight will give you ample time to clear the formalities and get air-side. A few café facilities are available both before and after security and passport control, with a well appointed duty free shop the main attraction at the newly modernised departure gates. The shop stocks the usual alcohol, perfumes, cigarettes and designer clothes, but also has a wide selection of local Armenian goods and souvenirs of very good quality. Prices, as expected, are not nearly as good as in Yerevan, but they are more than acceptable for last minute purchases. If buying alcohol and/or perfume remember that Armenia is a non-EU country, so you will not be allowed to bring duty free liquids, liquor or wine into the cabin on connecting flights within Europe or to the United States (it has to be given up or checked in with your hold luggage). ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ NEEDS IMPROVEMENT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Unusually, free Wi-Fi services are provided throughout the main areas of the airport - a welcome bonus given the lack of things to do, as well as the common practice of most international airports to charge an arm and a leg for access. Despite this casual nod toward the 21st century, given the increasing amount of tourism to the former Soviet republic, the airport could do with some significant additional investment. Much of the external infrastructure is dilapidated and needs modernisation. Fortunately, a full refurbishment is under way, slated for completion in late 2011, with the aim of achieving first class status. The airport caters well for business travellers, with dedicated lounge facilities, but there is little for the casual tourist other than the Duty Free. Car parking is available at Terminal 1 for 250 cars and is charged at 400 Dram (£2) per hour, with the first ten minutes free. A new underground facility, with room for 800 cars is now being built. Basic information about the airport, arrivals, departures and facilities can be found at its web-site (in English, Armenian and Russian) at: www.aia-zvartnots.aero/src/index.php © Hishyeness 2011

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                                04.02.2011 14:56
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                                Excellent value, family friendly hotel with good facilities. Ideal for Longleat.

                                ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THOSE WERE THE DAYS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ With two young children, it's not often that my wife and I get to holiday as a couple. Our toddler is too attached to his mum to be left comfortably overnight with either of his willing sets of grandparents, and with our third child imminent, the prospects of a weekend away now look even more remote. As such, we have bowed to the inevitable and replaced our annual wedding anniversary trips with a more family orientated weekend away. Our destination of choice in October was Longleat, so we wanted a comfortable hotel to overnight in, preferably one which included tickets for the safari park. After a bit of on-line research, Widbrook Grange Hotel was available and seemed to fit the bill nicely. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THE ROAD NOT TAKEN ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The property is located on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon, about a twenty five minute drive from Longleat. The drive from south-west London took an easy hour and fifty minutes. For those more familiar with Bath, Widbrook Grange is about twenty minutes away. We placed our faith in our trusty TomTom to get us there, but unfortunately, the postcode provided on the hotel literature was a little imprecise. Slavish adherence to its directions would have deposited us in the middle of a ploughed field. Fortunately, we exercised a bit of common sense and continued about 100 yards further down the A363 Trowbridge Road, and were relieved to discover the clearly signposted, hedge-lined narrow drive to the hotel. There is normally sufficient parking on-site, but we arrived at the same time as a wedding party, so space was a little tight. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ GEORGIAN COUNTRY HOUSE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The main house at Widbrook Grange (named after a small brook that runs through the property) was originally built in the early 1700's and much of the original Georgian structures and outbuildings remain, albeit now converted into hotel facilities. The three AA star 11-acre property is run by live-in owners Jane and Peter Wragg, and boasts a AA Rosette awarded in-house restaurant called the Medlar Tree. It is a full service hotel, with the added benefit of an indoor, heated swimming pool, small gym and a visiting beauty and therapy service which is booked by appointment. The grounds are very well looked after, and exploration is encouraged. Its twenty en-suite rooms offer a modest variety of accommodation, from family rooms with adjoining interior doors, to more romantic four poster affairs. Each is named after an English poet or literary figure. There are some rooms in the main house, but the majority are built - cottage row style - around the main courtyard. As you enter the discretely sign-posted main building, the Reception is counter intuitively located at the back of the house, at the end of the corridor, past a couple of nicely decorated and well-appointed lounges. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A CHAOTIC WELCOME ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Apart from the reception desk, the area also accommodates a tiny bar that appears to be built into the wall, and a wooden bookcase stuffed full of leaflets on the hotel and local attractions. When we pitched up, with our two tired and restless kids in tow, the desk was deserted. After several and gradually more insistent dings of the bell, an apologetic manager finally turned up. It was clear the arriving wedding party was running them ragged, so we made some allowances for the delay. In any event, we were warmly welcomed and directed to our room, which was located in one of the outbuildings, at ground level and fairly close to the pool. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ROOM ENOUGH FOR FOUR ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The door to our accommodation opened directly onto the courtyard. The wooden plaque next to it sported the name of 19th century romantic poet John Keats. The large golf umbrella in the clay pot just outside the door was a nice touch, as was a book of Keats' letters just inside the door. The room was generously furnished, but the décor will not be to all tastes (it was a bit chintzy and worn for me) but is entirely in keeping with the period country house theme. The walls are decorated with mounted china plates, and although the patterned carpet had seen better days, and was a little matted in places, it was clean and acceptable. There was a small but adequate wall-mounted flat screen TV discretely tucked into the corner behind the door which featured around 40 Freeview channels, two double beds, the cot we had requested when we booked, and ample wardrobe space (fronted by a full length mirror) for our clothes. Free WiFi (with a code obtained from reception) is available throughout the property, and coverage and speed were excellent throughout our stay. A small kettle, with a generous selection of tea, coffee and hot chocolate, a tea pot for brewing, phone and alarm clock are also provided. A work desk, bedside tables and a dressing table with mirror complete the picture. The bathroom features a bath with shower (with decent pressure) but we found the glass screen was a bit wobbly and had a habit of drifting out of position. The sink was under the window, with the mirror positioned over the toilet, making shaving a little bit messy. It was also a little difficult to get the temperature right with the shower. Gilbert & Soames toiletries are provided, and are a nice touch, and although we brought our own stuff, its clear that they had not accounted for four people when laying them out. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THE POOL & FACILITIES ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The pool was a key selling point for us, as, having arrived just after lunch, we had some time to kill before dinner before the planned visit to Longleat the next day. Towels are provided at reception, with the pool located as an extension of the outbuilding where we had our room. Access is via the opposite side of the courtyard, and given the chilly weather, we were happy to find on-site changing facilities. The indoor, tiled pool enjoys a lot of natural light, is heated, and though comfortable enough, I doubt it was anywhere near the 29 degrees advertised. We had it to ourselves most of the time, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Some of the pool-side floats and armbands added to the fun. The changing rooms and area around the pool appeared well maintained, but there was an unseemly build up of grime on the edges at the far end of the pool where the water met the tile. Unfortunately, while the pool was warm, the changing rooms were unheated, which given the chilly weather, was far from ideal. In retrospect, it would have been more comfortable to towel off in the pool area before walking round to our room to change. The pool is overlooked by a small gym, but we didn't use the facilities so can't really comment. I treated my wife to a pre-natal pamper package, which was booked for late afternoon. The gregarious and chatty therapist arrived well before time and set up a massage table and her kit in our room. I absented myself, taking my son for a walk around the grounds, and while our daughter watched, apparently enthralled, my wife enjoyed an hour and a half of massage, facial, manicure and pedicure for a not unreasonable £78. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ PLEASE SIR, I WANT SOME MORE ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A real highlight of our stay was dinner in the Medlar Tree Restaurant, which is also open to non-residents and is served between 18:30 and 21:00. It can get quite busy at weekends, so booking is encouraged. Our package included dinner, breakfast, an overnight stay and tickets to Longleat the next day for around £300 all in, and it proved to be excellent value. The restaurant was truly outstanding, and well deserving of its AA Rosette. I can easily say, without exaggeration, that the food - for quality, creativity, and presentation - easily rivalled what's available in the City of London. The Head Chef, Phil Carrol, uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients (some plucked from the gardens on the grounds) to create classic British dishes. Starters are priced at £6, mains at £16 (with side dishes at £2.50 each) and puddings are around the £6 mark. I had a duck liver parfait, with orange and fennel butter, melba toast and plum chutney to start, followed by a braised shoulder of lamb, red onion rosti and redcurrant gravy, and would have gladly eaten it twice over. We topped it off by sharing a cherry and chocolate baked Alaska, and a sticky raisin and walnut pudding with toffee sauce and clotted cream which was deliciously sinful. The restaurant itself deserves a separate review. Suffice it to say, the service was warm and attentive without being overly intrusive. The atmosphere is cosy and informal, and when our kids started getting antsy, we retired to one of the lounges and had the dessert and coffees served to us there. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ After the long journey and exertions in the pool, our kids were more than ready to turn in, so we made our way back to our room and settled in for the night. Unfortunately our upstairs neighbours, part of the wedding party, were only just getting going, so whilst our kids managed to get off to sleep quickly enough, the noise kept us awake for some time. Coupled with the fact that the beds were not really to our liking, and we both endured a fitful night's sleep. It should also be noted that the room shared an adjoining wall with the pool, which is open until 10pm. Given our room was a family room, you would have thought that the hotel would have borne this in mind, especially when booking the room upstairs, but I suppose it was hardly their fault. In every other respect, the hotel is completely family friendly - from the way staff interact with kids, through to the well thought out kid's menu at dinner, the clean cots and high chairs, and available baby-sitting services. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Breakfast was served in the conservatory, with views over a small garden, and although it was a frosty October morning, it was well heated. The cereals, locally produced yoghurt, juices and fruit salad were a help-yourself affair from a small table. We both ordered a full English, with smaller bits and bobs for the kids, and were served a generous rack of toast while we waited for the main meal to arrive. After a short wait we were treated to perfectly poached eggs, well cooked flavourful bacon and sausages, lovely mushrooms and well -seasoned tomato. Coffee arrived piping hot in a cafetiere, and along with the food, set us up perfectly for the bust day ahead. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ WOULD WE GO BACK? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Perhaps the best measure of a hotel experience is whether you would go back again. If you were to take the Medlar Tree experience out of the occasion, it would be a qualified "probably". I am still remain to be convinced by the slightly dated bedroom, and felt that the whole experience was a little let down by the quality of our night's sleep. That said, given the service we received throughout our stay, the pool facilities (despite is shortcomings), and the cleanliness of the house and grounds, and its rural setting, Widbrook Grange thoroughly deserves its three AA Stars - however, I don't think it would take too much effort or investment to earn the fourth, and give the restaurant the hotel it so thoroughly deserves. Recommended. ~~~~~~ DETAILS ~~~~~~ Widbrook Grange Trowbridge Road Bradford-on-Avon Wiltshire BA15 1UH Tel: 01225 864 750 Fax: 01225 862 890 E-mail: stay@widbrookgrange.com Internet: www.widbrookgrange.com (with on-line booking facility) All major credit cards accepted © Hishyeness 2011

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                                  28.01.2011 19:28
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                                  An elegant and sophisticated contemporary Italian in the heart of the City

                                  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ITALIAN SOUL FOOD ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Ever since returning to work in the City of London last year, I have embarked on the slow process of getting used to London prices. My previous job was based in Berkshire, in the far less genteel surroundings of Slough town centre, where you could still get a slap up English breakfast and a mug of tea for the cost of a Panini in one of the City's countless coffee houses. However, nine months on, the initial sticker shock has worn off, at least when someone else is paying. That's a state of affairs that I hope will long continue, especially when it comes to L'Anima, an award-winning contemporary Italian restaurant, tucked away in a side street behind Liverpool Street Station. I have now had the pleasure of lunching and dining there four times, none of which involved the arduous task of signing for the bill. That said, for the quality of food and service received on each occasion, though painful, the process of paying would be worth every penny. L'Anima is Italian for "soul", which the proprietors hope to infuse into everything from the food and wine to décor and atmosphere. The inventive menu takes the best of Italian cooking and gives it a contemporary and creative twist, which makes the food both instantly recognisable, yet refreshingly different. The restaurant, which opened in June 2008 by head chef Francesco Mazzei, has won a number of awards, all of which are proudly displayed near the reception desk. It is located on Snowden Street, a paved street that runs between Appold Street and Clifton Street, just north of the Broadgate complex, and has a long glass frontage, giving passers-by a full view of the dining room. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ATMOSPHERE & DÉCOR ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ L'Anima aims for elegance and sophistication and succeeds at embodying both. A small reception area sits immediately inside the front door, in a glass corridor that separates the restaurant from the bar. White leather chairs accompany crisp white tablecloths and impeccable table settings in the dining room, and the travertine limestone floor adds an earthy touch. The dark stone walls - differently textured in the main dining room and bar - provide a nice (and much needed) contrast. You can see the frenzied activity in the kitchens through the glass windows on the back wall. The bar is well stocked and staffed, with cocktails impeccably mixed and presented. They make a cracking Bajito (£9), a variation on the classic Cuban cocktail which adds basil to the mint. Its main purpose is to keep diners entertained while waiting for their tables, but there were plenty of business people from neighbouring offices who had stopped in for a pricey drink. You can also see the wine "cellar" at the end of the glass corridor, next to a private dining room that accommodates fourteen for special occasions. Apparently the private room features a special menu, which is also available to diners on a small, raised, and glass balconied "mezzanine" at the far left of the main room. I can say, without hesitation, that almost every meal I have had at L'Anima has been close to flawless. However, my last visit was perhaps the least satisfying of the lot - for a couple of reasons. The occasion was a small team dinner before Christmas, but the dining room was packed with a party of forty or so corporate types on a decidedly up-market holiday do, making it was much louder than usual. Although busy, the restaurant rarely seems crowded, but on this occasion, given the number of diners, the noise and bustle was unavoidable. Secondly, it was the first time I had eaten at L'Anima with a review in mind, so I approached everything with a slightly more considered and critical mind. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ FORGET THE BUDGET ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ First things first. If you are on a budget - and I don't mean a limited budget - but any kind of budget at all, the numbers in the right hand column of the L'Anima menu are probably going to make your wallet weep. For most ordinary people (i.e. those not expensed or on City bonuses) this is a place best enjoyed on someone else's dime, or as a one-off experience in which, for one night, and one night only, you have a blast and ignore the cost. If you want a taste of the cooking and atmosphere for a more reasonable cost (still expensive, but not eye-wateringly so) it is well worth going for a leisurely lunch. To give some context, starters average around £15, mains are between £25 and £30, puddings and cheeses will set you back £10 to £15, and the wine list ranges from around £20 to £2000. Side dishes (such as sautéed potatoes or spinach, roast vegetables, fried zucchini and green beans) are an additional £5 each. For these princely sums, you get fantastic food, faultless, attentive friendly (but unobtrusive) service, highly knowledgeable staff and a dedicated sommelier who will ask you for a budget and match wine to your meal without making you feel like an idiot. A three course meal for a couple with wine, water, coffee and cocktails at the bar will easily cost around £75 per head. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THE ESSENCE OF L'ANIMA ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ As with any restaurant, but especially given its premium pricing, L'Anima has to get the food right. In my mind at least, the cost creates an expectation of first class quality, and therefore a wholly justified right of judgment and criticism if anything is not nigh-on perfect. That's the context in which I enjoyed the last occasion at L'Anima. We started with the complimentary breads - slices of fresh baked focaccia, ciabatta and breadsticks, served with a flavourful, fruity and peppery olive oil with excellent depth and a thoroughly more-ish quality. While a colleague handled the tricky task of perusing the extensive wine list, I settled down to inspect the simple menu. Although the dishes use Italian terminology, a glossary is helpfully provided to explain some of the more esoteric terms used (such as bocconotto, stracci and cavatelli) and staff are only too happy to explain how the dish is put together and where and how it is sourced. Having decided on the delectable sounding charcoal scallops with n'duja (a spicy, spreadable Calabrian salami apparently) and salsa verde to start (£12.75), and a main of wild cod with smoked aubergine and jar tomatoes to follow (£27.50), I turned my attention to my colleague, who desperately wanted me to validate his wine choices, not because he had any lack of confidence in what he was ordering, but more because he wanted to make sure the cost was still within the realms of corporate propriety (when in doubt, spread the accountability about). With a bit of jovial prompting from the sommelier, we settled on a three bottles (for the six of us I hasten to add) of the Ronco delle Betulle Cabernet Franc 2006 from the Friuli region of Northern Italy, which set our expense account back £40 a pop. It turned out to be a good choice - a bold and fruity red that kept something back so it didn't dominate the food. Starters arrived promptly. My five grilled scallops were served on a half shell, discretely and ingenuously held in place on the plate by a small dollop of mashed potato. The perfectly cooked shellfish was served in its own jus with the salami spread crusted on top, and three perfectly cut chive fronds and a toasted slice of ciabatta as garnish. Unfortunately, the chilli in the salsa verde was a little overdone, so the delicate flavours of the otherwise delicious scallops were somewhat overpowered. I ended up spreading it on the foccacia instead, and it worked much better. It was a well-sized dish - perfect for a taster before the main course, and only slightly spoiled by the overzealous use of chilli. After a short break, our mains arrived. The cod was simply, but stunningly presented, on a bed of smoked aubergine and tomatoes. The skin had been left on and beautifully crisped. The flavours combined very well, with the tomato contributing a nice, fruity tang and the subtly smoked aubergine adding an earthy, rustic feel to the whole ensemble. As with the starter, it was a well portioned and very satisfying eat. On previous visits, I have had the aged black Scotch rib eye grill (£35), and the fresh crab fidelini - essentially a very thin spaghetti (£18). Our mains were accompanied by a selection of side dishes which we shared out amongst us, with the excellent wood roasted vegetables being a notable highlight. I just about managed to find room for desert and coffee, but instead of indulging my sweet tooth, I opted for a wine and cheese combination - a mild goats cheese from the Piedmont called "Robiola Brunet" which was accompanied with toasted ciabatta and chilli jam (£9), and a 50cl glass of Aleatico di Puglia A Mano sweet white dessert wine (£8). The two worked very well together, and provided a very nice end point to the meal. My only criticism was that the chilli jam must have been prepared by the same overzealous sous chef who handled the starter - it was powerful, eye-watering stuff. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ SOUL ISSUE (or TWO) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ L'Anima consistently produces very high quality food and impeccable service. A few minor quibbles aside on my last visit, I would highly recommend it to anyone who has the means to afford a top class gastronomic and dining experience. That's the rub, and the nub, of it. If you are looking for an extra special place to celebrate an important anniversary or event, you will get quite a lot of bang for your buck at L'Anima. There is little point in going if the bill is going to give you indigestion, but in its context - and given its City competitors - it offers pretty good value. Apart from that, the only matter in the negative column worth mentioning is the lack of a view out of its long glass frontage. That said, you'll be so busy enjoying the excellent food that you probably won't notice. Highly recommended. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THE SMALL DETAILS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ L'Anima 1 Snowden Street Broadgate West London EC2A 2DQ www.lanima.co.uk Bookings Phone: 0207 422 7000 E-mail: info@lanima.co.uk Web: www.opentable.com Opening Hours Monday to Friday - Lunch (11:45am to 3pm) - Dinner (5:30pm to 11pm) Closed for Lunch on Saturday, but open for Dinner (5:30 to 11:30pm) Closed on Sunday © Hishyeness 2011

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