November 27, 2012

Fairmont Château Laurier: A Story of Timeless Elegance

Building a grand château in turn-of-the-century Ottawa could only begin with the vision and foresight of a strong and ambitious individual. Charles Melville Hays an American who ventured to Canada as the General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada had that vision. Hays wanted to extend the Grand Trunk Railway to the West Coast and build several railway stations and deluxe hotels in all the major cities along the way.

After dismissing the originally commissioned American firm of Bradford Lee Gilbert, Hays hired Ross and Macfarlane of Montreal to take over the design of the Château. That design combined the French Renaissance style with the neo-Gothic vertical lines of the Parliament Buildings. No expense was spared to make the Château a truly luxurious hotel. Builders used granite blocks, white Italian marble, light buff Indiana limestone and copper for the roof. The elegant Château was furnished with antiques, a travertine marble staircase with brass railing, Czechoslovakian crystal and Sèvres vases. Unfortunately, Hays never had the chance to see his dream come true. Days before the hotel was scheduled to open on April 26, 1912, the new president of the railway was returning from England on the ill-fated Titanic. Hays and the male members of his party perished on April 14, 1912.

The grand opening was delayed until June 1, 1912. Hundreds of people flocked to see Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh Prime Minister, officially open the hotel. A renowned French sculptor, Paul Romaine Chevré had been commissioned to create a bust of Laurier for the lobby of the hotel. On opening day, moments before Laurier went for a private viewing of the bust, workmen dropped the statue and the nose was grossly chipped. Unaware of the mishap, Laurier was terribly insulted when he saw the bust. Nonetheless, Laurier was the first to sign the hotel’s guest register and the marble statue was repaired.

The regal Château changed the face of downtown Ottawa lending a new elegance and sophistication to the city. The building costs totalled $2 million. The 306 rooms, priced at $2 per night, were among the first hotel rooms to offer indoor plumbing. Ottawa finally had a hotel fit for a capital city.

In 1919, Canadian National Railways assumed control of several railways and Grand Trunk Hotels, including the Château Laurier. In 1929, Montreal architect, John Archibald, and CN's own architect, John Schofield, adapted a design for expansion of the hotel. An East Wing and 240 rooms were added and the shape of the hotel changed from an “L” shape into a “U” shape. The Château also opened a state of the art spa. The art deco swimming pool, now part of the Health Club, was the spectacular centrepiece of the spa built with pale pink Tennessee marble walls and dark green marble pillars. A gallery with hand-wrought brass railing surrounded the pool with a Greek fountain at one end. Visitors relaxed on the chaises longues warmed by sunlight emitted from overhead brass lamps.

MORE: See the new miniseries produced especially for the web.

Since its opening, Fairmont Château Laurier has hosted a prestigious list of politicians, heads of state, royalty and entertainers. The hotel has often been dubbed "the third chamber of Parliament" because of the politicians who regularly roam the corridors. Within its walls, political deals have been consummated, careers launched or destroyed and governments created and dissolved. The hotel has been home to former Prime Ministers Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett and Pierre Trudeau. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and her consort Prince Philip, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, The King and Queen of Siam and former U.S. President Hoover have all graced the hotel registry.

Three films have been shot at the hotel: Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney, Little Gloria: Happy at Last and H2O, starring Paul Gross. The star-studded guest list over the years includes Shirley Temple, Harry Belafonte, Marlene Deitrich, Churchill, Billy Bishop, Karen Kain, Roger Moore, Bryan Adams, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Felipe Calderon, Yo-Yo Ma, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Carlos Santana just to name of few.

CBC Radio broadcast from Fairmont Château Laurier’s seventh floor for 80 years, until moving to their new location on Sparks Street. World-class portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh lived at the Château for 18 years. He also operated his studio from the sixth floor; there he photographed international celebrities between 1970 and 1992. Karsh gave seven of his famous portraits to the hotel when he moved in 1998. Years later, his wife Estrellita gifted an additional eight portraits to the hotel. These outstanding images are now part Fairmont Château Laurier’s history and are located in the Reading Lounge and the Karsh Suite.

Fairmont Château Laurier continues to set a benchmark for luxury accommodation and impeccable service in the hospitality industry. As a heritage building, the hotel is a vital part of Canadian history and a stunning landmark in Ottawa. For nearly a century, the Fairmont Château Laurier’s stateliness, regal beauty and charm have captured the hearts of guests from around the world.

Did you know?

• Sir Wilfrid Laurier threatened not to sign the guest registry for the hotel’s opening because he was not happy with his nose on the bust created in his honor. The bust was promptly repaired to his liking to ensure his signature and presence at the opening.
• People always ask about unique requests, this one would qualify…Rudolph Nureyev requested an extra-large bed on which to practice his routine before a big performance in Ottawa.
• The story of an underground tunnel is true! The hotel is linked to the Parliament buildings by a steam pipe tunnel. Of course, this location is secured and locked, but it does indeed exist.
• When the hotel first opened there were separate sleeping quarters for men and women, as well as a separate entrance for female guests.
• When the hotel first opened, bedrooms were sold at a rate of $2.00 per night.
• Famous photographer Yousuf Karsh, not only lived in the hotel for 18 years, but he also operated his studio from the sixth floor of the hotel from 1973 until 1992.
• Charles Melville Hays, general manager of the Grand Truck Railway and visionary behind the hotel, perished on the Titanic while returning from England. The hotel opening was delayed from April 26, 1912 to June 1, 1912 out of respect for his family. Some say his spirit lives on in the hotel.

Charles Melville Hays: More Than Just Trains

Charles Melville Hays was a prime architect of the great Canadian railroad expansion. Hays was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on May 16, 1856. At the age of 17, he joined "the road" in the office of the superintendent of the Missouri Pacific Railway. He was identified early in his career as a rising star because of his great enthusiasm. He married Clara J., daughter of William H Gregg of St-Louis, on October 13, 1881. In 1884, he moved to the Wabash St-Louis and Pacific Railway as secretary to the general manager. Hays was appointed general manager of the entire Wabash Railway system following an 1889 reorganisation.

November 26, 2012


David Ellis

WE'VE mates in this travel scribbling game who delight in reminiscing about cocktail parties they've spilled their way through over the years: The Ritz in London, Raffles in Singapore, with Santa Claus on Finland's Arctic Circle, and even with Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs at his hideaway in Rio, to name a few…

But the one that's stored most fondly in our memory is not from some plush 5-star metropolitan hotel, nor from encounters with the popular or infamous. Rather it's from a miniscule dot that lays in the sun in the middle of Vanuatu's Port Vila harbour.

Iririki Island Resort just off Vila's CBD – if you can call the hub of this sleepy little South Pacific paradise a CBD – abounds with lush tropical vegetation, a poolside café and bar, a restaurant named after the famed author James A. Michener (complete with a framed letter from the man himself thanking them for the honour,) and to one side a collection of thatch-roofed tropical bungalows hillside or over-water and outfitted with all mod cons.

A lot of years ago we happened to be there on a Monday evening and were invited to the then-General Manager's welcome cocktails for newly-arrived guests. As we were chatting with he and other guests, one asked if he knew who was a particular lady who had just entered the room.

He said he did not, but could find out, but the guest told him not to worry – she just felt she had seen that lady somewhere before, possibly in the suburb in which she lived in Australia, or maybe in the press or on TV. It was no big deal, she'd said, adding: "It's just that you know how you can sometimes feel someone's familiar, but you can't put your finger on just how or why?"

As the evening progressed and guests began to drift off to dine at the resort or over in town, it left maybe a dozen of us who soon grouped together, including the lady who had made the enquiry of the other and who now had the opportunity to meet her.

But as soon as she did so she quickly admitted – aloud – that she had obviously made a mistake in thinking she had seen her somewhere before: the second lady had a quite  pronounced Canadian accent, and volunteered that she was on her first-ever visit to the South Pacific.

"I came to visit my daughter in Australia, and thought I'd also see something of the islands as well," she said.

And as is usual in such circumstances, someone made small talk by enquiring politely as to where she was from, and was given a run-down of her home town, her family in Canada and Australia, and how much she was loving visit.

Then she added that while she was Canadian, she was actually born in England and adopted by a Canadian couple when a toddler after her parents were killed during a WWII air-raid on their town just outside London. And that while they'd lost their parents, she and her sister had miraculously survived.

Again there were the usual muttered condolences and expressions of how sad it must have been, particularly for she and her sister being sent to Canada and adopted.

"Yes," she said. "With no other relatives the church took us, and as there was a lot of money to be made from adoptions, I was sent to Canada, and I believe my sister to Australia for adoption, but I never saw her again."

The Australian lady then mentioned how she, too, had lost her parents in an air-raid outside of London, how she too had been adopted and taken to Australia, and yes even how she, likewise, had never seen her sister again.

And as she unfolded the details of her life, the Canadian lady burst out: "But those are the details of MY life – that was my town, that was the day my parents died, I thought my sister had gone to Australia… oh my God, you are my missing sister!"

A few more queries, a few more answers and all was confirmed – as fresh celebratory  Champagne flowed from the GM, and as did the tears of joy from the rest of us for the re-united sisters.


Photo captions:

[] IRIRIKI Island Resort, a miniscule dot in Port Vila Harbour – but what a story to tell.

[] DELIGHTFUL over-water bungalows with all mod cons.

[] MICHENER'S Restaurant at Iririki, complete with a framed letter from the man himself thanking them for the honour.

[] ROOM with a view: dining at Michener's.

(All images: Iririki Island Resort)

November 20, 2012

Flying Mile High Club

A recent campaign by Asia Pacific's and MENA's leading travel search site Wego, has revealed that airline passengers are still quite partial to becoming members of the mile high club.

This fascination of experiencing one of life's ultimate pleasures at 35,000 feet sees no sign of waning as around 15 per cent of respondents from a total of 3,000 in the Asia Pacific region told Wego they'd witnessed some form of sexual conduct on an aircraft.

Many reported the inevitable sight of two people entering a bathroom together followed by a lot of banging and squealing, although in-seat 'activities' underneath a blanket were also very common. Some occurrences were even more blatant such as a woman straddling a friend in business class on a Sydney to London flight, another was asked to join the mile high club by a stranger while waiting in line at the toilet.

More creative encounters included a suggestive lipstick message on a toilet mirror unexpectedly viewed by an elderly lady when the young man ahead of her (for who it was intended), allowed her to use the bathroom first, a couple who hadn't locked the door properly only to fall out on the floor half naked to the amusement and applause of the entire aircraft, an ex-cabin crew member who discovered two men in a wheelchair closet, and even a couple flat out under the blankets stretched across three seats.

Wego also captured some interesting relatable sexual experiences included lacy underwear left on a seat, in-flight lap dances on a buck's party trip, an older man carrying a life size female inflatable doll that he purchased a seat for, and frightened passengers reporting a strange noise in the overhead locker, discovered to be an operating vibrator in a woman's handbag.

One man reported that the male passengers on his flight were left very distracted after two girls emerged quite ruffled from a toilet, and another said his girlfriend was so upset by the turbulence on a flight to New Zealand that she demanded he accompany her to the bathroom and 'distract' her.

Much debate still surrounds the legality of the practice although research indicates there's a dependence on individual country laws and also just how visible the act is to other passengers which can fall under 'public sex' laws. At least two of Wego's respondents witnessed couples being escorted by police from flights into Australia as a result of in-flight sex, yet the thrill of being caught is supposedly part of the attraction.

Overall respondents to Wego's campaign were not offended by the act, if anything all were rather amused but confessed to being somewhat surprised. Interestingly only a handful of respondents admitted to the act itself, while others bore witness and happily shared their stories.

November 17, 2012

Bangkok Nonstop

Bangkok is full of surprises. With the recent political confrontations prompting vigorous debate about Thailand’s reputation as the ‘Land of Smiles,’ that sounds like an understatement. But one of its greatest attractions is a non-stop capacity to amaze. The pulsating urban energy comes from Thai culture’s ability to absorb dramatic change and outside influence while keeping its vital essence.

November 16, 2012

Struth! 2.5 tonne cup of tea

With  Princess Diana at his side, Prince Charles (R) bends over to get a  better view of the Rolls Royce automobile that sits perched atop British  Wedgwood teacups during a visit to J.C. Penney's Department Store in  the Springfield Mall on November 11, 1985. Standing alongside the  Princess is William Howell, chairman of J.C. Penney's, and standing next  to the car is Bob Biagi, a Rolls Royce dealer. (UPI Photo/Larry  Rubenstein/Files)
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that back in 1970 England's Wedgwood porcelain company left newspaper readers agape when it published a picture of a 2.5 tonne Rolls-Royce balancing on four of the company's finest bone china cups.
The stunt was to prove the strength of its bone china, but when they tried to repeat it in Canada some years later for the opening of a new shopping outlets in Vancouver, it met with somewhat embarrassing results – they broke eight of their best bone china cups in front of TV and newspaper cameras before abandoning the effort.

Wedgwood have since refined the process of raising a Roller and letting it settle slowly onto just four cups when celebrating the opening of new stores in Britain, Europe, the USA and Canada.

(For the technically interested, bone china gets its strength from the addition of 50% incinerated animal bone ash to traditional China stone and industrial clay.)

Needless End For Trail-blazing Pacific Aviator

David Ellis

WHEN America's Pan American Airways decided in 1937 that the time was right to look to opening-up a commercial flying route from San Francisco across the South Pacific to Sydney in far-off Australia. it's founder Juan Trippe knew he had just the man to pioneer the route for them.

That was his Chief Pilot, Captain Edwin Musick who had already done such a job to Hong Kong two years earlier, embracing a circuitous route via Honolulu, Midway and Wake Islands, and Guam.

But the South Pacific decision was to prove a fatal one for the popular Captain Musick, who was somewhat of a living contradiction. On the one hand his extraordinary feats had made him arguably the world's best-known commercial pilot at the time, while on the other he was inordinately shy, cringing at publicity and facing crowds of admirers.

In those days with no airstrips on which to land on islands in the Pacific for refuelling and rest-breaks, Juan Trippe planned to use S-42 Sikorsky flying boats, that he dubbed "Clippers" after the clipper-ships that once sailed the routes he would follow, "landing" them at remote outposts.

But even in 1937 Britain eyed the South Pacific's sunny islands for its own Imperial Airways – and so banned Pan American from using Fiji (then a British colony) as a vital re-fuelling point.

Undeterred, Juan Trippe decided to test-out a route that would involve stops in Honolulu, a remote atoll called Kingman Reef 1700km south of Hawaii, Pago Pago in American Samoa, and ultimately Auckland rather than Sydney.

He outlined his plans to his Chief Pilot, who despite his quiet personae had actually begun his aviation career as an aerial barnstormer at American county fairs, billing himself Monsieur Musick, The French Daredevil.

Edwin Musick set to planning the South Pacific route in meticulous detail, just as he had the Hong Kong route in 1935 – and which had won him the prestigious Harmon Trophy for the aviation feat of the year, and put him on the cover of Time magazine.

On their first survey flight Captain Musick and his crew had no problem with Honolulu, while at Kingman reef – a mere pin-point on the map but large enough for drums of fuel to be stored there – a special radio ship had been anchored off-shore to relay directions to the Pan Am flying boat.

The mountains surrounding Pago Pago harbour, however, proved more challenging, rising between 490m and 650m, and causing Musick to comment later that landing there "had been like landing in a darned teacup" – harsh words indeed for the normally reticent Chief Pilot.

Hundreds upon hundred of canoes surrounded the flying boat when it came to a halt… and large as that crowd was, it was nothing to what greeted the flying boat on its arrival in Auckland in December 1937: 40,000 people lined the harbour to watch the historic event.

Captain Musick made another survey flight, and it was decided that just one more should be undertaken in January 1938 before beginning commercial operations.

It was a catastrophic decision: American authorities had just discovered that should S-42 flying boats need to dump fuel in emergencies, some of that fuel could be swept back into cavities in the wings, making them akin to flying bombs.

So a ban was put on the dumping of fuel by passenger-carrying S-42s until a solution to the problem was found… but because Captain Musick's survey flights carried no passengers, no one thought to tell him of the ban.

On January 11 1938 just after taking off from Pago Pago, Captain Musick's S-42 (named Samoan Clipper) developed an oil leak, so he decided to return to Pago Pago – dumping fuel along the way.

He had radioed his decision to authorities in Pago Pago, and when he neither arrived nor responded to radio messages, a sea search was organised: a US Navy ship later that day found the charred remains of the Pan American Clipper floating in a vast slick of oil.

Several items of clothing and personal possessions were also found, but no trace ever of Captain Musick and his six crew.

It would be 10 years before Pan American would finally fly commercially to Auckland, and ten more again to Sydney; the airline collapsed in bankruptcy in 1991.



[] PIONEERING Pan Am S-42 flying boat in Honolulu's Pearl Harbour.

[] AVIATOR extraordinaire, Captain Edwin Musick.

[] PAGO PAGO Harbour: Captain Musick described it as "like landing in a darn teacup."

[] MUSICK Point, Auckland was named after the pioneering aviator.


(Photos: US Aviation Museum Archives and Tourism Auckland)

Struth! No whinging please, we're British!

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IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that after readers' responses to his recent bizarre complaints received by British travel specialists Thomas Cook and the Association of British Travel Association, he has more howlers compiled by the two.

"I think it should be explained in the brochure," one disgruntled British holidaymaker wrote to his agent, "that the local store there does not sell proper biscuits – like custard creams or ginger nuts."

Another wrote: "It's lazy of the local shopkeepers to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during 'siesta' time – this should be banned."

And another: "On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food at all."

"We booked an excursion to a water park, but no-one told us we had to bring our swimming costumes and towels," another holidaymaker complained, while yet another's peeve was: "We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as yellow, but it was white."

And yet another: "Topless sunbathing on the beach should be banned. The holiday was ruined as my husband spent all day looking at other women," while one poor fellow was surprised with a purchase from a street hawker in Europe: "We bought sunglasses that had 'Ray-Ban' labels on them from a street trader for five Euros, only to find that they were fake."

And: "It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica (to England,) but it only took the Americans three hours to get home," wrote one complainant, with another's gripe being his apartment: "I compared the size of our one-bedroom apartment to our friends' three-bedroom apartment. And ours was significantly smaller."

And finally the best whinge of all: "We had to queue outside where there was no air conditioning."

Struth! Don't Drop Dead in Westminster

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that in England authorities actually have the right to insist on you having a doctor's certificate attesting to your good health before allowing you to join a tour of the Houses of the Parliament in London.

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Because under old English law it is illegal to die in Parliament – not that that helped one-time Prime Minister Spencer Percival who died in the Houses of Parliament in May 1812 after an assassin got into the place, or another Member who died there in 1907 during a heated parliamentary vote.

The reason you are not allowed to die in the UK Parliament is that it is officially a Royal Palace, and under British law anyone who dies in a Royal Palace can technically be entitled to a State Funeral.

So if you're looking a bit pale on it while taking a tour of the Houses of Parliament, don't be surprised if an attendant suggests you take a bit of fresh air outside.

(And they reckon we're A Weird Mob.)


Top Five: Oman

Bimah Sinkhole on the outskirts of Sur
Emma Gardner is just back from Oman and loved it.

If you like holidays with sand (beach and desert), warm water, palm trees (date) and 36 degree sunshine, you simply cannot go past Oman in Autumn. It’s got all the mystique of ancient Arabia but with the modern pleasantries of air-conditioning and Wi-Fi. After all, history is fun but so is a glass of wine by the resort pool.

In the same way that Hobbits want to get back to Middle Earth, I sure as inshallah want to get back to the Middle East.

Read Emma's full report at She Goes

November 15, 2012

Holiday Scams Warning warns of holiday scams

With the summer holidays fast approaching record number of Australians are headed overseas. Ben Rosier, travel expert at warns holidaymakers to beware of tricks and scams that can wreck a trip of a lifetime.

"In a foreign country people let their guard down, relax, and often behave in a way they never would back home – leaving them open to highly-organised tourist scams," says Ben.

"These scams often play on the traveller's kind and trusting nature, their desire to save on holiday purchases, and their lack of local knowledge."

Michael McAuliffe, executive director at insurance provider SureSave, says it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Australians who fall victim to scams overseas as travellers often don't realise they've been caught out until it is too late and many are simply too embarrassed to admit being fooled by a simple con.

"All it takes is a momentary lapse of judgement to fall prey to scammers, and yet you might regret it for a very long time," says Mr McAullife.

The key piece of advice is to keep your wits about you and learn from past travellers' mistakes and, if in doubt, call the police.

Common cons:

Fake Police: If a traveller finds themselves being accused of a crime they didn't commit, chances are they're dealing with a counterfeit cop. A common story is that fake police might charge an over the top, on-the-spot fine for putting out a cigarette in public. Always check the officer's ID and contact the real police if you have any doubts.

Gem Scams: En route to their official destination dodgy tuk-tuk or taxi drivers take travellers to stores where they are offered deals that are literally too good to be true. The so called Gem Scam can actually involve any high-priced or desirable item such as leather goods or "authentic" carpets. Victims soon discover their "jewels" may be nothing more than polished glass and those larger items, well; they never make it back home.

Distraction: These can be anything from a child waving a paper in your face to an old woman needing assistance or a local helping you wipe mess off your shirt. While you are distracted, a second crook comes in and swipes your stuff. The key to making it out with all your valuables intact is to pay careful attention to your belongings and others around you.

Bar Scams: These can take a variety of forms, but the basics involve a traveller, usually male, being approached by locals who invite them for a drink in a bar. After a few drinks the locals are gone and the traveller is left with a ridiculously large bill.

Taxis: Some of the most common taxi scams are inflating fares or telling passengers their selected hotel/bar/restaurant is closed – but, never fear, they know a better one. Always travel in licenced taxis and if there is not a meter, agree on a fixed fare before departure. Also, insist on going to your original destination and see if it's closed for yourself. searches and compares the best value holidays by working with more than 300 travel partners to find the most affordable travel flight and travel packages.

Today's Hot Deals at

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Return flights to Fiji from Sydney from $550. Includes taxes. For travel between 2 February and 26 March 2013. Fares from other ports are from $617-Brisbane; $733-Melbourne; $831-Adelaide.

November 12, 2012

Struth! Hotel manager gives dopey guest the wind-up

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IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that when a couple left their car parked at Sydney Airport's Ibis Hotel while they made an extended overseas trip, they discovered a hotelier who showed what it meant to go beyond the call of duty.

In their haste, the couple inadvertently left a window of their car wound down before flying off to the UK and Europe. Ibis General Manager, Larry Raffel noticed the open window during his nightly check of the hotel car-park before going home, and with rain threatening, and for temporary security, got hold of a car-cover from a mate and blanketed the couple's car.

As well, aware that the couple's daughter was baby-sitting their house, office and family dog in the NSW Southern Highlands, he contacted her next day and arranged for a spare set of keys to be Express Posted to him so he could wind-up the electrically-controlled window, and lock the car.

Our STRUTH columnist Ellis says it certainly was service above and beyond the call of duty, the more-so with the Ibis being a so-called "airport budget hotel." And Ellis admits that he should know – he was the dope who left the car's window down in the first place…


David Ellis

WITH a self-drive writing trip on the slate that would take us from Heathrow to England's Cotswolds, across to Wales to ride their famed Little Trains, back into England for Staffordshire's Trentham Monkey Forest, and down to Heathrow again, mates in the know told us we'd need a good ten days to comfortably meet our goals.

But we had just half that, and were heading into back-blocks we either knew nothing about, or had last driven over a quarter-century ago.

Cut your itinerary in half, suggested one doomsayer. Re-write it entirely, suggested another. Talk to coach companies, suggested yet others.

But the car had been booked, the hotels pre-paid – and most important of all, we'd got interest in our travels from those who mattered most… our editors.

We'd requested GPS when we'd booked a Vauxhall Zafira (similar to a Subaru Forester) through DriveAway Holidays, and felt this would be our time-saver. Not so said the naysayers.

Then my web-hugging wife discovered Select Sojourning Solutions, and John Greenwood who offered private guiding to those who, like us, wanted to cover the most ground possible, learn the most, see the most, and delve into the most – all in the least possible time.

Gwenda fired off an email to which John zoomed back overnight. Yes, he knew all places great and small we wanted to visit, yes he was available, and yes, of course we could achieve it all in our five days. Better still, comfortably.

We explained our change of plans to DriveAway Holidays. No problem: John would be registered as an "additional driver" at no extra cost (even though he would be doing all of it!) and to speed things up they'd arrange with their UK supplier to make our car available directly to John at a depot close to him, with no need for us to be there for either pick-up or return.

We flew into Heathrow on a Monday night, and John arrived next morning at our airport Ibis Hotel fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, cheerfully loaded our luggage, and within minutes we were on the road to Woodstock in the Cotswolds for a nostalgic lunch at our favourite little English country hotel, The Feathers.

And John soon proved his worth as a knowledgeable and affable guide: within an hour he came up with the first of many unexpected gems, suggesting we make a quick diversion before Woodstock into the little village of Bladon – final, and unpublicised, resting place at its Church of St Martin of Sir Winston Churchill, his beloved Clementine and many of his family.

There wasn't another tourist in sight, which is how the locals like it… and why they don't publicise their treasure-trove graveyard.

And we discovered The Feathers now proudly boasted the world's most expensive gin-and-tonic, a GBP23 (AU$30) drop – in the name of research, we were again thankful for having John aboard as our driver.

Despite this dalliance we still made Porthmadog in north Wales by dusk on the Tuesday night, and in the next three days rode the Snowdon Mountain Cog Railway, dropped into the Welsh Slate Museum and Caverns which were another of John's unscheduled gems, took the West Highland Railway to Caernarvon, clicketty-clacked across the Festiniog Railway – and marvelled at John's greatest surprise gem, the extraordinary Portmeirion Italianate Village.

We now had just one day to get across to the open-range Trentham Monkey Forest for Gwenda, a lover of animals in general and monkeys in particular, and Heathrow. Again John, a one-time marketing researcher and consultant whose passion for the histories and cultures of Britain and European countries led him into customised tour guiding at age 50, proved his worth.

Sightseeing back-roads and villages for much of the way we "did" the Monkey Forest, found yet another of John's unscheduled gems in the Wedgwood Factory, Museum and Shop just off the M6 at Stoke-on-Trent, and amazingly were back in Heathrow by 4pm for our flight that night to Rome… with 1160km behind us in five days.

FACT FILE:  Vauxhall Zafira for 5-days through DriveAway Holidays for pickup Heathrow up to January 31 2013 including unlimited mileage and 24hr roadside assistance, from $356.24; phone1300 363 500. John Greenwood GBP200 per day plus GBP100 planning fee, his meals and accommodation: details or


[] LITTLE known final resting place of Sir Winston Churchill.

[] WALES' famed "Little Trains" – note how the driver just fits in.

[] GWENDA and John checking we're on track at one of Wales' unpronounceable little town.

[] A TASTE of Italy at Portmeirion in Wales.

[] WILD: monkeys roam free at Monkey World at Trentham in England.

(All photos: David Ellis)

November 11, 2012

Getting the Gibbon Experience

Dispatch from Lee Mylne

Today is World Responsible Tourism Day. To mark the occasion, here is a story I wrote last year after travelling in Laos. This story, of which I am very proud, was one of three finalists in the Best Responsible Tourism Story category of the Australian Society of Travel Writers‘ annual Travel Journalism Awards for Excellence, announced last week. It was published in Geographical magazine in the UK. The wonderful images accompanying this story were taken by Australian photographer Paul Wager, who is based in Laos.

A guest at the Gibbon Experience riding part of the 52km of zip lines

November 10, 2012

Kingdom of Dreams - Culture Gully

Eat Your Way Around India in One Night

Kingdom of Dreams
Kingdom of Dreams main pavilion
Kingdom of Dreams, India’s first live entertainment and leisure destination located in Gurgaon, is proud to present Culture Gully, one of the core attractions of this unique destination. Spread over 100,000 square feet Culture Gully is an elaborate boulevard of culture, arts & crafts and cuisine under India’s first ever skydome. This magical avenue offers an exciting experience of a busy Indian street showcasing India as a delightful destination to savour the best of local cuisines, sample many of India’s renowned handicrafts and enjoy live performances by traditional artists. The Culture Gully presents a magnificent Indian carnival showcasing 14 states of India in all their splendour on a single street enveloped under the breathtaking skydome. It is a kaleidoscope of India’s unique cultural diversity. Culture Gully brings together the grandeur of India’s ancient and diverse architecture, integrated perfectly with traditional Indian performing arts, entertainment and India’s rich cultural heritage.

Culture Gully entrance facade
Six restaurants, six show kitchens, three street bars and seven retail stores, representing 14 states of India engage and entertain visitors at Culture Gully. Interesting architectural and cultural facets of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chennai, Goa, Mumbai, Lucknow, Kashmir and Rajasthan, are presented in this magnificent boulevard. Visitors have a surfeit of options from enjoying a leisurely cup of South Indian filter coffee at the unusual Madras Café, to a massage near the beaches of Goa; from trendy shopping on Mumbai’s fashion street to enlightening spiritualism at the Mystic Centre. Assam Tea House welcomes all visitors with India’s famed variety of teas, while enjoying performances and wares of local artisans, street performers and folk dancers from across the country.

Goa Pavilion
The sheer artistry extends to the splendour of the architectural details at Culture Gully. It places a visitor in the midst of a huge set of an epic serial or period movie with its imposing façade designed by Omung Kumar. His innovative multilayered and complex architectural style and ingenious designs, have given Kingdom of Dreams and Culture Gully a unique dimension.

Chennai Pavilion
Here you can visit a quaint tavern in Goa; imbibe the spirit of Kerala’s backwaters; or walk past Mumbai’s Rajabai Clock Tower, all while you savour authentic cuisine, crafts and culture! Choose from over 20 amazing food and beverage destinations with over 250 regional dishes, cooked by our 140 chefs; brought in from various culinary destinations across India. This uniquely modern yet intrinsically Indian destination is expected to contribute to domestic tourism and carve its place as a must visit attraction in the hearts and minds of Indian and International visitors.”

Entertainment is never to be the same before since Kingdom of Dreams has opened its gates to this magical and mystical arena.

November 05, 2012

Struth! Worm your way to world champion

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says hundreds of people with obviously little better to do, descend on the English village of Willaston in Cheshire every July for the World Worm Charming Championships.

The idea is to lure as many worms as possible out of a designated area of farm turf in half an hour, with contestants using a wondrous array of devices to "vibrate" the soil, which makes the inquisitive worms come up for a look.

It's an ancient art often used by anglers seeking bait, and in 1980 after a Willaston farmer's son, Tom Shufflebotham lured over 500 worms out of the ground in a half hour, the International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes was formed to conduct the annual Willaston Championships.

Today it attracts worm charmers from around the world, some contestants simply thumping the ground with their open palms, others driving wooden stakes in and rubbing them with steel rods, while some choose the most popular method - driving a garden fork into the ground and "twanging" it like a guitar.

And in more recent years, some have bent the rules a little, sprinkling the turf on which the Championships are held with cold tea and beer to encourage the ever-thirsty worms to pop up for a drink.

The current record of 567 worms charmed out of the ground in thirty minutes was set by locals Miss S. and Mr M. Smith in 2009.



david ellis

CANADIAN businessman Sir Henry Pellatt firmly believed in every man's home being his castle, so when he and Lady Mary decided in 1912 on somewhere new to live, they had plans drawn up for just that – a castle.

He was not the least phased when his architect said he would first need 25 hilltop housing lots overlooking Toronto to accommodate it, nor that it would take 300 men three years to put his castle together.

And as for the cost, that was no problem either: Sir Henry had a loose C$3,500,000 (about $48m in today's terms) he'd put aside just for his house. Sorry, castle.

Today, as a result of Sir Henry falling on hard times just ten years after moving into his castle, inquisitive visitors can take themselves on a nostalgic tour of the Pellatt's remarkable fairytale home.

They can marvel at its 98 Edwardian-era rooms that took 40 staff and cooks to maintain and service, a banquet hall with 18m high ceilings, a kitchen with an oven large enough to cook a whole ox, secret passageways, artworks, a library that once housed 10,000 volumes, three bowling alleys (that were never completed,) and a wine cellar that held more bottles than most of us could contemplate getting through in a lifetime.

There's also Lady Mary's personal suite that alone covers an average Australian suburban house block, and a couple of secret passages that, according to legend, were there should Sir Henry have need to slip away unnoticed...

Henry Pellatt was born into a wealthy Canadian stock-broking family in 1859, and as a young man made a fortune from the family company and his own investments in everything from railways to insurance companies and founding the Toronto Electric Light Company.

While he chaired the boards of 21 companies, he was also very active in the volunteer Canadian Queen's Own Rifles, while Lady Mary worked tirelessly with the Canadian Girl Guides, receiving their highest honour, the Silver Fish.

Henry Pellatt was awarded a knighthood for his services both to the Queen's Own Rifles and for bringing electricity to Toronto from Niagara Falls.

The Pellatts moved into their castle in 1914 and named it Casa Loma, Spanish for The House on the Hill.

Because one of his investments was the Roman Stone Company, the castle was built of replica ancient roman building blocks the company cast from concrete, with foundations sunk 15m into the ground to support it.

A keen horseman, Sir Henry's stables had each horse's name displayed in gold leaf on their stall's mahogany doors. And in case it rained, a 250m-long tunnel ran 6-metres under an outside roadway to link castle and stables.

Although designed externally along medieval lines, Casa Loma had some amazing mod-cons for its time, including showers with nozzles spraying from the top and three walls as well, and one of Canada's first private elevators. And being keen gardeners the Pellatts had a conservatory and potting house with floors and walls of Italian and Canadian marble, topping it with a stained-glass dome that was backlit with 600 new-fangled electric light bulbs to show it off by night and day – and promote the product of his Toronto Electric Light Company.

To communicate through the castle's jigsaw of rooms and the outside world, a private 59-line telephone exchange handled more calls in its first few years than the entire City of Toronto.

But World War I hit Sir Henry hard, his stock crashed, companies folded and he and Lady Mary were forced to auction off C$1.5m in art and furnishings for a mere C$250,000, abandoning Casa Loma in 1923 for their small farm outside town; Lady Mary died that same year and Sir Henry in 1939.

For a while the castle operated as a luxury hotel and became a popular nightspot. The City of Toronto seized it for unpaid taxes in 1933 and leased it to the Kiwanis Club of Toronto (later the Kiwanis Club Casa Loma,) which used it to raise funds for the castle's maintenance and charitable projects until management was taken over again in 2011 by the City Council.

Casa Loma is open daily except Christmas Day, and the 2ha gardens from May to October; for details visit



PHOTO CAPTIONS: (CANADA TORONTO CASA LOMA….                              


[]  EVERY man's home is his castle: the extraordinary castle-home of Sir Henry and Lady Mary Pellatt.                                  

[] JUST the place for potting up the plants: Casa Loma's Conservatory whose stained-glass dome was back-lit with 600 electric light globes.

[] TUNNEL vision: Sir Henry had several "secret" tunnels for emergency escape routes, plus this one under the outside road to his stables.

[] PART of the 2ha of landscaped gardens surrounding Casa Loma Castle.


(Photos: Kiwanis Club Casa Loma)


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