October 27, 2014

A new life for SS United States


David Ellis

A LONG-RUNNING maritime saga in the USA is expected to come to an end in just weeks – possibly even in only days – but in so doing, delivering to the victor no jewelled prize, instead simply the rusting hulk of a once-proud ocean liner that's not seen a guest aboard in a near half-century.

And which at the most-conservative of estimates, will then cost them upwards of US$300,000,000 to put to any feasible commercial use.

That corroding, largely-stripped, and now bedraggled-looking ghost of a ship is the SS United States, a 1950's ocean-going greyhound that set trans-Atlantic speed records that have not been beaten to this day, and which has lain forlornly empty alongside a pier in Philadelphia for 18 years.

Fighting for its future are the SS United States Conservancy that owns the 302m liner (990ft,) but which is fast running out of money to keep her tied-up in Philadelphia let alone restore her, and two other groups who each claim to be on the cusp of getting their hands on millions to snatch her up if the Conservancy goes under – The SS United States Redevelopment Project, and business advisory company The Binnacle Group.

The SS United States was the revolutionary brainchild in the late 1940s of American naval architect William Francis Gibbs who, to reduce weight and so gain the most speed from her massive 240,000 shaft-HP engines, used lightweight aluminium wherever possible to replace conventional heavy steel.

And for safety against fire, no timber to the point that even furnishings were made from aluminium, glass and fire-resistant fibre-glass, and with fabrics from carpets to tablecloths equally fire-resistant. (The only major timber items aboard were, in fact, the several Steinway grand pianos… and a half-tonne butcher's chopping block in the galley.)

And so impressed was the Pentagon (for this was the time of the Cold War) with the promised speed of the new ship – and how quickly she could be converted from 1,900-passenger luxury liner to troopship that could carry 15,000 personnel 16,000kms without refuelling – that it put up two-thirds of the whopping US$78m construction cost.

Then on her maiden voyage in July 1952, the United States with 1,600 guests and 900 crew aboard did the seemingly impossible: she sped across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at an average 32 knots (59kph.) In doing so she slashed 10 hours off the best time ever by rival liner Queen Mary, and established that still-standing trans-Atlantic record.

Over the next seventeen years the United States made more than 400 return-Crossings from New York to Southampton or Europe, and scores of holiday-cruise voyages as well, listing amongst her repeat guests American Presidents and European heads of State, England's Duke and Duchess of Windsor, giants of industry and commerce, and countless film stars from both sides of the Atlantic.

Guests, who after dining on the finest First Class cuisine in her silver-service dining rooms, would dance bejewelled and in tuxedos and ball gowns in the vast ballroom to the music of maestros like Duke Ellington...

But the advent of jet aircraft that could cross the Atlantic in hours rather than days spelled her doom, and rapidly losing money she was ingloriously pulled from service in 1969. The SS United States Conservancy bought her in 2011 from Norwegian Cruise Line for US$3m in the hope of converting her for use as a floating hotel, convention centre, museum and shopping complex in New York City – much like the successful Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.

But all it's managed has been to pay $60,000 a month in mooring, insurance and government fees in Philadelphia…

The Conservancy says it now has to decide within weeks whether to fight on, or to sell the hulk (that's been stripped of furnishings, lighting, precious metals and even some walls and asbestos insulation) – with the other two contenders, who envisage converting her for similar future use as the Conservancy's, watching ready-to-pounce from the sidelines.

One of them, like the Conservancy, has New York in mind as United States' new home, but the other is looking at moving her downstream to nearby Chester on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania to boost tourism and generate 2000 new jobs there

Watch this space….



[] MARITIME greyhound: the SS United States set a speed record across the Atlantic in 1952 that stands to this day. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] TODAY, United States is a forlorn sight laid-up pier-side in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Tourism)

[] THIS was considered the epitome of cruise ship dining ambience in the 1950s. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] THE one-time First Class Dining Hall is a sadder sight today. (Chandra Lampreicht)

[] ORIGINAL photo of a United States cabin in the 1950s. (Philadelphia Tourism)

[] REGULAR guests in her hey-day, England's Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
(Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] MONACO'S Prince Rainier and his American actress wife, Grace Kelly were other regular royals aboard United States. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

Struth! It's a dog's life

 IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says pets are increasingly being treated to pampering in top-flight hotels that can range from caviar for dinner, to physiotherapy, massages, facials, mud baths and nutrition consultations.

One European hotel already has part of its 5-star restaurant set aside for guests to dine there with their pets, while another offers a 'play meadow' with an expert dog trainer, canine physiotherapy options, massages, lymphatic drainage, laser treatment, and nutrition and detox programs.

In a recent survey of over 8000 guests world-wide, Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLHW) was surprised to find some guests in China wanted their dogs to be offered Iberian pata negra ham or caviar for dinner, while in the USA a guest requested daily blueberry facials for their pooch, and another asked if their cat could be taken to the local zoo by a staff member – for a bird-watching session.

And in the UK one guest suggested pets be given personal butlers, while in Australia a couple here came up with what we think is the most-bizarre of requests: when they had to spend time away from the hotel, they wanted an SLHW staff member "to spend the day with our Burmese cat telling her how beautiful she is."

THEY SAID IT: America is the only country in the world where a significant proportion of the population believes that professional wrestling is for real, but that the moon landing was faked. (David Letterman)


[] PAMPERED pooches lap it up at this 5-star hotel. (BSNews)


October 25, 2014

Struth! Thanks a million - Bundanoon bands together

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that although it's got a population of a little over 3000, the NSW Southern Highlands village of Bundanoon holds an annual event that's the envy of many another when it comes to local charity, volunteer and community-group fund-raising.

Because it's annual Bundanoon is Brigadoon in the past 33 years has raised a mind-boggling $1m-plus for such groups.

The biggest Highland Gathering in Australia, Brigadoon attracts on average 12,000 visitors – four times Bundanoon's population – for everything Scottish from massed pipe marching bands to caber tossing, "knights in armour" engaging in mock fighting, Scottish Country and Highland dancing, strongmen lifting competitions, water-filled balloon hurling and fresh-egg tossing and catching, and events for wee lads and lasses.

Plus arts and crafts stalls, a Scottish ancestry help centre… and yet others offering more-ish Scots mutton pies, drop scones, fresh-baked Highland shortbreads, Abernethy biscuits, gingerbreads, butterscotches, and blood pudding and haggis.

Proceeds from the day go back to those charity, volunteer and community groups who help put it all together and run it, including the local Rural Fire Brigade, SES, schools, sporting groups, Scouts and Guides, and the massed bands that come from other parts of NSW.

In the past 33 years this has amounted to an enviable $1,073,401; Bundanoon is Brigadoon will next be held on April 11 2015.

THEY SAID IT: HOME cooking. Where many a man thinks his wife is. (Jimmy Durante)

October 20, 2014

Struth! Cowboy's tall tales

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that in October 1940 the world mourned the loss of silent movie star Tom Mix who died in bizarre circumstances in a car crash in Arizona.

At one stage earning up to US$17,500 a week (about $240,000 today,) Mix made 291 full-length movies, with his Press Agent promoting him as a genuine cowboy, and a Wild West hero who'd fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War, and had been a Sheriff, a U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger…

Cowboy Tom Mix and his Cord

While he'd once been a ranch cowboy that was about it: in truth Tom Mix was an Army deserter who simply walked off-camp one day and never returned, and was a drum major in a Cavalry Band in Oklahoma before heading to Hollywood to try his luck there in 1909. When sound movies arrived, he had difficulty making the transition and appeared in only nine before exiting stage left.

Visitors to Florence in Arizona today can see a 60cm high iron statue of a riderless horse next to a dry creek bed in which Mix crashed his V8 Cord Phaeton sports car on October 12 1940 – after he'd swung off the road at speed to avoid a wash-away, and an aluminium suitcase on the backseat had speared forward breaking his neck and crushing his skull.

That "Suitcase of Death" is on display at the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma.

THEY SAID IT: I'm not a paranoid, deranged millionaire. God dammit, I'm a billionaire.
(Howard Hughes)

Attenborough's hero stuffed hoax animals

CHARLES Waterton, eccentric yet far-seeing conservationist.
ANOTHER creation satirically titled 'John Bull and the National Debt.'
HEAD of the crocodile Charles Waterton captured by 'grabbing its front legs
   and riding it into submission.'
WATERTON'S mansion on an island in an 11ha lake is now a luxury hotel.

David Ellis

SHOW us a television viewer who reckons they're not intrigued by the exploits of English naturalist Sir David Attenborough, and we'll show you someone who, shall we say, tells fibs.

Attenborough turned bird and animal life in the wild into compulsory viewing, with programs that were at the one time riveting, educational, droll and witty.

So it is hardly surprising that he lists among his heroes an Englishman who explored the jungles of South America in the early- to mid-1800s, yet who looked at wildlife with the jaundiced, satirical eye of a modern-day newspaper cartoonist.

That man was Charles Waterton – or Squire Waterton as he was known to neighbours around his family home, Walton Hall near Wakefield in Yorkshire. "He was a very important and extraordinary figure," Attenborough once recalled. "And even if quite eccentric, was at the same time a far-seeing conservationist.

"He was also double-jointed, so if you went to visit him you might well have been welcomed by him standing on one leg while using the foot of his other to scratch the back of his head."

Stories about Waterton's eccentricity abound… right back to his schooldays at a Jesuit establishment called Stonyhurst College in the Ribble Valley of Lancashire, where he was given the task of resident rat-catcher and fox-hunter due to his deadly accuracy with a cross-bow.

In fact he culled so many foxes, that most of his fellow pupils enjoyed free fur hats to keep their heads warm during the Ribble Valley's cold, wet winter months.

And showing his love of adventure, on a school trip to the Vatican, Waterton climbed a tall tower near St Peters and left his cap there to prove he had achieved the feat. According to folklore, when the Pope expressed his displeasure, Waterton scaled the dizzyingly high tower once more to retrieve it.
WATERTON'S most famous odd-ball creation:
the backside of a monkey fashioned to resemble the face
of Britain's dreary Secretary to the Treasury.

And as an adult, if dinner parties at Walton Hall began to dull, he would slip under the table, start barking like a dog and bite guests' ankles.

In 1804, at the age of 22, Charles Waterton travelled to British Guiana (now Guyana) to take charge of his uncle's estates near Georgetown, a task that fired up his interest in wildlife. For years he explored the rainforests, collecting birds and small animals and shipping them home to the world's first wildlife sanctuary that he'd established at Walton Hall.

He also taught himself a unique style of taxidermy, shaping the skins of specimens around an empty shell rather than stuffing them. They included a large-ish crocodile he'd captured in Guyana by grabbing its front legs and riding it into exhausted submission.

He also created bizarre 'hoax' animals that he fashioned using pieces from different beasts. These included a piece he satirically titled 'John Bull and the National Debt.' It was formed from a porcupine in a tortoise shell being attacked by six devil-like creatures – while his most-famous piece, 'Nondescript' was made from the backside of a monkey fashioned to resemble the face of Britain's dreary Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Lushington who constantly slapped exorbitant import duties on Waterton's specimens.

Waterton's brother Edward migrated to Australia and bought land near Port Macquarie in NSW but never actually lived there, and after also spending a couple of years in New Zealand returned to Sydney and finally sailed back to England – taking with him as presents for his brother's wildlife sanctuary two live emus, a kangaroo and a squirrel.

Edward Waterton died during the voyage, and Charles was so distraught he gave the Australian animals away, saying "Without my brother, those animals would have increased my sorrow."

Charles Waterton was still climbing and pruning tall trees on his estate at 80 years of age, and after such an active life died in a simple accident in 1865 just short of his 83rd birthday: he tripped over a tree root and suffered internal injuries.

Many of his odd-ball creatures can be seen in a museum opened in Wakefield last year, including the crocodile he had ridden in Guyana and the famous 'Nondescript.' Others are at his old school Stonyhurst.

His manor house that's on an island within a picturesque 11ha lake is now a luxury hotel, and guests can walk the splendid grounds of Squire Waterton's once-wildlife sanctuary. Details www.watertonparkhotel.co.uk

(All images courtesy of Wakefield Museum & Library)

October 13, 2014

Australia's first undercover cop revealed



David Ellis

FOR those with a fascination for whodunits, an exhibition called Breakers: The Dying Art of Safe Breaking that opens at Sydney's Justice & Police Museum this month, will give a captivating introduction to Australia's undoubtedly most extraordinary police officer ever – our first under-cover operative, Frank 'The Shadow' Fahy.

For thirty years Fahy lived an-almost Boy's Own Adventure lifestyle of constant disguises from tramp and drunk, to fruit barrow-boy and travelling knife-sharpener. He even lived out of the side-car of a disguised police motor-cycle on occasion, as he mingled amongst crooks from the petty to the most notorious to help bring about their downfall.

And it's said Frank Fahy was the model for Agent 13, the CONTROL agent forever staked-out in cigarette machines, clothes lockers, garbage bins and fire hydrants, in Mel Brookes' classic Get Smart – after tales of The Shadow's bizarre exploits were revealed and flashed around the world's Press on his retirement in 1952…

It was a gang of safe-breakers from Italy, Giovanni Lucci, Alberto Borri and Geioli Martini whose raid on the Union Bank in Sydney in August 1926 was thwarted by The Shadow, that the Justice & Police Museum features in its new exhibit.

After a series of raids on banks in 1926, Frank Fahy disguised as a vagrant, hung around a near-city factory complex and watched the three Italian suspects hand-making tools he believed were for safe-breaking. None of the trio suspected the dishevelled "vagrant" wandering in and out of the factories was in fact a police officer, and one day Fahy heard them mention renting an office above the Union Bank in Castlereagh Street.

He quickly informed his seniors, and when police raided that office several nights later, they found a hole cut in the floor – and the gang working on the safe in the bank below. All were arrested, served three years in prison, and Lucci and Martini were deported back to Italy on release.

Frank Fahy was a probationary constable in the 1920s when a Sergeant (later Police Commissioner) William MacKay had the idea of using undercover officers to replace not-always trustworthy civilian informers. MacKay chose Fahy as his prototype "shadow officer," because slim and just 73kg (11 stone 7 pounds) he hardly cut the burly copper image.

Fahy quickly fell into the role, mostly dressing down as unkempt and dishevelled, shaving irregularly and easily mixing with others who lived on the streets, as well as on-the-run bank-robbers, drug-dealers, burglars, prison escapees and even murderers. So much so that he was often told to "move on" by uniformed police, and even received a "warning bashing" by an over-zealous detective said to have "had the biggest hands in the Force…"

He gave himself the street name Jimmy Perkins and on occasion carried around a dummy cockatoo in a cage, further convincing everyone he was befriending – including notorious bank-robber and serial prison escapee Darcy Dugan, sly-grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh and major brothel operator Tilly Devine – that he was simply a harmless madman.

And he dreamed-up such bizarre accessories to assist his work as a 4m long periscope to look into upstairs windows, and a unique double-sided suit for when tailing suspects: if he thought they feared they were being followed by a man in a blue suit, he would find somewhere to quickly whip it off, turn it inside out, re-dress and throw them off-guard as "someone else" in a grey suit…

The Shadow spent long periods away from home, getting around and spying on criminals in the pride of his collection of gadgets and gizmos – a police motor-cycle with sidecar that had been given a souped-up engine and muffled exhaust, but also deliberately battered-up and with a drab paint job that bore signs "SCISSORS GROUND," and with which he could trail the fastest of quarries unsuspected.

And he would spend hours curled up in a foetal position in the covered sidecar watching and photographing those he was staking-out…

Frank 'The Shadow' Fahy spent 30 years in his amazing undercover role, retiring in 1952. He died in 1978 aged 82.

Breakers: The Dying Art of Safe Breaking opens at the Sydney Justice & Police Museum, corner of Albert and Phillip Streets, Circular Quay, on October 18. Details: info@sydneylivingmuseums.com.au


[] RARE photograph of Frank 'The Shadow' Fahy who spent 30 amazing years as Australia's first undercover police officer; the book by Vince Kelly about his extraordinary life was published in 1954. (Craig Stanton)

[] FRANK Fahy in his official uniform which he seldom wore. (Justice & Police Museum)

[] SAFEBREAKER Giovanni Lucci: 'The Shadow's' clever undercover work trapped Lucci and his gang robbing the Union Bank in Sydney in 1926. (State Records NSW)

[] WRENCH used by Giovannia Lucci and his Italian gang to try to break into the Union Bank's safe – 'The Shadow' Frank Fahy had seen them making the tool while he posed as a drunken vagrant regularly wandering past their factory. (Jessica Maurer for Sydney Living Museums)

[] BIZARRE photo published in Sydney newspapers at the behest of Police in 1933 to show that detectives didn't need to look like typical burly coppers. Frank 'The Shadow' Fahy is 3rd from right. (NSW Police Forensic Photography Archives, Sydney Living Museums)


Struth! Quantum of the Seas makes history - backwards

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says one of Germany's biggest shipyards is an amazing 42km inland, so ships that have been built there since 1795 have had to make the long slow and winding journey all that way downriver through fields and farmlands to the open sea.

And they do it backwards, because it's easier for tugs to manoeuvre them that way.

Meyer Werft has been building ships at its inland yard for over 200 years to avoid the impact wild North Sea storms can have on those yards on the coast, the latest being Quantum of the Seas for Royal Caribbean International that launched just last month.

At 168,666 tonnes and with berths for 4,900 passengers, it was the biggest ship ever to make its journey down the River Ems from the Meyer Werft yard. In places there was just over one metre leeway between ship and shore, in others power lines had to be re-routed because of the vessel's enormous size, and even bridges removed in others – including one carrying the main railway line linking Germany with Holland.

Quantum of the Seas cost US$1b and is now in Holland for sea trials. It will begin its cruising career with a sailing from America to the Caribbean in November.

THEY SAID IT: YOU can't build a reputation on what you're going to do. (Henry Ford)

October 09, 2014

Is it Safe to Visit Jordan?

We Meet At The Olive Tree

By Jon Killpack

Bombarded daily by images of a violent interpretation of Islam, Islamophobia is digging deeper into many Western nations.

Fear creates a chasm of distrust that keeps us far from one another. Even before we look across to the other side, we associate the other with the images we’ve seen on the news. We assume ill intent; “They want to harm us.”

When the only thing crossing that rift are weapons, we need an alternative.

Our suggestion: Have a real experience with a Muslim. Take back the ground that fear has settled into. You may be unsure if now is the time to travel in the Middle East. As an American currently living in Jordan, I can say that while the Western media often clumps it in their discussions of a tumultuous region, Jordan remains a safe destination full of welcoming people.

This Fall, Westerners and Arabs are together taking back some of that ground. Shoulder to shoulder, they will be hand harvesting olives on a local Jordanian farm. The olive branch has long symbolized peace. When we join in the symbolic gesture of picking olives side-by-side, we bridge a gap that has kept us from trusting one another. When we commit to compassionately identifying with others and make ourselves available to have real experiences with Muslims, we take back ground that was given to fear.

After picking olives together, we share a lunch with our hosts and enter into an Arabic tradition, the “bread and salt” contract: if we have eaten together we have become friends; I will stand with you when problems arise.

If you are hungry for inspiration instead of fear, we invite you to gather around a tree and hand pick olives with local Arabs.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” – Rumi

Source: Engaging Cultures

World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism in Panama

Celebrating the Centennial of the Panama Canal

October 28 – November 5, 2014 (9 days)

Download itinerary  Download Altruvistas booking form

Ethical Traveler and AltruVistas present World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism in Panama: Celebrating the Centennial of the Panama Canal, a journey to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal and to celebrate the country’s Independence Day. Along the way, we meet and speak with locals, NGOs and government organizations to gain a broad understanding of contemporary Panama’s economic and sustainable development policies that make this country one of Central America’s most stable and prosperous nations.

Renowned as one of the most complex engineering feats in the world, the completion of the Panama Canal in 1904 served as a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and greatly reduced passenger and cargo vessel sailing time while significantly increasing trade between the two hemispheres. A highlight of our journey is a full-day cruise on the Panama Canal, traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean on the same day. Additionally, we meet with representatives of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) to learn the complex political history of the Canal’s construction and its current and future development plans.

Leading up to the country’s Independence Day celebrations, we speak with local historians and groups to gain a first hand understanding of the city’s Spanish colonial history, independence from Columbia, and its emergence as a financial hub for the region. Some of the groups we’re scheduled to meet include, Arco Properties and San Felipe Inmobiliaria to learn about the master plan to restore and preserve Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Fundacion Calicanto’s CAPTA (Capacitacion para el Trabajo) project, a vocational program training local women for the hotel and tourism industry; and Aprojusan (Asosiacion Pro Juventud de San Felipe), an organization focused on social services for youth. Also on our agenda is a meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Tourism to discuss the impact of the tourism industry in Panama.

Our tour completes with a guided hike through Soberania National Park, a tropical rainforest bordering the Panama Canal watershed and visiting Fundacion Avifauna Eugene Eisenman Panama, home to almost 1,000 species of birds.

Co-sponsored* by Ethical Traveler and AltruVistas, World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism in Panama, Celebrating the Centennial of the Panama Canal, adheres to the highest responsible tourism practices and aims to support and economically benefit local communities we visit while concurrently promoting cross-cultural understanding between visitors and locals.

Tour Prices:

10-12 participants | $2810 per person

13-16 participants | $2700 per person

Single rooms are available for an additional $500. If you are a single traveler, we will try to match you with another solo traveler of the same sex for twin share accommodations.

Group Size:

10-16 participants

Register for tour:

Please download and complete AltruVistas’ booking form then return the completed registration form with your deposit to AltruVistas. If you have any questions about the tour or registration process, please contact Malia Everette.

For pictures of Ethical Traveler’s past trips, please visit Facebook page.

Source: Ethical Traveler

October 06, 2014

Struth! Great American Beer Festival a sell out

Beer Festival

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that when tickets went on sale for last weekend's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado all 50,000 sold out in 30 minutes.

In its 33rd year the Festival boasts of being the biggest celebration of beer in the United States, with 700 breweries giving away tens of thousands of 1oz tasting samples of many of the 3,500 labels of every conceivable type of beer that they were also selling in regular size glasses.

Many also hosted lecture sessions on brewing, history, beer-and-food matching and anything else to do with the amber stuff, including the opportunity to meet the brewers.

As well the American Homebrewer's Association that boasts 43,000 members, had a stand offering advice to novices and seasoned home-brewers alike on how to make a top-drop at home for fun and to save.

Although the Great American Beer Festival was held from Thursday to Saturday, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés, clubs and other drink outlets across Denver also hosted a huge range of events throughout the whole week… from beer dinners to rare beer tastings, beer and cheese and other food pairings – and at one place a full-on American breakfast fry-up with beer every midnight for the week.

Next year's Festival will be held from September 24-26; you must be a minimum 21 years of age with photo ID to attend.  

THEY SAID IT: As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder. (John Glenn)

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