September 24, 2012


SPAIN's Ronda: "Nothing more startling than this wild and mountainous city."

David Ellis

TO ask whether the Andalusian town of Ronda in southern Spain is spectacular is somewhat akin to asking if Julia Roberts is a pretty woman.

Famous 20th century Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke summed it up when he wrote: "I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. There is nothing that is more startling than this wild and mountainous city."

He wasn't alone. Others to shout its praises have included Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemmingway and Hollywood legend Orson Welles. Both loved the town for its uniqueness – and for its bullfighting tradition, the local bullring being Spain's oldest and probably most famous. Hemmingway wrote about the town, while Welles, a talented painter, captured it on his canvases and was so smitten that he asked to be buried on Ronda's outskirts.
Tourists marvel at how the city perches atop both sides of a 68-metre wide, 120-metre deep canyon, along the bottom of which flows the Rio Guadalevín.

And its very name Ronda, simply means rocky.

THE Puente Nuevo (New Bridge):
prison and torture chamber in centre span.
The city also abounds with violent history: the Romans and Carthage's Hannibal clashed here, and later Catholics fought furiously against the followers of Islam with the worst conflicts in the 16th century, when countless Spanish residents were slaughtered, and then in retribution, countless more Muslims. In the second wave of killings, those Muslims not slaughtered in battle were sold into slavery.
And a famous scene in Hemingway's classic For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on a particularly violent episode of the Spanish Civil War when 500 Fascist sympathisers were executed – simply by being thrown alive from high on Ronda's cliff-faces into that 120m deep gorge.

And interestingly some 70 per cent of photographs taken in Ronda are of its Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) that spans the canyon, although it is now anything but new having been finished in 1793 after 40-odd years of effort.

ENFRENTEARTE Hotel's unusual
welcome for visitors: half a Fiat 600.
Somewhat bizarrely the bridge has a number of rooms built into its centre span that were used for a time both as a prison and torture chamber – and later taken over for more humane purposes by a bar owner. Today it's a museum.

And while it was being built, José Martin de Aldehuela who was actually the second architect to work on the bridge after the first pulled out after 26 troubled years, turned his talents on the side to designing Rondo's next most-photographed building, the Plaza de Toros bullring that was completed in 1784.
UNUSUALLY sculptured pool chairs to fit one's back-side.
The annual 'Corrida Goyesca' is a bullfght that draws aficionados from around Spain… with Giorgio Armani in recent years designing the colourful costumes for famed bullfighter Cayetano Rivera Ordonez for the event, wrapping him in satin jackets, trousers and cloaks in a shade of his trademark Armani Greige (a mixture of grey and beige).
Ronda is also home to the EnfrenteArte Hotel (which means In Front of Art), a somewhat weird and wonderful place that's a magnet for those looking to not only stay in one of the more unusual hotels in the world, but to photograph it almost as much as its host city's famed bridge.

CIRCA 1784 Plaza de Toros bullring,
Ronda's 2nd most-photographed icon.
Descriptions of the EnfrenteArte abound in its Guests Book: Bohemian, Fascinating, Funky and Bizarre amongst them. And little wonder ratings agencies put the hotel high on the WOW (Weird or Wonderful) factor: as soon as the visitor walks into Reception just off the oldest paved street in town, they're confronted by the front half a bright yellow Fiat 600 motor-car sticking out of one of the walls. (Just where the rear half is located is another story for another day….)
The whole of the EnfrenteArte Hotel is decorated with such original and historical "artworks." Car tyres have been converted into occasional tables ... a surfboard serves for dining, and around the swimming pool are outrageously sculptured chairs specially shaped to fit one's back-side.

HOTEL courtyard and pool.
And the unusual lighting, that includes glowing from kitschy fake bird's nests in old basketballs, glitters out over wall murals immortalising the likes of Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury.
A unique establishment? You betcha.  

Rooms: 12

 For details go to The hotel offers a complimentary 'Doctor Fish' pedicure, has a sauna, outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, and all drinks and breakfast are included in the room price.


(Images: Aerial and Bridge, Spain Tourist Board; Plaza de Toros, Wikipedia; hotel, EnfrenteArte Hotel)

September 23, 2012

Voyage to the Stars

Captain Cook - Obsession and Discovery actor Matt Young as Captain Cook
holding his sextant on the stern deck of HMS Endeavour.
Photo: Simon Cardwell © Film Australia
It’s all well and good to build a lovely ship and go sailing off toward the horizon, but how do you find your way? Roderick Eime tracks back in time to locate the earliest navigators.

I’m sure my schooling was similar to yours. We were all taught about the famous Captain Cook and his marvellous voyages around the world, Christopher Columbus was mentioned and so were the likes of Captain Bligh and maybe Abel Tasman. Sure, these capable chaps were great navigators and Cook’s most valuable contribution was his superb cartography, many maps still in use hundreds of years later. But before them, how did the Egyptians, Chinese, Portuguese, Vikings and Polynesians complete their enormous voyages without falling off the edge of the world? Answer: the Moon, sun and stars.

As far back as 200BC, American researcher, Rick Sanders theorised that Captain Rata and Navigator Maui set out from ancient Egypt and sailed as far as South America using a strange-looking navigational instrument called a tanawa; such an instrument was known in 1492 as a torquetum and a drawing of it can be found in caves in West Papua.

Even longer ago, it is believed a Greek navigator, Pytheas, from the colony of Massalia (Marseilles) circumnavigated Britain around 350BC. An expert mathematician and astronomer of his time, Pytheas mastered the "Gnomon," an instrument described by ancient Greek historian Herodotus, borrowed from the Phoenicians, and brought to Greece about 575 B.C.

When Columbus was blundering about in the Atlantic in the late 15th Century, celestial (star) navigation was still a mystery to most Europeans, but the Portuguese were slowly getting the hang of it. But Columbus groped his way across to America by the clumsy method of ‘dead reckoning’.

The most impressive of the early navigators were almost certainly the Polynesians who traversed all of the central and South Pacific Ocean on their fabled migrations between Hawai’i, Aotearoa (NewZealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Studying their complex method of wayfinding (non-instrument navigation) has intrigued early European and modern researchers alike. In 1774, wealthy Chilean artist and administrator, Andia y Varela Ignacio, visited Tahiti and attempted to fathom their mysterious technique.

"They have no mariner's compass, but divide the horizon into sixteen parts, taking for the cardinal points those at which the sun rises and sets.

"When setting out from port the helmsman partitions the horizon, counting from E, or the point where the sun rises; he knows the direction in which his destination bears. He observes, also, whether he has the wind aft, or on one or the other beam, or on the quarter, or is close-hauled. He notes, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if the sea is on the bow or the quarter. He proceeds out of port with a knowledge of these [conditions], heads his vessel according to his calculation, and aided by the signs the sea and wind afford him, does his best to keep steadily on his course.

Celestial navigation has been a subject all modern sea captains must master. There have been numerous accounts of ship and aircraft crews scrambling into lifeboats after a torpedoing, ditching or other disaster and having to find their way to safety on their wits alone. In wartime, celestial navigation had the advantage of requiring no electronic equipment that might give telltale signals or be jammed by the enemy.

Nowadays, of course, increasingly cheap satellite-based GPS navigational devices are available for motorists and bushwalkers to guide them through every step of their journey, whether it be to Mount Kosciusko or Woolworths.

Sextant 101

Sextant (Wikimedia)

A sextant uses two mirrors. One of the mirrors is half-silvered, allowing some light to pass through. In navigating, you look at the horizon through this mirror.

The other one is fixed to a moving arm. Light from the sun reflects off this mirror. The arm is then moved to a position where the sun's reflection off this mirror also reflects off the first mirror and through the eyepiece. This occurs when the sun (or star) is superimposed on the other (the horizon). Then read the angle between the two objects off the scale. A sextant is very accurate in this regard, capable of measuring an angle to within ten seconds. (1/60 of a minute, which is 1/60 of a degree)

To find latitude, first measure the angle between the horizon and the sun when the sun is at its highest point at noon by your watch or chronometer. Refer to your tables to tell you which line of latitude the sun is above on that particular day. eg, at noon on December 21, and the sun is directly overhead. On that day the sun is above the Tropic of Capricorn, so your latitude is 23.5 degrees S.

September 20, 2012

World's top 10 hazardous golf courses

Golf typically conjures up thoughts of manicured greens and collared shirts (or even beer carts and side bets), but some rounds are a little more extreme.

If you want to raise the stakes – and your adrenaline level – has named some of the world’s most world’s most hazardous golf courses.

Prison View Golf Course, Angola, Louisiana, USA
The Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It is a working farm and runs both a radio and TV station. To top it off, it also has a 9-hole golf course, complete with practice facilities and a clubhouse, for use by the public for $10. There are a few catches: Playing this course requires some advanced planning, as you must allow 48 hours for a background check before you can even schedule a tee time. The course is on the ground of the penitentiary, so you must also be willing to submit to personal and vehicle searches. Finally, be prepared for play to be suspended in the event of a riot or attempted jailbreak). Search and compare cheap flights to USA

Singapore Island Country Club, Singapore
This historic club, the oldest and one of the most prestigious on the island nation of Singapore, will always be associated with wild animal encounters after the infamous 1982 pro event where Jim Stewart came face to face with a 3-metre cobra. He killed it, only to watch in horror as another snake emerged from its mouth. While much has changed in Singapore since 1982, a round at the Singapore Island Country Club can still be an adventure. Members are now warned of wild boar encounters, with advice to walk calmly away when crossing paths with one. The official “local” rules of the course include the addendum that any area damaged by digging from wild boar, monkeys or other non-burrowing animals may be considered “ground under repair.” Search and compare cheap flights to Singapore

Lost City Golf Course, Sun City, South Africa
A relaxing round of golf in the wild beauty of South Africa sounds ideal, right? Certainly it does when the course is designed and built by South African golf superstar Gary Player and showcases the desert, the mountains, the parklands and 28,000 square metres of water features. But don’t be lulled in by the scenery as danger and excitement lurk alongside hole 13. Here, the water hazard guarding the green is home to roughly 40 Nile crocodiles, some six feet or more in size. Players are cautioned to bring extra balls and take a drop rather than venture after a shot in or near this imposing crocodile pit. Search and compare cheap flights to South Africa

Merapi Golf Course, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
People visiting this public course on the outskirts of the ancient city of Yogyakarta report beautiful weather, stunning views and an almost mystic feeling from the location. It’s an awe-inspiring round, especially when you realize the mountain overshadowing the course is Mount Merapi, an active volcano that last erupted in December 2010. The wave of ash that blew over the course and the surrounding area has been cleaned up and play has resumed. Just keep an ear out for the emergency warning alarms! Search and compare cheap flights to Indonesia

Camp Bonifas, Panmunjom, South Korea
Camp Bonifas is home to a single hole, par-3 “golf course” abutting the most heavily fortified border in the world. The camp, the base for the United Nations Command, is 400 metres south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that serves as a buffer between North and South Korea. The 175 metre hole is lined by a 5.5 metre security fence and unexploded mines that can be triggered by errant shots. Players report wild animal encounters too, including brushes with local “vampire deer” and a creature described as a “man-bear-pig”. When you have only one hole to play, at least it’s good to know every time out is an adventure in the making. Search and compare cheap flights to Korea

World Ice Golf Championship, Uummannaq, Greenland
This Greenland golf course changes annually, dictated by the moods of nature and the shape of ice. Each March (climate permitting) the nine-hole course is laid out across a field of fjords and icebergs. Players then face off against each other and the elements in a 36-hole tournament, the only one played in the Arctic Circle. With ice as the “green,” golfers play with red balls and may scrape the surface to smooth the putting line. Otherwise, it’s a regular round of golf, if you don’t mind -50 degree Celsius temperatures, periodic shifts in the course as you play it and the potential for crossing paths with a polar bar. Search and compare cheap flights to Greenland

The Ocean Course Golf Course, Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA
Players on this course have more than just a tough course design to deal with, they must also face the wrath of Mother Nature. Built above the sand dunes at the farthest point of the island, the course is exposed to gusty or even whipping ocean winds that stretch a typical round to five-and-a-half or even six hours. Playing that long in the heat and humidity of South Carolina’s low country might seem the scariest part, but really it’s the creatures waiting for you to come searching for your windblown, off-course ball. You’ll hope it’s a gator and not a copperhead, rattlesnake or a water moccasin. Search and compare cheap flights to South Carolina.

La Jenny Golf Course, France
There’s no shortage of balls on this course which is one of the few places in the world where you don’t have to worry about a golf-dress code. In fact, the fewer clothes the better. This is Europe’s only naturist golf course. The resort course features a par-3 and par-4 holes is open to the public and hosts tournaments during the year. Search and compare cheap flights to France.

Skukuza Golf Course, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Here’s your chance to combine a safari with your round of golf. This course backs up to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Lions, elephants, leopards, warthogs, buffalo and more wander onto the course regularly. Don’t really believe it? Read the information sheet (and the indemnity form you are required to complete) before heading out. It will tell you what to do when you come across these animals (hint: don’t run!). Stay clear of the water; it’s ripe with hippopotamus that are big, fast, lethal and not scared of you, or your golf club. Search and compare cheap flights to South Africa

Cape Kidnapper’s Golf Course, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Don’t play this course if you are scared of heights. The cliff-top course offers a breathtaking, 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean and kilometres of coastline. Six of the holes, though, walk you along the edge of a 183-metre sheer drop into the sea. Steel yourself in particular for 15th hole, known as the “Pirate’s Plank.” Here you walk an increasingly narrow fairway down to the 18-metre-wide green, featuring a plunging drop with no protection. Don’t walk backward lining up that putt! Search and compare cheap flights to New Zealand

(Images: Featured, tony_the_bald_eagle; Louisiana,; Singapore, goosmurf; Indonesia, Jimmy McIntyre – Strange Lands Travel Blog; South Korea, Jon Ã…slund; Greenland, ilovegreenland; South Carolina, rjones0856; Kruger, Mister-E; New Zealand, tony_the_bald_eagle)

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September 11, 2012

Struth! Croc Crossing NT Style

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says colleague Graeme Willingham snapped this croc recently  at Cahill's Crossing on the aptly-named East Alligator River in the Northern Territory.

Graeme, a Melbourne-based PR consultant, says there were actually four crocs (well, four that he could see) taking advantage of a high tide and the barramundi racing across the causeway, and this particularly large fella stopped the traffic when pausing midstream on the way to deeper water on the other side of the rocks on the right.

He had earlier been seen to snap a couple of unwary fish, so was probably comfortably full and, as Graeme muses, possibly thinking to him/herself: "It's my river, and it's my causeway, so I'll do what I bloody well like, when I like."

It brought no argument from tourists who backed-up in their cars and 4WDs on their way back to Jabiru in Kakadu National Park from the Stone Country Festival at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), in nearby Arnhem Land.

(The Stone Country Festival, is an open day and cultural festival held every August with traditional music, dancing, arts and crafts demonstrations, and an all-day AFL footy carnival. It's the only day you can visit Gunbalanya without a permit.)


September 08, 2012


David Ellis

PSSST!  Wanna buy a South Pacific island?

One that's just three hours or so from Brisbane, with a little resort tucked into a thumbnail of its 72ha (180 acres) – and rated by TV's Getaway travel program "one of the 50 best hotels in the world?"

Your island in the sun on which to build your own secret place for family or maybe investment-mates in its rainforests or along its beaches, and far enough away from that little resort – that takes up just 5% of the island – that you could be on another planet?

And if you want, have the existing owners stay-on and manage that resort for you, or run it yourself in your retirement… (and when the grandkids visit and you don't want them to miss school, you'll find you've got your own Kindy to Grade 7 school that's attended by a dozen children of staff who come across daily from a neighbouring island.)

This rare little gem is called Bokissa Private Island Resort, just off Santo in the north of Vanuatu, and made famous by James A. Michener who penned his famous Tales of the South Pacific about its beauties and mysteries after serving there during the Pacific War.

Retired Brisbane businessman, Dave Cort went there for a diving holiday with a mate in 1993, and jokes now about "becoming an accidental South Pacific island resort owner."

"We went to Bokissa for the-then daily shark feeding dive," Dave says. "It was pretty run-down and I didn't think a lot about it, but the next year I went back with our son Alan, who was then 26, and we stayed there.

"It was even more run-down, but it's natural beauty got to me, and we went back a few more times… each time finding it more run-down than before, and  in 1998 learned it was for sale – in fact almost sold – by a Melbourne group who owned the lease.

"Out of the blue I made a bid – and with absolutely no knowledge of the hotel industry, suddenly found myself an accidental South Pacific island owner."

Dave and wife Jan, with Alan, moved up to Bokissa soon after, and got into the mammoth task of renovating the run-down resort, landscaping its gardens and putting-in the infrastructure that would make it liveable for themselves – and more desirable for guests.

Today Bokissa Private Island Resort has fifteen private bungalows – called  farés – amongst the trees on a beach of talcum-white sands melding into aqua waters. Vast coral beds swarm with myriad fish and marine life, there are boats for reef and sport fishing (marlin, sailfish, mahi mahi, wahoo, dog tooth and coral trout,) and fly-fishing as well.

For divers, neighbouring Santo has some of the world's best wreck-diving from the Pacific War, including the sunken passenger liner-cum-troopship, President Coolidge recognised as the world's largest accessible wreck dive, and Million Dollar Point where the Americans bulldozed millions of dollars worth of wartime vehicles, weapons of all kinds, machinery and supplies into the sea at war's end…

On Bokissa itself there's a 25m pool with swim-up bar (currently under renovation,) landscaped gardens, bushwalks through the rainforest and along the beaches, wartime relics, snorkelling, kayaks and sailboats, volley-ball, soccer field, giant outdoor board games... and a library for something to read in the hammocks between the trees.

For seafood-lovers locally-caught lobster features at least twice weekly together with fresh-caught reef fish, for carnivores the famed Santo beef that's exported to Japan, island pork, freshest locally-grown vegetables… and to finish, a now-legendary homemade fruit salad, crepes, caramelised bananas, coconut cream pie…

Dave and Jan are long-retired – again – but still living on the island, with the resort managed by Alan who married a local staff member, Elizabeth in the island's own church (that's been used by numerous guests for also getting married;) Alan and Elizabeth have four children who attend their island school.

Staff are from nearby Tutuba Island whose people are the traditional landowners from whom Bokissa is leased, and come across daily to work at the resort, leaving the island at night purely to the Cort's and their guests (primarily honeymooners and winding-down couples.)

If owning all or part of this sounds like your idea of heaven in the Pacific, drop Dave a note on



[] ISLAND in the sun: Bokissa Private Island's Resort occupies a thumbnail of the 72ha island and can hardly be seen.

[] DAVE Cort takes his daily walk – beats dodging city traffic.

[] COOL retreat at day's end… the pool by night.

[] ROOM with a view: room in one of the inter-connecting double bungalows.

[] MILLION dollar views, and a hop, step and a jump into the water.

[] DIVING is spectacular over vast beds of corals alive with marine populations.

(Photos: Bokissa Private Island Resort.)

America's Bizarre Cold War Secret Hideout

David Ellis

GUESTS staying at America's oldest and most luxurious resort during the Cold War era from the 1960s to '90s, had no idea they were cavorting above a bizarre subterranean world that could have come straight out of James Bond, the fertile mind of Graham Greene, Hollywood's Dr Strangelove or maybe even TV's M*A*S*H.

Because below them was a cavern whose concrete walls were 1.5m thick, with chambers big enough to secrete the entire US Congress and House of Representatives and senior staff – and the ancilliary services they would need to govern the country in the event of an A-bomb attack on America.

The Greenbrier Resort at Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, 400km south-west of Washington DC, opened as an inn in 1778 for those wanting to "take the waters" from its mineral-rich pools and springs.

Over the years it's grown into a vast 5-star palace with banks of restaurants, cafés, bars and lounges, casinos, live-show theatres, and limitless sporting opportunities sprawling over 2600ha (6500 acres.)

But it was in the 1960s that it entered its clandestine role, one conceived by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as "the secret White House," nestled inconspicuously in the sleepy backwoods of the Allegheny Mountains.

Few were briefed on what was to happen, and those who were were sworn to State Secrecy, as unsuspecting workers burrowed into the hillside next to the Resort, supposedly creating a new Greenbriers "West Virginia Wing."

Everything and everyone had a code-name – from President Eisenhower whom the Secret Service dubbed "Providence" – to the so-called "management company" that would maintain this subterranean national secret, and whose bland cover-name for 30-years was Forsythe Associates.

The actual project itself was code-named Project Greek Island, but was usually just called The Bunker.

For weeks concrete trucks arrived around the clock, pouring 1.5m thick floors, walls and ceilings. Then a steel blast-door a half-metre thick and weighing 25-tonnes was brought in on a reinforced railcar from Ohio to safely seal the whole complex in the event of an A-bomb attack on Washington DC's White House.

Like Topsy, Project Greek Island just "growed and growed" to the size of two football fields stacked on top of each other, with every major emergency need being quietly installed, and for thirty amazing years from 1962 constantly maintained for instant use.

And to protect its cover as just a part of the Greenbrier Resort, the two meeting rooms for the Senate and House of Representatives – the Mountaineer Room and Governor's Hall, together with a 5000sq metre area where their staffs would work and dubbed The Exhibit Hall – were actually hired-out through the resort for corporate meetings, exhibitions and parties.

Their participants had no idea they were actually gathering in one of America's most top-secret locations...

Nor that carefully concealed around them were military-style dormitories that could sleep over 1100 Senators, Representatives, senior officials and technical support teams, a mini-hospital, pharmacy, cafeterias, storerooms of freeze-dried foods with 10-year use-by dates, a power-station, 64,000-litres of diesel fuel, water and air purification plants, radio and TV broadcasting studios – the latter with a back-drop wall showing The White House dome – and fitness rooms with exercise bikes, weights and rowing machines.

Its own telephone exchange linked The Bunker with the outside world, and a fire-proof Congressional Records Room could store papers in the event of Congress and the House having to meet, there was a small amoury… even a Chaplain's Room for those fearing that the end was nigh.

And an A-bomb Decontamination Room… chillingly down the corridor from which was the "Pathological Waste Incinerator" – a crematorium for those who may have fatally succumbed to radiation.

Latest-edition news and lifestyle magazines were changed weekly in lounges for 30-years by the "staff" of Forsythe Associates – in truth members of the US Army Signal Corps, who as part of their cover blended into the Greenbrier Resort above in "Forsythe Associates" uniforms servicing guest's TV sets.

Then The Washington Post newspaper in May 1992 ran a bombshell story exposing Project Greek Island and its clandestine operations; it was decommissioned soon after and in 1995 opened by the Greenbrier for public tours with everything apart from the most security-sensitive items still in place, just as during its bizarre thirty secret years.

A near-half-million tourists have toured it to date.



[] GREENBRIER Resort – America's oldest and most luxurious… and home to clandestine Cold War secret.

[] UNDERGROUND meeting room for House of Representatives in the event of an A-bomb attack on Washington.

[] THE BUNKER's own telephone exchange to the outside world.

[] EMERGENCY rations for 1100 Senators, Representatives, senior aides and technical support teams.

[] SEALED-OFF: 25-tonne steel door to seal The Bunker off from the world outside.

 Originally issued for FOR WEEK BEGINNING 11 JULY 2011


David Ellis

AFTER taking part in the Allies' D-Day landing in Normandy in 1944, the little one-time grain-barge-cum-troop-carrier Etoile de Champagne returned to her homeland Belgium – but instead of a heroes welcome she was ignominiously driven into a river shallows and scuttled to prevent her falling into German hands.

There she lay partly-submerged for over a quarter-century until Australian architect Brian Evans found her in the early 1970s, raised her, replaced the temporary troop-landing bow with a more-original rounded one, and converted Etoile de Champagne into a luxury 6-cabin floating hotel.

For the next decade and a half Mr Evans operated his "hotel-barge" on the canals of Europe for those seeking a truly personalised, indulgent and laid-back holiday experience – complete with two Bentley limousines whose drivers leap-frogged the barge to towns and villages for daily shore-side sightseeing.

In 1989 Mr Evans sold Etoile de Champagne to his skipper who later sold it to current owner and skipper, Chris Bennett – who was looking for an "out" from owning and running a high-pressure film and music graphics company in London.

"I no longer wanted to be at the corporate helm," says Chris, a still-youthful 55. "I had twelve full-time staff, six freelancers and a team of printers, and was putting-in 18-hour days, 7-days a week…

"Fran (his wife) and I decided we'd take time off, bought ourselves a little barge in France, and lived on that while we sussed-out the niche barge-holiday market."

The rest, as they say, is history. The Bennetts began taking guests – just six at a time – on their little barge which they sold in 2005 to buy the larger 6-cabin, 12-guests Etoile de Champagne that they re-named Savoir Faire (it means To Do It Right.)

Irish-born Fran worked aboard as barge-manager until 2008 but now spends much of her time at their home in Amsterdam as a life-skills and inspirational speaker.

Chris drives Savoir Faire and supervises a crew comprising a First Mate, tour guide, chef and two housekeepers/waitresses as the luxury barge wends a leisurely path along inland waterways from Amsterdam during Springtime's tulip season, then Brugge, Paris and the Burgundy Canal (built in the 18th and 19th centuries) over Summer and Autumn with cruises ranging from 7-days to two-weeks.

Next year he's planning a Paris to Champagne cruise as well.

And he has good credentials for these very people-oriented sailings, as he's the son of an engineer who constantly travelled the world on business, and regularly lived in hotels for up to six months at a time.

"I went to sixteen schools around the world including Australia, and was fascinated by the hospitality industry and lucky enough to have many hotel staff take me 'behind the scenes' – it was invaluable experience that I still put to use today."

This included on one cruise the twelve guests all having special dietary requirements that meant twelve different menus each day to cater for everything from allergies to vegetarian, ethnic to Kosher…

And on another sailing, the Spanish guests having staff clear the dining room every night after dinner so they could dance – all the wives were retired professional flamenco dancers.

And no matter where they come from, all guests aboard Savoir Faire are equally pampered, with grand French cuisine, complimentary wines with lunch and dinner, an open bar with hors d'oeuvres in the evening on returning from daily sightseeing that's included in the price (two mini-vans follow the barge,) a cosy salon for reading, yarning and board-games, outdoor sitting areas for viewing the spectacular countryside and towns and villages (and which are so close you can almost reach out and touch them,) a CD and book library, and bicycles for riding along the canal tow-paths.

As well as the daily excursions led by the live-aboard tour guide, guests can walk the tow-paths between locks – in seven days on the Burgundy Canal from Ancy-le-Franc to St Florentin there are no less than 26 locks in 60kms.

And so tight a fit are some of these locks, that Captain Chris has to ease the 40m-long, 5m-wide Savoir Faire into them with just 5cm (2-inches) clearance on either side.

For full Spring to Autumn itineraries and prices contact Mary Rossi Travel 1800 815 067,, or Chris Bennett direct on

Photo Captions:

[] SAILING through the French countryside, Savoir Faire.

[] TIGHT fit: Savoir Faire clears locks with just 5cm (2-inches) clearance on either side.

[] CAPTAIN Chris Bennett – "it beats 18-hour days, 7-days a week running a graphics design business."

[] PRETTY as a picture countryside you can almost reach out and touch.

[] LADY of the lock: Savoir Faire passes through 26 locks in 60km on the Burgundy Canal.

(Photos: David Ellis)

 Originally issued FOR WEEK BEGINNING 31 OCTOBER 2011

Struth! Whisky decanter of the stars

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says if you are heading to the UK and want to pick up a really nice decanter of a truly good whisky for that special someone you're catching up with, drop into London's Luxury Beverage Company and ask about their Isabella's Original and Isabella's Special Editions.

And adhering to the axiom that if you have to ask the price you can't afford it, when you do blurt out the question, you will find that no, you most likely can afford neither the Original nor even its much cheaper cousin, the Special Edition.

Because while both contain the equivalent of a bottle of an Islay Very Old Single Malt Whisky, in the case of the Isabella's Original it comes in a fine English Crystal decanter encrusted with over 8,500 diamonds, almost 300 rubies and the equivalent of two bars of white gold, while the cheaper Isabella's Special Edition is merely coated in-part with white gold and with its named spelled out in diamonds.

And the price? The Original will set you back 3.8-million GBPounds (AU$5.8m) and the cheaper Special Edition just 450,000 GBPounds (or AU$689,000) – although if you ask nicely you might at least get the whisky component duty-free.

We'll drink to that!

September 03, 2012

Struth! Five legged elephant dwindles traveller's confidence

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The sight of an aroused elephant apparently stunted one honeymooner's enjoyment
(flicker user: lens_buddy)

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says Britain's Thomas Cook and the Association of British Travel Agents have compiled a list of their countrymen's more bizarre complaints.

Howlers include one British honeymooner who on return home complained to his travel agent that his honeymoon had been ruined – because he'd been left feeling inadequate after confronting the sight of an "aroused" elephant.

Another complained about the seaside holiday spot that had been recommended to him because "the beach was too sandy," while a couple were upset to discover fish swimming in the sea.

"No-one told us there would be fish in the sea," the wife said. "The children were startled."

And it seems some travellers also have a lot to learn about other aspects of nature. "I was bitten by a mosquito – no-one said they could bite," one traveller wrote to his travel agent.

Then there was the British guest dining at a Novotel hotel in Australia who complained that his soup was too thick and strong. The waiter pointed out that it was the gravy for his main course.

And one young lady even blamed a hotel for her pregnancy. "My fiancé and I booked a twin-bedded room, but we were placed in a double-bedded room," she wrote to her agent. "We now hold you responsible for the fact that I find myself pregnant – this would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked."

Other complaints included "There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners."

Another holiday was spoiled because "too much curry is served in restaurants in India".

QE2 in The Falklands: A Queen takes her lads to war


David Ellis

FEW governments send their troops into battle on a diet of caviar.

Nor do they choose the world's most famous cruise liner to land them into the fields of war.

But that's what Britain did when it requisitioned the 70,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth 2 from Cunard Line for use as a troopship in 1982's 74-days war declared by Argentina against the UK in the Falkland Islands.

It must have had the matrons of Madison Avenue choking on their Moets at the thought of all those size 12 boots being suddenly parked in place of the finest Italian hand-mades in restaurants, lounges and staterooms.

And Her Majesty's finest doubtless never thought they were going to have it so good going into battle. But their dreams of a Champagne cruise were quickly shattered: gone were the casino and the plush bars, closed were the lounges they must have mused of lolling around while awaiting the call of duty (and in their place were dormitories with row upon row of camp stretchers,) missing were the health club – not to mention the tennis court, the pool and the duty-free grog shop.

(The tennis court and pool, they soon discovered, had been decked-over and were now mini helicopter pads, and the grog shop had been stripped bare of its treasures and securely locked.)

And over the thousands of square metres of cosey carpets had been placed countless sheets of timber hardboard to protect them from hobnailed boots.

Worse still, any chance of getting away from Army tucker and into QE2's legendary caviar and foie gras, the duck in cherry sauce, the lobster medallions with parsley cream dressing, the Beef Wellingtons, and the crepes flamed with Cointreau and served with double cream… well, sorry, fellas.

Cunard was taking its larders off QE2, and the Army was putting it's on.

Then a cheeky Welsh Guards Officer put it to his superior officers, with a copy of his letter strategically sent to Cunard's Boardroom, that he and his men, for queen and country, faced possible death in the Falklands… and couldn't they enjoy just a little of Cunard's renowned hospitality?

The Army and the shipping company conferred – and remarkably Cunard left on board enough caviar for the trip to the Falklands… QE2 wouldn't be hanging around once she'd unloaded her human fighting machine, so there'd be no need for caviar supplies on the return journey as well.

Why the British government wanted QE2 caused plenty of tut-tutting amongst those who'd suddenly found their annual ocean soirees cancelled, but there was good reason: QE2 was the fastest passenger ship afloat, with a top speed of over 32 knots, she was large enough to carry 3,600 troops, and she was built tough enough (to true Scottish shipyard traditions,) to withstand any minor skirmishes.

Thus most of HM's troops found themselves on their camp stretchers occupying much of the crews' quarters (50 per cent of the crew had been taken off. After all, there was hardly a need for a Cruise Director, bar staff, kennel maids, nannies, disc jockeys, wine stewards and exercise supervisors.) A luckier few, however, mostly officers, did score some of the passenger cabins.

QE2 took 18 days to zig-zag her way to South Georgia Island (so putting the Argentine's off her trail,) where she transferred all 3,600 troops to a fleet of smaller vessels for their final landings ashore.

Then, empty, she steamed back home where it took several months and several million pounds to get her back into service to resume her weekly 5-night trans-Atlantic crossings between Southampton and New York.

And just to show the company had not lost any of its capacity to ensure its guests were once more pampered to the extreme, for each 5-night crossing Cunard would load aboard two tonnes of prime beef, 68kg of caviar, 45kg of foie gras, a tonne of fresh lobster, another tonne of fresh fish, 1.3 of duck, 2.5 tonnes of fruit and vegetables… plus 22,000 bottles of wine, 13,000 bottles of beer, 1,300 of spirits – and enough supplies to whip up 24,000 scoops of ice-cream.

When she retired after nearly 40 years as an Atlantic liner and world cruise ship, the grand QE2 had carried over 2,000,000 passengers and steamed some 8,600,000kms.


[] QE2 steams out of Southampton for the Falklands cheered on by well-wishers.

[] STRANGE sight: British troops muster aboard QE2 heading to the Falklands.

[] MORE regular sight after QE2 had landed her human cargo and was refurbished.

[] QE2 in all her glory for world cruising.

[] BRITISH troops in the Falklands in 1982.

[] ARGENTINE troops readying for action in the 74-day war.


(Photos: Cunard Line and British Army News)


Airbus A380: Big solutions


David Ellis

IT'S made up of more than 4,000,000 parts from 1,500 companies around the world, takes nine months to build at a cost of US$390m, seventy-seven have already been sold, deposits put down on 180 more, and one customer wants ninety – worth US$35.1-billion at list price….

We're talking about the Airbus A380, the biggest civil aircraft in aviation history whose statistics and everything else about it are simply mind-blowing. Yet even more gee-whiz and golly-gosh is just how those 4-million parts from thirty countries find their way to Airbus's A380 assembly plant at Toulouse in south-western France.

Because while most can be trucked, railed, river-barged or flown-in from Europe, the UK and others places around the globe – including 800 factories in the USA alone – getting sections of the super-size fuselage, wings and tailplanes to Toulouse is an exercise of virtually military logistics.

And it's meant spending millions of dollars on construction of a special ocean-going freighter, several river barges and a half-dozen low-loaders because nothing else was capable of carrying these sections, plus research by teams of scientists into river currents, flows and depths, weekly police closures of major roads – even regular removal and replacement of massive overhead road signs to allow over-height parts to trundle across the French countryside in dead of night.

The unique Ville de Bordeaux freighter was built with a 120 X 20-metre span-free cargo hold, and every week collects an A380's voluminous forward and aft fuselage sections from where they're built in Hamburg, and heads to Saint-Nazaire on France's Bay of Biscay where the centre fuselage section built there is also loaded aboard.

Then it's off to Cadiz in Spain for the horizontal tailplane, and across the English Channel to Mostyn in Wales for the A380's two vast 45-metre long, 7-metre wide  wings that are constructed at Broughton in North Wales.

And getting each of those 38-tonne wings down to Mostyn is a lesson in dexterity in itself, taking a whole week on one of those special barges to travel just 35-kilometres at a snail's pace 5kmh – juggling tidal cycles so as to be in exactly the right position at exactly the right time to clear historic stone bridges by just millimetres and river bottoms by equally few millimetres, clearances reckoned-on by those teams of scientists who even calculated the  affects of just one hour's rainfall on the depth of the River Dee.

Finally the Ville de Bordeaux re-crosses the Channel to Pauillac on France's River Garonne, where its bizarre-looking stockpile is loaded onto custom-built 75-metre long barges that will carry it 95-kilometres up-river to a road transfer station at Langon.

And from there it's a 240-kilometre road trip, that although undertaken week-in, week-out, never fails to draw crowds to gawk at the six amazing 96-wheel low-loaders used to move the vast sections on the final part of their journey.

Each of these low-loaders is hauled by a throaty 600hp prime-mover, departing Langon at precisely 10pm on the same night each week – complete with police escorts and an Airbus support team of sixty to deal with any breakdowns along the way, assist divert traffic onto other roadways, and to remove and then replace huge overhead road signs as the convoy rolls by.

Overhead power and phone lines along the 240km route were even permanently removed and buried underground to assist, roads widened where necessary to a minimum 13-metres, bridges strengthened and roadside trees removed.

Then finally once at Toulouse the assembly of the next A380 begins, each one taking nine months to complete and the plant putting out three completed aircraft a month.

And for trivia buffs, here are a few A380 facts and figures:

[] The A380 can carry 525 passengers in three classes, but one airline wants two with 853 Economy seats each.

[] There are plans for a "stretch" version with 960 all-Economy seats.

[] An A380 weighs up to 560 tonnes at take-off (82 times more than Charles Kingsford-Smith's Southern Cross,) including enough fuel to fill 21 road tankers and fly it non-stop Sydney-Istanbul.

[] 10,000 bolts hold the three fuselage sections together, 8000 the wings to the fuselage and there's 500km of electrical wiring in each aircraft.

[] There's enough room on the two passenger decks to put nearly three tennis courts.



[] UNLOADING centre fuselage section at Pauillic in France.

[] SPECIAL BARGES were built to carry the massive wings.

[] TIGHT fit: barge with fuselage sections squeezes under a bridge.

[] EVERY week crowds gather to gawk at the 96-wheel low-loaders and their huge cargoes.

[] NOW that's an over-size load.

[] FINALLY finished – nine months later and another A380 is up and flying.


(Photos: Airbus SAS)


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