July 28, 2008


john crook & david ellis

NEXT time you're thinking about that special-occasion family shindig or a knees-up with all the mates, forget about worrying how you'll fit 'em all into the sunroom and the backyard – head to NSW's Central Tablelands and hire yourself a homestead.

Not only will it come complete with enough rooms and loos, and with a whopping 4000ha around it to cater to every whimsy of the grandkids to the grans, there'll be no need to die of thirst: it's even got its own winery.

Anything from a handful to sixty of you will be able to sit around the tables indoors or under the stars and muse over the glorious past of this circa-1836 property, and its history through the Gold Rush, bushranger-era (Ben Hall was a frequent uninvited visitor,) Cobb & Co, the wool boom, the Great Depression… and how its brash Colonial owners had the audacity in 1937 to take a pot-shot at England's most-esteemed polo event, and to the Pom's consternation, win.

Millamolong Estate & Winery is just four hours drive from Sydney and centred in a triangle bounded by Bathurst, Cowra and Orange.

Its latter-day history goes back to the 1920s when James Ashton Snr, who rose from humble beginnings to become Minister for Lands in the NSW Administrative Assembly in 1895, bought his four sons James Hay, Bob, Geoff and Philip a property called Markdale on the Southern Tablelands.

The boys became keen horsemen and hearing of a new sport called polo being played at Goulburn, went there to investigate; back home on Markdale they played the game with vigour with their workers, and began breeding special ponies with the speed and dexterity to suit the sport.

And on Fridays they'd trot these ponies 90km to Goulburn, play a couple of games of polo over the weekend, and trot their horses the 90km back home.

Then to the bemusement of the Brits, and on a shoestring budget, they took twenty-six of their ponies to England in 1930 to challenge for the world's premier Champions Cup at Hurlington; they were beaten by a margin and subsequently invited to the USA by the newly-formed Long Island Pony Club.

They took the Americans by storm and played against teams that included the likes of Walt Disney and the Peabodys, then sold their polo horses for US$76,000, a $30,000,000 fortune in today's terms, and came home

Being cashed-up, they each bought a grazing property – James Hay Ashton choosing the 4000ha Millamolong, which is still run today by his descendants.

(In 1937, the Ashton boys returned to England, and to the horror of the Poms came home with the cherished Champions Cup.)

As well as remaining one of Australia's most famous polo-playing families, the present-day Ashtons also run one of the largest polo clubs and polo pony breeding programs in NSW from Millamolong.

City-slickers can take themselves for a holiday here and enjoy an extraordinary diversity of country activities from playing pretend-farmers by day to indulging the good life of the "squattocracy" over a grand dinner and a bottle or three of Millamolong's own wines at night.

There're kilometres of horse-riding trails amongst rolling hills, deep gullies and 16km along the picturesque Belubula River, walking tracks, mountain biking, tennis, a pool in the warmer months, a BBQ next to the tennis court, bird-watching for many rare species, and the circa-1930s Edna Walling Garden that attracts garden-lovers from around the world.

For kids there're calves and lambs to feed (in season,) working sheep dogs, and pony rides.

The 28ha vineyard provides fruit for the Millamolong Winery's cool-climate Chardonnay, Shiraz, Riesling, Cabernet Shiraz and Merlot wines.

STAYING THERE:  The Homestead sleeps up to 18 and costs $1200 per night; The Farmhouse 28 and costs $800 per night; Wattle Cottage 7-guests $280 per night; Primrose Cottage 4-guests $220 per night. The captivating 1840s Post Office – once Australia's smallest – has bunkhouse overflow accommodation.

Buildings can be booked individually and prices negotiated for smaller groups for each; catering is available if you want a kitchen-free break. Phone (02) 6367 5241 or check-out www.millamolong.com

(FOOTNOTE: Millamolong means "Sick Man's Creek;" in days of yore Aboriginal tribes would walk vast distances to drink its healing waters that are rich in calcium, magnesium and other minerals.)




. TO the homestead born: Millamolong can sleep up to sixty for that next big knees-up – complete with caterers if you want.

. SUNBURNT country: you'll have 4000ha in which to play pretend-farmer or simply ride into the sunset.

.  THE BUNKHOUSE was once Australia's smallest Post Office.

- Photos: John Crook


July 26, 2008

Gebel Abbas Basha: Sinai Stories

Nassir, Bedouin Guide at the top  of Abbas Basha
Nassir, Bedouin Guide at the top of Abbas Basha

By Melanie Horkan

It is almost dark when we get to the top of Gebel Abbas Basha, one of the highest peaks in the ragged Sinai Mountains. The ruined remains of what was once part of a magnificent Ottoman fortress look down over the most incredible view of the mountain ranges. The ruins were once intended to be a palace built by Abbas Hilmi Pasha, an Ottoman monarch, who was dying of bad health and thought that living in the Sinai mountains with its pristine air quality would cure him. He started to build a palace in 1750 at an altitude of 2304 metres, but died before it was finished, without ever having set foot on this mountain and contemplated this incredible view.

This evening, watching as the sun casts a golden glow over folds of pink granite, it’s not hard to imagine why this awe-inspiring landscape has attracted pilgrims, prophets, kings and explorers who have trekked through these lands in search of the divine. Even for the non-believer, there is an incredible urge to get up here and want to believe in something even if it is just the power of the mountains and all that this incredibly rich historical area has seen and experienced. On most days you can see the Gulf of Aqaba and the mountain region of Saudi Arabia although they elude us on this evening.

The air is dry and a thin dust has coated everything. On the other side of the mountain the dying light melts long shadows into the horizon. Most people who venture inland from Egypt's Red Sea coast bypass this magical place. They usually head straight to either Jebel Musa or Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Which is a shame as there is another world, far away from the busloads of tourists who crowd around these famous Biblical landmarks in the Sinai.

It is a world far away from the hedonistic delights of resorts like Sharm on the Red Sea. It is a world of silent canyons, ancient mountain peaks dotted with lush Bedouin gardens, oases with date palms and Byzantine Ruins. Trekking through this part of the Sinai will mean that you are treated to the unparalleled warmth and hospitality offered by the local Bedouin people.

We’re in the Sinai Mountains to film a short film about Sheik Sina, a Bedouin run trekking company. We’ve been up since sunrise and my feet are heavy and clumsily knock little rocks over, as we get closer to the top. We’d risen before the dawn to film the sunrise and make sure that we had enough time to trek through the wadis (dried riverbeds) and get here by sunset. The trekking had been quite tough in places and more than once we’d found ourselves scrambling over rocks and pulling ourselves up with our hands to keep up with our Bedouin guide, Nassir. The landscape in the Sinai Peninsula is shaped by wind as well as by water, with bizarre oversized boulders and the deep wadis to negotiate.

Sunset over Abbas Basha
Several hours earlier we’d arrived at what we thought was going to be our camp for the night only to discover that we still had another few hours to go to reach the top of this peak if we were to make it in time to see the sunset. It was now almost ten hours later and Nassir was telling us we still had another couple of hours to go. Even though I had thought that I couldn’t go on physically and part of me had wanted to cry I’d pushed on and the rewards had been a heart-breakingly beautiful sunset over Ottoman Ruins at Abbas Basha.

We sat high up on the crumbling pillars of the Abbas Basha ruins and watched as the light gradually seeped into the folds of mountain skin until there was but the barest band of gold around the edges of the sky. Down below, Nassir, our Bedouin guide was humming softly to himself as he prepared the smoky mint tea, which I had become totally addicted to. We’d clambered down from the ruins as the last of the light had slipped away to sit with Nassir around the fire. We sat around on hunched knees, holding the warm tea close to our lips as the little fire warmed us and listened to him telling us stories about the Bedouin.

Ottoman Ruins of Abbas Basha
The word Bedouin means ‘people of the desert’ or ‘constantly shifting horizon’ or ‘the beginning’ depending on who you talk to here. As he spoke, Nassir’s love and pride for his homeland was obvious and touching. He told us that even though he was married to a Bedouin woman now, a few years previously he’d had a relationship with a Belgian lady. She had come here as a tourist originally and had ended up meeting Nassir and staying. She had wanted him to come and live with her in Europe, but the thought of leaving these mountains to live in somewhere as flat as Belgium was inconceivable to him and so he had stayed.

Traditionally nomadic, the Bedouin rely on their knowledge of the landscape, flora and fauna for survival. As we walk along, Nassir, often stops to crush herbs gently in his fingers and letting us smell the fresh aromatic smells of wild mint (which he later makes the wonderfully smoky mint tea with), wild oregano (which is scattered with creamy fetta and spread on the delicious fresh ‘liba’ (pitta bread) and thyme.

Other times he points out plants which the Bedouin use to make tea with to cure stomach aches, or other plants that are used to cure toothache. Most of these plants are dry and prickly to survive the desert conditions. One day we stop to admire a very beautiful blue and white flowered plant, which looks strikingly luscious in comparison to the other plants. When we ask Nassir whether this plant has any medicinal purposes, he laughs and says that we should avoid this plant.

He tells us a very funny story about his brother and what happened when he sampled this particular plant. Apparently he had started to hallucinate and had reported seeing “many little camels jumping off the mountains”. He had to go to hospital for one month, but survived in the end. Clearly it was all part of his research though as he later went on to become a well-known Bedouin medicine man.

A sense of community and caring for their people is also an important part of Bedouin life, necessities really in the harsh desert landscape. Globalisation and the important strategic political borders in this part of the world means that the Bedouin way of life is increasingly at odds with the demands of the modern world.

However, rather than just sit back and allows their old ways be made redundant, the local Bedouin tribes have learnt to adapt and develop their way of life. Many of the Bedouins that we meet live in the villages and earn a living by either working as trekking guides, making jewellery or working in the local monasteries. All of the Bedouin that we met were keen to share their stories and their love of this landscape with the people who come here.

When I ask them how they feel about the disappearance of their old nomadic ways of life, they tell me that (as with all cultures facing the pressures of modernisation) they must adapt and evolve or perish. I reflect that it is often the tourist who thinks this way and wants to find traditional cultures or the sense of the exotic preserved unchanged forever in amber.

The European Union (EU) has been instrumental in funding projects that enable the local Bedouin tribes to share their culture, their love and knowledge of the desert with tourists. Some of these initiatives include employing Bedouin guides, funding initiatives like the Al-Karm Ecolodge (a beautiful lodge owned and run by a local Bedouin family near St Katherine’s) and promoting an awareness of the local Bedouin culture, which often gets overshadowed by the more obvious historical Biblical attractions in the area.

Sheik Sina, is a Bedouin run trekking company located in the South Sinai region. The company was founded by an EU initiative intended to equip Bedouin guides with hospitality management and language skills. The overall aim of the project is to improve mountain tourism operations in South Sinai by raising the quality of the mountain hikes in the area. Safety is of utmost importance, as is the emphasis placed on lowered environmental impacts. They’ve brought in experienced mountain guides from Europe to train the local Bedouin guides so that the ultimate result is Bedouins who have a fantastic knowledge of the mountains, combined with real safety and group trekking skills.

The empowerment of local guides is taken seriously and there are various education programs that ensure that the guides can continue to secure livelihoods through Sheikh Sina. Most of the guides we meet speak good English and there are plans afoot to give them more formal training in languages as well as mountaineering and guiding experience (above and beyond what their existing knowledge of their traditional mountain homes). Indeed our guide Nassir seems to speak at least three languages (English, German and French with a little Hebrew thrown in for good measure). We often find ourselves in the somewhat surreal predicament of speaking bits of French and German with him (not to mention his impressive command of Jamie Oliver catch phrases).

Up at the top of Abbas Basha, the sky has turned completely black and left the air bitterly cold. Even with two small head torches between us it is difficult to see the way. As we stumble clumsily along the path, Nassir steadily leads the way, lighting the path with a torch. After a few moments he stops and picks up a piece of white quartz.

He tells us he wants to show us a “Bedouin magical trick”. Taking the quartz, he begins to rub it in circles against one of the pink granite rocks, throwing little sparks out into the night. As his movements became faster he built up enough friction so that he creates a beautiful fluid white circle of light. “This is what we call a Bedouin torch”, he tells us and smiles.

We began to head down the mountain. As it had been hours from lunch, we were tired and hungry, and yet so physically exhausted and exhilarated by having made it to the top that we were actually in pretty good spirits. As we began to stumble our way through the darkness and the many loose stones, we quizzed Nassir for stories about any unusual experiences he’d had in the mountains.

An experienced Bedouin mountain guide, he said he had many but there was one that stood out. He started to tell us a story about a lady from New York who’d come over to the Sinai to trek in the mountains and ‘find herself’. Apparently she had ended up in the Sinai through a dream she had had. She’d woken in the middle of the night after a woman’s voice in the dream told her that she would ‘find herself’ in the Sinai Mountains. She’d told Nassir that she was neither religious nor prone to flights of fancy, but for some reason the dream had had a profound and lingering effect on her.

Nassir said, “She was a very strange lady. When she arrived she said hardly anything to me but she just handed me all her money. Three thousand dollars! Can you imagine? I didn’t want to take it but she said I had to that if we were going to spend one month in the desert she needed to be able to trust me fully. So I took her money but I said to her that she was getting every cent back. So we started walking in the mountains and she didn’t speak once. I would try and talk to her but she wouldn’t say anything. Just walking. Eating. Sleeping…Walking. So I thought if she’s paid me to be with her and show her these mountains but she doesn’t want to talk then that is her choice. So we’d just walk in silence. So we continued walking, eating, sleeping. For one month without talking. Then one day towards the end of the trek she suddenly something strange happened. We were coming down a mountain (much like this one) and she suddenly just started to sing. I thought it was totally strange. Not just talking first a little after all these weeks of silence, but singing, loud singing. And she just kept on and on…singing…”

We laugh and ask him whether she was a good singer?

Nassir laughs.

“She was actually….thank god! If she had been bad that would have been bad.”

“So maybe something was released – I mean by being in the mountains? Maybe she felt free finally?” I ask him.

Nassir thinks about this for a moment.

“Maybe. Yes, I think so. But maybe I also think she was not very well in the head. So at the end she still said nothing but she gave me this big hug and told me to keep the money. But of course I could not. And I knew she was not ‘right in the head’ so eventually she took it (all of it) back from me. So when we got back to the camp she decided she was going to stay in St Katherine’s. She didn’t want to go back to New York. So the Sheik said, ok you can stay for a few weeks. A few weeks turned into a few months and she kept doing this singing. Never talking to anyone but just singing.”

“Bit like an Arabic version of ‘The Sound Of Music’ huh?” I quip.

Nassir nods his head and laughs.

“Yes, exactly. Everyone was getting worried (even the Sheik) so we tried to find where her family might be. But the Internet here is not good – we have slow connection and sometimes it breaks so it was difficult. So one day a lady arrives from America. It is her sister and she is looking for her. However, this woman does not want to be found and she begs the Sheik not to tell her sister that she is here.”

“But the Sheik doesn’t think this is right. Family is all you have in this world. And after all, she is family so the Sheik tells the woman where her sister is. This woman runs away into the mountains when her sister arrives but eventually comes back. The sister thanks the Sheik and tells him that this woman had sold everything she had to come to the Sinai. She tells him that her sister had come here because she had a dream and had woken up in the middle of the night and someone in the dream had told her that she had to come here. So she’d sold everything that she’d had to come out here. But the sister had also told him that she was not well in her mind and that it was not the first time she’d done this sort of thing.”

“These mountains”, says Nassir, “They are special and they attract a lot of different people with their energy. Usually good people, but also a lot of strange people looking for something mystical or a religious experience”.

We are silent for a few moments and I feel suddenly sorry for the woman from New York. What has happened to her? Is she back there engulfed once again by the craziness of fast city life? I think of how she must miss the silence of the mountains, which is so different from the silence of a lonely one-bedroom inner city flat. I think about how she might miss the communal nature of the Bedouins with their toothy smiles and twinkling brown eyes. I think of her and hope she is not drowning somewhere.

We walk on a bit further down the mountain. After another thirty minutes or so we can smell wood smoke which I joyfully realise must mean we must be near Omreya’s garden where we have planned on camping for the night. Even better, the smoke also means that our dinner is not far away.

As we get closer, we can hear a donkey braying plaintively. He is tied up in the middle of the rocky path and possibly thinks we have food. We give him a friendly pat and then scramble over the loose rocks that form the wall around Omreya’s garden (strangely, there is no gate anywhere to be seen).

Omreya is sitting by the fire poking the embers occasionally with a stick. A scarf covers her face, and the soft wisps of her greying hair are plaited beautifully into a striking crimson headscarf. Even though her face is covered, her eyes sparkle as she smiles and she greets us by kissing us twice on each cheek and then a big bear hug. Usually the Bedouin women would be much more reserved, but Omreya knows Nassir well and has also met my friend before.
<< Omreya cooking dinner
A spirited Bedouin lady of sixty or so, Omreya lives up in the mountains alone by choice while her husband stays down in the village. Although it is very unusual for a Muslim woman to live alone like this, she loves the mountains and even though she has eight (almost all grown up) children down in the village, she cannot bare to stay in the village as it takes her away from the mountains. As her gardens are on the edge of the main trek up to the top of Abbas Basha, she gets lots of visitors, which she loves. It is clear that Omreya is pretty exceptional and is loved and respected widely in the local Bedouin community.

We crouch around the fire to warm ourselves. There is a large pot of pasta boiling over the fire. Nassir talks to Omreya in Arabic. He translates bits and pieces to us. We learn that her daughter is soon to be married and that the preparations are going well. She invites us to the wedding in a few days time. She continues to stir the big pot of pasta. Sparks from the fire light up her face and catch a twinkle in her eye.

It is funny the things you can tell about a person that transcend language. Even though I didn’t know what she was saying, I can tell by the way that Nassir listens to her and the way that she holds herself, that she is wise and respected by those who know her. After about an hour she stops stirring the pot of pasta and asks us if we would like soup. I am ravenous so I nod yes vigorously but she simply returns to stirring the pasta and makes no moves to serve it. Everything is in her own time and right here and now the conversation with the weary travellers takes precedence. We will have to wait a bit longer for our food.

Eventually at about ten o’clock we eat – a simple tomato pasta with a few vegetables. The soup is served up about another hour later by which time I’ve gone past being hungry and am simply delirious. We eat and talk and watch the embers of the fire as the flames begin to die. Wiped out by the day’s trekking, we decide to turn in. We unzip sleeping bags and pull them out onto the matt in front of the fire. Omreya puts the pots to one side for washing later and pulls out her matt and blankets and sleeps nearby in the garden. Nassir tells us that she always does this when visitors come. She likes the company and wants to be near us. We all say goodnight to each other and even though I am utterly exhausted I find I cannot sleep. Gazing up at the stars above me I can see the outline of a mountain peak lit by the full moon. A shooting star falls across the sky. The air is still, cold and silent. The stars continue to fall gently across the sky as my eyelids get heavier and heavier and I feel a strange and rather lovely sense of peace…

Melanie Horkan is a Sydney-based film-maker and was in the Sinai Mountains to produce a short film about Bedouin-run trekking company, Sheik Sina, that will be released later this year. Melanie is a graduate of the Australian Film Television & Radio School and the Victorian College of the Arts.

For more information she can be contacted via email: melhorkan@hotmail.com

For more information about Sheik Sina Bedouin Trekking Company:


July 24, 2008

What Kind of Souvenir Shopper Are You?

Source: Fodors.com

080723_souvenir_Seamus_Murray_flickrF.jpgAny old souvenir can remind us of where we've been, but to qualify as a valuable keepsake it should have the power to transport us to another place and time. Luckily, this sort of sentimental quality isn't reserved for only rare or expensive mementos. After all, an item's real value isn't how much it cost, but the memory attached to it. How we go about deciding which objects are worth holding dear depends on who we are both as shoppers and travelers. Does your souvenir style mesh with any of these shopping profiles?
Talk travel: "Do you have a favorite souvenir from your travels?"
Love to shop? Review top stores around the world

The Conscientious Consumer

Shopper profile: You take the adage "think global, buy local" to heart when searching for a special reminder of a place. Authenticity is key for you and you are keenly interested in the origins of your purchases. You're partial to shopping experiences that allow you to interact with independent artists and vendors, and you make a habit of seeking out local markets and craft fairs.
Souvenir wish list: One-of-a-kind handwoven, handcrafted goods by area artisans; local spirits or food products
Tip: Be sure to inspect items carefully. Always ask questions to ensure that you're not purchasing a mass-produced knock-off shipped in from elsewhere.
Talk travel: What should I buy in... Alaska? | Moscow? | New Orleans?

The Pragmatist

Shopper profile: You love that traveling introduces you to both small and large innovations which haven't yet made it to your corner of the globe. Anything you can use on a daily basis back home, including clever gadgets, makes for a good souvenir. For example, a uniquely designed julienne peeler could hold a special place in your heart and cutlery drawer. Cooking with it at home would instantly remind you of an afternoon spent solo in the housewares section of the Zurich department store Jelmoli.
Souvenir wish list: Unusual (to you) items that fill a practical need
Tip: Research local specialty shops before you go and don't be afraid to ask salespeople where it is they shop.
Talk travel: "Have you used something today that you brought home from a trip?"

The Savvy Bargainer

Shopper profile: Up for a challenge, you make a bee-line for a destination's most bustling souk, bazaar, or marketplace. You feel at home in these often chaotic shopping environments because you relish the chance to negotiate for a good deal. Confident and cool-headed, you often devote an entire day to scoping out what's available before making any large purchases. You have no qualms about walking away if you feel you're not being offered a satisfactory deal.
Souvenir wish list: Unique items purchased for a sum well below the often inflated tourist prices
Tip: Study a phrasebook in advance so that you can clearly communicate with vendors. Research local shopping customs before you go to be sure that haggling for a lower price is expected.
Talk travel: "What souvenir do you regret not buying?"

The Collector of Classics

Shopper profile: Splurging on a well-made, iconic item that symbolizes a destination's culture or boasts its own history is your idea of a quality souvenir. Shopping for these often higher-priced goods can involve looking through glass cases, taking a private studio tour, or using the services of a skilled tailor. The purchase can almost feel like the trip's raison d'etre; you'll research the purchase well in advance and may even consult with a local specialist on your arrival.
Souvenir wish list: Something sparkly from Tiffany's in New York; an intricately woven rug in Turkey; a tailored suit in Hong Kong.
Tip: Always try to make big-ticket purchases with a credit card---you'll automatically have a record of the purchase and it will be easier to dispute the charge should it be necessary.

The Collector of Kitsch

Shopper profile: Classy purchases like the ones mentioned above might mean you have great taste, but they certainly don't scream "fun." On the other end of the spectrum are kitschy, glaringly tacky souvenirs that are easy to collect and display. Look where your sense of humor has taken you! A glance of the bobble head hula doll in your rear-view mirror during your morning commute is enough to get you through the day.
Souvenir wish list: Anything that you can collect across multiple destinations--it's a bonus if it moves, makes noise, or lights up
Tip: Flying home? Don't pack snow globes in your carry-on; they're not allowed by the TSA.
Talk travel: "What is the silliest thing you've bought on a trip?"

The Smart Scrapbooker

Shopper profile: You know that sometimes the best souvenirs are merely items picked up along the way from the places you pass through. Longtime Fodor's member tomassocroccante reminded fellow travelers of this lesson recently in a conversation on our Forums: "Years ago a chef at the restaurant where I worked asked me to bring him something from a trip. Anything, he said, a matchbook, etc - nothing purchased, just something from the country, for good luck. That got me to start noticing some of the freebies that make good souvenirs for their authenticity. Funny sugar packets, advertising items, takeaway menus, etc."
Souvenir wish list: Restaurant matchbooks, business cards; anything that can be pasted later into an album or kept for safekeeping until a return visit.
Tip: Pack a plastic sandwich bag in your suitcase to keep cards organized.
Talk travel: "Do you have a favorite souvenir from your travels?"
Love to shop? Review top stores around the world
Photo credits: (1) photo by Seamus Murray; (2) photo by Jim Snapper; (3) photo by Chris Watson.

July 21, 2008


John Crook & David Ellis

SOME people collect toy trains, others antique cars or weird postcards, one bloke we know of seeks out the most tacky fridge magnets he can find while on his travels, and of course most families have someone with a penchant for postage stamps.

But as well as running their Adelaide antique business, Rodney and Regina Twiss have also been collecting something more out-of-the-ordinary – vintage buildings. And at last count they'd bought and meticulously restored no less than twenty of the things in leafy upmarket North Adelaide.

With a lifetime in the antique trade, it probably came as a natural progression for the Twiss' to go a step further from gathering what goes into buildings, to gathering the buildings themselves, and turning them into themed heritage accommodation.

Their acquisitions have ranged from a one-time fire station that's been converted into three luxurious B&B suites – and which have proven the big drawcard for those seeking something definitely out-of-the-ordinary – through to a building that was once a chapel for the Society of Friends, probably more better known as the Quakers.

A couple of nights in the Fire Engine Suite of that old circa 1866 bluestone fire station is considered by those who've done it one of their most delightful B&B experiences in the South Australian capital… possibly made the more so by the fact that the Fire Engine Suite's unique decoré includes a gleaming red antique fire engine and an original fireman's pole.

But when it comes to home-comforts there's every mod-con including a large spa.

Other North Adelaide properties the Twiss' have restored include Buxton Manor, a "gentlemen's residence" owned for many years by Sir Josiah Symon, a respected jurist, parliamentarian and one of the Fathers of the Australian Constitution; there are five suites here, including the popular Butler's Apartment.

Then there is Bishop's Garden, a cosy courtyard suite set in the century-old gardens at the Twiss family home, Palmview Villa. This mansion was built in the 1890's for South Australia's 4th Anglican bishop, Nutter Thomas whose 'Adelaide Diocese' covered the whole of South Australia, until the church took pity on the travel-weary Bishop and created a separate Diocese in 1915 to cover the vast north of the State.

The grand homestead is situated close to the site from which Colonel Light surveyed and sketched-out his plans for a capital city; a statue commemorating him stands on the spot where he had his grand vision of a city that would be one mile square, surrounded by parklands to the north, south, east and west.

Every one of the properties owned by the Twiss family has some connection with South Australia's glorious past, and for lesser mortals the decorating of these could have ended up somewhat on the disastrously tacky side.

But Regina and Rodney have been able to cleverly maintain real quality with each of their "babies," with "class" written across every one of their projects.

North Adelaide is old money territory, with glorious mansions dotted throughout its streets, quite a few of which have also felt the winds of change and been converted to upmarket rental or B&Bs.

Together with hotels, a wonderful range of restaurants and coffee shops, developments over recent decades have added to the cosmopolitan image of the area, much to the delight of guests who have chosen to stay in any of the Twiss properties.

And while some of the tariffs may surprise, these are properties that offer travellers a true touch of class: the Fire Engine Inn for instance starts from $285 a night for two people including Continental Breakfast, a pamper pack, bottle of wine and chocolates, while the 5-star Bishop's Garden comes at $330 a night.

Marketed under the name of North Adelaide Heritage Group, there is one underlining feature about the style of accommodation the Twiss' offer, and that's the level of quality and the convenience of each location.

But a little word of warning: such is the reputation surrounding these properties, you will be competing for the few suites available with not only local holidaymakers, but international travellers as well so it definitely is advisable to book well in advance.

For enquiries and reservations telephone (08) 8272 1355 or email res@adelaideheritage.com


. SEEING red: nothing like a fire engine in your bedroom.

. ROOM with a view – looking out to the 100-year old gardens from a suite in the Bishop's Garden B&B.

July 16, 2008

Agatha Christie Disappears. The Room 426 Mystery

david ellis

ONE of the world's most bizarre mysteries has fans of the who-dunnit genre as mystified today as when it involved Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of Mystery herself, eighty years ago.

And there are more unanswered questions now than those the writer's very own mystery generated in 1926, with scenarios as baffling as any she could create.

Agatha Christie liked to write about places she knew, and none could be more apt for a mystery writer than the grand Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul where she often stayed to pen her works, including the classic Murder on the Orient Express.

The hotel had been built in the early 1890s for well-heeled passengers on the legendary train, and played host to it's clientele of monarchs and politicians, playboys, musicians and movie stars, and authors such as Christie and Ernest Hemingway.

And with American and British Embassies virtually next door, to spies.

Margaretha Zelle, the exotic dancer better known as Mata Hari who was executed for spying for Germany against France in the First War, and Kim Philby the English double-agent who turned on his country to spy for Russia in the 1960s, were both Pera Palas regulars – slipping through an underground tunnel from the Bosphorus waterfront direct into the hotel's lobby.

Whether Mata Hari – with a Javanese mother, the Indonesian stage-name means "Eye of the Dawn" – used her Pera Palas exotic dancing as a cover-up while spying in Istanbul is unclear. Whatever, a room in the hotel is named after her.

But Kim Philby used the hotel assiduously to befriend British targets, including Embassy staff whom he "loosened up" with drinks after-hours, and spent hours on a telephone on the hotel bar – some claim that with his double-agent skills, to eaves-drop on the neighbouring British Embassy.

But it's Agatha Christie who draws inquisitive visitors daily to the hotel to see her regular Room 411, now permanently preserved as a memorial to her.

After a stay at the Pera Palas in 1926 Christie left suddenly, disappearing in Britain as mysteriously as one of her book characters. Despite an 11-day nation-wide search, she was not found until a tip-off she was in-hiding at a Harrogate country hotel.

Christie claimed memory loss after the shock discovery of her husband's infidelity, compounded by the death of her mother. She then refused to discuss the matter.

But on a 1932 stay at the Pera Palas she unexpectedly told staff "the key to my disappearance will be found in my diary on my death."

Christie died in 1976 and in 1979 the hotel owner brought in a clairvoyant who directed him to a key mysteriously hidden under a floorboard inside Christie's Room 411. But there was no clue as to what it might open.

The mystery faded away again until just last December when, after his death, staff found the former owner had locked the key in an unknown compartment within the hotel's safe.

Christie's official diary gives no clues to her disappearance, begging the questions: if there is a second diary in a box somewhere that the key found last December in the hotel's safe might open, what strange secrets might it reveal?

And did Christie really have memory loss in 1926, or did she "disappear" to Harrogate to write a quickie mystery based on her philandering husband?

Or had she stumbled on an intrigue at the Pera Palas Hotel in 1926 that spooked her to disappear?

Why did she go to the trouble to hide the key under the floorboard in the first place? And why was it then so carefully secreted in the safe to apparently prevent its discovery?

Its a mystery worthy of the Grand Dame of Mystery herself.

The Pera Palas Hotel today is a rustic reminder of what was once one of the world's grand hotels, still furnished in the cluttered olde-worlde style of its heyday, with nostalgic photos, old menus, and historic advertising posters on its walls… and the original and first electric "cage" lift in Istanbul.

Book a stay through travel agents. Or just drop in for a drink in the lounge and imagine rubbing shoulders there with Agatha Christie and the spies Mata Hari and Kim Philby.


July 14, 2008


HOME on the range – bison (buffalo) descended from fourteen taken to Catalina Island for the making of The Last American

TIME warp: Catalina Island's Marlin Bar still sports its 1940s decoré
WORLD's only casino that outlaws gambling is on Catalina Island off California

david ellis

POP group The Four Preps assured us in 1958 that Catalina Island was twenty-six miles across the sea… or in metric parlance, forty kilometres in a leaky old boat…                

We've believed them all these years, even though they were wrong on both counts: Santa Catalina is in fact 22-miles across the sea, which converts to just 35-kilometres. But, hey, what sounds better when put to music?

And in any case, Catalina Island is all about the contrary: where else will you find a casino where you can't gamble, a post office that doesn't deliver the mail (the grocer will do it for you with your home-delivery order,) a bird park that has no birds, a town with a Third Street but no First or Second Streets, pizzerias that send your dinner home by golf cart, and a grand mausoleum with no one in it?

Or where the less-than 4000 locals are outnumbered 250-1 by 1-million visitors a year, primarily retirees who pour ashore mid-week from day ferries in their 'sensible' slacks, walking shoes and golf caps to reminisce in yesteryear?

At weekends a younger crowd flocks to the island that despite being just an hour or so off California's coast, is almost-1950s time-warp in architecture and pace of life – and is the only place in America to govern the number of cars on its roads.

Locals have got around this disconcerting legislation that sees them waiting up to ten years for a permit to import a car, by taking to the streets aboard an armada of golf carts that hugely outnumber cars and trucks and give the streets of the main town of Avalon, a look somewhat akin to Fred Flintstone territory.

Visitors too can hire a cart to get around. Or walk.

Most day-visitors make a bee-line for the biggest building in town, that vast dome-shaped Casino where they can't gamble.

Its builders reckoned "casino" meant "gathering place," and when this one opened in the 1920s it was to gather for dancing and dining, with Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Harry James and Benny Goodman pulling the crowds.

Today it's still home to dancing, dining, movies and concerts.

And while Catalina's Bird Park was once one of America's biggest with 8000 species in 500 cages covering 4ha, it was scaled down during the Second War when the island was taken over as a troop base; it never recovered and  closed in 1966.

Visitors to the park today go there to walk or cycle its vast grounds.

Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr had a house on Catalina Island and built his own marble mausoleum, but it too is empty: while he was laid there for a short while, he is buried at Forest Lawn, and his mausoleum is now a memorial.

In the 1920s fourteen bison (buffalo) were shipped to Catalina Island for a movie The Vanishing American based on a novel by Zane Grey who wrote the novel while living there; when filming ended the beasts were abandoned and numbers exploded to around 600.

Today 200 roam free, with regularly culling seeing excess numbers sent to mainland national parks.

For long-stay visitors there are bus tours over the mountain from Avalon to Two Harbors, wildlife spotting for bison, foxes or dolphins, glass-bottom boats, golf (Catalina's was Southern California's first golf course in 1892,) sea caving, diving on wrecks including a one-time Chinese smuggler's ship, horse-riding, Jeep Eco-touring and a fascinating museum.

Catalina also has excellent seafood and international-favourite restaurants, countless ice-cream and waffle parlours, and the circa-1946 Marlin Bar, the oldest on the island still sports its 1940s décor including an ancient sign: I am not an alcoholic – alcoholics hold meetings.

Oddly Catalina Island's Constitution was written in pencil, Winston Churchill once caught a marlin here, actress Natalie Wood drowned off the island in 1981 while boating with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Phil Hartman was murdered here by his wife in 1998…

And a young radio announcer who won himself a Hollywood acting contract while temporarily working here in 1936 went on become President of the United States.

His name was Ronald Regan.

For information about day-visits or longer-stays on Catalina Island contact Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or www.canada-alaska.com.au


(photos: Rraheb/dreamstime, David Ellis Heather, Jones/dreamstime)

July 07, 2008


david ellis

THE Dutch are marvels at creating engineering wonders on their home turf, but when they were asked back in the 1940s to build a road around and over the tiny island of Saba in the Caribbean's Netherlands Antilles, they studied it long and hard and decided that "Nee – this is impossible," and went home.

Unfazed the entrepreneurial Sabans who lived on this jumbled collection of rugged peaks and deep valleys, agreed that they would not take No for an answer, and that they would build their road themselves.

They were led by a remarkable 40-year old carpenter, Joseph Hassel who knew nothing of road making, and so enrolled in a five year course in the subject… by correspondence.

While he was studying, he and Saba's just-1000 other residents planned out  their road to villages, isolated farms and communities on the tiny eight square kilometre island, and decided that every able-bodied man woman and child would contribute set hours of voluntary road-work every week

Then armed with little more than picks, shovels, rakes, buckets and spades they took twenty-five years to build their concrete masterpiece that some of Holland's top engineers said "was impossible."

In most places the tortuous artery rises and falls at up to 35-degrees and U-turns zippered to the craggy mountains almost double back over themselves – so that from the sea or air it cuts a similar line to China's Great Wall, and thus is dubbed The Great Road of Saba.

Forty-odd years after it was opened, the road – that's never been given an official name beyond The Road – links the little port of Fort Bay with its diesel power station, souvenir shop and a couple of dive shops, with The Bottom (the village at the base of the largest mountain,) picturesque Windwardside, Hell's Gate and the airport.

There are still just 1600 people live here in delightful gingerbread houses that all have white-washed walls, red tile roofs and green window shutters – enforced by law.

And old-timers will recall how, before The Road was built, to get from their wharf to their homes they had constructed a series of ladders with over 900 steps from sea level to link with mountain walking tracks and trails to their farms, homes, shops and businesses.

Everything from groceries to furniture and farm goods was hauled-in (and out) via these ladders and tracks, including with the help of dozens of locals, an enthusiastic local musician's full-size grand piano.

Saba gets around 25,000 visitors a year who either come by ferry, a few small cruise-ships, or by air… with the airstrip another marvel of local ingenuity: once again when told it would be impossible to build an airport on the island, the Sabans simply said "No" to "Nee," and carved the top off one of their many hills, pushed it into the sea and laid a runway across it.

You've got to have a stout stomach to fly-in, and no fear of heights to take one of the handful of taxi-vans around the island, as The Road in places clings precariously to cliff-sides that fall hundreds of metres directly into lush valleys below.

The Sabans don't encourage large cruise ships for fear of damaging their environment and being "over-run" by gawkers, and happily point out that, anyway, that they've no beaches, no duty-free shops, no discount electronics or photographic shops, and virtually no transport beyond the few taxi-vans.

But they do have spectacular diving, extraordinary scenery, wonderful little stores selling hand-made souvenirs and exceptional lace goods, a couple of interesting museums including one in a 160-year old house, little cafés with delightful island/Dutch cuisine including superb local lobsters and "Dutch Tea" (Heineken Beer)… and the opportunity to climb 1064 steps to take-in the spectacular vista from the highest peak.    

There are also a few small hotels and guest houses – and if they're all booked out, because Saba Police Station's two cells have never housed a prisoner, the entrepreneurial police officers have turned these into an emergency peak-season Bed and Breakfast.

See travel agents about Caribbean Island ferry services to Saba and small holiday vessels like the 100-passenger SeaDream I and SeaDream II (www.seadream.com) that visit the island as part of Caribbean itineraries from November to March.    



. GREAT Road of Saba: the experts said it was "impossible to build," so islanders did it themselves.

. DREAM location for mega-motor cruiser SeaDream II moored off Caribbean's spectacularly beautiful Saba Island.

. EASY cell: Saba police officers have turned unused cells into a peak-season B&B.

(PHOTOS:  David Ellis)

July 01, 2008


frank linn

Travelling across Europe by rail is popular for its city-centre to city- centre practicalities, and here Frank Linn discovers an overnight train journey that combines room, bed, breakfast and travel while he dozes comfortably.

I LOOKED at the tiny compartment and thought: I can't sleep in that!

Twelve hours later I'd changed my mind: I had slept in that. And quite well, thank you.

THAT was a two-person Economy Class compartment for the 12-hour  CityNightLine train service from Zurich to Berlin, a little space measuring just 2m x 1.5m, with half the compartment occupied by a single bed.

A second bed above is folded back out of the way. Two small cupboards, a  handbasin with hot and cold water, mirror, electric plug for shaver or hairdryer and a small table under the window complete the infrastructure. The window is full width and there's a skylight window above, with blinds for both.

There are crisp white sheets, pillow, doona, towel, face washer and hand towel; lights are overhead, at the mirror and at pillow level for reading in bed.

I was a single traveller in a two-berth sleeper compartment that on some night trains are classified as Deluxe Singles complete with in-cabin breakfast dining.

A wander along the corridor reveals three and four person sleepers – in which chatting passengers are snacking on food they've brought with them for the journey.

A steward comes and asks me to stay in my cabin until she returns. What's this all about, I wonder? Ten minutes later she's back, takes my ticket and Passport, locks my compartment door behind me and ushers me to the dining car where she now becomes my waiter.

Chicken soup, steamed salmon and rice are washed down with Pinot Noir. I chat to a young couple who use the night train because their work has them in both Zurich and Berlin during the week.

They have a two-person Economy Class compartment, and use the CityNightLine rail instead of air as their commitment to combating carbon emissions.

(Research by Eurostar indicates flying between London and Paris or Brussels generates 10 times more carbon dioxide emissions than taking the train.)

While the train was more expensive than a cheap flight, my companions felt better about themselves for their choice, and say they genuinely enjoy sleeping aboard.

To bed. I call the steward-waiter to unlock my cabin. A couple of pages of my paperback murder-mystery under the reading lamp next to the pillow and I doze off…

We're now zipping through the dark countryside somewhere in Europe, with the consistent hum from the diesel engines up front and the swish of the steel tyres below broken only by the air concussion impact of the train entering a tunnel or another train flashing past in the opposite direction.

When the train pulls into one it's several anonymous stations in southern Germany and remains stationary for 10 minutes my sleep is deep, but I awake briefly each time as we swagger our way slowly back across the tracks to our  own dedicated fast line to the next city.

At 6:30am a different steward knocks on the door to take my breakfast order. It arrives just 10 minutes later with my Passport clipped to my ticket that in turn is clipped to the breakfast tray … ensuring the right Passport and right ticket get back to the right person.

Breakfast includes yoghurt, two bread rolls, a croissant, butter, strawberry jam, honey and a plastic-encased European breakfast (salami, ham, cheese) as well as hot water and a cardboard cup with teabag. It's a big start to the day with the yoghurt cold and the tea hot.

I use the small table under the window for the breakfast tray and sit on the bed until the train's PA system kicks into life, advising of our arrival time at the swish new Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

The experiences of fellow travellers are was much the same as mine, although one who suffers from slight claustrophobia changed the direction of her sleeping so her head was under the window – and she left the blinds up.

The CityNightLine service, and other night trains in Europe, can be booked in Australia through Rail Plus. See www.railplus.com.au



COMPACT: Room on rails – a 2-berth compartment on the CityNightLine.

BREAKFAST is served – hearty start to the day in a Deluxe Compartment.

EASY to identify at the station, the CityNightLine has its own dedicated fast track.

PHOTOS:  CityNightLine Rail

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