December 29, 2008

Into the Blue (1950)

A fascinating British documentary about the development of civil airlines immediately after the Second World War.

December 24, 2008

Thailand: Visiting Hua Hin

Where can travellers escape to for a beach resort retreat that’s budget-friendly as well as being known as ‘fit for royalty’? Thailand’s Hua Hin of course.

December 08, 2008


david ellis

MODERN-day pirates may have guests ducking for cover on cruise ships off Somalia, but when a baker's-dozen Aussies decided on a brief "commandeering" of the world's Number One motor-yacht in the Caribbean last month, fellow guests didn't go running for cover – they went running for their cameras.

SeaDream I had just sailed 4952km across the Atlantic from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and had dropped anchor off sunny St Barts in the French West Indies when the Aussies sprang their Caribbean Coup.

Gathering at the ship's stern they swiftly lowered the official Norwegian flag, and in a flash had a 2-metre Australian one fluttering in its place - providing unique photo-opportunities aboard SeaDream I and on surrounding pleasure boats as well: it's not every day luxury cruisers are seen in those parts with the Aussie flag flapping from their flagstaff.

After a Champagne toast down our flag came and that of Norway (SeaDream Yacht Club is Norwegian-owned,) run-up again by SeaDream's security officer – one of only two deck officers who knew of the "surprise" event: the other was the Captain, who'd quietly given his approval.

The thirteen Australians were the third biggest group after Americans and British amongst the-just 91-guests on board, and also the most Aussies ever to make the annual 11-night relocation from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean where SeaDream escapes the Northern Winter.

And despite dire predictions from doomsayer mates, passengers on the boutique 4,300 tonne SeaDream I – and that included this writer – were not tossed around on a wild and stormy Atlantic: SeaDream's mega-motor-cruisers travel well south, missing the stormier conditions of the North Atlantic.

Apart from rain showers on the first day that prevented dining on deck, breakfasts and lunches were taken outdoors under shade-covers for the remaining 10-days, and the open-air Top of the Yacht Bar became a late-morning focal point for flutes of Champagne, rainbow cocktails in voluminous glasses, beers from Europe, America and Mexico, and wines from around the world (that are all included in the holiday price.)

A 3m swell eased after the first few days and from then-on it was much like lake sailing… in fact, so smooth was it towards the end that Captain Bjarne Smorawski had to reduce speed to avoid arriving ahead of schedule into our first Caribbean port, St Maartens.

And again despite the doomsayers, there was plenty to keep us occupied on our eight non-stop days across the Atlantic: a Handwriting Analyst and People Profiler, and an Astronomer each gave several talks to interested guests, while poolside was the place to chin-wag, read a book, or take a nap in the sun (and raise a languid hand to have your favourite drink miraculously appear – and your stewards clean your sunglasses and mist you with cool water if they deduced signs of fatigue in these gruelling conditions.)

And then there was the food, oh glorious food: Chef d'Cuisine, Tomasz and Pastry Chef Garfield (dubbed "The Pound A Day Men") offered sensation after sensation from traditional breakfast favourites through internationally-inspired luncheons, evening cocktails and dinner – always a particularly grand 5-star affair with Starters (Gratinated Escargots with Aubergine Compote and Champignon de Paris amongst the choices one night,) Middle Courses (Cream of Mushroom Soup infused with Truffle Oil another,) Chef's Main Dishes (decisions decisions: Grilled Lobster Tail, Roast Baby Lamb Loin or Duck L'Orange one evening,) and Garfield's sinful desserts that might include Chocolate Soufflé with Baileys Sauce….

For the Pound A Day guilty there were brisk morning walks around the top deck (that also raised funds for Miami's Children's' Bereavement Centre,) Tai Chi and Stretch Sessions, Yoga, golf on the 50-course Simulator, a state-of-the-art Fitness Centre, an optional-cost Spa, and less physically-demanding quizzes, trivia sessions, Black Jack lessons and Sundowners at the Top of the Yacht Bar to prepare one for the evening's pre-dinner Cocktail Party…

And yes, we survived to hopefully do it all again…

(The 55-couples/95-crew SeaDream I sails 11-nights from San Juan to Lisbon on May 3 2009 with prices from US$3527pp twin-share, inclusive of all 5-star dining, drinks from the open bars and wines with meals, nightly Cocktail Parties, use of a 50-course golf simulator, gratuities, port charges and taxes. See travel agents or visit for more information including 2009's Mediterranean itineraries.)



[] CARIBBEAN coup – not every day the Aussie flag flutters from a luxury ship in the Caribbean.

[] SEADREAM I slips by an idyllic Caribbean isle.

(PHOTOS: Malcolm Andrews and SeaDream Yacht Club)

December 01, 2008


david ellis

IT'S the snow that does it, bouncing the extraordinary New Year fireworks off Prague's white-capped buildings, parks and streets like some huge movie-lot reflector, so that the whole city seems ablaze in a double-dazzle of flashing white, electric blue, orange, red, purple, green and gold….

And under-foot it crunches icily as we sway with other boisterous revellers on the jam-packed Charles Bridge that links the Old Town of the Czech Republic capital with the approaches to the hillside Castle on the other side of the black Vltava River.

On the hill behind the palace, the official fireworks have just started. They're a bit late: pyromaniacs have been exploding their unofficial hauls for the past six hours in the streets, narrow alleys and squares willy-nilly, enveloping the city in a haze of gunpowder smoke.

And when the palace fireworks begin at midnight, it's a signal for our fellow bridge observers to reciprocate with extra fervour: out of coat pockets and backpacks emerge small skyrockets that are lit and launched out of the hand. Sparks shower nearby revellers; laughter and squeals of delight fill the air and we expect to hear screams of pain too, but they must be drowned out by all the fun.

In the darkness on the river a huge, unseen black barge launches its salvo that out-performs those from behind the castle, lighting up the snowy rooftops and parks and reflecting brilliantly in a myriad hues on the water.

Meanwhile, some Aussie friends who had earlier taken up a vantage point for the countdown below the Old Town Square's Astronomical Clock, are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with rowdy New Year's celebrants fuelled with beer, gluhwein and absinthe, the locally-distilled high-octane rocket-fuel.

Their's is a more confined space for a localized fireworks display, surrounded by the 60-metre Old Town Hall and the square's four-storey buildings. It is happening too in Wenceslas Square, which despite its name is not a square but a wide street, and in which fireworks now erupt from the steps of the National Museum.

Chaos. Cheers. Hugs and kisses as the New Year breathes its first suffocating seconds amid the acrid smoke. Just as had happened or would happen in countless cities around the globe on the stroke of midnight on December 31…

In just 15 minutes it's over, but not for the crowds: they disperse to bars and restaurants … or to let off more unofficial fireworks for hours to come, leaving the coming dawn's work crews to clear up the scorched paper and cardboard firework wrappings that have stained the snow red, pink and brown.

It looks like a vast battle-field.

And soon after dawn we stomp our way back across the 500-metres bridge named after Charles IV. It's already back to normal … hawkers, jazz and classical buskers entertaining scores of visitors just taking in the view up and down the river, and of the castle.

Promenading on the bridge is a favourite thing to do in ancient Prague, as is exploring the castle and its squares that date back to the 9th century.

We make our way through the charming baroque Mala Stala (Little Quarter) on the Royal Way route, discovering fascinating narrow laneways behind the main street and fall into a fabulous café for a thick, rich hot chocolate, European style.

And a Champagne starter to kick off the first day of the New Year.

At the castle, we're in time for the changing of the guard before losing ourselves in the royal courtyards, the gardens, St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St George and Dalibor Tower.

Unexpected is Zlata Ulicka, or Golden Lane, a cobbled alley along the northern wall of the castle populated by small colourful cottages once occupied by the castle guards in the 16th century, and later our Lonely Planet guidebook tells us, by royal goldsmiths.

We spend some final time taking in the views over the sprawl of surrounding white roof tops and then return to the bridge via the Castle Steps route that's now strangely devoid of fellow tourists …

It's not so easy finding a bed in Prague for New Year, but give Tempo Holidays a call on 1300 558 987 or try

[] PRAGUE'S snowy New Year roof tops

[] NARROW canals and alleyways are a highlight of Old Prague

[] PRAGUE Castle brings plenty of surprises

(Photos: Austrian Tourist Office)

November 28, 2008


david ellis

A 25-cent exercise book and a bit of teenage exuberance put Alice Weiser on the road to becoming America's Leading Lady of character and handwriting analysis, culminating in a life of cruising the world to share with fellow passengers the behind-the-scenes of some of America's most bizarre modern-day crime mysteries.

Scribble a few words on a piece of paper, doodle on a bar coaster or simply scratch your ear while you're talking, and within seconds Alice will be telling you everything you ever did – or more likely, did not – want to know about yourself. And with an accuracy bordering the scary.

Her skills have led her along the corridors of US law-enforcement agencies to assist on unusual cases, into the boardrooms of some of its biggest corporates to give advice on 'people profiling' for top-level appointments, and behind courtroom benches to help judges pondering whether an accused may have some hope of redemption with a second chance.

Just how folk cross their T's or dot their I's has seen Alice involved in analysing the Jon Benet Ramsey ransom note, the O.J. Simpson "suicide" note and the infamous Anthrax Letters… and explaining it all to radio and TV talk show audiences from America to Europe and Australia, including one particularly notorious crime that led to the making of the 1980s movie thriller Fatal Vision (that starred Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint.)

Alice Weiser was born in Boston and enrolled early in college to study psychology, including handwriting whose analysis fascinated her with its ability to reveal so much in-depth information about an individual.

And at just under sixteen, when her father helped organise a local charity fair, Alice volunteered to man a handwriting analysis booth there.

"I bought a 25c exercise book and invited people to make a donation and write in my book 'This will not facilitate the matter,'" she recalled during a recent guest lecture series aboard cruise ship SeaDream I on its way to the Caribbean. "I told those who could spell 'facilitate' correctly that their intellect would take them to all heights – and those who couldn't, that their 'street-smart' would help them achieve their goals.

"They all went away happy – because I'd told them what they wanted to hear."

Today Alice says the letter 't' is the most important in studying handwriting. "The size it's written, which way it slopes or if its vertical, and how you cross it, tells us so much about you: if you are proud and dignified, independent, loyal, have willpower, can set your goals – or are just a procrastinator," she says.

And she recalled a case in which lawyers for a man facing jail for rape, asked her to analyse the written statement of the alleged victim. "Normal writing follows a rhythm, but as her statement went into the detail of the alleged offence, her words became erratically spaced – indicating she wasn't telling the story as it happened, but was creating it as she went along…"

The man was acquitted, and the girl subsequently admitted she'd lied.

How we act physically when fibbing is another of Alice's studies: "You blink more when you're lying, and often swallow more – and if you rub your nose while you're talking, you're really telling your listener 'What I'm saying actually stinks,'  while tugging at your ear is a dead giveaway for 'Don't believe a word I'm saying.'"

When a famous American surgeon was charged with murdering his pregnant wife and two children thirty years ago, a newspaper became curious about the angle a reporter on a local TV station began taking about the case. The paper got hold of samples of the TV reporter's handwriting and asked Alice to analyse them.

"Her writing indicated she was getting involved emotionally with the indicted surgeon… the whole event led to the movie Fatal Vision." (The reporter was taken off the case, and backed out of her relationship with the surgeon who is still in jail - Ed.)

Today the sprightly 75-year old Alice – once named International Handwriting Analyst of the Year –  cruises the world giving lectures and writing about her life and work. At last count she'd notched-up 127 such cruises.

And her final word?

"If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, never put anything in writing."   


[] ALICE shows how three different signatures can tell all about you. (Top) clear, succinct and confident; (middle) a showman saying make way for me;

(bottom) lots of confidence, I know who I am and I have arrived.

[] HER popular book Judge The Jury is an easy-to-follow guide on how to read and profile people.

Photos: David Ellis

November 17, 2008


david ellis

THE POSTAL authorities in Vanuatu are an inventive lot, and maybe amongst the world's most imaginary.

In an era in which many a little country makes a cosy income from selling colourful and odd-shaped postage stamps to collectors, Vanuatu goes one step further.        

Five years ago its postal chiefs opened the world's first underwater Post Office, 3-metres down on the harbour-bed off Hideaway Island in a picturesque marine park outside the capital Port Vila.

In this tiny egg-shaped fibre-glass igloo the Postmaster, decked out in scuba gear, collects specially waterproofed postcards at his shopfront counter from tourists who duck-dive down to him; cards have to be written in pencil, and instead of an ink date stamp a novel embossed cancellation device is used.

Cards posted here are a must amongst philatelists, and following the raging success of the Underwater Post Office, Vanuatu went on to establish the world's first Volcano Post Box on the actual rim of an active, roaring and rumbling volcano.

It's on Mt Yasur on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu's south, and here a decision's taken each day on the exact location of the portable box, that decision being dependent on just how violent eruptions are at the time.

And now Vanuatu's postal bosses have come up with yet another way of using postage stamps to further promote the most important factor in keeping their country's economy afloat – tourism.

They've released a set of seven stamps (together with a first day cover,) that they hope will encourage thousands of international holidaymakers to visit their Pacific paradise, dubbing the set 'Resorts in Paradise'.

One is generic showing children frolicking on a pristine beach behind a close-up shot of a beautiful local orchid; the other six feature leading holiday resorts in and around Port Vila – Iririki Island, Le Meridien, Le Lagon, Breakas Beach, the Melanesian and the Sebel.

It's believed to be the first time in the world that private commercial enterprises have appeared on postage stamps, and tourism authorities are hoping the new stamps will have a similar effect in attracting visitors that the so-called 'Xtreme' Underwater and Volcano Post Offices had.

Iririki Island Resort has been part of the fabric of Port Vila for almost a quarter of a century and is situated on a pretty island in the centre of Port Vila Harbour.

A building at the highest point of the island was once the home of the British Resident Commissioner when the nation was known as New Hebrides, a condominium pre-Independence administered jointly by France and the United Kingdom; Queen Elizabeth stayed there during her South Pacific visit in 1974.

Directly opposite Iririki, on Port Vila's main street, is the newest Mecca for corporate visitors and holidaymakers, the Sebel. It is Vanuatu's first (and only) high-rise hotel and this year was venue for Tok Tok (Talk Talk,) Vanuatu's important annual tourism industry trade fair.

Two of the resorts featured on the stamps have gaming facilities.

One, Le Meridien five-minute from Port Vila city centre and set amid twenty-five lagoon-side hectares, has The Palms Casino with poker machines and a selection of gaming tables.

The other, the Melanesian Resort on the fringe of the city CBD, includes Club 21 that attracts players to its banks of poker machines.       

Breakas Beach, aimed at adult guests, is located 10 or 12 minutes from Port Vila's centre on the Pango Peninsula; as well as an eye-catching infinity pool, it also boasts a 2km private beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Conversely Le Lagon, on picturesque Erakor Lagoon, aims itself squarely at families with deals at select times of the year that include all meals and unlimited house wine and local beer, spirits and soft drinks throughout the day.

And the resort's golf course has the world's only 'par one' hole: players have to drive directly down from a 6-metre high knoll into the 8th hole below to make par. Birdies and eagles are obviously impossible.

Golfers who've played it are convinced the designer must have had a good session on Vanuatu's famed relaxant, kava before drawing up the blueprint.

For information about holidaying in Vanuatu see travel agents, or check-out



[] FIRST Day Cover shows all seven colourful new stamps promoting Vanuatu tourism.

[] ONE of the stamps: first time in the world private commercial enterprises have featured on postage stamps.

(PHOTOS: Vanuatu Post)

November 10, 2008


david ellis

WE occasionally make decisions that in their wisdom surprise even ourselves.

One such was deciding earlier this year to stretch a day trip from Paris to Strasbourg to an overnight. A particularly long and enjoyable dinner with several bottles of French whites helped it along.

And had we not, we would never have discovered the "Old City" of Strasbourg, a place that dates back to 496 A.D.

So in the wee dawn hours of a Sunday morning, a normally ungodly hour for us, we cram in a quick walk through this old part of the city before getting the high-speed TGV train back to Paris.

The extraordinarily beautiful medieval architecture – almost eerie at this early hour with the streets wonderfully sans-people – literally takes our breath away.

Strasbourg is in the Alsace region of France, close to the German border and near where the River Ill joins the mighty Rhine. In ancient times it blossomed as a strategic commercial hub before two centuries of religious struggles hammered this role.

It recovered with its absorption into France in 1681, but along with the rest of Alsace was annexed by Germany from 1871 to the end of World War I and again from 1940 to 1944.

Today it is the seat of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.

The Old City occupies an island with its streets organised in a grid and with 20 bridges connecting it to the "mainland."

For the first 30-minutes of our early Sunday walk we sight not a soul as we wander past medieval houses, ancient shops crammed into narrow laneways and squares branching out from the city's Gothic Cathédrale de Notre-Dame that's built of fabulous pink sandstone.

We have the place to ourselves.

From the north side of the cathedral, we find the eighteenth-century Place Broglie, with the Hôtel de Ville, the bijou Opera House and some 18th century mansions.

And Number 4 Place Broglie where, in 1792, Rouget de l'Isle first sang what later became known as the Marseillaise after the mayor of Strasbourg challenged him to compose a rousing song for the troops of the Rhine army.

We're not Francophiles, but friends in Melbourne later tell us they had been brought up with the Marseillaise as the adopted tune of the AFL's defunct Fitzroy Lions (and now adapted by the Brisbane Lions.)  "We are the boys from Old Fitzroy" the Fitzroy faithful, we are told, still sing along Brunswick Street today.

But let's get back to Old Strasbourg. The previous afternoon, to the east of the cathedral, we had discovered trendy student cafés a-buzz with conversation and laughter, but this morning all is quiet, locked-up and it is beautifully peaceful.

We wander off west and discover the La Petite France sector, where the city's medieval millers, tanners and fishermen once lived.  Cute 16th and 17th century houses are decorated with elaborate carved woodwork and flowering window boxes; and further on, we discover ancient canals and bridges with watchtowers, built as part of fourteenth-century city fortifications.

It's easy walking because the Old City is flat – if you want an elevated view of Strasbourg and, in the distance the Vosges to the west and the Black Forest to the east, climb some 300 steps to a viewing platform within the cathedral.

Finally with the sun now coming up over the architectural horizon we amble back to our conveniently-located 3-star Hotel Beaucour – just across a bridge which bears rare and fascinating instillation art  –  as people start entering the cathedral to worship or to marvel at the 1842 Astrological Clock.

(If you can handle crowds, it's worth witnessing the clock's crowning performance at noon each day.)

It is 7.30am and the serenity is evaporating as the Old City starts another day.

We collect our bags and take the tram the few minutes to the city's rail station.

Then we're on the 0816 TGV train which, on its high-speed track, will have us  back into central Paris just after 10.30. We settle in and have breakfast on board.

It's a fitting end to a First Class morning; for information about Strasbourg check and for rail services see



[] POSTCARD perfect canal in Old Strasbourg

[] ANCIENT laneways reveal fascinating insights into Strasbourg's history

(Photos: French Tourist Bureau)


November 05, 2008

Island time on laid-back Straddie

In a State blessed with beautiful islands, Sue Fuller discovers a quiet achiever lying right on Brisbane’s doorstep.

With empty beaches as far as you can see, frolicking dolphins and whales, spectacular coastal gorges and rich indigenous history, it’s perhaps not surprising North Stradbroke Island, affectionally known as Straddie, has long been a favourite escape for locals in the know.

Just 45 minutes by barge (or 25 minutes by water taxi) from Cleveland, Straddie is all about pristine nature and low-key pleasures like beach combing, barbecuing fresh seafood and playing beach cricket.

It’s home to just three villages – Dunwich where the barges arrive, the sleepy fishing village of Amity, and Point Lookout with its multi-million-dollar views. A single bitumen road links the three villages while 4WDs are only necessary to explore the island’s interior or if you want to drive on sections of the beach.

If you don’t own a 4WD, Lynn Jones of Straddie Guides will help you get off track on his half or full day eco-accredited tours to explore not only the more obvious highlights of the island but also some secret spots that take true local knowledge to uncover – or even find!

But first to answer a question he’s been asked hundreds of times: how did he get his first name?

“My father took a letter from the names of the four men he was in a trench with during the Second World War and he came up with Lynn,” he said. After dad told me the story that none of them came home except for him, and then Johny Cash bought out the song `A Boy Like Sue’ I felt I wasn’t the only one with a funny name.”

During our half day tour Lynn shows us the island’s freshwater keyhole lakes – a 4km continuously connected lake that looks like a series of keyholes and a magical spot filled with hundreds of grass trees only a kilometre from the popular Brown Lake.

We enjoy a swim in the tannin-stained waters of Brown Lake and take in the spectacular views on the North Gorge Walk which starts on the other side of the island at Lookout.

Lynn drops us back at our accommodation which must be one of the best located pubs in the country. The Straddie Pub, or Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel/Spa Resort as it’s known after a recent multi-million-dollar makeover, has just 12 hotel rooms plus spacious two and three bedroom apartments.

Our hotel room is stylish and comes complete with a bath offering glimpses of the sea but I resolve to gather some friends or family and splash out on a three-bedroom apartment next time. The apartments are truly spectacular, generously-sized with pandanus-framed views of the sea.

Dining at the “pub” also means guaranteed ocean views – from the casual restaurant and public bar. There’s also a day spa which offers a range of treatments, some loosely based around indigenous techniques. Highly recommended is the spa’s signature treatment - ocean dreaming – (three hours for $295) combining a facial, hand and foot treatment, body exfoliation, mud wrap, hair and scalp treatment and massage.

Feeling scrubbed and soothed, the rest of the day is spent on leisurely exploring Point Lookout on my hire bike fuelled by a sensational gelati from the Oceanic Gelati & Coffee Bar.

Point Lookout offers a range of accommodation from architect-designed beach houses, self-contained apartments and million-dollar homes for rent. It’s almost too good a secret to share.

For more information visit

How to get there

North Stradbroke Island is located 45 minutes by car ferry from the Brisbane bayside suburb of Cleveland or a 25 minute water taxi ride. Taxis and a local bus service connects with the barge.

Some useful sites

November 03, 2008

Sydney Tower Skywalk: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

NOT for feint-hearts – Skywalks' overhang platform for those above the rest.
david ellis

HOW's that old song go? On a Clear Day You Can See Forever…

And on a clear day from one of Sydney's most-visited attractions, you can see forever.

Well, almost.

And even if it's not a totally clear day, reach out and touch the clouds…

EXHILARATING view of Sydney from Bridge to beyond.
We've talking about Skywalk, an exhilarating 45-minute open-air stroll around the very rooftop of that golden dome atop Sydney Tower, and the highest public viewing point in Sydney.

While visitors have ooo'd and ahhh'd at the amazing unobstructed view from the glassed-in Observation Level at Sydney Tower for years, those fearless of heights can also go outside onto the roof of the tower to get an even better fresh-air view of Sydney and its sprawling surrounds.

Not that you just climb a ladder and stroll about: you're in fact tucked into a bright blue and gold Skysuit that fits over your street clothes (slacks for the ladies, please, and flat-heeled shoes for everyone) and then have a safety harness snapped over the Skysuit.

This harness is in turn clipped onto a track on a handrail that goes around two levels of the roof and follows an industrial-style metal walkway with a  further metre-high glass safety barrier.

So there's absolutely no chance of you falling off – and at one point if you wish, you can choose to stand on a section of reinforced glass flooring and look down between your feet to the cobweb of cables that hold the tower together, and the streets below them… something perhaps not for the feint-hearted.

The view from up here is 360-degrees, looking out to sea to watch cruise ships and maritime work-horses slipping into and out of the harbour, ferries and pleasure craft scurrying about the harbour itself, the Eastern Suburbs, down the coast to the Royal National Park, inland to cities like Hurstville, Chatswood, Parramatta, Bankstown, Ryde, and Hornsby, west to the Blue Mountains, and north past Pittwater to Norah Head in the far distance…

And the inner-city 260 metres (850 feet) directly below.

Guides accompanying each group of Skywalkers point out places of interest… historic areas with little word-pictures of their colourful pasts, interesting streets or buildings of historic or architectural importance, the Domain, Botanic Gardens, the Cricket Ground, Football Stadium, Mascot Airport with planes coming and going out in all directions like busy-bees…

And the rail network that snakes like some giant toy train set  through the city and suburbs… silver suburban trains fast-travelling here, long grey coal trains like-caterpillars there, mixed goods trains rumbling west, the Indian Pacific or other inter-State passenger trains heading off or completing long journeys to or from Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra…

And equally fascinating is the roof-scape of the inner city: while most buildings are cluttered with drab air-conditioning plants and lift housings, amid it all are surprising patches of green artificial turf sporting barbecue set-ups and the odd sun-bather, tennis courts, even a few pools…

Skywalk cost $6m and remarkably the special walkways, railings and all other equipment were all made off-site by six different companies.

After they'd each done their own particular bit, everything was brought together and assembled at one site to ensure it would all fit… then taken apart again and broken down into pieces small enough to fit into the passenger lifts of Sydney Tower to get them to the top – where they were once more all re-assembled again.

And if you are a trivia buff, here are a few facts: It took forty-five workers two painstaking months to put the whole lot together on the roof of the Tower… in all 2086 pieces being either welded or bolted with 4,300 nuts and bolts like a massive Meccano set.

And when it comes to comparisons, Sydney Tower's Skywalk is the same height as the Eiffel Tower, six times as high as Niagara Falls, twice as high as Egypt's Great Pyramid, four times as high as the Opera House, and twice as high as the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It is open daily (except Christmas Day) from 9.30am to 8pm. Tickets cost $65 for adults and $45 for children ten to fifteen… and you get a Certificate of Achievement to prove you've done it.

To book phone (02) 9333 9200 or check

(Photos: Sydney Tower)

Mediterranean islands emerge as the top places to party

Source: Travelmole

The top 10 islands in the Mediterranean for August were Cyprus, Corfu, Crete, Sanrorini, Mykonos, Ibiza, Sicily, Majorca, Capri and Malta according to traveller popularity and TripAdvisor.

“All of these islands offer pristine beaches and their own unique features,” said Michele Perry, vice president of global communications for TripAdvisor. “Our travellers have identified the hot islands in the Med this summer, especially if you want sun, sea and dancing all night.”

Here's the definitive list of what was hot in August:

1. Cyprus, Republic of Cyprus Visit Aphrodite’s birthplace in the eastern Mediterranean by heading to Cyprus, steeped in history and bustling with energy. No longer the package holiday location, the level of sophistication in hotels and restaurants has increased dramatically in recent years. Beaches are the draw for many visitors to the island, but so is the nocturnal activity with Ayia Napa being the town to party in for people of all ages. According to one TripAdvisor traveller, “We would have to say the Troodos Mountains were our highlight. You will know what we mean if you take the journey. Breathtaking!”

2. Corfu, Ionian Islands, Greece
Corfu features a lush green landscape and serene, white beaches. Visit one of the Venetian fortresses, or relax under an olive tree, before enjoying the vibrant nightlife the island offers. According to one TripAdvisor traveller, “Nightlife in Corfu should just be called morning life.”

3. Crete, Greece As the former centre of the Minoan civilization, it’s no wonder that Crete features a plethora of historical attractions including Knossos and Phaistos. Those in search of adventure on the largest Greek island can hike down Samaria Gorge for spectacular scenery. As one TripAdvisor traveller said, “Crete is an amazing place to explore ancient culture. From the ancient ruins at Knossos to the 'off the beaten track' historical sites at Olous (Elounda) and Kritsa.”

Santorini, Greece
4. Santorini, Cyclades, Greece In the south of the Aegean Sea, Santorini features dramatic cliffs overlooking a stunning caldera. Watch the breathtaking sunset in Fira, then head to the bars and nightclubs for an all-night extravaganza �" emerging in time to view the sunrise. One TripAdvisor traveller called it, “We visited the town of Fira, which is perched on the edge of a 260 meter cliff and offers a fantastic panorama of the volcano as well as the sunsets.”

5. Mykonos, Cyclades, Greece Perhaps best known for its nightlife, Mykonos attracts famous DJs (and partygoers) to its plentiful bars and clubs on the island. Rejuvenate the next morning by strolling through the town of Mykonos and dining at a local taverna. As one TripAdvisor traveller commented, “Apart from the beaches, Mykonos is a place to dance all night long, then as soon I got out of bed, it was time again for nude sunbathing.”

6. Ibiza, Balearic Islands, Spain Visit the party Mecca of Ibiza and feel honored by joining the thousands of revelers at Privilege, the largest club in the world. Besides the vast nightlife, check out one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as God’s Finger, a large rock at the entrance of Benirras Bay. As one TripAdvisor traveller said, “After last year’s amazing time in Ibiza I returned for another year of amazing music, happy people, amazing weather, beautiful beaches, mental nightlife and all the rest.”

Mt Etna erupts

7. Sicily, Italy The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has the three Cs �" culture, cuisine and calm. Laden with orange and lemon orchards, the countryside of Sicily boasts spectacular natural beauty �" great for relaxing. One TripAdvisor traveller recommended, “If you are in Sicily, go on the sunset tour of Mount Etna. You are brought up in 4x4s and can see the steaming ground and smell the sulfur.”

8. Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain The largest island in Spain and part of the Balearic Islands, Majorca features mountainous terrain and beautiful beaches �" the perfect escape for a holiday. Have a drink at the Abaco Bar housed in an old Majorcan manor house with a baroque-esque interior. As one TripAdvisor traveller put it, “Visit the Abaco bar - it's hidden behind giant wooden church-like doors, but inside it's a theatrical experience not to be missed!”

9. Capri, Campania, Italy Off the coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula, Capri is an island of magical scenery. Take a boat through the not-to-be-missed Blue Grotto, a beautiful sea cave, apparently once used by Roman emperors as a personal bath. According to one TripAdvisor traveller, “The calm sea makes it easy to get into the grotto thru the cliff wall, and the sun shining gives the water the most beautiful blue colour.”


10. Malta, Republic of Malta Steeped in culture and history, Malta also features beautiful beaches and secluded coves, making the island feel like paradise. Stroll along Dingli Cliffs, watching the sunset at the highest area in Malta or visit the impressive Hypogeum temple featuring the sleeping Venus of Malta at the entrance. As one TripAdvisor traveller said about Malta, “It has all the Mediterranean inducements: amazingly clear, blue, warm waters, blue skies, sidewalk cafes, good food and wine and charming villages.”

October 31, 2008

Queensland's Western Downs: Highways to History

The collection of highways traversing Queensland's Western Downs takes the traveller on a journey which is rich in history writes Adrienne Costin.

Look at a map of the Western Downs, an area of roughly 126,000 sqkm to the west of Brisbane and you'll find an impressive collection of highways as it is the hub for the road network travelling north/south and east/west in Queensland.

Nine highways run through the region including the Carnarvon Highway, which starts at Mungindi on the southern border and leads north to the Carnarvon National Park above Injune, the Barwon which runs between Goondiwindi and St George and is named after the Barwon River, a main tributary of the Darling River, as well as the Moonie and Balonne Highways which are part of the Adventure Way.

The Great Inland Way enters the Downs from the south at the tiny town of Hebel, population 28, home to a welcoming pub and the tearooms at the Crafty Yum Yum Café. Like the rest of the Downs, the land around the little township stretches leisurely to the horizon, sometimes framed by trees or dotted with lonely specimens who stand tall alone. The Hotel opened in 1894 and was a Cobb & Co stopover. The original village store, built three years later also remains and local legend also reckons the Kelly gang used the town as a hang-out.

October 27, 2008


david ellis

BACK in 1961 Elvis Presley rocked his way through a musical blockbuster that had him playing the role of a tour guide for a group of giggling American school girls and their teacher holidaying around Hawaii.

It was called Blue Hawaii and was the story of ex-GI Chad Gates coming home to a dizzy Mom – bizarrely played by Angela Lansbury who was just nine years older than the 26-year old Presley at the time – and a bossy father who wanted him to go into the family's pineapple canning business.

The independent Chad teams up instead with travel agent girlfriend Maile Duval (Joan Blackman,) and after singing and strumming his ukulele through a then movie-record fourteen rocka-hula songs inevitably marries her in one of Tinsel Town's most memorable wedding scenes on a barge on a picturesque Kauai lagoon.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s and a Californian-born tour guide escorting a group that includes four Aussie girls on the Big Overseas Adventure, travelling from Vancouver through the Rockies and across Canada to New York. 

One of them, attractive Sydney brunette Amanda Stewart catches the eye of the handsome Shamus Watkins, and at the end of the tour they decide to keep in touch.

And yes, inevitably Shamus comes out to Australia to visit, and yes inevitably they get married here…

And while they now have each other and their jobs – Amanda as a legal secretary and Shamus a guide with Sydney's Bridge Climb – they share another mutual love: the Southern Highlands of NSW, and its emerging cool-climate wine industry.

There's probably little wonder: Amanda's family has owned a small rural retreat at Canyonleigh in the Highlands for decades and it's been part of her life since a little girl, while Shamus grew up in California's famous Napa Valley wine country and worked in some of its best winery restaurants while not on the road guiding tour groups.

And this month they've put their combined years in tourism, the wine industry and the Southern Highlands to good use to launch all-inclusive wine tours from Sydney to this emerging new wine region.

They've appropriately dubbed it Southern Crush Wine Tours and are initially including four of the region's twenty-plus boutique wineries in full-day tours, with pick-ups from several Sydney CBD locations for the trip to the Southern Highlands, which interestingly are an hour closer to Sydney than the Hunter Valley wine region.

There is also a pick-up at the Southern Highlands Visitor Centre at Mittagong for those from areas other than Sydney wanting to join tours from there.

Numbers are limited to a maximum of just twenty and guests are provided with a "tasting tool kit" comprising such things as information about each winery and their wine styles, tips on wine tasting, a history of the region, and food and wine pairing.

Wineries visited have been chosen for the different experiences they offer, and the willingness of owners and winemakers to talk to Shamus and Amanda's guests about the region's award-winning light and elegant style wines.

The first call is to Centennial Vineyards Winery for a tasting, a look at the modern winery and to hear something of the basics of winemaking, followed by Eling Forest Winery & Restaurant for an appreciation of wine and food matching over a gourmet 3-course lunch (guests are given a menu when they join the coach, and their orders phoned through in advance.)

After lunch there's a visit to the historic colonial town of Berrima and its famous galleries, antique and curio shops, then Blue Metal Vineyard for a wine and Southern Highlands gourmet cheese tasting – cooler boxes are carried on coaches for guests to bring back cheeses or other gourmet food purchases – and finally Joadja Vineyards & Winery for a behind-the-scenes look in the winery and a tasting in the vineyard.

Initially tours will run every Friday and Saturday, with plans for four or five weekly.

Pick-ups begin at 7.30am in Sydney's CBD and coaches return at approximately 6.30pm; price including wine and cheese tastings, lunch and a professional guide is $149 per person.

Phone (02) 8516 0031 or visit for individual or small group bookings or full-coach charters for corporates or clubs.


[] ON TRACK – Shamus Watkins with Southern Highlands wine trail map

[] CENTENNIAL Winery & Restaurant, first call on new NSW Southern Highland wine tours

[] BOUTIQUE Eling Forest Winery & Restaurant includes wine and food matching over a 3-course gourmet lunch

(Photos: Tourism Southern Highlands)

October 20, 2008


david ellis with john crook

IT'S a bit like the mystery of the one sock in the washing machine.

There are signs everywhere warning of the presence of bears. And how dangerous bears can be.

The friendly staff at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge constantly repeat the warnings, and fellow guests tell us of their Close Encounters of the Bear Find in the surrounding spruce forests.

But we've been here a week and we've walked bush trails, and hiked lake frontages and not a bear have we seen. Are all these signs and all this talk, we start to ask ourselves, just part of a big publicity stunt to get us – and others from around the world – to this vast Canadian wilderness?

We even find on the Travel Alberta website a "Bear Update" that tells us where bears have been seen – and again how dangerous they can be.

"They're on the move now that Spring is here, looking for berry crops," it warns. Adding that campers should ensure that any food, garbage and recyclables are stowed away and bear-proofed.

So, hey, in the hope of seeing bears, cameras slung around our necks, we go in search of a camp ground. We find several, but still there's not a bear to be found. Maybe they've become wise to all that bear-proofing of what was once easy pickings?

But there's plenty more to be enjoyed here in this most northerly and largest National Park in Canada's famous Rockies, and we decide to finish our stay with an early morning round of golf – after all, the Jasper Park Lodge has been listed as best golf resort in Canada.

But even here we're thwarted, for just as we're about to tee-off next morning, who comes ambling down the fairway to put us off our swing? Not one, not two, but a whole damn family of them: Bears - Mum, Dad and their coupla kids. Wandering along in a world of their own, stopping occasionally to sniff the air and sensing we – now rapidly retreating – human intruders.

We take shelter in the car and click away to our hearts content, telling anyone who'll listen that it was worth a week's wait for this magical moment.

And we guess that really, while that magic half hour will remain with us forever, it's the spectacular surrounding Rockies that is the big attraction here.

"A little bit of heaven," are the words we hear over and again as we wend our way across to Lake Louise, where we pinch ourselves and decide that it was here the WOW factor was created.

Amid the craggy snow-capped peaks that tower into the skies, is the fabled Lake Louise, and next to it and beside a massive glacier, is the very indulgent Fairmont Chateau Resort: it doesn't come cheap, but even if you're staying elsewhere its well worth visiting the hotel for a drink in one of its bars, or a meal in the restaurant for the reward of its million-dollar views – no, MULTI-million dollar views.

And for a walk around the lake and onto Victoria Glacier – and a bracing diversion 3.5k's along trails first opened into the Rockies in the 1890s  to the remarkable Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.

This extraordinary place was built of local stones gathered-up by a Swiss artisan for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1924, and to this day still has no electricity or gas, the kitchens that turn out the most marvellous always-warm scones, jam and cream, tea, coffee and other refreshments relying on an ancient fuel stove.

And just as they did back in the 1920s, staff bring-in fresh supplies daily by  backpack or on horseback.

The Fairmont Hotel chain also have a luxury property at Banff Springs in neighbouring British Columbia that was built for the well-heeled traveller of the early 20th century venturing to the largest accumulation of snow and ice south of the Arctic Circle in the Columbia Icefield.

Amongst the highlights of adventures here is Brewster Tours' million-dollar ice-terrain vehicle, Ice Explorer onto the ancient Athabasca Glacier that stretches over six kilometres long and a kilometre wide.

For a Canadian Rockies holiday ask travel agents or Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 about packages incorporating Fairmont Hotels and Lodges.



[] AIN'T he cute? Maybe, but he's not to be toyed with on the green

[] A LITTLE bit of Heaven: escaping to the Rockies' Chateau Lake Louse where the WOW factor was created

[] WHEN its time to head for the hills... Banff Springs Chateau Fairmont

(Photos: Canadian Tourism)

October 16, 2008


david ellis
THE Mt Lyell Mining Company had good reason for the motto it affixed to the front of the first locomotive it ran from Tasmania's western port of Strahan to it's copper mine thirty-five tortuous kilometres away in the wild coastal hinterland.
It read "Labour Omnia Vincit," Latin for "We Find A Way Or Make It."
It was March 1897, and today there's every chance that even with 21st century technology no company would be foolhardy enough to even contemplate a railway like that of the Mt Lyell Mining Company.
For here was a line whose locos using the then-revolutionary Abt Horizontal Cog-wheel System to traverse tracks that in places climbed mountains at almost-impossible 1-in-16 inclines, crossed some of the most ingenious hand-built bridges in railway history, and ran through cuttings hand-dug 20-metres deep through rock and clay – one alone requiring the removal of 80,000 barrow-loads of rock.
And all this amid confronting conditions that included torrential rain, ice, bushfires, floods, countless snakes and millions of leeches.
But somehow despite it all, when Mt Lyell in the early 1900s became Australia's largest mine at the time, the unique little narrow-gauge railway chugged away for 67-years, "truly earning its keep" the company said, before finally being closed in the 1960s.
Today it is running again, the line having been re-opened in 2002 at a cost of $30m from the Federal and Tasmanian Governments and with huge public support – and with two of its original five Abt locomotives internationally recognised as the world's oldest restored working steam locos.
It took a special breed to build the Mt Lyell Railway, both in the field and in the boardroom. Surveyors cut 500-kilometres of tracks through the wilderness before finding a suitable route for the line after gold, silver and then copper were found by adventurous prospectors who followed river courses into the seemingly-impenetrable hinterland.
Those surveyor's reports back to the boardroom told of impassable mountains and rainforests so dense the sun never touched the earth, of sudden floods washing away camps and equipment, of lightning-strike wildfires, and of ravines just twenty metres wide and little deeper, that would take a day to cut a track down one side and another day to climb the opposite.
But company directors, dubbed by one historian as "lion hearts fired by wild optimism," were determined to press ahead, and announced their railway on November 24 1892.
Vast teams of navvies contracted to build the line were mostly inadequately outfitted for the weather and terrain, and to compound their misery lived for weeks on end on a monotonously unbroken diet of canned food; hundreds became ill and walked away as soon as they had enough money for a steamer fare back to the mainland.
Thousands of trees were felled by axe and cross-cut saw and turned into timber for hundreds of thousands of rail sleepers – and over forty bridges that made up over six per cent of the length of the line.
And the longest bridge, a 110-tonne, 43-metre iron structure was shipped out from England.
To get it into position across the King River it was lowered from the ship onto a high trestle mounted on a barge, which was then towed into position and weighed down with thousands of sandbags that sank it low enough for the bridge to settle on its concrete abutments, and for the barge to float free.
Today thousands of visitors from around the world ride the restored Mt Lyell Railway that originally hauled copper ingots from smelters at Queenstown in the mountains, and also carried hardy pioneer passengers, 35km to Regatta Point at Strahan on the coast.
Now dubbed the West Coast Wilderness Railway it's one of the world's great wild-country train rides, with stops at several historic stations and sites along the way, and in places seeming to cling precariously to vertical cliffs that overlook wild rivers raging hundreds of metres below.
Onboard guides tell the history of the original railway, the unique Abt system, the restoration of the line, engines and passengers carriages, and point out places of historical importance: one-way by rail and the other by coach takes approximately five hours and costs from $123pp. Book through Federal Hotels 1800 420 155.
[] STANDING at the station, high in Tasmania's wilderness.
[] WORLD's oldest restored working steam locomotive.
[] (Inset: Clinging to vertical cliffs overlooking wild rivers hundreds of
metres below.)
(Photos: John Crook and Tasmanian Tourism)

October 11, 2008

Michael Palin: Eighty Days Revisited

I'm conscious, as ever, that a lot of water has flown under the bridge since my last message. Since then I've been working hard at an edit of my Diaries 1980 -1988 in time for publication next year, whilst watching Archie grow up and trying to come to terms with my identity theft by a hockey mum in Alaska. And no, Sarah Palin is not my sister, daughter or alias. And I'm Sahara Palin not Sarah.

After a grey old summer in London I'm about to set out for the heat again with some of the old team, on a new journey, currently called 80 Days Revisited, which will hopefully be shown as a one-hour special on BBC-1 around Christmas. At the same time Weidenfeld and Nicolson are publishing a new edition of Around The World In Eighty Days. Because some of the original pictures have gone missing in the twenty years since, we've trawled the archives and found some great new photographs and the book will be completely re-designed. I've written some new material, including a new preface and a short new chapter describing our return visit. So here, good and patient website friends, is the latest on the latest journey.

Eighty Days Revisited

A new look at an old adventure

In Eighty Days Revisited we may not be going back to the Reform Club or ballooning over the Rockies, but we will be returning to the scene of one of the best-remembered sequences of any of my travel adventures, the dhow journey From Dubai to Bombay, episode three of Around The World In Eighty Days. As we sailed agonisingly slowly down the Persian Gulf on board one of world's oldest surviving traditional sailing ships we formed a unique relationship with our Indian crew. Mutual incomprehension gradually gave way to friendship and affection, as we accepted the fact that our lives, and the success of our journey Around The World In Eighty Days was in the hands of this band of ragged, under-paid sailors from Gujerat.

After a week at sea together, I found our farewell at Bombay to be one of the most emotional moments on all of my travels. As I said on film at the time : "It's almost impossible to accept that I shall never see them again".

Well, twenty years after we waved each other good-bye in the crowded waters off Bombay I'm trying to prove that nothing is impossible by setting out on a search for the crew of the Al-Sharma.

With the same cameraman who shot the original dhow journey we shall re-visit Dubai and meet those who found us the dhow in the first place, and then on to Bombay, now Mumbai, to see if, in the intervening twenty years that great teeming city has changed in more than just name. From Mumbai we take the over-night train north and west to the little town on the Indian Ocean from where many of Al-Sharma's crew hailed.

What happens here is far from certain, but I'm hoping to make contact with as many as possible of my old ship-mates. If all goes well we'll renew a unique friendship by sitting down together to watch, marvel and laugh ourselves silly at our adventures of twenty years' ago, when, together, we made our slow but happy way from the Middle East to India.

This return journey, the first I've ever attempted, will be as much of a challenge as the originals. There are plenty of if's and but's on the way, but, for me, and hopefully for you, this promises to make Eighty Days Revisited all the more exciting.

Michael P, September 2008

October 07, 2008

Lima: The City of Kings

Founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, as La Ciudad de los Reyes, or ‘The City of Kings’, Peru’s capital Lima, is an enchanting city which is guaranteed to capture the hearts of everyone who visits there.

This undeniably cosmopolitan city blends the excitement of a modern bustling metropolis with a strong dash of old world charm.

This blend of ‘old and new’ will be apparent upon walking through the city you will see fourth-century Pre-Columbian ruins which are nestled in the long shadows of office towers, and Spanish Colonial buildings line the historic central square.

La Catedral or the Cathedral is a must see attraction, originally constructed in 1555 this central landmark still stands even after suffering earthquake damages twice in its history.

Lima is the gastronomic capital of the continent, which boasts a range of delectable dining options ranging from suave seaside restaurants to hole-in-the-wall eateries; the city caters to every taste and budget.

The capital’s world renowned cuisine fuses Andean and Spanish culinary traditions, as well as some African, Asian, French, Italian and Muslim cuisine.

The two most famous restaurants in Lima are the Rosa Nautica and the Costa Verde, both located on the sea front and both specialising in fish.

Don't leave the city without trying traditional Lima dishes (criollo), including Ceviche which is raw fish marinated in lemon juice and chilli or the distinctively sweet mazamorra morada (a purple corn pudding).

Lima has an exciting entertainment centre with bars such as San Isidro's havens for the modern elite to Barranco's cheerful and inexpensive stomping grounds.

Weekends from January to March also see the fresh-from-the-beach summer crowds heading down to Kilometer 97 on the Panamericana for the nightlife.

On August 30, the locals celebrate Santa Rosa de Lima, with a giant street procession honouring the patron saint of Lima and the Americas.

El Señor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles) is heralded on October 18 by a huge religious procession where locals clad in purple clothing take over the streets in celebration.

In late July, the entire country is turned upside down as Peruvians celebrate Fiestas Patrias (National Independence Days), and Lima is no exception, with lively street parties and dancing.

Tourists who are planning to visit Lima are faced with a task that at best could be described as challenging and that is deciding which time of year to visit the capital city.

From April to early December, a melancholy garúa (coastal fog) blankets the sun in a fine, grey mist. Come December, however, the sun shines through and Limeños (Lima locals) head in droves for the beaches. Warm temperatures (accompanied by high humidity) continue through to March.

The best time to visit is in March and April, when the sun is still shining, or in early to mid-December, before it gets too sticky.

October 06, 2008


david ellis

I'VE been trying to talk my mate Ron into writing a book.

Because Ron was an ambassador. Not any old ambassador, but a special ambassador.

For a hotel. His job was to look after the VIP of VIPs, people like royalty and business tycoons, and film stars and entertainers and, yes, visiting ambassadors. And once an elephant.

Name a name and Ron can tell you something about the person behind it – after all he spent 32-years at the home of VIPS, the very swishy Regent Beverly Wilshire, of Pretty Woman fame, on LA's best-known street, Rodeo Drive.

Ron Howard was the hotel's Night Manager. And because of the hours he worked he found himself handling some intriguing situations, and often fielding some weird requests from those who'd maybe had an extra glass or three in the course of the day, and now needed urgent assistance in the passion of the resultant moment.

And no matter how whacky some requests sounded, or whom they were made by, Ron always seemed able to come to the rescue with goods, services and, yes, shackles. So diplomatically so, that many appreciative guests started writing not to the General Manager or other executives with requests for special favours upon their arrival, but directly to Ron.

So the hotel gonged him as their "Ambassador," the man whom regular guests could ensure would have their favourite table set aside in the restaurant, their usual suite awaiting them, candles and flowers for that smoochy occasion, vintage Champers on ice for that deal-clinching dinner…

And the needs of that elephant.

The dumbo thing had got stuck in the hotel's lift doorway on the way out after starring in a corporate promotion in the ballroom, and despite everyone's pushing and shoving, couldn't be budged.

Come Ron to the rescue - with a packet of peanuts. He simply scattered them across the carpet and, hey presto, one baby elephant takes a deep breath and walks out for a feed.  Now that's real ambassador stuff for you.

And he's been called on to diplomatically resolve diplomatic situations: when Britain's top pop group at the time chucked a party and got into a food fight, wrecked a chandelier and generally trashed the room, were they thrown out?

Nah.  Ron "had a bit of a chat" with the lads' manager and got a cheque for the damage, plus a promise they'd address their behaviour better in the future.

And as a special hoot when Frank Sinatra celebrated his 55th birthday at the hotel, instead of a blonde bimbo popping out of the over-size birthday cake, Ron arranged to have Sinatra's mate, Sammy Davis Jnr do it… while on another occasion for a charity fund-raiser he set-up a half-size soccer field in the ballroom, and asked  Pele to launch the night by kicking the ball from one end of the artificial turf into the goal at the other.

Not to be out-done, another participant tried to replicate this skill, but put the ball through a $30,000 Venetian-crystal chandelier. "I couldn't smooth-over that one," Ambassador Ron later told me. "It was our General Manager."

Ron also got hold of a Mariachi band to surprise an entourage of visiting Mexican V-VIPs, had the entire Boston Pops Orchestra strike up the band at a political convention, and arranged garaging when Steve McQueen moved into the hotel with his collection of motorbikes for a long-term stay.

And he's become mates with others who've stayed long-term at the Beverly Wilshire, including Elton John, Mick Jagger and Andrew Lloyd Weber, while most members of the British Royal Family, the Dalai Lama, Aga Khan and Japanese Emperors have all propped there and rubbed shoulders with him.

And Hollywood made parts of Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts at the hotel, although the Presidential Suite seen in the movie was actually a replica built in a Hollywood studio.

A few years back, Ron decided to move on, becoming Director of Sales (Middle East) for LA's equally-grand Beverly Hills Hotel.

And I reckon that with his diplomatic skills he's just the bloke who one day will announce when he's got both sides to end the war in Iraq.

Which is why I'm trying to get him to write that book.



[] LA's best-known address, the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Rodeo Drive.

[] "AMBASSADOR" Ron Howard hams it up at the keyboard during an Epicurean Society dinner at the hotel.   

(Photos: Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.)

October 03, 2008


david ellis & john crook
IT had all the makings of a Hollywood block-buster: a wild and stormy night, a shipwreck and the captain going down with his vessel, and just two survivors – a beautiful young girl and a handsome young man washed ashore to the sanctuary of a cave on one of the most treacherous stretches of coast on earth.
And a final dash for help that culminates with our young hero carrying the shivering and semi-conscious maiden to the refuge of a bed in a remote country farmhouse…
But despite all this it lacked the most vital of all for Hollywood – there was no romance. And the reason was that 18-year old beauty Eva Carmichael was a daughter of 19th century British aristocracy, while handsome Tom Pearce was a mere apprentice seaman.
The tiny 1700-tonne clipper ship Loch Ard was almost at the end of a 3-months voyage from England to Melbourne when, at dawn on June 1 1878, she ran aground in heavy fog and wild seas on Mutton Bird Island near Victoria's Port Campbell.
Her captain, George Gibb had battled for hours to keep her clear of the island, and when she finally struck many of the seventeen crew and 37 passengers – who just hours before had ended a party celebrating the virtual end of their long journey at sea – were killed by collapsing masts and spas, that also prevented ship's boats from being launched.
Within ten minutes the Loch Ard had rolled on her side, sinking with all on board except Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce.
Tom managed to paddle ashore on the smashed remains of a lifeboat, and struggled up a beach to shelter from the wind and rain in a cave in a narrow gorge. Soon after he heard Eva's screams in the surf and sighted her clinging alternately to a chicken coop and part of a ship's spa.
By now she had been in the water five hours, and after swimming to her rescue Tom dragged her to the safety of his cave. Then in still-pouring rain he climbed to the top of the cliff and miraculously bumped into two workers from a nearby sheep station.
After he blurted out his story the men gathered blankets from their homestead and with Tom raced back Eva who, clad only in a wet nightdress, was now semi-conscious and suffering hyperthermia; the young apprentice seaman insisted in carrying her himself to the homestead, where they spent several days recuperating.
Upon hearing their story the Melbourne media went into near-frenzy; Tom received a hero's reception including a gold watch from the State Governor and the first Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society of Victoria – while hundreds openly prayed for romance to blossom between Tom and Eva.
But such was not to be, and they never saw each other again – with virtually all her family lost aboard the Loch Ard, Eva returned to an only brother in Ireland while Tom fulfilled his wish to become a ship's captain (and was shipwrecked twice more.)
The story of Tom and Eva is told nightly in Shipwrecked, a sound and laser show at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village at Warrnambool, near western Victoria's world-famous Shipwreck Coast, a disaster zone that since European settlement has claimed an astonishing 700-something vessels.
The nightly show is not only a gripping tale in itself, but remarkably is projected onto a huge wall of water rather than a screen; the Maritime Village also incorporates an original lighthouse and light-keeper's cottage, replica shops, a sail-makers workshop, an historic shipping agency office, an old bank, chapel, Masonic Temple and a cosy Tea Room that serves the most wonderful traditional Devonshire Teas.
Numerous artefacts from many of the shipwrecks along the neighbouring coast are on display in the Museum – look out in particular for a spectacular 1.5m high porcelain peacock that survived the sinking of the Loch Ard, and floated ashore unscathed in its wooden crate two days after the tragedy.
GETTING THERE: WARRNAMBOOL is on the Great Ocean Road, 260km south-west of Melbourne. Bookings for the nightly Shipwrecked Sound & Laser Show are essential; for information phone 1800 637 725 or (03) 5559 4620. It's also an easy drive to Loch Ard Gorge in which Tom and Eva initially sheltered in their cave.
LOCH ARD Gorge was anything but picturesque and tranquil on the wild and stormy night that claimed the small clipper ship after which she is named.
FLAGSTAFF HILL Maritime Museum is a working village that takes visitors back in time.
EXHIBITIONS ashore and afloat have something of interest for those of all ages.
(PHOTOS - John Crook)

September 22, 2008


david ellis

I ASK my wife to pinch me, drawing one of those long-suffering looks that can be conjured up only by long-suffering wives.

"It's just to know that I've not died and gone to heaven," I tell her.

We're gazing across from breakfast on the deck of our little cruise ship to a minute speck of land called Mayreau in the Caribbean's Grenadines, an emerald mermaid garlanded with a necklace of white as she floats in the bluest of blue seas.

Mayreau looks convincingly straight out of the Garden of Eden, and we're told that in fact, at under four square kilometres, it is one of the tiniest dots in all of the jumbled patchwork of islands and cays that make up the Caribbean.

Cameras clatter endlessly and our anchor breaks the glass-flat surface of the bay with barely a splash. Ship's engines sigh to a halt; it's quiet, unbelievably quiet. Just the faint whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the radar scanner, the squawk of a lone sea-bird overhead, the hint of flags flapping in a zephyr of a breeze, distant laughter from one of the half-dozen yachts at anchor in this tiny aquatic paradise…

Half an hour later we're landing ashore from our ship's tender… just 110 of us on Day 6 of a 7-day cruise from San Juan to Barbados. And ninety-five crew – nearly one for every one of us – many of whom are already ashore preparing a grand day of beach games, splashing in the water, hiking a bush trail, snorkelling the reef, and wining and dinning on our own reserved stretch of talcum white sand.

Mayreau is peopled by just 300 of some of the Caribbean's friendliest and most extraordinarily polite souls who live in a hillside village that's simply called The Village.

They have no airport, no communal electricity, and no running water, and between them own just four motorized vehicles – and they've a ban on jet skis and similar annoyingly noisy playthings.

There's a Catholic church, a few guesthouses and a private resort tucked away in the bush.

All overlook the bay with those half dozen yachts displaying flags from America, Canada, Europe... and our own little cruise ship, the 55-couples SeaDream II that with her sister SeaDream I are the only cruisers small enough to slip into this peaceful haven from November to April – the big fellas must cruise right-on by.

Ancient volcanic peaks of surrounding islands claw their way up into wispy strands of clouds that float overhead with a languidness unique to the tropics.

And as the vegetation is as green and lush as the beaches are golden and white, we realise why Hollywood chose this maze of islands that was the bolt-hole of many a pirate captain in days of yore, to film Pirates of the Caribbean.

The few restaurants and bars feature West Indian cuisine – loads of chillies, garlic, onions and spices tossed into frying pans of fresh local seafoods, poultry and tropical fruits and vegetables – and cater to visiting yachties and a smattering of tourists who come by ferry from neighbouring islands for a day in paradise.

For today our own private stretch of beach has been swept clean by our Mayreauan hosts, and our ship's crew soon have rainbows of cocktails (including their own unique rum-based PainKiller) passing amongst us; bottled waters, soft drinks, beers and wines (that are all included from the bars and at meal-times throughout our week's cruise) appear from ice boxes, table-cloths are laid, crockery and cutlery spread, beach umbrellas pop up like lollipops...

And while the butts of beef, the pork ribs, sausages, hamburgers, shrimps and chicken drumsticks sizzle over charcoal barbecues, salads, desserts, fresh-baked cakes and fruit platters are spread along tables under the trees and a huge thatch-roofed gazebo.

And somehow a local steel band materialises out of the bush and is soon banging out Never on Sunday, Lambada, Hot Hot Hot,  My Way… and of course a foot-tapping Island In The Sun.

I again ask my wife to pinch me. I really do need to know that I've not died and gone to heaven…

(To find out more about cruising to the Caribbean's Mayreau see your favourite travel agent or check-out

[] SEADREAM II joins cruising yachties off tiny Mayreau Island in the Caribbean – only the smallest of cruise ships can get in here.

[] BUBBLY on the beach for lucky visitors to this part of the Caribbean.

[] TOE-tapping steel band that "materialised from the bush" during lunch break on idyllic Mayreau.

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