Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Flights of The Toblerone Two

Much like the proverbial buses, and following a relatively extended period of inactivity, all of a sudden a veritable feast of reviews arrived but days ago in this quiet backwater of the World Wide Web.

Some have already digested them, some are suffering from indigestion, some are still chewing and a few have proceeded little further than the first taste of bmi, having been overcome by a wave of narrative nausea.

And now, just when you thought that the last of the travelling tales to quake you for a while had shuddered past and on into the distance, here comes a little aftershock to keep you on your toes. I should warn the chocoholics amongst you, however, that the Tobleronic title exists merely to catch your alliterative attention. This is an entirely Lindt-less, sans-Suchard and Ferrero-Rocher-free report.

Nevertheless, it's probably time to kick things off with.....

The Prologue

Some trips demand military-grade planning. Some offer more enjoyment in the anticipation than they do in the actuality. Some require the political sensitivities of the UN Secretary General in attempting to achieve a consensus of acceptability amongst a group of travellers.

And some, though not many, launch themselves with such swiftness and simplicity that we find ourselves strapped in, doors to automatic and cabin crew seated for takeoff before we've finished typing in the credit card security code to

So it was, then, that with a former Dragon to the left and the faceless non-Star In A Reasonably-Priced Car to the right, a plan was hatched at Jamiroquai-round-the-Hammerhead-speed to flit the country for a swift Swiss Bank Holiday weekend. Target: Zurich, with a vault through London and the quietest one-year old in the World, Heathrow's initially troublesome but now tantrum-free Terminal 5.

The Toblerone Two: CC and the travelling companion (and trip suggester) known (or not) as ®CC.

If Carlsberg Made Airports

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the UK's regional airports used to market themselves as being havens of calm efficiency; worlds away from the frenetic hustle of the major hubs, and the intelligent start-point for all your air travel needs. Indeed, if a certain brewer had designed the perfect terminal, it would probably have come up with Newcastle Airport in roughly its 1994 incarnation.

The new Metro light rail link had recently opened, the councourses had been extended and British Airways would gladly launch you in the direction of Heathrow and more than half a dozen other destinations. The Princess Royal cut a ribbon and passenger numbers rocketed.

Roll forward 15 years and the Metro goes from strength to strength, not least because it's easy to spend more on parking at the airport than flying from it. Not that a cab or even a familial lift are convenient alternatives either, as vehicular traffic has been pushed further and further from the terminal building in light of real or perceived security concerns.

Inside, directly-employed check-in staff have given way to multi-tasking, third-party contractors who know less about the airlines' policies that the passengers do, and who rarely lift their eyes above their desks lest they be forced to make eye-contact with their already-weary customers.

No wonder so many of them have been replaced by serried-ranks of boarding pass-spitting daleks, whose only purpose is to validate, validate.

A lucky few, travelling with hand baggage only and clutching a home-printed boarding pass, might be able to by-pass the automatons of the ground floor, human or robot, and proceed straight to security above.

If they happen to posess a shiny card for one or two of the airport's visiting airlines, or if they've paid a supplement (that's probably cost more than the road tax on the car for the days that it will languish far from the highway) on top of the standard car park tariff, then they may even be able to take the outside lane of 'Fast Track' towards the scanners and arches ahead.

It won't much matter if they do, though, still less if said passenger happens to have dropped thousands of pounds instead for a First or Business Class ticket which begins with a domestic or short haul flight from Newcastle. No, the shiny card holder will find themselves embarrassingly obliged to push in at the front of the snaking queue which the luck-free, cardless First Class co-flyer will have languished in the line with the Malia and Magalluf mobs.

At least the Fast Tracker will have been spared staring at two of the most bizarre pieces of airport public information yet seen, however.

The first, a departures board above the tensa-barrier tedium which flashes insistently with the ever-diminishing amount of, wait for it, shopping time the hapless queuers have left before their flight (hopefully) pushes back. So there they all stand, desperate to evacuate their wallets, gagging to get through the liquids check, panicked by the disappearing minutes of retail opportunity - and then someone, somewhere, part of the management structure that installs the screen and builds the shops, decides that it would be a grand plan to save a couple of quid and only have one scanner and one arch open for the Friday evening of a Bank Holiday weekend.

Never mind, the frustrated flyers can forget about the security shambles and dream of their final destination; perhaps one of those referred to on the second wholly ludicrous sign in the area, which helpfully and insistently takes up almost the whole of one wall.

The creator of this cretinous sign is none-other than the airport's most high-profile recent airline operator, Emirates. Their daily service to Dubai was launched with a fanfare of publicity in 2007 and the carrier's colours even grace the airport's new control tower. So now, in backlit super-sized technicolour, they invite the immobile throngs before them to fly from Newcastle with them to 'over 100 destinations worldwide.'

Now, call me an old cynic, but according to their network map, and apart from Newcastle, Emirates fly from Dubai to Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow and Gatwick in the UK. None of these five destinations strike me as ones that I would immediately think of approaching from the North East by way of the Middle East. Indeed, it would seem something of a detour to reach any of Emirates' 15 other European destinations by way of the Persian Gulf. Come to think of it, Moscow would be a bit of a dog's leg too. Would it not also be fair to say that the airline's six North and South American destinations could probably be reached a touch more directly than with a UAE connection? As could the nine North African airports that they serve.

In fact, of the actual 101 airports that Emirates' website shows service to, one is Newcastle itself and therefore hardly a destination. It's therefore actually exactly 100, not over 100 destinations from Newcastle. Of those, more than a third would only be aimed at from Tyneside, via Dubai, by the most perverse of aeroholics.

Meanwhile, timid little BA utterly fails to ensure that its premium passengers can avoid this laughable advert, nor point out to anyone there-present that they currently serve over 150 destinations from London, all of which bar Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester might reasonably, sensibly and logically be connected to from one of their Heathrow-bound Airbii.

Logic, marketing and aviation operations are not, it constantly appears, closely acquainted.

Ah well, once through the anguish that is belts, jackets and shoes off, laptops and liquids out, and the frantic scrabble to recollect everything and re-robe concluded, it's something of a worry then to often find that the highly-trained crews charged with piloting their multi-million pound birds through featureless skies, and then planting them safely on narrow strips of unsigned asphalt, are now wandering aimlessly around the departure lounge in a vain and fruitless attempt to locate their departure gates.

For again, in a stunning display of amoeba-challenging intelligence, the airport has seen fit to build a duty free shop right slap-bang across the main thoroughfare to those inconvenient appendages to 21st century airports: the aircraft. Not content with constructing this emporium in such a way that it snares the unwary traveller, the architects have excelled themselves in making it such a barrier that it looks as though there is nothing whatsoever on the other side - certainly not the other half of the airport or the route by which to board an aeroplane.

Thus it's of no great surprise that the luckless crews find themselves circling the area before this retail disaster, nor that the airport's PA system constantly crackles with insistent cries for poor passengers to proceed immediately to the gates they can't find, to board the aircraft that they'd long since forgotten was the reason for mortgaging their house to park their car, in a space that turned out to be a four-day camel ride from the terminal building, all those long hours ago before they faced the Daleks and were forced to consider travelling to Manchester via Jumeirah.

And they say that the romance of air travel has been lost...

Newcastle to London Heathrow - British Airways

The valiant voyagers who make it through the Maginot Line of security and duty free at Newcastle Airport may seek refuge and rejuvenation in one of three lounges. British Airways operates its own Terraces Lounge for eligible passengers, flybe has recently opened a facility and all other airlines use the Cheviot Lounge, which is also open to Priority Pass cardholders and guests who have booked and paid-for access in advance through a variety of online booking agents, including Priority Pass themselves.

The lounge is spacious and affords good views of almost all the apron stands, with even the furthest gate being an unhindered 5 minute walk away.

Plentiful armchair seating is augmented by a number of workstations, and there's a wide selection of newspapers and magazines to while away the waiting time. Refreshments are limited to a bean-to-cup coffee machine, reasonable bar of soft and alcoholic drinks, crisps, biscuits and pretzels. This is not a place for pre-flight dining, it's really just a retreat from the hubris of the public areas outside.

There are toilets and information screens within the lounge, although the latter annoyingly scrolls through arrivals and sundry advertisements before the departures page eventually flicks up again.

There are no boarding announcements, so it pays to keep an eye on the screen, before the two minute walk to Gate 3 for British Airways departures is commenced.

Swissport handle BA's ground operations at Newcastle, but boarding by row number and priority priority for Silver and Gold cardholders is a complete and utter mystery to them. The gate lounge doesn't quite have enough seats to accomodate the full passenger complement of an Airbus A321, so there's usually a certain amount of standing before the scrum to board.

Nevertheless, once down the jetty, we're greeted at the aircraft door by name and our Purser offers to hang my jacket as soon as the flow of boarders has slowed.

Somehow, neither of these events came as much of a surprise, as I've now developed an innate ability to reasonably reliably rate a crew from about two thirds of the way along the airbridge, as soon as they've come into view. I'm not yet able to provide a written checklist of characteristics to look for but, whatever the subliminal signals are, they seem pretty rock-solid as indicators of how the entire flight will progress.

It therefore followed that the safety demonstration was carried out promptly and professionally and, once airborne, service began swiftly with the correct front-to-back process followed, food first and immediately continued with the bar cart.

The BA sandwich twin-pack continues to be a lamentable offering, but better than nothing and washed down with a Coca Cola it would keep the pangs at bay for the duration of the flight. Having packed all the associated detritus away into the (supplied) waste bag, I kept my milk and stirrer out, just in case there was a second pass of coffee.

As it happened, there wasn't but instead the Purser, who subsequently passed down the aisle and was clearly paying attention to her cabin, re-emerged immediately from the galley and offered tea or coffee, saying 'I saw you had your milk there.' Top marks for attention, there.

The cabin was clean and in good condition, with the seat back pockets neat and fully-stocked. The aircraft carried the new 3D version of 'Airshow' to keep track of progress towards the capital.

The flight itself was just 45 minutes on a Friday evening, with no hold for Heathrow and a clear run on to the glide path for runway 27R. This Westerly approach gave us a very short taxi to Terminal 5 where, joy of joys, the guidance system was switched on and we swung straight on to stand. Jetty attached and doors opened, the completely full flight disembarked more than 10 minutes ahead of scheduled arrival time, a situation which is becoming increasingly common at the now smooth-running T5.

Final Verdict for British Airways UK Domestic: 8/10. The Purser and her crew were on-the-ball, although ground handling is ripe for improvement in terms of the boarding process and BA should invest in affording premium cabin passengers the opportunity to make use of security 'Fast Track'. Security itself was dreadful, though outwith BA's control, but there's an obvious opportunity for the home airline to seize the initiative in that space and counter Emirates' publicity with some far more credible messages of its own.

Sofitel Terminal Five - Update

At the very moment that BA1337 was scheduled to touch-down from Newcastle, I'd already made it off the aircraft, through the baggage hall (hand luggage only), past Arrivals, along the link to the Sofitel, checked in, been upgraded and found my room. To quote the short-lived campaign that British Airways hoped to be able to run beyond their new terminal's opening in 2008, I just flowed through. It's a great shame, therefore, that the majority of the travelling public are still of the opinion that the building resembles a refugee camp of fractious passengers, an opinion that BA have done little to successfully change. Indeed, their one attempt - the curious T5 is Working effort - probably did more harm than good.

The late evening arrival, coupled with an early onward departure to Zurich the next morning, made the Sofitel once again and for the third time, the obvious overnight choice of accommodation. Nine months on from my first visit, it would be interesting to see if and how standards had been maintained.

The initial signs were good; a warm welcome at the end of the link from the terminal, followed by a friendly and efficient check-in. As that was happening, the 'phone beeped with a slightly curious inbound message, which proved to be a Bluetoothed entreaty to shell out for pay-to-view films once checked in. Presumably, the hotel expects most guests to queue for attention at the desk, and this will not interrupt the check-in process. As it was, I ignored it until later, but I can see how it might annoy the staff in their attempt to expedite matters as quickly as possible. It wasn't even very useful information - there are, I'm sure, far more helpful snippets that this technology could be employed to impart.

The upgrade to a Superior Room from the booked Classic Room was advised but the catalyst for it not really explained, so I have no idea if it was a loyalty reward or an operational necessity. The basic specifications of the room are identical to those of the entry-level accommodation, and very nice they are too. The only obvious difference is the addition of 2 square metres (13sqft) of floor space. Do, I beg of you, calm your excitement.

The beds and linens are supremely comfortable, as is the Stressless-style easy chair. The TV is large and has a slick user-interface but, and I don't think I'd noticed this before, not one of the radio channel pre-sets is for any station broadcasting classical or relaxing music. Instead, every single option was for talk or some kind of pop - hardly the stuff to reflect the calm, zen-like style of the hotel as a whole. Odd.

The selection of magazines included British Airways' in-flight publication HighLife, in a sensible bit of cross-promotion.

There were a couple of other things to note, relevant to the passing of time since opening and that first visit in August 2008. Firstly, the toiletries have been downgraded from the former Hermes selection, to the distinctly unspectacular Gilchrist annd Soames.

The bathroom was also showing slight signs of wear and tear which, given the great attention-to-detail shown in the initial design, such as low-level night-lighting, was disappointing.

Probably worst of the faults was that the air conditioning panel was inoperative, although the temperature of the room was itself perfectly fine. I mentioned it on checkout and was surprised that not even an apology was offered; merely a business-like acknowledgment.

The rate included breakfast but, unhelpfully, the restaurant doesn't open until 6am. Contrast this with, say, the Crowne Plaza at Manchester Airport which kicks off at 4am. Room service is little better, with the earliest service at 5.30am. With an 07:10 take-off, room service was ordered in the hope that it would be prompt.

Which it was, and what a spread. In fact, it really was a crying shame that the hotel's inability to serve it at a sensible time meant that I could do little but rush a rapid sampling of each of the components before dashing back towards the terminal building. Superb in both quality, quantity and presentation, though disappointing also that Sofitel loads on a further penal charge for taking the room service option that their lack of restaurant opening renders necessary.

Final result for the Sofitel Terminal 5: 8/10. It's still a great airport hotel with super staff and an excellent room service breakfast, but cost-cutting and a lack of attention to detail in maintenance and housekeeping standards showed through. Recommended, but with slight reservations that didn't exist 7 and 9 months ago.

London Heathrow to Zurich - British Airways

The subject of 'policing' often crops up, just as much in the pub as in politics. It's criticised for its leniency in some quarters and its heavy-handedness in others. Achieving a happy-medium is always going to be tough given the wide variety of subjective viewpoints which it generates.

The British Airports Authority, now known as BAA plc and in charge of the security operation at Heathrow, would appear to be in something of a schizophrenic mood when it comes to the policing of their Heath Robinson-style trays, scanners and arches at Terminal 5 however.

A couple of weeks ago, one of their constables of the conveyor belt decided to apply a zero-tolerance approach to some mashed potato which, inexplicably, appeared to be a liquid or gel in his black and white eyes. Confiscated it was and the poor passenger proceeded veg-less.

Meanwhile, the policing of the system's Fast Track lane is rather more liberal. Approaching the guardian of the tensa-barrier, he simply said 'Fast Track, Sir?' And I simply said 'Yes.' Despite the fact that I did, of course, have the appropriate authority in my pocket, the simple utterance of an affirmative seemed to do the trick and I was through and out of the other side in 90 seconds. Whilst undoubtedly quick, one assumes that this somewhat laissez-faire attitude might ultimately cause one or two problems, but I shall leave you to ponder what those might be.

Lounges apart, Terminal 5 presents a never-ending selection of opportunities to liberate currency from your credit card, as long as you can manage to avoid gassing yourself with the stomach-churning aromas eminating from the fast-food outlet at the head of the North escalators.

When boarding is announced, it's pleasing to see that gate staff are finally getting the hang of boarding by row number and priority/at leisure boarding for shiny cardholders and business class passengers. A little more work to do on this though, as Club World passengers were summoned to this flight - which as a short haul operation was, to be accurate, offering a Club Europe cabin.

The jetty pre-assessment of the crew suggested 'good-not-great', which again proved to be reasonably accurate. During the short, early-morning flight, service extends to a hot sandwich in EuroTraveller, and a tea and coffee run. With the humungous Sofitel breakfast still heavy on the belly, the sandwich was politely declined and coffee accepted instead. Which was, to be honest, pretty rotten but at least hot and wet.

Arriving early into Zurich, it was a short walk to the airport's transit system, and one of those little things that gladden the heart every now and again; in this case, the high-speed video welcome from Heidi as the train shoots down its subterranean tube. It's not the smoothest of rides however, so Heidi is a bit jiggly:

Passing through immigration and customs is fast and typically-Swiss in its efficiency, before exiting into the arrivals concourse. The quickest and best value way to reach the city is by train, and the station is a short walk across the forecourt and into another terminal area which is built above the platforms.

Tickets can be purchased from machines which take cash only, and cash or card. There's a bank and an ATM in the vicinity, and a ticket office for advice, information or more complicated requirements than can be fulfilled by the machines.

Particularly good value is the Zurichcard at a cost of CHF38, which affords unlimited tram and train travel for 72 hours within the Zurich canton, as well as numerous other attraction entry and travel benefits. I couldn't immediately see a button on the machine for the card (which is oddly only available for either 24 hours or 72 hours, but not 48), so the ticket office was called upon instead.

Trains leave for the city every 10-15 minutes, with a variety of train types to be seen as the airport is on a mainline route. Some are sleek InterCity style models, others more run-of-the-mill double-decker commuter contraptions.

All are clean, comfortable and spacious and take just 15 minutes to reach the city centre; look for Zurich Hauptbahnhof on the platform information boards.

Final verdict for British Airways Euro Traveller: 7.5/10. There's not a lot of scope to shine on these shorthaul flights, but with seats no narrower than Club Europe and the same on-time departure and arrival as the front of the aircraft, there was little to consider unsatisfactory with the service. T5 was a breeze to get through (although BAA's security shenanigans are trying) and the service on board was friendly. The British Airways short haul seat remains one of the more comfortable too, in my opinion.

Marriott Hotel Zurich

Zurich's Hauptbahnhof railway station is a grand edifice built on the banks of the Limmat River, which issues from the Zurichsee just a little way upstream. The station is well-connected with rail lines to all parts of the country and beyond, at both ground and basement floors and surrounded on three sides by a comprehensive tram network at street level.

Exiting onto Museumstrasse and crossing the river, it's barely a 10 minute walk with light luggage to the Marriott Hotel which, thanks to its almost unique-in-Zurich high-rise stature, is plainly obvious from some distance away.

Easy to locate it may be, but a thing of beauty it most certainly is not. Clearly designed by an architect untroubled by the concept of curves or radii, whose desk posessed only ruler and grey pencil, the Marriott rises like a giant, incongrous, duo-tone Sticklebrick from above the trees which line the clear-watered river's Northern bank.

Once inside the lobby, things improve markedly - though only to that most reliable of Marriott rosy dark wood, granite, brass and marble combinations, with the ubiquitous portrait of the kindly-looking JWs, Senior and Junior, surveying the passing traffic from within their gilt-edged frame.

Our Receptionist is most welcoming and confirms an upgrade in recognitoin of my Marriott Rewards Platinum status and, better still, advises that our room is ready despite the earliness of our arrival. He offers a city map and some brief suggestions of must-sees and points out the 'Golden Door' to the Club Lounge which that Platinum Card (and the upgrade) affords. A very positive first impression.

Having gone from the gulagesque exterior to the clubby American lobby, it's something of a shock for the lift doors to open onto a guest room corridor which looks like that of a cross-channel ferry (although a richly-carpeted one) and smells ever so slightly like a municipal baths.

The odd wall finish and flush nature of the guestroom doors gives rise to the impression that the doors themselves must open outwards, leading to a distinctly Midvale School For The Gifted tussle with the handle until it's realised that they do, in fact, open inwards.

The other oddity experienced in the lift is that the hotel appears to have mislaid almost 20 floors. Either a significant chunk of the tower's midriff has collapsed, the hotel has size issues or there's a disconnect in the space-time continuum above floor four. I jumped up and down on the bedroom floor a couple of times and it didn't seem to wobble, so I'm guessing that option one is not the most likely of explanations.

Once inside, it's back to standard Marriott again, and very comfortable too with the new 'Revive' bedding.

The view is expansive back across the river, over the city and towards the Zurichsee. On a clear day, the Alps would feature in the distance.

The bathroom is well-specified, spotlessly clean and stylishly fitted.

The rate included a complimentary bottle of unspecified champagne, which the Receptionist had noted and asked what time it would be required. When it arrived, on time, it turned out to be more than acceptable and didn't last long whilst we enjoyed the view.

The short stay didn't leave time to investigate the hotel's swimming pool and gym, but suffice to say that they're there and should meet the usual Marriott standards.

The famed 'Golden Door' leading to the Club Lounge was passed through for pre-dinner drinks and a largeish room with a central servery was found behind it. Mornings bring with them a light breakfast presentation, followed by access to the coffee machine and sweet treats during the day. In the evening, a wider selection of canapes are brought out, and a bar set up.

The cheeseboard is certainly to be recommended; the Montepulciano only if you propose to indulge in some evening paint-stripping whilst in Zurich. Avoid! There are both lounging and dining areas.

There is a small business centre immediately adjacent to Reception, with PCs and secretarial services. Web access is chargeable however.

The aforementioned light breakfast was passed over in favour of the more comprehensive offering served in the hotel's dedicated first floor breakfast room. Here, service was to the same friendly standard as elsewhere in the hotel, although the kitchen did seem to be struggling on this occasion to keep all the buffet items fully replenished. There's an in-room chef to prepare eggs and waffles, although the view is of a slightly Sega Racing flyover parapet.

A late check-out was also included in the room rate and, when the time came, it was a quick and problem-free experience with no extras to add.

Final verdict for the Marriott Hotel Zurich: 8.0/10. The hotel is a long way from being a budget option, so the lack of exterior presence and underwhelming corridors were something of a disappointment. Breakfast was not a completely seamless service and the Club Lounge suffered from a lack of free WiFi or PCs and some horrid wine. However, the overall value for money was good, the service first class and the bedroom clean, quiet, comfortable and with a more than pleasant view. A good, well-located choice, close enough to the centre to be convenient, but just a little away from the noise of the city.

A Swiss Bank Holiday - 24 Hours in Zurich

Life's good in Zurich - and that's official. For eight consecutive years from 2001 to 2008, the Swiss city stubbornly came out top in human resources consultancy William M Mercer's quality of life index, which audits 215 cities worldwide. The predictably of the result would have become boring, had 2009 not brought with it the news that the city had fallen headlong down the rankings, to the civic pride-devastating position of second place.

The Mercer study carefully measures 39 different criteria, including leisure and relaxation, safety, cleanliness, political and economical stability, and medical care. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the initial short-listing is undertaken on the basis of one single question: does the place look a bit boring?

Experience shows that almost every city which triumphs in these regular 'liveability' competitions tends to lack a certain something in the built environment with which other, reportedly less 'liveable' cities might instantly be recognised. Take Melbourne, for example. You'd practically have to be a local to be able to immediately recognise the Arts' Centre or Flinders Street station.

True, Vancouver has a stunning backdrop of mountains, but more than usually they're swathed in cloud and the unremarkable skyline could be any of at least a dozen waterside metropoli.

And so it is that Zurich, often mistakenly considered to be the capital of Switzerland (no, that's Berne), would challenge even the most-travelled of cityscape identifiers were they to be presented with a skyline silhouette.

A place to wow the new arrival this is not, then, but its charms grow more subtly and it doesn't take long to begin to appreciate the many subtle virtues that would indeed make this a most pleasant place to live and work.

First though, let's get the money thing out of the way. The Swiss, and the good burghers of Zurich in particular, have one of the highest levels of personal income in the World. It's said that money doesn't make you happy, but as the Swiss know all too well, it does make you very rich.

Since wealth tends to beget wealth, it's not only the locals who are to be found patronising the exclusive boutiques of the Bahnhofstrasse, and the surrounding networks of spotlessly-clean alleys and wynds. Oh no, those whose bullion sweats gently in the vaults of those famously shy banks clearly feel the need to come and look at their ingots regularly, perhaps to stroke them, polish them, or just file a bit off to go and buy an island. Or Zimbabwe.

They fly in on SWISS, the only airline in the World in this global recession that is upgrading all its long-haul routes to carry a First Class cabin. They stay in hotels whose rates reflect mostly the weight-of-demand and spending-power of their guests, rather than any kind of relevance to anything of comparable standard outside the country.

And then they drink and dine in perfect-people-watching open air cafes, or discreet restaurants where the discussion of dripping indulgence can be undertaken away from prying eyes and dropping eaves.

Back to the Bahnhofstrasse though and, despite a few adjacent incursions from C&A and some rather communist-looking departments stores, it's an easy place to heat up a credit card on clothes, bags, perfumes and other branded goods.

Venture beyond, leaving behind the artful plantpots of the current garden festival, and the streets become a mix of galleries and cafes, boutiques and speciality stores, with a notable prevalence of very expensive furnishing and homeware emporia. The Swiss, and their visitors, clearly like their cushions and cutlery. Indeed one purveyor of stylish ladieswear had felt the need to include a range of china in his window display: 'Oh, madame, that gown would look simply divine accessorised with this cruet. No? Perhaps a teapot then?'

In the midst of this couture and crockery en route from the Bahnhofstrasse towards the river, the church of St Peter looks down on its parish of conspicuous wealth. It's certainly very pretty in an Alpine kind of way, but it holds a claim to fame that, at first glance, seems unlikely; believe it or not, St Peter's clockface is the biggest in Europe, and the largest church clockface in the World. At 8.7m in diameter, it beats Big Ben by 1.8m. That's slightly wider than a London Routemaster bus is long. Mind, if you think that's big, you want to see the size of the cuckoo.....

The small hill to the West of St Peter's is the Lindenhof, which has been inhabited since 1500BC. It's not immediately apparent that much has been done to upgrade it since, although it does at least get a note in the history books. It was the site of the citizens of Zurich swearing their oath of allegiance to the Helvetic constitution in 1798. These days, it's a grassless park which does however represent a good vantage point from which to survey the Limmat River and the buildings of the North bank.

Most obvious amongst these is the Grossmunster, a Romanesque church completed in 1220 with iconic (well, as iconic as Zurich gets) twin towers that were added in the 18th Century following a fire.

In front of the Grossmunster when viewed from the grandstand of the Lindenhof, and built almost in the river, the Renaissance-style Rathaus anchors the wide promenade of the Limmatquai at its Eastern end. Reached by way of the eponymous bridge, the Rathaus plays host to an adjacent and uber-stylish cafe and bar. From its large open-air terrace, customers may observe the passage of time and talent from the comfort of deeply-cushioned rattan sofas and armchairs, shading their sprayed-on tans from the natural elements beneath wide canvas canopies.

Those less keen on being quite so seen (or seeing so much) might chose to cool their heels instead a little closer to St Peter's, at the pavement cafe of the Hotel zum Storchen in Am Weinplatz. Though the people-watching is slightly poorer, the daytime selection of food at this still-riverside cafe is more comprehensive than at the Rathaus, including some very good salads and ice creams.

If the area to the South of the crystal-clear waters of the Limmat is the shopping mecca of the city, then that adjacent to the Rathaus and the Grossmunster is undoubtedly the focus for dining, drinking and nightlife.

There are all manner of nightclubs and bars catering to the various predelictions of their target clienteles, including a quite spectacular number of 'exotic' establishments aimed primarily at the single gentleman. In fact, it doesn't take a walk of the streets to note this; the free official city guidebook carries 11 full-page adverts for these providers of short-term companionship.

When in Zurich, it might be considered de rigeur to do the Swiss 'thing' and sample the domestic cuisine at a restaurant such as the well-located Swiss Chuchi. Forming the ground-floor of the Hotel Adler, the outdoor seating area at Swiss Chuchi is yet another great place from which to observe the flow of humanity heaving past. The service is friendly, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Swiss would no more dine (or pay the prices) here than yodel the day's gold price from a cereal bowl-selling dress shop.

What they do, it transpires, is walk past the place and stare at the entirely bizarre vista of tourists toasting bits of native vermin on George Foreman grills attached to extension cables that snake across the cobbles. Meanwhile, they wander off for a far more sensible pizza.

You live and learn.

Cheese-somothered rabbit aside, Swiss Chuchi is still a marvellous viewfinder through which to watch the promenading locals outside who, it seems, evolve from handsome and well-dressed in the twilight, to ever more exotically-attired as the evening progresses. Alongside these displays of vestments which even Joseph would probably considered a bit garish, it also transpires that Zurich does a good line in chavs and stag parties, ladettes and hen nights.

They're way off the pace though, at least compared to their Anglo Saxon counterparts; they may wear the uniform of Nike and Lacoste, but their cheery hellos and twin-cheek kisses of greeting between passing stag/hen combinations give them away as amateurs. They will never cut it against the finely-honed perfection of the genre, represented by the 2 litre bottles of cider and vomit crusted crop-tops that are the British way.

The Swiss, it seems, also have much to learn.

To clear the head after a night of doubtful health and safety, the comprehensive tram network will deliver the visitor almost inevitably at some point, along any of its routes, to the Hauptbahnhof and, from here, the S10 train ascends a steep and winding track, first through the suburbs and then through trees and meadows to Uetliberg.

From the picturesque station, numerous walks fan out - ranging in lengths from a gentle stroll to multi-day hike. Most visitors, if they can drag themselves away from the platform tearoom, make the 10 minute climb to the summit of the 873m high hill by way of some steps and a wide track, sentried by some rather esoteric lamp standards.

Arriving relaxed and with the assistance of the S10, it's something of a surprise to find the top of the hill thronged with sweating lycra-clad cyclists, gasping for air and dousing themselves with bottles of water. Perhaps they didn't know that there's a train.

Hills are, of course, things that the Swiss do rather well. By contrast, it's probably fair to say that no-one does hills as badly as the British. This particular Swiss mini-mountain has a railway, a station, a cafe at the station, two hotels, numerous picnic areas, a bar, a sausage and ice-cream kiosk, a terrace, an additional viewing platform and a radio transmitter.

Back home, you're lucky if you get a dry stone wall to wee behind and even then you're apt to zip up and find a mono-toothed farmer with a baying hound bearing down on you.

Uetliberg is therefore a 'top hill' and the Swiss are to be commended for making it accessible to everyone, not just to those with a waterproof and napsack fetish. And I'm sure that those cyclists will know for next time.

Anyway, from the aforementioned viewing platform, there's a 360-degree panorama which extends from the underwhelming skyline of the city in front, around to the sparkling waters of the Zurichsee and then further to the folded valleys hiding Winterthur and then back to the city again. On a clear day, the Alps provide a most impressive backdrop.

Once back in the city, it might be considered prudent to augment the observation of wealth with a little culture, the most obvious bastion of which is the Swiss Museum, the Schweizerisches Landesmuseen. Conveniently located next door to the Hauptbahnhof and therefore a neat continuation of an Uetliberg trip, the museum houses Switzerland's most comprehensive cultural and historical collection, covering pre-history, antiquity, the Middle Ages and on to the 20th Century.

Fans of the dramatic arts are also well-served with impressive venues, epitomised by the mighty Opera House on Falkenstrasse. One of Europe's leading stages, the venue is known for its breadth of repertoire and is popular with traditionalists and supporters of modern interpretation alike.

And with that rather obvious link to the potential for a stereotypically-large lady to begin warbling, our 24 hours in Zurich is over without a triangle of Toblerone ever having passed our lips.

Sheraton Heathrow Hotel

Let's imagine that I own a hotel. Perhaps I didn't just buy it; perhaps I designed it, specified it, built it and then modified it. It stands as a mounument to my own personal tastes and then I realise that what I need is a bit of extra exposure. Some better marketing; the support of a big company with global reach and an excellent reputation. Perhaps I'd like to sign a contract, nail a Sheraton sign to the front and watch the guests flood in.

There's a problem though. When I look on Sheraton's parent company's website, it says that Sheraton is their largest brand, serving the needs of luxury and upscale business and leisure travelers worldwide. That sounds great, but my place is a bit of a dump, to be honest, so there's no way that Starwood would be happy to see their brand above my door.

No, scratch that, they would. Welcome to the Sheraton Heathrow.

Now, in all fairness, this hotel charges 'Travelodge' rates. It's half the price, usually, of the nearby Sofitel and the web is a rich seam of less than glowing reports about the property. So let's just say that none of what follows came as an unheralded shock, though it's still particularly disappointing given the fact that I'm such a fan of Starwood properties and generally find that their adherence to reliable and consistent standards is fairly exemplary.

Arriving at nearly midnight from Terminal 5, the trip on the 350 London bus service was quick and free, thanks to its entirety being within the so-called 'Freeflow' area. There was, unsurprisingly, no queue at check-in, and I was delighted to hear that I'd been upgraded to a 'preferred' room thanks to my Gold status in the Starwood loyalty programme. That was about the sum total of the welcome information however, with no confirmation of rate or package inclusions, hotel facilties or dining options.

Opening the door to the upgraded room, the first impression was of the heat. So, crank up the airconditioning, which sounded like it was powered by a jet engine borrowed from the airport across the road, and get ready for bed.

The room was clearly recently renovated and, apart from the presence of a traditional cathode ray TV, looked modern and comfortable.

The bathroom was compact but light and bright.

As the air conditioning utterly failed to make any impression on the stifling heat, I pulled back the covers on the famous Sheraton Sweet Sleeper bed, the plush, nine-layer creation of which Starwood is justifiably proud.

Unfortunately however, the Sheraton Heathrow had obviously cocked-up the linen order this week, as the double bed had clearly been fitted with a single mattress topper, evidenced by the fact that the mattress showed straight through the base sheet.

In an attempt to capture the evidence, a little more light was required, but attempts to illuminate revealed the novel (and failed) use of glue to attach power sockets to the wall rather than, oh I don't know, something exotic like screws.

The aircon droned all night, the temperature never dropped, the bedlinen required a firmly central positioning to avoid falling off the mattress topper and all criticism of the Sofitel's downgrade from Hermes toiletries evaporated in the humidity. Even the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol seemed attractive, by comparison.

In the morning, the most rapid departure possible was sought, forgetting that breakfast had been paid for. Perhaps wisely, the Reception staff declined to ask how the stay had been - and I scuttled off to cool down outside and catch the handy (and also free) 423 bus back to T5.

Final verdict for the Sheraton Heathrow: 4/10. The welcome was sub-par, the room was shoddily maintained, poorly prepared and uncomfortably hot and noisy. In no way does the property reflect the stated values of the Sheraton brand, nor does it compare to other hotels which together represent the brand - even the Skyline sister property just down Bath Road. Disappointingly dismal.

Zurich to London City - British Airways CityFlyer

The Swiss, of course, are famous for their clockery. They're also rather renowned for their railways. Combine the two, and Swiss Railways are a by-word for punctuality.

So it was something of a surprise that our train to the airport left the Hauptbahnhof almost 20 minutes late. Having said that, by the time the guard had articulately made his sincere apologies in three languages, citing some unspecified technical glitch as the cause of the delay, we were almost arriving at our destination. The train was, as it had been on arrival, clean, comfortable and quick, and all trains bound for the airport and beyond are clearly identified with the 'Flughafen' designation on the Hauptbahnhof destination boards.

British Airways utilistes Check In Area 2 and offers both traditional desks and self-service machines, the latter capable of processing passengers for half a dozen airlines.

Passing through the boarding pass check and security, there's a decent selection of shopping and refreshment options, before signposts to the E Gates lead BA passengers down an escalator and towards the Skymetro transit shuttle.

Having been welcomed by Heidi on the inbound journey, Skymetro passengers are treated to reminders of the Helvetic countryside as they whizz past the tunnel-wall video screens and shoot on down the tube towards the train's terminus.

The E Gates are not havens of retail abundance, but the Bellevue Lounge provides a warm welcome for British Airways Club Europe passengers and Silver and Gold card holders, as well as Priority Pass lounge access members.

The access to the lounge, however, is through a slightly tatty space which has an air of no-one being quite sure what to do with it.

Once reached, the lounge is spacious with dining, lounging and work areas, all overlooking the aprons and runways of the airport.

The work area offers two laptops, as well as additional desk space for passengers to use their own equipment at. Reception offer free cards to access the lounge-wide WiFi for 120 minute sessions.

The self service bar area presents a generous selection of well-chilled soft drinks and beers, premium spirits, wine and prosecco. There are cascades of nuts, pretzels, gummi bears and savoury snacks, as well as abundant fruit.

There are also platters of sandwiches, a crock of soup, hunks of crusty bread and delectable chunks of cake.

There's even a feature fireplace, which is presumably particularly enjoyable on cold winter days.

Flights are not called in this shared lounge, but screens are clearly visible. It's not too long a walk back through no-man's land and past a handful of gate lounges and a chocolatier's kiosk, to the gates used by British Airways.

It's not immediately apparent whether priority boarding facilities are offered, however, nor how efficient the overall process is (although it surely will be; it's Switzerland after all). The lack of visibility is merely a function of the load on this RJ100-operated flight to London City airport - just 1 Club Europe passenger and 17 Euro Travellers.

In order to trim the small aircraft, Euro Traveller seat allocations have all been made from row 10 back, so there's a significant void between the lone premium passenger and the hoi polloi up the back. The curtain separator, only in place on the occupied starboard side and in its furthest forward position, is rendered almost redundant by the gulf of vacant seats.

Push back is right on time and the crew complete the safety demonstration with a passenger almost equal to First Class on a BA Boeing 777. Once airborne in the aircraft once dubbed the 'whisper jet' but now rather noisy compared to more modern equipment, the crew begin service promptly. There's a bar service, a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich in a 'Deli Bag' (far better than that offered on UK domestic services) and tea and coffee.

The light load makes the cabin more comfortable than it would otherwise be; most operators of the RJ100 and the BAe146 upon which it was developed utilise a 5 abreast seating format, but British Airways have always shoe-horned 6 in. For those slim-of-hip, it's not a major issue, except for those in the A and F-designated seats, who'll find that the seat headrest is actually cut out slightly to accommodate the curvature of the cabin wall. Taller and wider passengers are therefore very firmly advised to avoid these window seats.

The flight is smooth and quick, lengthened only slightly by the necessary of an approach into the Docklands airport from the West. Once on the ground, there's the trademark pirhouette at the end of the runway, essential thanks to the narrow spit of land upon which its built and the lack of any parallel taxiways.

Disembarkation is through both the front and rear doors, which seems a touch of overkill for the 18 passengers, but it allows the swiftest of passages from the aircraft, straight through passport control and customs, and out into the dinky terminal concourse and the forecourt outside within 5 minutes of doors opening.

Years ago, this is what all our UK regional airports were like; perhaps the physical constraints of City's location will mean that it's the only one which is likely to remain this way. It's almost certainly a character that will be hugely appreciated by passengers on British Airways' forthcoming service to New York.

Final verdict for British Airways Euro Traveller: 7.5/10. It's difficult to rate a flight which was so clearly under-loaded, almost certainly as a result of the mid-Bank Holiday weekend timing. Having said that, Zurich Airport and the Bellevue Lounge were joys to use, the cabin crew on board were still motivated despite the low load, the catering was marginally better than other BA services and London City is a superb airport too. The aircraft, soon to be replaced by new Embraer jets, was cramped and noisy, which would undoubtedly have been an issue with a full load, but the short flight time means that even this wouldn't have been a huge problem. A very pleasant experience.