March 28, 2013

Struth! 007 puts Thai island on the map

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that while most countries would give the proverbial quids to have a block-buster movie shot on one of their biggest beaches or islands, fellow travel writer Roderick Eime points out that Thailand's had one of its smallest islands and beaches used not once, but twice, in such block-busters.

Little Khao Phing Kan in Phang Nga Bay was chosen by producer Cubby Broccoli to represent North Vietnam's Ha Long Bay in the 1974 James Bond movie "The Man With The Golden Gun". And ever since it's been known to locals and the tens of thousands of fans who go there every year, simply as James Bond Island – scene of the famous shoot-out between Francisco Scaramanga (played by Sir Christopher Lee) and James Bond (Roger Moore.)

And 23 years later in 1997, James Bond (this time played by Pierce Brosnan) returned to Phang Nga Bay for "Tomorrow Never Dies", while the Saigon scenes in the movie were actually shot in Bangkok.

As Roderick says its priceless publicity for Thailand, which was also chosen for scenes in such other silver-screen hits as "The Beach" (2000,) "Star Wars Episode III" and "Rescue Dawn" (both 2005,) "Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason" (2004,) and "The Phantom" (1996) to name just a few.

Cruise lines that visit Phuket and other parts of Thailand where you can visit these sites include Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Star Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Princess. Talk to travel agents, while for more information on Phuket and Thailand go to

Dry weather holiday calendar

Inline images 1

RAIN can dampen any holidaymaker's spirits.

And if you think the downpour that seems to coincide with your annual camping holiday is nothing more than bad luck, take a closer look at the calendar – you may actually be betting against the dry weather odds.

To help travellers lower the risk of a holiday drenching, Flight Centre has scoured the Bureau of Meteorology's (BOM) historical weather statistics to find the driest months at Australia's holiday hotspots.

"Obviously, weather is unpredictable and there can be no guarantees of clear skies and endless sunshine, but history shows you may be safe to leave the umbrella at home if you travel at specific times of the year," Flight Centre Limited global marketing manager Colin Bowman said.

"This is the case both in Australia and overseas.

"Our suggestions below are not necessarily the year's driest months at every location, but history shows that travellers can expect low rainfall and a high percentage of sunny days if they take off on holidays to these hotspots at these times."


At the dawn of the new year, head to Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road.

BOM records show that Melbourne receives an average of 47.3mm of rainfall in January, not to mention its highest average temperature (25.9 degrees), while Lorne receives just 39.4mm of rain.


Tasmania is at its driest in February, with Hobart receiving just 40.1mm of rain on average during the month. According to BOM, you are also most likely to enjoy more clear days (4.3) than during any other month.

Adelaide is also a great dry weather bet in February, averaging just 13.5mm of rain.


After catching the last of the summer sun on the Apple Isle, travellers can spring across Bass Strait to Geelong, where average monthly rainfall is 34.6mm.


In April, you may not need to shelter from the rain underground if you head to Coober Pedy in the South Australian outback.

Average temperature is a comfortable 27.6 degrees and average rainfall is just 6.5mm.


You'll be a little early for the city's famous motor sport action if you drop in to Bathurst in May, but chances are you will see sunshine.

May is the second driest month in Bathurst, marginally behind April. BOM records show that the city averages 41.9mm of rainfall.


The average temperature is a chilly 12.3 degrees, but there's little chance of rain in the nation's capital in June, with Canberra receiving an average 37.9mm of rain.


After chilling out in the Canberra sun, head north to Darwin in July.

History shows that travellers can expect just 1.2mm of rain on average and the year's coolest maximum temperatures (30.5 degrees).

On the way to the Top End, stop off at Uluru, which receives just 9.2mm of rain on average during the month.


In August, follow the sun back to the East Coast and stop off in Port Douglas, where average rainfall is just 24.1mm – about 18 times less than travellers can expect during the year's wettest month in Queensland's tropical north (March).

Nearby Cairns is also at its driest, with monthly rainfall averaging 27mm.


A host of holiday hotspots are good dry weather options in September, including Hamilton Island (27.9mm), the Gold Coast (43.8mm), Brisbane (45.7mm), the Sunshine Coast (55.8mm), Byron Bay (65.9mm) and Sydney (68.6mm).


Chances are you won't need the wet weather clothes if you're heading to Broome in October.
History shows an average monthly rainfall of just 1.4mm.


As the year draws to a close, consider Norfolk Island (75mm) or Newcastle (70.5mm).


If you're heading to Lord Howe Island and your Christmas wish is for sunshine, you may just be in luck. According to BOM, the island is at its driest in December (103.9mm of rain on average).

March 25, 2013

Struth! 30 million glasses of wine a day


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that 30-million glasses of Australian wines are now consumed here and around the world every day of the year.


That's nearly 11-billion glasses annually, making us Number 4 on the list of the world's Top Ten wine exporting countries, behind Italy that's Number 1, France and Spain.


And now Wine Australia, the Australian Government authority whose job it is to get even more people sipping Australian reds, whites, bubblies and fortifieds, has declared April as Aussie Wine Month, and is urging us to visit local wine regions and when there to buy up big, to order Australian-label wines we've not tried before when dining out, and to take part in around 100 wine-related events around the country.


Because, it points out, the local industry is now worth $4.3-billion to the economy every year, employs 52,000 people in 2,400 wineries and on 6,200 vineyards, and that we now have no fewer than 65 winemaking regions across the country.


If you want to know where some of those 100 Aussie Wine Month events are being held in April, go to


Bundanoon becomes Brigadoon for a day - April 6


David Ellis

THE Scots have been doing it for centuries, the Icelanders for as long as they can remember, and on the other side of the world, it's been revered in Hawaiian history as a sign of royal strength.

We're talking about lifting stones. Not any old stones, but special stones that can weigh anything up to 165kg each, which is some lift. And in Hawaii's case, actually a stone slab that weighs around 3,000kg, and which legend said that whoever could move it would one day unite all of the warring islands into one peaceful nation…

And someone did.

Today strongmen around the world are still lifting stones, and this April 6 at Bundanoon in the picturesque NSW Southern Highlands – just half way between Sydney and Canberra – four of the strongest of Australia's strongmen will attempt to be the quickest to lift five stones ranging from 115kg to 165kg each onto the tops of wine barrels during the 36st annual Bundanoon is Brigadoon.

This wonderfully colourful, fun and event-filled day is now one of the world's largest gatherings of all things Scottish outside Scotland, a day when this pretty little village of just 2,500 country folk rises from the Autumn mist and welcomes an amazing (and amazed) 12,000 or more visitors to the skirl of the bagpipes of a score Pipe Bands.

And where the air is filled with aromas of fresh-baked Highland shortbreads and Abernethy biscuits, Scots pies and drop scones, gingerbreads and butterscotches, of blood pudding and haggis…

And where this year's Tartan Warriors – Aaron Monks, Luke Reynolds, Morgan Westmoreland and Jordan Steffens  – will vie to see who will become this year's Bundanoon is Brigadoon Champion by lifting those five Stones of Manhood onto their wine barrels in the quickest time, and judged by Australia's super-strongman, David Huxley (who apart from being a multi-times Tartan Warriors Champion himself, once pulled a 184-tonne Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet for a-near 100m along a tarmac at Sydney Airport…)

Lifting stones has been around for centuries: in Scotland a boy was welcomed into manhood when he could lift a special clan "testing stone" to the height of his waist, and in later life men challenged each other to lift mightier stones above their heads.

In ancient Iceland, fishing boat captains would carry a 100+kg stone aboard their vessels, requiring those seeking work with them to prove their strength by raising the stone to their chests…

And in Hawaii, legend had it that whoever could move the sacred near-three tonne Naha Stone on the Big Island Hawaii, would one day unite the warring islands: at just 14 years of age the boy who would become King Kamehameha the Great, not only moved the Naha Stone, but completely rolled it over – and 38 years later, in 1810 as King, he united the islands just as the prophecy had foretold.

If lifting stones is not your scene there'll be plenty else to enthral at this year's Bundanoon is Brigadoon: how about watching brawny blokes tossing around what at 6m long appear to be scaled-down power poles called cabers, and more playfully hurling water-filled balloons 40m or more for others to catch without getting a burst-balloon drenching.

Or others tossing fresh-laid eggs to be caught deftly enough a-near 60m away to avoid any gooey consequences… and more sedately with their bonnie lasses, demonstrating Scottish Country and Highland Dances.

Visitors can join in many of these events, toe-tap to a colourful Street Parade of those twenty Pipe Bands with its floats and marching Clans, and be amazed by a replica scene from The Battle of Waterloo by the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, complete with mess tents, kitchens, headquarters, a surgeon's tent, military supply hut and displays of historic firearms, swords and bayonets.

There'll be games for children and a 5-and-under Bonny Bairns Highland Dress Competition, a whopping 100 arts, crafts, Scottish and Tartan speciality stalls, and thirty Clans and Societies will answer visitors' enquiries about their possible Scottish ancestry… with the day ending with a Scottish dance night in the local hall.

And if you are visiting by train you won't be able to miss the local Bundanoon railway station: CityRail re-signposts it for the day BRIGADOON. Entry: adults $20, child $6, family (2+2) $45; details (02) 4883 7471 or


Photo Captions:

[] THE skirl of bagpipes will greet the 12,000+ visitors to this year's Bundanoon is Brigadoon in the NSW Southern Highlands. (Jeff McGill.)

[] NOW that's a stone…. (Alaistair Saunders)  

[] WHAT a hoot: tossing down-sized power poles. (Jeff McGill)

[] EVEN CityRail gets in the spirit of things: Bundanoon Station becomes Brigadoon for a day. (CityRail)

[] STALLS with everything Scottish for the young and old. (Jeff McGill)

March 23, 2013

Struth! Cruise is garbage

 IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that most people ready to spend US$10,000 on a 20-day North Pacific cruise would expect rainbow coloured drinks by the pool, escargot and lobster at dinner, and chocolates on the pillow when they turn-in – not being told to help sift through thousands of tonnes of plastic rubbish.

But fourteen "cruise-goers" will be doing the latter from Honolulu to Vancouver in July as part of a study of what ultimately happens to a vast mass of plastic from the size of soft-drink bottles to confetti that floats in the North Pacific Gyre – or more usually known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

It's estimated to be twice the size of Texas, and is caused by a circular current of water sucking everything that's dumped into the North Pacific into one central point, where by agitation and inter-action it ultimately breaks down into confetti-size pieces floating around 5-metres below the surface.

The fourteen "lucky cruisers" sailing on the 23-metre yacht Sea Dragon will collect samples that will be used in studies by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California.

A spokesman said: "If this was some great island of garbage floating on the surface we could send ships in to scoop it up, remove and destroy it. But it's a thin soup of plastics just below the surface that can be quite thick in parts, while in others carry just a handful of plastic confetti in an area the size of a football field.

"Most importantly we are trying to find out if fish eat this confetti can they absorb it harmlessly, does it pass through their bodies, or does it ultimately kill them? And what is it doing to the state of the ocean?"

PS: for your $10,000 besides no cocktails by the pool and collecting garbage, you'll also be expected to help with the cooking, sail the ship and stand watch overnight.

Windsor Castle Blaze - repairers go to work


David Ellis

WHEN the renovators were called in to repair some fire damage to a weekender on England's River Thames in 1992, the owner wanted the work  to match the original as faithfully as possible.

This may have been a simple request had the place in question been a 1960s brick bungalow, or even a rustic riverside farmhouse.

But this was neither: the building was Windsor Castle, and the owner was the Queen.

Yet after the renovation job that cost an astonishing AU$90m, visitors to Windsor Castle today are often little aware that they are walking amid furnishings, murals, drapes and carpets that are largely painstaking replicas of the originals destroyed in that disastrous 1992 fire.

Windsor Castle's origins date back over 900 years to when William the Conqueror built a little timber and earth fortress on a 30m high hill overlooking the Thames, as protection for London against invaders from the west (London being a solid day's march away.)

Over the centuries the solid stone castle as we know it today evolved, with its role changing from that of a fortification to a royal palace – in fact the rambling 1,200-room bastion is the largest inhabited castle/palace in the world, the oldest in continuous occupation, and the world's only working royal residence that is open to the public.

Both Edward III and Henry VI were born here.

And the Queen who, with the help of hundreds of thousands of paying tourists a year, pays for the upkeep of this sprawling collection of rooms and galleries, halls, chambers, ballrooms, chapels and drawing rooms – not to mention the hectares of surrounding manicured gardens – considers it her favourite retreat, spending most of her weekends here.

In November 1992 the fire that broke out in the north-east corner of the Castle ravaged over 100 rooms and nine State Rooms, but fortuitously most of their priceless arts works had been removed just days earlier for display elsewhere.

Hundreds of specialists were brought in to restore the least damaged areas, and create new rooms and chambers in those areas that had been totally destroyed – their brief being to make them fit as harmoniously as possible with the remainder of the castle.

Hundreds more artisans and craftsmen were recruited from private companies, government departments and voluntarily came out of retirement to recreate furnishings, art works, murals, drapes and tapestries, ornate candelabras and chandeliers, carved staircases, carpets and polished timber wall panellings.

Many visitors today don't distinguish where the original ends and the renovated begins. A clue is the floors: while these intricately patterned new areas have been hand-crafted to resemble the original parquet designs, it will take years of tourists' feet for them to assume that well-trodden look.

Allow at least two hours at Windsor Castle. Areas of particular interest include the China Museum, the Ante Throne Room, King's Drawing Room and King's Bed Chamber, the Queen's Drawing Room, Queen's Ballroom, the Queen's Guard Chamber, Presence Chamber and Audience Chamber, St George's Hall and Private Chapel (resting place of ten British sovereigns,) the State Dining Room and the Grand Reception Room... and the remarkable gardens.

The castle abounds with treasures dating back centuries, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and van Dyck, and priceless English furniture and porcelain.

And don't miss the extraordinary Queen Mary's Dolls' House, a Lilliputian masterpiece that was created in 1923 on a scale of 1 to 12.  It took 1,500 tradesmen three years to complete, with every room of the 7-storey mansion-in-miniature built and furnished to exactly as it would have been at the time – including working lifts that stop at every floor, electric lights, and even running water in all five bathrooms.

Windsor Castle is 50kms from London. Travel agents can book you onto organised tours from London as part of UK holiday programs, or simply take the train to either Windsor or Eton Stations that are each about 5-minutes walk from the Castle.

You can do a self-guided tour using a guide book or audio unit, and there are conducted tours of parts of the castle grounds.

Windsor Castle is 15km from Heathrow Airport, causing one American tourist to famously ask a guide as planes flew over every few minutes: "Why would they build a famous castle so close to an airport?"



[] WINDSOR Castle, the favourite weekend getaway of England's Queen Elizabeth.

[] THE magnificent chapel within Windsor Castle.

[] READY to have a few mates around for dinner: the King's Dining Room is fit, well, for a king.

[] QUEEN Mary's Dolls House at Windsor Castle: 1500 tradesmen took three years in the early 1920s to create its extraordinary detail.                                                                                                                                            

Originally issied 11 OCTOBER 2010

Whale watching in Queensland's Hervey Bay

Whales don’t keep mum about their babies for Hervey Bay visitors

By Adrienne Costin

“Folks, I think we’re in luck,” boomed across the deck of Freedom III. “It looks like we have a mum bringing her new baby over to the boat.”

The mum in question weighed around 20 tonnes (she was only young) and her baby was far bigger than most of us had ever seen – but when you are talking humpback whales, this is what to expect, especially when you are whale watching in the whale’s winter holiday grounds, Platypus Bay off Queensland’s Fraser Coast.

The youngster may have been huge but it was very shy and kept hiding under its mother. But she was having none of it and sank below the surface, then gently rising with the youngster resting on her giant head. She stayed for at least 10 minutes, every so often sinking down and then rising again as if to reassure baby that all was ok.

Satisfied her offspring had been suitably admired, the mother sank below the surface and the two swam away, like two silent submarines, to another part of the bay, and perhaps to another of the nine boats in the Hervey Bay whale watching fleet.

This familiarity is what Hervey Bay whale watch operators, and their guests, are now enjoying.

“These whales have grown up with the boats and know they have nothing to fear.

“In fact, quite the opposite, they want to interact with us,” said the ship’s captain Barry Stewart.

Freedom III joined the whale watch fleet for the first time in 2009. The 58 foot catamaran was previously owned by famous documentary producer Ben Cropp and offers 360 degree viewing on three levels.

Fabulous whale watching opportunities are backed up with luxurious surrounding, sumptuous home-cooked goodies for morning and afternoon tea and a delicious tropical lunchtime buffet. The boat is surveyed to take a maximum of 49 guests but owners Keith and Sue Reid prefer to host around 40 for maximum travelling pleasure.

There was barely time to enjoy a cuppa before we were called to the decks again. This time to watch a slightly older baby perfecting the breach, that amazing manouevre where the whale lunges sideways from the water, arches through the air and then crashes back down into the water.

As before, we marvelled as the huge mother, this one older and bigger than the last, leapt from the water, her youngster mimicking her actions seconds later. The pair leapt and plunged in a semi-circle around the boat before diving one last time and disappearing from view – most likely to take a breather after their exertion.

If ever we needed proof that whale watching in Hervey Bay was an up close and personal experience then these four whales alone provided it. While they were the standouts of the day’s experience, we also enjoyed other whale watch experience – a pod of youngsters (I can’t actually tell the difference but this is what we were told) raced by seeming to play tag, blows on the horizon from unseen whales, tail flaps from others who also chose to stay anonymous.

When you are dealing with a creature that is the equivalent in size to 11 elephants or 600 people it is hard not to be impressed, especially when their acrobatic skills are so phenomenal. The Hervey Bay experience is even more special because it is here that watchers can enjoy the whales at rest and play before they make their long journey back to the Antarctic.

All in all it was a magnificent day on the water! Perhaps one day I will take my kids to meet theirs.

The Facts

Freedom III operates daily whale watch cruises during the season from late July to November departing the Great Sandy Straits Marina at 9.30am and returning at 3pm. Prices are $120 adults, $80 children (4-14 years), $105 seniors and students, $320 family four – two adults, two children.

For information on all Hervey Bay whale watches cruises, accommodation packages and other information visit

Getting there:

Qantaslink offers daily flights between Brisbane and the Fraser Coast.

Virgin Blue flies direct to Hervey Bay from Sydney with connections from other ports.

QR Tilt Train packages from Brisbane to Hervey Bay start at $74 per person one way.

For more information on the Hervey Bay and the Fraser Coast visit

Struth! The Road of Death

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that if you complain at election time about the condition of some of our country roads, consider the lot of those who have to use the North Yungas Road in Bolivia – known locally as El Camino de la Muerte, or The Road of Death.

Running 60-something kilometres from the administrative capital of La Paz to Coroico in the Amazon rainforest region of the country's north, the road rises as high as 4650m in some places and drops to around 1200m in the mountains at its final destination.

But it's the way that it clings to the mountainous cliff-sides that have earned it its gruesome nickname, coupled with the fact its just 3.2m wide, has no guard rails, and in most places falls 600m or more into valleys below.

Add to this the torrential rain that can make the surface like glass and its little wonder that before an alternative road was built, the North Yungas Road claimed between 200 and 300 lives a year, including in one horror accident more than 100 passengers in a bus that fell off the side into a ravine below.

And yet despite being only 3.2m wide, heavy trucks that still use the road actually pass each other – bizarrely each travelling on "the wrong side of the road" to do so, but meaning that the driver of the truck heading downhill is on the outside of the road, and therefore can see just how close his wheels are to the 600m drop below him.

While fewer trucks are now using the road, its still popular with thrill-seeking holidaymakers in 4WDs – and in recent years has been luring increasing numbers of mountain bike enthusiasts who are catered for by local companies that take them and their bikes to the highest point of the road for a 50km-plus, heart-stopping downhill ride that's dubbed The Dice With Death….


March 21, 2013

Driving the Swiss Alps: Passing Through

Everything you have ever heard and seen about the beauty of Switzerland’s alpine regions is true. Surrounded by the mighty alps and filled with rivers, alpine meadows, quaint centuries-old houses and steeples from the many churches that fill the valleys, how could it not be?

By Michael Travers

This year more as a convenience than a conscious decision as I was in Germany and had to drive to Italy. Switzerland was right in the middle and therefore the path of least resistance. Not wanting to waste the chance to experience Switzerland, though, I aimed to drive through one of its most famous alpine throughways, the 2,106-metre-high St. Gotthard Pass, and overnight at the 13th century Ospizio St. Gottardo, one of the oldest hostels I think you will find anywhere in the world.

The St. Gotthard Pass is the quickest route between Zurich and Milan and many of the mighty rivers of Europe such as the Po, the Rhone, and the Rhine are all born here high in the mountains. The pass has been in use as a trade route since Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 1200s when the turbulent and almost impassable Schollenen Gorge was bridged that mule traffic could penetrate the full length of the valley to the pass and down the other side to Milan and thus opening serious amounts of trade between the two regions.

After crossing the German border late in the morning and paying the seemingly excessive 60 Swiss Franc road toll (US$65, but understandable seeing as most people just use Switzerland as a shortcut without stopping to buy even a Toblerone), the first part of the trip was a somewhat dull assortment of motorways, suburbs and industry, totally in defiance of the carefully marketed Swiss postcard industry of rolling pastures, cowherds and milkmaids with blonde pigtails. Once passing out of the northern plains, however, the mountains started to rise out of the summer haze and become what I had always imagined them to be; the majestic geographical barrier that has shaped much of European history.

We left the main highway at Andermatt and drove off into the mountains on a road that became more windy and remote as it made its way up the steepening valley. Exaggerated hairpin turns and tunnels make it possible to ascend the steep terrain and all around are massive and humbling engineering works that have been painstakingly designed to ward off avalanche danger. The higher up the valley we got the more imposing the terrain became as we approached the ominous Schollenen Gorge.

Several bridges have been built across the gorge over the centuries, but the most famous has to be Teufelsbrücke, the ‘Devil’s Bridge’, a crossing which has had several incarnations in its lifetime. According to legend, building a bridge was deemed impossible, so a local goat herd made a pact with Satan to build it in exchange for the eternal soul of the first to cross it. Unfortunately for the Prince of Darkness the wily herdsman sent a goat across the bridge first, thus cheating him out of his rightful payment. Satan became so angry at being cheated that he hurled a massive rock at the bridge to destroy it. He missed, but the rock still stands to this day in a nearby meadow. We stopped to walk across the more modern man-made bridge and looking at the ferocity of the river and it was easy to see that the goatherd really did have no other option than to play with brimstone and fire.

By now it was getting a bit overcast and chilly so it was onwards and upwards to unpack, eat and drink something. While the main road is an engineering masterpiece, a few kilometres shy of the top of the pass is a turn off to the old cobbled road, which offers a much quieter and more picturesque drive up to the pass itself. It requires a slower driving speed but this high up in the alpine meadows there really is no other way to experience the Alps. At the top of the pass is a small mountain lake and a cluster of stone buildings including a museum and our destination, the Ospizio San Gottardo.

Recently renovated by architects Miller & Maranta, the Ospizio San Gottardo was originally built in 1237 to accommodate weary travellers and pilgrims. Over the centuries it has played host to many of Europe’s famous artists and luminaries and the rooms of the hotel are all named after the likes of Goethe, Balzac, Dickens and Victor Hugo. These days it is a warm and inviting place to stay with a mix of accommodation and is a perfect fusion between antique and modern.

Warmed by green energy, thanks to a thermal pump, the heavy use of conifer gives it a very alpine feel, perfect for mountain surroundings. Lucky for us the hotel was a very warm place to be. We whiled away the evening inside the hotel’s neighbouring restaurant and dined on warm mountain fare and cold Swiss beer as the rain settled in outside and never let up till morning, turning to an electrical storm that flashed and thundered its way around the towering peaks throughout the night.

The next day the sun was back and after breakfast we headed down the mountain road. From the pass, most traffic follows the new road down to Airolo, but, once again, the old cobbled road that snakes down behind the hotel off the back of the pass is spectacular, with terrific vistas all the way down into the Val Tremolo the “Valley of Trembling”, perfectly apt after last nights thunder and lightening. Paved in granite cobbles it is considered Switzerland’s longest historical road monument, and one of the most photographed, and a most beautiful zig-zag climb down the mountainside into the north of Italy.

Two hundred years ago crossing the St. Gotthard Pass was an exhausting and grueling journey that lasted many days and was fraught with danger and hardship. Today, it’s as easy as buying a Toblerone and an experience that everyone should try at least once in their life. FR

March 20, 2013

Travel more important than marriage and having a baby.

click to enlarge
As the world prepares to recognize the first ever International Day of Happiness on March 20, a day established by the United Nations General Assembly, a new poll reveals how travel factors into happiness worldwide.

A large majority of respondents (83%) of the 2013 G Adventures Happiness Survey said travel is very important to their happiness. In fact, in terms of making people happy travel was deemed more important than marriage and having a baby.

“At G Adventures, Creating Happiness & Community is one of our Core Values. We understand the positive effects of travel and recognize its ability to cultivate happiness,” says Todd Rogerson, Mayor of G Adventures. “As indicated by the survey, it’s clear that travel plays a huge role when it comes to happiness.”

According to the survey, travelling is more important to women than men. While men prefer to travel with their other half, women ranked “friends” as their ideal globetrotting companion. Family members are the least popular people to travel with and a surprising eight per cent of people in a relationship prefer to travel solo.

When asked what aspect of travel makes respondents most happy, “new experiences” topped the list, followed by “culture” and “meeting new people”. Australia and New Zealand are the most desired destinations and nearly half (46%) of those surveyed enjoy engaging in active experiences when travelling.

Furthermore, more than half (57%) prefer to celebrate a happy occasion such as a birthday or anniversary somewhere abroad or overseas. When not travelling, 60 per cent of respondents find inspiration researching travel online.

Wanderlust & Work
Half of respondents confessed to daydreaming about travel for an hour daily at work, while a fifth spend the entire day fantasizing about being abroad, outside the confines of the cubicle. Plus, nearly two-thirds (61%) admitted that more time off to travel would make them happier at work and is more important than an increased salary or having their own office. When it comes to bonuses, half would opt for a free trip, rather than cash or additional days off.

For more information please visit:

About the Survey
The online survey was conducted through Fluid Surveys between February 3 and 14, 2013. Results are based on a sample of 2,321 respondents from G Adventures’ external global network.

Be an Elephant Researcher in the Legendary Golden Triangle with Anantara

Lady Mahout & Pumpui the Elephant
Have you ever wondered whether it's true that elephants never forget, or if they really are one of the smartest animals on earth? Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa is home to Asia's premier elephant camp and a permanent elephant intelligence research programme.  The Golden Triangle Elephant Researcher Experience has been created so that ele-enthusiasts can study elephant behaviour and problem solving with the camp's onsite scientific experts.   This unique destination package involves real scientific studies in a richly educational and hands-on programme, where guests interact with Thailand's gentle giants in their natural environment.

Chang Rai
Book a four night stay or more of indulgent all-inclusive benefits.  Savour daily gourmet dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a select range of unlimited non alcoholic drinks, house wine, beer and spirits, an in-room mini bar, internet access and roundtrip transfers from and to Chiang Rai airport.  Enjoy an elephant activity programme that includes a mahout training day, three private presentations by elephant researchers on elephant behaviour, cognition and conservation, two elephant intelligence research sessions, an elephant veterinary examination and a meal with the elephant research staff.

This exciting, rare opportunity begins with an evening meal and a meeting with the resort's resident elephant researchers.  Guests then retreat to their room or suite to relax on the comfy built-in sofa of the private balcony, unwinding to the sounds of the jungle by night with selections from the complimentary mini bar.  Wake up to a view of the mist rising off the hills of Myanmar and Laos, and an unforgettable mahout training session where you will learn about the strong bond between elephant and mahout, as well as the Thai commands for driving one of these intelligent creatures. Return to the hotel and replenish with a leisurely breakfast buffet on a terrace with sweeping three country views, followed by a sumptuous lunch, and later an afternoon of elephant trekking and bath time antics in the river.

This one of a kind experience continues with opportunities to work closely alongside the camp's resident, native English speaking elephant research staff who work collaboratively with Think Elephants International and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.  Spend days two and three as a researcher on an exciting, hands-on study of elephant intelligence. You'll work closely with the research staff as you run the study, which may include a test of an elephant's sense of smell, propensity for problem-solving, or tendency to cooperate.   Listen to three talks on topics such as elephant intelligence, behaviour, conservation and management, and learn why knowledge of behaviour and cognition is vital for the conservation of the species.  Assist the resident elephant veterinarians as they perform a full examination, which may include a few surprises!  Dine with the research team and tap into their impressive wealth of knowledge.

Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa
Rates start from THB 41,420 per room per night for a Deluxe Three Country View room, for a minimum four night stay. Due to the unique nature of this programme, the Golden Triangle Elephant Researcher Experience is available on the following dates: Apr 1st – 5th; May 2nd – 6th; June 19th- 23rd; July 27th -31st; Aug 14th - 18th; Sept 12th – 16th; Oct 17th – 21st; Nov 4th – 8th; Nov 18th – 22nd; Nov 30th – Dec 4th; Dec 18th – 22nd.

For every package of four nights or more, Anantara will donate THB 40,000 to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to help sustainable elephant projects throughout Thailand and South East Asia.  To find out more about the GTAEF, please visit To find out more about the elephant research projects included in this special package, please visit

Create a holiday story of rich adventure with the Golden Triangle Researcher Package.

For more  information and reservations please contact  Tel +66 5378 4084 or email 

March 18, 2013

Struth! Epic Fail of Norwegian proportions - no room for you in Nassau

Inline images 1
Port at Nassau
 IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says it's embarrassing enough for a hotel to have to tell you that, sorry, they've overbooked and don't have a room for you for the night.

But in the Bahamas, port authorities at Nassau have just gone one further – a couple of Fridays ago they had to tell the Captain of 156,000 tonne cruise ship Norwegian Epic, with 4,100 passengers aboard that, sorry, we've overbooked and we don't have a berth for you for today.

Norwegian Epic
To say that shipping company Norwegian Cruise Lines and those 4,100 passengers were "not happy, Jan" at being told to go away and find somewhere else, would be an understatement. And a resort next to where the vessel would have berthed was more than fuming at having lost an estimated US$100,000 from all those passengers it invites to use its restaurants, snack outlets, numerous bars, sporting facilities and water park.

What makes it all the more strange is that Nassau has only five berths, and Norwegian Epic visits there every Friday throughout winter.

While authorities are trying to explain how they got it so wrong, a local newspaper is suggesting that Nassau replace its current advertising slogan "Life Needs the Caribbean. You Need a Passport," with "Nassau: We'll see if we can squeeze you in."

Fanning Island Kiribati: Paradise Found?

david ellis

BLINK while you're looking at a map of the Pacific and you'll miss it, this tiny dot whose few visitors will tell you its the closest they've come to Paradise Found.

Fanning Island is part of the independent nation of Kiribati in the Line Islands, a remote group in the central Pacific that stretches 2350km north-west to south-east, and yet contains just 503 square kilometres of land area.

But that tiny area is home to lagoons with picture-perfect turquoise waters, powder-white beaches, drooping palms – and the largely-drowned remains of a trading ketch that sank years ago, and which now looks somewhat like a carefully-staged Hollywood prop.

Visitors to Fanning liken it to TV's Gilligan's Island, the South Pacific of the 19th century, and a kind of tranquil Heaven on Earth all rolled into one – indeed to the 2500 islanders who live here, it is called Tabuaeran, which means "Heavenly Footprint."

So why don't people flock to this Pacific Paradise?

It's because it's 1600km south of Hawaii and is lucky to be visited by a passenger ship once a month, and a cargo ship with a few adventurous passengers every couple of months.

But those who do get there do find it's Paradise Found with that setting, no cars, just five trucks, twenty motor-scooters and 270 bicycles.

And bizarrely that it's also been subject to a German naval raid, and as part of the independent nation of Kiribati, uses Australian paper currency, and coins the same size and face value as Australia's, and keeps these on par with the Aussie dollar.

And islanders' favourite beer is VB, while the door on their minuscule 2.5m X 2.5m jail cell is from Alcatraz Penitentiary, complete with signage. How it got there is anyone's guess.

Fanning Island was discovered and modestly named after himself by US trader Captain Edmund Fanning while sailing to China in 1798. Fifty years later Scotsman William Greig bought it to grow coconuts, and as it was unoccupied, engaged workers and for himself a wife, from the neighbouring Cook Islands.

Greig's heirs subsequently sold out to trading firm Burns Philp, who in turn sold Fanning in the 1980s to the nation of Kiribati.

Cable & Wireless built a relay station on the island in 1902 for their cable that connected England to Australia by way of Canada, Fanning and Samoa, but in 1914 the warship Nurnburg sailed all the way from Germany, cut the cable, smashed much of the equipment in the relay station, and sailed away.

The cable was retrieved, repaired and used until 1964 when radio spelt the end of international cable communications.

During its pioneering days, the International Date Line sliced vertically through the Line Islands, and wiley workers realised they could walk off Mr Greig's plantation and sail across to the next island that was on the 'other side' of the Date Line – giving themselves two Saturdays and two Sundays off work every week.

To their indignation Mr Greig had the Date Line zig-zagged around them, ending their regular long-weekends.

Fanning Islanders are welcoming hosts to visitors, with school and church groups performing dances and songs, and villagers selling necklaces and other souvenirs made from shells, driftwood, coconut palms and animal bones. Visitors can also take village walks and bike rides, swim with the fish in the shallow lagoon, surf the big Pacific rollers, sun themselves on the beach and explore the coral reefs.

But the Kiribati Tourism Office readily points out that Fanning has no electricity, no telephones, no internet, no TV and no running water, and often runs out of imported food basics, the islanders and any visitors relying on subsistence gardening and fishing until the next ship arrives.

There are three small guest houses, and three primary schools built with funds given mostly by visitors. And when its one-cell jail is full, other felons on minor charges like riding their bicycles while drunk, are chained to the police station flagpole and their mates and family allowed to spend the day chatting with them. Such is "island time."

Holland America Line's Westerdam and Seabourn's Silver Spirit visit Fanning Island during voyages from the US mainland to the South Pacific Islands and Hawaii. For schedules see travel agents or visit


[] BLINK and you miss it: Fanning Island from the air. (Georgia Inst. Technology)
[] ENTRANCE into the lagoon from the sea. (Wikimedia)
[] SIMPLE village homes on Fanning Island. (Flickr)
[] LONG way from anywhere. (TripAdvisor)
[] ISLAND children all smiles for the camera. (Flickr)
[] OLD shipping container makes a cosy home, complete with verandah and bike rack. (David Ellis)

March 15, 2013

Pearl of Istanbul: Agatha Christie's whodunnit


david ellis

AT her grand opening in 1892 she was hailed as the Pearl of Istanbul, a visionary hotel whose luxuries and services were of the likes never before seen in Istanbul – nor in much of Europe for that matter.

But after a hundred years of attracting the rich, the famous, the adventurous and the infamous, this Pearl's lustre was waning; in 2008, aged and frail, she withdrew from public life to undergo a face-lift that would take two-and-a-half years and cost a staggering AU$32-million.

And when last month she removed the last of her dressings, the Pera Palace Hotel could once again lay claim to truly being The Pearl of Istanbul.

Originally built to provide accommodations for the affluent who rode the famed Orient Express train from Paris to Vienna and ultimately Istanbul, the Pera Palace Hotel attracted myriad admirers.

Agatha Christie slid into town on the famous train in the early 1930s and booked herself into the hotel's room 411 to write Murder on the Orient Express. And then from Room 411 she disappeared in circumstances more bizarre than anything she'd ever created in her intriguing whodunnits.

Ernest Hemingway also found the Pera Palace a wondrous ambience in which to write, as did Graham Greene, while Greta Garbo regularly retreated there in search of solitude.

More infamous was an exotic dancer named Margaretha Zelle who performed at the hotel. To her audience she was known as Mata Hari – and she was eventually executed for spying for Germany against France in World War I.

Later in the Cold War, an English public servant named Kim Philby was posted to Istanbul as First Secretary of the British Embassy, a cover for his real role as a spy for British intelligence agency MI6.  But Philby was a traitorous double-agent, also working for Russia's KGB, and used his time in Istanbul to frequent the Pera Palace to loosen-up staff from the next-door American, as well as his own Embassy, at the bar.

And he spent hours sipping on drinks while on an old 2-piece telephone at the end of the bar, a phone that many believed he had been able to manipulate to tap into lines into and out of the two embassies.

Philby was later stripped of the OBE he'd been awarded for his British Intelligence work, after helping two other British double-agents, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean escape to Russia, and himself defected to Moscow as well.

But as intriguing as all this is, it has always been overshadowed in the history of the Pera Palace by Agatha Christie's bizarre disappearance after writing Murder on the Orient Express, and finally being found hiding in a small hotel in England's country Harrogate after an 11-day search.

She claimed not knowing how she got there, blaming the shock discovery of her husband's infidelity for memory loss. But more weirdly, after her death in 1976 a manager of the Pera Palas found a note in a hotel safe in Christie's handwriting: "The key to my disappearance will be found in my diary," it said. The manager called in a clairvoyant – who remarkably found a key between a skirtingboard and floorboards of Christie's room 411.

What it would open is still a mystery, and as her diary has never been found,  the reason she hid the key there remains as intriguing today as ever…

The just-completed refurbishment of the grand old Pera Palace saw 30 guest rooms removed to allow more light into the central foyer and lobby of the hotel, a new art deco restaurant named Agatha opened in Christie's honour, and the hotel's room 101 in which founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk regularly stayed, refurbished as a museum to his memory.

Original gold-tinted chandeliers have been re-touched with gold leaf, thousands of metres of hand-laid marble and mahogany re-polished and re-stained, and while an additional two modern lifts have been installed, the original 1890s steel and timber "cage lift" has been retained and is still a popular novelty with guests.

Guest rooms have been refurbished with 21st century luxuries whilst retaining their late-Victorian theme, including chairs individually hand-embroidered with English rose motifs.

The Pera Palace Hotel as been officially listed as a "national hotel-museum" and is well worth a visit when in Istanbul.    



[] ISTANBUL's Pera Palace Hotel as colourful as the stuff of novels.

[] AGATHA Christie's Room 411 at the hotel in which she wrote Murder on the Orient Express – then vanished for 11-days – with her photo on the wall.

[] THE ornate interior of the just-refurbished Pearl of Istanbul.

[] ELABORATE gates to the original cage lift that's as popular as ever with guests at the Pera Palace.

[] FINDING out whodunnit – the author on the Pera Palace's old two-piece telephone said to have been used by British double-agent Kim Philby to eaves-drop on the unsuspecting.

Originally 25 OCTOBER 2010

Newgate Prison: For whom the bell tolled

David Ellis

THERE are few people, it seems, who haven't got an interest these days in delving into their family history, and many are combining that interest with holiday travels to the realms of long-gone forebears.

My wife is up to her elbows in it, after discovering that her grandfather was the captain of a South Seas trading ship, the Janet Nichol that took Robert Louis Stevenson and his family from Sydney to settle in Samoa in the 1890s, and becoming a life-long friend of the Stevenson family.

And a mate recently combined his fascination with his family's background with a wedding trip to Britain, knowing that his great, great, great, great grandfather and his family came here in 1848, fortuitously, he says, as paying passengers rather than as guests of Queen Victoria.

And he tracked down a little Anglican church, just a stone's throw from St Paul's Cathedral and the Old Bailey criminal courts, where that great forebear of his was baptised in 1804 – a church that bizarrely he passed almost daily on his way to his newspaper job in Fleet Street in the late 1960s, and which he never had an inkling would turn out fifty years later to have such a deep family connection.

That church is St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London's suburb of Holborn, and dates back to 1137. Amongst other things it is closely associated with the infamous Newgate Prison which once stood on the site of what is now the Old Bailey – its priests being regularly called upon to pray for the souls of inmates of the prison condemned to be executed.

There's even a glass case still in the church today in which is stored the so-called Execution Bell: this handbell was taken to the prison, and rung at midnight outside the cells of those poor creatures to be hanged by the neck until dead the following morning...

And interestingly in the ground of the church is the grave of English explorer Captain John Smith, who died in a nearby house in 1631.

Smith is best known for an incident while exploring the state of Virginia in the United States in 1607: according to him, he was saved by the beautiful Indian Princess Pocahontas from being clubbed to death by her father and other warriors, throwing herself as a teenager across the Englishman and begging her father to spare the white man's life.

It resulted in one of the world's most famous alleged-love stories between Smith and Pocahontas, retold in gusto in a 1995 Walt Disney animated movie – but these days most historians believe it to be nothing more than the fertile imaginings of Captain Smith.

The explorer is commemorated in one of the church's stained glass windows.

And the church, my inquisitive mate discovered, even has an Australian connection. The great diva Dame Nellie Melba, born as Helen Porter Mitchell in Victoria 150 years ago this month, is also honoured in a beautiful stained-glass window created here by renowned designer Brian Thomas, whose works also appear in St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

And St Sepulchre-without-Newgate is also known as the Musicians' Church: it was at it's magnificent circa-1670 organ that, at the age of 14, composer and conductor Henry Wood got his introduction to music, later as we know, going on to organise the famous Promenade Concerts ("The Proms") that still run in London every summer...

As well St Sepulchre-without-Newgate is still the venue today for regular free lunchtime recitals on that grand 300 year-old organ, while the 12 bells that still ring out from its 32m high bell-tower are those mentioned in the macabre 17th Century nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons."

They're referred to in the poem as the Bells of Old Bailey, the question "When will you pay me, say the Bells of Old Bailey" referring to the fact the Newgate Prison not only housed condemned criminals, but also many debtors as well.

But it is it's tenor bell that has the grimmest history of all: it was the one that rang out at 9am on Monday mornings to alert the hangman to begin his gruesome task… one that was held in public, and bizarrely attracted crowds of up to 100,000 gawking spectators.

Could your forebears have been amongst them?


[] AUSTRALIAN connections in London's Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

[] ELABORATE interior of the historic church.

[] DETAILED stained glass window commemorating Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba (lower centre.)

[] GRIM reminder of past history: the Execution Bell is still housed in the Church today.

[] CONTEMPORARY painting of Pocahontas "saving" Captain Smith.

Photos: Anglican Church Library; Malcolm Andrews; Frank Lin.

Originally for 16 MAY 2011

March 13, 2013

Yoga for Blokes. Just for softies?

Misconception #1: Yoga is for skinny chicks who eat mung beans and don’t wear lipstick

Misconception #2: Yoga is for ‘girly men’ who really just need to HTFU.

You can just picture it can’t you? Bronzed and buff tradies down tools for a quick chakra before smoko [OMM], then back to work with a nail gun blissfully attaching a cross beam like Arnie with an Uzi.

Real blokes just don’t do yoga. But why not?

Paul van Bergen
Paul von Bergen

Paul von Bergen was a bloke’s bloke. Cool as all get out, money to burn, fast cars, trendy pad and all the trimmings. Then something went wrong.

“I spent my twenties and early thirties living the London life, running a youth marketing agency and organising glamorous parties on yachts in Ibiza, getting paid very well, living in the penthouse, driving the convertible BMW and partying very hard. Yet it still wasn’t enough money for the $2 million yacht I dreamed of.”

Now what is wrong with this picture, chaps? It’s everything we dream of. But even when we get it all, it’s still not enough.

“So I sold my business and all my homes, put $1 million into a new business which was meant to make me richer and sexier - and I lost it all in 9 months! Yes, all of it.”

Paul did a little reassessment, actually a big reassessment. He went to Thailand and stumbled into yoga.

“I rented a beach house and lived down the way from a health retreat and learned about fasting, diet and health. At the same time my mum had become a chronic alcoholic and was numbing herself to life. She had all the material trappings too but still wasn’t happy. I knew I would go the same way as mum if something didn’t change.

During that time, Paul’s mum died after a messy battle with her demons. It was the catalyst he needed to make a radical change to his own life.

“I got serious about yoga and it cured my ten years of chronic back problems and stopped my addiction to alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs.”

Then he and wife, Tory, bought land outside Sydney and created Billabong Retreat, an 18-bed eco getaway that enabled Paul to practice his new expertise.

Bush cabin
Within easy reach of the CBD, it’s a perfect location for busy city folks to de-stress over the weekend and return to work with a fresh perspective. Kind of a re-boot for the brain. There’s healthy food, massages and lots of bush to just wander in. Heck, swim in the billabong too.

Massages at Billabong Retreat

Now for the tricky bit. Time for this middle-aged, portly writer to join a group of lithe females for a yoga session. I’m feeling very self-conscious as Basia, our disturbingly blissful and smugly serene yoga teacher, sits cross-legged in front of us. The only ‘cross’ I can manage is a cranky look when my weary knees won’t comply.

Was I paying attention when Paul explained the benefits of yoga to our assembled group some hours prior?

“It is important to define what we mean by yoga because most people have a completely incorrect perception,” he said patiently, “It’s not about wrapping ourselves into pretzel-like positions, it’s about mastery of the mind and in turn, mastery of the breath, the body, the emotions and the senses. It is about living, as much as possible, an evolved life. The physical postures are merely one aspect or technique where we can practise self understanding.”

Paul also went into some detail about the history of yoga, the 195 sutras and the fear of death. But I won’t spoil things by clumsily paraphrasing him here. Suffice to say that Western routines teach us much about physical preparedness, fitness of body, but sod-all about fitness of mind. That's where the spooky Eastern stuff comes in, controlling thoughts, actions and habits.

Basia does tea
Our class with Basia continues. We’re breathing – in … out – and stretching (ouch!) “Just hold it there”

Am I feeling any benefit? Well, yes, even if the initial pain is off-putting.

“Most blokes I know have back problems, way too much stress and while they might be strong,” says Paul, “they’re tight and inflexible. All these things can be addressed with yoga and gentle exercise.

“Men like to act all tough but deep down most men want meaning and purpose to their life too - the connection through yoga meditation gives us that.”

Ironically, yoga was originally for men only. For 4000 years women weren’t even allowed to do yoga and now within the 60-or-so years it has been in the West, it’s all changed big time.

“We men have a habit of being pretty un-tuned to our bodies,” says Paul with a look of authority that comes with experience, “but the danger is that we are numb to the damage we do to ourselves through drinking, stressing or getting angry.”

Now I’m wondering just how many of our top footy and cricket players are closet yoga freaks. With the kind of battering these guys get, yoga sounds like a ‘secret weapon’. I can just see Fatty Vautin and Sam Newman now in a lotus flower.

So blokes, next time that 12th vertebra reminds you of that bag of cement you shouldn’t have lifted or that little old lady changes lane without an indicator, breath in, breath out. Ommm.

The Good Oil:

Billabong Retreat Sydney‎
41 McClymonts Road
Maraylya NSW 2765
(02) 4573 6080‎

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