August 14, 2017

Cruise with Silja Line between Helsinki and Stockholm

Sleek and sparkling white, the twin ferries of the Silja Line are more like cruise ships than passenger/car ferries plying the pristine waters between Helsinki and Stockholm and vice versa.

John Newton stepped aboard Silja Serenade and spent two nights sailing between the Finnish and Swedish capitals, including a six-hour whirlwind tour of Stockholm before re-joining to the ship for the return voyage.

Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony are the only vessels sailing the Baltic Sea with a ship length (142 metres), glass-roofed promenade in the heart of the ship, lined by smart shops and restaurants.

The 58,300-tonne sister ships were built 27 years ago, but you'd never guess their age as they look as elegant on the outside and they do on the inside. Each can carry more than 2800 passengers and have almost 1000 cabins – from standard to renewed deluxe and suites – with half the 40 cabins in Commodore class having balconies.

For an added touch of class, the Commodore lounge has men's and women's saunas.

According to Silja Line, which this year is celebrating its 60th year of operation, the new direction of its business lounges offer passengers the opportunity to work on board and use modern communication equipment. Each ship also features 24 conference rooms.

While their mind-boggling promenade is the eye-catcher, the on-board seven restaurants – some featuring mouth-watering Scandinavian seafood, especially in the award-winning Happy Lobster - plus world-class entertainment, giant spa and huge duty free shopping outlets, put them in a class of their own when it comes to ferry travel.

But it's not only the on-board facilities on the two Silja ferries that attract thousands of locals and tourists alike to both the Finnish and Swedish capitals. The ferries' weave their way around one the world's most spectacular archipelago's – the 6500 Aland islands - taking in breathtaking scenery on the 16-hour, 490-kilometre sailing between Helsinki and Stockholm.

The stunning island views from high on deck showcase the stylish getaway homes of many Swedes – and Finns - who spend their spare time away from their city jobs enjoying their national pastime - on the water.

Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony sail every day to and from Helsinki and Stockholm – even in icy waters during winter - that's when you'll sail through endless ice fields with jaw-dropping sculptures in the  pack ice,"The vessels are equipped with a strong ice class, which means we can sail all year round and are not hampered by ice," the company says.

Silj Line is a Finnish brand operated by the Estonian company – AS Tallink Grupp - which has a fleet of nine cruise ferries and four fast ro-pax vessels, including the new generation LNG-powered - Megastar. With seating for 2800 passengers, the Finnish-built 212-metre long vessel takes just two hours from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Megastar has the largest shopping mall on the Baltic Sea, with an area of 2800 square metres on two floors.

As well as the Helsinki-Stockholm and Helsinki-Tallinn ferries, the group also run ferries between Turku (Finland) and Stockholm and Stockholm-Riga and Stockholm-Tallinn.

For more details of prices and departure times, go to www.tallinksilja.com

Scandinavia's largest city, Stockholm - with its 750-year history and rich cultural life - is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. Don't miss the Abba and Vasa museums.

Originally a fishing town, Helsinki's city centre is dominated by majestic cathedrals

Written by John Newton

Feature supplied: www.wtfmedia.com.au

Images: as Supplied

1.         Symphony

2.         Serenade

3.         Commodore Suite

4.         Junior Suite

5.         Happy Lobster Seafood Platter

6.         Atlantis Palace

August 08, 2017

Play and Stay in Uber Cool Brisbane

Delve into a serious calendar of internationally acclaimed arts, cultural and sporting events, discover some of the best eateries in the country and, says Helen Flanagan, check out two new hotels way beyond the pale.

Let's start bang in the middle of Brisbane where the buzz of creative things to do, is perpetually loud.

Take a dip in the eighth great man-made wonder of the world, Streets Beach at South Bank or just lay a towel on the sand in the sun; browse through art galleries known for hosting collections from the likes of Warhol to Lynch; catch the red CityHopper along the river; sing your heart out (softly) at shows such as Kinky Boots and Bodyguard at the Lyric Theatre; unbuckle your belts after eating your way around flash and fun cafes also food festivals; feel the crowd roar at an international rugby showdown; and for an exhilarating adventure, the Story Bridge Adventure Climb is a must, and one of only three such experiences in the world. It's a 2-hour unique journey up over the bridge's superstructure to the 80m summit with magnificent uninterrupted 360° views of Brisbane city, the river, mountain ranges and Moreton Bay Islands.

The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art are like yin and yang – two distinct galleries equalling a perfect whole. So who is your favourite Marvel character? Regardless of whether you're #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan in the latest Avengers outing, there are so many elements of Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe you'll be geeking out for days. The exhibition at GOMA features more than 500 artworks, over 60 original costumes, 150-plus props and set pieces from the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. You could say it's mighty.

Restaurants and bars? From top-draw Aria, Blackbird, Esquire, Stokehouse, GOMA Restaurant, Sake and Cha Cha Char to budget Asian and a motza trendy burger joints, there's something for everyone, even followers of Paleo. Capri by Fraser's Asana by Pete Evans, uses locally-sourced produce in its contemporary paleo-influenced menu. Not sure if the cocktails fit the brief but sure do the trick. The adjoining café using 'coffee scientists', The Sensory Lab is a favourite for business folk and Capri by Fraser guests.

Also impressive are the numerous distinctive design features, especially the historical nod to Folio Books in the lobby, and Australiana artwork in the over-generous designer suites. And who was the smarty-pants who thought of a DIY espresso martini, using the in-room Nespresso machine and nip of Frangelico?

Time to amp it up or just mix it up with the locals. Fortitude Valley is a contradiction in itself. It's raw, yet sophisticated; it's where elegance and style meet grunge and offbeat; and heritage-listed properties stand proudly alongside contemporary statements. The Valley, as it is affectionately known, was Australia's first dedicated entertainment district and continues to be a hive of activity. Live music thrives and international DJs are drawn to late-closing clubs.

The impressive Chinatown Mall is a hub of exotic Chinese supermarkets and eateries; around Brunswick and James Streets are a plethora of dining options from hatted restaurants such as Tartufo and Gerard's Bistro, chic bars Alfred & Constance, Harveys, Bar & Bistro and Cru Bar, and groovy cafes, to famous James Street Markets and Jocelyn's Provisions, an amazing patisserie, cake palace and the most more-ish parmesan biscuits ever.

Don't miss numerous elegant on-trend furniture designers and homewares' retailers, also the Emporium complex which channels a European village feel, has a classy hotel and head-turning boutiques such as Nat-Sui, with its audacious and totally sophisticated shoes. Fashionistas will also love James Street where exclusive, international and cutting edge local labels such as Camilla and Sass & Bide, are de rigeur.

Keeping it sassy is the new kid on the block, the repurposed warehouse development of  Sage Hotel James Street, next door to the revamped historic Queens Arms Hotel and James Street Cafe and Cellar, off the gallery-like hotel lobby. The light installation by designer Karim Rashid and artworks throughout are inspired by Binikinba-Ba, the aboriginal name for 'place of the land tortoises; and each designer guest room embraces the best of nearby suppliers such as pops of Dinosaur Designs and textiles from Mokum.

The Queensland capital is ever-changing. Always exciting, rather avant-garde and certainly world-class.

Capri by Fraser's Asana by Pete Evans uses locally-sourced produce in its contemporary paleo-influenced menu. Not sure if the cocktails fit the brief but sure do the trick.

Fast Facts:

Images: Helen and supplied

a. Street's Beach
b. © 2017 MARVEL
c. Capri
d. Paleo dessert
e. DIY Nespresso martini
f. Sage Hotel James Street
g. Story Bridge

August 01, 2017

Cruising to St Petersburg with Princess Anastasia

High Russian visa costs can be avoided by Australian tourists travelling on cruise ships, such as a grand old lady of the seas, from Helsinki to St Petersburg. John Newton took advantage of the no visa fee on a four day/three night sojourn from the Finnish capital across the Gulf of Finland to the stunning, historic Russian city.

The passenger/car ferry – MS Princess Anastasia – has been around for a long time, 31 years, in fact, since she was launched under the name Olympia, and operated between Stockholm and Helsinki for Viking Line.

The 2400-passenger ferry later operated as the Pride of Bilbao after being chartered to P&O European ferries, but after operating between Portsmouth and Bilbao between 2007-2010, the company closed the route.  She was sold to St Peter Line and made her first voyage from St Petersburg to Stockholm in September 2010.

British company – Select-A-Cruise – currently operate visa-free Helsinki-St Petersburg cruises, which feature two days in the Russian city after overnight voyages from and to Helsinki.

This year – until mid-December - there are two visa free options of four or six days, with one or three nights in a four or five-star St Petersburg hotel.

In addition, Select-A-Cruise will run a lower cost six-day tour on selected dates staying at a three-star hotel.

However, the schedule will be different in 2008 – starting March 28 – when it will offer a five-day/four night visa free tour, with two overnight stays on  Princess Anastasia and two nights in a St Petersburg hotel.

My four-day cruise/St Petersburg tour started with an overnight ferry journey from Helsinki and ended on day four, arriving back on Princess Anastasia in the Finnish capital.

From 360 euros per person – depending on the cabin category and hotel choice - the price includes the round trip ferry voyage, transfers to/from your St Petersburg hotel, one night in a four-star hotel, one full day of sightseeing with an English speaking guide and daily breakfast.

Included in the one day city tour are visits to Peter Paul Fortress and the incredible Hermitage museum (Winter Palace).

However, a pre-bookable optional full sightseeing day is available at an extra cost, with highlights including three breathtaking palaces, unrivalled art collections and, the last resting place of the Romanov's. The tour ends with a transfer to the ferry terminal for the cruise back to Helsinki.

St Petersburg was the cradle of the October Revolution, named Leningrad after the death of Lenin in 1924 and re-named St Petersburg after a citizen's vote in 1991.

Russia's cultural treasure trove is like an enormous museum – there are 500 palaces alone in St Petersburg - and you could spend many weeks in the city and not see all of it.

The former capital of Russia (from the early 1700s to 1918), St Petersburg has earned the name 'Venice of the North' because of the canals meandering around one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Onboard Princess Anastasia there are 834 cabins of different classes and price categories. The ferry, which can accommodate 840 cars, offers a wide range of entertainment featuring bars and restaurants, duty free shop, night club, spa, gym, cinema, beauty salon, casino and playroom for children.

For more details on the visa free cruises between Helsinki and St Petersburg, go to: www.select-a-cruise.com

Travel Tips:

For Australians, the fee for a single Russian tourist visa is A$135 (processed within 10 business days, or A$270 for an expedited visa (processed in two business days).

Foreign tourists are not permitted to Russia independently without being hosted by an authorised Russian travel agency or hotel during the whole period of their stay. However, exceptions to this rule are cruisers who do not require a visa if the conditions below are met:

The overall period of their stay in Russia is for no more than three days (72 hours).
They stay overnight aboard their cruise ship, and
They go ashore only as a part of a group of passengers on an excursion organised by the cruise company.

Words and images: John Newton

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au


1. MS Princess Anastasia

2. Giant tapestries abound (Hermitage)

3. Hermitage Museum

4. St Isaac's Cathedral

5. Venice of the North

6. Hermitage Museum

7. Church on the Spilled Blood

July 24, 2017

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides: One beach of an airport.


David Ellis

FOLKS who've taken themselves out to delightful Barra Island in Scotland's beautiful Outer Hebrides and want to do it again, find that when they start checking for the same arrival and departure times as they took last time, these appear to have been simply removed and replaced with others that can be up to hours different from before.

And it's not because of bureaucratic reviewing or rearranging – or worse still, even bungling – but more bizarrely is the work of Mother Nature, and her daily changes in the times of the island's tides.

Because while Barra's airport terminal building and control tower are located on the island's "mainland," its three runways are in fact simply the sands of the fringing ocean beach alongside – making for the only airport in the world where scheduled 7-day-a-week flights use a beach as the runway.

And because they are flooded by the sea every high tide, these runways can only be used by STOL aircraft (Short Take Off and Landing,) and only during daytime low tides, as there are no facilities for night-time operations other than emergencies.

As well, as tide times change daily, it means flight times change pretty regularly too, so beachgoers need be prepared to make a move with the Esky and towel when the  warning signals go off advising that a plane's about to land or take off.


[] A PLANE comes in to land on Scotland's Barra Island airport runway – simply the beach next to the terminal buildings and control tower, the world's only such beach runway for 7-day-a-week scheduled flights. (Wikiwand)


July 23, 2017

Washington DC's Dupont Circle: A view from the top

Every city has its elite neighbourhoods and Washington DC’s historic Dupont Circle stands out as a beacon in that nation’s capital. Roderick Eime walks the hallowed streets.

Cosmos Club (R Eime)

“Washington, D.C., has everything that Rome, Paris and London have in the way of great architecture - great power bases. Washington has obelisks and pyramids and underground tunnels and great art and a whole shadow world that we really don't see.” - Dan Brown

Author of the best-selling novel, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, made that remark in a TV interview when asked why he chose the US capital as the setting for one of his psychological thrillers.

Anyone who has watched even one episode of TVs hit series, ‘House of Cards’ will have enjoyed a short virtual tour of Washington DC, the United States capital. Just as depicted in the rolling credits, the streets of DC are full of patriotic sights and imposing architecture built around the needs of government and an urge to impress both residents and visitors.

Sheridan Circle (R Eime)
For the visitor, DC is a very walkable city, and on a warm summer’s day, it’s easy to pack in many of the key sites. Supplement your strolls with the ubiquitous ‘hop on - hop off’ Big Bus tour and you can get a compact, yet accurate feel for this most important of cities.

But apart from the larger-than-life monuments to heroes and grand civic buildings, there are whole neighbourhoods and precincts waiting to be explored. There’s historic Georgetown, dating from the mid-18th century, now a heritage district in its own right and home to many premium retail stores and flash restaurants. And Arlington across the Potomac River where the Pentagon sits and more than 400,000 veterans, statesmen and generals lie in the National Cemetery. And Hispanic-centric Adams Morgan. And cosmopolitan Columbia Heights. The list goes on.

Often, when visiting somewhere for the first time, it’s a good idea to walk like a local and that’s what I did when I joined DC Design Tours for a pedestrian expedition of Dupont Circle.

The Dupont Circle and adjacent Kalorama districts of Washington DC comprise the celebrity and embassy ‘dress circle’ of the nation’s capital, home to such noted names as the Obamas, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as well as Amazon billionaire, Jeff Bezos. Numerous current and former politicians from the last century also make (or made) this district their home and even the fictitious power couple, Frank and Claire Underwood from TV’s House of Cards reside there.

Self Portrait of Alice Pike Barney
As our small group tours the fabled streets, we hear the stories of the sumptuous mansions and historic terrace houses and the famous (and not so famous) names behind each door.

The house of Woodrow Wilson, the US president who declared war on Germany in 1917, is preserved as a museum. The secretive and exclusive Cosmos Club, open only to men (and now women) of exceptional character and achievement. The obscure Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783, to preserve the ideals and fellowship of officers of the Continental Army who served in the Revolutionary War (whatever that means), plus the former Alice Pike Barney Studio which was once the home to the controversial feminist artist.

“Barney and her daughters,” Kelly, my guide, tells me, “were so ‘bohemian’ for their time, she caused so much gossip and scandal in Washington society, it drove her poor ultra conservative husband Albert to drink and ultimately death.”

While our tour only passed by these illustrious residences, many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public. A chance to see these fabulous places up close and learn the in-depth stories behind them.

View from Level 9 of Dupont Circle Hotel (supplied)

Right on the historic central roundabout itself is the 327-room Dupont Circle, a landmark property of the Irish premium hotel group, Doyle Collection. Outwardly austere, the original 8-storey property opened in 1947 and operated most of its life as the Dupont Plaza Hotel. Under the Doyle Collection ownership since 1998, a further US$50m renovation in 2009 saw the exclusive ‘Level Nine’ added, which included 15 ultra luxurious penthouse suites as well as a guest lounge and events area, all enjoying panoramic views over the Circle and city itself.

Ground floor dining and outdoor bars blend harmoniously with the upmarket surroundings with the swank Bar Dupont a particular feature in this ‘be seen’ neighbourhood. The Café Dupont brasserie restaurant adds a touch of Parisian chic and serves locally-sourced and organic French-American cuisine.

An unbeatable location, the Dupont Circle makes an ideal base to explore the historic district with easy access to DC’s Metro, Hop On Hop Off Big Bus and an easy walk to many other sights such as the National Geographic Museum and Phillips Collection gallery.

Did You Know?

The circle is named for Civil War Union naval commander, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont.

Doing DC:

DC Design Tours offer historical walking tours of Washington DC with a focus on architecture, urban planning, and design. www.dcdesigntours.com

Big Bus Tours offer one or two day tickets for unlimited rides around the US capital on three routes with multilingual commentary aboard open top, double decker buses. www.bigbustours.com


The Dupont Circle www.doylecollection.com/hotels/the-dupont-circle-hotel /

Washington DC Official Visitors site: www.washington.org

July 16, 2017

The Vasa Museum – A Must Visit When in Stockholm

By John Newton

Like the Titanic, the warship Vasa – the pride of the Swedish Navy's fleet – keeled over and sank on her maiden voyage. The year was 1628, the captain was promptly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned - then released and no one was held responsible for the disaster.

The 69-metre-long vessel capsized after being struck by a powerful gust of wind and sank after being afloat for just 1300 metres.

Attempts to raise the ship – the most expensive and richly ornamented naval vessel built in Sweden at the time - failed.

In 1961 - after more than three centuries on the seabed - the Vasa broke the surface of Stockholm harbour after a monumental salvaging operation lasting almost five years.

The ship was so well preserved that, after being salvaged, she was able to float unaided. She has gradually been restored to her original glory and stands proudly in the city's Vasa Museum, Scandinavia's biggest tourist attraction since it opened in 1990 with latest figures showing 1.3 million a year passing through its doors.

And it's held on to its number one tourist draw-card tag, despite ABBA the Museum becoming an instant hit with locals and tourists worldwide when the 'super troupers' music, memories and magic was revisited on permanent display in 2013.

Meanwhile, scientists are battling away to try to eliminate sulphuric acid attacks that are posing a serious threat to the magnificent wooden Vasa which, in full rig, stands 52-metres tall.

 "Conserving does not mean that the destructive process will be stopped – it is only slowed down, according to Fred Hocker, director of Vasa Research.

 "Nothing can be taken for granted in working with the old ship. Still – more than 45 years after raising her – she still surprises. The question is whether we will ever be able to entirely stop the degradation process of the Vasa. If the sulphuric acid attacks are not stopped, the wood will eventually be destroyed. To gain time, contaminated artefacts are put in oxygen-free bags. This halts the degradation process," he said.

Most of the visitor entrance fees are poured back into the ship's upkeep, which costs upwards of US$4 million a year.

"The key to preserving the Vasa is controlling the ship's environment and addressing a series of preservation challenges. We have to deal with all of them as part of an integrated preservation strategy," said Mr Hocker.

Some 14,000 individual pieces of wood were brought up to the surface when the Vasa was salvaged – everything from amazing wooden sculptures to anonymous planks of wood. When the work to preserve the ship's hull was finished in the early 1980s, painstaking work began piecing together all these fragments. The stern and aft were put together; sculptures and ornamentation regained their rightful forms and positions.

Pictures of contemporary ships aided the reconstruction process, but the major share of the detective work was carried out by the museum's carpenters.

In the 1990s, the next stage of work began. The goal was to erect the permanent lower part of the rigging. The work took five years to complete. Carpenters restructured the upper deck in 1998-9.

The Vasa is now the world's only preserved 17th century ship. Adorned with more than 700 carved sculptures, she is also a treasury of art.

Stockholm is a walking city, brimful of attractions. Apart from the Vasa, don't miss the magnificent National Museum with its paintings by, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens and van Gogh. In 2000, three paintings, including Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait' and the 'Young Parisian and Conversation' by Renoir were stolen, but later recovered.

And, of course, you can't go past the Abba Museum without listening to the music and discovering quite a few secrets about Sweden's 'Fab Four'.

After walking the soles off your shoes, around the waterfront, Gamla Stan (Old Town), it's time to take to the water. There are countless boat trips to surrounding attractions - everything from short ferry and sightseeing tours to all-day excursions to the Stockholm Archipelago.

You will need a minimum of three days to take in the best sights in around Stockholm, but better make it five to be on the safe side.

The Vasa's three masts on the roof outside the specially built museum show the height of the ship's original masts. More than 95 per cent if the ship is original, and is decorated with hundreds of carved sculptures.

For more details on the Vasa Museum, go to:    www.vasamuseet.se
More information on Stockholm can be found at: www.visitstockholm.com

Images: As supplied

5. By Yanin Yi Lo

July 10, 2017

Spirit House hits new high

When it comes to stunning restaurants, Noosa on Queensland's Sunshine Coast is a mecca, and as Helen Flanagan knows the Spirit House is one of the best.

Meander through fragrant lush gardens with 20m high black bamboo, exotic statuary, jangling chimes and water dragons to (hopefully) a table lagoon-side. The menu of share plates offers a kaleidoscope of flavours to tempt the palate and engage the mind.

Steamed black mussels steeped in coconut, lime juice and sugar, tossed with coriander leaves, mint, chillies, peanut toffee chilli dressing and crusted rice shards is an explosion of joyfulness.

Plum slices pickled with ginger and lime salt is a finessed interplay with crisp fingers of sticky rice, chicken and spanner crab.

The menu celebrates nature's beauty, crosses borders but is honed to a sharp, primarily Thai edge.

Even if you are familiar with the restaurant you probably weren't aware of the latest jaw-dropping addition. There's a beautiful U-shaped building with cocktail bar, alfresco seating, private dining room, kitchen and dedicated chef. It shrieks Thai-luxe.

Clever landscaping blends in with the existing tropical gardens, plus custom artwork, lighting and an outstanding wall featuring 600 buddhas makes the perfect, most ambient spot for pre and après lunch or dinner drinks, also exclusive celebrations for say 24.

"We have always wanted a dedicated bar for our guests," says Helen Brierty who with husband Peter created the Spirit House in the early 70s and even today, whether cookbooks, cooking school or the bar, are never satisfied with ordinary. "We looked at our two ageing shade-houses and it clicked - knock them down, borrow a heap of money and build something special in their place. Staff went to Thailand in search of inspiration at the funkiest bars and restaurants to bring back ideas for Thai-inspired food and drinks." It worked brilliantly.

There's a compulsion to say di mak to bar manager Yann Audran cocktails such as Singha Mojito, House of Sathorn and Smokin' Kraken. Why? Because it means 'excellent' in Thai. He also makes a mean martini!

Snacks are created by the very talented head chef Tom Swapp. Believe me you'll keep wanting more of peanuts with kaffir lime, coriander salt and chilli; Coffin Bay oysters with red nahm jim; toasted chicken satay brioche sandwich with cucumber pickle; Massaman lamb pies with house-made tomato sauce; Mooloolaba prawn roll with tom yum mayonnaise; and let's not forget lemongrass marshmallow skewers with kaffir lime sugar; and Thai tea ice cream sandwiches with raspberry jam, for the sweet tooths.

Visit www.spirithouse.com.au

The menu celebrates nature's beauty, crosses borders but is honed to a sharp, primarily Thai edge.

Words and food/drink images: Helen Flanagan.

Others as supplied.

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au

June 26, 2017

Supermodel pays £600 to bathe in goat's milk at London's Savoy Hotel


David Ellis

WHEN one of the world's top supermodels booked into London's swank Savoy Hotel and said she wanted a very special bath, it fell on the hotel's Head Butler, Sean Davoren to ensure the fulfilment of her wish.

And that wish was for some 35 litres of goat's milk that she could mix with water straight from the tap, and to wallow in in her bathtub. And the milk had to be that-day fresh, and it had to be unpasteurised.

Forever unflappable, Mr Davoren located just where he could find the precise goat's milk for the lady's needs, and assured her he'd have a taxi go collect it straight away.

And while the milk would cost 50-pounds (around AU$87,) there would also be the matter of the taxi… and that would be in a somewhat different league. Because the specific milk the lady wanted could only be sourced from a goat dairy in Wales, the taxi to go and collect it would cost 600-pounds (AU$1,040.)

No problem said the lady, and some time after the milk had been collected, delivered safely back to The Savoy, warmed in the kitchen and taken to her bathroom, Mr Davoren received another request: the lady now needed thirty bottles of a top-brand mineral water to be warmed, and delivered to her bathroom so she could now cleanse her body of any goat's milk residue.

Which makes us wonder if Cleopatra, who was also known to bathe in goat's milk, had staff of the calibre of Mr Davoren to ensure her of baths that were as good as The Savoy's to help keep her looking beautiful…



[] HEAD Butler, Sean Davoren – absolutely unflappable, even if the request is for a  goat's milk bath.

[] A BATHROOM at The Savoy: goat's milk and hot water for a VIP's plunge,  followed by a wash down with thirty bottles of warmed mineral water. (All images The Savoy hotel)

True Blue Riband: Aussies fastest across the Atlantic

The Atlantic Crossing between Europe and the United States is the quintessential ocean voyage. Why? Apart from being one of the historically busiest shipping routes in the world, it is chapter one of many of the world’s greatest stories, including the discovery of what is now the United States of America by European navigators.

The great, often treacherous North Atlantic has been fought over and blockaded in wars; such has been its importance to international trade and commerce. From the time of Columbus in 1492, and possibly earlier, seafarers have braved these waters to build civilisations, ship all manner of cargo, smuggle, plunder and wage war. The passage became increasingly important as the great nations expanded their empires and influence, building all-weather vessels specifically for the arduous 3,000 NM ocean voyage.

In the days of sail, a typical eastbound voyage took over three weeks until the introduction of steam in the early 19th century. Steam power allowed vessels to improve their more difficult outward (westbound) time against the Gulf Stream winds and the race to build faster and bigger ships was on.

French liner, Normandie

In 1935, Arthur Hales, a UK merchant, shipowner and politician instigated the now famous trophy that bears his name for the “Blue Riband”, the fastest westbound journey by a passenger vessel in regular service. The first official recipient was the French liner SS Normandie, which completed her maiden voyage on 29 May at just under 30 knots. Since that time, only two other ocean liners have shared that accolade, the RMS Queen Mary and the purpose-built SS United States, who captured the title with an average speed of 34.5 knots on 15 July 1952 and has held it ever since. This superlative vessel also smashed the eastbound record one week earlier with a stunning 35.59 knots.

Since the retirement of SS United States in 1969, the “Blue Riband” is deemed to have ceased as no regular fast passenger service now exists. However, in the age-old spirit of competition, the Hales Trophy is still awarded for the fastest commercial vessel crossing in either direction.

Serial show-off and entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, did manage to break the record in 1986 by just two hours with his Virgin Atlantic Challenger, but was denied the trophy because his 1440kW speedboat was not a commercial vessel. The same fate was levied against the massively ambitious 45,000kW GE jet-powered Destriero of the Aga Khan which crossed in August 1992 at over 53 knots.

Fast cat: Australian-built Fjord Cat
Yet the final word in the Hale Trophy remains with the proud Tasmanian company, Incat, builder of the world’s fastest commercial passenger catamarans. Since 1990, three of the company’s vessels have held the prize, with the current holder, HSC Fjord Cat, the first to cross in less than three days at an average speed of 41.3 knots.

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!

Originally published in Cruise Weekly

Expedition Cruising with Lindblad in the Sea of Cortes

Welcomed by the Queen of California

In a land once ruled over by a fierce mythical matriarch, marine animals cavort and relax in UNESCO-protected bliss.

Words and images by Roderick Eime

I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of the Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them at all, for their life style was similar to that of the Amazons. - Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo

Queen Califia

The island in de Montalvo’s description was ruled by Califia, a magnificent negress by all accounts. Her domain, like the Amazons, was a matriarchal dominion where the few men were subjugated and enslaved by these all-conquering women.

When it suited her, Califia would muster her troops and raid the neighbouring lands, seizing men and territory. Her warriors wore armour of gold and rode fierce steeds with barding that shone like the sun.

Some researchers are convinced a fearsome black queen of either African or Polynesian origin once existed on these shores, and de Montalvo, like Shakespeare, had adapted legend and lore for his own purposes.

The Spanish novelist, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus whose lurid prose described these lands in great detail, was sufficiently convincing for the Mexican Governor, Hernán Cortés, to send ships in search of this land of plenty.

Like so many Spanish follies of the time, they ended in disaster for the explorers and all those they encountered. The island of California, however, persisted on maps for more than 100 years and wasn’t conclusively disproved by land explorers until almost the 19th century.

Today this giant spur-like peninsula, the second largest in the world, is part of Mexico and called Baja California. It is divided into two ‘free and sovereign states’; Baja California and Baja California Sur (south). The 160,000km2 Gulf of California enclosed by the peninsula is also known by its alternative moniker, The Sea of Cortés (or Cortez).

“Those quiet men who always stand on piers asked where we were going and when we said, ‘To the Gulf of California,’ their eyes melted with longing; they wanted to go so badly.” - John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

At the very tip is the resort town of Cabo San Lucas (Cape Saint Luke), which has grown progressively from a grubby mining village and tuna cannery at the turn of the last century to one of Mexico’s premier tourist locations and aquatic playgrounds. Massive ships from Holland America, Carnival, Celebrity and Princess regularly call in to the region more commonly known in cruise circles as the ‘Mexican Riviera’ and which extends as far as Acapulco.

Much of the credit for this popular acceleration is due to the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author, John Steinbeck, whose account of a marine biology expedition in 1940 with his biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, spawned the 288-page non-fiction book ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez’, published in 1950.

Steinbeck describes this lost world as “ferocious with life”, often citing his fear of man’s potential for destruction through urban development and careless fishing techniques. Even as the pair travelled, a hotel was being built along with the airport and railway.

And develop it did. Cabo San Lucas quickly became the playground for Hollywood A-Listers and celebrities like John Wayne, Chuck Connors, Desi Arnez, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Jacques Cousteau and Ernest Hemingway who enjoyed the incredible fishing and balmy lifestyle.

Cousteau, who visited some 35 years ago was, predictably enough, more interested in what dwelled below the surface and coined the tagline “the world’s aquarium”, often re-used by the new wave of adventure cruise operators probing much further north than any of the floating behemoths visiting Cabo San Lucas.

Veteran Lindblad naturalist and field guide, Pete Pederson leads me to this superb outlook (R Eime)

The undisputed leader in this field is Lindblad Expeditions who have been exploring the ‘Sea of Cortez’ since Cousteau’s time. In 1977, a young Sven Lindblad was travelling from Argentina to Mexico on his late father’s ship, the MS Lindblad Expolorer. They had a few days to spare and decided to call in to the Gulf of California to explore.

“I was particularly attracted to this large island just up from the southern end in the Gulf of California (Espiritu Santo Island),” recalls Lindblad, “and I remember that discovery to this day. I’ve never seen anywhere so beautiful, so irresistible, and I’ve had a love affair with the Sea of Cortez ever since.”

Lindblad began commercial voyages in 1981 and has continued that tradition unbroken for more than 30 years. During that time UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on the region, stating the “diversity of terrestrial and marine life is extraordinary and constitutes a unique ecoregion of high priority for biodiversity conservation”. For the last decade the Gulf of California has enjoyed this cherished protection.

National Geographic Sea Lion at anchor while guests explore ashore (R Eime)

Today two of the company’s 62-passenger vessels operate side-by-side on itineraries of either one or two weeks’ duration, plunging guests into an experience that includes observation and encounters with all manner of whales, sea lions, marine birds and land reptiles.

I’m aboard the late season ‘Spring in the Sea of Cortez’, a mid-April itinerary that probes deep into the gulf as far as Isla San Esteban. For a full week, we explore the inside leg of the Gulf of California, going ashore for nature hikes, early morning yoga, town visits, snorkelling in the coves, photography classes as well as kayaking along the craggy shores.

“It’s the best place in the world to see whales – lots of them” – Sven Lindblad

Despite numerous sightings of sperm whales, pilot whales, dolphins and porpoises of various types and more seabirds than I could ever tick off, the signature gray whale encounters are not to be had at this time of the year. These famously gregarious and interactive mammals are en route to Alaska by now from their breeding ground at Bahía Magdalena on the western coast.

Nevertheless, our expedition team of naturalists are unrelenting in their enthusiasm and desire to share and impart their vast knowledge and in this respect, I place the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic crew consistently among the very best in this arena.

Our ship, the National Geographic Sea Lion, is cosy, comfortable and unpretentious. While it’s ideal for the destination, cruise snobs would remark on the compact cabins and lack of lavish accoutrements. Dining is straightforward in single sittings at unreserved tables, ideal for rotating among fellow passengers and getting to know everyone. While I am the only Australian on board and travelling solo, I find the varied company stimulating and welcoming. Exactly as I remember Alaska aboard the twin, NG Sea Bird last year.

Exploring and discovering with Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic is not a ‘cruise’ in the popular sense, it’s adventure and enrichment at sea and none of my fellow travellers lament the lack of big ship, mass market niceties.

Dedicated to imparting knowledge and in a spirit of conservation, I’m certain even the feared Queen Califia herself would welcome us into her domain.

== - ==

Getting There: Qantas flies to Los Angeles (LAX) and connects to San Jose Del Cabo (SJD) with codeshare partners Alaska Airlines or American Airlines. www.qantas.com

Cruising There: Lindblad Expeditions’ operates in Baja California from January to April annually. See au.expeditions.com or www.wildearth-travel.com. Prices start from A$6660* per person for 8 nights. For bookings phone 1800 107 715

The writer travelled with assistance from Lindblad Expeditions and Wild Earth Travel

* price checked https://au.expeditions.com/destinations/baja/baja-california-sea-of-cortez/dates-rates/

This article originally published in The Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail.

June 19, 2017

Ride Queensland's Valley Rattler

Chugging and choofing right on track

If the shriek of a steam whistle and the hiss of a steam engine are music to your ears, Helen Flanagan suggests the Valley Rattler.

Hanging baskets of flowers, a dinky refreshment room and the ticketing office of the Gympie Railway Station are shades of 1913, the year the original 1870's building was replaced and the new rail line, connecting the gold-rich town to Brisbane was opened. Travel by coastal steamer to Maryborough and train to Gympie with an onward stagecoach service to Noosa had finally become a thing of the past.

Today the Mary Valley Rattler Heritage Railway runs steam train tours as a tribute to the region's rail heritage. In charge of the eight driving-wheeled, 80 tonne locomotive, built in the UK by Armstrong Whitworth, at a cost of 5013 pounds and shipped to Brisbane in 1927 is John, a steam train driver since 1959. He is assisted by fireman Archie.

The station master calls "all aboard" and rings the big brass bell as the steam whistle shrieks. Number 802 pulls out of the station past the old Queenslander-style Railway Hotel, masses of brilliantly coloured jacaranda trees, work sheds and outhouses swathed in bougainvillea, through the Gympie burbs and onto what was considered the alternative railway to the coastal line from Brisbane in 1884/85.

The Rattler's carriages date from 1909 and were built at workshops in Ipswich. The Club car with its bar, coffee tables, comfy tub chairs and banquette-style seats was originally built as a Pullman-type sleeper with curtained berths down each side and a central aisle. When delivered to the workshop for major restoration, all that could be salvaged was the underframe and bogies. These were repaired, refurbed and fitted with a completely new superstructure.

From Deep Creek Bridge, which is thirty metres above the creek bed, evidence can be seen of the many gold workings that made up an essential part of Gympie's golden era. Once past Monkland railway station, the Rattler crosses the Mary Valley and negotiates steep gradients and narrow bridges. Thrusting up the windows, ale in hand, there's a much-needed cool breeze. It's now also much easier to check out 802's billowing smoke stack and rear carriages as it rounds each bend. There are spectacular views, much evidence of thriving rural communities, large herds of grazing dairy and beef cattle and a tapestry of pineapple, macadamia and vegetable farms whiz by.

The gentle cha-kung cha-kung rhythm reaches max crescendo, is replaced by sounds of creaking wood and punctuated by much clanking over tracks. Is this what train buffs call the romanticism of rail?

Amamoor is home to the Gympie Muster and after a brief stop at the fully restored station, a squiz at the arts and crafts, plus knits and bits that are reminiscent of yesteryear, passengers gawk as the locomotive and fire truck go into turn-around-mode. Back on board it's full steam ahead to Dagun station. Moffatdale Ridge wines and Kenilworth cheeses are available for tastings and purchase, large local pineapples and organic avocados are an absolute steal and an icy Dagun Delight with mango and macadamia, lived up to its name.

Forty kilometres of huffing-puffing and choo-chooing later, a memorable afternoon was over. Next time we'll pack the esky for the journey and experience a full day on the Rattler. The stop at Imbil for country-style markets and a good old fashioned lunch at the Railway Hotel is a must-do.

Doing It:

Ride the Rattler on Saturday, Sunday and Wedndesdays. Ph: (07) 5482 2750 www.thevalleyrattler.com

The gentle cha-kung cha-kung rhythm reaches max crescendo, is replaced by sounds of creaking wood and punctuated by much clanking over tracks

Words: Helen Flanagan

Images: As supplied

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au


At full steam
Almost ready
A quick check
Steam train supremos John and Archie
Leaving Gympie
Gympie Station

June 08, 2017

Mudgee's Blue Wren Winery: A bright feather in your culinary cap

After a complete upgrade to every aspect of the property, one of Mudgee’s signature wineries relaunches as a bold gastronomic and events venue. Roderick Eime tested his taste buds.

There’s a wry smirk on Chef Steve’s face as he digs deep into the punnet of thick coffee-coloured mousse he’s about to put on my plate. The velvet-smooth paste is delicately extracted with an ice cream scoop and placed to the side.

Chef Steve is a demon with the blowtorch

As I ponder this strange concoction, Steve continues to taunt me with cheeky glances as he prepares for the next astonishing procedure. Sugar is generously sprinkled on the mass and - voila - a blowtorch! The crystals are quickly turned to brûlée under the blaze of the gas flame, nearly searing our iPhones as we clamber for a photo.

duck breast etc
Crispy Skin Duck breast, duck liver ice-cream brûlée, pickled radish, cauliflower, crouton, dehydrated raspberry.

A healthy sliver of crispy skin duck breast, pickled radish, cauliflower fragments and sliced crouton the size of Smith’s crisps are meticulously arranged before the entire ensemble is garnished with a dusting of crimson dehydrated raspberry. We look at each other in amazement as this creation reaches its climax. The ice cream? Duck liver, of course.

Here at the Blue Wren Winery in Mudgee, Executive Chef and owner Kip Harris, is launching his new five-course winter degustation menu and we’re among the first to try this cavalcade of indulgence, constructed before our very eyes.

Boasting the only Chef’s Table experience in the burgeoning NSW Central West wine region, The Restaurant @ Blue Wren exhibits an outrageous cornucopia of flavours and challenges the taste buds of the most discerning and adventurous diner.

“This dish is certainly a non-traditional mix of flavours but I love experimenting with methods when putting together the ingredients for a dish and pushing boundaries in playing with the diners’ perception of flavours” Harris tells us, our jaws still dropping.

The Restaurant is quickly becoming a ‘must visit’ destination for those wanting to experience fine dining in regional New South Wales and now provides ease for diners with private car transfers for those staying locally.

“Since launching our first five-course tasting menu last season we have received a great reaction from our guests. People have trust in our bold flavours and gastronomy forms the foundation for a memorable experience”, he adds.

Chefs Table (adjusted)
Kip Harris with guests at his chef's table

Harris, 37, took over at Blue Wren two years ago from his father and has recently spent more than $500,000 upgrading the property. Enhancements include substantial reworking of the function space to accommodate 200 seated and 450 standing guests as well as a ‘clean slate’ rebuild of the kitchen.

Visitors can pop in and enjoy a wine flight, featuring five of the winery’s top single vineyard drops. The reserve shiraz (no.913) is the standout with, as Kip loves to describe, ‘aromas of sweaty saddle and creosote-soaked railway sleepers in the blazing summer sun’.

But you could be easily satisfied with the ‘regular’ shiraz (No.914) or one of the delightful whites like the low alcohol and zesty Verscato (No.216) or simmering rose (No.516).

Comfortable digs: Blue Wren Farmhouse sleeps ten
Situated a leisurely four hours’ drive from Sydney, Blue Wren is only a short distance from Mudgee township - where guests can explore the delightful country town that offers plenty of old world charm and ambiance mixed with plenty of rustic funk and edgy cuisine like Kip’s.


Why not stay at the winery itself in the brand new five bedroom Farmhouse? Take the family or a group of fun friends for a weekend of frolic in the vineyards. You can even fly in economically with regional airline, Fly Pelican [http://www.flypelican.com.au], who service Mudgee six times a week from T2 at Sydney.


Open for dinner from Wednesday through to Saturday, and lunch Friday through Sunday; the menu features a five-course tasting menu $98 per person with matching wines from the Blue Wren range at $35 per person. Bookings essential.

For more information and bookings:
www.bluewrenwines.com.au or Ph: +61 2 6372 6205

433 Ulan Road
Mudgee NSW 2850

The writer stayed as a guest of Blue Wren Winery