October 27, 2012


David Ellis

NO matter how well-travelled we think we are, even the most-experienced of us can fall prey to the vagaries of the world's multiplicity of transport systems – both good and bad.

Long-time travel industry public relations man, David Ovens – who would need an over-sized suitcase to store all his airline tickets, ship's boarding passes and rail and coach vouchers if he'd have ever thought it worthwhile keeping these as mementos – 'fessed up the other day that a recent trip to Thailand's famous Bridge on the River Kwai turned out a wake-up call for do-it-yourselfers.

For a frequent traveller to Bangkok (but first-time visitor to Kanchanaburi province) it looked a piece of cake for David to catch a scheduled bus service from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, and hire a local cabbie to visit the region's historic sites.

"All the information leaflets, brochures and even the Internet made it look a fairly simple task to organise transport and some clean accommodation," he says. "But a cautious visit to Trip Advisor soon revealed the folly of that idea.

"And I found on arrival in Bangkok that even the locals refer to the scheduled bus services up-country from there as 'not very reliable stop-start', whilst the train journey I eventually opted-for was an uncomfortable, hot and humid five-to-six hours for the almost 200-kilometres."

And David says it's not until one arrives at their destination that they discover that the Bridge, Death Railway, the Museum and Cemetery require lengthy taxi trips to link them all together. Or the hiring of a cab for a day – only to find that the driver has little English and even less knowledge about his area.

Simple task to visit Kanchanaburi? Not true.

Rather, David suggests that it's a far better option to seek out a Bangkok day-trip operator or a Kanchanaburi hotel or resort that markets overnight trips to their region.

"There are several companies offering excellent two-day packages including pick-up and drop-off at your Bangkok hotel, air-conditioned transport with an English-speaking guide, overnight accommodation and meals, and entry fees to sites for less than $200.

"A far better proposition than the self-designed visit which more than likely will end up costing more than the organized package."

And he says make sure packages include:

. Bridge on the River Kwai:  The railway line over the Bridge was built by the Japanese during World War II, using forced Thai labour and Allied prisoners-of-war.  Completed in 1943, the line was intended to support the Japanese war effort in Burma without the dangers of transporting supplies by sea. All the heavy work was done manually either by hand or by elephant as earth moving equipment was not available. The prisoners lived in squalor on a near starvation diet and were subjected to such brutality that thousands perished working from dawn until after dark.

. Death Railway/Hellfire Pass: Ride the train between Kanchanaburi (or River Kwai Bridge station) and the current terminus at Nam Tok. After crossing the Bridge, the train runs along the scenic River Kwai, passing over the impressive Wampo Viaduct, also built by prisoners of war. Hellfire Pass, about 80km north of Kanchanaburi, is on a disused section where the Australian government has cleared about seven kilometres of the old track as a memorial to those who died building the railway. Konyu Cutting was dubbed 'Hellfire Pass' by the PoWs for the way the worksite looked at night by torchlight

. Thai-Burma Railway Centre: An interactive museum, information and research facility presenting the history of the 415-kilometre railway. It ran from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat in Burma. Allow a good couple of hours to absorb it all.

. World War II Cemetery: This immaculate cemetery is across the road from the Railway Centre. It contains the remains of 6,982 war prisoners (mostly Australian, British, Dutch and American) who lost their lives building the railway.

GETTING THERE: Thai holiday specialists Venture Holidays have a choice of packages to the Kanchanburi region.  A 10-hour day trip includes the important sites and lunch for about $60, while a River Kwai overnight tour costs about $169 and includes transport, accommodation, all meals and sightseeing. A three-day River Kwai and culture tour costs about $360.

For more details contact Venture Holidays at 08-8238-4501 or visit www.ventureholiday.com.au



[] BRIDGE on the River Kwai today.

[] MEMORIAL to the 7000 POWs who lost their lives working on the infamous Burma Railway.

[] PRISONERS of war during the construction of the Burma Railway

[] TODAY's train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi "a hot and humid five to six hours" to cover 200km.



James Bond, 007, back in Turkey for Skyfall

Skyfall in Turkey. The latest and – some are already saying – greatest Bond
movie of all time finds 007 back in his old haunt of Istanbul.
Photograph: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. TM Danjaq, LLC. All Rights Reserved
The new James Bond film ‘Skyfall’, which will be released in the UK on Friday, has been filmed in various locations around Turkey.

Filming locations for ‘Skyfall’ included Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, marking the third time in 50 years of Bond films that Istanbul has served as a backdrop for 007’s adventures, as well as the picturesque coastal resort of Fethiye on the Mediterranean coast and the historical city of Adana in the country’s south-east.

Turkey’s diverse cultures, landscapes and architecture means that it is an ideal location for film-makers of glamorous and escapist movies looking for a versatile setting.

Bond’s latest film ‘Skyfall’ combines the historic location of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar with the metropolitan skyline of the city, while the golden beaches and crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean at Fethiye provide the setting for a beach scene.

The lesser-known city of Adana in Turkey’s southeast also features with its historical Vardar and Kasim Gulek Bridges and train station forming the setting for a dramatic scene involving trains.

 Turkey has also served as the backdrop for two other Bond films: ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) and ‘For the World is not Enough’ (1999).

It has also been the filming location for several other blockbuster movies, including ‘Star Wars’, ‘Taken 2’ and ‘Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance’.

October 25, 2012


David Ellis

PASSENGERS aboard Canada's Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff have two days to marvel at the spectacular scenery of the Rockies, indulge fine cuisine and ponder the extraordinary engineering effort that brought it all about, including tunnels that spiral upwards through mountains, bridges that cross ruggedly beautiful canyons, and tracks that cling impossibly to cliffs that descend into electric blue lakes.

And few realise that in the early days of railroading through these mountains, they were home to one of the West's more hapless hold-up men, who with his gang got life-terms in prison after running down a steam train on horseback on these very tracks, for a haul of just $15.50.

Ezra Allen "Billy" Miner spent as much time behind bars as he did enjoying the lifestyle he coveted from his stick-ups. And along the way wrote himself into history as a well-mannered, gentlemanly bandit who never fired a shot in all his crimes, and who always apologized to his victims.

He also earned a popularity akin to that of Robin Hood and Billy the Kid as Canada's first train-robber, and went into the record books as the first person to use the expression "Hands Up!"

And a century after his death, a melodrama of his life was played out six nights a week for more than a half decade to several hundred thousand tourists at Kamloops high in the Rockies – the scene of his last great disaster.

Billy Miner was born in Kentucky in 1846, and spent half of his 70 years in jails in the United States and Canada – a poor return for what he sought of the good life.

The bundles of cash he carried as a teenage Pony Express rider, and the gold aboard the stages he often accompanied as an out-rider, led Billy to reckon there was more in bailing-up the stages than to working for them.

At just 17 years of age he launched his hold-up career on a Wells Fargo stage near his hometown. He and a couple of mates escaped with US$75,000, but a local recognised Billy; he got 20-years and Wells Fargo got its money back.

After being released, and with railways replacing stages, Billy decided to try his luck at train robbery.

His gang's first effort in America saw them flee empty-handed in panic after a guard took a pot-shot at Billy – but shot the train driver instead.

Then in September 1904 the Miner gang galloped their horses beside a train moving slowly in fog at Silverdale 40km east of Vancouver, clambered aboard the guard's van and stole $6000 in gold dust, $1000 in cash and 50,000 one-dollar US bonds.

It was Canada's first train robbery, and for this notoriety the Silverdale hold-up site is now National Heritage Listed.

Billy Miner took himself to Europe to celebrate the robbery, and on his return, with two new accomplices held up another train near Kamloops in the Rockies. But the $100,000 in cash they thought was on board for victims of San Francisco's recent earthquake, had been moved the day before.

Billy's gang got just the crew's $15.50 wages, plus a grumpy guard's liver pills.

A reward of $11,500 was posted for their capture Dead or Alive; a few days later their camp was surrounded by a posse and on June 1 1906 Billy Miner was sentenced to life imprisonment for the $15.50 hold-up.

He boasted that no jail would hold him, and escaped a year later – only to be caught after yet another hold-up in the USA. A judge added 25 years to his life-term, but he escaped again – it was his fifth prison-break – and after being re-captured yet again, died two years later in jail aged 70.

During its journey from Vancouver to Banff (and on the return leg as well,) the Rocky Mountaineer train stops overnight in Kamloops, near the scene of that last ill-fated train robbery that got the kindly-looking and by-then grandfatherly-like Billy his life sentence.

Guests spend the night in Kamloops hotels with a dinner-show as part of their package, so  they have two full days aboard the train to absorb the spectacular Rockies.

For information about Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian holidays, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or visit www.canada-alaska.com.au  


[] A modern-day Rocky Mountaineer train crosses Ottertail Creek near Kamloops, one of Billy Miner's favourite train hold-up spots.

[] WANTED poster for hapless hold-up man, Billy Miner.
[] POSSE that ambushed Billy and his gang and earned themselves an $11,500 reward.

[] THE Billy Miner Pub at Maple Ridge just east of Vancouver: originally a branch of the Bank of Montreal it was once robbed by Billy Miner and is now Heritage Listed.

Originally issued: FOR WEEK BEGINNING JUNE 14 2010

October 22, 2012


David Ellis
THE self-styled 'Reverend' Charles Bowers and 'Colonel' Jefferson Smith were thinking neither the word of the Lord nor the Law when they arrived in frontier Skagway, Alaska in 1897 – it was the gleaming metal of the Klondike Gold Rush they were after.

But they had no intention of clambering torturous mountain trails to get to it.

Rather they planned on making their fortunes doing what they did best – conning the gullible with notorious pea and thimble rorts, card tricks and other scams.

Jeff Smith had earlier fled Denver where he'd run a gang of con artists and earned the nickname 'Soapy,' and where he controlled corrupt police, politicians and other officials. He came unstuck when he shot two rival-gang members, his protectors losing patience with his heavy drinking and bad temper, telling him to clear out before he was charged.

Meanwhile Charles Bowers had already arrived in Skagway and sent Smith word of the easy pickings to be made from the gold-drunk Klondike miners; by the time Smith arrived the 'Reverend' Bowers had already assembled a team of reliable conmen.

Smith took little time to stamp his mark on Skagway with the trick that earned him his nickname: during first-day drinks at Clancy's Bar, he produced a small tripod on which he opened an old leather suitcase, whose open lid blocked patrons from seeing its contents.

"Friends," he announced to Clancy's customers. "My name is Colonel Jefferson Randolph Smith, and I have the pleasure of introducing you to my special brand of soap… soap, friends, that I have an offer for you…"

At this stage he unwrapped a bar of soap and slipped a $100 bill under the wrapper which he carefully resealed, then $50 into other bars, and smaller notes into more. He nonchalantly tossed each bar back into the suitcase, then invited the suckers: "Friends, choose a bar of my soap for $5, and you could gain $100!"

Clancy's patrons rushed forward. The first man to select a bar of the soap, unwrapped it and jubilantly thrust aloft a $100 bill; several others unwrapped $50 bills, others found five- and two-dollar notes in their $5 soap bars.

Or nothing at all…. ultimately the only big "winners" had been Bowers and Smith's gang members, who knew exactly the bars with the notes in them.

Within weeks Smith opened his own bar – Jeff Smith's Parlor that's today a forlorn and ghostly Skagway landmark – and with the help of gang members duped hundreds of miners out of their gold earnings with the age-old thimble-and-pea trick.

Like his soap scam, it was always his well-placed gang members who knew where the pea was, and the miners who didn't.

And while the heavy rye-drinking Smith soon had plenty of Skagway law enforcers and civic leaders in his hip-pocket to protect his rackets, he also gave generously to charities, built the town's first church, and started Adopt-a-Dog to save animals dumped on frigid winter streets by departing miners' families.

He even saved a drunken oaf being lynched for shooting a Deputy Sheriff, but when a miner was mugged and robbed of his gold behind Jeff Smith's Parlor, respectable citizens of Skagway declared it was time Soapy Smith, the 'Reverend' Bowers and their bunch were thrown out of town.

On the evening of July 8 1898 a vigilante group led by businessman 'Big Frank' Reid met on the town's wharf to discuss Soapy's fate: lynch him, or put him on a boat south?

The smooth-talking Smith headed to the wharf to bluff it out. As he arrived at 9.15pm, 'Big Frank' separated from the angry crowd and he and Soapy faced each other along the pier.

Reid drew a revolver, and Smith produced his Winchester rifle. Reid's revolver jammed when first he pulled the trigger, Soapy screamed "My God, don't shoot!" Then both men's weapons blazed as one, Soapy Smith dying on the spot with a bullet through the heart, and Frank Reid goingt down with one in the groin.

He died 12-days later, his vigilante committee reaping revenge by driving the remnants of Soapy's gang corrupt officials out of town.

Phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 for details of cruise and other holiday packages to Alaska and historic Skagway.



[] SKAGWAY during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush (Skagway Historical Society)

[] A RARE photo of Soapy Smith in his Jeff Smith's Parlor (Library of Alaska)

[] GOLD Rush hopefuls (Old West Frontier Society)

[] SOAPY Smith's simple grave and headstone (Skagway Historical Society)

[] MORE ornate headstone given by the citizens of Skagway after 'Big Frank' Reid's shooting (Skagway Historical Society)

[] JEFF Smith's Parlor still stands forlorn and empty in Skagway today (Bill Price III)

October 19, 2012

Five frightening destinations that go bump in the night


While Halloween is not widely celebrated in Australia, there are some parts of the world that go crazy for creepy places that go bump in the night.  So if you need to get your Twilight fix, Cheapflights.com.au has uncovered some wickedly cheap horror-days.  The only thing not to be scared of is the price tag, because www.cheapflights.com.au works with more than 300 travel partners to sort and compare the best value deals on the market.

You can't go past America for a massive dose of all things Halloween.  Salem in Massachusetts specialises in scaring holidaymakers year round, but October is definitely the spookiest time to visit with scary tours, séance events and a vampires masquerade ball.  Cheapflights.com.au has found return flights to Boston Massachusetts from $1550 including taxes.

Scarier still, spend the night of Halloween at one of the USA's most haunted hotels, The Stanley Hotel in Colorado - the hotel that inspired Steven King's novel, The Shining.  Rooms start from around $180 per night.  Add a ghost and history tour for $15 - or a spine-chilling five-hour ghost hunt at $60 for the ultimate in terror.  Cheapflights.com.au has found return flights to Denver Colorado from $1550 including taxes.

All Saints Day on November 1st is a day of festivities in The Philippines marking the beginning of the Filipino "Araw ng mgba Patay," the celebration of the Day of the Dead.   Instead of trick-or-treating, groups of singers known as pangangaluluwa, dress in scary costumes and go door-to-door to entertain in return for treats.  Family reunions are taken to the next level with families gathering in cemeteries alongside the tomb of their dearly-departed for a grave-side spruce-up and a family picnic.   Cheapflights.com.au has found return airfares to Manila from $864 including taxes.

Halloween and cemeteries go hand-in-hand, so a visit to the world's most popular cemetery, Père Lachaise in Paris, is for true enthusiasts.  One million people are buried here with the remains of a further two million stored in the ossuary and columbarium.  Since its establishment in 1804, the cemetery has become quite the place for famous people to call home, with permanent residents including Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Jean de La Fontaine, Edith Piaf, Proust and Chopin among many others.  Entry to Père Lachaise is free.  Cheapflights.com.au has found return flights to Paris from $1304 including taxes. 

For some people, the scary part of a visit to the ruins Poenari Castle in Romania might be the 1,480 steep concrete steps into the place where many people were tortured, worked to death or murdered (usually by impalement – not by climbing the stairs).  Others might be more frightened by the thought of the notorious previous owner Vlad III Tepes, also called Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Draculea; - or just plain Dracula.  This castle is the real-deal (not to be confused with tourist attraction Bram Castle), it's not frequented by many tourists and was scary enough to be the only place to freak out a TV crew filming the world's most haunted locations for the Discovery Channel, leaving them running screaming from the castle.  Cheapflights.com.au has found return airfares to Bucharest in Romania from $1784 including taxes.

With a bloody history of nearly 1000 years, the Tower of London (sometimes catchily-called Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress which is home to the Crown Jewels) is said to be the most haunted building in England.  The site of many beheadings, murders, hangings, and mysterious disappearances means the tower is busy with tortured souls - including the headless body of Anne Boleyn and two more of Henry VIII's wives as well as Sir Walter Raleigh, Lady Jane Grey, child princes Edward V and Richard Duke of York, among others.   Tickets to visit the tower are $31.  Cheapflights.com.au has found return flights to London from $1332 including taxes.

October 16, 2012

Montréal Mon Chéri

By Roderick Eime in Montréal

On first look, you might think the Canadian island city of Montréal is too far from the sea to be a real cruise destination, but with its neighbour of Québec, the two fair cities linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Saint Lawrence Seaway, offer cruisers a wonderful insight into both modern and historic Canada.

Officially founded in 1642 but with archaeological records dating back to the time of Christ, there is plenty of history in Montréal and you can explore it in any of the superb museums within easy stroll of the cruise terminal. The Centre d’histoire de Montréal in place D’Youville will introduce you to the rich and eventful history of Montréal society, while just down the way at Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History digs deeper, literally, into the past with an archaeological dig beneath the museum itself.

Art and design lovers will have plenty to swoon over at any of the galleries like the Museum of Fine Arts, arguably the most prestigious museum in the city. I took one of the free guided tours with volunteer guide, Patrick, and was glad I did. Not normally a fan of the sometimes pompous art tours, Patrick helped me understand the subtleties of Canadian fine art without feeling like a dill.

Also along the wharf is an array of activities ranging from harbour cruises, bicycle hire, horse-drawn carriages and more museums, especially the Centre des sciences de Montréal, where both permanent and temporary exhibits are on offer and handy alternative for inclement weather, although during my stay it was hard to imagine with such glorious weather during my short stay.

If you’re going to take a tour, there’s lots of interesting stuff beyond the port precinct including foodie tours that visit the bustling local market and famous bakeries, patisseries and outlets like Fairmount Bagel and Chez Schwartz’s smoked meats. Colourful fruits, berries and vegetables make the stalls a photographic delight.

Montréal is often referred to as “Canada's Cultural Capital” and is anything but your average urban metropolis. It thrives on quirkiness, creativity and innovation while retaining a deep respect for the past exemplified by the common use of old French as day-to-day language.

Montréal’s cruise season is May to October and is dominated by the HAL vessel, MAASDAM, but also sees popular late (Fall) season visits in 2013 by Silver Whisper, Seven Seas Navigator, Oceania Regatta, Seabourn Sojourn, AIDAbella and Crystal Symphony. Small ship operator, Blount, also plies the minor waterways with their 100-pax vessels Grand Caribe and Grand Mariner.

For those starting or finishing a cruise in Montreal, it is my strong recommendation to allow a few days in the city for extra sightseeing and cultural enrichment. Stay at one of the swank new design hotels like LHotel or Chez Swann. You’ll be glad you did.

Montreal quickies:
  • Montréal has roughly the same population as Brisbane and is Canada’s second largest after Toronto 
  • Montréal’s subway was opened in 1966, has 68 stations and as uses the same mechanicals as Paris 
  • Much of downtown Montréal is underground with 12ha and 32km of tunnels and walkways in the RÉSO
  • Montréal was the site of the 1967 World Expo and 1976 Olympic Games 
  • Montréal’s international airport (YUL) handles 13 million pax annually

More info: www.tourisme-montreal.org

October 15, 2012


Inline images 1
Hotel room party (http://whatsgoingonwiththejohnsons.blogspot.com.au)

One in four Aussies confess to holding parties in their hotel room, almost a quarter have run naked in public areas of a hotel and a staggering 70% admit to taking ten minutes to figure out how to turn on a hotel shower.

(Editor notes: Nov. 2016. Webjet sells Zuji to HK)

Online travel agent, ZUJI.com.au, uncovered the results in a survey to find out more about the average Australian's hotel habits.  James Gaskell, Managing Director of ZUJI Australia and APAC, says the survey saw over 1,000 respondents weigh in on their hotel habits, hang-ups and secrets.

"Overall, Australians like to relax and unwind when staying in a hotel room.  Sleeping in late, having access to free breakfast and Wi-Fi and finding a hotel which provides good value for money are major priorities.  However, some of our survey results were surprising, to say the least," says Gaskell.

In addition to indulging their inner party animal every now and then, the results show that travellers also tend to let their concerns about the environment relax a little bit when staying in a hotel.  Respondents admitted to getting an extra key cut to keep the air-con running all day, taking long showers and getting their towels washed every day.

"Surprisingly, the naughtiest age group we found were those aged 45-55!  The results of our survey consistently showed that this demographic was the most likely to have done a 'nudie run' and hold room parties," says Gaskell.

  • Over half of survey respondents say they choose where they stay based on price and value over reviews or location.  Interestingly, around one in ten Australians say they won't stay anywhere that doesn't provide free breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
  • When it comes to hotel peeves, Australians are definitely not morning folk, with 31% selecting early checkouts and 26% selecting breakfast finishing too early as the most unpleasant thing about staying in a hotel.
  • 40% of Australians admitted to smuggling in a group of friends and family into a room they'd booked for just one or two people.  But when it comes to smuggling out breakfast from the buffet, Aussies draw the line.  70% say they've never done it.
  • When it comes to hygiene, 70% of Australians came clean and admitted to taking 'abnormally' long showers during their hotel stays, while 23% opt for clean towels every time they bathe.
  • 63% of Australians have had an extra key made up at reception so they can leave the air conditioning on while they are out.
  • Almost a quarter of Australians admit to doing a 'nudie run' through a hotel corridor and about 10% admit to regularly holding room parties.  Men proved about 5% more likely than women to have run naked through the halls.
  • The major surprise for the survey was the 45-54 age group, which was statistically the most likely demographic to have run naked, most likely to regularly sleep naked and most likely to have had room parties.

Struth! When you have to go, catch this bus

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that on a recent visit to China he came upon this bus (picture 1) on a main street in the city of Jingzhou.

Nothing unusual he thought, until he happened to glance inside – and discovered how an enterprising local was doing good business providing a convenient convenience for city workers and shoppers on the go (picture 2.).

And our entrepreneur said he also does nicely hiring the loo bus out for parties and outdoor weddings at weekends.

Maybe Kenny will hop onto the idea.



david ellis

AFTER John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, marched 56,000 British and Austrian troops five weeks from the Low Countries to the Danube in 1704 to defeat an even greater number of French in the Battle of Blenheim during the War of Spanish Succession, his Queen on his return home asked what she could give him in appreciation of such a marvelous British conquest.

The Duke and his wife, the Duchess Sarah, decided a little place up the country would nice, somewhere to which they could retreat between overseas wars and cannon balls and gun-smoke and people who kept wanting to run the Duke over with their horses.

Queen Anne readily agreed, and called-in the famed architect Sir John Vanbrugh to draw-up plans for a suitable country house at Woodstock near Oxford, with work to start in 1705.

Vanbrugh's centre-piece for the ambitious residence he proposed would be a Great Reception Hall with ceilings 20m high and with enough room for the Duke and Duchess to entertain 250 mates at a time for drinks and canapés, side rooms in which a hundred or more could stay on for dinner, and a library big enough for 10,000 books. Plus a chapel to save going into town on wet Sundays.

There were also to be several score rooms for the Marlborough's personal use and for staff to work and live in, so that in fact their "country house" would become a palace covering an amazing 2.8 hectares (or nearly 30 average Australian suburban building blocks,) while still leaving 800 hectares (2000 acres) for landscaping with man-made lakes, woodlands, hedges and flower displays.

Appropriately it was to be called Blenheim Palace after the Duke's battle victory, but the Duchess remarked on many occasions that she would have preferred a smaller and more homely place.

And a rocky future lay ahead for Blenheim Palace on another score.

The Duke had to keep going overseas to fight more battles (none of which he ever lost,) leaving his Duchess Sarah to spend a lot of time with the Queen. The two women had been close friends for many years, and the Queen in appreciation of this friendship and the advice which Sarah constantly proffered,  appointed her to the highest office a woman could hold in the Royal Court, Mistress of the Robes, and also the important Keeper of the Privy Purse and Groom of the Stole.

But Sarah, who could be charming, vivacious and witty, was also outspoken and not backward in speaking her mind to the Queen. This resulted over time in a number of disputes between the two, until the Queen and other confidantes eventually hatched a plan to ease both Sarah and the Duke out of royal circles.

Blenheim Palace was still a construction site 1712 when all work stopped and the Queen told the Duke and Duchess that enough was enough – even though she'd spent nearly A$500,000 on their partly-built palace.

After the Queen's death two years later, the Duke himself took over the completion of his Palace and it was finally finished the same year he died – 1722, and seventeen years after work had begun.

Today Blenheim Palace is one of the most-visited royal attractions in England with over 500,000 visitors annually.

After you've marveled at the billion dollar's worth of paintings, statues, chandeliers, antique furnishings and the vastness of the palace, there are boats to row on the huge man-made lake, motor launches, a miniature train ride, maze, butterfly house, spectacular formal gardens and park-like grounds, an adventure play area for the children, and a self-guided, inter-active "Untold Story" detailing many of the Palace's intrigues, illicit relationships and tales of life upstairs and downstairs.

Regular special events are also held throughout the year including jousting tournaments, battle reenactments, music festivals, prestige and vintage car shows, and craft and food fairs.

Blenheim Palace is about an hour's drive from London; for opening hours of the palace, the formal gardens and park visit www.blenheimpalace.com.

(FOOTNOTE: Sir Winston Churchill was born prematurely at Blenheim Palace  while his mother was attending a ball at the home of her husband's great forebear. Sir Winston later proposed to his wife-to-be Clementine by a lake in the Palace grounds, and they are buried side-by-side near that spot.)


[] RIGHT Royal gift – Queen Anne's gift to the Duke of Marlborough, even though he had to complete it himself..

[] TAPESTRY within the Palace depicts the Duke of Marlborough (centre) accepting the surrender of France's Marshall Tallard at Blenheim.

[] FOUNTAIN and maze in the vast landscaped gardens.

[] BRIDGE over a lake in the grounds of the Palace.


(Photos: British Tourist Authority)



David Ellis

THREE British Army officers serving together in India seem an unlikely genesis for what would become one of the great success stories of the Australian wine industry.

Much the same as a young 16 year old simply under the guidance of his dad would go on to become one of the greatest winemakers this country has ever known.

And a wine he created in 1937 would make history just last month as the only Australian white wine ever to be made unchanged from its original style for an extraordinary 75 consecutive vintages.

Chuck in a bushranger for contrast, and you've a great yarn in Aussie corporate history.

It was in 1836, just a few years after the official founding of Western Australia, that those Army officers bought a block of land to grow wine grapes in the fledgling Swan Valley, after one retired in Perth. They named their property Houghton after the senior of their trio, Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond Houghton.

Strangely, however, neither Houghton nor another partner, Ninian Lowis ever ventured to their investment block, leaving it to the third of the trio, Thomas Newte Yule to run the place for 23 years and dabble in making wines for his own enjoyment. In 1859 the trio sold up to a Dr John Ferguson for 350 British pounds, the doctor immediately making Houghton's first-ever commercial sale – 114 litres to several Perth hotels.

And while it was to be another 21 years before Houghton Wines were to receive any kind of official recognition (an Order of Merit at the 1880 Great Melbourne Exhibition,) their haul of wins from Australian and international wine shows since then now tops 200-plus trophies and over 3,700 medals.

Go back to 1922 and 16 year old Jack Mann gets an apprenticeship at the Houghton Winery to learn winemaking under his dad, George who is Chief Winemaker. Young Jack has no formal training in chemistry, but his uncanny ability to understand the chemistry of winemaking, and hands-on skills he learns about handling the grape under his dad, quickly sees him go beyond the norm in winemaking techniques.

Such a sponge of knowledge is he that at just age 24 he takes over from George as Houghton's Chief Winemaker, and sets about creating wines that many consider ahead of their time – and remains at the company's winemaking helm for 51 vintages. One of his wines, based largely on the Chenin Blanc grape, is so different to others when entered in the "Dry White Table Wine" category of the 1937 Royal Melbourne Wine Show, that judges are taken aback by its boldness in flavour and character.

And when one likens it to the great White Burgundies of France, Houghton seizes upon the opportunity to label the wine Houghton White Burgundy.

Jack Mann meanwhile is striving to convince Australians to drink more wine, rather than beer which they had largely done back at home in England. "It is quite pardonable to drink beer where the grape doesn't grow to advantage," he once comments. "But where the wine grape does grow to advantage, wine should be the national drink."

Houghton White Burgundy is subsequently credited with seeing more Australians turn to the enjoyment of wine than any other, although in 2006 it had to be renamed as Houghton White Classic after European Union rules prevented other countries using such European regional names as Burgundy on their labels.

It proved only a minor hiccup for Houghton, and today its White Classic, still made basically to Jack Mann's 1937 style the biggest selling dry white table wine in Australia. And interestingly the company's Chief Winemaker, Ross Pamment somewhat followed Jack Mann up the winemaking ladder, having begun his wine industry career as a cellar hand with Houghton.

Certainly his and Jack Mann's careers were more fortuitous than that of gaol escapee and bushranger, Joseph "Moondyne Joe" Johns who broke into Houghton's cellars in 1869 to help himself to a midnight drink while on the run. But then-owner, Charles Ferguson (Dr John's son) had been helping police recover the body of a drowning victim nearby, and invited them to the winery for a 1am rewarding drink.

Hearing footsteps, Moondyne Joe bolted from the cellar – to his surprise straight into a policeman's waiting arms, and back to gaol.





[] HISTORIC picture captures Houghton Winery in its earliest days.

[] ORIGINAL home of Dr John Ferguson built like a Scottish crofters homestead from handmade bricks still stands today.

[] THOMAS Newte Yule – original driving force behind Houghton vineyards.

[] LEGENDARY Jack Mann, made 51 vintages of Houghton's wines from 1923 to 1974.

[] CLASSIC drop: Jack Mann's Houghton White Classic (originally Houghton White Burgunday) still made today to Mann's original 1937 critieria.

[] HOUGHTON Cellar Door today: bushranger "Moondyne Joe" Johns was captured here helping himself to a tipple in 1869.


(Images: Houghton Wines)



October 11, 2012

World's Longest Golf Course


david ellis

YOU'VE got to have a pretty good explanation when you saying you're going out for a game of golf and you don't come home for four days.

But that's the average on Australia's newest course, Nullarbor Links where every hole of this 18-hole track has a 19th attached to it, but which alone is not reason enough for your tardiness.

Rather it's the tyranny of distance that's the major obstacle in getting home on time from this one: because from where you drive off in the direction of the first hole, and through to the 18th, is anything but your average 6500-yards or so.

This par 72 course stretches an amazing 1365 kilometres across two States including the seemingly endless Nullarbor Plain, and when opened in October last year wrote itself into history as "the world's longest golf course."

So unique is it that American, European and UK television networks have given  prime-time air space to it, with show hosts musing over obstacles from that daunting distance, "to wandering camels, obstinate wombats and bounding kangaroos."

And in just two months when the course opened, its website received 7,600,000 hits, including from twenty-seven non-English speaking countries.

Nullarbor Links is the idea of the Eyre Highway Operators Association whose members runs service stations, motels and roadhouses along that great stretch of bitumen from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman just south of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.

Three members in particular, Bob Bongiorno, Alf Caputo and Don Harrington were the principal drivers, seeing the golf course as a unique way of publicising the tourist route, while also breaking up the monotony of the long trip across the vast and arid landscape.

Not that you're expected to tramp that 1365km from first to last hole.

Each hole is in fact located at a different town, village or way-station along the Highway between Ceduna in SA and just-off the other end at Kalgoorlie, at mostly "one-hole courses" – plus the obligatory 19th within easy coo-ee.

And on average they're around 80km apart.

Over 1000 golfers from the serious to once-in-a-lifetime hackers wanting to record playing "the world's longest golf course" have already paid the $50 for a scorecard at whichever end they began their cross-Nullarbor journey, had the card stamped at the local roadhouse at each subsequent hole, and at the 18th received a free certificate of their achievement.

So popular has it become in the few months that its been opened that Nullarbor Links is now sponsored by the Federal Government's Department of  Tourism and a half-dozen major corporations.

Only three true golf courses are involved (2-holes each at Ceduna, Norseman and Kalgoorlie,) with artificial greens at the others. Fairways could, at the most kindly, be referred to as "rough," and to date only one player has carded a hole-in-one.

And of course there's no need for artificial bunkers – Mother Nature has provided ample at no extra cost.

Holes have been given typically Aussie-vernacular names such as Wombat Hole at Numdroo, Dingo's Den (Nullarbor Motel,) Brumby's Run (Madura,) and 90-Mile Straight (Frazer Range.)

One of the most famous is The Nymph at Eucla: according to local legend, back in the 1970s a beautiful blonde who'd gone feral could on occasions be seen romping near-naked in the sandhills out of town.

When word got out, photographers flocked from around the world hoping for a million-dollar snap of The Nymph, who'd allegedly lost the ability to communicate in anything but animal-like grunts; most failed, but in 1972 a Melbourne journalist and photographer said they'd tracked her down and even managed a blurred pic before she fled back into the dunes.

That "rare photo" is now held in the National Archives in Canberra – but those of the era who've seen it, say it bears an uncanny resemblance to a barmaid the journo and the photographer befriended at the Eucla Roadhouse during the search for The Nymph…

Another famous hole is Skylab at Balladonia which was showered by debris when America's Skylab space craft broke up over the little settlement when crashing back to earth; President Jimmy Carter phoned the-then owner of the roadhouse to apologise for the debris on his roof and in his carpark.

If you're tempted to play "the world's longest golf course" go onto www.nullaborlinks.com



[] LONG way between drinks: Nullabor Plains provides "world's longest golf Course."

[] HELPING hand – local Nadiju dancers get the spirits on side for a crack at the Brumby's Run hole at Madura.

[] BIT rough: no need for artificial bunkers here.

[] DRIVING force: Alf Caputo (l) and Don Harrington were two of the three "main drivers" behind Nullarbor Links.

October 09, 2012

Happy Birthday Air Canada

Click to view anniversary edition of enRoute

In the new skies of the 21st Century, experience speaks volumes. Roderick Eime looks back.

The mighty radial engines splutter to life on the tarmac at Vancouver. Captain Zebulon Lewis "Lewie" Leigh peers out of the open cockpit window of the shiny new Lockheed Electra 10A. “Chocks away!” he calls to the ground crew and CF-AZY taxis out to the runway with two passengers and mail destined for Seattle.

The date is September 1, 1937, and it’s a day etched in Canadian aviation history. Seventy-five years ago, Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) makes its first ever commercial flight, a 50-minute hop costing $7.20. By 1939 TCA is flying a multi-hop route across the great expanse of Canada between Vancouver and Montreal in around 15 hours delivering mail and passengers.

Things move fast for the fledgling airline and coping with the demands of WWII means more women are employed as agents, drivers, radio operators and even mechanics as men are drafted into war service. Transatlantic services begin in 1943 using converted Lancaster bombers, called Lancastrians, for the hazardous 12.5 hour flight and by 1946, 20 pilots had clocked over one million miles each.

By necessity as much as demand, TCA was the first to use alcohol de-icing, fixed in-cabin oxygen systems and (now mandatory) maintenance specification standards. In 1964, TCA became Air Canada (AC), four years after the revolutionary introduction of all-jet DC-8 aircraft on transatlantic and transcontinental routes. In 1962, the airline’s 25th anniversary and another milestone, The Queen Mother completes her first commercial flight aboard an AC DC-8 between London and Ottawa in just six hours.

Mod set: 1960s uniforms of Air Canada

Innovations continue and in 1963 TCA introduces the world’s first computerised reservations system, ReserVec. The system was designed and manufactured in Canada by Ferranti Canada. Two million visitors see the airline’s pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67 and in 1971, the first 340 ton, 365-seat Boeing 747 enters service for AC serving Vancouver, London and Paris from Toronto.

The first aircraft to fly between Vancouver
and Sydney (www.abpic.co.uk)
While the first flights between Vancouver and Sydney were made in July 1949 by Canadian Pacific Air Lines (later incorporated into Air Canada), the first daily non-stop flights (AC33/34 and onward to Toronto) began in December 2007 using the new 777-300ER aircraft and thereby avoiding the sometimes inconvenient transit stops in Hawaii. An additional three seasonal non-stops will operate every week from 16 December 2012 until 30 January 2013.

More recently, AC have been either first or among the first to introduce electronic ticketing (1995), all non smoking (1990), in-seat telephones (1992), web specials (1997) and express check-in kiosks (1999) cementing their position as one of the most progressive airlines in the world. In the last few years alone, AC have also been at the forefront of such technological breakthroughs as smartphone apps and boarding passes, seatback entertainment, 191cm lie-flat business class beds and now mobile booking.

Air Canada Concierge
Apart from access to the award-winning Maple Leaf lounges, Air Canada Super Elite and Executive First customers can enjoy exclusive dedicated service in 20 airports around the world from more than 150 carefully selected Concierge Agents, smoothing customer transit and attending to last-minute travel arrangements.

In 2012, Air Canada was ranked ‘Best International Airline in North America’ for the third year running in a worldwide survey of more than 18 million airline passengers conducted by independent research firm Skytrax.

Going forward, AC has 37 firm orders plus 13 options for the game-changing Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with first delivery of the aircraft due in 2014.

“During our 75 year history, we have built a proud tradition of being a leader in terms of customer comfort, safety and convenience. Among the many innovations pioneered by Air Canada over our history are developments now adopted by our industry across the board. We thank our customers for choosing Air Canada over the past 75 years and we look forward to serving them for the next 75 and beyond,” said Calin Rovinescu, President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada.

21st Century Airline: current B777 and soon-to-be-introduced B787 Dreamliner

Air Canada Today

Air Canada flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver with state-of-the-art B777-200LR aircraft and onto more than 175 destinations on five continents. It provides scheduled passenger service directly to 59 Canadian cities, 56 destinations in the United States and 63 cities in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. Air Canada is Canada's largest domestic and international airline and is a founding member of Star Alliance, the world's most comprehensive air transportation network serving 1,356 destinations in 193 countries.

Visit: www.aircanada.com or see your travel agent.

October 08, 2012


David Ellis

TAKE yourself off to Italy's Barone Ricasoli winery and you'll discover more than a winery – a captivating medieval castle, in fact, that has survived countless wars and feudal attacks from its very earliest  days in the Middle Ages, to aerial and artillery bombardments during World War II.

And while absorbing everything from its delightful wines to a museum that reflects on its colourful history, you'll learn something of the amazing Ricasoli's themselves. For here is a family that's been linked to winemaking since 1141, owns the oldest family-run winery in the world and Italy's oldest winery, and is the second-longest continuously-trading wine company in the world.

Brolio Castle, its winery and adjacent cellars are located in the picturesque Chianti region of Tuscany, 25km from Siena and around 75km from Florence – its strategic territorial border location the reason for so many assaults upon it over the years, including those times when the Ricasoli family had a private army to help in the defence of Florence from attacks by Siena.

And throughout it all it continued on its journey of winemaking history, with its two most significant periods being in the mid-1800s and again in the early 1990s.

In the first of these periods the company had at its helm the extraordinarily far-sighted entrepreneur, major player in the unification of Italy and the country's Prime Minister for nine months from mid-1861, Baron Bettino Ricasoli – the so-called "Iron Baron."

A fervent advocate of the Chianti region, Bettino had an abounding enthusiasm for its wines that included 30 years researching and developing a blend that would become one of the best-known wines in the world, and which he simply named after his beloved region, Chianti.

So pleased was he with this "Chianti" that in 1872 he registered the formula with the University of Pisa, saying it comprised 70% Sangiovese, 15% Malvasia Bianca and 15% Canaiolo fruit, and describing in minute detail its flavours, aromas and structure.

More than a century later this blend was changed by law to require any wine that bore the label "Chianti" to still comprise a minimum 70% Sangiovese, with the remainder any of several varieties of red grapes.

The Ricosoli family was exporting its wines to Holland and England from as early as the 1600s, but it was Baron Bettino who further pushed sales across Europe, and to China, Britain's colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, and to South America.

But the 1970s and '80s saw declining production and sales until a second Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the 31st Baron of Brolio and his son Francesco (the 32nd Baron) came on the scene in the 1990s. They replanted the vineyards, modernised the old winery whilst maintaining its past, and increased wine production so that today few countries in the world do not import Barone Ricosoli wines – not just Chianti but numerous other reds and whites – and boosting production to 3-million bottles a year.

Visitors to Brolio Castle and the Barone Ricasoli winery can see how the castle has been rebuilt and modified over the centuries, including its medieval bastions, Romanesque and neo-Gothic additions, and 19th century Tuscan modifications.

They can also look out over its surrounding 240ha of vineyards and 26ha olive grove, as well as neighbouring postcard-perfect hills, valleys and vineyards, and woodlands of oaks and chestnut trees

Three organised tours can be enjoyed here from March to November. The Castle and Cellars Tour includes not only the castle but its spectacular park and gardens, a history of the Ricasoli family (who still live in the castle) and its chapel and family tomb, and the tower with its collection of 4th to 19th century armour, documents from the public life of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, plus the winery, cellars and a wine tasting.

The Castle, Vineyards and Cellars Tour covers much the same but with the inclusion of a vineyards tour by car, while the Museum Tour includes the  weapons and armoury, documents and personal items dedicated to the political work of Bettino Ricasoli and his research into grape vines and the local soils that led to his documentation of "Chianti," and a collection of lavish furnishings crafted especially for a visit to the Castle by King Victor Emmanuel in 1863.

For details of tour days, times and prices visit www.ricasoli.it/tours.




Photo Captions:


[] MAJESTIC setting, the Ricasoli Castle and vineyards

[] CENTURIES of history in the ancient cellars

[] BARON Bettino Ricasoli who turned around the company's failing fortunes in the 1970s and '80s

[] IDEAL setting, cycling through the vineyards

(Images Barone Ricasoli Wines)


October 06, 2012


David Ellis
Mike Smith


FOR as long as he likes to remember, Wollongong's Steve Melchior has had a passion for motor cycles, especially those with the Harley-Davidson badge.

With the wind whistling through his handle-bar moustache, Steve has little hesitation to announce "I just love this job".

And why not, when you consider that eight years ago he swapped an engineering maintenance job at Qantas to turn his love into a career, taking guests on chauffeured Harley-Davidson sightseeing rides along such spectacularly scenic routes as Lawrence Hargrave Drive linking Royal National Park with Wollongong, and the amazing Grand Pacific Drive.

Steve wasn't exactly born to be wild. However, he couldn't think of a better way to spend a day than to put on a helmet, don an ex-Police leather jacket, and go for a ride.

His company – Just Cruisin' Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Tours – has a selection of privately-owned bikes at its disposal for a ride on the back of, or in a sidecar. A Trike, if you are after a bit more stability, can also be booked for one of his informative and entertaining road trips.

With the NSW South Coast turning on a clear day we opted to take a Harley pillion ride behind Steve ($100 per hour) through the southern reaches of the Royal National Park. This is Australia's oldest national park, with shaded pockets of rainforest and breathtaking views from Bald Hill, site of a memorial to pioneering aviator Lawrence Hargrave who experimented with flying box-kites and other flying machines here in the 19th century, and popular today with hang gliders and paragliders.

Ideally located nearby is Pauline Smith's long established Otford Pantry, a popular spot for a coffee and her famous homemade apple pie.

A couple of minutes south is the jewel in the region's crown, the Sea Cliff Bridge, which meanders like a large serpent for 665 metres, jutting out over rocky platforms and the waters of the ocean – a far safer alternative to the previous cliff-hugging single lane highway that was regularly closed by rock falls and landslides.

On the southern side we park and jump off the bike for a leisurely walk across a section of the bridge as do many on a sundrenched weekend. To join Steve on his sightseeing ride is one of the pleasurable reasons to visit Wollongong and the scenic coastal strip.

Book a night or two at the centrally-located beachside retreat of Novotel Northbeach, and you will have the chance to experience a city which offers a lot more than at first meets the eye.

And maybe at some stage swap the motor cycle for a pushbike through such companies as Mobile Bike Rental, and so combine some exercise with sightseeing along a dedicated path from Wollongong north to Bulli, at times with the beaches just over your shoulder.

You may even try your hand at the tandem hang gliding from Bald Hill or skydiving from North Wollongong before or after driving to the top of the escarpment to walk along Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk with its far-reaching views of the coast.

While the views are many, so too are the dining options, including an inviting Samuel's at Thirroul, a smart boutique style restaurant where the service is warm and friendly and the dishes so varied and tantalisingly listed that the most difficult part is in the choosing.

In a prime location overlooking the protected waters of Wollongong Harbour and just a five-minute stroll from the lighthouse, is the renowned Harbourfront restaurant, its speciality of fresh Santorini prawns a highlight as an entrée, or try  the tempura prawns and scallops.

A chilli and prawn linguini is also popular both as an entrée or a main course, and so too the black mussel and crab risotto. And, of the mains, the John Dory is a tasty choice – but be prepared to dine on portions more generously sized than you'll find in many a capital city restaurant of the same standard.

For breakfast, Diggies on the beachfront at North Wollongong is a favourite among locals, and doesn't burn a hole in the pocket. And to explore such eateries provides as much food for thought as joining Steve on his ride along the Grand Pacific Drive.

DETAILS: Check out these sites: www.tourismwollongong.com; www.grandpacificdrive.com.au; www.justcruisintours.com.au



[] "I just love this job," Steve Melchior sums up his 'work.'

[] THE coast from historic Bald Hill.

[] WOLLONGONG Harbour lighthouse park is popular with tourists – and seagulls.

[] VIEW from spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge.

[] GOOD place to prop for the night: Novotel Northbeach.

[] DIGGIES a popular breakfast spot.


(Images: Mike Smith)

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