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April 26, 2010

West Coast Wilderness Railway: "We’ll find a way, or make it"

Looking over the edge of King River Gorge in Tasmania’s West you’d be forgiven for thinking man had never been there, the untouched rapids raging hundreds of metres below waging their war to carve a crevice in the landscape.

But it is here that one of the most powerful stories of man triumphing over nature’s adversity is told – a 35km railway built by hand through some of the most inhospitable bush imaginable.

Boarding Pure Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway, you expect to see the wilds of the West Coast, but what you take with you at the end of your journey is so much more. You leave with an understanding of the hardship the early settlers faced in their time and an appreciation for the local guides who bring their messages through time to you today.

The railway itself is a feat of endurance. It was built more than 100 years ago as a link between the mines of Queenstown and the port of Strahan. It was a lifeline for the people of the area, the only way in and the only way out of Strahan, with its busy little port a link to the rest of civilisation.

The pioneering railway workers battled everything Mother Nature could throw at them – wind, rain, freezing temperatures, flies, mud... the stories of hardship are endless. They cut through massive rocks by hand to make way for the railway, exemplifying their motto “We’ll find a way, or make it”.

Some parts of the line were amazing feats of engineering way ahead of their time. Huge bridges were constructed off-site, put together nearby then floated into place. Test tracks of Dr Roman Abt’s unique rack-and-pinion system used to haul the trains up the track’s steep incline were built to ensure all would run to plan.

The railway was closed in 1963 as running costs skyrocketed and more road links were built. Many parts of the line fell into ruin, the most memorable story of the Quarter Mile Bridge which was rumoured to sway violently as the train crossed and soon after its closure was claimed by the rising waters of the King River. The remains can still be seen today as you cross a replica, thankfully more stable than its original!

The West Coast Wilderness Railway was painstakingly restored with the assistance of a Centenary of Federation grant, including the original steam engines, and replica carriages were built. Two levels of travel are offered – tourist class and the Premier carriage, which includes a dedicated tour guide, padded seating, morning and afternoon tea, all-day beverages and a booklet to remember your journey. Both classes of seating include lunch featuring fresh Tasmanian produce.

The train simultaneously departs Queenstown and Strahan daily except for Christmas Day. In peak season there is also an afternoon journey.

For further details or to make a booking visit www.puretasmania.com.au or phone 1800 084 620.

April 25, 2010

BERLIN'S BEST AND ITS WURST

david ellis

THE rain is pelting down, so much so that from inside our coach it's difficult to identify much out of what our guide is talking about.

And any idea, she suggests, of photos or look-sees is probably out of the question. Until she points out the KaDeWe (pronounced Car De Vay) department store. "Its Berlin's second most-visited attraction," she tells us.

 "Let's go!" shrieks someone. "Yeah, yeah," the other 20 passengers cry. "Shops, shops!"

After a brief hunkering-down between guide and driver we're dropped off at KaDeWe's front door, not expecting the treat that awaits: it is now near lunchtime and we are entering a store with one of the biggest and best food halls in the world.

But food is not on everyone's mind: the women in our group rush to the four floors of fashions, mostly as-yet unseen back home.

For the men it's the Food Hall's Champagne and Oyster Bar. Business is already brisk and we pull out the camera. Nein! A store staffer makes it abundantly clear that photography is strictly verboten – leaving us to wonder if this is one of Berlin's few "tourist attractions" that's off-limits to photographers?

Another glass of bubbly eases our frustration, and starry-eyed we head off into the labyrinth of gourmet stalls and stands, kilometres of delicatessen counters, wine shelves that fade into infinity…

KaDeWe is the second largest department store in Europe, trumped only by London's Harrods. And everything here is undertaken in gargantuan scale across seven floors covering 60,000 square metres – including the equivalent of two football fields of purely food and drink.

Every day 40,000 shoppers migrate here to snap up some of the 3-million items representing 34,000 different products.

Like a bottle of wine at home tonight? Browse the shelves' 3,400 bottles from around the world. Some cheese to go with it? Decide from over 1,300 types and varieties (and 1,400 breads and pastries to complete your snack.)  

We drool our way through all this, finding at every turn an opportunity for another glass or three and a bite: Chablis or Syrah and oysters, Champagne or Chianti and lobster medallions, a stein of beer and sausage...

Adolf Jandorf conceived all this seeming largesse and opened his vast Aladdin's Cave in March 1907.

He sold out in 1927 and the new owners added another couple of floors, but in 1943 an Allied bomber shot down over Berlin crashed into the store, demolishing most of it; it re-opened partially in 1950, and fully six years later.

KaDeWe (it means "Kaufhaus des Westens" or "Department Store of the West") was further expanded in the 1970s and in 1996 another floor and the glass-domed roof-top Winter Garden Restaurant were added.

You can buy almost anything you want here from the world's best luxury-label toiletries and leather-goods to men's and women's fashions, children's clothing, health products, and food and wine.

And have your hair done, a facial, a spa treatment, furnish the house, fit out the kitchen with every gadget known to man, dine in the Winter Garden restaurant or a plethora of cafés, coffee shops and bars – and buy travel tickets to continue your European journey.

Or graze through free offering: morsels of sausages, chocolates, cookies, and cold meats were amongst products being sampled during our visit.

We could have also bought seafood live from the tank, tropical fruits (including ginger, pineapples and mangoes from Australia,) a couple of hundred varieties of sausages ("the best of the world's wurst, " someone cracks,) pasta, exotic vegetables from every corner of the globe, delicatessen items by the farm-load with names we've never heard of, teas and coffees…

KaDeWe is all about style, and for bragging rights back home we snap-up a stylish box of KaDeWe's own-label tea from which we will grandly offer visitors a cuppa in our meagre kitchen.

KaDeWe is not usually included in Berlin sightseeing tours; you do it in your own time after the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Bellevue Palace, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, City Hall and Boulevard Unter den Linden.

Tempo Holidays has three-day Taste of Berlin packages from $415 per person twin share that include hotel, breakfasts, private arrival transfer and a Big Berlin sightseeing tour.

Contact travel agents, Tempo Holidays on 1300 558 987 or visit www.tempoholidays.com

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] BERLIN's KaDeWe – a shopper's Aladdin's Cave

[] MOET and Mozzarella: one of the many corners in KaDeWe's deli that help put a bit of sparkle into the weekly shopping

[] BETWEEN them the store's wine outlets have some 3,400 bottles from around the world on their shelves

[] DINE under glass in the domed roof-tope Winter Garden

April 24, 2010

Struth! Drinks are off the house


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a unique new resort opens in Portugal this month – specifically for recovering alcoholics and those overcoming addictions to gambling and narcotics.

The Sober Holidays Renovatio resort is the brainchild of Andrew O'Loughlin who has been on the dry for four years and owns a luxury villa in the picturesque hills of Algarve in the country's south-west. Andrew says he got the idea after fellow recovering alcoholics visited his home and commented on its peace, isolation and serenity in helping them get their thoughts – and their lives – back together again.

So he's converted the villa into a resort with five luxury ensuite bedrooms, has a full-time chef to create meals based on healthy local Portuguese as well as other Mediterranean cuisines, and done deals with local sporting clubs and resorts to make available such activities as mountain biking, hiking, tennis and golf (there are 14 courses in close proximity.)

"One of the worse experiences for recovering alcoholics is taking a holiday," says Andrew. "Alcohol is everywhere, I've had some of the most horrible and stressful experiences of my life while trying to take what should be a restful holiday.

"We're providing a healthy environment, good food, good companionship and a supportive program of discussion sessions – but these latter will not be obligatory – and AA meets several times a week in neighbouring towns."

Check it out on www.soberholidays.net

RESORT GUESTS CAPTURE BRIDGE ON RIVER KWAI


david ellis

GUESTS at a deluxe new boutique resort that opens in Thailand in October of this year can expect a misty-eye, and possibly goose-bumps down the spine, at least once during their stay.

Because as they take evening cocktails before a million-dollar sunset view, they'll also be looking across to one of the world's most-emotive and famous structures: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Built in 1942-43 as part of Japan's horrendous Burma Death Railway that ran 415km from Bangkok to Rangoon, the iron bridge was just one of many along a route hacked through mountainous jungle by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 enforced Asian labourers.

And all in a seemingly-impossible 16 months.

Estimates vary, but most historians agree that around 90,000 Asian labourers died during the building of the railway, while 16,000 Allied Prisoners of War – British, Australian, Dutch, Americans and Canadians – also succumbed to brutal conditions that included stints of working over 30-hours straight to complete the final stages of the line.

Over 2800 of those who died were Australians.

Many guests to the new U Hotels and Resorts Inchantree Resort at Kanchanaburi on the banks of the River Kwai and within view of the Bridge, will doubtless reflect on the history of the infamous railway as they sip their poolside cocktails, watch the kingfishers flitting across the now-peaceful waterway, and muse at the colourful river traffic.

Others will possibly find themselves thinking back to the 1957 movie Bridge on the River Kwai and its theme tune, the inspirational but hauntingly-whistled Colonel Bogey March.

But they should not take too much of the movie as fact. While based on the diabolical conditions imposed on those forced to build the Death Railway, the major theme of the destruction of the bridge by prisoners of war that inspired the novel and the subsequent movie, was pure fiction from the pen of French writer Pierre Boulle.

Rather than the Bridge on the River Kwai being blown-up by the POWs who'd built it, sending a trainload of high-ranking Japanese officers to their deaths, the Bridge was not destroyed until the American Air Force bombed it in April 1945.

The idea of a railway linking Burma (now Myanmar) with Thailand was not something new: a line had been muted by the British in the early 1900s, but shelved as nigh-on impossible in the mountainous, jungled terrain that was criss-crossed by myriad rivers and streams

But when Japan invaded from Thailand and took Burma from the British in the early 1940s, it found itself with a confronting problem: supplies for Burma had to come in by sea through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea, and both were pretty-much controlled by the Allies.

So it decided on the rail link between Bangkok and Rangoon. At any cost.

But when completed the Burma Death Railway failed to achieve the result Japan wanted, and rather than a 24-hour stream of trains rushing freight and troops up and down the track, at the most it could manage just a handful a day.

When the war ended the line was abandoned and huge sections devoured by the vigorously-growing jungle. But in the 1950s the Thai government re-built about 130km from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok that's open today to local and tourist trains… and Japan gave two pre-fabricated sections to re-open the Bridge on the River Kwai.

When U Hotels and Resorts' boutique Inchantree resort opens at Kanchanaburi in October this year, guests will be able to look out to the historic Bridge on the River Kwai, muse back on its past as they watch modern-day trains rumbling across from Thailand to Myanmar, and take-in the spectacular river sunsets.

The just 26-room river-lodge style resort will be set around a courtyard dominated by an ancient shady Inchan tree, and will offer a blend of local heritage and modern amenities, semi-open-air restaurant, pool, library, internet station, Thai spa, heritage talks and walks, and even biking tours of the local area.

And interestingly, it will provide guests with 24hrs use of rooms from whatever hour they check-in, free Wi-Fi, daily breakfast whenever it suits them – and, thankfully, telephone calls at actual cost.

Prices will start from a modest US$75 for 24hrs use; see travel agents, or visit www.uhotelsresorts.com       


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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE famous (once infamous) Bridge on the River Kwai

[] MEMORIAL at Hellfire Pass on Burma's Death Railway

[] AUSTRALIAN prisoners of war who worked on the Death Railway

[] ARTIST'S perspective of the new U Hotels and Resorts Inchantree Resort

 

CORINTH CANAL: SHORT CUT TOOK A LITTLE TIME


david ellis

HOODWINKING those whose support they need to keep them in power has been around since the politicians first breathed air. 

Way back in 67AD when Emperor Nero sensed wealthy traders and shipowners were getting a bit toey, he made a grand promise with a flair of showmanship that would leave pollies of today floundering.

The fact that fulfilment of that promise would not come about until hundreds of years later – in 1893 – was neither here nor there.

From as early as 700BC, Mediterranean traders cursed an area of Greece known as the Peloponnese, a peninsula in the south of the country's mainland that divided the Adriatic Sea from the Agean.

For while the 16,000 square kilometre peninsula was one of the country's richest and most valuable agricultural areas, it added 300kms – and often days sailing around the infamously unpredictable Cape Maleas – to the lucrative trade routes between the two Seas.

Many early rulers thought about digging a canal across the peninsula, but none was quite game enough to try it, for two reasons: they believed that Poseidon, the God of the Sea, opposed the joining of the two Seas, and if they dug the canal, Poseidon would allow the "higher" Adriatic to rush through like water down a plug-hole, and flood the "lower" Aegean.

Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, in 602BC temporarily got around the problem with a stone roadway, having ships hauled out of the Adriatic or Agean, placed on wheeled carts and pulled by horses and slaves across the 6km- wide peninsula.

Because of their weight, cargoes were removed and carried separately, and the ships re-loaded and re-launched into the sea on the other side of the Peloponnese. It ended-up as time-consuming and costly as sailing around the Peninsula.

So in 67AD Emperor Nero, with those traders and shipowners making clamouring sounds about his leadership, decided on a grand canal across the Peloponnese Peninsula.

But he didn't announce it with just a simple court statement and the equivalent of today's Press Release. Rather he waited for the approaching Isthmian Games when he knew he would have an audience of thousands – including his business protagonists.

The Games were held both in the year before and the year after the Olympics, and with a massive audience Nero not only declared that he would have a canal cut across the Peloponnese Peninsula – with great ceremony he produced a golden spade, led his noblemen and business moguls to the site of his would-be canal, and dug the first sods of soil himself.

And not content with that, he then loaded this spoil into wicker baskets which he carried on his back and dumped with equal ceremony before no less than 6,000 slaves he'd recruited to dig the canal.

But that was as far as it got: although his plans were for a canal 6.3km long, 25m wide and with an 8m depth of water, it also meant first creating a cutting up to 80m deep just to get down to the water-level of what would be his actual canal.

And to complicate matters, 3-months later Nero – whose increasingly-odd behaviour included giving 3-hour performances on his lyre to audiences in theatres whose doors were locked so no-one could leave before he'd finished –  committed suicide. What little work was done on the canal was abandoned.

It took centuries for the Greek government to get serious again, and finally in 1890 construction began on a canal at a place called the Isthmus of Corinth.

It took three years, including building two road bridges and a rail bridge across the canal, and remarkably at each end, roads on pontoons that "sank" into trenches dug a further several metres into the bed of the canal to allow ships to pass over them.

Today the narrow and shallow Corinth Canal is still a vital link for smaller cargo vessels, boutique-sized cruise ships and pleasure boats seeking a short-cut between the Adriatic and Agean Seas.

The Peloponnese Peninsula is a taste of true Greece, with aqua-blue waters lapping sunny beaches, patchworks of olive groves, vineyards and citrus orchards, ancient towns, monasteries, palaces, ruined castles and forts.

For information about holidaying on the Peloponnese phone Travel Creations 1300 550 727… they know all about it as the owner's family hails from there!

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:
 

[] TIGHT fit: only boutique cruise ships like SeaDream I and SeaDream II here can squeeze through the 25m wide Corinth Canal.

[] ROAD and rail bridges cross the Canal at various points of its 6.3km length.

[] AERIAL view showing how the Canal dissects the Isthmus of Corinth.

[] NOW you see it, now you don't… low-level road bridge "sinks" into the canal to allow ships in and out of the Canal



April 09, 2010

Struth! Mind the Ferrari Please



IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says staff at England's Premier Inn accommodation group have collated some of their more unusual requests from guests – including one staffer being asked to sit in a guest's Ferrari sports car while he had dinner to ensure it wouldn't be stolen, and another being asked to propose to a young lady on behalf of a bloke who was too nervous to do it himself.

Other bizarre requests include a front desk manager lending his trousers to a guest who didn't have any appropriate strides for a sudden important business meeting, lining up a dating service for a shy guest, buying a rubber duck for a guest to play with in their bath, and a female staffer being asked to go out and buy a very specific style and colour bridesmaid's dress for a distraught guest who'd torn their's trying to get it on.

Another guest rang the front desk of one Premier Inn and asked if they knew the name "of a good local undertaker," while another who was suddenly taken to hospital rang their hotel and asked them to send around a plate of their fish and chips because the hospital food was so bad.

And finally there was the overseas guest who wanted to know if it was "possible in England to buy a rhinoceros for a friend's birthday?"

April 05, 2010

SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS WITH SPIRITED LOVERS


david ellis

WHEN a romantic English lady named Maude nibbled at her lover's ear that his passion "had her aflame," little did she realise just how prophetic her words were to be.

For Maude, a lady who had lived a somewhat sheltered life, had not plotted her one and only tryst too carefully at all.

Still quite attractive even though some years had passed since her youth, Maude had never expected to be swept off her feet as she was by a Romeo who was also of mature years, and coincidentally ready for his first fling too.

But sadly for them in England's 11th century, ladies – irrespective of their age – were expected to go through ritualistic courtships, and to tie the knot before becoming involved in too much heavy breathing.

However Maude and her lover were in no position to walk the aisle – and when sprung in a somewhat erotic encounter they had the book thrown at them.

To begin with, Maude was a nun.  Secondly, her lover was a monk.  And thirdly to make matters worse, they were caught in the act in what should have been a very celibate cell in a monastery in Oxfordshire.

Maude's chauvinistic all-male peers handed out quick punishment. She was burnt at the stake, while her lover got the better option of being merely banished to the outside world.

But Maude, as the flames licked around her, vowed to return to him after death. And return she did.

Over the centuries the old monastery has changed hands numerous times, and today is the grand Weston Manor country hotel. And 900 years after her death guests have sworn to hearing sounds of light footsteps in one particular, and otherwise empty, corridor – the very one that Maude once tippy-toed along to meet her lover.

And staff say they have heard a light woman's steps behind them in the same corridor in the dead of night… yet when they've turned around, the corridor has been empty but for themselves.

Weston Manor is not England's only hotel serving as something of a memorial to the love-lorn. At the George and Dragon in West Wycombe (Buckinghamshire) the sobs of a young serving maiden murdered 200 years ago are still said to be heard in one room today.

According to legend, some local lads were peeved at the flighty young lady sharing her affection with not one of their own, but a commercial traveller who regularly stayed at the George and Dragon. So one night they waylaid the two and beat her senseless before the traveller managed to get her to his room, in which she died soon after.

Vowing like Maude to return to live with her lover forever after, guests today have told of hearing a woman's sobs in an upstairs bedroom that staff assure is unoccupied… the very room in which the young maiden died all those years ago.

And a philandering farmer's mistress has left her sad memory at the Lion Hotel in Nyetimber in Sussex. The hotel includes three small cottages that were built back in 1407, and were used to store smuggled whisky and brandy that was slipped in through a 1200-metre long tunnel from the coast.

As well as helping himself to the illegal odd nip or three, the farmer found the tunnel a useful place for also slipping into the arms of a local wench of his own lustful persuasion. Unfortunately his wife one night followed him into the tunnel, and discovering what he was up to, dealt his mistress a stunning right hook.

She was carried semi-conscious to either room 5 or 6 on the hotel's ground floor, and swore along the way that she would return to her lover as soon as she recovered. This so further enraged the farmer's wife that she dealt another savage – and this time mortal – whack.

The departed mistress was buried in her best blue silk dress, and today guests at the Lion have reported seeing a "blue apparition" in those two rooms.

One even signed a statutory declaration that he had been awakened in Room 5 "by a lady dressed in blue standing before me, then she disappeared right through the wall with no other sound than the rustling of her blue silk dress."

Even Maude couldn't top that.


PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] WESTON Manor, Oxfordshire: spirited encounters in more ways than one.

[] DID Maude and her equally ill-fated lover once tread this peaceful Oxfordshire retreat?