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December 07, 2010

Struth! First is was Watergate ...

STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, on a recent overseas travel writing trip David Ellis snapped this eye-catching sign at the entrance to the passenger shipping terminal at Valletta in Malta.

We leave it to readers' imagination as to what they can make of it, but locals assured David it was "just a name" for the vehicular entrance to the wharf "like you might have Red Gate or Blue Gate on your wharves in Australia."

But we think the Maltese name is far more intriguing than that!

December 06, 2010

ASTRONAUT HAD ROCKET – WILL TRAVEL



David Ellis

WHEN Walter Cunningham is invited to tell people his views on our Planet, he does not bore them with his thoughts on politics, religion, climate change or other debatable subjects.

Rather he has them in awe of his accounts – with accompanying extraordinary photographs – of the world as he's actually seen it.

Because, in 1968 Walter Cunningham was pilot of the Apollo 7 space craft, America's first manned space flight of the Apollo Program, and forerunner of America landing a man on the moon just eight months later.

It gave him a perfect view of the world as a rare few others had seen it – from 300km in space. With two companions, he circled the globe at an extraordinary 28,000km per hour.

Within the confines of a tiny 5.9 cubic metres cone for eleven days, the trio lived on forgettable freeze-dried meals, worked constantly on carefully-controlled tests of every spacecraft system, and occasionally snatched views of the world below. At the speed they were travelling, "daylight" lasted just 45-minutes, and "nights" were equally short.

But despite the constraints of their spacecraft, Walter still believes he and his two companions had the world's most envied jobs. "As President Kennedy said: 'We are doing this (going to the Moon) not because it is easy, but because it is hard,'" Walter recalls, adding: "My generation lived in an era in which we could look beyond the moon, and reach for the stars."

Today he's still straddling the world, but now it's by jet plane and luxury cruise ships to talk to audiences as diverse as professional, academic and social groups, and laid-back holidaymakers on some of the world's most exclusive cruise ships.

And yes he admits to enjoying the spaciousness of the pointy-end of the plane when he travels now, the comforts of 5-star hotels and cruise ships, and the companionship of plenty of people to talk to, compared with his confines aboard Apollo 7.

"Although it really wasn't that cramped," he says. "After we slipped off our space suits, and because of the weightlessness in space, we could just float around inside the spacecraft. Try that as a break from the routine of a pokey office in Downtown New York!"

And during his lectures, Walter Cunningham covers NASA's "Golden Age" of space exploration, America and Russia's space relations – and touches on the question most of us would like the answer to: "Could there be intelligent life out there?"

And how he got into space travel. "I logged 4,500 hours as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, and was pursuing a doctorate in physics before joining the NASA space program. Shortly after I was chosen for the back-up crew for Apollo 1," he told us aboard boutique motor-cruiser SeaDream I on a recent voyage from Spain across the Atlantic to the Caribbean last month.
 
The Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire on its launch paid in 1967 and all three crewmembers died in about 20 seconds. The following year, on October 11 1968, with Mission Commander Walter M. Schirra and fellow Pilot Donn F. Eisele, Walter Cunningham blasted into space aboard Apollo 7 from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.

In his lectures he shares his thoughts as the massive Saturn1B rocket hurtled beyond earth, the "separation" of the tiny cone-shaped Command Module, and life aboard that little cone for its three occupants over the next eleven days.

Their's and many other photographs taken from space captivate his audiences: the world's most active volcanoes, largest glaciers, biggest ice-bergs, greatest sea straits, the Great Barrier Reef and American hurricanes, the Pyramids, New York City – and by contrast, tiny Kitty Hawk sandy beach where the Wright Brothers made their first flight – as never seen before.

"Especially warming to us was Australia's Perth, whose residents turned all their lights on as we passed over," Walter recalls.

Texas-based, he holds the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, is a Member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, travels the world lecturing and speaking, has written a book The All-American Boys about his space exploits, hosts a radio talk show – and was awarded an Emmy for his role in the first live TV broadcast from space.

If you're interested in talking to him about being a guest presenter, see www.waltercunningham.com

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[]  THE Apollo 7 crew: Walter Cunningham is on the left, with fellow Pilot Donn Eisele and Mission Commander Walter Schirra.

[] THE Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space – it's the world's busiest shipping lane linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

[]  RED silt wash through the Betsiboka River Delta in Madagascar,  the result of massive deforestation that's left little of the natural forests standing.

[]  THE Bosphorous separating Europe and Asia as seen from space.

[]  A SPACE view of Egypt's Great Pyramids.

Photos: Courtesy of NASA and  Walter Cunningham

 

December 04, 2010

Villages of Victoria: a guide to Walhalla

Villages of Victoria: a guide to Walhalla

One of Victoria’s top five "Must Do" destinations, the Walhalla Historic Township is one of Victoria’s most intriguing places. Located in Gippsland alpine wilderness, just over two hours drive from Melbourne, it has less than 20 permanent residents, making it one of the smallest villages in Victoria, yet 100,000 visitors make the trip here every year. Why? Perhaps because visiting Walhalla is like stepping back in time.

Once one of Australia's richest towns and home to over 4000 gold seekers, the township is a perfectly preserved example of a 1800s gold rush village. Each of the stores and hotels in Walhalla’s main street – and even some of the houses – have been restored or built as a replica of the gold-era style of the 1800s. The band rotunda was rebuilt, as were the Walhalla Chronicle offices, the old corner store, the Mechanics Institute, the post office and many other buildings.

Considered one of the most spectacular rail journeys in Australia, the restored narrow-gauge Walhalla Goldfields Railway, which runs most Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, is another key attraction.

Walhalla’s Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine, once Victoria’s fifth largest mine, offers regular tours. Visitors go to the underground machine chamber, a vast space in the rock where steam engines operated the machinery that crushed granite, yielding gold. The mineshaft dives to 931 metres and photographs in the museum show workers descending in tiny metal boxes and pit ponies being lowered into the depths. During the life of the mine it yielded 72 tonnes of gold which would be worth a staggering $5.8 billion today.

The Star Hotel, replica of the original by the same name, is one of a number of accommodation options in Walhalla and also has a restaurant open for dinner. Windsor House a bed and breakfast, was built in the 1890s from 90,000 handmade bricks. The town is easy to explore by foot. A self-guided walk following the interpretive signs takes about two hours. Another walking option is the steep hillside to the Walhalla Cemetery, where there are more than 1100 graves of the miners and settlers, as well as stunning views.

www.visitvictoria.com/villages
www.visitwalhalla.com
*online poll conducted by the RACV in partnership with Tourism Victoria

December 02, 2010

Struth! Naples talks garbage

STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says holidaymakers and business travellers heading to the Italian city of Naples are being warned of a health hazard: thousands of tonnes of rubbish are piling up in the city streets because of a dispute over a new landfill site.

Protesters are allegedly blocking garbage trucks from doing their rounds, and residents and business houses whose bins and skips have filled are now simply dumping their refuse on the streets.

The new landfill site will reportedly be "the biggest in Europe," with objectors saying their children will be forced to grow up in a "world of rubbish and health hazards."

Local mayors have called for the scheme to be abandoned, but the Italian government says it will go ahead, and that any concerns about odours and health hazards are baseless.

The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi says police are about to escort garbage trucks into Naples so that "all the rubbish in the streets will be removed within the next two weeks."

And he's been warned by the European Environment Commission that if its not, Italy will face huge fines for allowing the street pollution.

EMPTY TABLES TURN A HEALTHY PROFIT


David Ellis

WHEN they made the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin in picturesque little Sami on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 2001, it proved a windfall of unimaginable proportions for the village's waterfront restaurateurs

They earned more during the filming than they'd done in years, but not from gawking sightseers hoping to catch a glimpse of Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Gage strutting their stuff for the cameras.

Rather they made it by turning customers away, leaving virtually every one of their waterfront tables empty.

When producers decided on Sami they needed not a row of waterfront restaurants overflowing with tourists for their background, but near-empty eateries reflecting the austere 1940s of wartime Greece.

So they pulled out their cheque books and paid the owners of the restaurants to shut down during their busiest period of the year, giving them three times the profits they'd normally make during their annual tourist season.

And as well, they offered them work as extras in crowd scenes, and scores of other locals were contracted to build a replica military garrison, and again to act as extras.  Cephalonia's northern region had never had it so good.

Today little Sami remains a prime mid-year tourist area, although it and other towns and villages on the island are still hurting from the global economic crisis, with business down as much as thirty per cent.

Cephalonia is a must-see on a Mediterranean holiday: we visited in early October as part of a 12-night sailing aboard the boutique mega-motor-cruiser SeaDream I from Athens to Spain, and even though end-of-season the island was still spectacularly beautiful.

The largest of the Ionian Islands, it is a mountainous dot amid the confetti of islands that sprinkle this part of the Mediterranean. But you don't want to have a fear of heights to tour here: the roads appear zippered onto hills that rise to 1300-metres or more, with tour coaches and local cars and trucks constantly needing to back-and-fill on hairpin 320-degree turns that are not for the white-knuckled.

These roads were originally devised by the British during their "protection era" from 1809 to 1864 and lead to remote communities and ancient forts built to repel Turkish and other pirates; sure-footed mountain goats tended by leathered goatherds somehow graze the rocky 50-degree slopes, olive trees sprout in all directions, and the sharp-eyed can spot hares, hedgehogs and foxes, eagles, vultures and hawks.

And gems of little villages pop up on mountainsides and along coastal fringes, colourful little communities of neat pastel-painted homes, cafés and tavernas, and studios and apartments for holidaymakers during "the season."

And all abound with rainbow coloured Bougainvilleas, oleanders, hibiscus, geraniums, roses, giant impatiens and palms and pines. One of the prettiest is waterside Assos whose outdoor eateries and tavernas offer such local delicacies as squid, barbecued sardines and kid goat cutlets, local olives, honey, nuts, grapes and tropical fruits, and in some a unique Cephalonian fish pie.

Like everywhere else on the island except the main town of Fiskardho and its scattering of surrounding villages in the north, Assos is a relatively "new" village.  Cephalonia sits directly over a geological fault-line and is regularly subjected to earth tremors and shakes: in 1953 four massive quakes in one day struck at over 7 on the Richter Scale.

Ninety per cent of homes and other buildings in Cephalonia's centre and south were demolished or so badly damaged that over 100,000 of the island's 125,000 residents fled, most never returning.

Five hundred people died during that day of horror earthquakes, 3000 were injured, and the island rose 60cm and never settled back again... watermarks along rocky shorelines record this massive upheaval.

Those who stayed or did return built new homes and businesses, often as in the case of Assos, cheek-by-jowl with their shattered neighbours that are to this day still abandoned, yet complete with furnishings and household items left by owners who simply fled.

After a burst of tourist activity from May to September, most of Cephalonia retreats into a kind of hibernation, with places like Assos dwindling to around 100 residents outside "the season."

For more information about visiting see travel agents, and for itineraries of when SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I and SeaDream II will visit Cephalonia in 2011 see www.seadream.com 

 
 

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] PICTURESQUE settings like this lured Hollywood to Cephalonia to make Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

[] MILLIONAIRE's yachts share the cluttered waterfront at Fiskardo with sardine fishers just metres from sunny waterfront eateries.

[] A SPECTACULAR beach on Cephalonia… but getting there is not for the white-knuckled.

[] ABANDONED buildings like this still remain in pretty little Assos after residents fled after the deadly 1953 earthquakes. You'd need to be more than a handyman to get this one liveable again.

Photos: david ellis

SPREADING THE WORD, ROOM BY ROOM


David Ellis

HAD it not been for the Central Hotel in Boscobel in Wisconsin being over-booked one night in the American Autumn of 1898, the world would never have enjoyed the legacy of John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill.

Nor probably have even heard of them.

But it was Messrs Nicholson and Hill who were the founding fathers of a movement that became known as the Gideons, an extraordinarily forward-thinking yet publicity-shy group of Christians who in 112 years have freely placed over 1.6-billion Bibles and New Testaments in places as diverse as 5-star hotels and condemned men's prison cells world-wide.

But the Gideons have not been without their set-backs… when the one-billionth Bible was accepted at the White House by President George W. Bush, elaborate celebrations were marred within hours by events of the following day – September 11 2001.

John Nicholson and Samuel Hill were commercial travellers who found themselves forced to share a room in Boscobel's Central Hotel because it was over-booked on that night in 1898.

The two quickly discovered they shared strong Christian beliefs and values, and decided to maintain contact.  Gradually they brought together a fraternity of other Christians in their profession – men who spent long and lonely hours away from their families, moving from hotel room to hotel room as they flogged their wares along the highways and by-ways of America.

By July 1899 they'd formed a small group that called themselves the Gideons, and at a meeting in 1904 decided that to provide comfort for travellers in spiritual need, and to spread the word of the Bible, each man would contribute towards the cost of a Bible being placed at the Reception Desk of hotels in which they stayed.

Four years later at a convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the Gideons voted to go further than a Bible at every Reception Desk: they'd place one in every room of every hotel in America. The first went into twenty-five rooms in a hotel in the boisterous little mining town of Superior in Montana, and were paid for by one devout Gideon supporter, Archie Bailey.

Since then 1,630,523 Bibles and New Testaments have been placed free of cost in hotels and lodging houses, at Antarctic bases and in desert military camps, aboard cruise ships, in prisons, hospitals and in nursing homes in 192 countries world-wide…

The latest countries to be included in their distribution were Kiribati in September of this year, and Madagascar in October.

Initially members of the Gideons met the costs of the Bibles and their distribution, but later Christian churches began contributing to the cause.

And in some 40-plus years that's taken us within and without Australia more times than we care to remember, we've found only three hotels in Christian countries that did not have a Gideon's Bible in their rooms.

At Cunnamulla in Queensland, a local hotelier said that while there may not be a Bible in every bedside cabinet, they did have one for every room.

"But they're kept in the office," she told us. "Some cattle station blokes who'd  stay here on Saturday nights were tearing the pages out of our Bibles because they reckoned they made great roll-your-own smokes," she said. "There's now a note in rooms saying they can borrow a Bible from the office if they want."

Our second encounter was on Vancouver Island in Canada, where our hotel GM said he'd told the Gideons they could put a Bible in every room – if they also gave the hotel a holy book for all other major religions.

"They didn't of course. But we relented," he said. "And while not in each room, we now we have Gideon Bibles available at Reception."

And the third was in New York where guests at a hotel are offered a complimentary pet goldfish during their stay, but not a Gideon's Bible. Their explanation was that "society evolves."

The Gideons neither seek publicity nor publicly solicit funds. In Australia they distribute over 350,000 new Bibles and Testaments a year – part of a staggering 1.5-million printed in 90 languages around the world every week.

And all originating from that night 112 years ago when commercial travellers, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill were forced to share a room in an over-booked hotel.


PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE first 25 of the world's 1.6-billion Gideon Bibles to go into hotel rooms were placed here in the Superior Hotel in Montana in 1908.

[]  A typical Gideon's Bible found today in 192-countries world-wide.

[]  THE Cunnamulla Hotel in Queensland: Gideon Bibles are kept in the office after some guests discovered the rice-paper pages were idea for roll-your-own cigarettes.

 

When I retire, I’m going cruising

Some weeks ago we unearthed a trend among cruise lines for offering sanctuary to retired politicians willing to spill the beans on their many years in office. We uncovered the likes of Bob and Blanche Hawke, who cruised with Orion, Robert “Piggy” Muldoon, who cruised with Royal Viking and the late Don Chipp (an ardent cruise fan) who sailed aboard The World. The recently retired, Nobel Laureate and near-octogenarian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu announced he would join a cruise with Semester at Sea aboard their lavish 180m vessel, MV Explorer. “The Arch” (as he is fondly known at home) gained a taste for cruising as part of Cunard’s Insight program earlier this year.

John Cleese aboard QM2
Despite their unarguable cachet, politicians are not the only drawcard aboard cruise ships big and small. Many well-credentialed academics join the expedition fleet to add enrichment to Arctic, Antarctic and other remote voyages, but so too do all manner of other sundry celebrities. John Cleese is a semi-regular with Cunard, having travelled aboard QM2 as recently as August. On one of my few big ship voyages, I sat enthralled as a former Concorde captain, complete in sparkling uniform and pretty young attendant, captivated us with the nuances of flying the world’s only (and probably last ) supersonic airliner.

Such is the demand for high profile speakers that a specialist agency, Cruise Ship Speakers, was formed a few years back to cater to the cruising industry. Their menu of dubbed, capped and cloaked orators reads like a New Year’s Honours list. From celebrated military men like General Sir Hugh Michael Rose KCB, CBE, DSO, QGM, acclaimed political reporter, Brian Hanrahan to the more mundane royal astronomer, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the thirst for stimulating speakers can only increase as the number of regular cruisers continues upwards.

History, antiques, gardening, wine appreciation, science and entertainment are all subjects in demand from passengers not only wanting to learn but also hob-nob with their favourite celebrity. Silver Seas, for one, presents a laudable depth of speakers aboard their world cruises. This year Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, Dan Rather, topped their bill which included world-famous Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass, and our own Professor Geoffrey Blainey.

While English cruisers prefer the more urbane subjects of history and antiques, Americans can predictably be attracted to the likes of Don "Ducky" Williams, a famous Disney cartoon artist, Robert Tieman, a Disney historian and archivist while renowned film critic, Leonard Maltin, will sail aboard Princess Cruises’ ‘Coral Princess’ on their December 15 departure. Australians, curiously, seem less inclined to value guest speakers on local departures. P&O do occasionally feature cruise historian Rob Henderson, while our local celebs (eg Dr Harry, Kylie Gillies) tend to travel as passengers, not as speakers.

What do you think about celebrity speakers aboard cruise liners? Who would you like to see speaking aboard local vessels?

November 19, 2010

Britain: Harry Potter Film Locations

By Linda Cabasin
Fodor's Editor
Fans of Harry Potter can celebrate the November 19 opening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, the first screen installment of J. K. Rowling's final Potter novel. Would-be witches and wizards have been heading to film sites around Britain that capture the magical Potter world since 2001, when the first of the six previous movies opened. Each film pieces together many locations, but you can visit some that truly capture the fantastical richness of Harry's world. Here are top spots to explore if you're happily seeking Harry in Britain.
Did your top Potter place not make the cut? Add your favorite location in the comments below.
Hogwarts-Express-Steam-train.jpg

Jacobite Steam Train

HP Connection: Harry, Hermione, and Ron travel to Hogwarts School each year, and you can hop on the steam train in Scotland, renamed the Hogwarts Express in the films, that provides them with some spectacularly scenic—and sometimes scary—rides. The train runs 42 miles from Fort William to Mallaig and crosses the awesome 21 arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct appeared in the scene of the flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, after Harry and Ron miss the train, and also in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Steam Train Review: The most relaxing way to take in the landscape of birch- and bracken-covered wild slopes is by rail. The best ride . . . Read more.
Viaduct Review: As impressive as the Glenfinnan Monument is, the curving railway viaduct that stretches across the green slopes behind the monument is even more so . . . Read more.

London Zoo

HP Connection: Here's a nostalgic favorite. The Reptile House at the London Zoo in Regent's Park stood in for the Little Whinging Zoo near Harry's Surrey home. On an outing with his cousin Dudley in the first movie, young Harry comes to realize he has magical powers as he communicates with a Burmese python at the zoo. A plaque inside the Reptile House commemorates the event.
Fodor's Review: The zoo, owned by the Zoological Society of London (a charity), opened in 1828 and peaked in popularity during the 1950s, when more than 3 million people passed through its turnstiles every year. A recent modernization program has seen several big new attractions open up . . . Read more.
Alnwick-Castle.jpg

Alnwick Castle

HP Connection: The first two Potter films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, used this massive medieval castle in northeast England for brooding exterior shots of Hogwarts. The castle exterior was also the backdrop for the young wizards' high-flying adventures on broomstick during the Quidditch match in the first movie.
Fodor's Review: The grandly scaled Alnwick Castle, on the edge of the town center, is known for its gardens as well as the castle itself. This is still the home of the dukes of Northumberland . . . Read more.
Gloucester-Cathedral.jpg

Gloucester Cathedral

HP Connection: Eerie things happen in the hallways of Harry's school. The ancient, fan-vaulted cloisters of the cathedral made a suitable stand-in for the corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first film and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and return again in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I.
Fodor's Review: Magnificent Gloucester Cathedral, with its soaring, elegant exterior, was originally a Norman abbey church, consecrated in 1100. Reflecting different periods, the cathedral mirrors perfectly . . . Read more.

King's Cross Station

HP Connection: Harry Potter and fellow aspiring wizards take the Hogwarts Express to school from the imaginary platform 9¾ (platforms 4 and 5 were the actual shooting site) in a number of the movies. The station has put up a sign for platform 9¾, and it has become a popular spot to take a picture—but please don't try to run through the wall.
About the station: Known for its 120-foot-tall clock tower, this yellow-brick, Italianate railroad station was constructed in 1851–52 as the London terminus for the Great Northern Railway.
Christ-Church-Oxford.jpg

Christ Church

HP Connection: A reproduction of the Great Hall of Oxford University's Christ Church College has served as the often-raucous dining hall at Hogwarts School; in Oxford you can visit the original. Also at Oxford is the Divinity School, which doubled as the infirmary where Harry found himself in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Fodor's Review: Built in 1546, the college of Christ Church is referred to by its members as "The House." This is the site of Oxford's largest quadrangle. . . Read more.
Explore Fodor's Destination Guides

Photo Credits: Jacobite Steam Train Courtesy Britainonview / Rod Edwards; Alnwick Castle Courtesy Britainonview / Pawel Libera; Christ Church Courtesy Britainonview / Ingrid Rasmussen; Gloucester Cathedral Courtesy Britainonview / - Britain on View

November 15, 2010

PANDAW – THE PHOENIX OF ASIA



David Ellis with David Ovens

HAD it not been for Sir Arthur Phayre the beauties and mysteries of some of Asia's greatest waterways may well have remained the secret of those hardy souls who live along their banks.

As Governor of British Burma in 1864 Phayre founded the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, a Scottish-owned fleet of paddle steamers and barges that over a near-80 years grew to some 650 vessels – the largest privately-owned shipping fleet in the world.

The company thrived until 1942 when its owners ordered that the entire fleet be burned to the waterline to prevent Japan, as it marched south as part of its Asia-Pacific campaign, from using the ships to move its troops and weapons.

But the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company has morphed into a new format, Pandaw River Cruises that today operates contemporary versions of the old river boats on the great Mekong and Ton Le rivers in Indochina, the Irrawaddy in Burma and from Sarawak to Indonesian Kalimantan along the Rajang river in Borneo.

Pandaw's 300-odd kilometre journey up the Mekong from Saigon to Phnom Penh or further to Siem Reap provides a unique introduction to a way of life pursued by the millions who live along the banks of the mighty Mekong.

From its source 5000 metres up on the Tibetan Plateau the Mekong flows generally south-east 4200 kilometres through China, forming borders between  Burma and Laos and then Laos and Thailand, flowing through Vietnam into a rich delta, and finally emptying into the South China Sea.

It begins humbly as a few trickling streams and develops into a prodigious waterway that's a staff of life for tens of millions of people.

Along its banks thousands of villages thrive on the four billion cubic metres of water and 250-million cubic metres of silt which make their way down to the 20-million people who rely on these riches around the Mekong Delta.

To  slowly traverse this mighty waterway on a 21st century-fitted  traditional-style vessel is to merge into the very way of life of the people who grow rice, fruit and vegetables, raise ducks, bake hand-made bricks and pursue a host of cottage industries. It is a step into a rural world which depends for survival on each other…and the river.

Pandaw's four- and seven-day journeys up the river make stops every day with expert guides taking guests ashore to places like the floating market at Cai Be, and to visit villagers in their homes making pop-rice (Viet popcorn), rice paper and a tasty candy of coconut, toffee and ginger.

A traditional sampan journey along the small canals leading to the Sadec marketplace unveils some local delicacies which are seriously alien to western palates, but there is ready business from the locals for such delights as skinned rat, and candied, baked and fried insects, beetles and even cockroaches.
 
Thankfully, none of these make the dining salon aboard Mekong Pandaw whose chefs whip-up other more-recognised Asian dishes, with western options available for the less adventurous.

Typical of onboard offerings are the Mekong Fishermen's dinner, the Vietnamese Farmers' dinner and the Khmer regional dinner.

For the Mekong Fishermen's Dinner, local fishermen and their wives provide family recipes and the freshest of seafood for such creations as fried watercress with shrimp and sweet chilli sauce, mixed vegetable and native spices kako soup, and pickled fish with minced pork.

Vietnamese fare includes Szechuan soup with black mushroom and tofu whilst Khmer favorites include hot and sour duck soup and stir-fried seafood in Khmer curry paste.

There's an eclectic wine list on board including vintages from France, Italy, Chile, South Africa and Australia but most passengers lean towards the complimentary local spirits and mixes before dinner and free local beers  which tend to blend better with the spicy cuisine than more delicate wines.

TRAVEL DETAILS: Specialist Asian holiday operator Wendy Wu Tours offers the seven-night Pandaw Mekong cruise from Saigon to Siem Reap from $2300pp, depending on season and cabin choice.  This includes twin-share accommodation, all meals and local drinks on board, transfer to departure point, all excursions and entrance fees, port fees and an English-speaking guide.

There are upstream departures from Saigon and downstream from Siem Reap between September and March.

More details from Wendy Wu Tours phone 1300-727-998 or visit www.wendywutours.com.au

…………………….

 

[] THE Mekong Pandaw, 21st century replica of 1800's Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's river boats.

[]  SHIPS of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company burn on the Mekong in 1942 to prevent them falling into enemy Japanese hands.

[]  PART of the busy fabric of life on the Mekong.

[] A PICTURESQUE Mekong riverside village restaurant.

 

STRUTH - New meaning for holiday 'escape'


STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says fellow travel writer and publisher of OzBabyBoomers, John Rozentals snapped this somewhat confronting welcome to Hawaii's Big Island Hawaii on a visit there earlier this month.

John was taking part in a "Kohala Waterfalls Adventure" run by Hawaii Forest & Trails, and to his delight, and the relief of others along for the spectacular walk, guide Derek Stuart assured them "we haven't lost anyone yet… to bulls, cattle, wild dogs or hunters."

You'll be able to read John's account of the six-hour walk through the rugged country, that was once the domain of the Big Island's famous Paniolo cowboys, on www.ozbabyboomers.com.au soon.

And if you're heading to the Big Island and think a good walk would do you good, check-out www.hawaii-forest.com to enquire about joining one of their tours. Just be prepared in case it involves a sudden bit of running.

 

November 08, 2010

RIGA: WORLD’S FINEST ART NOUVEAU ARCHITECTURE

David Ellis

PUBLISHER of interesting e-zine Oz Baby Boomers*, John Rozentals visited his ancestral homeland in search of memories of a namesake – and discovered the world's finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture. He sent us this fascinating report from Latvia to share with readers.

For most visitors to Latvia, the search for 12 Alberta Iela, on the northern fringe of Riga's CBD, and the struggle up some eight flights of steep, narrow stairs to the Janis Rozentals & Rudolfs Blaumanis Museum, would be low on their list of priorities.

Admittedly, Blaumanis was a celebrated writer and Rozentals was probably Latvia's greatest artist, but the former's fame was largely restricted to his native land, whilst you can see much more significant examples of the latter's work in the Latvian National Museum of Art, in Riga's Esplanade Square.

For me, though, the lure of these few small rooms was compellingly magnetic. As well as sharing ethnicity, Janis Rozentals and I share our names, or at least we did until my parents, probably rightly, decided Australian school life in the 1950s would be easier for a boy named John than for a boy named Janis.

It's extremely unlikely we're related, but I felt strangely comfortable browsing through the apartment where my namesake had lived a century ago, and sitting on a couch he would have spent many hours resting on.

There's a much stronger connection, though, between Janis Rozentals and this part of Riga than just an apartment.

Rozentals was a leader of the Art Nouveau movement, which flourished in Europe around the turn of the 20th century, influencing design in general and architecture in particular.

Nowhere was that architectural influence felt more deeply than in Riga. The precinct centring on Alberta Iela ("iela" is Latvian for "street") and including Elizabetes Iela and Streinieku Iela, is widely recognised as having the largest and finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.

Yes, the world — better than in Paris, Berlin, Moscow and St Petersburg that are all widely recognised as Art Nouveau centres.

I laughed with sheer joy as we entered Alberta Iela, overwhelmed by the absolutely over-the-top beauty of the buildings and the totality and consistency of the streetscape.

Despite a century of wars, invasions, social unrest and the economic fundamentalism of the Soviet era, the buildings here have survived intact. And the short-lived economic boom times of the early 21st century provided the city's new-found financial aristocracy with the funds for their meticulous restoration of the grand apartments they once were — or transformation into professional offices, corporate headquarters and national embassies.

Themes of ancient Greece and Egypt, nature, and ravishing female beauty seem to dominate. Sometimes, every floor, even every balcony and window, has an individual motif. It is a spectacular visual delight and the makings of an artist's or architect's dream tour.

Alberta Iela is within easy walking distance of many of Riga's downtown hotels, but one of the best nearby is the Reval, on the corner of Brivibas Boulevarde and Elizabetes Iela.

Its upper levels offer stunning views over the medieval gems of Vecriga ("Old Riga"), the nearby gardens, churches and the broad Daugava River, which wends its way to Riga and the Baltic Sea through the flat Latvian countryside.

Make sure that you get a city-view room, though. The outlook from the rear is far less attractive. The rooms are comfortable and well equipped if not grand, the service can be a bit off-hand, but the location is spot-on and the views sublime.

In nearby Vecriga, try the tiny, boutique Hotel Ainavas. It boasts no views, but is charming, central to the attractions of the medieval city, and the service is wonderfully friendly.

Several years ago, hotels such as these were charging 400–500 Euros per night. Following the collapse of the "Baltic Tigers", it's more like 100–150 Euros today, with breakfast thrown in.

And whilst in Riga take time to stroll the cobble-stoned streets of Vecriga (Old Riga), which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and shed a tear while visiting the Occupation Museum of Latvia and wonder how people could be so cruel to each other.

Finally ensure you try some of the local delicacies by devoting a morning to Riga's Central Markets.

(*See www.ozbabyboomers.com.au)

 

Photo Captions:

[] LATVIA's Riga has the world's largest collection of Art Nouveau  architecture.

[] UPCLOSE look at the fine detail.

[] RIGA's fine architecture, churches and parks from the city's Hotel Rival.

(All Images: Sandra Burn White)

 

October 11, 2010

WEEKENDER’S $90M FIRE DAMAGE BILL


David Ellis

WHEN the renovators were called in to repair some fire damage to a weekender on England's River Thames in 1992, the owner wanted the work  to match the original as faithfully as possible.

This may have been a simple request had the place in question been a 1960s brick bungalow, or even a rustic riverside farmhouse.

But this was neither: the building was Windsor Castle, and the owner was the Queen.

Yet after the renovation job that cost an astonishing AU$90m, visitors to Windsor Castle today are often little aware that they are walking amid furnishings, murals, drapes and carpets that are largely painstaking replicas of the originals destroyed in that disastrous 1992 fire.

Windsor Castle's origins date back over 900 years to when William the Conqueror built a little timber and earth fortress on a 30m high hill overlooking the Thames, as protection for London against invaders from the west (London being a solid day's march away.)

Over the centuries the solid stone castle as we know it today evolved, with its role changing from that of a fortification to a royal palace – in fact the rambling 1,200-room bastion is the largest inhabited castle/palace in the world, the oldest in continuous occupation, and the world's only working royal residence that is open to the public.

Both Edward III and Henry VI were born here.

And the Queen who, with the help of hundreds of thousands of paying tourists a year, pays for the upkeep of this sprawling collection of rooms and galleries, halls, chambers, ballrooms, chapels and drawing rooms – not to mention the hectares of surrounding manicured gardens – considers it her favourite retreat, spending most of her weekends here.

In November 1992 the fire that broke out in the north-east corner of the Castle ravaged over 100 rooms and nine State Rooms, but fortuitously most of their priceless arts works had been removed just days earlier for display elsewhere.

Hundreds of specialists were brought in to restore the least damaged areas, and create new rooms and chambers in those areas that had been totally destroyed – their brief being to make them fit as harmoniously as possible with the remainder of the castle.

Hundreds more artisans and craftsmen were recruited from private companies, government departments and voluntarily came out of retirement to recreate furnishings, art works, murals, drapes and tapestries, ornate candelabras and chandeliers, carved staircases, carpets and polished timber wall panellings.

Many visitors today don't distinguish where the original ends and the renovated begins. A clue is the floors: while these intricately patterned new areas have been hand-crafted to resemble the original parquet designs, it will take years of tourists' feet for them to assume that well-trodden look.

Allow at least two hours at Windsor Castle. Areas of particular interest include the China Museum, the Ante Throne Room, King's Drawing Room and King's Bed Chamber, the Queen's Drawing Room, Queen's Ballroom, the Queen's Guard Chamber, Presence Chamber and Audience Chamber, St George's Hall and Private Chapel (resting place of ten British sovereigns,) the State Dining Room and the Grand Reception Room... and the remarkable gardens.

The castle abounds with treasures dating back centuries, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and van Dyck, and priceless English furniture and porcelain.

And don't miss the extraordinary Queen Mary's Dolls' House, a Lilliputian masterpiece that was created in 1923 on a scale of 1 to 12.  It took 1,500 tradesmen three years to complete, with every room of the 7-storey mansion-in-miniature built and furnished to exactly as it would have been at the time – including working lifts that stop at every floor, electric lights, and even running water in all five bathrooms.

Windsor Castle is 50kms from London. Travel agents can book you onto organised tours from London as part of UK holiday programs, or simply take the train to either Windsor or Eton Stations that are each about 5-minutes walk from the Castle.

You can do a self-guided tour using a guide book or audio unit, and there are conducted tours of parts of the castle grounds. 

Windsor Castle is 15km from Heathrow Airport, causing one American tourist to famously ask a guide as planes flew over every few minutes: "Why would they build a famous castle so close to an airport?"

                                                          …………………

HOTO CAPTIONS:  

 

[] WINDSOR Castle, the favourite weekend getaway of England's Queen Elizabeth.

 

[] THE magnificent chapel within Windsor Castle.

 

[] READY to have a few mates around for dinner: the King's Dining Room is fit, well, for a king.

 

[] QUEEN Mary's Dolls House at Windsor Castle: 1500 tradesmen took three years in the early 1920s to create its extraordinary detail.                                                                                                                                             

 

October 03, 2010

CAPTAIN COOK’S WALK INTO SAILING HISTORY

David Ellis

THERE are five reasons most people know about England's little North Yorkshire town of Whitby: James Cook, fish and chips, Dracula, a modern-day TV soap, and old steam trains.

Sitting astride the Esk River estuary, Whitby's 14,000 hardy souls have learned to live with the hammering winds that come in off the North Sea in winter, while in summer it can also be postcard-perfect rustic England, particularly on its older eastern side.

PICTURESQUE Whitby Harbour.
In those summer months its one of the quaintest harbour towns in the country. Tourists flock here to enjoy sunny strolls along the waterfront, the local fish markets, browse the antique stores, and eat fish and chips at outdoor cafes, in little restaurants whose window boxes overflow with fire-engine red geraniums, or with a pint in back-street pubs where battered haddock and chunky golden potato chips have been turned into an art form.

And taking a stroll around the narrow alleyways in search of history, in Grape Lane they find the one-time home of Quaker ship-owner, John Walker and the sea-farer student who lived in his attic – James Cook.

Cook was born at Marton near Middlesborough, and was apprenticed to a grocer in nearby Staithes. But his real love was the sea, and one day he walked the 21km into Whitby to ask Walker if he would teach him seamanship and navigation.
IT was in the attic of this house in Whitby that the young
James Cook lived while learning seamanship
under mariner John Walker.

Today in the museum that occupies Walker's one-time terrace house, visitors learn about Cook's life in Whitby, about the Endeavour that was built here, and of Cook's world travels; there's also a statue of Cook on West Cliff and a plaque in town given by Australia and New Zealand to commemorate his achievements.

And if you are in Whitby on the morning of Ascension Day each year, you'll see a group of civic and business dignitaries making apparent dopes of themselves as they squelch through the mud of Whitby Harbour to plant, of all things, a hedge before the tide comes back in.

This bizarre ritual started in 1159 when three Norman noblemen on a pig-hunt discovered a hermit giving comfort under a hedge to a boar they'd arrowed. They beat man and beast to death, but in his dying moments the hermit prayed that God would forgive them.

ONE of Whitby's many harbourside pubs that have
turned battered haddock and chips into an art form.
Hearing the story later, the Abbot of Whitby was so angered he ordered that as pennance every Ascension Day a group of 'noblemen' erect a hedge on the mudflats of low-tide Whitby Harbour, or lose title to their lands. And to make their task all the more difficult they could use, not spades, but simple 'penny knives' such as that carried by the hermit.

The ritual is still carried out annually 850 years later, and if the 'Penny Hedge' does not survive three incoming tides it has to be built again.

Up the hill overlooking the Estuary is an old hotel, and it is here when the winds howl in off the North Sea and the fire crackles in its grate that the visitor draws mind-pictures of that day in 1885 when Dublin-born writer Bram Stoker decided during a stay that it would be Whitby where 'my Count Dracula will come ashore from Transylvania.'

Stoker was captivated by the destructive storm that raged during his stay at the hotel and which sank the Russian schooner Dimitry of Narva on the nearby Tate Sands as she made for safety in Whitby: in his book he has Dracula coming ashore 'during a ferocious storm' from the Russian ship Demeter of Varna.

AUTHOR Bram Stoker wrote his classic
novel Dracula during a stay in Whitby
And for rail buffs the local North Yorkshire Moors Railway has regular tourist-train runs using restored steam and diesel locomotives hauling historic carriages to five nearby towns with their yester-year Tea Rooms serving wonderful home-made scones, pies and traditional pasties.
GOATHLAND Hotel 15km from Whitby –
renamed Aidensfield Arms for TV soap Heartbeat.

And on select nights, there are silver-service dinners in restored timber-lined Pullman carriages on runs into the countryside.

At Grosmont the old locos are still serviced in the original engine sheds – but it's the 15km run to tiny Goathland that's the most popular day-trip, for this was Aidensfield of TV's Heartbeat series, and where you can visit the Aidensfield Arms, Mostyns Garage, the Village Store and Greengrass's farm.

Whitby's a bit off the beaten track, but well worth the effort. For more information go to www.whitby.co.uk



Struth! UK's Most northerly hotel a derelict award-winner

John O'Groats "derelict hotel and sheds lurking with tourist intent"
STRUTH !  David Ellis looks at the more weird wacky and wondrous in the world of travel

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that a popular British tourist destination has just won an award it probably won't be bragging about – the town of John O'Groats has been named winner of the 2010 Carbuncle Award for being the most dismal place in Scotland.

John O'Groats – population around 300 – attracts visitors for one main reason: it is the most northerly town in Britain, and therefore the furthest from the other end of the country, Land's End that's 1407.5km (874 miles) to the south.

But apart from this it's got nothing going for it says architecture magazine Urban Realm, that awards the Carbuncle each year. "It's a bleak outpost, notorious for being so desolate – we wonder why we even bothered to go there… it is the most anti-climatic tourist attraction that we know of – and the UK is not lacking in these.

"The main hotel is derelict and the most striking feature is a large car park… various tourist haunts hang around this and give the impression of not wanting to look at each other like early arrivals at a party; the whole effect is augmented by a series of sheds and caravans, lurking with tourist intent."

While that large white Gothic, and now derelict, hotel dominates the town, John O'Groats still attracts some thousands of visitors a year. And it regularly makes it into the nightly news with headline-seekers pushing babies in prams the 1407km from Land's End, riding penny-farthing bikes and in one case a child's scooter along the same route, and even dribbling marbles along a network of roads from Britain's far south to its far north.

And locals are quick to point out that John O'Groats has now got a new Café Bar to augment its several gift shops, a small museum, craft shops, a pottery and candlemaker, and a Tourist Information Centre that sells books of local interest.

And that there's a tourist hotel nearby, various B&Bs and a ferry to Orkney – although only between May and September.

October 02, 2010

Melbourne: Classic Hotels Define the City



David Ellis with John Rozentals

THERE may only be a few CBD blocks separating Melbourne's Adelphi and Windsor hotels, but in terms of style they might as well be in different galaxies — and both very desirable galaxies at that.

The Adelphi, in Flinders Lane, just a hop from Federation Square, City Square, Flinders Street Station and the Yarra, exudes cool. It's arty and hip, its decor still edgy nearly 20 years after its construction.

Stainless steel, varnished ply and bright leather combine artfully in the guest rooms, though occasionally, as with the angular sofas, a tad of comfort has been sacrificed to design. Those minor shortcomings are about to be corrected during a major refit.

The avant garde flows through the public areas as well, especially on to the rooftop, with its modern decking, bright chairs and an amazing 25-metre lap pool, which at one end has a glass bottom and juts out over Flinders Lane, nine storeys below. If you're going skinny dipping, can we suggest backstroke?

Even the reception area offers plenty of interest. At the moment it's home to a couple of pieces from the private collection of Damien Hodgkinson, one of the hotel's directors: a metre-tall ceramic stature of Chairman Mao (one of many churned out in China during the 1970s) and a car from an old carousel at St Kilda's Luna Park.

The Adelphi was designed by award-winning local architects Denton Corker Marshall and its construction within the confines of an old inner-city warehouse hailed as a prime example of urban renewal.

How appropriate, because the Adelphi preceded and sits just a stroll away from Federation Square, which in the late 1990s arose phoenix-like next to the Yarra on the site of the old Jolimont Rail Yard.

It's one of Australia's most exciting cultural and recreational precincts, home to the futuristically designed National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre, the equally striking Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and on a slightly less cerebral note, Abbaworld.

There's ample shopping and eating, plus a state-of-art children's playground and bike-hire facilities that make nearby Kings Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens just so accessible.

Within easy walking distance across the historic Princes Bridge are the Arts Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria International and the Melbourne Theatre Company's cutting-edge MTC Theatre.

If ready access to this golden mile of culture is high on your list of priorities, so, too, should be the Adelphi.

Less than a kilometre to the north-east, the Hotel Windsor is a very different animal that represents a bygone era among Australian hotels.

It was built in the early 1880s, amid the great land boom that followed Victoria's gold rushes. The developer was shipping magnate George Nipper and, as with the Adelphi, an eminent architect was involved ... this time Charles Webb, who had designed the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the South Melbourne Town Hall.

Nipper went bust and work was completed by the Honourable James Munro and the Honourable James Balfour, who added the Grand Ballroom, the Grand Staircase and the cupola-topped towers. For a while it was a "dry" hotel, known as the Grand Coffee Palace.

'The Duchess of Spring Street' became a mixing pot for politicians and businessmen, and in 1898 the Australian Constitution was drafted there.

And if you stay there, it could well be in a room once occupied by Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck or Rudolf Nureyev.

To stay in one of the suites — complete with stained-glass door, entry hallway, substantial sitting room, and a dining room that can be set for 10 from its antique sideboard packed with classy crockery, cutlery and glassware — is an exhilarating experience.

So, too, is to wander through hallways restored to their original grandeur, complete with gold-leaf decoration, panelling and chandeliers, and to relax in the elegant restaurant for traditional high tea and champagne, with, of course, cucumber-and-cress sandwiches. Well in advance bookings are essential.

And the Windsor's location is completely appropriate ... right opposite what must surely be Australia's grandest Parliament House, and handily close to Treasury Gardens, Fitzroy Gardens, Captain Cook's Cottage, and Carlton Gardens with its World-Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building.

It's a different side of Melbourne to Federation Square, but it's equally satisfying.s

Book either hotel through travel agents.

                                            …………………………..

 

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] HOTEL Windsor – a child of the great land boom that followed the Victorian gold rushes.

[] PRIVATE grand-style dining in-suite at the Windsor.

[] THE Adelphi Hotel's glass-bottom pool overhangs the street…

[] CITYSCAPE: looking back towards Melbourne's Arts Centre and city from the Royal Botanic Gardens, exhilarating stroll from the Adelphi Hotel.


- All photographs Sandra Burn White

September 07, 2010

Ten of the best train journeys in NSW

The golden days of train travel are here again as more and more discerning holiday-makers are discovering the relaxing pace and wonderful hospitality presented by the great train journeys of the modern era. Take a remarkable train journey in NSW where 'getting there' truly is half the fun.

For a touch of old world charm, jump aboard theSouthern Aurora at Sydney Central. Journey to historic Uralla & Armidale in New England country, along forgotten rail lines to Coonamble & Dubbo and to Narrabri over five-days. Train departs 1-5 October.

A new journey beckons in early 2011 with The Southern Spirit racing through the rural heartlands of four states. In NSW, visit Dubbo's Western Plains, the Blue Mountains, the Hunter Valley, Port Macquarie and Byron Bay.

The Indian Pacific takes its passengers on a journey from the spectacular Blue Mountains to the treeless plains of The Nullarbor. See the sights of some of the most famous outback towns with a scheduled stop at Broken Hill.

Take the kids on a rare day out with Thomas the Tank Engine. Life-size Thomas will greet friends and little ones can also enjoy a 50-minute train ride with Donald, the steam locomotive, departing from Sodor Island Railway Station around Thirlmere on 18 & 19 September.

Visit Dubbo's Western Plain Zoo with Countrylink's Dubbo Zoo Package. Depart from Sydney on a three-day tour, stay in Dubbo and spend your days getting up close and personal with the animals. Take advantage of Countrylink's kids 'travel for a dollar' deal allowing kids to travel for just $1.

Stay in one of the fully restored Red Rattler train carriages at the quirky Carriageway Resort located in the Upper Hunter region of NSW. With the main line running through a far corner of the property, train spotting from the timber bridge is a must.

Zig Zag Railway

Ordinary muggles will magically transform into wizards aboard the Blue Mountain's Zig Zag Railway's Wizards Express! For a more hands on experience try the Zig Zag's Footplate Experience which will see you driving a steam train in no time.

Re-live some of the former train operations at the historic Cowra Roundhouse Depot and Museum, the only existing railway roundhouse depot in NSW where steam locomotives are still lit up for a day's operation.

Sleep in one of three converted 100-year-old railway carriages decorated in Orient Express style luxury at Ruwenzori, a secluded, bush retreat near Mudgee in Central West NSW.

Leave your car and cares behind and see the traditional (and not so traditional) events of the Highlander Games in Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands. Be transported there and back in the comfort of train travel departing from Canberra Station for a day of fun and games.

Struth! Beach bums urged to cover up

STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that whether you want to believe it or not, that bastion of the bikini and skimpy dress, the Mediterranean is under threat.

Because authorities from France's Riviera to Italy in the east and Spain in the west are cracking down on female tourists who invade their streets and pavement cafés dressed only in bikinis. And blokes in nothing more than shorts and budgie-smugglers overhung by gross beer bellies.

Civic authorities in such bikini-littered resorts as Cannes and St Tropez say locals are getting fed-up with tourists who aren't content to just sport their bikinis on the beach, they can't even be bothered donning a shirt, shorts or slacks to cover themselves when forsaking the sun and sand for shopping, sightseeing, and wining and dining.

Even Provence which has its fair share of fully-nude beaches is cracking down on inappropriate off-beach wear, exposed beer bellies, and even simply the sight of hairy chests. And Paris which has long enforced "decency of dress" in its streets is now further tightening its public-dress laws.

As well the Vatican is coming down harder than ever on dress requirements in St Peter's Square, while authorities in Spain have begun warning tourists about wandering Barcelona's streets "in bikinis, shirtless, or showing the affects of alcohol."

Authorities in several countries say its all part of a need to protect human dignity, decency, morality and the young: in Italy recently police were called to speak to a woman bathing topless after another complained that the way the sunbather was applying suntan lotion "was troubling for my sons."

These authorities still generally agree that skimpy dress will always be part of beach culture, but they say it's got to be contained to the beach – and a survey by one newspaper attributed the new thinking to such reasons as new feminist priorities, concerns about skin cancer, a return to old-fashioned modesty, and Europe's growing Muslim population.


September 06, 2010

MYSTERY SOLVED TO GOING ROBINSON CRUSOE


david ellis

SO you wanna go Robinson Crusoe…

There's a little place in the South Pacific that's just for you. But that doesn't mean you won't need to do some planning if you're thinking of really escaping to a people-free paradise.

Because despite no one living on this miniscule 1.5-square kilometre oceanic dot that has no electricity, no running water, no roads and no telephones, your peace could still be shattered.

By hordes storming the beaches, and all keen to share your little piece of paradise, if just for a day…

And it's no mystery why: because, simply, this magical little spot you thought you had to yourselves, is called Mystery Island. And the mystery why you won't find it on the map, is that it's officially Inyeug, the most southerly island in Vanuatu.

And no one lives here is because its traditional owners who live on the island next door, believe it's haunted after dark by ghosts.

In the 1850s Australian traders who set up operations on the larger Aneityum Island just across the channel, mostly lived on Inyeug as they figured that the-then cannibalistic Aneityumese were unlikely to attack spooky Inyeug under cover of darkness.

Canadian missionaries also built the biggest church for its time in the South Pacific on the neighbouring Aneityum, its 1000 seats enough for a quarter of that island's population.

The traders and missionaries eventually drifted away due to ill-health or waning years, and abandonment and a tsunami put paid to the church; by the late 1800s Aneityum's near-4000 population had been decimated to just 500 – the legacy of western diseases introduced by the foreigners.

Aneityum and Inyeug faded into obscurity for over a century until in the 1980s the cruise ship Fairstar started visiting Vanuatu, often putting her passengers ashore by lifeboats for a day on this jewel of South Pacific white sand islands.

Fairstar's owners, the Sitmar Line also re-named Inyeug as Mystery Island – as it was always a mystery whether they could land their passengers there due because of unpredictable seas.

After Fairstar was sold, P&O started visiting with its bigger South Pacific cruisers out of Sydney and Brisbane; the company helped build a landing-jetty on the island, and every year its ships now put around 65,000 guests ashore for a day's swimming, coral reef snorkelling, beachcombing, or buying fresh fruits, shells, and souvenirs from the Aneityumese who come across on "ship days."

Mystery Island also has the clean and basic Mystery Island Bungalows: a Double-bed Bungalow that costs $66 a night, Beach Bungalow with two single beds ($33pp per night,) and Guest House with a double bed and three single beds costing $160 per night.

And you'll have the whole island virtually to yourself: Aneityum villagers who may turn-up to occasionally fish, are always well gone before sunset for fear of those ghosts.

It leaves visitors at the bungalows to rise in the morning when it suits, dangle a line for reef-fish or lobsters, beach-walk, snorkel, and ponder what we poor fools are doing back in "civilisation…"

And with no TV, telephone or internet, if isolation becomes too much it's simply a matter of waiting for someone to come across from Aneityum and negotiating a lift back by canoe to explore the neighbouring "big island."

Bungalow guests have to bring all basic food and other needs on the twice-weekly flight from Port Vila – the grass airstrip was built on Mystery Island to service the too-mountainous Aneityum.

Arrangements can also be made to have someone from Aneityum bring over local garden produce and cook for you if you want to experience the local fare. (Details from travel agents or www.vanuatu.travel)

And it's important to check whether during your planned stay, one of those cruise ships isn't going to pop up on the horizon and disgorge its 1000-plus passengers to share the solitude of your 1.5sq kilometre island for a day – the more so if you're prone to sunbaking in the bollocky.

FOOTNOTE: In 1974 while Queen Elizabeth was on her way to Australia from Port Vila aboard the Royal Yacht Brittania as part of a Pacific tour, she made a unscheduled stop at Mystery Island for an impromptu royal beach picnic in paradise. And for the first time, she had no one to wave to…


PHOTO CAPTIONS: 

[] BLINK and you've missed it – Vanuatu's tiny Mystery Island

[] LONG gone cruise liner Fairstar that put Mystery Island on the map

[] TODAY's P&O Pacific Jewel a regular visitor to the island

[] ISLAND in the sun for Pacific Jewel day trippers

[] MYSTERY Island Bungalow for that Robinson Crusoe getaway


Images: Vanuatu Tourism; P&O Cruises; Malcolm Andrews