January 29, 2017

Hydro Majestic's global dining palette in the Blue Mountains

Saucy tales, exotic opulence and the odd celebrity demise. The Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains sits alongside the Hotel Ritz Paris, Raffles Singapore and Claridge’s London as legendary havens of mischief and luxury

With staff from around the world welcoming waves of international tourists in a distinctly Australian location, the Hydro Majestic also represents the modern face and cuisine of Australia – as it has for more than a century.

The status of the original Blue Mountains party palace as the grandest of the grand hotel in the region was restored when current owner Escarpment Group unveiled its $35 million refurbishment in October 2014.

Concierge, Patrick Verity, greets guests in the restored casino lobby

The spectacular Casino Lobby was stripped back to show off that stupendous dome prefabricated in Chicago and imported by original Hydro Majestic owner, department store doyenne Mark Foy.

The Wintergarden Restaurant where one takes high tea (traditional or Eastern) is bedecked in understated gold and white elegance with enormous windows giving a breathtaking view over the Megalong Valley.

There’s the Majestic Ballroom with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, the revamped Boiler House CafĂ© in the old pump house and the sophistication of black and chrome in the Belgravia accommodation lounge.

But the best way to appreciate the full magnificence of the Hydro Majestic, the building, the history and the gob-smackingly gorgeous location on the edge of the escarpment, is to stroll along the (in)famous Cat’s Alley hallway, cocktail in hand, and watch the sunset over the Megalong Valley. The golden tendrils seep down the blood red walls, lighting up the peacock feathers and richly furbished lounges, and bring the original artworks of blood sports to life.

Foy, was a visionary, an ambitious and remarkable one, creating the hotel on a mountain top against all odds. Soon the fortunate, the famous, the fabulous, even the infamous, flocked to the Hydro Majestic from around the globe.

With regular festivals and events including the Roaring 20s Festival in February, Escarpment Group has returned the flounce to the old girl’s skirt so the Hydro Majestic is once again the most flamboyant showgirl of Australia’s first tourist destination.

The latest event was a seven-course degustation featuring traditional dishes from global locations infused with local flavours served by staff from around the world, heralds a modern era of theatrical dining for Mark Foy’s ``Palace in the wilderness’’

Dishes such as Creole-style braised short rib, southern grits, collard greens and corn tamarillo salsa obviously originated from distant shores. However, the ingredients were sourced from a 100-mile radius around the hotel.

Rounding off the gastronomic event with lamingtons was the shared food link to Australia.

Wintergarden Restaurant

It could be said that the Hydro Majestic represents the modern face and cuisine of Australia – as it has for more than a century.

Escarpment Group general manager Ralf Bruegger said: ``The Hydro Majestic has always embraced cultural diversity, not because its first owner Mark Foy was politically correct but because he genuinely loved people of all races, their culture, art and food – just as we do today.

``In fact, what is seen as progressive, even outrageous today, has always been normal at the Hydro Majestic. I mean, what was normal for a man who liked to dress in his wife’s clothing and held cross-dressing parties for his friends?’’

With the means to satisfy his every whim, the well-travelled Foy had the famous hotel dome pre-fabricated in Chicago and shipped to Australia. Dr George Baur of the Shoeneck health spa in Switzerland was hired to devise and supervise a program of diets and weird and wonderful treatments. Turkish coffee at the Hydro Majestic was served by Turkish waiters, Chinese tea by Chinese waiters.

Ladies in "Cat's Alley" with Chinese waiter
Louie (``Charlie’’) Goh Mong was just one of many Chinese migrants who reverted to their traditional skills post-Bathurst gold rush era around the turn of the 20th century and worked as butlers, cooks, nannies, maids and produce suppliers to inns, guesthouses and manor houses across the Blue Mountains during that time.

Charlie worked as a cook at Foy’s Sydney home and managed the mayhem at the Hydro Majestic for 35 years.

Today, staff from 16 language groups work at the Hydro Majestic including English, French, Canadian, Russian, Chinese (all dialects), Portuguese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, Thai and more. Mr Bruegger is German and head chef Mate Herceg has a Croatian background.

``People visit the Hydro Majestic from all over the world and we must understand and accommodate their cultural needs,’’ Mr Bruegger said. ``In an internationally renowned destination such as the Blue Mountains it is expected of us and certainly received by our guests in all other mature tourism regions of the world.’’

Go to hydromajestic.com.au or phone (02) 4782 6885 for bookings and more information about the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

January 26, 2017

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise with Princess


You might think ocean cruising consists solely of lazing about in a deckchair, a fruit cocktail in hand, doing little more than watch the water slosh about the ship’s swimming pool. But I have to report that cruising the Inside Passage, between Canada and Alaska, is non-stop action.

Crown Princess in Alaska's Glacier Bay (supplied) 

Whatever your choice of cabin, be it port or starboard, upper or lower deck, there’s an unwritten law of the sea which, simply put, says the most enthralling sights of the cruise inevitably occur when you are least ready for them. It means you spend little time actually relaxing in your cabin and a great deal of time executing the cabin-to-deck dash, only to catch a departing glimpse of what your more prescient fellow passengers will no doubt describe as the most singularly thrilling experience of their lives.

So it was with whales while cruising aboard the Crown Princess, one of a fleet of six graceful Princess Cruise Line ships that ply the Inside Passage between Vancouver and Seward during the warmer Alaskan months.

By September, on the last cruise of the season, it was autumn and the weather overcast. The sun was on holiday down south and daytime temperatures of around 9°C were considerably lowered by wind chill. The ship's pool was therefore deserted and deckchairs were strapped into neat stacks. Passengers working off a surfeit of breakfast made regular brisk circuits around the decks.

We had on board an effusively enthusiastic cruise naturalist called Brent. One of his many sizzling natural passions was the humpback whale. I was dreamily contemplating passing glaciers from the comfort of my cabin when the alarm sounded. "Whales, whales, three o'clock", came the urgent bellow over the ship's intercom. "Humpbacks, whooo boy!" yelled Brent from the bridge.

The slamming of cabin doors and the patter of feet told me I was not the only one caught offside. Grabbing my camera, I charged headlong for the uppermost deck as Brent's electric commentary urged me on to greater feats of nimbleness and speed than I'd imagined possible.

"Look at them go ... oh, look at that, a beautiful, double fluke re-entry!" he gabbled, like a demented Olympic diving judge. "Now a breach, wheee boy! And another breach, oh my gawd! Absolutely fantastic!"

I burst on deck, heaving and panting. Passengers were pressed four-deep along the starboard rail, seeming to lend the 70,000-ton liner a slight list. Brent's voice barked again. "More humpies, one o'clock!" I was leaping up and down like a Samburu warrior trying to see over the collected heads. "Fabulous. That's made my trip!" exclaimed one extremely short, bespectacled man pressed up fast against the rail.

"Nine o'clock, nine o'clock! A breach, a breach!" Brent was now beside himself. I was beside myself! That was my side of the ship! Had I stayed put I'd have had a balcony seat to myself.

We rushed to port, where I rucked and mauled my way to the rail. And thar she blew! A glistening leviathan hurled itself ecstatically from the frigid water off Point Adolphus, fins akimbo, its enormous barnacled body on display for a fraction of a second before crashing back into the green seas in a burst of spray.

Inside Passage cruising can be as exhilarating as it is energetic. During our seven day cruise I worked out regularly, rushing about the ship, propelled by an urgent voice describing significant but fleeting moments in this vast, preternatural landscape of mountains, snow and ice. Considering the avalanche of food that flowed day and night from the ship's kitchens this regular exercise was essential.

Daily consumption aboard ship included 1400 kg of meat, 380 kg of fish, 730kg of vegetables, 150kg of pasta, 1100 litres of coffee and more than 3000 delectable little pastries. This resulted in 39,000 dirty plates a day and nearly 13,000 dirty glasses. The 27 crew members on the continuous wash-up squad remained out of sight below decks, if not entirely out of mind.

In College Fjord we saw no less than seven glaciers, including Vassar, Harvard and Yale. The Captain carefully put the ship within 400 metres of one gigantic ice flow. We clung to the rails, peering from our wondrous vantage point into the deep, hypnotic blue of highly compressed ice, hoping to see the calving of an iceberg.

The rule on glacier calving is simple: once you hear the crack, the ice has already fallen! So never avert your eyes! I heard several sharp retorts but I saw little, perhaps caught offside again. But I did witness spectacular calving off Margerie Glacier as the ship probed deep into Tarr Inlet off Glacier Bay.

Alaska cruising is not for the faint-hearted. The most popular shore excursion of our trip was glacier-hopping by helicopter high above Juneau, a dramatic aerial plunge into a primeval realm of forbidding, craggy peaks and ice-bound valleys. More sedentary shore options included fishing trips, nature walks and cultural tours.

Ketchikan (supplied)

Another option was souvenir hari-kiri. The old salmon-fishing town of Ketchikan, the neat Alaskan capital of Juneau and frontier-flavoured Skagway each boasted unique attractions but shared a common blight, the excess of souvenir shops weighed down with a repetitive range of memorabilia. This, however, didn’t deter most of the passengers who seemed delighted to discover shopping nirvana at latitude 58°N.

Alaska has an exceptional "official state fossil", the woolly mammoth. Its frozen bones, found in the glacial ice fields, swiftly make their way through the hands of carvers and scrimshaw artists into outlets along the cruise ship corridor. They compete for attention with carved walrus tusks, polished polar bear teeth, crude jade carvings, Alaskan opal pendants and necklaces of "black diamond" haematite.

Other souvenirs include ulu knives, crystal and porcelain figurines, fluffy animal toys, tins of smoked salmon and an endless unfolding of slogan-rich T-shirts. The most intriguing indigenous artifact was undoubtedly those moose droppings, dipped in varnish and fashioned into earrings. Or how about moose poo swizzle sticks?

Escape from all this was found in the Naa Kahidi Theatre in Juneau where I watched enactments of the myths and stories of the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian people. The town’s lively Red Dog Saloon also provided refuge from souvenir overload, as did Skagway's Red Onion Saloon where cruise ship musicians joined local players in an afternoon jazz session.

Riding the rails above Skagway towards White Pass I had a Gordon Gecko moment, almost believing that greed might be good. The lust for gold certainly propelled people to insane heights of determination. One example is the staggering feat of engineering and hard labour that created the White Pass & Yukon Railway. The line was made by chiselling, hacking and tunnelling through solid rock. It crosses narrow canyons on spidery trestle bridges and overcomes formidable natural barriers on its steep haul up to Whitehorse and the old Yukon goldfields beyond.

The ride to Whitehorse and back to Skagway was a four-hour excursion of exceptional scenic beauty with the chance of spotting some wildlife, but only for quick sighted. A bear glimpsed lumbering up one side of the track disappeared within seconds into the surrounding bush.

More wildlife may be seen from the Midnight Sun Express which runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage via Denali National Park, hauling luxury railcars with panoramic views up top and stylish restaurant below. The trip can be a land tour add-on to a cruise.

Fairbanks was at its most beautiful, displaying an autumnal royal flush of luminous golden birch forests. The rich palette of summer's final shredding, a riot of amber and carmine, ochre and sienna, was reflected in the glassy smooth surface of the Chena River. A light powdering of snow called terminal dust, heralding the end of autumn, had settled on the mountains.

The M/V Discovery paddlesteamer churns along the Chena on a carefully prepared excursion that provides a whiff of life in the frozen north. At a model native Athabascan village two Eskimo college students, one Yup'ik, the other Inupiak, gave a delightfully frank, funny and informative commentary on the traditional lifestyle of their grandparents.

I ended my trip at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art where I was fortunate to see an exhibition of ancient Indian and Eskimo masks. It was a fascinating visual insight into local history and culture and a fitting finale to my Inside Passage adventure.

© Rob Woodburn

January 23, 2017

Struth! World's largest meat pie

Swiss precision sees meat pie record

FOUR Swiss chefs have found themselves on the front pages of their nation's newspapers, simply because they cooked a meat pie in the lead-up to Christmas.

And obviously not just any meat pie.

Because just like we'd do at home, their's had a pastry base filled with meat and other goodies (in this case beef and pork, bacon, garlic, onion and red wine, ) and on coming out of the oven sported a topping of crispy pastry all nicely folded and tucked to save any dribbling and spilling.

But any resemblance between ours and theirs ends-up there, for the Swiss job was a whopping 160cm long, 78cm wide and 11cm thick… and scaled-in at 86.75kg. (If you've not yet come to grips with metrics, that's 5ft 3ins long, 2ft 6ins wide and 4.3ins thick… and 191 pounds.)

All big enough to put the pie's makers, from the Swiss hotel management school Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, in the books of the World Record Academy for the world's largest-ever traditionally one-piece meat pie.

After a day to assemble and 40 hours to bake, the massive pie was put on public showing – and then cut up and given away to charities for the needy and homeless at Christmas.


[] ANYTHING but pie-eyed, these four Swiss chefs created the world's largest-ever traditionally one-piece meat pie, and after showing it off gave it away to the needy and homeless. (Hoteliere de Lausanne)

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