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.

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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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