April 26, 2017

Heritage rail journey from Sydney to Melbourne

Doing the Locomotion on Grandma's Express

A ride with Grandma and her aging followers is an authentic trip back in time. Roderick Eime is aboard for the ride.

Grandma's working life began in 1955 taking regular trips between Sydney and Melbourne in the glory days of Australian rail when the shiny Southern Aurora was the bees' knees in interstate travel.

Back then, she'd haul 200 travellers the 500-odd miles at a cracking 65mph a couple of times a week along the century-old rail route between Australia's largest capital cities. Some would be tucked up in First Class Sleepers, while others would ride the comfy recliners. Others might make a jaunty time of it with a claret or lager in the plush lounge car.

At the hi-tech controls in Grandma's cockpit
Today Grandma is taking me on a nostalgic trip back down the line via Junee and Albury to Seymour where she'll hand over to her contemporary, the Southern Cross.

To tell you a bit more about the old girl, she's a 42 Class diesel-electric locomotive powered by a 100 litre, V16 two-stroke engine dishing up some 1600 old fashioned horsepower. She's hooked up to a bit of a motley collection of rolling stock dusted off from the Transport Heritage Trust of NSW's inventory of retired carriages, most of which normally reside at either the 'old rollers' museum at Thirlmere on Sydney's southern outskirts or Eveleigh.

Many of the vintage carriages were constructed at the Clyde workshops in Sydney's west back as far as the 1930s with most finally being put to pasture in the '80s and '90s. We have two from the original Southern Aurora and others from the mid-20th century Newcastle and Riverina Express routes. 150 mostly graying, train-mad travellers are cheerfully bouncing along, swapping tales of the rail journeys of their youth, some even recalling the steam era. In fact, I'm writing this from the lurid orange vinyl bench seats of the '70s era dining car that formed part of the Indian Pacific until 1994.

Alex Crass - a lifetime on the railways
Alex Crass is one of the several volunteers staffing the train. He's already given more than half a century of service to the railways, yet still squeezes into his conductor's uniform and flashes a broad trademark smile that speaks volumes.

“I started out as a fireman on the steam trains, “Alex tells me, “After serving with the RAN during the Korean War era, I started on the railways in 1961 and spent the next 50 years doing just about every other job to do with trains. I tried retirement, but it bores me.”

Like ships and airplanes, once rail gets in your blood it's near impossible to purge. And so it is with the eight score passengers on our Sydney Limited reprise. The brainchild of Richard Boyce from Sydney travel agency, Cruise Express, Richard is an unabashed train nerd who talks in acronyms like PFZs, NAMs and RUBs – all model types of rolling stock in Grandma's wobbly entourage. Passengers complete one way by heritage train of one sort or another, then return in lavish luxury aboard a Princess Cruises' ship. Or vice versa. Brisbane is also on the menu.

“It's been quite a bit of work to secure these trains,” says Richard with obvious understatement. I know that quite apart from negotiating the inevitable bureaucracy that comes with the intricacies of combined volunteer, not-for-profit and government agencies, he spent many hours with such necessary tasks as washing and ironing the dusty carriage curtains.

“But, in spite of the many challenges, the end result has exceeded our wildest dreams. The very first voyage took a couple weeks to sell, but once the word was out, it was a 'runaway train'. The second sold in a matter of hours.”

Melbourne Limited at the historic Junee station

Such has been the success of these 'Rail & Sail' packages that rail buffs from all over the country have gravitated to this lure of the loco and Richard has a waiting list that will see him through the next couple departures at least.

While Grandma takes a well-earned rest after back-to-back long haul runs, smaller, lighter 'rail motors' will be used more often. These diesel-powered trains, like the so-called 'Tin Hare' were more common on shorter regional routes but have also proven surprisingly popular with 'Rail & Sail' clients. Either way, nostalgic rail lovers and cruise fans will get a double dose of their favourite means of propulsion when the next round of these peculiar voyages are announced.

For information about heritage 'Rail & Sail' packages, contact Richard at Cruise Express on 02 9810 5377 or visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au

April 16, 2017

Welcome Back to NSW's Central Coast

With short break holidays becoming more popular amongst Australians, the NSW Central Coast is an ideal place to visit.

Just an hour north of Sydney, this beautiful region is often overlooked by tourists charging along the M1 heading north to the sun. Sadly, the Coast has had a massive downtown in tourism in recent years.

The main reasons include the improvement to the M1 which makes northern tourist spots much more accessible and the decline in camping and tourist type accommodation.

Now, we all know the "jewels of the coast", namely Terrigal and The Entrance, but they are just two of the many gems in this region.

Copacabana, Avoca, Hardy's Bay, Empire Bay, Toowoon Bay and Soldiers Beach are all beautiful, tranquil little spots off the normal tourist routes.

And, it is not just the beaches and waterways that should attract visitors. There are lots of interesting things to do on the Coast.

First up is the Australian Reptile Park which is much more than just snakes and lizards. Australian wildlife including crocodiles, dingoes, kangaroos, emus, Tasmanian devils, echidnas and wallabies are all featured at the park.

There is an impressive playground and the spider display has to be seen to be believed.

The Gosford Classic Car museum is based in the massive former Bunning's warehouse in West Gosford and features a stunning display of 450 vehicles and motorbikes.  All the great names of motoring are represented: Ferrari, Porsche, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Triumph, Austin Healey, the list goes on and on.

Another classic collection can be seen at the Ken Duncan Gallery in Erina Heights. The famous landscape photographer purpose built his new gallery on the Central Coast Highway and made it free of charge to guests. You can have a coffee or a full lunch at the adjacent Sanctuary Café.

Of course, two major shopping centres on the Coast are tourist attractions in their own right. Erina Fair and Westfield Tuggerah always seemed to be brimming with people, which is probably a tribute to the Coast's position as a major retirement area.

Gosford is booming at the moment with dozens of major developments underway. These include the impressive seven storey Bonython Tower luxury residential and commercial project funded by advertising guru and entrepreneur John Singleton. "Singo" is also building a 50 unit site Bonython Waters adjacent to Brisbane Water.

These two projects have gained a lot of media attention and have led to a rush of development applications. These will inevitably lead to new tourist accommodation and "things to do" in the Gosford area.

For the more energetic amongst us, the innovative Treetops Adventure Park at Yarramalong is the place to go. It features an amazing array of rope walkways in the trees, plus obstacles, zip lines, cargo next and dozens of challenges. You could easily spend a day enjoying the many activities and it is ideal for a family to spend the day together.

It also gets the kids away from the I pads and phones and out into the great outdoors. Treetrops is one of the great coast success stories and is expanding around Australia.

Horse riding at Glenning Valley, fishing along the beaches and waterways and hiking in Lake Munmorah Recreation Area are just some of the many activities available on the Coast.

For more information: www.visitcentralcoast.com.au

Words by Dallas Sherringham

Images as supplied

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au


1.     Enzo Ferrari

2.     Ken Duncan Gallery

3.     Australian Reptile Park

4.     Australian Reptile Park

5.     Treetops Adventure park

6.     Treetops Adventure Park

April 10, 2017

Cruising on Queen Mary 2: Three sides to Cruising

There's something about Mary

With its huge art deco-styled lipstick red funnel, blue and white
livery and wraparound promenade deck, Helen Flanagan was all at sea on
the leviathan ocean liner Queen Mary 2.

Could the grandeur, elegance and romance of the golden age of sea
travel exist today or is that the dominion of the movies such as
Titanic starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio?

After stepping on board the Queen Mary 2, welcomed by a dashing
officer in dazzling whites, gliding along the decks and carpeted
passageways, entering a small but perfectly and cleverly designed
Brittania stateroom decorated in gold and cream, with a generous sized
balcony, it's time for a glass of Veuve Clicquot whilst we unpack.
There's plentiful of robe space and masses of hangers to swallow up
the evening and the less formal albeit casual wear.

If you can afford to step it up several notches the Princess or Royal
Grill categories have lavish staterooms and suites including two 209
square metre grand duplex apartments, plus special restaurants, bowing
butlers and all the upper-crust accoutrements.

All the hallmarks and expectations of glamerama and good taste yet
hints of nostalgia await. From the sweeping staircase in Britannia
Restaurant; the six-storey grand lobby; a ballroom where suave
gentlemen hosts and terribly refined folk in dinner jackets and
sequined frocks, samba to the orchestra; and performing arts in the
Royal Court Theatre; to wide gallery spaces with displays of "stars on
board" such as Greta Garbo, the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson, plus
more than 300 original artworks valued at more than $US5 million,
there's certainly a sense of space and style.

Let's not forget the many outdoor areas with five swimming pools, golf
simulators, putting green, basketball and paddle tennis courts and
more. Plus a cool14 bars and clubs, 10 restaurants of various culinary
persuasions, 8000-book library, spa and gym with aqua-therapy pool,
sauna, ice fountain for the brave, beauty salon and 24-treatment
rooms, the world's first planetarium at sea and eight swanky boutiques
and souvenir-stocked shops with must-buy prices.

The Commodore tells us "the flagship of the Cunard Line towers 62
metres above the waterline - the equivalent of a 23 storey building,
and is the finest ocean liner ever built. Its four diesel engines and
two gas turbines produce the thrust required to launch a jumbo jet.
It's a giant power station run by electric motors…made to take the
heaviest weather…it's as good as it gets."

Grey Goose Citron martinis beckon in the smart Commodore Club,
overlooking the bow, prior to dinner in the Britannia restaurant.
Choices are many, quality and service is excellent, wine list
extensive. Open sandwiches andtarts in Sir Samuel's or British staples fish and chips with mushy
peas and ploughmans are on the menu in the Golden Lion pub. Both are
excellent lunch options as is the Veuve Clicquot Twinings High Tea in
the Winter Garden with white-gloved service of dainty sandwiches and
rolls, choux pastry swans, scones, tartlets and melodious strains of a

[Editor's Note: QM2 received substantial updates in 2016. For details about these new features, see here.]

After dinner it's show time with headline acts ranging from opera
singers, comedians, cabaret stars; playing black jack, poker or slot
machines in the casino; or ballroom dancing in the Queens Room, the
largest ballroom at sea. At the G32 night club, sing and dance to
brilliant Caribbean band and after umpteenth stanzas of 'Feelin' hot,
hot, hot', it's time for more refreshments. The night is young and
tomorrow's decisions are easy especially when not in port. Or are

A multitude of options in the daily oracle range from pub trivia,
table tennis, deck quoits, card games, movies, bridge and twist, jazz,
ballroom and line dancing classes, martini mixology, whisky and wine
tastings, fruit and vegetable carving, art classes, scarf tying and
napkin folding to curling up on a steamer chair for a zizz or catching
a few stray rays poolside.

No time to be bored. We're here for a good time, not a long time.

*There are after-all three sides to cruising: starboard, portside and
funside! How true.

For more information and bookings visit www.cunardline.com.au or call 13 24 41.

Words: Helen Flanagan

Images: as supplied.

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au


  1. Britannia Restaurant
  2. Spa
  3. Succulent lamb
  4. QM2
  5. Stateroom
  6. St Valentine's Day arrival in Sydney

Laid back Luxembourg


Charming and romantic, you'll find it hard to come across a more laid back capital city of the same name as the country.

While it doesn't have the same wealth of attractions like its giant neighbours – France and Germany – Luxembourg, where French is the dominant language, has a rich cultural heritage and is pulling out all the stops to lure long-haul travellers, such as visitors from Asia, Australia and the United States, to the only Grand Duchy in the world.

First-time visitors head straight for the Grand Duke's official residence – the grand-ducal palace – to see the changing of the guards, which happens every two hours in fine weather and every 40 minutes to one hour in snow or wintry weather. A late 16th century Spanish Renaissance-style building, the grand-ducal palace - with its conical shaped turrets that look like witches hats - served as a concert hall and tavern under the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg. It was not until 14 April 1945 that the people of Luxembourg could once again cheer Grand Duchess Charlotte on the palace balcony. The Grand Duke's city residence is open to the public during the summer only, with guided tours from mid-July to September, except on Wednesdays.

A few hundred metres away in the heart of the city is Luxembourg's 'Golden Lady'. Called the Gelle Fra monument, it commemorates the thousands of Luxembourgers that volunteered for service in the armed forces during World War 11. Gelle Fra is the nickname given to the Monument of Remembrance, which is situated in Constitution Square – in the Ville Haute quarter of Luxembourg City. The centrepiece of the monument is a 21-metre tall granite obelisk on top of which stands a gilded bronze statue of a lady – representing Nike, goddess of victory or 'Queen of Freedom' holding out a laurel wreath as if placing it upon the head of the nation.

When Luxembourg was occupied by the Nazi forces in World War 11, the Germans dismantled the memorial in 1940. Several parts of the monument were rescued and, after the war, the monument was partially restored. However, the bronze statue (she's painted in gold) of Gelle Fra herself was missing until 1980 when she was found hidden beneath the main stand of the national football stadium.

The monument was not fully reconstructed to its original design until 1984. Today, it symbolises freedom and resistance for the people of Luxembourg.

Another fascinating Old Town drawcard are the famous Bock Casemates - one of the most envied fortresses in Europe. Carved from the city's rocks, the first casemates, or underground tunnels, were built in 1644, in the era of Spanish domination, with the enlargement of the 23-klometre long network of underground galleries taking place 40 years later under the direction of the military engineer and fortifications builder, Vauban, and later, in the 18 century by the Austrians.  The fortress ramparts and the historically impressive Old Town were registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994.

From the Bock Promontory, there are panoramic views of the pretty riverside town of Grund, where you can visit the ancient Abbaye de Neumunster – transformed into a current cultural centre – or explore the cobblestone streets and take a walking break at Scott's Pub bar.

For an insight into the changing day-to-day life of Luxembourg's population – it currently stands around 590,000 – the city's History Museum is home to a comprehensive permanent exhibition illustrates the country's history that spans over a thousand years. The museum occupies four patrician houses, which were built from the 17th to the 19th century and still reveal some medieval structures. In just a few minutes, visitors are introduced to 1000 years of history as they pass the various layers of the city's history – from the naked rock foundations on the lower levels to the panoramic views of the Grund and the Rham plateau on the upper levels.

The National Museum of History and Art, which showcases one of the most beautiful Roman mosaics north of the Alps, together with the city's telecommunications museum, which has a remarkable collection of stamps, and the tram and bus museum are also worth a look.

With its close French connection, Luxembourg City is a gourmet's delight, but you'll have to be quick to beat the locals to the best tables which are taken most nights. While the prices will leave a hole in your wallet, you'll find the food – and the wine selection - at fine dining restaurants, like the award-winning La Brassiere Guillaume overlooking the tree-lined main square, is as good as it gets anywhere in Europe, including Paris.

It seems a perfect fit for this splendid stress-free city with more than a touch of pomp and circumstance.

For further details on Luxembourg City, go to www.lcto.lu

Melbourne-based Rail Plus provided first-class rail travel in Europe, with the writer travelling to Luxembourg City from Vienna via Frankfurt and Koblenz. Choose from Eurail's multi-country passes, single country, passes, Select pass, Global Flexi pass or Global Continuous pass. For first and second-class prices, plus expert staff advice on European rail travel, go to www.railplus.com.au

Words and images: John Newton

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au

1. Market flowers galore

2. Grand Ducal Palace

3. 'Golden Lady' statue

4.Cathedral splendour

5 Picturesque streets

6 Casemates cannons

7.Riverside Grund

April 02, 2017

The Secrets of Mystery Island:

Generations of Australians have spent "one day in paradise" on Vanuatu's Mystery Island, but few know the many secrets of this stunning coral atoll.

Since 1980 cruise ships have been anchoring in the pristine waters of the island and treating literally millions of Australians to a taste of a genuine paradise.

If you are visiting this amazing, unspoiled place on a cruise, you will enchanted by its white sand beaches, warm waters and friendly locals,.

Even the name of the island is a mystery, but I am one of the few people who can solve that riddle.

You see, Mystery Island is known to the locals as Inyeug, but it gained its fame and more popular European name by sheer chance. PR man Ron Connelly was hosting a group of travel writers on board the legendary Fairstar when the ship made one of its rare visits to the island.

Pressed by members of his press group about the tiny gem, he said: "I have to admit I have never been there; the ship often can't drop anchor…it's a mystery to me." And Mystery Island it became ever after.

Sitmar, owners of Fairstar, were quick to pick up the name and turn it into a clever marketing gimmick.

I suffered the same fate on my first visit to Mystery Island on board that very same ship. Captain Luigi Nappa could not anchor because of the large swell from the south.

The next time I went there, the ship did anchor, but the swell became very treacherous and it was a battle to get everyone aboard in the late afternoon as the seas picked up.  That evening there were nine broken arms and wrists being treated at the ship's hospital.

Today's ships are much bigger and much more maneuverable than the Fairstar and most visits to the island are performed without incident

The most striking feature of the 1.5sqkm Island is the large grassed airstrip that takes up most of the land area. I have heard it described as everything from a WWII bomber base to a fighter base for the Americans.

In fact, one of the locals, Robert, told me it was built as emergency strip in WWII for military aircraft transiting the area. At that time Japan was dominating the war in the Solomon Islands to the north and Mystery Island had the potential to become a major player if they advanced into Vanuatu, which was called the New Hebrides in those days.

Today, the strip is used twice a week as the airport for nearby major island of Aneityum. Robert told me the flights could be quite adventurous as boxes of very much alive lobsters and crabs were stacked beside passengers on board, all bound for the restaurants of Port Vila.

 On rough flights it has been known for the boxes to break open and live crustaceans to cause havoc amongst the well heeled clients. I thought it was just a good story until one day I saw crates of live lobsters being lifted aboard a tiny twin engine commuter plane followed by two very reluctant government officials who were heading back to the big smoke.

Mystery Island's reputation goes far beyond its name. At night, the locals swear that the island is haunted by the mysterious spirits of their ancestors. They won't have a bar of going there after dark.

This had the unexpected advantage of making it a safe haven for European visitors in the 19th century who feared the fierce cannibals on the adjacent mainland.

An array of Europeans happened upon Aneityum with its vast sandalwood forests and a flock of 12,000 locals who just had to be turned into law abiding, god fearing Christians. Other visitors had more sinister motives, capturing or "blackbirding" the local men for work as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Queensland. Whalers first appeared in the 1850s and also found safe haven on the tiny oasis.

Rather than being saved by the well meaning Presbyterian fire and brimstone preachers, the native population was also decimated by introduced illnesses such as smallpox and measles. Within a generation or two, just 500 people were left. Even the massive1000 seat stone church built on the island was gone, destroyed by a tsunami.

Aneityum's main mountain, a dormant volcano, towers almost 1000m above the rainforest which still has mysteries of its own yet to be discovered. Ancient and mysterious totemic petroglyphs have been found carved into the island's volcanic rock.

Recent research has revealed that a sophisticated lifestyle was enjoyed by locals living in an unspoilt paradise in the days before the Europeans arrived. Far from being "primitive cannibals", the various tribes had an intricate community lifestyle.

However, because there no written histories kept amongst those people, the only knowledge was passed down by traditions. This means we will never know what life was like in this isolated part of the world in ancient times or who first populated the region.

Aneityum's equally fascinating flora is also yet to be fully discovered. At this time, there are a recorded 80 species of stunning orchids and the island also has hot springs and substantial waterfalls, thanks to the seemingly perpetual rainfall.

Aneityum's kauri forests were also decimated by visitors, but have since been replanted by the New Zealand government and are a valuable logging resource,

Now, there is fascinating history to be learnt from a much more recent visit. If you know where to look on Mystery Island, you will find a monument to the most famous visitor to the island.

Queen Elizabeth enjoyed an unscheduled beach barbecue on Mystery Island in 1974, en route from Port Vila to Sydney aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Strangely yet again, I could find no-one amongst the locals who remembered the visit, however on Aneityum there are photos of the big day proudly brought out for guests.

Looking at the island from a ship, it looks inconsequential compared to its towering neighbor. However as you go ashore in the ship's tender you will be captivated by the crystal clear waters and waving coconut palms. As you near the jetty you will hear singing and music.

Stepping ashore you will suddenly be standing on a white sand beach that will take your breath away. It is named after its most famous visitor, Queen Elizabeth II Beach.

And you will at last be in paradise, as close as you will ever get to a perfect tropical escape.

Words and images by Dallas Sherringham

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au


1. An enthusiastic local at the main terminal of Mystery Island airport

2. Boisterous singing in island harmonies is a feature of island life

3 Queen Elizabeth's stunning personal beach with Aneityum in the background

4 The amazing lagoon as enchanted millions of visitors down through the years

5 A shady tropical oasis welcomes Australian cruise passengers

March 20, 2017

Struth! The wurst of Berlin street food


David Ellis

BERLIN street food-vendor Herta Heuwer would never have thought back in 1949 that a snack she ran up after swapping some hard-to-get booze (for which she had remarkably fortuitous access,) for equally hard-to-get tomato sauce and curry powder that grog-thirsty British troops still stationed in the city after the war had plenty of supplies of, would one day become a virtual German national dish.

For Herta went home and beat-together the sauce and curry powder, and a few other spices she had as well, and several days later began offering her concoction slathered over grilled pork sausages she sold to construction worker customers re-building the war-ravaged city. She dubbed her dish currywurst (wurst being the German word for a sausage,) and by the end of that week the cheap, filling and tasty snack had patrons lining the pavement at every meal break.

Other street vendors quickly mimicked Herta's recipe, so that within a couple of years currywurst was not only the Number One street snack in Berlin, but in several other German cities as well – Herta herself selling a mind-blowing 10,000 every week. Today currywurst is so popular across Germany with locals and foreign visitors alike, that some 800 million are downed annually, 70 million of them just in Berlin…and these days usually accompanied by French fries.

And a museum that opened in Berlin in 2009 dedicated somewhat bizarrely to the snack, the Deutsches Currywurst Museum, today gets 350,000 visitors a year… who each receives a hot currywurst as a Thank You for visiting.

[] A PICTORIAL dedication in Berlin's Deutsches Currywurst Museum to Herta Heuwer who created the currywurst snack for her Berlin street food-stall in 1949; today 800,000,000 currywursts are sold in Germany annually. (Deutsches Currywurst Museum)

March 08, 2017

Faded elegance of Montevideo

If you asked me yesterday what I knew about Uruguay and its capital, Montevideo, I would have little to tell you, so my maiden visit to this elegant South American city was sure to be an eye-opener.

With extensive beachside boulevards and fading 19th and 20th century European architecture, it is a picturesque city with lots of parks and city squares following locations like Buenos Aires (just across the River Plate) and Santiago. The whole country supports a population of a little more than 3 million people, half of whom reside in this bustling, compact metropolis.

With just 48 hours to explore, there is scant time to immerse yourself in the rich surroundings, but some things certainly caught my eye on my four-hour coach tour around the beaches and boulevards in glorious autumn sunshine.

Hotel Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco and Spa
The first building that caught my attention was the imposing Hotel Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco and Spa, a grand French-styled palais with a perfect waterfront position. Opened in 1921, it slowly fell into disrepair and closed for a time in 1990s before reopening in 2013 in its current guise. Regrettably, I didn't have time to explore it.

The other building no one can fail to miss is the massive Salvo Palace right in the middle of the city on Independence Square. When completed in 1928, it stood at 100m and was once the largest and tallest building in South America. Designed by the architect Mario Palanti, an Italian immigrant living in Buenos Aires, it is based on a similar design for his Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires. Planned as a hotel that never eventuated, it is now a mix of residential and commercial and is still largely unrestored, at least externally.

Palacio Salvo (source)
Anyone who knows me will know the temptation to have a look inside was too much, so I crept in to inspect what I could. I was able to take the lift to the 10th floor and climb the stairs to the top floor, level 22. All exits were unfortunately (and wisely) locked and outward windows boarded up, but much of the old interior remains. I passed an elderly gent in a wheelchair who had been walking his dog and could see inside the windows of the tiny apartments as residents took their dinner. The original elevator cages remain, but new lifts have been installed.

You can even book one of these as a 'vacation rental'

Perhaps I should go back tomorrow and take one of the guided tours?

February 27, 2017

Struth! Hookers Lips land judge in hot water


David Ellis

TALKING in one's sleep can be fraught with problems – as many a night mumbler will attest.

And a mate who just recently hit the jackpot in fatal sleep-talking revelations, says his wife was probably well-justified in waking him at 2am to demand an explanation as to whose were those "hooker's lips" he was mumbling so enthusiastically about at that unholy hour…

And remarkably when he started blurting out, she accepted his explanation instantly, rolled over and went straight back to sleep. The reason? This mate's both a gardening fanatic and flower show judge, and just the day before his sleep-talking episode, had been invited to adjudicate at a show in America that would include an almost Holy Grail of exotic plants, Psychotria Elata.

For those who don't know, this highly unique plant is a native of Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama in Central and South America, and is hugely popular as a potted gift in the United States because of its fiery red bracts – that look just like they could be, as one of its common names suggests, pouting red "Hooker's Lips."

And here was my mate dreaming and sleep-talking of the day he would soon be heading to the US-of-A, to help judge a show of such exotic "Hooker's Lips," and which, by the way, are not just highly popular patio-plants in the 'States for their bizarre shape and colour, but also for their ability to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

And sleep-talkers.



[] LITTLE wonder butterflies and hummingbirds pucker-up to South America's "Hooker's Lips" plants. (Gloriousmind.com)

February 06, 2017

Splashing out at Puttin’ On The Ritz

David Ellis

WHAT do you do when it's your first Christmas Day on duty as Concierge at London's very swanky The Ritz Hotel, and a V-VIP Guest tells you he has a longing for the salty waters of famed Brighton Beach, but that being mid-winter it's too cold – and can you be a good chap and fetch a few pails of the stuff for him to plunge into in his room's bathtub?

In the case of Michael De Cozar you, of course, say "Yes, Sir, of course."

Now Chief Concierge and in his 44th year at The Ritz, Michael still remembers it like yesterday. "One of our porters named Freddie had brought his little Morris Minor motor-car to work that day, so we loaded it up with 25-litre pails and sent him off on the 200km round-trip down to Brighton.

"It took him two-and-three-quarter hours in each direction, and what anyone on the beach on Christmas Day and the middle of winter must have thought at the sight of Freddie in his Ritz uniform, shoes and socks off, pants rolled up and trudging across the pebbles of Brighton fetching pails of seawater, is anyone's guess!

"And I still wonder to this day whether our guest added hot water – or did he just slide into his Brighton seawater bath cold after we'd filled it up for him?

"Whatever, he did thank us most effusively later, telling us how wonderful it had made his Christmas Day."

Anyone beat that for Putting On The Ritz?


[] MICHAEL De Cozar… now Chief Concierge at London's very swanky The Ritz Hotel, and good reason to remember his very first Christmas Day on duty at the hotel's Concierge Desk. (The Ritz Hotel)

[] TAKING the plunge – a guest at London's The Ritz Hotel asked for his bathtub to be filled with Brighton sea water, and the hotel of course obliged –  despite the need for a 200km, six-hour car trip. (The Ritz Hotel)

January 29, 2017

Hydro Majestic's global dining palette in the Blue Mountains

Saucy tales, exotic opulence and the odd celebrity demise. The Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains sits alongside the Hotel Ritz Paris, Raffles Singapore and Claridge’s London as legendary havens of mischief and luxury

With staff from around the world welcoming waves of international tourists in a distinctly Australian location, the Hydro Majestic also represents the modern face and cuisine of Australia – as it has for more than a century.

The status of the original Blue Mountains party palace as the grandest of the grand hotel in the region was restored when current owner Escarpment Group unveiled its $35 million refurbishment in October 2014.

Concierge, Patrick Verity, greets guests in the restored casino lobby

The spectacular Casino Lobby was stripped back to show off that stupendous dome prefabricated in Chicago and imported by original Hydro Majestic owner, department store doyenne Mark Foy.

The Wintergarden Restaurant where one takes high tea (traditional or Eastern) is bedecked in understated gold and white elegance with enormous windows giving a breathtaking view over the Megalong Valley.

There’s the Majestic Ballroom with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, the revamped Boiler House Café in the old pump house and the sophistication of black and chrome in the Belgravia accommodation lounge.

But the best way to appreciate the full magnificence of the Hydro Majestic, the building, the history and the gob-smackingly gorgeous location on the edge of the escarpment, is to stroll along the (in)famous Cat’s Alley hallway, cocktail in hand, and watch the sunset over the Megalong Valley. The golden tendrils seep down the blood red walls, lighting up the peacock feathers and richly furbished lounges, and bring the original artworks of blood sports to life.

Foy, was a visionary, an ambitious and remarkable one, creating the hotel on a mountain top against all odds. Soon the fortunate, the famous, the fabulous, even the infamous, flocked to the Hydro Majestic from around the globe.

With regular festivals and events including the Roaring 20s Festival in February, Escarpment Group has returned the flounce to the old girl’s skirt so the Hydro Majestic is once again the most flamboyant showgirl of Australia’s first tourist destination.

The latest event was a seven-course degustation featuring traditional dishes from global locations infused with local flavours served by staff from around the world, heralds a modern era of theatrical dining for Mark Foy’s ``Palace in the wilderness’’

Dishes such as Creole-style braised short rib, southern grits, collard greens and corn tamarillo salsa obviously originated from distant shores. However, the ingredients were sourced from a 100-mile radius around the hotel.

Rounding off the gastronomic event with lamingtons was the shared food link to Australia.

Wintergarden Restaurant

It could be said that the Hydro Majestic represents the modern face and cuisine of Australia – as it has for more than a century.

Escarpment Group general manager Ralf Bruegger said: ``The Hydro Majestic has always embraced cultural diversity, not because its first owner Mark Foy was politically correct but because he genuinely loved people of all races, their culture, art and food – just as we do today.

``In fact, what is seen as progressive, even outrageous today, has always been normal at the Hydro Majestic. I mean, what was normal for a man who liked to dress in his wife’s clothing and held cross-dressing parties for his friends?’’

With the means to satisfy his every whim, the well-travelled Foy had the famous hotel dome pre-fabricated in Chicago and shipped to Australia. Dr George Baur of the Shoeneck health spa in Switzerland was hired to devise and supervise a program of diets and weird and wonderful treatments. Turkish coffee at the Hydro Majestic was served by Turkish waiters, Chinese tea by Chinese waiters.

Ladies in "Cat's Alley" with Chinese waiter
Louie (``Charlie’’) Goh Mong was just one of many Chinese migrants who reverted to their traditional skills post-Bathurst gold rush era around the turn of the 20th century and worked as butlers, cooks, nannies, maids and produce suppliers to inns, guesthouses and manor houses across the Blue Mountains during that time.

Charlie worked as a cook at Foy’s Sydney home and managed the mayhem at the Hydro Majestic for 35 years.

Today, staff from 16 language groups work at the Hydro Majestic including English, French, Canadian, Russian, Chinese (all dialects), Portuguese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, Thai and more. Mr Bruegger is German and head chef Mate Herceg has a Croatian background.

``People visit the Hydro Majestic from all over the world and we must understand and accommodate their cultural needs,’’ Mr Bruegger said. ``In an internationally renowned destination such as the Blue Mountains it is expected of us and certainly received by our guests in all other mature tourism regions of the world.’’

Go to hydromajestic.com.au or phone (02) 4782 6885 for bookings and more information about the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

January 26, 2017

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise with Princess


You might think ocean cruising consists solely of lazing about in a deckchair, a fruit cocktail in hand, doing little more than watch the water slosh about the ship’s swimming pool. But I have to report that cruising the Inside Passage, between Canada and Alaska, is non-stop action.

Crown Princess in Alaska's Glacier Bay (supplied) 

Whatever your choice of cabin, be it port or starboard, upper or lower deck, there’s an unwritten law of the sea which, simply put, says the most enthralling sights of the cruise inevitably occur when you are least ready for them. It means you spend little time actually relaxing in your cabin and a great deal of time executing the cabin-to-deck dash, only to catch a departing glimpse of what your more prescient fellow passengers will no doubt describe as the most singularly thrilling experience of their lives.

So it was with whales while cruising aboard the Crown Princess, one of a fleet of six graceful Princess Cruise Line ships that ply the Inside Passage between Vancouver and Seward during the warmer Alaskan months.

By September, on the last cruise of the season, it was autumn and the weather overcast. The sun was on holiday down south and daytime temperatures of around 9°C were considerably lowered by wind chill. The ship's pool was therefore deserted and deckchairs were strapped into neat stacks. Passengers working off a surfeit of breakfast made regular brisk circuits around the decks.

We had on board an effusively enthusiastic cruise naturalist called Brent. One of his many sizzling natural passions was the humpback whale. I was dreamily contemplating passing glaciers from the comfort of my cabin when the alarm sounded. "Whales, whales, three o'clock", came the urgent bellow over the ship's intercom. "Humpbacks, whooo boy!" yelled Brent from the bridge.

The slamming of cabin doors and the patter of feet told me I was not the only one caught offside. Grabbing my camera, I charged headlong for the uppermost deck as Brent's electric commentary urged me on to greater feats of nimbleness and speed than I'd imagined possible.

"Look at them go ... oh, look at that, a beautiful, double fluke re-entry!" he gabbled, like a demented Olympic diving judge. "Now a breach, wheee boy! And another breach, oh my gawd! Absolutely fantastic!"

I burst on deck, heaving and panting. Passengers were pressed four-deep along the starboard rail, seeming to lend the 70,000-ton liner a slight list. Brent's voice barked again. "More humpies, one o'clock!" I was leaping up and down like a Samburu warrior trying to see over the collected heads. "Fabulous. That's made my trip!" exclaimed one extremely short, bespectacled man pressed up fast against the rail.

"Nine o'clock, nine o'clock! A breach, a breach!" Brent was now beside himself. I was beside myself! That was my side of the ship! Had I stayed put I'd have had a balcony seat to myself.

We rushed to port, where I rucked and mauled my way to the rail. And thar she blew! A glistening leviathan hurled itself ecstatically from the frigid water off Point Adolphus, fins akimbo, its enormous barnacled body on display for a fraction of a second before crashing back into the green seas in a burst of spray.

Inside Passage cruising can be as exhilarating as it is energetic. During our seven day cruise I worked out regularly, rushing about the ship, propelled by an urgent voice describing significant but fleeting moments in this vast, preternatural landscape of mountains, snow and ice. Considering the avalanche of food that flowed day and night from the ship's kitchens this regular exercise was essential.

Daily consumption aboard ship included 1400 kg of meat, 380 kg of fish, 730kg of vegetables, 150kg of pasta, 1100 litres of coffee and more than 3000 delectable little pastries. This resulted in 39,000 dirty plates a day and nearly 13,000 dirty glasses. The 27 crew members on the continuous wash-up squad remained out of sight below decks, if not entirely out of mind.

In College Fjord we saw no less than seven glaciers, including Vassar, Harvard and Yale. The Captain carefully put the ship within 400 metres of one gigantic ice flow. We clung to the rails, peering from our wondrous vantage point into the deep, hypnotic blue of highly compressed ice, hoping to see the calving of an iceberg.

The rule on glacier calving is simple: once you hear the crack, the ice has already fallen! So never avert your eyes! I heard several sharp retorts but I saw little, perhaps caught offside again. But I did witness spectacular calving off Margerie Glacier as the ship probed deep into Tarr Inlet off Glacier Bay.

Alaska cruising is not for the faint-hearted. The most popular shore excursion of our trip was glacier-hopping by helicopter high above Juneau, a dramatic aerial plunge into a primeval realm of forbidding, craggy peaks and ice-bound valleys. More sedentary shore options included fishing trips, nature walks and cultural tours.

Ketchikan (supplied)

Another option was souvenir hari-kiri. The old salmon-fishing town of Ketchikan, the neat Alaskan capital of Juneau and frontier-flavoured Skagway each boasted unique attractions but shared a common blight, the excess of souvenir shops weighed down with a repetitive range of memorabilia. This, however, didn’t deter most of the passengers who seemed delighted to discover shopping nirvana at latitude 58°N.

Alaska has an exceptional "official state fossil", the woolly mammoth. Its frozen bones, found in the glacial ice fields, swiftly make their way through the hands of carvers and scrimshaw artists into outlets along the cruise ship corridor. They compete for attention with carved walrus tusks, polished polar bear teeth, crude jade carvings, Alaskan opal pendants and necklaces of "black diamond" haematite.

Other souvenirs include ulu knives, crystal and porcelain figurines, fluffy animal toys, tins of smoked salmon and an endless unfolding of slogan-rich T-shirts. The most intriguing indigenous artifact was undoubtedly those moose droppings, dipped in varnish and fashioned into earrings. Or how about moose poo swizzle sticks?

Escape from all this was found in the Naa Kahidi Theatre in Juneau where I watched enactments of the myths and stories of the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian people. The town’s lively Red Dog Saloon also provided refuge from souvenir overload, as did Skagway's Red Onion Saloon where cruise ship musicians joined local players in an afternoon jazz session.

Riding the rails above Skagway towards White Pass I had a Gordon Gecko moment, almost believing that greed might be good. The lust for gold certainly propelled people to insane heights of determination. One example is the staggering feat of engineering and hard labour that created the White Pass & Yukon Railway. The line was made by chiselling, hacking and tunnelling through solid rock. It crosses narrow canyons on spidery trestle bridges and overcomes formidable natural barriers on its steep haul up to Whitehorse and the old Yukon goldfields beyond.

The ride to Whitehorse and back to Skagway was a four-hour excursion of exceptional scenic beauty with the chance of spotting some wildlife, but only for quick sighted. A bear glimpsed lumbering up one side of the track disappeared within seconds into the surrounding bush.

More wildlife may be seen from the Midnight Sun Express which runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage via Denali National Park, hauling luxury railcars with panoramic views up top and stylish restaurant below. The trip can be a land tour add-on to a cruise.

Fairbanks was at its most beautiful, displaying an autumnal royal flush of luminous golden birch forests. The rich palette of summer's final shredding, a riot of amber and carmine, ochre and sienna, was reflected in the glassy smooth surface of the Chena River. A light powdering of snow called terminal dust, heralding the end of autumn, had settled on the mountains.

The M/V Discovery paddlesteamer churns along the Chena on a carefully prepared excursion that provides a whiff of life in the frozen north. At a model native Athabascan village two Eskimo college students, one Yup'ik, the other Inupiak, gave a delightfully frank, funny and informative commentary on the traditional lifestyle of their grandparents.

I ended my trip at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art where I was fortunate to see an exhibition of ancient Indian and Eskimo masks. It was a fascinating visual insight into local history and culture and a fitting finale to my Inside Passage adventure.

© Rob Woodburn

January 23, 2017

Struth! World's largest meat pie

Swiss precision sees meat pie record

FOUR Swiss chefs have found themselves on the front pages of their nation's newspapers, simply because they cooked a meat pie in the lead-up to Christmas.

And obviously not just any meat pie.

Because just like we'd do at home, their's had a pastry base filled with meat and other goodies (in this case beef and pork, bacon, garlic, onion and red wine, ) and on coming out of the oven sported a topping of crispy pastry all nicely folded and tucked to save any dribbling and spilling.

But any resemblance between ours and theirs ends-up there, for the Swiss job was a whopping 160cm long, 78cm wide and 11cm thick… and scaled-in at 86.75kg. (If you've not yet come to grips with metrics, that's 5ft 3ins long, 2ft 6ins wide and 4.3ins thick… and 191 pounds.)

All big enough to put the pie's makers, from the Swiss hotel management school Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, in the books of the World Record Academy for the world's largest-ever traditionally one-piece meat pie.

After a day to assemble and 40 hours to bake, the massive pie was put on public showing – and then cut up and given away to charities for the needy and homeless at Christmas.


[] ANYTHING but pie-eyed, these four Swiss chefs created the world's largest-ever traditionally one-piece meat pie, and after showing it off gave it away to the needy and homeless. (Hoteliere de Lausanne)