November 21, 2011
BRICK kilns don't usually feature high on the list of things to do on a luxury river cruise.
But on one such 8-day journey along the mighty Mekong between Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia's Siem Reap, a village kiln has proven a fascinating diversion amid daily shore excursions that extend from the ubiquitous local markets, to a leisurely farmland ox-cart ride – and the chilling reality of Pol Pot's notorious Killing Fields.
And for good measure a touch of romance too, with a visit to the once-home of a young Chinese man whose love affair with a French teenager became the basis of an award-winning 1980s novel, and an equally successful 1990s movie…
This captivating cruise is aboard the stylish 62-stateroom AmaLotus that's owned by Australia's APT Touring, and which began her Mekong career only in September this year.
It's just outside the industrial and trading port of Sa Dec in southern Vietnam that guests on AmaLotus are taken ashore by the ship's tour guides and shown the workings of the beehive-shaped kilns, which to many Australians seem somehow reminiscent of the natural orange and black, and almost-similarly shaped formations, found in our Kimberley region.
And the kilns of Sa Dec operate as they have for centuries, being fired by discarded rice husks from local farms to bake bricks and tiles from other farmlands' clay – and with nothing wasted, the husks being retrieved as ash to be ploughed back into the farm soil as fertilizer.
From these kilns AmaLotus's guests are taken by small boat into Sa Dec itself for a visit to the one-time home of a wealthy and influential Chinese family, whose son began an affair in 1928 with teenager Marguerite Duras, who had been born to French parents living near Saigon in 1914.
When the affair ended in 1931, Marguerite left to study mathematics in France, joined the French Resistance during World War II, and along the way began a prolific career as a writer of plays, film scripts, essays, short fiction and novels. She also directed numerous films and died in 1996 aged 82.
But it was an 'autobiographical novel' called "The Lover" that Duras wrote in 1984 that won her the most praise and recognition: said to be the story of her teenage romance all those years before, it won the 1984 Prix Goncourt for "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year."
The Sa Dec home of her once-lover is now a museum, and aboard a sister vessel to AmaLotus on the Mekong, and named by APT La Marguerite after the author, the floor tiles are actually replicas of those in the famous old house…
The Vietnam and Cambodian guides aboard AmaLotus ensure guests see and enjoy as much of their river experience as possible, leading 2- to 3-hour shore excursions daily, with guests provided with headphones to hear the commentary that also includes insights into guides' family lives and some of their more-chilling wartime experiences.
This is particularly so during a Phnom Penh tour that includes the Royal Palace, National Museum, city markets and the infamous S21 Detention Centre – and Pol Pot's horrific Killing Fields.
Both horrifying and chillingly fascinating, it was at the latter that Khmer Rouge soldiers killed an estimated 1.7-million Cambodians, or 21 per cent of the population. One football-oval-sized area alone contains the bodies of an estimated 20,000 victims: because bullets were too costly, most were beaten to death with axes, knives, and bamboo sticks.
There is also the notorious Tuoi Sieng Museum of Genocide on the site of the one-time torture camp, prison and execution centre.
More-pleasantly focused daily excursions include to picturesque floating communities, city and village produce markets, rice-paper making factories, a rice-whiskey distillery, demonstrations of silk weaving, a fish farm, a hill-top Buddhist Monastery, and an ox-cart farmland ride – and of course there's plenty of time for bargain shopping or picture-taking.
AmaLotus's 8-day Mekong package is priced from $3095 per person twin share (based on an April 2 2012 departure), which includes cruise, 21 onboard meals, local wine with dinner, local beer, soft drinks and spirits on request, onboard entertainment, guided shore excursions, APT Tour Director, port charges, transfers and tipping.
Details 1300 229 804, www.aptouring.com.au or see travel agents.
 LUX cruising on the Mekong River – AmaLotus has it all, and then some.
 HOME of romance, now a museum in Sa Dec.
 STREET hawker sells her fresh vegetables.
 UNUSUAL tourist attraction, brick kiln tour.
 STYLISH floating hotel, twin-balcony suite on AmaLotus
(Photos: APT Touring)
November 14, 2011
After having a quick phone chat back in late 2008, the owners of two high-end boutique hotels in Central New South Wales quickly realised that two heads would be better than one when it came to promoting their properties.
“For quite a while I’d been wanting to work on marketing our property along with others in the region, as Bathurst just wasn’t being marketed as a great destination in the same way Orange and Mudgee were,” explains Christine Le Fevre, owner of the award-winning Bishop’s Court Estate in Bathurst. “After working closely with a wide range of Bathurst businesses to collectively market Bathurst, it was the regional approach that was next touted. We then got a call from Ray Whitfield, who was thinking along the same collaborative lines, and the idea of group marketing started to gain momentum and take shape.”
Wombadah Guesthouse with wife Kay, had discussed the idea in Mudgee and his talks with Christine endorsed the concept into the wider region.
The next step was a meeting with three more luxury accommodation providers in the region – David and Annette Buckland of Arancia Bed & Breakfast in Orange, Vicki and Andrew Hudson of Evanslea by the River in Mudgee, and John and Hilde Gerathy of Five Frogs Luxury Guesthouse in Carcoar – and the collective initiative entitled Amazing Country Escapes was born.
“We then started talking about the concept to Central NSW Tourism and they loved the idea and offered their total support,” says Christine. “The official Amazing Country Escapes launch took place at Parliament House in March 2009. It was positive for industry and investors to see that we were putting our money on the table and taking our product to market, and it was clear that our group would be great for marketing right across the region, which encouraged Tourism NSW to embrace and endorse us.”
One of Kirk Pengilly’s key points was that Central NSW is “not that far” from Sydney. “Bathurst, Mudgee, Orange and Carcoar are all a cruisy drive from Sydney or Canberra,” Christine adds. “Our objective is to ensure that all visitors get to experience the people and places in the region that we are absolutely passionate about and feel so welcome that they want to come back again and again.”
This great passion for local businesses has led to each of the five properties signing on a range of ‘Experience Partners’ – another of Christine’s innovative marketing concepts.
“Bishops Court Estate had already developed strong relationships with high-quality restaurants, cafes, wineries, patisseries, beauty specialists, museums, galleries and artisan retailers, all run by passionate friends and described as our ‘Experience & Taste Partners’. These partners were always recommended to our Bishop’s Court guests to make their Bathurst experience exceptional,” she says. “We then introduced this idea to the rest of the group and now we all have our own Experience Partners that we work closely with. Knowing they are going to be treated as welcome friends wherever we send them makes the guest experience so much more rewarding,” Christine says with pride.
As Ray concludes, the unique Amazing Country Escapes concept has been beneficial to everyone. “Our five properties are spread out but we really work closely together to promote the region – it’s the best way to increase visitation to Central NSW and to our individual properties, and guests get to reap the rewards of our shared knowledge.”
For more information: visit http://www.amazingcountryescapes.com.au/ or follow Amazing Country Escapes on Facebook