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May 3 15

Mamouche, the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam

by maxineclayman

If you’re prepared for the looong wait then this is definitely the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam

I’ve walked past Mamouche, the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam, numerous times but it wasn’t until recently that I ventured to pay it a visit. Mamouche is situated in a busy part of the Amsterdam’s trendy De Pijp neighbourhood and home to Albert Cuyp market. The area is teeming with trendy bars (like hidden speakeasy the Butcher) and restaurants, making it easy to overlook the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam.

Mamouche Morrocan restaurant in De Pjip

Mamouche the best Morrocan restaurant in Amsterdam

From the outside Mamouche looks quite posh. There are tables and chairs outdoors where you can sit outside if the weather is nice. Inside the restaurant has an intimate feel. Our table was next to the bar where we were mesmerised by the bartender making cocktails.

Mamouche Amsterdam starter

Our starter at Mamouche was a generous portion

The contemporary menu at Mamouche is a mixture of Moroccan and French influences. We decided to share a starter of a tuna bric, a generous sized portion which was delicious. I have to admit when it comes to Moroccan food I don’t really expect it to be fine dining. But at the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam I was proven wrong. I was particularly impressed by the presentation of the dishes at Mamouche. Our starter resembled a giant samosa and the crisp pastry, almost tempura like in batter, covered tuna in the middle. This was served with a salad with a sweet dressing.

Mamouche seabass couscous

My surprising seabass couscous at Mamouche, the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam

Main courses were equally as exquisite. I had ordered seabass with couscous and was expecting couscous with pieces of seabass in it. What eventually arrived was a revelation. Sweet sultana couscous topped with sweet onions, chickpeas and a delicately cooked piece of seabass was surprisingly light. The sweetness of the sauce and the couscous could have been overpowering but it worked well as it was offset by the slightly salty seabass. Sharps had the special, guinea fowl, morels and potato crisps. He said had a pleasant cinnamon flavour running through it.

Mamouche restaurant meat main

The guinea fowl special at Mamouche, an Amsterdam hidden gem

I’d have to say that the food at Mamouche was faultless making it an Amsterdam hidden gem. But my only reservation (and it’s a big one) about it being the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam sadly is the service. The staff were polite and helpful but what was unacceptable was the ridiculous wait between courses. From getting our starter to having our main was nearly an hour and a half.  We asked a couple of times how much longer it would be, each time being told soon, which clearly wasn’t the case. It actually got to the point where we were so hungry we told the waiter to forget about our main courses and to just bring us the bill. He then brought us a glass of wine each by way of an apology and our food miraculously appeared quite sharpish after that. I’m glad we stayed as it would have been a real shame to miss out on the main event. But I guess it depends how much patience, and time you have, as to whether you think it worth going to the best Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam.

Mar 15 15

The Railway Telegraph the best pub in Forest Hill

by maxineclayman

Thanks to a revamp this could be the best pub in Forest Hill

I never expected to be writing about the Railway Telegraph pub in Forest Hill, let alone describing it as the best pub in Forest Hill. In the five years I’ve lived in South East London I’ve never actually been inside the Railway Telegraph. Not because it’s on Stanstead road so a little out of the way from the main hub of Forest Hill. But because, to be frank, it looked like a total dump. Which was why I was a bit surprised to learn that some the Forest Hill fashion week events were held there a few months ago.

Railway Telegraph pub Forest Hill

The Railway Telegraph SE23, no longer an old man’s pub

It all made sense when I received an invite to sample the new menu. It turns out that the Railway Telegraph, the best pub in Forest Hill, is undergoing something of a revamp. First off, the transformation from old man’s pub you wouldn’t dare to set foot in to a cool destination pub is pretty impressive. Not only is the Railway Telegraph the best pub in Forest Hill it also easily serves the best cocktails in Forest Hill. All of which looked almost too pretty to drink. Almost. I opted for a knickerbockerglory. This rum-based mohito complete with raspberry cream on top looked exactly as it sounds. I wasn’t brave enough to try the English Rose, an absinthe based cocktail, but I’m told was quite pleasant with a mere hint of the lethal liquor.

Railway Telegraph pub cocktails

A grown up knickerbockerglory and one of Forest Hill’s best cocktails

I also discovered there are plans afoot to have a hidden gem of a Victorian style drinking den in the basement of the best pub in Forest Hill. It reminded me of The Worship Street Whistling Shop – vintage furniture and lots of dark wood which gives it more of a pub vibe as opposed to a pretentious cocktail bar. As it only seats around 25 people, meaning it will be tickets only. But that will give this speakeasy more of a secluded feel.

The downstairs drinking den at the Railway Telegraph pub Forest Hill

The downstairs drinking den at the Railway Telegraph pub

The drinks may have been inventive but when it came to the food, I have to be honest, I wasn’t holding out much hope. Fortunately I was wrong – the executive chef comes from the Hix stable. His menu of wholesome cooking, inspired by Mrs Beeton, proved to be hearty without being heavy. We sampled a selection of dishes. These included moorish pea and mash fritters, duck livers on brioche with whisky cream and oysters wrapped in bacon on a light base of puff pastry (my friend Sabina said you could taste the saltiness of the sea). As I don’t eat meat I was treated to the grilled seabass (minus the crayfish and clams as I don’t eat shellfish) in a white wine and tomato sauce. I also tried some of the veggie option of tasty roasted red peppers stuffed with red rice, herbs and topped with feta cheese.

Railway Telegraph downstairs restaurant

The downstairs restaurant at the Railway Telegraph SE23

I’m not usually a pudding person but for me the stand-out dishes were the desserts that I somehow managed to find space for. A rose Turkish delight, mulberry and almond cheesecake was creamy and fluffy and the best cheesecake I’ve tasted in a long while. I’m not usually a fan of dark chocolate but the classic combination of chocolate and orange in this rich dark chocolate orange tart was divine.

Railway Telegraph pub

Forest Hill may be an up-and-coming area of South East London but one thing it sorely lacks is a decent restaurant (not counting Babur as it’s in Brockley Rise). The Railway Telegraph pub could be the answer. As well as serving up its own new menu Threepenny Mansion, the upstairs dining room, is going to be used as a function room and a space for fortnightly pop-up restaurants. It also has a terrace area where people can hang out too.

Railway Telegraph Forest Hill

Another exciting development is the outside area of the best pub in Forest Hill. There are plans for BBQ’s, a kids’ play area and outdoor film screenings. There’s even talk of further down the line the car park being converted into a beach for the summer of 2016. With so much going on (and not forgetting those cocktails) the Railway Telegraph, the best pub in Forest Hill, is no longer on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s an SE23 hidden gem worth taking a detour for.

Feb 22 15

Utrecht hidden gems

by maxineclayman

Why there’s never been a better time to explore these Utrecht hidden gems

The lovely @EmilyMatheison recently flagged up the Dutch city of Utrecht as one of The Guardian’s must-see cities to visit in 2015 so I thought I’d share my experience of some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht (the 2015 home to the Grand Depart of the Tour de France is about a 25-minute train ride from Amsterdam.

Utrecht canals

Utrecht’s canals

Having lived in the Dutch capital, I decided to take the opportunity to take a day trip to this neighbouring city to discover some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht is a bit like a mini version of Amsterdam. If you’re looking to escape the more touristy side of Amsterdam (ie the Red Light District with all the stag and hen dos), Utrecht is the ideal place. It still has all the charm of Amsterdam with its cobbled streets and canals just on a smaller scale. Even for me it was pretty easy to navigate your way around its compact city centre.

Utrecht Free City Tours

Outside the inventor of the X-ray’s house on the Utrecht Free Tour

We decided to visit Utrecht on a Saturday. Mainly because I’d read that a Utrecht hidden gem, a free city walking tour, only runs on Saturdays and I was keen to learn more about Utrecht’s history. The Utrecht Free Tours start at 12pm, leaving from the Dom Tower, and take three hours – there is a break for lunch. Our guide, Ellen, was pretty easy going and very knowledgeable, giving us the lowdown on some of Utrecht’s past without it being too dull. I was also impressed by the number of people she had to shepherd around Utrecht as there were about 30 people in our group.

Utrecht's Dom tower

Utrecht’s Dom Tower

The tour begins right in the historic centre of Utrecht, in Dom Square. Ellen explained why the Dom Tower and Cathedral are separate (which is quite unusual). Initially the middle part of the structure had been built of wood. It burnt down in the 17th century and was never replaced. It later became an area associated with scandal as it was the site of large-scale persecutions of gay men in 1730.

Dutch architecture in the streets of Utrecht

Dutch architecture in the streets of Utrecht

Next, Ellen pointed out some of the houses of Utrecht’s most famous former residents. The only Dutch Pope came from Utrecht, although he never actually got the chance to live in the house he built for himself. And Wilhlem Conrad Rontgen, the inventor of the X-ray and winner of the first Nobel Prize in physics was in fact expelled from Utrecht University.

Letters of Utrecht

Letters of Utrecht

Utrecht is also home to a Miffy Museum (the Dick Bruna Haus) – I learned from Ellen that Miffy is in fact a girl. And on our tour we also walked along the riverside and took in the picturesque park of Brutenhof, which was once where Utrecht’s city walls used to be. Another of the Utrecht hidden gems I discovered was the pretty cool Letters of Utrecht – an ongoing poem started in 2012 which has a new letter carved into the cobblestones of Utrecht every Saturday.

Utrecht canal

A Utrecht local chilling out canalside

There are of course lots of canals in Utrecht. What struck me is how much lower down the water levels are to the ones in Amsterdam (the canals in Utrecht are much older). Sitting in one of the many canal-side bars you’re almost in the water and it makes them the perfect place to stop off on a sunny day – though it might be advisable not to sample too many Dutch beers so you can stay steady on your feet. A day trip gave me time to discover some Utrecht hidden gems but no doubt there are plenty of others I’ll have to come back for before the year is out…

Dec 21 14

My Top 5 Hidden Gems of 2014

by maxineclayman

A round-up of my favourite hidden gems of 2014

I can’t believe how quickly time flies − it seems like just yesterday I was checking out some of my top 5 hidden gems of 2014. But as another year is indeed coming to a close I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my highlights with you below in no particular order, my favourite hidden gems, and it wasn’t an easy call choosing them. And to one of them, St Ann’s Hospice in Little Hulton Manchester, I will be forever grateful. Let me know if you agree, or if there are any others you’d care to share. Happy New Year and looking forward to giving you the low-down on lots more hidden gems in 2015.

St Ann’s Hospice Little Hulton Manchester

St Ann's Hospice Little Hulton Manchester

St Ann’s Hospice Little Hulton Manchester

I can honestly say that this year has been the toughest year of my life. In February of 2014 my mum passed away from mum gallbladder cancer. It was diagnosed out of the blue and had already spread to mum’s spine and liver. There was no cure. As you can imagine I was distraught. But thanks to the kindness and compassion of the staff at St Ann’s Hospice Little Hulton my mum died comfortably, she wasn’t in pain, and had peace of mind. They allowed my mum to keep her dignity and for this my family and I can never repay them. Before my mum was admitted to St Ann’s Hospice I didn’t even know what a hospice was and shockingly St Ann’s Hospice which provides its services for free needs £16,000 a day to stay open. Here’s how you can make a donation.

Maastricht Monastery hotel, Kruisherenhotel

Maastricht Kruisherenhotel breakfast buffest

Maastricht Kruisherenhotel breakfast buffet

I’m always on the lookout for quirky boutique hotels and the Kruisherenhotel in Maastricht, a former 15th century monastery, proved to be a heavenly place to stay. I loved the mix of the Kruisherenhotel Maastricht’s original Gothic features and cool, contemporary rooms created by international designers that include Philip Starck and Le Courbusier. And as you can see from my picture the restaurant, upstairs on the mezzanine in the cloisters, was also pretty impressive. As was the breakfast, which was unusually lavish by Dutch standards, another reason it’s one of my hidden gems of 2014.

Norfolk coast’s hidden gems

Blackeney Point seals Morston Norfolk

Seal spotting at Blackeney Point Norfolk

This was one of my hidden gems of 2014 that really took me by surprise. Before visiting the Norfolk coast I never realised that Blakeney in Norfolk was one of the best places in the UK to spot grey seals. And I certainly never expected to see hundreds of seals (common and grey) up close on a boat trip, which was a truly amazing experience. Since my visit, Blakeney is now home to over 2,000 seal pups this year, making it the biggest seal colony in the UK and the subject of a new season of BBC Winterwatch.

Montenegro’s best restaurant

Montenegro's best restaurant

Montenegro’s best restaurant

My top 5 hidden gems of 2014 wouldn’t be compete without at least one restaurant mention. There were a few serious contenders, like Vis & Ko in Haarlem, the Netherlands an amazing fish restaurant and Brewery Troost Amsterdam which serves THE best veggie burgers in the city. But the winner of the year for me was Catovica Mlini, the best restaurant in Montenegro. Not just because of its outstanding food but also because of its tranquil, off-the-beaten-track setting in an old mill (complete with its very own duck pond).

The Grand Hyatt, Kauai’s best hotel

Grand Hyatt Kauai's best hotel saltwater lagoon

The saltwater lagoon at Kauai’s best hotel

In a word, wow. The Grand Hyatt, Kauai’s best hotel is amazing and the most glamorous of my hidden gems of 2014, so a fitting way to end in style. I’m not usually a fan of big resorts, I prefer more intimate, boutique hotels. But the grounds of the Grand Hyatt (with its own saltwater lagoon, lazy river, waterfalls, beachfront cabanas, home to the biggest spa on Kauai and a waterslide, hurrah) literally took my breath away. What also makes this Hawaii hotel one of my top 5 hidden gems of 2014 is its location. As tough as it was to tear myself away from the resort it was about a five-minute walk from our room to Shipwreck Beach (where the likes of Justin Bieber have been papped). Also within walking distance (about a 20-miute walk) is Poipu Beach which is popular for snorkelling as it’s teeming with marine life. I was lucky enough to see a rare Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtles.

Dec 8 14

The Bay of Kotor, a Montenegro hidden gem

by maxineclayman

Montenegro is often referred to as the gem of the Adriatic. A combination of lakes and mountains makes Montengro’s dramatic coastline some of the finest in Europe. For me, the most spectacular part of this is the Bay of Kotor, a Montenegro hidden gem, and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Following on from my post about Muo, the best place to stay in Kotor Bay, I wanted to share some of Montenegro’s hidden gems outside of Kotor Old Town.

Kotor Bay Montenegro morning

Good morning Kotor Bay

The easiest way to get around Montenegro’s coastline is to hire a car. If, like us you can’t drive, it’s not a problem though. There are frequent bus services that operate up and down the coast, or you’ll find taxis everywhere ready to cash in on the tourist trade.

Perast - my favourite of Montenegro's hidden gems

Perast – my favourite of Montenegro’s hidden gems

My absolute favourite spot in Kotor Bay has to be Perast. A Montenegro hidden gem, Perast is about a 25-minute bus ride from Kotor and as you can see from my pictures it’s pretty spectacular. There are lots of Venetian architecture, Perast was a stop-off point for Venice’s princes, and Baroque churches to be found in this peaceful village. Another reason Perast is one a Montenegro hidden gem.

Perast view of Lady of our Rock

Looking out onto the Lady of our Rock, Perast

Perast’s main tourist attraction is Our Lady of the Rock (Gospa od Skrpjela), and the nearby island of St George. If you want to check out the Lady of the Rock church (built in 1630) you can just hop onboard a taxi boat. The return trip is €5 and the boat deposits you on the tiny island for around half a hour (which gives you plenty of time to also check out the museum (you have to pay to enter) and small gift shop.

Perast Montenegro landscape

Stop for a spot of lunch and take in the scenery

We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Conte, an idyllic spot on the waterfront overlooking Our Lady of the Rock (or you can choose to eat inside if you prefer). It’s not cheap, and the service was a bit abrupt (possibly because a large group of more mature wealthier looking people had arrived who the waiters decided to focus his attention on). But aside from the food at Montenegro’s best restaurant it was the nicest place was ate during our stay in Montenegro, due to both the quality of the food and the romantic setting.

Perast Our Lady of the Rock Montenegro

Hop in a water taxi to Our Lady of the Rock one of Montenegro’s hidden gems

On another day we headed, again by bus, further north along the bay to the coastal town of Herceg Novi. The idea was for us to go on a boat trip to check out the Blue Grotto on the Lustica Peninsula. We wandered through the cobbled streets of the Stari Grad (Old Town) to get down to the harbour, only to discover that the organised group boat trips had finished running.

Kotor Bay Montenegro sunrise

Sunrise over the Bay of Kotor, another of Montenegro’s hidden gems

This meant our only option was a private charter. As we’d come this far (about an hour and a half) we decided to see how much it would cost us. After resigning ourselves to the fact it was going to be too expensive, one guy wanted to charge us €100, we found someone who would let us share with another two people and split the cost, making it about €30 as he was cheaper. So I’d definitely recommend haggling on price.

Herzeg Novi Montenegro boat trip

See Herzeg Novi by boat

On route to the Blue Grotto our guide took us to some other smaller islands along the way. We encountered a film crew on the island of Mamula, which acted as a prison in both world wars, who were making a Serbian horror movie. The Blue Grotto itself was much larger than the other Blue Grotto I’ve been to in Capri. We were a little disappointed though to see it was equally as touristy. Fortunately, our guide took us back a bit later when there were less people so we could experience the bright, tranquil water all to ourselves.

Herceg Novi Montenegro Blue Grotto

Sharps takes a dip in the Blue Grotto, Herceg Novi

After exploring Montenegro’s coastline and witnessing its beauty it’s easy to see why the Bay of Kotor is a Montenegro hidden gem. We did also pay a visit to the other side of the country as we went to Lake Skadar to go kayaking, courtesy of Undiscovered Montenegro. Our journey took us past Bar and Budva, both meccas for package holidaymakers. The little I saw  driving through was more than enough. Yes, they may have sandy beaches, but if you’re after something more than just sunbathing and want a flavour of Montenegro’s hidden gems, stay in the Bay of Kotor.