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January 30, 2012

THAMES TOWN – NEW MEANING TO CHINESE TAKEAWAY

David Ellis

THAMES Town looks as jolly British as its name implies: walk its streets and you quickly learn the traps of cobblestones, fashion boutiques rub shoulders with a pub that pumps real ale, the houses and villas are classic Georgian and Victorian, the town square sports a statue paying tribute to Sir Winston Churchill, and if you've forgotten your mobile phone there are enough red phone boxes to make that urgent call home.

And if you want to feel the grass under your toes there's a nice little town green on which to do so, while with luck you may be on time to see the Changing of the Guard at the entrance to this quintessential market town – and if you're looking for somewhere unusual to tie the knot, there's even the Gothic-style Christ Church in which to do so, plus a 4-star hotel to celebrate in afterwards.

The only thing that's askew is that this ever-so-British-looking Thames Town, that's complete down to a traditional fish and chip shop and street signs showing High Street, Oxford Street, Queen Street and similar, is anything but British.

Because rather than sitting comfortably alongside Old Father Thames, it in fact sits beside a man-made river in China. And rather than the busy community its creators envisaged when they built it in the mid-1990s, Thames Town is more Ghost Town with most of its houses and apartments empty, its shops largely devoid of customers and its streets eerily quiet.

It's part of a Chinese takeaway scheme that hasn't quite clicked, those who conceived it believing it would help alleviate the massive overcrowding of China's largest city, Shanghai that has a population of over 23-million (just a tad more than Australia's entire population of 22.8-million.)

And in fact Thames Town was just one part of a grand scheme titled One City, Nine Towns that would see nine new communities created in an arc around Shanghai – each of them a copy-cat of typical small towns in rural England, Italy, Spain, America, Holland, Germany, Sweden, China itself, and as an architectural whimsy, an "ecological town" called Lingang.

Each would house up to 10,000 people, hopefully upwardly mobile younger and wealthier Chinese wanting to get away from being cooped-up with the in-laws. But this hasn't come about and Thames Town – despite being dubbed locally Ghost Town – is the closest to coming to success. And this modest success is not because some people in overcrowded Shanghai took the plunge and moved the 30km "into the countryside," but because many older, more-affluent Chinese have bought houses and apartments there as rental investments. But most are empty, even though Thames Town is within the boundaries of Songjiang New City and adjacent to Songjiang University Town that has no fewer than seven universities attended daily by 70,000 students and staff.

But it's attracting quite a few tourists, both local Chinese and from overseas to gawk at it's almost eccentricities, shop in its boutiques, dine in its English-style eateries, drink in the "English pub," have a cuppa at the oddly, if not prophetically-titled Incomplete Coffee shop, and even stay overnight in the 4-star Liston Hotel.

And at weekends happy-snap Chinese wedding couples who use the replica  Gothic-style Christ Church to tie the knot.

Happy-snappers also click-away at a healthy sprinkling of statues around the town that pay homage to dignitaries such as Sir Winston Churchill, royalty including Princess Diana, British book and movies icons like Harry Potter, and take a stroll along the man-made "Thames River," dine in a floating restaurant, and take-in the tranquillity of parks with shady trees…

They even find an English-style club, a supermarket, medical clinic and a kindergarten – all of them under-utilised. And as Thames Town is a kind of gated community, they can watch the daily Changing of the Guard, at the entrance to this unusual community.

Tourists visiting Shanghai can take the train from the city to either Songjian New City or Songjiang University Town and catch a local bus or taxi to Thames Town that's just 4km from both centres.

Australia's Wendy Wu Tours have independent packages to Thames Town and can add them to tours beginning or ending in Shanghai.  Details from www.wendywutours.com.au or 1300 727 998.

For general information about Shanghai: www.meet-in-shanghai.net


Photo captions:

 

[] THAMES Town – just like the real thing, but a Chinese takeaway

[] EMPTY apartments give Thames Town a Ghost Town feel

[] REPLICA Gothic-style church is popular with local Chinese for spectacular weddings

[] STREET scenes like this would make you think you were in the real thing

[] THERE are even British-style phone boxes in the streets

 

(Photos: Shanghai Tourism Board)

 

 

 


January 27, 2012

Villages of Victoria - A guide to Apollo Bay



The seaside town of Apollo Bay is located along Victoria’s most scenic coastal route, the Great Ocean Road. With rolling green hills, crashing waves and expansive blue sky in the backdrop, this cosy village is a perfect stopover for visitors wanting to take in a full panoramic view of the coastline. From kayaking with seals and indulging in fresh local seafood and produce to supporting the local arts and crafts and even music festivals, there is an activity to suit everyone.

Soak up the seaside village life
Set between Wye River and Cape Otway, Apollo Bay is a popular destination for visitors wanting sun, sand and sea. The village boasts a large boat harbour and marina which is home to a major fishing fleet. Hot fishing spots are all along the shorefront or off the pier, and even beginner anglers won’t go home empty handed.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the legendary Apollo Bay Music Festival which spans three days over April and features international and local music acts from a variety of genres including Jazz, Blues, Roots, Classical, Pop/Rock, Jazz World and Country.

Indulge in local culinary delights

For a special lunch or dinner, visit Chris’s at Beacon Point high up in the Otways for a breathtaking fine dining experience with a view. During the day, sample delicious fresh seafood at one of the beach front restaurants and cafes, or visit the Fisherman’s Co-op near the Pier and choose from a great selection of seafood including crayfish.

On Saturday, February 11 from 10am – 3pm, seafood lovers will gather at the foreshore for the Apollo Bay Seafood Festival. The festival showcases all the fruits of the sea and forest of the Otway region. Apart from fresh local produce, visitors can enjoy open microphone entertainment, children’s activities and cooking demonstrations.

Embark on one of the greatest walks ever
The Great Ocean Walk is a spectacular 104km walk along Victoria’s west coast that starts from Apollo Bay and travels to within sight of the magnificent 12 Apostles. The Walk journeys through National Parks, beaches and over marine sanctuaries where visitors can expect to see lush forest, cascading waterfalls and expansive ocean views. Walkers can tackle the distance at their own pace with accommodation and food readily available along the route.

For more information: go to www.visitvictoria.com/villages

Melbourne’s Mexican obsession

Photo Max Olijnyk
Mexican cuisine is the newest craze amongst the foodie scene in Melbourne and Victoria. Overwhelming demand for Mexican dishes is increasing in popularity, with various operators jumping on the bandwagon to satisfy customers with a taste for salsa.

Raph Rashid, creator of mobile diner, Beatbox Kitchen, the home of the number 1 burger in Victoria, has ventured into Mexican food on the go. Rashid’s latest endeavor, Taco Truck serves up fresh and distinctive tacos with an emphasis on local ingredients, on the move. His Mexican specialties include corn tortillas, salsas, special sauces and a variety of tacos. Customers can find Rashid’s Taco Truck in Brunswick and Northcote, but he uses Twitter and Facebook to post his locations daily. Taco Truck is open Wednesday to Saturday 6 – 9pm and Sunday from noon – 3pm.

Add caption
Even the team behind MoVida is getting in on the action, ditching their trademark Spanish cuisine to make room for the Mexican craze. Taking inspiration from Mexican street food, Paco’s Tacos occupies the former site of MoVida Terraza, with a new fit-out and redesign by extraordinaire, Joost Bakker. The menu is dominated by you guessed it - the hearty taco - all set at $6 a taco with specialties including the pulled pork and braised beef tacos. Other Mexican favourites such as nachos and barbequed corn also get a look in with Mexican beers, exotic cocktails and wine also available.

Add caption
Fonda Taco's is a Mexican cantina located in Richmond, bringing a home-style, seasonal menu of fresh ingredients from the Victorian Market. Along with the much-loved Mexican classics, customers can enjoy fresh salsas made daily along with the quintessentially Australian take on Mexican food, the Kangaroo Burrito. Opening hours are on Sunday to Thursday 12noon –10pm and Friday to Saturday 12noon – midnight.

Photo Eddit Jim

Mamasita, another of Melbourne’s finest Mexican restaurants was ahead of the game when it brought a little taste of Mexico to the city. Leading the charge in showcasing fresh Mexican flavours, the food is modern, creative and not slathered in the cheeses and sauces that previously gave the cuisine a bad wrap. The food philosophy is inventive and eco-aware whilst still remaining true to the traditional and authentic methods of Mexican cuisine. Alcoholic beverages are predominantly sourced from Mexico, Central America, South America and Spain, with Tequila a key focus.

In Victoria’s south west, the Great Ocean Road is also following suit, with the opening of Mexican haunt, El Poco Burrito. Located in Barwon Heads in the Bellarine, El Poco Burrito’s Fish Taco has already gained cult status with the Breakfast Tacos hot on its heels.

January 26, 2012

SURVIVING BEAR COUNTRY NOTHING TO GRIZZLE ABOUT

David Ellis

"You take the bells, and I'll take the pepper spray and the rifle," said John 'Cowboy' Caton. "There's one-point-five bears to every square kilometre out there  – you're in wilderness country now."

We'd accepted Cowboy John's invitation to what we thought would be a nice leisurely embrace with nature, not grappling grizzlies, in a timeless rainforest on the west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island.

And if we were going into 'wilderness country,' we'd like to know what it was we were leaving: Clayoquot Wilderness Resort would have to be amongst the most remote we'd encountered in thirty years of searching.

Not that we were complaining, for the aptly-named Clayoquot (it means 'Calm Water') is for the serious seeker of communing with nature, strolls on k's of empty beaches, walks through cedar and rainforests, and a quiet we'd forgotten existed.

One so almost-cuttable, you could target a pine needle hitting the water at a hundred paces.

Yet all this remoteness was coupled with shameless indulgence. For while Clayoquot is accessible only by boat from the nearest town, Tofino 30 minutes away, or seaplane, there's no skimping on the necessities of life: good food, good wine and a good bed – just like the Great Camps of the 19th century.

A crackling fire on cooler nights greets travellers to The Great Room for recounting experiences at day's end, the bar's stocked to the gunnels by obvious devotees for devotees, and just twenty cosy deluxe tents look out over the mirrored waters of Clayoquot Sound… twelve of them with ensuites, the remainder with private facilities adjacent to each tent.

And from his kitchen, Chef Ryan Orr treats guests to signature dishes such as Grilled Clayoquot Sound Oyster Chowder and Prosciutto wrapped Halibut Fillets, locally caught salmon or crab, freshest local beef, venison and local farm vegetables… and afterwards mountainous wild berries and cream, or summery cheesecakes….

"Wear the bells around your wrist," says the affable Cowboy from under an unlikely Aussie Akubra.  "They let the bears know we're coming; they'll usually amble off and just watch us."

We have a look at one of the lakes the resort owns in its forest wilderness, a pool fed by a waterfall for summertime swimming, and the stables from which Cowboy and resort guides take guests off on daytime trail rides or overnight trips to remote forest camps. And as we step out onto a pristine strip of beach, we sight our first bear – less than a cricket pitch from us.

"He's around 70kg, I reckon. Solid little fellas, aren't they?" observes Cowboy, a partner in the Resort after a major coronary attack put paid to an over-stressed life as a music talent scout and recording artist manager. The black bear he refers to seems to be little more than waist height to us, and as wide as he is high.

He gawks at us for a few minutes before, as Cowboy predicts, ambling off, leaving us to capture our Close Encounter in a myriad jittery photos of his disappearing back-side.

We see a couple more during the afternoon, and by evening are feeling nonchalant and brave:  We've survived a day in Bear Country.

Then Cowboy brings us back to earth. "Folks think they can climb a tree to escape a cranky bear," he observes. "But the black ones climb up after you. The grizzlies just shake the tree 'til you fall out….

"You know, we've only seen five today, so that means we need to run into a dozen more in the next fifteen minutes to keep the average…"

We're off. That bar and our luxury 'Outpost' style tent with its Queen Bed suddenly holds greater appeal than confirming Cowboy's theory.

Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is open May to September with package stays of 3-, 4- and 7-nights. Prices start from CAD$4750pp twin-share for 3-nights and including return 50-minute seaplane from Vancouver, all meals, snacks, beverages (including alcoholic,) a 1-hour massage service, horseback riding, fishing, and bear, whale and marine-life viewing, ocean and river kayaking, a Wild Side First Nations Interpretive Walk, sailing, hiking, clay shooting, rock climbing, archery, swimming, mountain biking, zip-lining, and painting and cooking lessons.

Further details Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays toll-free 1300 79 49 59.

 
PHOTO CAPTIONS:       

 

[] BEAR country – John 'Cowboy' Caton leads guests off on a horse-riding trek.

[] DINING hall, rustic in appearance but 5-star magic from the kitchen.

[] YOU won't go hungry while Chef Ryan Orr runs the kitchen.

[] SLEEP tight: deluxe tent with ensuite.

[] THE Healing Grounds for easing away those city stresses…

 

[Photos: Clayoquot Wilderness Resort)                                                                                  

                                        

   

January 25, 2012

Krabi Truly Heaven on Earth!

Located on southern Thailand's east coast, 800 kilometres south of Bangkok, just a one hour flight from Suvarnabhumi Bangkok International Airport.

Krabi province offers some of Thailand's most unique natural beauty comprising an area of over 130 islands with some rarely receiving visitors. Limestone formations tower above the islands erupting vertically from the sea throwing a challenge to rock-climbing enthusiasts.

Koh Phi Phi
Krabi is a great place to relax with many of the beaches only accessable by local longtail boats. These secluded beaches on small islands make great venues for daytime picnics and offer crystal clear blue waters.

A typical Krabi province sunset
Much of the province has been designated national park and is protected for future generations. The Hat Noppharat Thara-Ko Phi Phi National Park incorporating the mainland beaches, over 80 smaller islands and Phi Phi islands. Popular activities in this region include snorkelling an scuba-diving. Koh Lanta National Park is home to some of the best coral islands and some highly regarded diving locations.



Krabi is a province that caters to those in search of relaxation or even adventure. The area is great for kayaking, sailing, birdwatching, island hoping to popular islands like Chicken or Hong Islands, national parks, waterfalls, limestone caves and rock climbing.

Rock Climbing on Railey Beach
Krabi Town or 'Ao Nang' is the capital of the province and home to guesthouses, bars, hotels and shops. Ao Nang is also the main launch point for trips to the island of Phi Phi or Railey Beach which is one of the world's premier rock climbing destinations.

There's something for everyone in Krabi regardless of our active or relaxed a visit is planned to be. For more information on activities in Krabi province download here 
 
Snorkelling excursion off a secluded island
Krabi: A diver's paradise

Thai Airways International flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Bangkok with connections to Krabi. THAILAND PLUS Fares from Sydney to Krabi start from $852* return, Melbourne $831*, Brisbane from $853* or Perth from $778* all inclusive of taxes and surcharges. Fares are for travel in economy class for return travel based on the THAILAND PLUS 'W' booking class which has certain restrictions attached and does not allow frequent flyer mileage accrual. Book/Ticket by 29 Feb'12 for departures until 20 Jun'12. Child fares apply for children between the ages of 2 and 15 years of age. Contact your licensed travel agent for the latest information, schedules, fares, conditions and bookings. Fares are now available for online bookings, however if you are booking children aged up to 15 years that qualify for the discount, you will need to book and ticket with a travel agent or with your local THAI office. For the promotion, child fares cannot be booked online. Call THAI on 1300 651 960 for more information.

January 24, 2012

Struth! Running for your life


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis tells the story of ultra-runner, mountaineer and adventure racer, Marshall Ulrich who at 57 years of age ran 4,932km across America from San Francisco to New York, has climbed the highest peaks of all seven continents, and run across Death Valley more times than anyone else – 23 in total, including a record-breaking 235km from Badwater that's 88m below ground level, to the top of Mount Whitney that's 4,493m high.

He's also completed the Leadville Trail 100 and Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend... something no one else has ever achieved.

Along the way he's had his toenails surgically removed because of extreme pain inside his running shoes, used 32 pairs of shoes on his trans-America effort, nearly drowned in an icy stream near the peak of Mt Everest…. and been bitten by a rattle snake.

He's also raced and climbed in twenty-six countries from Antarctica and Australia to Morocco, Tibet, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Mr Ulrich who is also still a farmer and dog-food manufacturer in north-east Colorado, embarked on his bizarre athletic career at an age when a lot of us are thinking more about taking-up lawn bowls than conquering Everest, and spoke of his achievements during a series of talks aboard mega motor-cruiser, SeaDream I as it made its annual Atlantic repositioning from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean earlier this month – taking a run around the deck a couple of times a day to keep in practice.

He told amazed audiences that his trans-America run required him to cover 644km a week during the equivalent of a whopping 117 back-to-back marathons –   and how he consumed 9000 calories of food a day to maintain his energy, lost only 2kg over the entire 52 consecutive days, and broke the Masters and Grand Masters (over 40- and over 50-years of age) American-transcontinental records.

And if you'll excuse the pun, he's recently written a book of his feats called Running on Empty and published by Penguin. See www.MarshallUlrich.com

 

January 23, 2012

ONE-TIME PRISON’S A CELL-OUT AS A HOTEL


David Ellis

HOLIDAYMAKERS looking for the out-of-the-ordinary can today do time in the one-time cells of what was once one of England's toughest prisons, a hell-hole housed within the 5-metre thick walls of the country's historic Oxford Castle.

And strange as it may seem, when the prison was first built 350-odd years ago, those incarcerated in those cells had not only to contend with over-crowding and infestations of rats, mice and cockroaches – they actually had to pay their warders for their prison accommodation.

And to eat, they also had to buy their meals from those same warders too.

The vast Oxford Castle was built by the Norman baron, Robert D'Oyly Snr between 1071 and 1073 after he arrived in England with William the Conqueror, who upon becoming King of England gave D'Oyly expansive tracts of land across what is now Oxfordshire.

Much of the castle was destroyed during the English Civil War, and it ultimately passed into the hands of Oxford's educational Christ Church College which leased it out to a local family who built a privately owned and run prison for the government within the remaining castle walls in the mid-1600s. Prisoners included petty criminals, murderers and so-called "rebellious scholars."

The College made a tidy profit from the arrangement but finally disposed of the castle and prison, that came complete with a gallows and executioner, in the 18th century when prison reformers were campaigning generally against overcrowded and filthy gaols. It was subsequently acquired in 1785 by the Oxford County Justices who had it more humanely re-designed and re-built.

And the man who did much of the re-construction, Daniel Harris actually ended up as Governor of the new prison on a handsome contract from the County Justices, zealously adding more and more cells; within a century so much of what remained of the Castle had been swallowed up by the prison, that in 1888 the whole lot was acquired by the British government and renamed HM Prison Oxford.

For more than 100 years it served its role as a penal institute, until in 1996 it was deemed to have passed its use-by date, closed, and together with the remains of the castle handed-over to the Oxfordshire County Council. The site was classified as a Grade 1 Listed Building and a Scheduled Monument, with the castle walls, one of the original towers (St George's Tower) and the crypt the only major remains of Robert D'Oyly's once-grand 11th century structure.

But with the Oxford Prison facilities still in basically sound condition within the castle, the County Council decided to redevelop the whole castle complex, winning a GBP3.8-million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to turn it into a living community centre with shops and boutiques, cafés, bars, galleries, private housing apartments – and a luxury hotel.

And to further fund these works, in the years leading up to the castle's re-opening  in 2006, parts of the former prison were hired out to film companies who shot scenes there for TV shows including Inspector Morse, Bad Girls and most famously The Bill, as well as the feature films 102 Dalmatians, The Spy Game and Lucky Break.

Visitors to Oxford can today stay in the unique Malmaison Oxford Hotel whose 95 rooms and suites have been created within former prison cell blocks, prison governor's living quarters and one-time prison offices. These spacious accommodations have been created by merging several cells or offices into one luxury room or suite, some of which have views overlooking the one-time exercise yard, and there are even split-level suites with balconies with wider castle views.

Cells used for corporal punishment and to house condemned prisoners awaiting the hangman, have deliberately not been included in the accommodation areas.

Prices start from AU$223 per night for two in a luxury double room, and range up to $669 for a huge Duplex Suite with 4-poster bed and home cinema.

Market days and theatrical performances are held in the former prison courtyard, and conducted heritage tours take visitors back through the castle's near-1000-years of history.

With its hotel, entertainment and heritage facilities the old castle can be a one-stop destination in itself, while Oxford's many other fascinating attractions are just a stone's throw away.

Details from travel agents or visit www.malmaison.com

                                                        ………………..

 

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE once-foreboding entrance to Oxford Castle now provides a luxury welcome for guests at the unusual Malmaison Oxford Prison Hotel.

[] PRISONERS didn't have it as good as this: a luxury hotel room created within the one-time Oxford Prison.

[] WHAT's possibly the world's most unusual hotel atrium… guest rooms still have original prison cell doors for "atmosphere."

[] HISTORIC sketch of Oxford Castle in the 15th century.

 
Photos: Courtesy Malmaison Hotels.

 

Struth! Hotels lament light-fingered guests


STRUTH!

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says light-fingered hotel guests in the UK helped themselves last year to enough goodies to start a second-hand shop – and it was anything than just soaps and toiletries.

Amongst items that the country's Best Western hotel group reported stolen by guests last year were a 20kg suit of armour, a two-piece leather sofa, a  4m-long model of the Concorde supersonic jetliner, a decorated Christmas tree, a life-size model of a man made out of papier mache, TV sets… and a cigarette machine.

Head of Marketing with the company, Tim Wade said the hotel was so proud of its soaps that it actually printed "So good you'll want to steal two" on the wrappers – but he never expected so many other large-as-life items to go as well. "Goodness knows how they got them past Reception when they checked-out," he said.

And while soaps and toiletries were still generally considered the most fair-game for pinching, many guests also helped themselves to their hotel room's energy-saving light bulbs, batteries from the TV remote controllers, towels and bathrobes – and at one Best Western in the UK a bedspread and a matching set of curtains.

"Christmas gave us a particularly busy time replacing items," Mr Wade said. "Our managers reported partying guests nicking off with a decorated Christmas tree from one hotel, a nativity scene from another, strings of Christmas lights, baubles and tinsel from yet others, and at one a whole garden bed of Christmas-time plants – including the bark chip mulch around them."

It seems Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em.

(Image: Moira Burke courtesy Flickr/Wikipedia)

January 16, 2012

Struth! Smurfs take over village for blue movie


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a small village in Spain that has fewer than 180 residents has attracted 80,000 visitors in the past six months – all because every one of its buildings was painted a vivid blue for the filming of a Smurfs movie.

And now the people of Juzcar, which is normally visited by around just 300 curious tourists a year, have voted to keep everything blue rather than return to their traditional white, as they enjoy the fruits of a tourism boom.

Juzcar, that's near Malaga in Andalucia, was painted blue in the middle of last year after it was chosen for the location of The Smurfs 3D movie. Amongst those throwing themselves totally into the spirit of things is the local Mayor who has not only decreed that Juzcar's Town Hall will remain vivid blue, but that his Mayoral title for the time being will be changed to "Papa Smurf," and a village priest who is offering "Smurf Weddings" complete with local residents coming along dressed as giant Smurfs.

And according to the Mayor the influx of tourists has not only grown employment in the little village and boosted its economy, but increased villagers' happiness as well.

TASSIE SILHOUETTE TRAIL A CUT-OUT OF HISTORY

NOT quite Hollywood, but a welcome mat from the heart.
CUT-out of history: the start of the Silhouette Trail at Kempton.
WILMOT Arms Inn was built by convicts in 1844 – and a good place to stay today.
ONE-time Presbyterian Church is now a community hall known as the Blue Place.


David Ellis

KEMPTON's not one of those places that springs quickly to mind when planning a motoring holiday in Tasmania, yet the little community has had the welcome mat out since the mid-19th century when it was the first overnight stop for horse-drawn coaches making their way along the rough dirt road north from Hobart to Launceston.

In those days, it was a lively settlement dotted with coaching inns where travellers could eat well, quaff thirsts, sleep and rest their horses.

The welcome mat is still out, despite the now-highway by-passing the town. And it's not so much a mat, but a giant hillside sign of white-painted car tyres that have been arranged to read "Kempton Welcomes U".

The classified historic town – population around 400 – is 49kms north of Hobart and marks the start of the Silhouette Trail on The Heritage Highway. That trail runs 23kms to Oatlands, a larger colonial-era village of Georgian architecture put on the media map in recent times by the restored and working wind-powered Callington flour mill, and then on to Ross and eventually to Launceston.

In the paddocks along the highway between Kempton and just north of Oatlands, fifteen larger than life black steel cut-outs define the Silhouette Trail and reflect on the region's frontier days: stage coaches in full flight, bushrangers, sheep farmers, gold-panners, surveyors, convict road gangs, railway workers, soldiers, a hangman, emus and Tasmanian Tigers amongst them.

A cut-out stage coach at the highway exit to Kempton marks the start of the trail. The first significant building is Dysart House, a large stone two-storey Georgian inn built in 1842 and regarded as one of the finest coaching inns on the old Midlands Highway.

It is now a private residence owned by Leo Schofield, and a good spot to park the car and take a stroll into the village. The square tower and tree-lined entrance of the 1844 sandstone St Mary's Church of England heads the list of other noteworthy buildings, along with the Congregational Church built in 1840 and the 1844 Wilmot Arms Inn built by convicts and operated as a licensed inn until 1897.

It was restored in 1978 and today is part of Tasmania's Colonial Accommodation Circuit for a cosy and comfortable stay, with five double rooms, modern facilities, and an overnight tariff that includes a full English breakfast of home-made muesli, fresh eggs from the Inn's chickens and hostess Dot's home-made jams.

A small room at the top of the stairs has facilities for making hot drinks as well as a comfy chair and a fridge for guests' own food and drink. A sitting room was once the inn's main room but is now used for group dining and as a guest lounge.

The big garden out the back is filled with cottage garden flowers, roses and European trees, but it's a giant Tasmanian Blue Gum that dominates.

A contrasting standout building though is the weatherboard ex-Presbyterian Church now community hall, painted blue, and known affectionately as The Blue Place. The interior is beautifully preserved Baltic pine.

Clinging to its accommodation history yet adapting to modern travel, Kempton has created an off-road, no-charge park for campervans including for the third Sunday of the month when a popular local market is held at the Blue Place. And during the third weekend of September "A Kempton Affair" really turns it on with three art exhibitions, a film show, a quilting display, Raku firing, local artists stall, music, historic town walks, coach museum and historic house inspections.

On one of the walks, the former Catholic Church garden and the Anglican cemetery reveal graves from the First Fleet.

The organising committee is staking claim to the Affair's Cafe providing "the best coffee and scones this side of the island" but dropping in at Kempton at other times, the local pub, the Huntington Tavern, serves lunch and dinner (from Wednesday to Sunday).

And we're told that in the weeks leading up to the Affair – one of the 28 arts events in 12 locations across Southern Tasmania – the white tyres on the hill into town mysteriously rearrange themselves into "A Kempton Affair".



DETAILS: A Kempton Affair, www.tasregionalarts.org.au, (03) 6268 6196;

Wilmot Arms B&B www.wilmotarms.com.au, (03) 6259 1272;

Huntington Tavern, bar, lunch and dinners Wed-Sun, (03) 6259 1292.

(Photos: Catherine Johnson)

January 07, 2012

EL CONVENTO’S SOME HOTEL – BAR NUN

THE hotel's shaded courtyard, a far cry from the vows of poverty of its original inhabitants
SAN JUAN'S Hotel El Convento: from historic convent to flophouse to majestic boutique hotel
david ellis
In this first of a two-part feature, David Ellis discovers a boutique hotel in Puerto Rico with a history as rich as any tale Hollywood could conceive out of the Caribbean; and next week he continues its remarkable journey from convent to flophouse to an extraordinary boutique hotel...)  
ITS anyone's guess what the good ladies who founded the Carmelite Convent in San Juan in Puerto Rico a-near 360 years ago, would make of their old one-time digs today.
Gone are the tiny celibate cells in which they spent long and solitary days in prayer or meditation, gone are the thin straw palliasses on which they fitfully sought sleep through steamy Caribbean nights, and gone are mealtimes of  porridge or gruel or root vegetable stews in keeping with their vows of poverty.
In their place are spacious rooms with 21st century luxuries amid centuries-old antiques and heirlooms, queen-size beds in which guests indulge in the deepest of the Land of Nod, and from the kitchens now come breakfasts of Eggs Benedict, banana and walnut pancakes topped with maple syrup, mountainous Yogurt Parfaits topped with crunchy almonds, walnuts and fresh sweet strawberries…
And for lunch Empanadillas (turnovers with Spanish sausage, cheese, meat or lobster,) Gambas al Ajillo (sautéed shrimp in garlic sauce,) Veal Cutlets Viennese style, Pechuga de Pollo al Ajillo (chicken breast with garlic and white wine sauce served with uniquely prepared local plantain bananas…)
Or amongst a score of dinner options, the Caribbean's highly popular Puerto Rico Mofongo: fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork crackling, all mashed and filled with chicken, steak or shrimp. Or for more simple pleasures, multitude tapas or a half-pound (226gm) Classic Burger with the lot.
And in what was once a private room of the Mother Superior, nightly pre-dinner wine and cheese tastings for guests fortunate enough to stay here, with reds and whites splashed with gusto into voluminous crystal glasses … for an hour or so, for free, with great slabs of cheeses and dried fruits to go with it.
The old Carmelite Convent, as we quickly learned on a recent visit, has undergone somewhat of a transformation from its religious heyday: it's now one of the world's finest small hotels, with a history as captivating as any tale out of the Caribbean.
San Juan itself was established by the Spanish in 1521 as a stop-over between homeland and America. They built a garrison against their French, Dutch and English enemies, and with constant wars with all this lot, the number of widows on the island was considerable.
So one, Dona Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez asked the King of Spain to build a convent for widows and single ladies wishing to serve the church.
When he agreed, and with her own personal wealth, Dona Ana donated her home opposite the San Juan Cathedral as a site for the Convent.
Spanish soldiers were assigned to build it, and strongly enough to withstand assaults by local Indians, Spain's European enemies, hurricanes, and the tropical heat: its sun-baked clay-brick walls were made a metre thick.
In 1651 Dona Ana, her sister Antonia and four protégés were the first to enter the Convent, with Dona Ana as Mother Superior; the Convent served its role well for 252 years until in 1903 it was decided that maintenance was now too costly, and with only nine nuns and two novices in residence, it was closed.
The building lay empty for a decade and was eventually sold for a mere US$151 by the Carmelite Order to the local Catholic Diocese, which rented it out as a retail store, then a dance hall, and for 40 years as a flophouse for the homeless.
Worse, in 1953 it became a storage yard for garbage trucks until it was decided to demolish it to make way for a public parking station.           
Enter Robert Frederic Woolworth – heir to the Woolworth fortune – who was so aghast at the prospect of the historic old Convent's fate, that he bought it from the church for $250,000, engaged a team of architects and builders and turned it into a boutique hotel he would call The El Convento.
NEXT WEEK: Creating a unique hotel with dedication, a "no expense spared" philosophy – and a band of gypsies. 

January 05, 2012

Stay in a Luxury Aircraft Carrier Hotel


International luxury hotels are popping up on the horizon in China faster than ever, but affluent Chinese travelers have indicated a new desire for accommodation -- somewhere more historic, alternative and … communist.

A former Soviet aircraft carrier under renovation in Tianjin is set to become China's first ex-naval hotel in 2012.

Running dogs rejoice!

US$15 million for an aircraft carrier hotel

The future luxury hotel is part of Binhai Aircraft, an 80,000-square-meter military theme park opened in 2004 in east Tianjin. The government-supported park is built on and around a retired Kiev-class Soviet aircraft carrier, named Kiev (基辅号), which was sold to China in 1996.

The park’s parent company is reported to have spent an estimated US$15 million on the transformation and finished the refitting of three presidential suites last August. The largest suite occupies 400 square meters.

Although Chinese and international media have reported the opening of the hotel, according to Binhai Aircraft’s vice marketing manager, Liu, the majority of the 148 hotel rooms aren't finished. The company plans to open the hotel to the public sometime in 2012.

Liu noted that the company receives requests every year from visitors hoping to stay overnight on the Kiev, especially in the cabins in which sailors and officers once slept.

“The hotel will serve as a unique experience for a high-end clientele,” Liu told us. “It will not be ranked by stars, nor will it have a swimming pool or a gym.”

Aircraft carrier restaurant

While the aircraft carrier hotel has yet to welcome guests, Binhai Aircraft soft-opened the hotel’s restaurant on December 22, 2011, calling it “the world’s first Western restaurant on an aircraft carrier.”

Decked out in black, green and white, the 30-seat restaurant pays tribute to the Kiev’s heritage by serving mostly Russian dishes.

The aircraft carrier restaurant is now receiving guests by appointment.

More Soviet aircraft carriers in China

Two decades after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, China has managed to transform its neighbor’s once-formidable military machinery into popular tourist attractions.

China has purchased three of the ex-Soviet Union’s most powerful aircraft carriers.

One of them nearly became a casino near Macau. The other two have been repurposed as military theme parks, one in Shenzhen and the other, Kiev, in Tianjin.

January 03, 2012

Nile Cruise: Yabba dahabya do!


by Philip Game - Travelgame

The dahabya cruise is an innovation whose time has come.

Well, actually it's been around since the time of Cleopatra, who once joined Julius Caesar for a nine-month cruise around Egypt. Affairs of state were certainly conducted at some leisure, back then.

By the early nineteenth-century, Ottoman pashas and beys were indulging themselves aboard gilded houseboats on the Nile ('dahabiya', also spelt 'dahabya', derives from dahab, the Arabic for gold). European visitors were pleased to follow their example until the steamers and the railways began to offer more expeditious locomotion .

The bare-boards felucca journey has become almost a rite of passage with many younger travellers, but the romance of watching the banks of the Nile glide by, drifting at the mercy of the wind and the tide, is tempered somewhat by the necessity to sleep out on deck, by the cramped circumstances and the lack of creature comforts.

At the other extreme are the huge triple-decker Nile cruisers moored, sometimes three abreast, at Luxor and at Aswan. You'll share your Nile experience with possibly hundreds other passengers aboard what is essentially a floating resort hotel. Shore excursions become an exercise in people-moving.

Now the wheel has turned full circle with the advent of the modern dahabya, a twin-masted sailing yacht, typically fitted out in a style recalling a more leisurely era.

Aboard a dahabya you savour the romance of journeying under sail on the Nile in the company of perhaps twenty other discerning passengers. You are not cocooned in a package holiday environment, nor rubbing shoulders with half a dozen unwashed strangers. Drinks, laundry and washroom facilities are readily accessible.

Welcome aboard the 'Nile Spirit', a purpose-built 47-metre yacht outfitted in a style reminiscent of the Art Deco era: varnished timber, polished brass, picture windows. The vessel's engine operates solely to power the generators; onboard amenities include air-conditioning, telephone, wifi and personal computer. Your fellow passengers number no more than 22, a group intimate enough to comfortably share a single spacious salon and a well-outfitted sundeck with bar. The Nile Spirit features two balcony suites and six spacious 5-star cabins, comprising three King size and three twin bedrooms.

Doing It :

Nile Spirit is operated by Lady Egypt Tours, www.dahabya.com, 5 day / 4 night tours depart every Monday from Aswan, and cost 150USD per person per day during summer (low season) and 180USD per person per day during winter (peak season) - all inclusive. Rates negotiable for larger groups. Australian representative: Passport Travel www.travelcentre.com.au ph 03 9500 0444.

January 01, 2012

Cloud Cruising. Will airships make a return to the skies?

The boutique-sized "Manned Cloud"
The Graf Zeppelin in 1927
The massive Aeroscraft flying cruise ship
The massive Aeroscraft flying cruise ship

Air Cruising: 21st Century Flying Ships

By Roderick Eime

With more and more attention focussed on our lust for fossil fuels, exciting innovations have allowed us to revisit some early 20th Century technology – the mighty airship.

While the disastrous Hindenberg explosion of 1937 effectively ended the glorious reign of the German zeppelins, the latest technology airships use inert helium and exotic material airframes to stay aloft. The modern hull shape is even designed to provide aerodynamic lift to the aircraft.

Now while designers are pre-occupied with massive craft to carry freight and mining equipment, the positive offshoot of this promising technology is the revival of that most romantic of luxury air travel, the passenger airship.

There is no debate about the massive resurgence in ocean cruising, so it follows that the slow travel formula can just as easily be applied to the air.

One alluring project is the so-called 'Manned Cloud", a flying boutique hotel proposed by Frenchman, Jean-Marie Massaud. Environmentally friendly, ultra-luxurious and styled to resemble an airborne whale, it is the equivalent of a luxury private yacht carrying 40 passengers at a speed of 130kmh. It will travel 5000 km (Sydney – Perth) in just 72 hours.

In 1927, the only round-the-world zeppelin flight was completed with Australian adventurer, Sir Hubert Wilkins aboard. The same airship, LZ127, made 144 ocean crossings carrying 13,110 passengers with a perfect passenger safety record. It seems reasonable that such a feat could easily be replicated with the significantly enhanced technology available today.

One obstacle then as it is now is the cost. A one-way ticket across the Atlantic on Hindenberg in 1936 cost $400 – roughly $6000 today – for the 3-day journey. Prices would certainly be similar today, but remember some of the best boutique ships are already charging over $1000/day.

On a more cruise ship-like scale is the Aeroscraft, a 200m long behemoth capable of carrying 250 passengers from Sydney to Singapore at 280kmh in hotel comfort. The beauty of the Aeroscraft is that, as a vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) craft, it requires no runway. "You can land on the snow or you can land on the water," says designer Igor Pasternak. "It's a new vision of what can be done in the air."

Unlike its dirigible ancestors, the Aeroscraft is not lighter than air. Its 400000 cubic metres of helium only hoist two-thirds of the craft's weight. The rigid and surprisingly aerodynamic body-driven by huge aft propellers generates enough lift to keep the mammoth airship and its 400 tonne payload aloft while cruising. During takeoff and landing, six turbofan jet engines assist.

Not surprisingly, cruise companies have expressed an interest in this concept which is tantalisingly close to realisation, however the company is likely to gain initial sales from heavy lift cargo and military applications before any luxury cruising airships appear.

Notwithstanding, the move to more responsible, relaxed travel is growing and airships consume a fraction of the fuel and produce a similarly meagre carbon by-product, it is only a matter of time before these graceful giants reappear above us.