July 22, 2015

Fishermen’s Harbour Urban Resort opening at Patong Beach


The Fishermen’s Harbour Urban Resort doesn’t officially open until Nov 1 which might have been the reason it was a little difficult to find despite six stories, 390 rooms and positioned a stones-throw from the shopping and partying hub of Patong Beach.

July 13, 2015

The River Cruise Revolution is Upon Us

What do you do when you have run out of oceans to explore? Why, head inland to the rivers, of course.

With all the chatter about river cruising going on in the travel media, you’d think it was the latest fad. Truth is, river cruising in Australia for pleasure has been with us for many decades, beginning around a hundred years ago when the great paddle steamers on the Darling and Murray Rivers stopped hauling wheat and wool and switched to picnic cruises.

Ryan Posa, General Manager of Cruise Sale Finder, is an old hand when it comes to the cruise industry, and has noticed the recent increased demand in a product that has been on the books for quite a while already. He says of the trend, "We've seen the interest in river cruising grow every year. The satisfying thing for our team is that it is such a wonderful cruise experience - our clients always have such a great time and come back with wonderful feedback on their holiday."

Today, the primary focus of river cruising is Europe, particularly the iconic waterways of the Rhine, Main and Danube. In the last few years, the rush to launch fancier and more luxurious boats (yes, river cruisers are called ‘boats’) has become a frenzy with the major operators adding several boats to their fleet annually. Cruise lines like Evergreen and Scenic are river cruise lines commonly seen on the watery highways of the Continent.

As a result, we’ve seen the quality of onboard accommodations soar, fine dining restaurants rivalling the best hotels become de rigeur and tours and activities on par with the leading bespoke land-based tour operators. But the feature drawing almost all converts to river cruising - and keeping them - is the same as that which wins over their big ship cousins, namely the ability to settle into your suite for a week or more, without having to pack and repack as the voyage progresses.

The busiest river in Europe for cruising, perhaps the world, is the Danube. And it’s easy to see why. Dotted along its length are many of the most famous and picturesque cities of Europe. Itineraries typically encompass excursions to Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Melk where the vessels can tie up to the cities’ wharfs. It is common too, for luxury coaches to shadow the boat as the voyage progresses, whisking guests away on effortless day tours to sights a short distance from the waterway, like the magnificent UNESCO-listed medieval city of Český Krumlov in the former Czechoslovakia.

Christmas cruise - Regensburg - Uniworld

Technically it is possible to travel the entire length of the Rhine-Main-Danube system, from the North Sea to the Black Sea and a handful of operators will offer this epic voyage over some three weeks duration. Starting at the famous Dutch port city of Amsterdam, the route covers 3500km past Bucharest in Romania to the Black Sea.

Elsewhere in Europe, the iconic Seine River of France takes cruisers on a journey through glorious vineyards and countryside of the Northern France, while on the Rhone River in the south, it is possible to cruise from the quaint Chalon-sur-Saone all the way to the Mediterranean Sea via such landmark cities as Lyon and ancient Avignon in Provence.

Even so, the European river experience does not end there. The tiny, but rich Douro River in Portugal as well as the mighty Volga in Russia are both increasingly popular destinations for determined river cruise enthusiasts from all over the world.

With the freshwater thoroughfares of Europe approaching capacity, creative river cruise companies are turning their attentions to rivers elsewhere in the world and one such waterway rapidly gaining favour is the famous Mekong River in Southeast Asia. From slow and sleepy beginnings over a decade ago, the big names in river cruising are flocking to the lower Mekong between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Phnom Penh to muscle their way onto a river that only a few years ago saw just a handful of laid-back, traditionally-styled vessels meandering from the delta to the vast Tonle Sap near Siem Reap.

The more creative cruise companies are now turning their sights to the upper Mekong in Laos and Thailand where relatively unexplored sections of the river remain. Historically it has not been possible to navigate from the lower to the upper Mekong because of a series of rocky and rapid sections near the Cambodian border, but plans have been proposed by the countries bordering the Mekong to build dams and navigation aids as well as hydroelectric plants. Both local farming communities and cruise operators have protested strongly against these projects, fearing devastating environmental side effects.

In the Americas, river cruising is well known on the world’s largest river, the Amazon. This massive river and its many tributaries combine to create the largest resource of freshwater in the world by far, more than the next seven largest rivers combined. The main canal from the Atlantic Ocean allows seagoing vessels access all the way to the largest city, Manaus, so cruising in that region can be a bit hectic.

Deep in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin in Ecuador and Peru, much smaller rivers feed the mighty stream from within the dense jungles. In the vast Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, evocatively named streams such as the Yarapa (turtle), Yanayacu (blackwater) and Ucayali (canoe-breaker) near the historic town of Iquitos are where the real adventures take place. Many safari-style jungle lodges are also in this region and are a great adjunct to any river cruise adventure.

In North America, two rivers feature large in the catalogs of river cruisers. The 3700km Mississippi naturally gains the lions share with the several legs between New Orleans and St Paul. There’s even a short cruise on the tributary Ohio River to Cincinnati. The massive 2012-launched Queen of the Mississippi leads the charge with several smaller vessels completing the Mississippi fleet.

In Washington State in the distant Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River hosts summer cruises from the unashamedly quirky city of Portland all the way to the Snake River in Idaho. Wildlife, great scenery and First Nation experiences are drawcards.

While the legendary Yangtze River in China has been radically transformed in recent years with the introduction of the Three Gorges Dam, cruises still operate year-round between the mountain city of Chongqing right through to the celebrated and historic port of Shanghai. Passing through the staggering structure and its multi-level lock system is something not easily forgotten.

And what of the future of river cruising? Always looking to fulfill the desires of their worldly clients, those companies at the forefront are looking to Africa as the next big river cruise destination. Of course, Nile River cruises are well established, but short, luxury safari cruises of around three days are also being offered on the Chobe River in southern Africa. The Chobe flows through Botswana and Namibia and into the Zambezi, meeting the main stream near Victoria Falls.

Way over on the western coast of the great continent, niche wildlife cruises run occasionally in the Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country surrounded by Senegal. But what of the Congo, Okavango and any of the dozens of other rich rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans? Watch this space... and in the meantime, why not book a river cruise itinerary while they’re on sale and see what the fuss is about

Struth! Million dollar slippers - Reward for Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz shoes

IN his continuing search for the more weird and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a mystery fan of Judy Garland and 1939's classic Wizard of Oz, has offered a US$1m reward (AU$1,341,500) for the return of the 5B sequined red slippers the star wore in the movie, and which were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota ten years ago next month.

The slippers were one of at least four pairs known to have been made in slightly different sizes to allow for the star's feet to swell during daily rehearsals and filming of the movie, and all of which had lain "lost" from 1939 until 1970 when MGM Studios workers found them while preparing for an auction of decade's old movie costumes and props.

And while "ruby slippers" in the movie, they were not covered with rubies but with hand-sewn sparkling rhinestones and sequins for Judy Garland to wear when Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy that to get home she must "close your eyes and tap your heels together three times, and think to yourself there's no place like home…"

The slippers for which the US$1m reward has just been offered by the anonymous obviously very devoted Judy Garland fan, were insured for US$1m but the Judy Garland Museum from which they were stolen ten years ago next month, say they could be worth up to three times that (just over AUS$4m) now.

[] THE famous Ruby Slippers on Judy Garland's feet in The Wizard of Oz, and missing since being stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota ten years ago next month. (MGM Studios)

July 12, 2015

Royal Enfield motorcycle rentals now available in Australia

It's a retro and regal ride aboard a Royal Enfield

Stop Press: The Conties are here! Shipment arrived along with new Classics and Bullets

"It’s more fun when you are dodging rickshaws, dogs, cows and chickens,” riding pal Keith tells me about his recent 12-day motorcycle tour through southern India aboard a classic Royal Enfield. He’s not kidding either. On a street somewhere in Goa he was nearly skewered by a kamikaze cockerel who took an instant dislike to him.

Keith, aboard a Classic in 'Desert Storm'.
With his tour guide in India
Let’s face it, you have to be pretty committed to sign up for two weeks in India on a motorcycle, yet Extreme Bike Tours have no trouble filling their two-wheeled expeditions there - or in Mongolia, Tibet or Bhutan.

Fortunately there are less taxing alternatives closer to home and with the arrival of America’s long-established EagleRider franchise in Australia, it’s now possible to ride locally on a superb Royal Enfield classic motorcycle.

When EagleRider Australia first opened their doors at Burwood, Sydney, in November 2013, their signature bike was the venerable Harley-Davidson. Their showroom was full of every type of ‘hog’ from zippy Sportsters to leisurely cruisers like the fabulous Electra Glide Ultra - akin to riding a 100hp sofa.

Last year four of us banded together and took a brace of Harleys out into NSW’s glorious central west, rounding up Wollongong, Goulburn, Bathurst and the Blue Mountains. It was a great week filled with open roads, wind in our helmets, oversize steaks and lots of bloke talk.

The exercise was made all the more easier by using using Best Western’s designated ‘Rider Friendly’ hotels and motels along the way.

Now that EagleRider have added the 100-year-old Royal Enfield brand to their stable, it’s easy to meet the pent-up demand and accommodate riders with less experience.

Extreme Bike Tours group ready to ride in India. Now set to launch in Australia with EagleRider.
"We'd been looking for a learner-legal motorcycle to complement the Harleys," Santina Keith, of EagleRider Australia told me, "Royal Enfield ticked all the boxes and we love them!"

Two glorious Classic 500s are in the Burwood showroom right now and a whole bunch are on their way from the factory in India, including a very sexy Continental GT cafe racer. In red of course.

So, I’m on the phone to Keith. “Let’s go for a ride,” I say and we’re both on the back of a Classic faster than you can say ‘cock-a-doodle-do’.

Writer aboard a Classic in tan
at EagleRider HQ
We head west along the familiar main roads, but delight in detouring via Agnes Banks and the back way into Springwood where we find a log fire and big burgers at the Orient Hotel.

“Hey mate! Is that your Enfield? That’s a great restoration.” I turn around and see three burly chaps in leather waistcoats looking at Keith and I.

“Actually, it’s brand new.”

This is common for our day out. Folks stopped and asked us what they were and where we bought them because even though the wonderful Classic 500 looks like an immaculate museum piece, the machinery is very much up-to-date.

The single-cylinder 500cc engine is fuel-injected, even though the intake is carefully disguised as an authentic-looking carburettor. The oversize bicycle-style seat is surprisingly comfy and there’s a disk brake up front. While there is an effortless electric starter, you can still impress onlookers by using the cool retro kicker and, needless to say, it sounds every bit 1950.

Continental GT cafe racer. Yep, that's what we thought.
You can hire one of these beauties from $150 a day, about $30 less than the smallest Harley-Davidson. A wonderful and nostalgic way to spend your Sunday in the open air. The biggest problem you’ll face is handing it back.

Call EagleRider to book a Royal Enfield on +612 9747 3064

July 06, 2015

Hervey Bay: The Whale Watching Capital of the World

Few people could deny watching whales in their natural habitat, anywhere in the world, is a special and emotional experience. Getting up close and personal with some of the world's largest animals is certainly awe-inspiring.

Eat your way around Mykonos

David Ellis

THERE'S little likelihood of going hungry on the idyllic little Greek Island of Mykonos whose main town, simply called Mykonos Town, has a waterfront that's a clutter of cheek-by-jowl restaurants, tavernas, bakeries and bars offering food and drink of a variety that leaves most of its million visitors a year agog.

And behind which lays a maze of cobblestoned streets crammed with tourists, locals, boutiques, fruit and vegetable stores, galleries, souvenir shops – and, yes, scores more restaurants, tavernas, bakeries and bars.

But we are here amid these seemingly countless eateries to seek out just one very specific place, in doing so fast realising how the folk of early Mykonos concerned themselves little with such trivialities as town planning.

Today's locals, however, are quick to assist the lost like ourselves with directions as to just where a business or address may be hidden amid this urban calamity – "go to the end of the street and just turn right," they'll happily advise (or "left" if that is perhaps the more appropriate.)

Unfortunately on arrival at the end of the street, we find that our one narrow alley now branches out into two or possibly three further little passageways like the fingers of a contorted hand in a roughly "right" or "left" direction.

So we have to consider just which may be the "right right" or the "right left." We persevere by asking more questions, and retracing our steps more than once, to eventually find ourselves at the doorway to what we are seeking: the tiny La Maison de Catherine, or as it is more simply known and identified with a sign above its pavement tables, Katrin Restaurant.

For it is here we want to learn if the menu still features any of the favourites of its two most famous regular guests – Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and the lady he was wooing in the 1960s and was to marry, Jackie Kennedy, widow of slain American President JFK.

Did the restaurant, we wonder, still have Jackie's favourite starters of baby squid stuffed with rice and Greek mountain spices? Or the garlic mushrooms? Or a soufflé unusually filled with cheese, prawns and squid?

Or for mains the speciality in those days of lamb leg with home-made mint sauce (served piled high on large wooden family-size trays when Ari and Jackie had guests,) or in season, lobster with pasta served in such proportions the couple would share one serving between them… and finish most nights with the signature house-made apple tartine with Calvados cream.

Yes, the menu that's a somehow mix of Greek and French cuisines, does still feature all. But while the kitchen is a-buzz and wait staff are busily prettying the place with fresh-cut flowers, sorry, they're unable to allow us even a sample taste before officially opening for dinner in two hours' time.

So sadly, with our cruise ship to Santorini awaiting, we step out from this quite small (for one so famous) eatery with its traditional Cycladic arches and whitewashed walls, and into the confusion of alleyways once more. But we do promise the friendly staff we will return some day, and will dine at the window-side corner table that was kept vacant for Jackie and Ari every night – no matter how busy the place was – in the event they should simply drop in.

If you're visiting Mykonos do seek out Katrin Restaurant in Ayios Gerasimos Street – it's not cheap, but certainly we're assured, well worth it.

And allow time also to explore Mykonos' colourful Little Venice, a harbour headland of the most picturesque 16th and 17th century whitewashed and painted houses whose balconies jut out over the waters, so that in days or yore, boats could unload direct into the homes of the traders who lived and worked along here.

And whose same balconies also lured pirates who would sweep in from the sea, leaping from boats to balconies to ransack these wealthy home businesses. Many savvy home-owners would appear to escape into the background maze of darkened alleyways, pirates foolish enough to give chase suddenly realising they had been lured into a deadly trap, and that it was now they who were the hunted rather than the hunter, with often fatal results…

For information about the many attractions of Mykonos today, www.mykonos.gr



[] POSTCARD perfect Mykonos Harbour – a million visitors come here yearly for its
   restaurants, tavernas, bars, bakeries and boutiques. (Google.com)
[] KATRINS Restaurant, tiny as it is has one of the finest reputations in town.
   (Katrins Restaurant)
[] THE corner table at Katrins held for Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy every
   night in  case they may have wanted to drop in. (Malcolm Andrews)
[] STANDING room only in the alleyway outside the Scandinavian Bar in Mykonos –
   early townsfolk paid little heed to town planning. (MykonosAccommodation)
[] LITTLE Venice's home-businesses were once a landfall of pirates, now its tourists.
   (Semeli Hotels Group)

July 04, 2015

London's secret underground train to make a tourist comeback

David Ellis

A RAILWAY that ran for 76 years beneath the streets of London, twenty hours a day, seven days a week, is planned to become a major new tourist attraction for train buffs and the simply curios – even though it never carried a single passenger during a working lifetime that ended a dozen years ago.

With its own tunnels separate to London's famous Tube, this railway was the brainchild of the Post Office to move mail between Whitechapel, in the city's East End, and Paddington 10.5km away in the west, doing so much more speedily than it could along the already hopelessly congested city streets.

First mooted in the latter part of the 1800s, construction of the Post Office Railway – soon known simply as the Mail Rail – began in February of 1915, with its narrow 2.7m diameter tunnels being dug 21 metres below street level and lined with pre-assembled iron tubes.

Two tracks, one running east and one west, were then to be laid inside these, but with a shortage of manpower and materials due to the First World War, work stopped in 1917 just two years after commencement, and it was to be another seven before it was to resume.

But during this pause the tunnels were still able to be put to good use: the British Museum and the Tate and National Portrait Galleries used them to store irreplaceable treasures they feared could be lost in German bombing raids.

Finally in early December 1927 the line was opened for the world's first driverless electric trains, initially carrying Christmas-rush parcels only, and from February 1928 letters as well.

And stations along the line – at Bird and Wimpole Streets and Rathbone Place in the west, New Oxford Street, Mount Pleasant in Islington for the principal Mail Sorting Centre, and then King Edward and Liverpool Streets in the East – were shallower than the main part of the line, so there was less distance for parcels and mailbags to be lifted to street-level.

As well, 1-in-20 gradients into and out of these stations assisted in slowing the remotely-controlled driverless trains on arrival, and in speeding them away on departure.

At the height of their service the little Mail Rail trains and the 220 staff who worked in the tunnels with them shifted 12-million parcels and letters a day…  84,000,000 a week, 4-billion a year, with some 70 of the driverless trains rattling along the narrow gauge (610mm) tracks at speeds of up to 35kph.

And in 1991 the tunnels and a train were mocked-up to represent a fictional railway beneath The Vatican in the Bruce Willis movie, "Hudson Hawk."

Then in early 2003 the Post Office abruptly announced the end of the Mail Rail, saying it was five times more costly to maintain the service than to use road transport, and on May 31 2003 the trains made their last runs after 76 years.

A small staff was retained both to maintain the tunnels for safety reasons and to act in a security role stopping would-be vandals, graffiti sprayers and others trying to get into the tunnels, and the trains simply left where they'd made their last runs.

Train buffs, however, never gave up on bombarding London's Islington Council with a constant flow of ideas to get the little Mail Rail running again, and finally it gave recent approval for a 5-million-pounds (AU$9.8m) redevelopment of the Mount Pleasant station and mail sorting centre, that will include a Postal Museum to open in 2016, and a kilometre of original Mail Rail track to be restored to carry tourists from 2020.

Those tourists will ride in converted original mail wagons that will be fitted with seats and roofs – the latter for safety reasons – and will hear the history of the Mail Rail as they travel through the kilometre of re-opened narrow tunnels.

And the Museum to be developed by the British Postal Museum and Archive will feature 400 years of Britain's mail services history. Amongst highlights will include original telegrams from the Titanic, pistols used in 19th century stage-coach robberies, court evidence from The Great Train Robbery, mail service photos and posters and historic pillar boxes in various shapes and sizes.

And for philatelists, a priceless stamp collection to drool over.



[] POSTAL workers loading mail bags onto a remotely-controlled driverless train  
   deep beneath the streets of London – at its peak the Mail Rail carried 4-billion
   parcels and letters a year.
[] COMPLEXITY of lines needed for the 70 little trains to move some 12-million
   mail items a day.
[] DURING WWI when work stopped on construction of the unique railway, its
   platforms and tunnels were used for safe-keeping of priceless museum and
   art gallery treasures.
[] ARTIST'S impression of how the new Mail Rail train experience could look when
   it opens in 2020.
[] VISITORS riding the revamped Mail Rail will learn something of the history of its
   history with platform displays and historic photos projected onto station walls.
(All images British Postal Museum and Archives)

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