January 31, 2008
I realise it's over four months since my last message. Since then New Europe has been out, both on television and in the bookshops and, increasingly, in supermarkets and on internet retailers.
The response has been very gratifying. The largest single audience for a documentary on UK TV last year (7.8 million for Episode 1), and with the BBC 2 and BBC 4 repeats, a weekly audience average of around 8 million for the series as a whole. The book has just slipped out of the Top 10 after 17 healthy weeks there and total worldwide sales are looking to hit 350,000.
The pressure of publicity, especially book signings, catapulted me up to Christmas, and it's only now that the dust of filming, production and marketing has begun to settle and I can look back on New Europe and begin to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
I was very happy with the production values, which remained as high as ever. In terms of the material, well maybe there just was too much to chew on. Although the BBC gave us an extra programme, the material we saw en route was richer than any of us expected, and we would have needed another four or five programmes to cover all the countries as they fully deserved.
So, my apologies to some of the countries on our route that were not covered sufficiently. All of them are in the book, and many good sequences we just didn't have space for can be seen on the DVD. Maybe we were a little over-ambitious to take on twenty countries, all of which have such different characters and identities, histories and cultures, but the series was intended, like all the series I've made, to open a few windows on the world, and there was nowhere I didn't enjoy visiting, or learning about.
I hope that where we have succeeded is to reveal Central and Eastern Europe to audiences in such places as Britain, Australia, New Zealand and America, who knew very little about it, and now hopefully will know more. We can’t do everything, but I’m happy if we’ve done enough to stimulate the curiosity of those who, like the Palin's Travel website fans, like to do some finding out for themselves.
As often happens after a series, my appetite for finding out more of the background to what I've just seen, is very strong, and I'm currently enjoying a Dutch writer's trip through 20th century Europe. It's called In Europe, by Geert Mak (Harvill-Secker) and is a terrific and very readable insight into the turbulent history of Europe's last three generations. And there's a gem of a movie from Romania called "12.08, East of Bucharest". Bleak and very funny.
For all of those out there who might suspect that all I do these days is play with grandson Archie, I've already been on the move in 2008, visiting Lisbon to see the world premiere of Terry Jones's weird and wonderful opera "Evil Machines", and then further south to take Mrs Palin for a few days in one of my favourite places - Marrakesh. My feet itch and the wanderlust certainly hasn't cleared up, but this year I want to have time for other things - like catching up on movies and books and art and generally seeing what everyone else is doing.
After 18 solid months on New Europe, the thought of a new long series is far from my mind, but as long as there are maps I shall be looking at them.
Meanwhile, keep travelling - by train and canoe, if possible. Watch out for anything with Bruce Parry in it (he likes suffering almost as much as I used to) and have a restless 2008 !
Michael P, London, January 31st 2008
January 26, 2008
YOU can hear the gales of laughter now.
You've just told mates you're heading off to Vanuatu and a resort
that's promised you'll have the choice of seven restaurants and cafés,
five bars, a nightclub, three pools, a couple of tennis courts, a
private beach with a watersports centre, a gymnasium, a day spa, and a
secluded cove for dipping into coral viewing and snorkelling away from
And all within a kava's kick of some of the best duty-free shopping in
the South Pacific.
Pull the other one, the mates will tell you, this is Vanuatu… where
the main street through capital Port Vila is a wonderfully-titled
montage of potholes called The Walter Lini Highway, where until
recently 3-storeys was considered skyscraper stuff, and where
fast-food is looked upon as something that arrives at your table
within 30-minutes of ordering.
But now two of Port Vila's best resorts – one of them one of the
oldest, and the other one of its newest (although in true
island-tradition it took seven years from turning the first sod to a
guest turning the first key) – have decided to allow guests in each to
use all the facilities of the other.
And when they knock up any costs for meals, drinks, spa or other
services, all these guests have to do is say "Charge it," so that
those costs go back to their own room account.
The first, Iririki Island Resorts & Spa opened in Port Vila harbour in
the mid-1980s on a private island that had been the home of the
British Resident Commissioner in Vanuatu's pre-independence days, a
time when the country was called the New Hebrides and administered
jointly by the British and the French as a condominium.
To the locals, however, this resultant confusion of policies and
cultural clashes, was looked upon somewhat bemusedly as "The
And while Iririki's opening was to much fanfare as a sign of
confidence in the new nation, its foundation years weren't without
drama: within a year of opening, 1987's Cyclone Uma virtually wiped
the idyllic seventy-two bungalows and a dreamy restaurant and bar off
Our second resort directly opposite the re-born Iririki Island Resort,
and just 3-minutes away by ferry on the "mainland," is 6-storeys of
indulgence that was built by investors eight years ago, but stood
empty until bought by an Australian consortium last year; that
consortium then contracted the Mirvac group to manage it under its
prestigious Sebel banner.
Today the waterfront Sebel Vanuatu provides a grand retreat with 74
luxurious rooms offering spectacular harbour views, private balconies
off every room and marble bathrooms.
Its Crystals Restaurant boasts 5-star silver service in a smartly
relaxed ambience that embraces its waterfront setting, with menus
featuring international, island and French Provincial signature
cuisine; there's also a laid-back Lobby Lounge Café and a Pool Café
for snacking and cocktails.
And on the sixth floor the Hemisphere Lounge is arguably one of the
South Pacific's finest hideaways of unexpected indulgence, coupled
with stunning views for that very special occasion.
Across the bay amid Iririki Island Resort & Spa's lush tropical
gardens is Vila's premier Michener's Restaurant, named in honour of
the author who conceived Tales of the South Pacific when was based in
Vanuatu during the Pacific War. Here one indulges in spectacular
dining on fresh-caught fish, tender local beef and pork, market vegies
and the most wicked desserts in an adults-only environment.
And immediately adjacent, Iririki's poolside Bali Hai Café and Bar is
also a zone mercifully free of ankle-biters.
Iririki has a total 126 individual Bungalows, DeLuxe Rooms and
Penthouses, two pools, two tennis courts, a gym, one of Vanuatu's
finest day Spas, a casual beachfront Watermark Restaurant & Bar, a
Sunset Bar & Café, a watersports centre, and a private-beach
snorkeling and coral viewing area.
And the laid-back little island can claim royal patronage: the Queen
and Prince Philip stayed there during their last South Pacific tour.
Virgin's Pacific Blue services (www.pacificblue.com.au) take just two
easy hours from Brisbane to Port Vila, and of course they've plenty of
domestic connections to get to Brisbane; to find out more about
staying at either of these premier Port Vila resorts and using the
facilities of the other, see travel agents.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: IRIRIKI Island as it was after Cyclone Uma roared
through Port Vila just
a year after the resort's opening.
AND as Iririki Island Resorts &
Spa is now, an idyllic haven of peace in Port
Vila Harbour that includes an
child-free adults-only precinct.
THE grand new The Sebel Vanuatu,
the country's first high-rise resort offering
new dimensions in escapism.
January 21, 2008
(so has his hotel)
JUST as stage announcer Al Dvorin boomed for years into his microphone
"ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building" to disperse
the throngs hoping for one last encore, an Hawaii resort that The King
made as equally famous as himself, has now itself "left the building."
And remarkably while its just as famous today as it was when Presley
put it on the map 47-years ago, few can explain why – not a guest has
stayed in the derelict joint since 1992.
This seemingly paradoxical place is the Coco Palms Resort on the
Hawaiian island of Kauai, a time-warp 1950s retreat that's been slated
for a $200-million-plus make-over for years. But after continually
fragile relations with the bureaucracy and community-interest groups –
and as the last straw, the US subprime lending crisis – that
make-over's now off, and the resort's up for sale.
And heart-breakingly, the most-recent owners bought it for $12m just a
couple of years ago, and then poured a few more millions into plans
for 200 luxury condominiums, a hundred or so hotel rooms, restaurants,
shops and a spa, all in Polynesian-style reminiscent of how the resort
originally looked – but all to no avail.
Coco Palms opened in January 1953 with just 24 rooms, four employees,
and two guests. But over the years it developed into a sprawling
near-400 rooms amid a 2000-tree coconut grove, that contrary to the
publicity hype was not a one-time plaything of the Hawaiian royal
family who ruled Kauai from the 13th century to the mid-1800s.
Rather, the grove was developed in 1896 by a planter who simply
brought in a shipload of coconuts from Samoa; when the Coco Palms
Resort opened 50-odd years later amid all these, its managers
encouraged famous guests to plant additional coconuts that were marked
with plaques sporting their names: The Von Trapp Family Singers, Bing
Crosby, surfer Duke Kahanamoku and the Prince and Princess of Japan
being amongst the earliest to take up the offer.
The resort was also the first in Hawaii to have a doorman welcome new
guests with a blast from a conch shell, and to summon diners with a
flaming ceremonial "Call to Feast" flare-lighting at 7.30 every
evening – a ritual played-out nightly for 40 years until the place was
trashed by Hurricane Iniki in September 1992 and closed.
Both the conch-shell greeting and "Call to Feast" featured in one of
Elvis Presley's most famous movies, Blue Hawaii in which he starred
with Joan Blackman and Angela Lansbury, and which made the Coco Palms
Resort a household name world-wide.
Before that, Hollywood had used the resort to film parts of South
Pacific, Pagan Love Song, TV's Fantasy Island, and Miss Sadie Thompson
with Rita Hayworth, afterwards donating the Wedding Chapel used in
that movie to the resort… which dusted it off in 1961 for use again in
Presley and his co-stars had their own thatch bungalows at the Coco
Palms Resort, and cast and crew dined well and inexpensively.
Except for The King, who adopted his own bizarre meal rituals,
eschewing such delights as Mandarin Duck Soup (in those days, just
40-cents,) Char-roasted Prime Rib ($4) and Coconut Honey Sundae (a
mere 50-cents) for daily breakfasts of toasted bacon and egg
sandwiches, burgers and fries for both lunch and dinner – and
in-between, fill-me-up peanut butter and banana sandwiches that he
ordered be deep-fried.
While Coco Palms Resort has been closed since Hurricane Iniki in 1992,
it's still possible to pay a visit – and even to get married there.
A tour company on Kauai, Hawaii Movie Tours includes a look at the
Resort's coconut grove, the remains of Presley's thatch cottage, and
the so-called lagoon over which Presley and Blackman were transported
by barge as he crooned The Hawaiian Wedding Song.
A replica of the Wedding Barge is used today by popular Kauai
entertainer Larry Rivera for Chapel in the Palms Weddings; couples can
be transported on the barge to be married in the Chapel or amongst the
palms, with Champers, cake, conch-blowers and of course, music from
(Mail email@example.com for details of weddings; for holidays
in Hawaii including on Kauai phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays
on 1300 79 49 59.)
PHOTO CAPTIONS: HOME to The King: the thatch bungalow in which
Elvis Presley stayed while
filming Blue Hawaii at the
Coco Palms Resort in 1961.
MODERN day wedding at Coco Palms
couple cross the lagoon on a
replica of Elvis' barge
on their way to their wedding in
the chapel used in
THOSE were the days: the Blue
Hawaii cocktail was
created at Coco Palms during
the making of the movie –
note the price!
(photos: dexter olivas / david ellis)
January 14, 2008
THERE'S probably no other drink done more to fire up wars and
revolutions, legends and folklore than tequila, Mexico's indigenous
firewater that's fuelled those in the firing line of improving their
lot since as far back as the early 1500s.
And while once considered by the country's former Spanish rulers as
the alcoholic crutch of peasants, revolutionaries, bandidos and other
perceived rabble, tequila is taking on a new image in the 21st
century: its now as much the drink of choice at boardroom level as
are hand-crafted Scotch single-malts and the best French cognacs.
And so far has the wheel turned, that in recognition of its beauty,
history and cultural significance, Mexico's Tequila Valley has been
listed as a World Heritage site, and the tequila industry and tourism
promoters have jumped on this triumph with the establishment of a
Tequila Route – somewhat akin to the tourism-lucrative wine routes of
France, Australia, California and South Africa.
And even the Inter-American Development Bank's weighed-in with
millions of dollars in aid to encourage free-spending holidaymakers
to trek this fledgling La Ruta del Tequila, and so give a
much-welcome economic boost to locals in the picturesque Tequila
Valley and mountains.
It's a long way from the day in 1795 when Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo
got a licence from Mexico's Spanish rulers to turn the juice of the
wild agave plant into tequila, and thus become North America's first
But Jose Cuervo – whose name translates less romantically in English
to Joe Crow – was not the first to make the stuff: local natives had
been home-brewing agave firewater for 300 years.
Joe's fiery drop was known to have spurred-on revolutionaries during
the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821,) and a century later
during the Mexican Revolution it became something of a symbol of
patriotic pride to be seen tossing down a commercially-made tequila
And production boomed from 1920 to 1933 when the Mafia and other
mobsters smuggled tequila by the truck-load across the border from
Mexico during America's Prohibition, and again in the 1940s when the
heady firewater became a cheap replacement for hard-to-get European
spirits during WWII.
The La Ruta del Tequila fans out from Guadalajara, the colourful
capital of the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco, through a
diversity of mountains and valleys embracing such picturesque towns
as El Arenal, Amatitlan, Magdelena, and where it all began, Tequila
Visitors fly into Guadalajara to either self-drive or join organised
tours through the thousands of hectares of agave farms, visit tequila
distilleries to see how the stuff is made and taste samples, and shop
the countless markets that are a chaotically kaleidoscopic jumble of
home-crafts, hand-woven blankets, knitwear and every form of
paraphernalia to do with the partaking of tequila.
It's also possible to do 12-hour-day tours from the coastal city of
Puerto Vallarta, seeing the jimadors (agave harvesters) slashing the
spiky man-high leaves off the plants to reveal the huge 40- to
60-kilogram pinas that are somewhat like a cross between a pineapple
and a watermelon, and whose juice becomes tequila.
At the major distilleries like Jose Cuervo, Tequila Herradura and La
Preservancia Sauza guided tours follow the process of splitting and
oven- drying this mammoth fruit, boiling it in evil-smelling vats,
and distilling it into an eventually clear liquid around 40% proof.
Only the product of 100% blue agave fruit and grown within the area
of the new La Ruta del Tequila can be labelled as tequila.
And while most tequila finds its way into Margaritas, Freddy
Fudpuckers, Long Island Iced Teas and a score or so other liquid
temptations, or is tossed down straight with a lick of salt and a
slice of lemon, there's a big move towards handmade double- and even
triple-distilled 'singles' that are savoured slowly like single-malt
Scotch whiskies and Cognacs.
And just for the record, the 'worm' once found in some bottles of
tequila and allegedly part of tequila culture, was no more than a
1940s marketing ploy to suck in the gringos – and tequila is not
"cactus juice"… while the blue agave plant may resemble a cactus,
it's in fact more related to a docile lily.
Tequila Route full-day tours from Puerto Vallarta between July and
December cost around US$100pp including lunch; go to
PHOTO CAPTIONS: A jimador exposes the massive pina that's the
heart of the agave plant from
which tequila is made.
- photo: csp/dreamstime
RESULTANT drop: a lime-infused
of several-score cocktails based
on Mexico's famed
- photo: Elvinstar/dreamstime