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May 31, 2011

Hearst Castle: The Enchanted Mountain

by Emma Gardiner || shegoes.com.au


I was expecting something really garish, like Liberace and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s mongrel offspring but, once again, America surprised me.

Hearst Castle is utterly beautiful. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, it’s what God would do if he had the money.

Rising up from the eerie and ever-present fog of San Simeon stands a sandy-hued monolith, as out-of-place in this barren, windswept landscape as a ballerina in a moshpit.

A five-mile drive up a winding road takes you to the marble steps of this unlikely palace. For USD $24 pp you can book a guided tour that includes bus transfers and an encyclopaedic host. We got Bill. He was funny, thorough and, most importantly, loud.

Walking through the property, you pass a Roman swimming pool, 3500 thousand year-old stone Egyptian sphinxes, fifteenth century Flemish tapestries (commissioned by the King of Spain – the replicas hang in the Louvre) and all manner of Rubenesque marble statues, including some works designed by Rubens, hence the Rubenesqueness-ness. It’s totally gobsmacking.

I was forced to watch Citizen Kane repeatedly in Film 101 and this old cinematic chestnut gives you the impression that William Randolph is a bit of a freaky nutjob, stalking around muttering ‘Rosebud, Rosebud…’. Guess what? Donating your fortune to the State of California erases your misdeeds from history. According to Bill, Willie was just a bit ‘Victorian’ (he campaigned FOR prohibition … Need I say more?).

Nonetheless, the ornery old bugger and his long-suffering architect Julia Morgan created a masterpiece of OTT marvellousness that puts John Symond’s eyesore to shame. And he had a zoo on the property. And he had a Hollywood mistress named Marion Davies who ended up loaning him $1.3 million when he borrowed himself into a hole.

I am going to digress for a minute because this is an exceptionally sad story. Davies, who was happily shacked up with Hearst for 26 years while his estranged wife lived on the East coast, was beside him as he lay dying in his Beverly Hills mansion. She was so upset at the time that the doctors sedated her and put her to bed. In the interim, Hearst passed away and his nasty offspring took him, and all his belongings, away to be interred, leaving only the photo of Marion that Hearst had on his bedside table.

When Davies awoke, not only was her partner dead, he was gone. Hearst left her a 51% stake in the corporation that she sold back to the kids the following day for the princely sum of $1. It was worth $130 million. So much for being a gold digger…

So sad. I want to make her biopic. Digression complete.

May 30, 2011

GRAPES PROVE THE APPLE OF BORRY’S EYE


David Ellis

THERE are a couple of 19th century drawings on the wall of a guest cottage at the picturesque little Borrodell on the Mount winery in the Central West of NSW, that remarkably do more to embrace the history of this property than could any number of infinitely researched words.

One is a simple apple. The other a bunch of grapes. And between them they symbolise the transition of Borrodell from an apple orchard two decades ago, to one of NSW's most delightful – and successful – boutique wineries today.

When he bought the property forty years ago, Borry Gartrell simply joined the scores of others on the rich volcanic foothills of Mount Canobolas near Orange, growing apples, cherries, peaches, pears, nectarines and plums that would be snapped-up for their quality and flavours by not only buyers in Australia, but around the world.

Then 20 years ago, Borry and other orchardists discovered that the soils on which they were growing their much-sought-after market fruits held some other rich secrets: tests proved that they would be ideal for branching out into grape-growing.

But Borry and co didn't rush into bulldozing their orchards to replace them with vineyards. Rather they carefully re-structured their acreages to embrace what had proven bountiful in the past, to create even greater bounties in the future with a mix of orchard fruits and grapes – not for the table, but for winemaking.

Publisher John Rozentals who produces an interesting e-zine called OzBabyBoomers for the active over-50s, came upon Borrodell on the Mount on a recent research trip through inland NSW, and has enthused ever since over its past, its present… and, as a wine writer of note amongst his many other activities, its future. (See www.ozbabyboomers.com.au)

Because, Rozentals says, Borry and wife Gaye Stuart-Nairne are turning their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Gewurztraminer and Shiraz into some of Australia's most rewarding still and sparkling wines.

And as well they've two guest cabins and two suites that nestle among their trees and vines, together with a restaurant they call Sisters Rock in which the treasures from the kitchen are first-class and carefully designed to match the season: right now that means entrées of tandoori fillet of wild rabbit or confit of duck leg, and main courses such as slow-roast pork belly or loin of local venison.

On top of all this, Borry and Gaye have also just successfully established the rare black truffle on the slopes of Mount Canobolas just up the hill from their restaurant — somewhat to the delight of Chef Alan Meaney, who relishes using local produce and says you can't get much more local than "just up the hill."

Not that Borry has neglected his apples: in fact he's now got more than 170 varieties, including many classified as "heirlooms."

He swears they're the bane of his life, because his interest in them detracts from the emphasis he'd like to place on the rest of he and Gaye's business, but guests realise from his exuberance as he hands out samples, that he's absolutely devoted to his pommes.

And that he's also a dab hand at turning the juice of those into a very respectable cider.

And then there are his plums. Guests note that Borry gets a far-away muse in his eye as the late evening conversation turns from his wines to his cider… and possibly one day a plum brandy.

GETTING THERE: Borrodell is on Lake Canobolas Road, Orange. Phone 02 6365 3425 or see www.borrodell.com.au.

Orange is 260 kilometres west of Sydney via Bathurst. While there drive to the top of Mount Canobolas: it's the highest point in a straight line between Sydney and the Indian Ocean, and offers splendid vistas of Orange and the surrounding countryside as far as the eye can see...

And if you are a golfer, take-on the challenging and picturesque Duntryleague, rated by legendary South African golfer Bobby Locke as the best non-metropolitan course in Australia.

There are also some charming villages that circle Orange, especially Millthorpe, which is renowned for its restaurants and galleries, while nearby Ophir and Lucknow still offer an insight today into their 19th century gold-mining pasts... and poet Banjo Paterson was born on a property on the Ophir Road in 1864.

See www.orange.com.au

                                                          …………….


PHOTO CAPTIONS
 

[] BORRY in his vineyard


[] ROOM with a millon-dollar view… looking out to the winery restaurant's
   View


[] THE tasting room for a pleasant afternoon's decision-making


[] Memorial in Orange to poet Banjo Paterson who was born on a nearby

   property in 1864
 

(Photos: Sandra Burn White)

 

Struth! Titanic plans fetch small fortune


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that a huge 10-metre long plan of the Titanic that was used at the official enquiry in 1912 into the ship's sinking, has sold at auction in England for an extraordinary GBP220,000 (AU$340,000.)

It was bought on behalf of a private collector who did not wish to be identified, and far exceeded the GBP100,000-150,000 it had been expected to fetch.

The plan was drawn-up by architects of the White Star Line – owners of the Titanic – at the request of the British Board of Trade that conducted a 36-day enquiry into the sinking.

It was initially drawn in Indian ink on paper, and this was then glued to a 10-metre long piece of linen that was in turn mounted on a wooden frame and hung from the ceiling of the Enquiry Room.

The detailed plan identified everything from cargo areas to food stores, First Class Cabins and Dining areas above those for 2nd and 3rd Class passengers that were in the bowels of the ship, boiler rooms, motor-car storage areas,  tunnels that carried water and electrical connections and watertight doorways.

Survivors used green, blue and red chalk – which can still be seen on the plan today – to show where they were and how they escaped after the "unsinkable" Titanic struck an iceberg and went to the ocean floor.

Auctioneer Andrew Aldridge said the plan was "one of the most important pieces of Titanic memorabilia ever sold… and this price reflects it."

It had been returned to the White Star Line after the enquiry, he said, and eventually gone into private hands, never being shown publicly before last weekend's auction.

May 28, 2011

Yulefest in the Blue Mountains



Yulefest is a winter festival originally celebrated by the Germanic people as long ago as the 4th century AD. It has a colourful history initially being a pagan festival and later equated into the Christian Festival of Christmas. Traditions associated with the celebration of Yulefest include feasting, carolling and being with loved ones.

Similarly the origin of Yulefest in the Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon region has a colourful history and the traditions of feasting, caroling and being with loved ones continue to be celebrated each year across the cooler months in the region.

The Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon areas can thank the Irish for Yulefest, a festival concept that originated in the region some 30 years ago.

Back in 1980, a small group of Irish visitors were enjoying the crisp, clear winter climate and as they relaxed in front of a roaring log fire they commented on how the conditions and the atmosphere reminded them of their Christmas celebrations back home.

A savvy local hotel operator offered to re-create for his Irish guests, a similar festive atmosphere and meal, to make them feel even more at home.

And so preparations began, decorations were hung, the Christmas tree was brought out from storage and trimmed and a scrumptious menu was planned. Word began to spread around the region and the requests to attend were many.

Today, the tradition is known as Yulefest and it is one of the region’s most popular events. People revel in the atmosphere, traditions and trimmings of this Winter festival.

Many hotels, restaurants, motor inns and guest houses in the Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Oberon region offer a Yulefest celebration ranging from the traditional dinner of turkey and plum puddings to spatchcock and Crème Anglais, to special accommodation packages for all the family with entertainment encompassing carol singers, pipe and even visits from the jolly fellow dressed in red.

May 27, 2011

The Harvey World Travel Story

In 1951 John Harvey commenced his family real estate agency in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. The travel landscape was very different at this time, with airline tickets commonly sold through suburban real estate agents. This is where our story begins.

The first stand-alone travel agency was opened at Cronulla in 1969 and was later named Harvey World Travel. In 1971 John’s son Scott entered the family business and together they grew the business to six agencies. It was in 1978 when John and Scott traveled to America looking for ways to grow their real estate interests that they saw the boom in the franchise business model. This potential was realised initially not through real estate but through travel.

Early in 1979, John and Scott formed a new company, Harvey World Travel Franchise Holdings Pty. Ltd, a total travel business that was to change the face of travel agencies in Australia and the fi rst of its kind in the world. At this time the Harvey World Travel group was recognised as the largest privately owned retail travel brand in Australia with 6 outlets. Scott as Managing Director with Paul Fleming as the group’s General Manager grew the Franchise outlet numbers to 27 before a new Trust Company was formed in the early 1980′s and most of the existing owners became shareholders. A new Board of Directors was established and hence the start of a new development era for Harvey World Travel.

Paul Fleming, who had interests in two of the Franchise outlets, then took over the reigns of the Franchise Company for the next 2 decades. From small beginnings, with a dedicated staff and a willing Board he steered Harvey World Travel on the path to becoming an Australian icon.

The first franchise outlet was West Gosford, operated by licensee Maxeine McKeon, who still owns and operates 3 Harvey World Travel agencies on the Central Coast, north of Sydney. From this time the company enjoyed massive growth and over the next 32 years built a reputation as

The Travel Professionals, with an instantly recognisable advertising jingle that is just as well known today as when it was created. The company now comprises over 430 travel agencies throughout Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa.

May 23, 2011

Struth! Empty Cigar Box worth thousands


STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that for years Hilary Mee dusted it, moved it, sometimes wondered about it, but simply considered it one of the family's many accumulated antiques and oddities.

But 'It' has now earned her an unexpected 25,000 British Pounds (about AU$38,000) – because it's turned out to be the personal cigar box of the captain of the ill-fated liner Titanic, Captain Edward John Smith.

Mrs Mee and her husband John of Merseyside decided to ask auctioneer John Crane to value of some of those antiques and collectables they'd picked up over the years, and it was the cigar box that particularly caught his attention – especially with the White Star Line emblem carved into it, and the initials E J  S in brass attached to the front of the humidor.

The Mee's knew little of the history of the walnut box, beyond it having been given to Hilary Mee's father by a family friend named Sarah.

Auctioneer Crane's research found that 'Sarah' was in fact Edward John Smith's widow, and had lived with her ill-fated husband at Stoke-on-Trent, just 65km from the Mee's in Merseyside.

And the rest as they say, is history… but just why Captain Smith had not taken the cigar box with him on that fatal Atlantic Crossing in 1912 is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

And later this month another piece of Titanic memorabilia will go on sale – a 10m long profile of the ship printed on linen and used at the official inquiry into the Titanic's sinking. The profile, that details every area of the ship's interior, was used by surviving passengers, officers, crew and expert outside witnesses to help explain why "the unsinkable" Titanic went to the ocean floor.

It includes chalk marks made by many of those who gave evidence to explain where they were and how they reacted on the night of the collision with the ice-berg, and has been described "as the Holy Grail" of the Titanic enquiry.

Experts expect it to fetch up to GBP150,000 at this month's auction.

 

SURFING GAME CAN BE A DOG’S LIFE

David Ellis

 

IF it's a dog's life, then Lani, a four-year old Border Collie-Labrador, reckons bring it on.

 

Because for Lani life is one long day at the beach, chasing the odd seabird, splashing in the waves, sunning on the sands – and taking a ride with owner Chris de Aboitiz on a stand-up paddle board that's a reincarnation of Hawaii's long surf-boards of old.

 

Chris de Aboitiz is Sydney-born but spent his early school years in Hawaii and later taught surfing there.

 

And when he returned to Australia he headed for the sun and surf of Noosa on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, opening a board-riding school and, to the amusement and joy of locals and visitors alike, taking along with him on rides in the late-afternoon sun, his newly-adopted 6-weeks-old off-sider, Lani.

 

Lani – it's an Hawaiian name – took quickly to balancing on the nose of Chris' board, spending up to thirty-minutes at a time as the board was paddled out through the surf, and then with Chris standing and steering with his paddle, riding the waves back to the shore.

 

But late last year it all came to an end, in Noosa at least, when the Sunshine Coast Council decided not to renew Chris' arrangement to run his board riding school there.

 

It was all to do with contracting for services on council-owned facilities, and it caused a storm of protest: Chris (and his dog) was not just a service provider, locals complained, but a tourist attraction as well.

 

Travel-writing colleague Graeme Willingham first saw Chris and Lani in action at Noosa a few years ago, and has been tracking their act ever since – the more so since they moved to Burrum Heads, just north of Hervey Bay and where Chris is now running his paddle board business from a boutique getaway called Riverview Retreat.

 

And where he also provides windsurfing, kite surfing and yoga lessons – and a range of dog-training services as well.

 

And while surfing conditions may not be as good at Burrum Heads as they  are at Noosa, Chris still takes Lani out for a paddle most days… to an ever-growing and appreciative new audience of locals and visitors.

 

It is an eye-catching act, one in which Graeme Willingham says Chris and Lani seem to anticipate each other's next move in tandem, neither seldom getting wet as they catch and ride waves at will, each time calmly exiting in unbroken water to paddle the 100metres back to await their next big ride.

 

On the way out, Lani stands tall, almost hanging-ten on the nose of the board, providing a streamline balance for Chris paddling behind.

 

Then once they're on the wave, Lani slips back half a metre from the nose to squat in a unique (and anything but your normal backside-on-the-ground doggie squat,) as if to provide the best possible trim and "sweet-spot" balance for the thrilling wave-riding journey.

 

The big board glides along the wave, rises gently to the crest and then zips down the face before exiting closer to the beach, only to turn around and do it all again.

 

And inexplicably, Lani suddenly decides to ride backwards for a few strokes, looking back to master as if to say "Was that alright, Boss?" Then on the next ride, Chris using doggie psychology returns the compliment by turning his back on Lani to ride the wave backwards…. It's all part of the extraordinary synergy between the two.

 

From those watching from surfboards nearby or on the shore it's a fascinating free-of-charge exhibition of tandem stand-up paddle-boarding and super-dog performance.

 

And Chris, the 1994 World Tandem Surfing Champion, often takes kids out for board riding lessons. "They just love it when Lani jumps aboard," he says.

 

Chris says the two have tackled wave over two metres high, and yes, sometimes they've both been "wiped-out" in those conditions. But they scramble back on board to once again brave the wild surf.

 

Sunshine Coast Council may have wiped out one of its own tourist attractions when it changed its rules that lost Chris his board-riding school at Noosa, but nowadays for the folk at Burrum Heads their new tourist attraction is proving a real tailwagger.

See www.riverviewretreatburrum.com.au, or phone 0435 085 060 or see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1s5hw2Knbk

…………………….

 

Photo captions:

 

[] RIDE the wild surf: Lani laps it up with Chris at the controls

[] HANGING ten amongst the big boys and girls

[] QUIETER times on a Burrum Heads backwater, Chris, Lani and friends

   take a late afternoon paddle

 

Photos: Graeme Willingham

 


May 09, 2011

STRUTH! Hotels help clean up with used soap

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STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says an organisation in America is asking hotels in the country to give it the nearly one-million bars of soap that are only partly-used by guests every day.

Orlando-based Clean the World Foundation is a non-profit organisation that recycles used soap, distributing tens of millions of bars of "new soaps" a year to developing nations, as well as to American homeless shelters.

And it says that it, and another group, Global Soap Project based in Atlanta, are finally starting to get some recognition from America's largest hotel companies: just last week it reached an agreement with giant Starwood Hotels to give it all its partly-used guest soaps, shampoos and lotions for recycling.

Clean the World says it already has contracts to collect used soaps from around one-thousand individual hotels in America, including 100 within the Marriott and Hilton chains, and others within the Carlson, Wyndham and Hyatt groups.

But the deal with Starwood is its first corporate agreement to cover all hotels of a major network – and it estimates that just this agreement alone will allow it make and distribute – free – to developing nations, a further 15-million, 50gm bars of recycled hand-soaps a year.

www.cleantheworld.org

May 05, 2011

TRAGEDY OF YONGALA – “TOWNSVILLE’S TITANIC”



David Ellis

IT'S one-hundred years since the luxury coastal passenger-cargo ship Yongala sank in a cyclone off the Queensland coast between Mackay and Townsville, claiming 122 lives in one of Australia's worst civil shipping disasters.

And despite an Australian Navy hydrographic survey ship locating the wreck 36 years later, it was simply "presumed to be the SS Yongala," with nothing being done to confirm the finding nor recover her dead.

And it was another eleven years before the wreck was finally confirmed as that of Yongala – forty-seven years after she'd gone down in that cyclone.

The Adelaide Steamship Company's Yongala was based in Melbourne and had steamed out on March 14 1911, reaching Mackay in the early hours of March 23. After a brief stop to load and unload cargo and take-on several new passengers, she sailed early the same afternoon for Townsville.

Unbeknown to Yongala's Master, the highly-experienced Captain William Knight a tropical cyclone was forming just north of Mackay, and warning of this reached the Mackay Flat Top signal station just as Yongala was disappearing north into the distance.

In those days few ships had new-fangled radios, and the signal station was thus unable to warn Captain Knight of the danger he was running into, although it was able to warn three other ships that left later that day, about the developing storm.

When those ships arrived in Townsville a couple of days late after sheltering from the cyclone, the alarm was sounded: Where was Yongala?

A search by seven ships failed to find any clues at sea, but a shore search recovered obvious ship's cargo, a mail bag washed up on a beach – and the body of a thoroughbred racehorse known to have been on Yongala.

A Maritime Board of Queensland inquiry could find only that the fate of Yongala, and where she may lay, "passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea…" The inquiry also absolved Captain Knight of any possible blame.

Years later, in 1947 the Australian Navy hydrographic vessel HMAS Lachlan swept the area off Cape Bowling Green in the Whitsunday Passage for "an obstruction" that had been mentioned in 1943 by another Australian Navy ship. HMAS Lachlan reported it had found the obstruction, and presumed it to be SS Yongala, but nothing was done to confirm that it was the wreck of the luxury steamer, or to recover the remains of her 122 unfortunate passengers and crew.

In 1958 trochus fisherman Bill Kirkpatrick, who'd long been fascinated by the Yongala mystery, was scouring the area in which she'd disappeared with a grapnel hook, and caught onto something just 16m below the surface. Using a glass-bottomed viewing box he made out the top of a sunken ship.

When professional diver Don McMillan heard of this he asked Kirkpatrick if he could take him to the site to confirm if it was the wreck of the Yongala… to which Kirkpatrick readily agreed. The two men, with some others, dived down to the wreck and retrieved numerous items, including a heavy safe.

This was forced opened, and while found to contain only sludge, a number stamped into its lock revealed it had been built by the Chubb Company – specifically for the SS Yongala's Purser's office.

Further dives found the Yongala to be laying on her starboard side and facing north, her hull fully intact in 20- to 30-metres of water. This suggested she'd been swamped in the darkness by mountainous seas that had sent her quickly to the bottom.

Forty-nine passengers, 73-crew, the thoroughbred racehorse and a prize bull had all perished – Yongala was dubbed "Townsville's Titanic."

Today with her size (109m) and the mystery surrounding her sinking, Yongala is one of the world's top ten wreck dive sites, her hull and superstructure still intact, and machinery and other parts littering the seabed around her.

She's also home to an amazing array of marine life from giant gropers to schools of giant Trevally and cobia, harmless sea snakes, rays, turtles and hundreds of other species that feed off the coral-encrusted hulk.

Yongala Dive at Alva Beach near Ayr has look-but-don't-touch dives from their base 12-nautical miles from the wreck; for dive-only and dive-and-accommodation packages see www.yongaladive.com.au

                                        
Photo captions:

[] YONGALA in her heyday on the Australian east coast run in the early 1900s.

[] DIVING down to the wreck today – its one of the world's top ten dive sites.

[] THE wreck of Yongala as she lays fully intact on her starboard side in 20-30 metres of water.

[] MYRIAD marine life around the wreck.

[] YONGALA Dive's dive shop and accommodation block.

(Images: Yongala Dive www.yongaladive.com.au)

May 01, 2011

Struth! Thief flush with cash after toilet heist

St Martin
Air Antilles ATR-42 of the type involved in the robbery

STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that police are searching for a man who spent most of the short flight between the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and St Martin in the plane's toilet.

Because just as the plane was about to land, he asked for an ambulance to be waiting for him, and when this was arranged he walked to the vehicle – then suddenly said he felt better, declared he no longer needed hospital treatment, and walked away.

And it was only then that a Brink's Security guard who had put nearly US$1.65 million in cash in bags in the cargo hold of the plane in Guadaloupe, went to the cargo hold and discovered that over $236,000 of the money was missing.

And when cleaners entered the plane's toilet they found bank notes scattered inside – and that a floor panel had been removed, leaving a gaping hole to the cargo compartment directly below.

Police said the canny thief had stuffed the money inside his clothing – and because he'd been escorted to an ambulance, he'd avoided any security screening at St Martin and then simply walked away.

The man's female companion on the plane was searched and questioned, but as she had none of the money on her she was allowed to go free; Brink's Security, and Caribbean police, are still searching for the wiley thief and their missing $236,000.


HOTEL IS ALL A MATTER OF IMPRESSIONS

David Ellis

IT'S not every day you check into a big-name resort and find that the lady at the Front Desk is a Director.

Or when you go for a well-earned drink in the bar, you're served by a Director there too – and when its time for dinner the lady who takes your order and delivers your meal is a Director as well.

And even when you call it a day, yes, the ladies who made-up your room are all Directors also.

But such is the case at the Mercure Centro Hotel at Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast, although they're not executive directors and they don't sit on the board.

But those who welcome you on arrival wear name badges proudly informing you that rather than the bland title Receptionist, they're all in fact Directors of First Impressions.

Restaurant and bar staff, on the other hand, are all Directors of Lasting Impressions, while the housekeepers all boast of being Directors of Immaculate Impressions.

The "Directorships" idea came from a brainstorming session of owners, General Manager Ann-Maree Crowe, and staff early in the hotel's life, when it was clear that with the staff's enthusiasm, it was only fitting to reward them with a level of recognition beyond that of other hotels.

And while Ann-Maree didn't get a "Directors" title hersefl, if she had, it would surely have had to be Director of Ultimate Impressions.

On a recent night we met-up with friends in the bar, the barman – sorry, Director of Lasting Impressions – noticed we had several bottles of wine with us, and even though we'd not bought them at the hotel and he knew we were  taking them elsewhere for dinner, he immediately offered to "put them in the cool room to stay cold for you."

The Mercure Centro Hotel, one quickly realises, is not your average country hotel. Owned by a trio of local couples, and as Ann-Maree puts it "still just 3.5 years young," it's on the cusp of the CBD of this popular coastal holiday town. Walk a minute or so one way and you are in the midst of the city's shopping and restaurant action, drive a couple of minutes the other way, and you're on the sands of the beach.

The Australian Ironman Competition will be staged on that beach on May 1 and already staff are looking forward to welcoming one particular entrant who'll be staying with them: John McLean is a paraplegic after being hit by a car while cycling in training for another ironman event, the first wheelchair athlete to complete the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, first wheelchair athlete to swim the English Channel, he represented Australia in the Sydney and Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, and has sailed in the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race.

And since 1998 his John Maclean Foundation has inspired and motivated young under-18 wheelchair Australians "to chase their dreams and live life to the fullest."

Ann-Maree Crowe says sixty per cent of the Mercure Centro Hotel's guests are holidaymakers, but there's a growing conference and wedding reception business catering for up to 140 guests. "One recent reception involved a bride who came from South Africa arriving from the church in a traditional white wedding dress, and then changing into a South African tribal outfit and dancing the night away to the music of bongo drums!" Ann-Maree says.

And wooing guests with his culinary skills is talented Chef Ben Crompton. From the near-two dozen items on his current dinner menu you could start with oysters in limoncello and parsley granita, or maybe choose slow-cooked pork belly with seared scallops, crisp shallots and nahm jim, for mains Gippsland beef tender loin with duck pate ravioli, barramundi with fricassee of mussels, capsicum and celery, or perhaps charred lamb backstrap wrapped in Swiss chard with polenta…

And to finish, lemon and ouzo cake with caramelised figs and citrus syrup, or a platter of Australian cheeses, dried grapes, pear relish and lavosh.

It all reflects the vision of Ann-Maree and her fifty staff – and that's to be the best hotel in the State based on customer service.

(They've a current special throughout April: stay two nights from $149 per night and you'll receive free Continental Breakfast both mornings; details 1300 786 989 or www.centrohotel.com.au)

 


PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] PORT Macquarie's Mercure Centro Hotel: CBD is one way, the beach the other.


[] SPA Suite – it's all a matter of (vast) impressions.


[] PORT's famous surfing beach: home to this year's Australian Ironman Competition on May 1.


[] HISTORIC circa 1879 lighthouse at Port Macquarie's Tacking Point