December 14, 2009

STRUTH - 200 year old wine under the hammer


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says someone with an expensive taste in Cognac has paid a Paris restaurant the equivalent of AU$55,000 for a bottle of the stuff made in 1788 – the year the First Fleet landed in Sydney, Bonnie Prince Charlie died and twelve months before the French Revolution.

The restaurant, La Tour D'Argent, which first opened its doors in 1582 and has been rebuilt and renovated numerous times since, decided to clear out some of its cellar to make way for new stock, and put 18,000 bottles of wines and spirits up for auction.

It included the 1788 Cognac, but diners can be assured they'll still have plenty to choose from: the restaurant's got more than 420,000 bottles from around the world in its cellars, and diners need plenty of time to peruse its Wine List because its 400 pages long.

FOOTNOTE: The $55,000 bottle was bought by an investor and the restaurant gave the money to charity; another bottle from the same vintage fetched only AU$30,000 – because its label and seal were in poorer condition than the more expensive bottle.

December 07, 2009

STRUTH - Dip into your favourite tipple


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says the French take their winemaking seriously, and the annual release of the famous Beaujolais Nouveau at midnight on the third Thursday of every November – while a fun event across the nation – is  still considered a very serious matter amongst connoisseurs.

So they were probably mortified to hear what the folk at a resort in Japan did last month with their beloved 2009 vintage of this great wine: they poured a container load into a Jaccuzi and, sacre bleu, heated it up… so guests could go for a swim in it.

The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun in Central Japan is one of the country's more unusual spa resorts, and as well as bathing in the waters of its hot springs, also offers such weird options as taking frolics in that warm Beaujolais Nouveau, and hot green tea, sake and coffee.

And thankfully, during last month's antics management kept enough of the Beaujolais Nouveau aside for guests to partake of in a normal fashion – from  a glass.


david ellis

In this first of a two-part feature, David Ellis discovers a boutique hotel in Puerto Rico with a history as rich as any tale Hollywood could conceive out of the Caribbean; and next week he continues its remarkable journey from convent to flophouse to an extraordinary boutique hotel...) 

ITS anyone's guess what the good ladies who founded the Carmelite Convent in San Juan in Puerto Rico a-near 360 years ago, would make of their old one-time digs today.

Gone are the tiny celibate cells in which they spent long and solitary days in prayer or meditation, gone are the thin straw palliasses on which they fitfully sought sleep through steamy Caribbean nights, and gone are mealtimes of  porridge or gruel or root vegetable stews in keeping with their vows of poverty.

In their place are spacious rooms with 21st century luxuries amid centuries-old antiques and heirlooms, queen-size beds in which guests indulge in the deepest of the Land of Nod, and from the kitchens now come breakfasts of Eggs Benedict, banana and walnut pancakes topped with maple syrup, mountainous Yogurt Parfaits topped with crunchy almonds, walnuts and fresh sweet strawberries…

And for lunch Empanadillas (turnovers with Spanish sausage, cheese, meat or lobster,) Gambas al Ajillo (sautéed shrimp in garlic sauce,) Veal Cutlets Viennese style, Pechuga de Pollo al Ajillo (chicken breast with garlic and white wine sauce served with uniquely prepared local plantain bananas…)

Or amongst a score of dinner options, the Caribbean's highly popular Puerto Rico Mofongo: fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork crackling, all mashed and filled with chicken, steak or shrimp. Or for more simple pleasures, multitude tapas or a half-pound (226gm) Classic Burger with the lot.

And in what was once a private room of the Mother Superior, nightly pre-dinner wine and cheese tastings for guests fortunate enough to stay here, with reds and whites splashed with gusto into voluminous crystal glasses … for an hour or so, for free, with great slabs of cheeses and dried fruits to go with it.

The old Carmelite Convent, as we quickly learned on a recent visit, has undergone somewhat of a transformation from its religious heyday: it's now one of the world's finest small hotels, with a history as captivating as any tale out of the Caribbean.

San Juan itself was established by the Spanish in 1521 as a stop-over between homeland and America. They built a garrison against their French, Dutch and English enemies, and with constant wars with all this lot, the number of widows on the island was considerable.

So one, Dona Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez asked the King of Spain to build a convent for widows and single ladies wishing to serve the church.

When he agreed, and with her own personal wealth, Dona Ana donated her home opposite the San Juan Cathedral as a site for the Convent.

Spanish soldiers were assigned to build it, and strongly enough to withstand assaults by local Indians, Spain's European enemies, hurricanes, and the tropical heat: its sun-baked clay-brick walls were made a metre thick.

In 1651 Dona Ana, her sister Antonia and four protégés were the first to enter the Convent, with Dona Ana as Mother Superior; the Convent served its role well for 252 years until in 1903 it was decided that maintenance was now too costly, and with only nine nuns and two novices in residence, it was closed.

The building lay empty for a decade and was eventually sold for a mere US$151 by the Carmelite Order to the local Catholic Diocese, which rented it out as a retail store, then a dance hall, and for 40 years as a flophouse for the homeless.

Worse, in 1953 it became a storage yard for garbage trucks until it was decided to demolish it to make way for a public parking station.          

Enter Robert Frederic Woolworth – heir to the Woolworth fortune – who was so aghast at the prospect of the historic old Convent's fate, that he bought it from the church for $250,000, engaged a team of architects and builders and turned it into a boutique hotel he would call The El Convento.

NEXT WEEK: Creating a unique hotel with dedication, a "no expense spared" philosophy – and a band of gypsies.



[] SAN JUAN'S Hotel El Convento: from historic convent to flophouse to majestic boutique hotel

[] THE hotel's shaded courtyard, a far cry from the vows of poverty of its original inhabitants



david ellis

LAST week we looked at something of the history of the extraordinary Hotel El Convento in San Juan, Puerto Rico – how it began life as a Carmelite Convent a-near 360 years ago, declined into a flophouse for the homeless in the 1900s, became a parking lot for garbage trucks, and in 1957 was slotted for demolition to make way for a carpark…

AND a carpark it would doubtless be to this day had it not been for the unbridled enthusiasm of an unlikely benefactor, heir to the Woolworth retailing fortune, Robert Frederic Woolworth who was horrified when he learned of the potential fate of the historic old Convent from head of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, Ricardo Alegria.

Woolworth had personal business interests in San Juan, and when Alegria introduced him to Operation Bootstrap that sought to save the old Convent as part of a plan to develop local tourism – and along the way boost other business opportunities and thus employment – Woolworth dug into his pocket and personally bought the Convent from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan for US$250,000.

And he then set about converting the crumbling 300 year old ruins into a boutique hotel like no other, and with a zeal that even the dynamic Alegria and his local business colleagues found hard to match – not just individually, but collectively.

Woolworth engaged firms of architects, structural engineers and interior designers to plan his “dream hotel” that he would call the El Convento – and after adding two floors to the Convent’s original three to create 100 hotel rooms, set about furnishing the place.

But what he had in mind was easier said than done. So he and his interior designer spent weeks in Spain seeking authentic items from its Golden Age… and when they couldn’t find originals, Woolworth commissioned reproductions of chandeliers, wrought-iron fixtures, louvered doors, tapestries, paintings, shields and swords, and had lampshades made from goatskins as they had been centuries before.

And when snookered in his quest for authentic bedspreads and rugs, the tireless Woolworth went to Granada and engaged bands of gypsies to hand-weave these items for him.

In January 1962 his grand Hotel El Convento opened, a throwback to an era when hotels were destinations in themselves, and with the El Convento offering extraordinarily lavish Old World Spanish accommodations in one-time nuns’ cells, fine dining in what was once the Convent’s chapel, and international-standard entertainment including Flamenco dances and big bands in other historic chambers and courtyards.

The rich and famous flocked there including Rita Hayworth, Robert Montgomery, George Hamilton, Lynda Bird Johnson, Ethel Merman, Johnny Desmond and Claudio Arrau… and Pablo Casals who would play his cello in the courtyard.

But running the hotel was neither easy nor profitable, and owing a huge amount in back-taxes to the Puerto Rican government, the Woolworth family in 1971 donated the hotel to the government in lieu of these taxes. Various groups dabbled with management of the hotel over the next eleven years, before it was closed again for a 10 months make-over in 1982.

And in 1986 new renovators were horrified to find wallboard had been nailed over historic arches, concrete render slathered over 300-year old handmade bricks, and red carpet glued over priceless handmade floor tiles. They painstakingly removed it all to get back to the original.

Management of the hotel changed several times more, and in the mid-1990s the Puerto Rico government gave up ownership and sold the ailing property to a group of local business executives who poured more buckets of money into it, and estimated that around US$275,000 had been spent on each guest room.

Conde Nast Traveler magazine now rates it one of the world’s best hotels, and as well as being one of the world’s most unique boutique hotels, it is also Puerto Rico’s official Guest House for visiting heads of state and other state-invited dignitaries.

With San Juan the busiest cruise terminal in the Caribbean, if you’re planning a Caribbean cruise add a few days at the El Convento – it’s an unforgettable experience in yesteryear serenity amid Old San Juan’s myriad narrow streets of designer-label boutiques, historic buildings and sunny outdoor cafés.

For details see travel agents, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or email

November 30, 2009


THE Ilikai Hotel Waikiki: opening scene for every episode
featured a camera zoom-in of super-sleuth
Steve McGarrett on the central top-floor balcony
david ellis

WE'VE never been averse to making dopes of ourselves in the cause of a good yarn, so the spectacle of us being loaded into the back of a police car in Honolulu was somewhat par for the course.

And a source of obvious bemusement amongst fellow hotel guests awaiting more normal means of transport.

That was way back in 1990, and we were reminded of it recently when word leaked that Hollywood's CBS was to pilot a re-make of one of TV's most successful-ever police series, Hawaii Five-0.

Our 1990 visit to Honolulu had been, amongst other yarns we were seeking, to search-out Jack Lord who'd played Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-0 for twelve years from 1968.

And we need not have worried about any difficulty in finding him: unlike most former stars, he was openly listed in the Honolulu phone book. And he happily agreeing to an interview that very day – even suggesting we do it at his favourite Chinese restaurant, and offering to send his car around to save us having to catch a cab.

So a couple of hours later we're standing with those other guests outside our Waikiki hotel, with no idea which the star's car may be amid the endless line of family autos, taxis and stretch-limos rolling-in to collect their human cargoes.

And a police car.
THE Five-0 team, a mix of professional actors
and mates of Jack Lord who did it for the fun of it

This of course quickly becomes the focus of everyone's attention, including our own, particularly when an attractive lady in full police uniform steps out. And the more-so when she enquires: "Anyone here Ellis?"

Scarlet-faced we raise a limpid hand, and nervously croak: "I'm Ellis."

"Please come with me," she says, opening the car's back door and ushering us aboard - now the focal point of a suddenly growing crowd of gawkers, each no doubt secretly appraising our potential demise.

And along the way to Diamond Head where Jack Lord lives, the lady tells me that No, she's not really wearing a police uniform, it's a replica. And No, the "police car" is the last of several used by McGarrett in Hawaii Five-0, and allowed by the Governor of Hawaii to be used on the road by Lord after the TV series ended – a "Thank You" for the enormous publicity Five-0 had generated for Hawaii.

Lunch proved rewarding, even if every question we put was interrupted by other diners seeking autographs. And never once did Jack Lord deny the 30, 40, 50 or more requests put to him, scribbling on paper napkins, pages from our dwindling notebook, and even on cigarette packets "Aloha (name of person) – Jack Lord."

And what did we learn about Jack Lord the man, and Hawaii Five-0 the series?

Firstly he admitted he'd got the star role of McGarrett by default. It had been offered to Gregory Peck who'd declined, and Lord was then invited to cast for it on a Wednesday, was told he had it two days later, and was shooting the first episode in Honolulu the next Monday.

"It was some week!" he recalled.
JACK LORD – only actor to appear in
all 278 episodes of Hawaii Five-0

Jack Lord was the only actor to play in all 278 episodes, the others being a mix of professionals for varying periods, including Khigh Dheigh who played McGarrett's arch-enemy, the evil Chinese agent Wo Fat, and James MacArthur (McGarrett's side-kick "Dano" Williams throughout most of the series.)

Others included mates of Jack Lord who did it for the fun of it – one, veteran Honolulu Police Officer Kam Fong, played one of McGarrett's team, Chin Ho for ten years between his real police duties.

And Chin Ho, Lord told us, was named after another of his mates who owned the Ilikai Hotel on Waikiki – scene of each episode's opening shot in which a helicopter camera zooms-in on McGarrett on a top-floor balcony – while Wo Fat was named after a Chinese Restaurant in downtown Honolulu, and is still there today.

Fast-forward now to 2009. CBS has engaged veteran writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("Transformers," "Mission Impossible III" and "Star Trek") to script the pilot for a potential new series of Hawaii Five-0, which will have McGarrett's son Chris succeeding his famous dad as head of the Hawaiian State Police.

And, yes, if a new series goes ahead, it'll include McGarrett's now pop-cult catch phrase, "Book 'em Dano" with each episode's final scene arrest.

STRUTH! Worlds Largest Cruise Ship


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says the world's newest and largest cruise ship will give trivia buffs plenty to play with – and port authorities equally plenty to ponder over as they work out how to get more than 5000 passengers off and back on again in one day in ports of call.

The 225,000 tonne Oasis of the Seas cost US$1.5 billion and a further US$75m was spent on revamping a pier at Fort Lauderdale in Florida for her exclusive use.

She is nearly five times larger than the Titanic, 360m long (longer than three-and-a-half football fields,) 47m wide (greater than the distance between a Boeing 747's wing tips,) while her 20-storeys rise 72m above the waterline.

And so she can get under bridges that would normally bar her way, her funnels retract telescopically into her interior.

Oasis will normally carry 5400 passengers, but can carry as many as 6360, so if you don't want to run into someone for a second time, it will be easy enough to avoid them. She has 21 swimming pools and Jacuzzis and two artificial sand beaches complete with surfing simulators, an ice rink, two rock-climbing walls, basketball and volleyball courts, a real-grass chip and putt golf course and gardens with 97 varieties of living trees, shrubs and flowering plants.

There's a boardwalk surrounded by restaurants and a 'fun park' with full-size carousel, and the whole ship is divided into seven "neighbourhoods," much like theme parks with various specific attractions in each. These include a mini, mini New York Central Park overlooked by dozens of the ship's cabins and staterooms, with zippy flying fox running over its full length.

Six diesel engines generate 13,000 horsepower to drive the electric motors and provide power throughout the vessel – that's distributed via 5280-kilometres of electrical cabling and 100,000 power points.

Ice-making machines can produce 50-tonnes of ice every 24hrs for the 37 bars and 20 cafes and restaurants… which will use 60,000 serviettes a day.

Passengers and crew will use 2,350,000 litres of water a day that will be stored in 31 vast inboard reservoirs, and a sweet shop will stock 72 different types of confectionery.

And the casino has no fewer than 450 poker machines, and 600,000 litres of paint went into decorating the ship.

And a final note for trivia buffs – huge as she is, Oasis of the Seas has no rudders: she is powered by three stern-mounted azimuth thrusters that each contain an electric motor driving a 6m propeller, and which can be rotated during docking, a process assisted by four 7380hp bow-thrusters.

Oasis of the Seas was launched last month in Finland and will sail her maiden passenger voyage from Fort Lauderdale to Haiti this week; she'll begin regular Caribbean cruises from mid-December.


November 28, 2009

STRUTH - All Bets are Off in Catalina's Casino


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, DAVID ELLIS says that despite what The Four Preps assured us, Catalina Island is not twenty-six miles across the sea, but in fact 22-miles miles (which means its not forty kilometres in a leaky old boat, but thirty-five kilometres.)

And it's full of life's little mysteries. The main town, Avalon has a Third Street but no First or Second Streets, the Post Office doesn't deliver the mail (but if you ask the home-delivery grocer he'll pick it up for you,) and the local cabs deliver for Avalon's pizzerias.

It's also got an official Bird Park that was once one of the biggest in America, but today its aviaries are empty and people go there to walk and cycle

There's a multi-million dollar 'wedding cake' art deco Casino that despite its name has never been used for gambling but only for dances, dining, movies and concerts, and the 4000 locals are outnumbered 250-1 by 1,000,000 visitors a year.

Local legislation limits the number of cars and trucks on the island, and to get around this the locals drive golf buggies – of which there are more on the roads than all other kinds of motor vehicles combined.

And no one knows why Catalina Island's Constitution is the only one in America that was written in pencil rather than in ink.

Actress Natalie Wood drowned off the island in 1981, actor Phil Hartman was murdered there by his wife in 1988, Winston Churchill once caught a marlin off the island, and a local 1930s disc jockey went on to become one of America's most successful actors with 53 movies to his credit – and after that, President of the United States.

His name was Ronald Reagan.


david ellis

OWNERS of nags that have won the Melbourne Cup haven't always been the most appreciative types when it's come to accepting their prizes – but then they didn't get what owners do today when their steeds win the richest handicap horse race in the world.

In fact when Toryboy won the Cup in 1865 his owner was so horrified with his trophy that he sold it.

And in the early 1890s others growled when their 'cups' turned out to be not grand gold or silver affairs to show-off on the mantle-piece, but rather bone-china types for taking tea.

And John Mayo whose horse Lord Nolan won the Cup in 1908 didn't even get a cup at all: he got a near-metre long wooden plaque atop a garish red base, and on which was mounted a silver silhouette of a galloping horse – that local wits reported looked more like a galloping greyhound.

While somewhat bemused, Mr Mayo accepted his winnings in good spirit from the Governor-General – to whom he'd earlier given a tip that Lord Nolan would win the Cup – and took his horse and his trophy home to Newcastle.

Another of the more unusual Melbourne Cup trophies was that won by Mentor in the Centennial Year 1888. It comprised three silver horses on a silver-plated base, the lot weighing 280 ounces (nearly 8kg) and costing around $5000.  When it sold at auction in 1987 it fetched a whopping $177,000.

In some years there were no trophies at all, just cash, and from 1942 to 1944 Cup winners were awarded War Bonds.

The first Melbourne Cup winner's prize in 1861 was a gold watch. It was won by the owners of the great Archer which had been walked 800km from Nowra to Melbourne by a group of stable-hands, a journey that took three weeks – and the horse won again the following year, but this time got to Melbourne by steamer.

The first owner to publicly criticise his Cup trophy was Mr B.C. Marshall, when his Toryboy won the 1865 race.

The outspoken Melbourne draper told Victoria Racing Club officials his $200 silver bowl topped with a horse and rider was "a monstrosity," and promptly sold it to the Flemington Hunt Club which inscribed it with the names of winners of its annual Hunt until Melbourne ran out of foxes.

Melbourne stockbroker W.T. Jones was the first 'tea- and coffee-cup' recipient when his horse Bravo won the Cup by a length from the formidable Carbine in 1889. As well as a purse of cash, his prize contained a set each of cups, saucers, tea and coffee pots, presumably so he could have folk around to discuss Bravo's success.

Similar packages continued to be awarded over the next few years, prompting one outraged owner to tell the Melbourne Press that such trophies were "to the proper glory of the Melbourne Cup as flat soda water is to live Champagne."

The controversial prizes were replaced by more conservative trophies in the early 1900s, after Mr Mayo received that somewhat cumbersome plaque for Lord Nolan's win.   

Mr Mayo had never doubted his horse would win the Cup, and on a tram from his Melbourne hotel to the race track proffered such advice to anyone listening – and at the track, to Governor-General, Lord Dudley.

After the race, the G-G confided how "a strange, grey-headed old man told me before the race that Lord Nelson would win; I took little notice – then to my astonishment he came up to collect his prize."

By the 1920s a 'loving cup' design had been permanently adopted; today's gold cups are valued at around $190,000 each – and for good measure come with cash components for first, second and third place winners comprising a cosy $5.5m.

Little wonder the race now attracts starters from England, Ireland, Japan, the USA, Germany and the UAE.

HOOFNOTE: Most successful Melbourne Cup trainer, Bart Cummings has had eleven winners, while jockeys Harry White and Bobbie Lewis share riding honours with four wins each.

And the legendary Phar Lap that was bought for a mere $330 and earned over $100,000 in prize money, won only one Melbourne Cup from three starts – in 1930. Race-fixing criminals had tried to shoot him four days before the race, and he later died of arsenic poisoning.


[] JOCKEY Glenn Boss rode Makybe Diva to Melbourne Cup victories in  2003, 2004 and 2005

[] THE mighty Phar Lap: one only one Melbourne Cup just days after race-fixers tried to shoot him – and he later died of arsenic poisoning.



Captain Berg on the fly-bridge of SeaDream I
david ellis

IF ever there's a bloke can say he's got the sea in his veins it's a Norwegian named Valter Berg.

Captain Berg is a man of the sea, by the sea. His father was a sea captain, and his father's father one, too. And his father's father's father was one before that.

His uncles were all sea captains and his two brothers both still are captains at sea.

So it was only natural that Valter would become a sea captain.

But he can boast something beyond the reach of the others: he was born on the sea.

The Berg family lived on one of Norway's off-shore myriad specks of land just under the Arctic Circle, a miniscule dot that bravely called itself an island and was home to a handful of families.

His father was skippering his small freighter on a run to the Middle East at the time his pregnant wife went into labour, and so Valter's uncle came to the rescue – rushing his fishing trawler to collect his sister-in-law from her island home and get her to a mainland hospital.

But the young Valter was already impatient for a life at sea, and came into the world before his uncle's fishing boat – its engines running hot – reached the mainland.

Today, aged 62 Captain Berg can look back at a colourful life both on the sea and under it: not only has he worked on fishing trawlers and cargo ships and passenger liners since officially going to sea at age 15, he did his compulsory Norwegian Navy service aboard a submarine.

When he first began his working sea career Valter was happy to initially enjoy the trawlers on which he worked; at a remarkably young 24 years of age he was officially appointed a captain, and went on to command freighters on which he expected he would happily work out the rest of his days.

But one day 20-something years ago he got a call from a cruise company that had affiliations with the freighter line for which he was working: one of its small 5-star cruise ships had lost a captain to illness while visiting Sydney in far off Australia.

Could Captain Berg come to the rescue and take command so the cruiser could continue its Pacific cruise?

He jumped at the idea as something of a change – a change that was in fact to alter his entire life.

After successfully completing the Pacific cruise, Captain Berg was asked if he would be interested in joining the luxury Seabourn Cruise Lines that was owned by a fellow Norwegian, Atle Brynestad and which included in its fleet two boutique motor-yacht-cruisers, Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II that carried just over 100 guests each in absolute indulgence.

Captain Berg knew that the small Seabourn was about to merge with the goliath Cunard Line and accepted the offer.  But in 2001 Cunard decided bigger was better, and to "let go" of the diminutive two Sea Goddesses in favour of mega-liners.

Brynestad, horrified at the perceived-error of their ways, bought back his beloved Sea Goddess motor yachts from Cunard, relinquished his interest in the company, and founded SeaDream Yacht Club, re-naming the Sea Goddesses as SeaDream I and SeaDream II.

They're now the world's highest-rated boutique mega motor-cruisers, carrying just 112 guests each served by 95 crew in uber-5-star indulgence that eschews Black Tie Formal in favour of Country Club Smart Casual.

But now after over two decades of SeaDreaming, Valter Berg has decided that in May of next year he'll roll up his charts on the bridge of SeaDream I for the last  time.

"No," he admits. "It won't be easy. I was born on the ocean, the ocean is part of me – and I am part of the ocean."

But he's got a nice little flat back in Norway that he's long planned to "tinker with and finally give myself a permanent home," his son Valter Jnr is at university – and his daughter Janelle is a backstage photographer with Australian country musician Keith Urban.

And after a lifetime at sea does he have any regrets?

"Yes," he confesses sheepishly. "After all those lifeboat drills I ordered for ships passengers and crews, I'm glad we never had an emergency.

"Because in 47 years at sea I never learned to swim."


Holman Estate house provides an escape from the Hunter’s touristy hustle and bustle.
TRANQUILITY: Holman Estate house provides an
escape from the Hunter's touristy hustle and bustle

David Ellis and John Rozentals

IF getting it right in real estate jargon means position, position, position, then it's a safe bet that the Hunter Valley's Holman Estate guest house is one place that's got it right.

Located right in the middle of the parish of Pokolbin, itself the very heart — geographically, historically and spiritually — of the valley's renowned wine country, Holman Estate has that position, position, position…

From it's broad verandah you can look across the estate's own vineyards to the corner of Broke Road and McDonalds Road, where Hunter Valley Gardens rubs shoulders with Brokenwood Wines and the futuristic Tempus Two. Or take-in the Valley's magnificent landmark, the oh-so-Australian, Brokenback Range.

A 10-to-15-minute drive will have you sipping reds, whites, sparklings or fortifieds at several dozen wineries, almost as many restaurants in which to dine, and a range of galleries, craft-shops and antique dealers to browse and buy. And if you don't want to drive, it's just a stroll across the driveway to Scarborough Wines, recently named as having the Valley's best cellar door,

Yet for its seemingly busy surroundings, there's a tranquillity that appears to remove Holman from the touristy hustle and bustle normally associated with the Hunter. It's silence is interrupted only by the few vehicles that make their way to the end of Gillards Road.

The house's boutique accommodation is of a quite grand scale for three couples in double bedrooms, with twin beds in another room and an option of two pull-out single beds in the billiards room if you've maybe a large family or group of friends staying for a couple of nights.

Part of the Mount Eyre Vineyards, the property also includes the Three Ponds Vineyard which was established in 1999 by the Iannuzzi and Tsironis families, migrants respectively from Italy and Greece and with a naturally goodly amount of wine culture in the their blood.

They have created magnificent gardens around the hilltop Holman house, which has been lavishly furnished to reflect their love of fine art.

The long, painting-lined hallway leads past the bedrooms to an enormous combined lounge and dining area whose plush furnishings and huge fireplace provide the feel of a European chateau.

The modern kitchen has top-of-the-line appliances and all the utensils required by even the most ardent foodie.  Essentials such as tea, coffee, sugar, olive oil, etc are provided, and there's a supply of Mount Eyre wines to help yourself to on an honour system,

And then, of course, there's the billiard room. The table isn't full-size but it's a  good one for a few games of after-dinner billiards, snooker and pool – and best of all, there's no slot marked "insert coins here".

It's easy to spend a few days relaxing in the house and doing some touring without having to leave Gillards Road: at the end of the road is the small tasting room of Constable Estate — surrounded by immaculate parklike gardens that include more than 70 varieties of camellias, separate rose and herb gardens, and an impressive sculpture garden featuring work by prominent Australian artists.

The latest addition here is a larger-than-life bronze of renowned English cellist Jacqueline Du Pre.

At the other end, where Gillards Road intersects with McDonalds Road, is Il Cacciatore, which for seven of the past eight years has been named the Hunter's best Italian restaurant in the Restaurant & Catering NSW Awards for Excellence. They're still trying to figure out what happened in 2006.

Run by Mark and Noreen Gottaas, it's part of Hermitage Lodge, and executive chef Michael Haines has put together a scintillating menu of Italian-inspired delights, including his speciality of pan-fried gnocchi with local chorizo, roast pumpkin, wild rocket and basil pesto.

And after lunching here on a Saturday or Sunday you can always do a tasting at Scarborough as you toddle the few minutes back to the house.

Tariffs at Holman Estate range from $1350 to $1800 for two nights for eight adults, and the bonus is that with the vast living and entertainment space you don't feel like you're living out of a suitcase in a motel room.

For further information: Holman Estate — visit  or phone 0438 683 973.

Constable Estate —

Il Cacciatore —

Scarborough Wines —

Photos courtesy of Sandra Burn White

November 24, 2009

STRUTH - Dial a Lama


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says it's easy to see why journalists seeking a quick scoop should take a moment to check the facts.

When a recent radio news report in Johannesburg said the Dalai Lama was reportedly seen in rural South Africa and speculated he was on a secret mission to was to seek South African government support, a suspicious local newspaper went to the town in which the holy man was supposedly staying during his "negotiations."

As our photo shows, the radio station should have taken the same investigative response as the newspaper before going to air…

November 04, 2009

The 7 Deadly Sins of Travel

By: Lucy Corne -

If you travel often I’m sure that at some point you’ve found yourself listening to a fellow backpack-toting wanderer berate his peers for not being ‘good travellers’. But really, is there such a thing as a good traveller? I mean, it’s hardly rocket science is it? Jumping on and off trains, packing and unpacking your bag or finding a place to sleep for the night – not endeavours that require any specialist skills.

Of course, while the nuts and bolts of travel are easy to master, there are always a few ways that you can screw up, ways to offend your hosts or make other travellers cringe. Whether you’re a novice nomad or a seasoned explorer, you’re still at risk of committing one of the seven deadly sins.

I’m not talking about the list of seven you might remember from high school Religious Ed class. Sloth is practically a pre-requisite for a long-term backpacker and what’s a food market without a little greed and gluttony? Scratch pride, wrath, lust and envy from your guilt list – if you’re planning to globetrot, the list you need to worry about covers the seven deadly sins of travel.

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October 28, 2009

STRUTH: Quirky Mexican Hotel No Bull


IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, DAVID ELLIS says you can lay in bed in one of the world's most unusual hotels and imagine the crowd as it roars "Olé, Olé!", and in your mind's eye picture dark-haired beauties tossing blood-red roses to their matador heroes in what was once one of Mexico's most famous bull-fighting arenas…

Because the Hotel Quinta Real Zacatecas has been built into the grandstands of the old San Pedro bull ring, a spectacular 19th century Spanish-style structure that saw its last encounter between man and beast in 1975.

Guest rooms have balconies overlooking the original ring that's now paved with cobblestones sprinkled with vast pots of flowering plants, and there's a restaurant and bar at ground level on the very edge of the ring itself.

If you are interested in a stay, have a look at


David Ellis

JOHN Robb knew how to turn a quid, and when the Queensland government couldn't get anyone to finish a railway line from the mosquito-ridden port of Cairns to the wealthy, but remote, farmlands and mining areas "up the range" behind town, he decided in his largesse to come to their aid.

It was the 1880s and Mr Robb dictated a telegram to his secretary proposing to Queensland that he complete the rail line. When it came to a price, Mr Robb sucked on his pencil for a moment, and decided on 290,155 pounds ($580,300.)

It was a stab in the dark, but a healthy one, and Mr Robb was not the least concerned that he had no idea of the area through which the rail line would run, how many bridges, culverts and tunnels may be required, nor that anyone in his Melbourne civil engineering company had ever been to Cairns.

But he knew that the Queensland government was desperate to complete the line at any cost, and a couple of weeks later he was invited to build Stage Two of the Cairns-Kuranda rail line. Four years later when the job was completed, he revealed to colleagues that he'd turned a profit of $250,000 – an absolute fortune in 1891.

But Mr Robb soon learnt why two previous contractors had gone bankrupt building Stage One of the line, leaving the government to complete that stage itself at enormous cost.

Queensland desperately needed the 75km-long Kuranda line. The country around the developing little tablelands settlement abounded with rich pastoral land, tin and some gold, and huge timber reserves that were there for the taking.

But it was virtually cut off from the outside world, and when the pastoralists, miners and timber-getters were deemed to be on the verge of famine, the government finally decided to act. Roads were out of the question, and rail the only apparent solution.

John Robb recruited 1500 labourers, and although he'd included the cost of buying their tools in his contract, told them that if they wanted a job they would have to provide their own picks and shovels. He was making a profit before work even began.

And with just these hand tools, wheel carts, buckets, dynamite and muscle power, Mr Robb and his men removed an astonishing 2,300,000 cubic metres of rainforest mountainside, dug 15 tunnels through rock and earth (one has three opposite curves snaking around the contour of the mountain,) constructed 40 bridges and culverts, and laid 34km of track.

And staved-off aggressive Aborigines who objected to the railway running through their tribal lands.

When one tunnel slid down the mountainside in a tropical downpour, Mr Robb simply told his surveyor to amend the plans. "Put bridge, not tunnel," he grunted.  In other downpours – up to 1800mm (nearly 6ft) in 72-hours – workers watched great sections of track slide hundreds of metres into valleys below, then dug deeper into the 75-degree mountainside to lay new track.

Labourers were paid the equivalent of 80c a day. After they went on strike, Mr Robb agreed to pay them 85c a day.

A spectacular curved steel trestle named Stoney Creek Bridge is said today to be the most photographed bridge in Australia outside of Sydney, and it was on this that Queensland Governor Sir Henry Wiley Norman, who revelled in public acclaim, decided he would officially declare the completed line open.

A grand banquet was prepared on the bridge for scores of local dignitaries, and Mr Robb and his senior staff.

But alas Sir Henry's well-researched speech was never heard: The waterfall behind the bridge was in flood and the sound so deafening that no one could hear a word from the official dais. When asked why he'd not advised of the flood John Robb, who had little time for bureaucracy, said: "No one asked me."

History says that it was a very well fed and very drunk official party that returned to Cairns that night. All, that is, except a despondent Sir Henry.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is 7.5 km long

Ask travel agents to book you on the 1.5hr trip up the rainforest mountain on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, and back down to Cairns on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway when making Cairns holiday reservations – it'll prove a day you'll long remember.


[] PICTURE-perfect, the most-photographed railway bridge in Australia is the Stoney Creek trestle on the Kuranda Rail line.

[] JOHN Robb and some of his 1500-strong team who built the daunting Kuranda Rail line by hand.

[] PICTURESQUE Kuranda Railway Station; take the train the 75km up the Range, and the Skyrail cableway back to Cairns.

October 27, 2009

The Top 10 Jucy-est Summer Camping Tips

Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor adventurer or novice camper, a campervan holiday is one of the most affordable, fun and easy ways to explore the diverse beauty and landscapes of Australia and New Zealand. In the first three months of 2009, Australian tourists spent $284.8 million on caravan park accommodation reflecting the high demand for this cheaper form of travel and accommodation. To assist avid campers across the summer season, the team at Jucy Rentals is sharing their top camping tips.

“The best thing about camping in a campervan is that you don’t have to worry about pitching a tent. All you do is drive to your favourite destination – you can stay as long or as little as you like and you have the freedom to explore,” says Tim Alpe, co-founder of Jucy Rentals.

1. Freedom camping VS caravan parks. “If you’re a bit on the spontaneous side, you have the option of freedom camping, meaning you can park almost anywhere,” says Tim. “However, if you opt for a caravan park you can expect daily fees from around $15 per person per day and I’d recommend booking in advance during summer. A good supply of baby wipes, hand sanitizer and dry shampoo will also come in handy and to stay clean use the heated showers at camping grounds. However there are also public showers at beaches and public pools for freedom campers (just make sure no-one’s watching!)

2. Mosquito season – The warmer weather often brings with it a variety of creepy crawlies that will feast on summer campers if they aren’t prepared. The Jucy team strongly recommends bringing insect repellant and a few citronella candles for long nights by the campfire.

3. Navigation – “A good old fashioned road map is a great way to mark out your journey. However if you’d rather not get into an argument over directions, you may want to spend a little extra and hire a GPS navigator instead,” says Tim. Jucy rents out GPS navigators to their customers for an average of $8 per day.

4. Bush tucker – Jucy campervans come equipped with all the kitchen essentials so that campers can whip up some culinary delights. “If you’re travelling across Australia you may also want to try some of the local cuisine – Kangaroo, Crocodile or Emu can be tasty!” says Tim.

5. Survival tips – “Use your commonsense. Lock your campervan, store valuables in your Jucy safe. There’s nothing worse than being stranded without your mobile phone or wallet”, says Tim. In the unexpected event of a breakdown, Jucy will send out a mobile mechanic to fix and/or replace your vehicle.

6. Think green – “Respect the environment and leave only your footprints,” says Tim. Jucy customers also have the option of hiring a ‘dirty car’ – a car that has not been washed on the outside, but still clean on the inside, at the same time saving campers up to $10 off the overall amount of their Jucy hire.

7. Bargain hunting - Jucy occasionally holds $1 relocation specials – if Jucy has too many vehicles in one drop off they sometimes need drivers to get them back to other depots. For information visit “steal a deal” on the Jucy website.

8. Entertain yourselves – “When travelling in a campervan there can be some long drives so some fun ways to keep you entertained include keeping count of the number of Jucy vans on the road and having a drink for each of them when you arrive at your destination!” says Tim. “You could also try looking for the towns with the longest or most unusual names. If you plan to drive to South Australia you can visit Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill – the town with the longest name in Australia, or in New Zealand Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu,” says Tim.

9. Don’t forget your toothbrush – bring the essentials. Pack plenty of underwear, swimwear, toiletries, food, dishwashing liquid and a guidebook also comes in handy. “When it comes to looking chic on the road, ladies can plug their hair straighteners and dryers into most of the Jucy campers, but I would suggest leaving your creature comforts at home, it’s camping after all,” says Tim.

10. Best drives and destinations – Australia

o Great Ocean Road – Drive along the scenic Victorian road for spectacular views including the iconic Twelve Apostles.
o Byron Bay – About 12 hours north of Sydney, Byron Bay is the perfect destination for surfing, whale-watching and relaxing by the beach.
o Brisbane to Cairns – Drive north up the Sunshine State and visit small towns and the beach-side paradises along the way including Mackay, Rockhampton, the Whitsundays and Townsville.

Best drives and destinations – New Zealand

o Northland – At the top of the North Island, Northland is a perfect destination for summer camping with activities such as fishing, surfing the sand dunes and amazing forest walks - and with the broad range of holiday parks throughout Northland it’s a fantastic spot for campers.
o The National Parks of the South Island – The South Island of New Zealand is home to eight national parks including the Kahurangi and Mt Aspiring National Parks. Each park offers a unique variety of spectacular views, natural wonders and campsites.
o Queenstown – On the South Island of New Zealand, Queenstown is surrounded by magnificent mountains and is right on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Over summer Queenstown is also home to the Summerdaze festival (Dec 31 – Feb 1) which includes a range of recreational, sporting, arts and cultural events.

For more information or to book your next camping holiday visit or

About JUCY

Having launched in January 2002 in New Zealand, Jucy Rentals is one of Australasia’s fastest growing independent rental companies. Founded by brothers Tim & Dan Alpe, Jucy has grown from 35 cars to a fleet of over 2000 ok vehicles. Jucy currently employs 85 energetic and youthful staff members in offices throughout New Zealand and Australia. Jucy entered the Australian market in 2008, bringing the vibrant Jucy Crib campervan to streets all over Australia. In 2009 Jucy launched its new fleet of four-seater ‘Choppa’ campervans. Jucy Australia is located in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Jucy New Zealand is located in Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Greymouth.

October 13, 2009

Michael Palin: Geography: NOT boring...!

Oh cripes and crikey. Four months since my last letter. Honestly, it's not laziness, it's just a surfeit of stuff to do (and the arrival of a second grandson, Wilbur Spike Palin, on August 6th was a lovely distraction). And in the middle of it all, I managed my first foreign travel since the West Bank - a week's family holiday in north-east Mallorca.

Mainly I've been attending to the latest volume of Diaries - Halfway to Hollywood, 1980-88. A lot to do at the last minute - checking we've spelt names right, making sure we won't be sued - then preparing for publication with interviews, radio and TV, recordings of the audiobook and so on.

All pretty good but Paul O'Grady show was the best fun. It helped that Paul is a great traveller and loves diaries. Now I'm on the road defacing people's books. I notice someone has very helpfully put the signings schedule on the site. Thanks for that and see you there.

At the same time, I've been taking time to fulfil my duties as President of The Royal Geographical Society, which began on June 1st for a three-year period. We're now into the Monday lecture season and have already had amazing talks on the ancient rock carvings of the Sahara, Frank Gardner's unstoppable enthusiasm for all dangerous sports despite being paralysed after the attack on him and his film crew in Saudi Arabia, and coming up is a talk from the great mountain climber Andy Cave. All proving geography is NOT boring!

As if this weren't enough there's been a lot of interest in how old the Pythons are. In fact, our first programme ever went out on the BBC forty years ago this October. A new documentary "Monty Python - Almost The Truth, The Lawyers Cut" has been made to celebrate our fortieth birthday. Six hours of new interviews recently discovered material and some of the old classics put together for television and condensed into a 105-minute film for theatres. I'm off to New York this week to reunite with all those Pythons still alive for a premiere of the movie and a BAFTA award. Then back home to appear at the Royal Albert Hall on 23rd October playing a few minor roles in Eric Idle and John du Prez's oratorio "Not The Messiah" - a musical evening based on the Life of Brian and featuring a huge orchestra and a huge choir in the huge Royal Albert Hall.

In between all this, I'm trying to press on with a new novel - my first since "Hemingway's Chair" in 1994. I'm keen to let my imagination loose. It's been cooped up too long.

I'll continue to be tempted by a return to the road, but it doesn't look as if I've much time for new places - at least for a while. I'm still looking at the atlas, though.

Thanks to all those who've come along to the talks or signings I've been doing for Halfway To Hollywood. It's always good to meet you and your loyalty is greatly appreciated by me, my wife, my bank manager and both our cats, Elsie and Edith.

Sometimes I'm quite glad to be able to stay at home for a while. I've seen so much these past 21 years that I need to take it all in. Try and make sense of what I've seen. Otherwise, it becomes a blur. Fortunately, I have time, through the Royal Geographical Society, to stay in touch with travel and travellers, and I like to hear of your own experiences - especially of places I've never been to. My list of must-see before I die places would include Brazil, Iran, Oman, Sri Lanka and Bridlington. Oh well, I can dream.

Enjoy yourselves and stay restless,

October 11th 2009

October 12, 2009


david ellis

AN American guest at the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Canadian Rockies confided to his mates how he'd almost – just almost – sworn off the grog, after a session on the hootch that had left him confronting more in the way of spirits than he'd bargained on.

After a successful day's fishing on Waterton Lake at the foot of the hotel, the man had shared a whiskey or ten with his fellow anglers, and retired a little later than normal with another early morning on the lake weighing on his mind.

Collapsing into bed, he was just dozing off when he was startled by the feeling that someone was tucking the covers in around him.

Befuddled, he stumbled out of bed and switched-on the light. The room was empty.

Putting it down to possibly one or three too many, he was soon heading back into the Land of Nod – when he was awakened again: but this time with the feeling that the covers were being pulled up around his neck.

When he again stumbled from his bed, and realised that the room once more was empty and that he was in a lather of sweat, he swore that when he got home he'd book-in with either his shrink or AAs.

Or both.

He stayed awake for the rest of the night with the light on, and next morning red-eyed and sheepish, mentioned his experience to his companions over breakfast.

A passing waiter overheard the conversation and interrupted. "Sarah!" he said with delight.  "Our Sarah!"

The American was flabbergasted. "You mean, some woman was actually in my room… tucking me in? Fella, you can tell this Sarah that if she comes into my room again, I'll report her to management, and have her fired!"

"That would be difficult, sir," the waiter replied. "Sarah jumped off the roof  over 20 years ago…. she's just heart-broken and keeps wanting to come back to us.

"Quite a few staff have actually seen her over the years, while guests have said they feel her presence."

Sarah, the waiter continued, was a teenage housemaid with a crush on another employee who showed little interest in reciprocating her feelings. So one night she climbed the hotel's bell tower and jumped 7-storeys to her death.

Ever since there have been odd incidents of guests reporting that just as they've started to doze off, they've been startled by the sensation that someone was tucking the covers around them.

One man even told fellow guests how he'd mumbled a sleepy "thank you" to his wife – only to turn over and realise she was in the shower.

But the thoughtful Sarah isn't the only sad spirit roaming the rooms of the Prince of Wales Hotel.

A married couple who worked there – he was a quick-tempered cook, she was a friendly and outgoing concierge – had a blazing row in the staff wing one Friday night after the wife had come to bed late after playing board games with other staffers.

Angry that she'd given her time to fellow staff and not him, the husband beat her senseless and fled the hotel.

When neither appeared for work the following Monday, management broke in and found the body of the wife; to this day, the husband has never been found.

But his wife's ghost is said to be felt around the old staff quarters that are now guest rooms. "People say they simply 'feel' there is someone in a room with them, a sort of a warmth as if someone's body heat is close to them," one duty-manager said.

"It's eerie, but not worrying. The poor woman, just like Sarah, loved the hotel and is just looking for companionship amongst old friends."

You'll find the Prince of Wales Hotel a delightful retreat on a North America summer holiday, particularly if you are into long walks, canoeing, sailing, fishing and other myriad outdoor adventures – and good dining.

And you won't have to worry too much about its ghosts: encounters with Sarah and the outgoing concierge are few and generally far between.

For information about holidaying at the Prince of Wales Hotel see travel agents, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or email



[] SPIRITED retreat that almost put a man off the drink.

[] SPECTACULAR Waterton Lake from the hotel

October 11, 2009


david ellis with malcolm andrews

YOU can't go far in England without coming across some link with slavery: much of the country's early wealth came from the trade.

Even Queen Elizabeth I and King Charles II both played major roles, Barclays Bank was founded by families whose fortunes came from slavery, and The National Gallery in London was started with a collection of paintings donated by John Julius Angerstein, whose money also came from the slave trade.

And one of the governors of the Bank of England owned slave ships, while  entrepreneurs Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake both made a quid out of trading in slaves – and ended up with knighthoods.

One of the earliest in the business was Sir John Hawkins, who ultimately became Treasurer of the Royal Navy. In 1562 he captured 300 slaves in Portuguese Guinea, took them to the Caribbean, and with the profits sailed off with three ships laden with goodies to flog in England.

When she heard about the slaves Queen Elizabeth berated him, saying "It is detestable and it will call down vengeance from heaven upon you." But when he told her that in exchange for the slaves, he had a cargo of sugar, ginger, hides and pearls, she had a quick change of heart.

And became his business partner.

By Hawkins' third trip to Africa in 1567, the Queen had loaned him two government ships with which he captured almost 500 slaves.

And King Charles II was a major shareholder in the Royal African Company, which shipped 70,000 African slaves to the West Indies between 1680 and 1688. Only 46,000 made it alive to the islands, but profits were still huge.

Next time you're visiting England, head north from London and in Olney in Buckinghamshire you'll find an original link with the slave trade – and hear at least one good story to come out of the whole horrid business.

Olney is a pleasant little town of about 6000, and its weekly markets are a major tourist drawcard.

But its best known for an 18th century resident, the Rev John Newton. He was a former slave trader and born-again Christian who in his "new life" wrote one of the world's best-loved hymns – Amazing Grace.

He says he was inspired by his conversion and realisation of his despicable career.

John Newton was born in London in 1725, went to sea at age 11, and ended up as master of a ship taking slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.

But in 1748 he almost perished during a massive storm. So convinced was he that his ship was going to sink that he turned to God, mumbling prayers he'd learned as a child: miraculously the storm subsided and his ship made it safely back to England.

However he remained a slave trader for some years, but at least treated his human cargoes with more compassion than did others.

And when he finally turned his back on seafaring and his conversion was completed he was given the post of curate at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney. There he composed hymns for his weekly sermon, often helped by his neighbour, the melancholic poet William Cowper.

A book of 282 hymns by Newton and 66 by Cowper is still considered one of the greatest hymn books of all time.

One of Newton's hymns, Faith's Review and Expectation was written to accompany his New Year's Eve sermon in 1773; it became better known as Amazing Grace, because of its opening words:

'Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.'

The music is said to have been copied from the melody of a song sung by slaves on Newton's ships – but this is probably urban myth – and Newton is said to have inspired his friend and MP, William Wilberforce to successfully lobby for the abolition of slavery.

Newtown's home town is today the home of the world's best known pancake race that draws contestants from around the world every Shrove Tuesday.

But most tourists to visit Olney to see the room in the Old Vicarage where he wrote Amazing Grace, and the next-door former home of his poet friend, and which is now the Cowper and Newton Museum.



[] THE Old Vicarage, Olney where the Reverend John Newtown wrote Amazing Grace

[] THE Reverend John Newton: 'born again' Christian who turned his back on a career in slavery

[] COWPER and Newton Museum in Olney, Buckinghamshire

Slowly on the Ganges: An Eight Hundred Mile Voyage Across India

Paul Strachan (Owner of Pandaw Cruises) writes frankly on his return from the maiden voyage

In October 2009 we were the first passenger ship to sail between Calcutta and Varanasi on the Ganges since the 1930s. This was a historic occasion, but not without many challenges and difficulties. This is the most beautiful and culturally varied river I have explored - but it is also the most daunting for crew and passengers alike.

The RV Bengal Pandaw was launched in Burma as Pandaw IV in 2004 and has twenty-eight promenade deck staterooms. The eight hundred mile expedition is of fifteen days duration and only ten sailings are planned for the coming season. The expedition takes in a number of the most important historical sites in India including the colonial splendours of Calcutta, the sacred places of Buddhism around Bodh Gaya and Benares, now called Varanasi, the great cultural centre of Hinduism. In addition, the Pandaw stops daily in smaller towns and villages to see handicrafts, rural life and a variety of local cultures as we pass from region to region.

Given the practical difficulties of crossing India by land, a river cruise makes the best sense covering a vast landscape in comfort and safety and exploring the real India well off the beaten track. The scenery is amazing and the excursions ashore are varied and exciting. Each day is quite different with a wealth of things to do and see. The standard of guides in India, with their good English and intellectuality, is far better than in the other countries we operate in and the lectures and briefings proved highly stimulating.We also have a medical doctor on the team who doubles as resident naturalist.

Each of the subsequent river expeditions will be highly adventurous and should not be booked by the faint hearted. Itineraries are skeletal and indicational only. Each day the schedule will be subject to constant revisions. Some excursions may be cancelled, whilst you may find yourself on excursions never offered in the first place! All depends on water levels and flow rates, the weather, local bureaucracy and a hundred other factors that make and shape a cruise. Do not expect this to be a slick well-oiled operation like our cruises on the Mekong! These cruises really are expeditions in the full sense of the word.

Note also that the service, food and beverage standards that you would expect on a Pandaw will not be up to standard. The food is mainly Indian and this is generally good, but over 10 days can become repetitive for many. Despite initial licencing scares we have been able to offer complimentary beers and local drinks. Please understand that this is a new destination for us working with a new crew in a country with quite different standards to what you would find in South-East Asia. Please bear this in mind if you are considering booking this cruise.

We had planned 14 nights on board but given the disparity in service standards between India and our other operations I have decided to reduce the number of days spent cruising to 10 with 2 nights in deluxe hotels either side of the cruise: in Varanas at the brand new Radisson and in Calcutta at the splendid Oberoi Grand. I feel that given the fact that it will take some time for us to get standards up to scratch, working in a very tough environment, we should offer our passsengers a little more comfort before and after the cruise. Pandaw will absorb this cost and the original rates offered remain. These revised itineraries are now online.

I would say, though, that this is the 'Mother of Rivers' - no other river can match the Ganges in terms of scenery, cultural variety, quantity of historic sites not to mention profuse bird and wild life. This definitely is the way to do India. If you are not too sure if you are ready for it, or rather we are ready, give us a couple of years to get up to speed. In this first year of operations nearly all the people joining the cruise are old Pandaw passengers, who, thankfully, understand what our team are up against and do their best to support them. We are very grateful for that.

September 21, 2009


david ellis

WE wonder if we're in some kind of a time-warp.

Snuggling up to our wharf in Borneo's jungle township of Sibu is an oddly-shaped little passenger ship with a circular bow and equally circular forward superstructure. She could, we think, be something straight out of a Kipling tale of Borneo's Raj, or Mark Twain's time on the Mississippi.

Behind us are chaotic old Chinese-style shop-houses. Rainbow-hued structures housing street-level cafés whose plastic tables and chairs litter the pavement, stores that are out of yester-year with everything from food to hardware and clothing vomiting haphazardly across floors and pavements, a mechanical centre at which a half-dozen oil-stained men tinker with 2-stroke motor-cycle and chainsaw motors that erupt erratically into deafening convulsions of life.

And by contrast a snappy Ladies Beauty Salon proudly proclaiming "air-conditioned facilities," and Borneo's biggest produce market.

It is July 2009, but it could just as well be any July in the middle of the last century here in south-western Borneo or in old Malacca or Penang or Phuket.

So we're not surprised to learn than we're amongst colourful little Sibu's just-2000 overseas visitors annually.

We join some fifty other Australian, British and American adventurers and go aboard our quaint-looking craft. But any idea that we are stepping into the hardships of travel of a colonial past are quickly dispelled: this is a brand-new, purpose-built river-boat crafted as meticulously as possible in the style of the ships of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once chunked the rivers here and "from Rangoon to Mandalay..."

And while the exterior design is yester-year, today's Orient Pandaw – as our ship is named – offers a luxury that Britain's 19th century Raj could only dream of.

Our air-conditioned and ensuited stateroom has a picture window, and we've our own little deck space immediately outside our door to further embace kaleidoscopic views and river breezes.

And Orient Pandaw also has a vast upper-deck viewing area furnished with Raj wicker lounge chairs and tables amid myriad potted plants and palms and under shade cloths… and a bar that dispenses no-charge local beers, spirits and soft drinks (premium imported beers and spirits and wines are available at optional cost.)

And there's a dining room that offers both Asian and Western fare, fusion dishes of the two, fresh local tropical fruits and vegetables, and home-made cakes, cookies and other treats for Orient Pandaw's 56-guests.

Our ship is the newest in a fleet of a half-dozen such teak and brass river-boats opening-up the rivers of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burmah, India and Borneo to tourists.

Scottish entrepreneur and South-east Asian historian, Paul Strachan was fascinated with the story of the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that was founded in the 1860s – and which burned all 650 of its ships to the waterline so Japan could not use them to move troops and supplies when it invaded Burma in 1942.

He discovered the remains of one, researched original plans and started building look-alike vessels, but with today's mod-cons (although he eschews in-stateroom phones, mini-bars and TVs.) He's now got a half dozen, with Orient Pandaw the latest and plying Borneo's Rajang River that's the longest in Malaysia.

Our July cruise is the first such in 67 years, and with her shallow draft, where there are no wharves, Orient Pandaw simply nudges up to riverbanks, beaches or jungle clearings and guests gangplank it ashore.

Onboard experts and local guides lead us through villages in which we are as much the centre of interest as these rarely-visited gems are of interest to us. We explore remote "heart of Borneo" forts of the 19th century British Rajahs Brooke, fruit and vegetable farms, sago-making factories, village schools where the kids sing us songs and show us their favourite games, and go on jungle walks.

And visit a traditional Iban longhouse in which 700 people live under one roof – each family's "apartment" fronting a communal verandah that appears to stretch into the mountain mist's infinity.

And to remind us that this was once headhunter country, the longhouse chief proudly shows us a basket of human skulls, trophies of conquests past.

Travel agents have cruise packages that include Malaysia Airlines flights and pre- and post-cruise Borneo and Malaysia stays; or phone Pandaw Cruises on (02) 8080 5622 or log onto


[] WALK the plank: Orient Pandaw can nudge up to any shore for guests to gangplank it ashore.

[] AN Iban jungle longhouse: 700 people live under one roof and share a communal verandah that "stretches into the mountain mist's infinity."

[] HEAD count. A Pandaw guest checks out the longhouse's collection of skulls from battles past.

[] RAJAH Brooke's timber-built Fort Emma is 150 years old.

Photos: David Ellis

September 16, 2009

Santa Monica Pier Centennial

Recognisable through its cameo appearance in countless films and TV shows, in September 2009 the Santa Monica Pier celebrates its first century as one of California’s most iconic attractions.

Back in 1909, when the Pier was first built, no one could have imagined that the Pier would survive to greet its 100th birthday. It certainly has had more than ‘nine’ lives. The Pier has stubbornly remained a constant, weathering the ferocious power of storms unleashed by Mother Nature, ravages of change and progress and economic hardships - but it survived.

To the delight of national and international tourists, enthusiasm for the Pleasure Pier has never abated. A pivotal feature of everyday city life, every year the Santa Monica Pier attracts millions of annual visitors.

Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Company said, “The Pier today remains an icon – a single remnant of history on a coast that was once peppered with piers. It offers nostalgia for yesteryear, yet remains a commanding presence on the national landscape and a vibrant entertainment center that embraces the culture of today. It deserves the birthday celebration of a century.”

The Pier’s history is storied. First came the Hippodrome in 1916, a mixture of Byzantine, Moorish and California architecture, fascinating onlookers with its inside carousel of a circling menagerie of wooden animals. Among the last of its kind, the Hippodrome was adopted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

And eight years later, in 1924, the La Monica Ballroom opened – a vast and ornate palatial-like structure, floating magically above the sea on the Santa Monica Pier built with a footprint of more than 40 thousand square feet – the largest ballroom in the world – in an era when ballroom dancing had reached a fevered pitch. The ballroom was also the site of the famous Dance Marathons in the 1930s that offered cash prizes during the brutal early 1930s, a ray of hope for out of work people.

The Pier was, and is today, a magnet for Hollywood. A staple in a number of popular Hollywood pictures including Funny Girl (1968), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Sting (1973), Forrest Gump (1994) and The Majestic (2001). Celebrity sightings run the gamut from Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus to US Congressman Kucinich and Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.

About the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation
The Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation (SMPRC), established in 1983, is a non-profit, public benefit corporation made up of business and community leaders who represent the full range of community interests. It was created by the Santa Monica City Council to preserve and enhance the pleasure pier experience for people of all ages and for future generations and is funded by the City of Santa Monica. For more information, visit,

For more information visit

September 12, 2009


david ellis

PASSENGERS were never led to believe that there was much in common between the official railway timetable and the actual time that the new-fangled mixed passenger/goods train from Adelaide would arrive in Stuart, a couple of days away in the Northern Territory.

So much so that on one occasion in the 1930s when it finally chugged into Stuart a fortnight behind schedule, rather than the driver, fireman, cook and guard being condemned as bungling public servants, they were actually lauded as heroes of the pioneering Outback.

Because when their train had become trapped by floods in the middle of nowhere, to feed their 90-odd hungry passengers, they'd hunted down, shot and butchered wild goats.

The narrow-gauge rail line from Adelaide to Stuart – that was later re-named Alice Springs – was begun in 1878, and somewhat like those timetables, was not finally completed until 1929, some fifty-one years later.

Prior to the arrival of that first service, the train for many years terminated at Port Augusta, and from there passengers continued on by road to Stuart.

And because the freight was transferred to camel trains operated by Afghan cameliers, on seeing dust in the distance, Outback property owners would telegraph word to others further north that "the 'Ghans are coming."

So there was little option but to dub the new train, The Ghan.

The first Ghan puffed into Stuart on May 1 1929 two days after leaving Adelaide – officially on schedule because it had arrived the day it had been expected, although somewhat after the scheduled hour.

And it wasn't long before The Ghan struck regular hiccups.

The steel rail lines often buckled so badly in daytime 40-degree-plus heat that trains would be held up for hours until the lines cooled at night, and settled back so that journeys could continue.

And drivers would report seeing rails simply parting before their eyes: voracious termites could chew through a hardwood sleeper in just days, so passengers would pitch-in with the crew to carry out emergency track repairs to get The Ghan to either Adelaide or The Alice.

And kangaroos and emus – for some inexplicable reason – would gather on the line at night to be mown-down in the darkness in their scores, causing more delays.

One jokester even quipped that The Ghan would often arrive at Alice Springs with more kangaroo fur and emu feathers plastered over the front of the engine than the Australian coat-of-arms.

Then there was that day in the 1930s when the usually dry Finke River erupted in flood, trapping The Ghan between the raging river before it, and the countryside going underwater behind it.

After more than a week, the stranded train ran out of fresh food so the driver shot wild goats: for the next five days the 90 passengers and crew sat in the train in a desert that had become a lake, dining on goat and tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

When the Ghan finally got into Alice Springs two weeks behind schedule, a journalist of the day noted: "Timetables are a matter more of hope than fact… not only is the hour of arrival indefinite, but also the day.

The government-operated Ghan was sold after nearly 70 years to a private company, Great Southern Railways and in February 2004 a train made the first complete journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs and on to Darwin – over 125 years after being first mooted, and at an estimated cost over the years of $1.3-billion.

The 2,979km journey takes 48 hours and is considered one of the world's great train trips, linking Australia's southern coast with its north; and today's "new" line from Adelaide to Alice Springs runs about 160km west of the original, that was closed in 1980 due to regular flooding.

Interestingly that original line followed the route of the Overland Telegraph, that in turn had followed the footsteps of explorer John McDouall Stuart during his historic crossing of Australia from south to north in 1862.

Fares Adelaide to Darwin (or v-v) start from $730 for a Daynighter Seat (online bookings only,) $1340pp twin-share Red Sleeper Cabin and from $1973pp for Gold Sleeper Cabin, with substantial CSHC/pensioners discounts available. For full details including meal inclusions see travel agents or phone 1300 657 045.


[] THE kilometre long Ghan weaves its way through the great Australian Outback

[] FIRST Class sleeper aboard The Ghan

[] NO kidding – there's no wild goat on today's menus on The Ghan

[] RUINS from the train window of the ill-fated settlement of Farina in South Australia's far north   


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