December 30, 2014

Winner of 2014 National Geographic Photo Contest

“A Node Glows in the Dark,”  by Brian Yen of Hong Kong
Selected from more than 9,000 entries, a photo of a woman spotlighted by the glow of her phone on a crowded train was chosen as the grand-prize winner of the 2014 National Geographic Photo Contest. The photo, titled “A Node Glows in the Dark,” was shot by Brian Yen of Hong Kong. He has won $10,000 (USD) and a trip to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., to participate in the annual National Geographic Photography Seminar in January 2015.

“I feel a certain contradiction when I look at the picture,” said Yen. “On the one hand, I feel the liberating gift of technology. On the other hand, I feel people don’t even try to be neighborly anymore, because they don’t have to.”

Nicole Cambre of Brussels, Belgium, placed first in the Nature category for an image of migrating wildebeests in Tanzania, and Triston Yeo of Singapore won in the Places category for a photo of the Budapest thermal spas. Yen’s photo won in the People category, and all three images will be published in National Geographic magazine.

The annual photo contest attracted entries from more than 150 countries. Contestants submitted photographs in three categories: People, Places and Nature. Judging consisted of multiple rounds of evaluation based on creativity, photography quality and genuineness/authenticity of the content. All of the winning photos, along with the honorable mentions, may be viewed at

December 29, 2014

Star Wars comes to Frankfurt Airport. Preparations for arrival of Darth Vader?


Holidaymakers dumbfounded as Frankfurt Airport taken over by Imperial Starfleet forces, the military arm of the Galactic Empire. Regular services are thrown into disarray as X-Wing fighters and ground units dominate operations at the busy European airport.

Seems one of the Tie Fighters suffered an engine malfunction on approach and ended up on the Autobahn

December 27, 2014

Struth! Men on the menu

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a Christmas present for someone who likes a good read is Men on the Menu – a hilarious, yet poignant, account of how an Australian woman in search of love travelled to 22 countries in 81 days to go on 75 blind dates.

Melbourne-based author Bambi Smyth lined-up half her dates through friends, friends of friends and business associates, and the other half "hanging around bars and by asking concierges in hotels if they knew anyone suitable." She even had some of her dates introduce her to other potentials.

Confessing to a broken relationship and midlife crisis, Bambi's dates ranged from an Italian prince to a Russian billionaire, restaurant waiters, a TV presenter, rock musicians, a surgeon, students, a nightclub owner, film director – and for good measure a Spanish gigolo, a Scottish piper who toured with Madonna, and a trainee priest at the Vatican.

Her 300-odd page tome describes in amusing detail every encounter, and how she always offered to pay for her own half of meals – although some dates graciously shouted her, while some others tried leaving her holding the whole bill… and how she squeezed out of those not going quite to plan.

And ranging from 21 to 61 years of age and as distant as Scotland, Brazil, Germany, Monaco, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, she shares how they equally ranged from "sleazy" to "heart-stoppingly gorgeous."

We won't spoil it by telling you the final outcome of Bambi's search for love… get the book and find out for yourself. (The Five Mile Press $32.95.)

Struth! Pan Am Clippers the Dux of De Luxe

ALMOST restaurant-like, would you believe that this is the dining area of a
Pan Am 314 Clipper flying boat 75 years ago. (Pan Am Historical Foundation)
MASSIVELY sized for just 74 passengers, and luxurious
aboard by day or night. (Pan Am Historical Foundation)

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says next time you're jammed in the middle seat of the middle row of a 400-something passenger aircraft with 20-odd hours of flying before you, try daydreaming of the days of the Pan American Boeing 314 Clipper flying boats.

For between 1938 and 1941 Pan Am flew a dozen such luxury craft that carried just 74 passengers in spacious seats by day, lounges for socialising – and restaurant-like dining with 4-star hotel chefs offering-up multi- course silver-service meals.

At night passengers had their own bunks, with separate men's and women's dressing areas for passengers to prepare for bed; ten crew served on flights from America to Europe, Southampton, Honolulu, the Philippines, Hong Kong, South America and even New Zealand.

And because they flew so slowly – on average 250km/h but able to crank up to 312km/h if necessary – they could take days to island-hop to their eventual destinations (San Francisco-Honolulu took 19 hours; today it's under 5hrs direct.)

The planes were pressed into US Navy service when America entered WWII and stripped of luxuries to carry hundreds of troops, but still used Pan Am flight crews because the Navy didn't have anyone certificated to fly them.

By war's end flying boats had become pretty-much obsolete and Pan Am which had sold three Clippers earlier to BOAC (later British Airways) and lost three in accidents, sold its remaining six to New World Airways which ultimately scrapped them in 1951.

Struth! Hollywood sign of the times

THE sign today after a major restoration in the late 1970s.
THE famous HOLLYWOOD sign soon after it was erected in
December 1923 to promote a real estate development;
the letters LAND were removed in 1949.

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that when a real estate company in California put up a sign promoting a new land sale on the outskirts of Los Angeles in December 1923, it planned on it staying in place for around 18 months.

That was 91 years ago, and the sign is still there today – albeit having been shortened by four letters – and is probably the most-photographed and recognised billboard the world has ever known.

It's the famous single-word HOLLYWOOD that stretches 110m across Mt Lee in the Hollywood Hills in letters 45m high, and which originally read HOLLYWOODLAND, the name of the real estate development.

The letters LAND were removed in 1949 and when the remainder fell into disrepair by the late 1970s, founder of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner and eight others including cowboy movie star Gene Autry and singers Andy Williams and Alice Cooper, gave US$27,778 each to totally restore it at a cost of $250,000.

The sign is so popular that some 40 tour companies now run daily trips from Los Angeles to viewing points in the Hills to ogle and photograph it, while LA's Dept of Recreation and Parks has an el cheapo US$10pp shuttle throughout Saturdays and Sundays to the Griffith Space Observatory that also provides excellent viewing both of the sign and Los Angeles spread out below.

Free entry to the Observatory is also included with the shuttle; check out

(Images Los Angeles Dept of Recreation and Parks)

Ridgeview Estate - A very English wine



David Ellis


THE English winemaking industry lost a bit of its bubble last month with the passing of Mike Roberts, the man who did the unthinkable in 2005 when a drop he made at his little Ridgeview Estate in Sussex took out the title of World's Best Sparkling Wine at the enormously prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition.


And to prove that it wasn't an aberration in beating the best of French Champagnes, together with bubblies from 54 other countries world-wide, five years later in 2010 he won a similar World's Best Sparkling award with another of his English fizzes at the equally impressive Decanter World Wine Awards.


It was enough to have those across the Channel crying into their cuvees and gnashing on their Gauloises', for not only had most probably never heard of the little village of Ditchling in East Sussex where Mike Roberts and his wife Chris had their Ridgeview Estate winery. But they learned that Mike had actually jumped ship in mid-life from owning a successful computer business in London, to learning all about and taking-on making sparkling wine.


And when he won that first World's Best Sparkling Wine title with his 2002 Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury label, Mike later confided to mates that he actually rang the competition organisers four times just to make sure that he really was the winner…


That win, and his other World's Best with a 2006 Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs in 2010, was for Mike and Chris just as important for England as it was for themselves, their family and others working on their winery team. For they considered themselves not anti-French – just proud Brits delighted that together with their couple of dozen or so Trophies, and two hundred-odd medals and other awards they'd won, they were putting English sparkling wine on the map as world-class and to be taken seriously.


Nonetheless Mike was always quick to acknowledge the help that colleagues in France had given him from Ridgeview's first formative years, including getting the best of vine cuttings from Champagne, and advice whenever needed on grape-growing and winemaking techniques.

Unlike most wineries that make red and white wines as their major source business, Mike and Chris set out from the start to concentrate solely on making sparkling wine from the fruit off their small 12ha vineyard.

A major reason for this was geographical: France's Champagne region is renowned for the greatness of its wines because its soils are basically chalk layered over clay – and this extends out and under the English Channel, to rise again in the South Downs of Sussex around the Roberts' little village of Ditchling.

"As well," Mike once told me in a note, "we're just 11km in from the sea, our winters are mild, and our summers dry – and actually quite hot."


All making for the perfect mix for the perfect bubbly.


But if you are beginning to think that Mike and Chris are somewhat England's pioneers of sparkling wine, think again – and take a hint from the name of that 2002 Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury: away, way back in 1662 an Englishman named Christopher Merret gave the world its very first sparkling wine, and published a paper describing in detail how to make it… amazingly 30 years before the French made their first bubbly stuff in Champagne.


Mr Merret in typical British under-statement described his drink as "a gay, brisk and sparkling wine," whereas Dom Perignon on creating France's first bubbly exclaimed with Gallic abandon: "I dreamt I was drinking stars!"


Mike Roberts sadly passed away after a long illness on November 14 this year, aged 71. He and Chris had founded Ridgeview Estate in 1994 and sold their first commercial bubbly in 1996; today Chris is continuing the family tradition along with their daughter Tamara who is company General Manager, Winemaker son Simon and his wife Mardi who is Sales and Marketing Manager, together with a small and dedicated local team.


Ridgeview Estate is in Fragbarrow Lane, Ditchling Common, East Sussex and open for sales and tastings 11am-4pm Mondays to Saturdays, except January and February (UK Winter) and October (vintage harvest.) Details


And finally just in case you're wondering, a bottle of premium sparkling wine like the Roberts' Ridgeview, contains something like 250-million bubbles.          




[] HAPPY family gathering shortly before Mike Roberts passed away in November of this year.

[] MIKE and Chris share a quiet moment together with a glass of their own bubbly.

[] TOP drop: Ridgeview Bloomsbury from tiny Ditchling in England's East Sussex beat the French and everyone else to be named World's Best Sparkling Wine.

[] PICTURESQUE misty morning on the vineyard.

[] MIKE and Chris' Winemaker son Simon in the winery.


(Images: Ridgeview Estate)



St Pancreas London hotels the centre of action



David Ellis


JUST as they'll tell you in the real estate game that it's all to do with Position, Position, Position, so too is it when it comes to the hotel business, although those at the latter will tend to use the more evocative Location, Location, Location.


And this generally equates to the best of beaches with sand and sea at guest's very doors or to be enjoyed from bar or restaurant, atop the finest headlands with grandest views, in the most-remote heartlands of near-pristine wilderness, or conversely in the busiest of CBD locations…


None of these "bests of" will come cheaply, of course, and a few months back we sought a hotel in London whose Location, Location, Location needed to be near the CBD without being actually in it, reasonably close to a few attractions we wanted to visit, and near to a major rail station.


A big ask, but we needed that station in particular to give us good access to trains not only around London, but  with connections to several regional lines as well – and even up to Scotland for good measure.


And yes, our hotel needed to be at a price that would not burn too big a hole in the budget.


Remarkably we found that what ticked all our boxes was economy-priced (for London,) and actually below what we expected to pay. It was the Ibis Euston St Pancras on Cardington Street in Central London, and just 3km to the CBD as well as such things as Covent Garden, Soho's theatre district and the West End – while Oxford Street and Bond Street shopping were also conveniently close, and the combined Underground and Overground Euston Station just 3-minutes over the road.


And when my wife was off shopping, I found the hotel equally handy to the British Museum, Madame Tussaud's and the London Planetarium…


The 177-years old Euston Station is actually the 6th busiest in London and not only offers those London Underground and Overground services, but Virgin Trains, London Midland, and First ScotsRail to such diverse centres as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Coventry and Lockerbie to name a few…


And if you want to go to other far flung places not served by Euston, a mere half- kilometre and one station up the line is the massive Kings Cross/St Pancras complex that has more Underground line-connections than any other London station, and also serves the East Midlands, Britain's South-eastern district, ThamesLink whose trains run to Brighton, Surrey, Bedford and numerous other regional centres, while Britain's only high-speed train, Eurostar departs here for Paris and onwards to Brussels, Lille, the French and Swiss Alps and Geneva.


And it was from Kings Cross/St Pancras my wife got the train to Inverness in Scotland after our London stay.


Opened in 1868, Kings Cross/St Pancras is today almost a destination in itself, with shops, bars and restaurants within the station complex and thick on the ground around it… and with one platform housing Searcy St Pancras Grand Champagne Bar that at 98m in length boasts being the longest Champagne bar in Europe. At Terrace level with plenty of glass, it's an ideal place to sip Champers and take-in the entire rail terminal's comings and goings below while awaiting your own train.


Euston and Kings Cross/St Pancras stations alone can be good enough reason to choose the Ibis Euston St Pancras, whose 380 rooms, while maybe not quite as large as some others', are very clean, neat, have TV, hairdryer, tea and coffee making facilities – and free WiFi.


A restaurant at night has a small but very acceptable menu with starters, salads, sandwiches or a half-dozen or so main courses, a handful of desserts, and there's a modest wine list. There is also a separate bar throughout the day and night.


Breakfasts are rewarding with a choice of Continental (fruit juices, teas, coffees, pastries, fruits and jams/spreads,) or Full English including the Continental choices plus cereals, scrambled or boiled eggs, bacon, pork sausages, pan-fried mushrooms, hash browns, ham and turkey slices…


Ibis Euston St Pancras room rates start seasonally from 72GBP (about AU$133) a night, with breakfast additional (around AU$8.30 for Continental and AU$16.50 Full English.) For details and bookings, go to  or see travel agents.






[] LONDON'S Ibis Euston St Pancras – Location, Location, Location. (

[] ROOMS small but very clean, neat and close to almost-budget in price. (

[] LOUNGE at London's Ibis Euston St Pancras Hotel. (

[] EUSTON Station is 3 minutes across the road, and London's sixth busiest with both Underground and Overground rail services. (

[] Kings Cross/St Pancras Station, built in 1868 with rail services now reaching across Great Britain and to Paris and Europe. (WikiPedia)

[] SEARCY St Pancras Champagne Bar is the longest Champagne Bar in Europe. (Searcy Champagne Bar)






New tank and armour museum opens in Cairns

Tanks for the Memories

The Australian Armour and Artillery Museum, Cairns

Report: Roderick Eime

Most boys were content with plastic model kits and watching TV shows like Combat! and The Rat Patrol, but not Rob Lowden.

Lowden’s collection is not the ‘junk yard’ assortment seen at other so-called museums either. Each exhibit is either restored to full working condition or preserved carefully as a static display item.

“This is the biggest collection of this nature in the southern hemisphere,” says Dennis Tocock, the museum’s full-time manager.

“We’ve got armoured vehicles and tanks from Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, Britain, America, Australia, Canada, Russia and France.”

Other tank museums in Australia have closed and the Army's own display at Puckapunyal is currently closed to the public because of 'security' concerns.

Lowden has been vigorously searching for new additions to his collection and he has sourced items from the closed museums, private collectors looking to downsize and even through agents, like one in Bulgaria who has located several former Soviet items.

Lowden obtained several vehicles from the late Syd Beck’s estate. Syd once had an impressive collection on display at Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands behind Cairns, but passed away in December 2013. Visitors will recall the mustard coloured Matilda tank marking the entrance to his museum.

Another defunct museum that was a source for some of Lowden’s prize items was John Belfield’s Melbourne Tank Museum once located at Narre Warren in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. The entire collection went to auction in 2006 with the Sentinal AC-1 fetching in excess of $60,000 at the time.

Lowden also scored a dozen vehicles from the 160 items auctioned in July 2014 from the famous Jacques Littlefield collection in California.

Brad Pitt and his movie mates aboard 'Fury' - making tanks cool again.

Also part of the complex located at 1145 Kamerunga Road, Caravonica (just 15 mins by road north of Cairns) is a full restoration workshop with its own staff that can restore “pretty much anything”. In fact the German WWII Stug III assault gun in the collection is a fully working replica built on site using a spare armoured personal carrier chassis, a British Type 432 to be precise.

Right now, visitors can see more than 100 items on display ranging from full battle tanks like the British Chieftain and Centurion to lightweight scout cars and even a tracked motorcycle.

A rare WWII Hetzer light tank destroyer (correctly Jagdpanzer 38 Sd.Kfz. 138/2) is on its way as well as a cavalcade of heavy metal that includes a Panzer IV (Ausf D), T-55, Cromwell and even a curious armoured personnel carrier (APV) called a Ram Kangaroo.

On the quiet, I’m told a full scale, all-metal replica of a German Tiger 1 tank (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E) is being constructed. With just seven remaining examples from 1300 manufactured of this once mighty fighting vehicle left in the world, even Lowden’s considerable resources are unlikely to secure him one. The Tiger seen in the movie ‘Fury’ was the famous (and genuine) Tiger 131 from UK’s Bovington Tank Museum, while a clever replica was built for the 2012 Russian film “White Tiger”.

Bovington's immaculate Tiger 131 on display.  Cairns will soon have a lookalike.

How much is a real tank worth today? Well, without telling you how much Lowden paid for any of his, some of the better examples from Littlefield’s lot sold for over $1m apiece. Most M4 Shermans (like those in ‘Fury’) sold for between $250-300,000.

Either way you look at it, The Australian Armour and Artillery Museum is a darned valuable collection of serious machinery sure to invoke memories for junior modellers and history buffs alike.

Contact Details

Address: 1145 Kamerunga Road
Smithfield QLD 4878
Phone: 07 4038 1665
Email: or

Opening Hours

Open 7 days: 9.30am – 4:30pm
Last admission 4.00pm each day
Closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day & New Years Day

Entry Fees:

Adults $25
Children (5-16) $15
Seniors/Students $18
Family (2+2) $65

Pick-ups around Cairns available too.

Brochure: (click to enlarge)

December 06, 2014

Struth! Kingsford Smith airport a paddock in Mascot

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says this was Sydney Airport just 15 years after WWI airman, Nigel Love had leased a paddock at Mascot on the foreshores of Botany Bay in November 1919 and begun private flights there off a grass "runway" kept mown by cattle and sheep.

The Australian Government bought Mr Love's airstrip and hangars and 65 square kilometres of land around them in 1923, and so Sydney Mascot Airport was born and officially opened the next year.

It was later expanded and in 1953 renamed Kingsford Smith after the famed Australian aviator; last year just on 37.9 million people flew in or out on 326,690 flights operated by Australian and 40 international airlines.

But what most users don't know is that for many years until 1960, a coal train line from adjacent Botany Bay bizarrely crossed straight over one of the airport's three runways, with steam train crews tick-tacking with the Control Tower to cross between aircraft movements.

On a wet June night in 1950 an Ansett Airways DC-3 with three crew and fifteen passengers was taxiing for take-off when it ran into an empty coal train trundling over the runway; the plane was extensively damaged, it's First Officer slightly injured and five coal wagons derailed.

The Federal Government as operators of the airport eventually paid Ansett Airways 27,000-pounds ($54,000) compensation for damage to their DC-3 and the cost of leasing another during repairs, and NSW Railways $970 for damage to their coal wagons.

[] MASCOT Airport in the early 1930s just 15 years after WWI airman, Nigel Love leased a paddock on the foreshores of Botany Bay and began private flights off grass kept down by cattle and sheep. (WikiMedia)

Slow tours of castles and mosques in Turkey

Words and images by Graeme Willingham

After several days in the bustling company of thousands of fellow travellers marvelling at Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia , Grand Bizarre, Spice Market, the Basilica Cistern and the Bosphorus waterway, wandering the village of Ortahisar in Cappadocia region, an hour's flight away,  presented a blissful glimpse of slow-lane Turkey.

Cappa Fairy Chimneys
In this hot late afternoon July Friday, under shady shopfront verandahs we find old men seated on traditional ground-hugging carpet stools drinking cay (tea) and playing backgammon, or chatting, and/or smoking cigarettes. All three barber shops are busy.

In the village square, a farmer is selling watermelons from his battered workhorse tray truck. Next to it, a small covered truck is selling men's trousers, but there's not much else going on, although shoppers occasionally emerge from two mini marts. A man outside his hardware shop sits talking to a friend, behind them an array of brooms and in front kerbside a neat row of charcoal kebab cookers and shiny cay urns. We exchange smiles.

And it's too early for the dozen or so cafes and restaurants to ready themselves for evening trade which will begin in earnest when darkness signals the end of the day's Ramadan fasting.

One restaurant wears a neon sign "Local Food" which conjures the BBC League of Gentlemen's Edward and Tubbs in their "local shop for local people".

We seem to be the only tourists on the street. Only one trader, who is selling dried fruit, nuts and herbs, bothered to elicit a sale from us, unlike his thousand cousins in big city Istanbul. It worked for him.

Tafoni Hotel
Of intrigue was the sprinkling of tiny sign-less dingy shops containing a basic office desk and filing cabinet and not much else. We discovered later they were the offices of wholesalers trading produce – lemons and oranges from the Mediterranean region, apples from bordering Nigde province as well as local potatoes, quinces, onions, squash, apricots and peaches – all stored in the natural cool-air caves that are historic landscape attractions of this unique UNESCO-listed patch of Turkey.

There was an enchanting air of laziness about Ortahisar, one of the neighbouring villages of the town of Goreme (a few minutes' drive away), the tourism hub of Cappadocia's curious eroding terrain of compact volcanic tuff which proved ideal for threatened Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to carve sheltering caves from invaders. There are remains of underground cities here, a region tracing back to 1800 BC, to the Hittite period.

Ortahisar is a town for farmers, and a few tourists. Goreme is a town for tourists and few farmers.

Ortahisar means "middle castle" which is in effect the 90m high rock dominating the end of this main street. It is honeycombed with caves and tunnels, camouflaged eons ago by nature without the slightest indication of human presence inside. It has partially crumbled away to reveal some of its interior passageways but has been restored for peak viewing access by stairway.

The shops are on a ridge, with houses falling away down the hill each side. Most houses, hotels and pensions have been built on to the face of caves which continue as rooms within.  Many caves have no additions and operate as storage areas. Long ago, when no longer used for hiding humans, most caves were closed in to become pigeon coops from which farmers harvested droppings to fertilise their crops.

Cappa balloon flight
Our home for four nights, Tafoni Cave Hotel, is at the bottom of the castle hill on the sunrise side. It was completed in 2006, offering 13 contemporary roomy suites, all different in format, that have been adapted to caves. The walls and ceilings of some rooms are of original caves.

A classy, 4-Star style property, it offers a range of balcony lounges (ideal for a late afternoon cold beer) over four levels as well as a large lawn garden forecourt which is an alternative dining area to the indoor restaurant. Pride of place out front is a well established mulberry tree, the fruit of which produces jam for breakfast.

In front of the hotel, village life passes by: a communal running water spout under a large willow provides fresh water to anyone who needs it; clunking old red tractors and small cc motor bikes pass by on their way up the hill opposite to farm plots beyond; a dawdling truck inches its way towards the village, its driver and boy passenger hawking their cargo of potatoes; and a calf on a lead is exercised by its owner who pens the animal in a nearby cave.

World traffic balance is restored when an occasional tourist coach makes its way up the same hill for a five-minute view back to us, the castle and village ...  and another selfie opportunity.

The hotel becomes an ideal away-from-it-all retreat after days occupied by a stunning sunrise hot air balloon ride (80 balloons took off on our ride), visiting the phallic Fairy Chimneys, open air museum and underground cities, walking through Red Valley, visiting a 13th century hotel on the Silk Road, obligatory tours to ceramic and carpet manufacturers and the sensational exfoliation of sun-damaged skin in a Turkish bath in Goreme.

The village at evening is even more relaxed.  There must have been other travellers staying in Ortahisar's nine cave hotels but none were seen.

At the sunset viewing Ortahisar Evi restaurant near the "castle", our host persuades us to try a dish of meat and vegetables cooked in and eaten from a type of mini wok which revealed an amusing aside. Akin to Japan's "just-in-time" supply philosophy, a young staffer sprints away to buy freshly cooked bread and retrieve chicken and lamb from a refrigerator somewhere else. Our host disappears too but returns quickly with a selection of local wine he apparently sourced from his cellar, another cave.

We had experienced Cappadocia from above the ground, under the ground and on the ground.

When departing Tafoni Cave Hotel, softly-spoken manager Halit Celik poured water on the pavement behind us, a Turkish tradition signifying a swift and smooth-flowing journey.

It was a befitting warm gesture.

The writer funded his own Turkey travels, organised by Global Travel Services.

November 25, 2014

Athens cruise transfers fair dinkum

TRUE Blue and proud of it: Dimitri (left) and Aki on a hill overlooking
Athens with one of their Mercedes proudly displaying an Aussie kangaroo. (Deep Blue Tours)


David Ellis

THE internet has certainly made it all rather wondrous the way we can now search out and book someone to meet us with a car at our plane, and take us straight to our hotel, cruise ship or wherever in overseas places we've never visited before.

And all without need for fighting with luggage to get aboard unfamiliar airport trains or buses, or to deal with questionable cowboy cabbies. Yet it can also at times be something of a minefield of communications misunderstandings, language mix-ups and worse still, plain outright being taken for a ride – but not the short ride we thought we had booked.

Fancy a Cruise? Get these brochures for free

November 24, 2014

Struth! New Eurostar up to speed

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that while we think we're rocketing along when our XPT trains crank up to 160km/h on the run from Sydney to Melbourne, Eurostar that links London with a widening area of Europe has just ordered seventeen new trains that will have a top speed of 320kmh – exactly double that of our XPTs.

And these appropriately-named e320s will offer more space around each of their 900 seats than current Eurostar high-speed expresses, be brighter and lighter, will have WiFi connectivity and power outlets at each seat, increased luggage storage… and Business Class passengers will get the bonus of USB sockets.

The new trains that are costing one-billion British Pounds (around AU$1.8b) will start going into service in late 2015 to cater for continually-growing demand for high-speed rail in Europe – since beginning services 20 years ago, Eurostar has carried over 150-million passengers including 10-million last year alone.

And it's widening its core routes from London to Paris, Brussels, Lille, the French and Swiss Alps and Geneva, by beginning services next May to Provence by way of Lyon, Avignon and Marseilles, and in 2016 to Amsterdam via Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport.

Eurostar trains have buffet cars for snacks and bar drinks for Standard Class passengers (and you've also the option to BYO,) and at-seat service for Premier Class; consider all that next time you're queuing at the airport for your economy seat.

For more information on rail travel in Europe, visit

November 10, 2014

Struth! Santa Claus the protector



IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that with seating for a mere six, this little chapel on a rocky islet off Hydra Island in Greece has to be amongst the tiniest and most picturesque in the world.


Snapped from mega motor-cruiser SeaDream I as it sailed last month from Athens to Rome, the chapel was built in the early 19th century by a prominent Hydra-based family involved with the sea, and named St Nicholas Chapel after the Patron Saint of Greece – and it's Protector of sailors and seamen.


The unique St Nicholas Organisation that promotes everything to do with the Saint from saving lives to Santa Claus, says that with almost every family in the Aegean Islands having a connection in some way with the sea, many of the wealthier in the past built chapels like this one throughout the islands.


It was so that, in the event of family members being endangered at sea, prayers could be offered with the promise of placing a tiny model or plaque of their ship made out of wood, silver or even gold in these chapels in thanks to St Nicholas for the family member's survival and safe return home.


Called tamata, these promised offerings were then laid before an icon of St Nicholas in the chapels by the saved seamen, and locals on Hydra say they've seen a number of these in the remote and picturesque St Nicholas chapel.  (More information St Nicholas and his achievements,  and for SeaDream Yacht Club's 2015 year Mediterranean sailings go to )


THEY SAID IT: Wood burns faster when you have to cut and chop it yourself. (Harrison Ford.)






[] TINY St Nicholas Chapel on a rocky islet off Hydra Island, Greece – one of the world's smallest and most picturesque chapels. (David Ellis)

[] PLAQUES like this are called tamata and offered to St Nicholas in little chapels like that on the islet off Hydra Island, in thanks for having saved endangered seafarers.



This abandoned resort in Germany never opened


David Ellis

ITS taken 75 years but work's underway on getting guests into the world's biggest and most bizarre resort whose extraordinarily 100 six-storey blocks to house a mind-blowing 20,000 holidaymakers stretch 4km along a beach on the Baltic Sea, and have lain largely deserted since being built three-quarters of a century ago.

And it was built not by some massive multi-national resort or hotel company – but by Adolf Hitler.

Begun in 1936, the sprawling resort along a magnificent white-sand beach on the island of Rügen, was the first of five that Hitler fashioned along the lines of Britain's Butlins Holiday Camps to offer affordable holidaying for German workers.

Called Seebad (Seaside) Prora and completed in 1939, it never officially opened to guests as Hitler invaded Poland and WWII began just weeks before the first holidaymakers were to check-in. And weirdly it's been basically empty since, apart from several rooms converted into holiday flats some years ago, a 400-bed youth hostel the local council opened in several blocks in 2011, a little warts-and-all museum of the Nazi era, and a small off-beat art gallery that's been dubbed "Beatnik Berlin" – that ironically is the exact free-expression type thing that Hitler's Nazis so vehemently hated.

Hitler's concept for Prora was three-fold: he would use thousands of the worryingly huge mass of unemployed in 1936 to build it, it would provide cheap and affordable holidaying for Germany's working classes – and although promoted as a 'Seaside Resort for the Common Man,' daytime activities would be largely orchestrated with Nazi-approved exercise programs, 'educational' courses that pushed the Nazi cause, and night-time 'entertainment' that would be pure Nazi propaganda.

The enormity of the resort, dubbed by locals The Colossus, numbs the mind. All 100 of the six-storey blocks, which are in turn grouped into eight larger major wings, are inter-connected by corridors up to 1.6km long, requiring an hour to walk from the first block to the last. Prora was to offer over 10,000 rooms, all exactly alike and measuring 5m by 2.5m with central heating, two single beds, a wardrobe and a hand sink, and all facing the sea just 150m away – with vast communal shower and toilet facilities and the inter-connecting corridors on the inland side of all 100 blocks.

There were also cinemas, swimming pools, a school for children of resort staff, a hospital, a ballroom for each of the eight wings, vast dining rooms that could each seat a thousand at a sitting, a post office, and a huge jetty for another of Hitler's ideas – a 2-ship cruise fleet that sailed the Mediterranean under his Strength Through Joy propaganda organisation from 1937 to supposedly reward German workers, but in truth to brainwash them.

One project never completed at Seebad Prora, however, was a massive meeting hall that would seat all 20,000 happy campers at one time for more Nazi propaganda lectures and programs.

After the war, the island of Rügen became a part of the 'Russian sector' and Prora taken over by the Russian Army which occupied, and largely stripped it, over ten years to 1955.

Now two wings have been sold by the government and are being converted by separate developers – not like Hitler's concept for workers, but as the best of luxury hotel rooms and private apartments.

And in one of the finest locations on the Baltic. For here the sea is virtually tideless and most times resembles more a calm lake than the open ocean, the region enjoys temperatures warmer than the North Sea for summer holidaying, and Seebad Prora stretches along one of Rügen's finest beaches.

And while all its guest rooms face the ocean, huge stands of vegetation have grown up over the past 75 years blocking such views, but both developers have permission to thin these to once again give spectacular outlooks from their new luxury digs

When the first blocks went to auction they sold for E2.8m (approx. AU$4m and three times the reserve,) with the buyer currently converting them to a 400 room luxury hotel and several hundred luxury apartments that will all open in 2015. The second developer bought a smaller number of blocks and is converting these to sixty luxury apartments, also to open next year.

Prices will range from AU$200,000 to a near AU$1m each.



[] FROM the air just-three of Prora's eight wings give some idea of the enormity of the resort. (Rügen Tourism)

[] ANOTHER view of just-part of the one-hundred blocks stretching over 4km. (Yahoo)

[] GOING forever, inter-connecting corridors could be over 1.6km in length. (WikiMedia)

[] DAYTIME activities under Hitler's plan would have included Nazi-approved exercise classes like these. (German National Archives)

[] PRORA has been totally trashed over its three-quarters of a century laying idle. (WikiMedia)

[] ALL that remains of one of the many dining rooms for up to 1000 at a sitting. (CivFanatics)

November 09, 2014

Struth! Holy Gotham City Batman


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says an old mate who has been a near life-long devotee of Batman and Robin comics and movies, has not been the same since doing a tour earlier this year of the Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, California.


Because he'd always thought that those who played The Caped Crusader and his juvenile side-kick in the first Batman movies in the 1960s really did scale the outsides of tall buildings for the sake of Saturday afternoon movie-going kids like himself.


Thus he was horrified to see on his movie-lot tour how it was really done – and that was by having the crime-fighting duo supposedly "scaling tall buildings"… by merely having them crawling along a wall-like structure laid flat and safely on the studio floor.


Furthermore a picture of the supposed skyscrapers of Gotham City around them was actually projected horizontally on a screen behind them, and while Batman's cape looked like it was hanging street-wards from his shoulders as he appeared to be climbing vertically, it was simply pulled horizontally from off-screen.


Finally to complete the trick, the movie camera was mounted at 90-degrees to the norm.


(The Warner Bros Studios tour also showcases original Batman and Robin costumes, props, artworks and the famous Bat-Cave.)


THEY SAID IT: The only reason they say "women and children first" is to test the strength of the lifeboats. (Jean Kerr)




[] TRICKS of Hollywood… Batman and Robin fake scaling a tall building (and note Batman's cape.) (ComicsAlliance)

Canada's Klondike characters shoot to fame


David Ellis

BACK in the days of Canada's Klondike gold rush, few could match the flamboyance of Arizona Charlie Meadows who, when audiences seemed bored in his Grand Opera House in Dawson City, would put on impromptu performances with a 6-gun – shooting cigarettes out of his wife's lips or glass balls from between her thumb and forefinger a stage-width's away.

It was a great way of bringing instant life back to the audience, until one night he shot off one of his wife's fingertips, at which time she declared enough was enough.

The Grand Opera was but one of Arizona Charlie's business ventures that ranged from spectacularly rewarding to disastrous – and quite often the latter, as his background had been trick-riding, bull-roping and sharp-shooting in Wild West shows alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, not commerce.

In the early 1890s he also brought a Wild West troupe to Australia to perform with a circus here; the circus went broke, but Charlie honoured his troupe's commitments.

Standing over 2m tall, Arizona Charlie Meadows was your minds-eye Wild West showman, having chest-length hair that flowed from under a broad-brimmed hat, a voluminous moustache, and forever sporting a trademark red bandana and fringed buckskin jacket.

When gold was discovered in the Klondike in the 1890s, Charlie headed off with his wife Mae and a dozen mates on a trek from San Francisco to Skagway… taking with them 200 burros (small donkeys) loaded-up with food and building supplies for a planned get-rich-quick scheme on the new goldfields.

It proved one of his Great Disasters: along the way a glacier 'calved' and swept away most of his burros and their loads, at another point humans and animals alike almost froze to death after being trapped in snow, and finally his remaining California warm-weather burros simply died of the cold; Arizona Charlie, his wife and backers gave up on reaching Skagway, and eventually stumbled into what was to become Dawson City in December 1897.

There, he quickly invested in a number of gold claims that had been staked-out by others who didn't have the money for equipment to develop them; it gave him quick reward, and getting back his investment – and more – he decided the town needed a newspaper.

So he launched the Klondike News that he filled with paid advertisements… and 'feel good' stories that many folks with shadier backgrounds paid to have appear in print as a reflection of their newly-acquired 'civic status.' It earned Arizona Charlie US$50,000 (over US$1m in today's terms,) and he never even gave thought to a second edition.

Charlie put much of the money into building his Grand Opera House that was a combination of palatial European theatre and flashy American music hall. But because of its design, patrons had to access performances by first running the gauntlet of his saloon in the foyer, and which a local journal criticised as "patronised by boisterous men spitting, smoking, swearing, drinking and gambling… a not at-all comfortable environment for civilised theatre-going ladies to have to pass through."

And when unable to find appropriate concert-style seats for his Opera House, Charlie Meadows provided his audience with 500 high-backed kitchen chairs; uncomfortable as they were, his First Night audience in July 1899 paid up US$12,000 (in today's terms around US$286,000.)

Realising he needed more than opera, Arizona Charlie put on concerts and theatrical shows as well, and appeared on stage nightly as a combo MC and Wild West showman, introducing such bizarre alternatives as dancing bears, performing dogs, acrobats, knife-throwers, tumblers, magicians and doing some trick-shooting himself.

But when the local gold boom crashed and the population fell from 16,000 in 1898 to just hundreds in 1901, Arizona Charlie sold his Opera House for a mere one-third its original cost.

It then faced a mixed future under names including The Savoy, The Auditorium, Nugget Dance Hall and today the Palace Grand Theatre. It is now owned by Parks Canada – after having been knocked-down in dilapidated condition some years ago and rebuilt with renovated original materials – and offers a variety of shows, performances and historic theatre tours (see

FOOTNOTE: Arizona Charlie Meadows died back in his namesake home-State in1932 while operating on his own varicose veins with a pocket knife.



[] CANADA'S Dawson City, stepping off point to the 1890s Yukon gold rush; although called a City, it is today a town of little over 1000 residents. (YukonInfo)

[] BUILT on a mudflat, Dawson City in the gold rush could be a hell-hole. (WikiPedia)

[] ARIZONA Charlie Meadows, flamboyant Wild West showman who had his share of business ups and downs. (Yukon News)

[] THE Palace Grand Theatre today after being demolished and rebuilt to original plans using renovated original materials. (YukonInfo)

[] CAMP of gold rush hopefuls waiting to move out by ferry closer to the gold fields. (WikiMedia.)

[] LONG walk to the top: hopeful miners form an unbroken line over the snow-covered mountains from Dawson City to the gold fields. (Canadian National Archives)

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