Saturday, June 09, 2007

And the Winner is ... Australia

I dip my hat to our worthy cousins across the Tasman. Heaven knows they punch way above their weight in almost everything, but to overhaul us in the world tourism stakes may be a bit much.

Even if just by sheer dint of our size, Australia packs a heavyweight’s slam when it comes diversity, international significance and outright size. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, for example, has a block booking with Qantas (the world’s safest airline) to continue their long list of inscriptions in Australia. As it stands, Australia outnumbers New Zealand 16:3 in the World Heritage stakes, with two more slated for the next intake. Sounds like a rugby score, doesn’t it?

Now I’m not about to slight the Māori, those handsome and powerful Polynesians from all over the Pacific, but Australia’s indigenous people were here first – by a long shot. Māori arrived on the untouched lands of Aotearoa just 1500 years ago, whereas our Aborigines were here well over 40,000 years ago. Their incredibly long and mystical relationship with this equally ancient land makes for a saga of monumental proportions.

But let’s remove the emotion and get down to science. I’m not about to reignite that “bloody” debate, but Australia continually rates amongst the top in one of, if not the only, index that rates a nation's brand name value: The Anholt Nations Brand Index (NBI).

NBI creator, Simon Anholt, says the quarterly poll highlights how each nation is viewed by the rest of the world, reflecting aspects of trade, tourism and immigration.

“One of the basic rules of branding in the commercial field is that for a company to build a successful and powerful brand, its employees need to believe in the brand too. The same is surely true for countries,” says Anholt when referring to Australia.

We regularly figure in all the NBI’s top rankings which include exports, people, governance, tourism, culture and heritage, immigration and investment. New Zealand, while I acknowledge the spirit, has yet to top us in any of these categories, save for government, but that hardly counts. Australia currently holds the top spot as a holiday destination "if money was no object", is a regular “most friendly” and also ranks as the country richest in natural beauty, closely followed by (okay, okay) New Zealand.

In short the world sees Australia as THE “aspirational” destination. It’s vast and impressive and a long way from most everything else, save for New Zealand, and if the world had to choose, and sorry but the scores are in, it’s Australia.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Blue Tarp Resort

Consider the portable canvas option for your next road trip.

After Mum and Dad told me their camping stories from the ‘50s, pitching a tent somewhere in the great Aussie outback was about the last thing I ever wanted to. But on a 4WD trip to Cape York recently, I rediscovered the primal joys of sleeping under canvas miles from the nearest streetlight or flush toilet.

As you flick through the pages of your favourite travel magazine (yes, this one!) gazing longingly at the golden, palm lined beaches and the lush forest destinations, you might be thinking these exotic locations are the exclusive realm of the rich and famous. Maybe, not! Camping has long been a favourite Australian pastime and an accepted means of visiting places a long way from home without running up exorbitant hotel and resort bills.

I’ll confess that on our tour to the “tip”, we mixed and matched our digs. From the glamour of swish Bloomfield Lodge, to a humpy on the beach at Munbah we truly experienced the extremes of accommodation options. Yet, it was the camping experience that defined our journey.

Sure, camping isn’t for everyone, but you might find it makes an enriching and cost effective alternative for that dreamed-of road trip across the country. By alternating tent, cabin, motel and resort, you can spoil yourself occasionally while keeping a lid on expenses.

My mum, now well into her seventies, rediscovered the joys of camping when she and a friend spent two years exploring the far corners of the continent in a station wagon packed with camping gear.

“Well, darling,” Mum recalls, “we really enjoyed ourselves. It was a relaxing, fun holiday. But we didn’t go without our comforts.”

In those two years, Mum covered the length and breadth of the country, ticking off favourite locations like Charters Towers, Alice Springs, Hughenden, Arkaroola and Kings Canyon.

“We only pitched the tents when we intended to stay more than a couple of nights. It’s a bit of a pest putting them up and down every day, so we’d get a cabin if we were just passing through.”

“Come on Mum,” I implored, “there must have been something you didn’t like.”

“Not really love. We were pretty well prepared and we chose our locations and weather very carefully.”

Knowing your destination and its climate is a key to enjoyable camping. Do your homework and visit locations during their most agreeable weather. For example, the Outback is gorgeous mid-year when the weather is mild and rainfall at its lowest.

Mum rattled off her list of camping must-haves and I compared it with mine.

Tent (one per person); fully-floored with insect netting. Blow-up mattresses. Doona, sheets and pillow (I took a sleeping bag and camp stretcher). Long extension cord, power board with appliances; Jug, toaster, electric skillet, hot plate (or gas primus), portable telly, fan heater. Other useful inclusions; Cut down occasional table for inside tent, hair dryer, reading lamp and/or torch.

Exterior accessories were kept to a minimum, but included folding chairs and table, kitchenware and washing up kit.

Take your pick with food. Alternate eating out at pubs and cafés with cooking yourself. Fresh meat, fish and vegetables where available and tins of soup and stew for the remote spots.

“What about, you know, ones and twos?” I delicately enquired.

“Well we had that sorted too. Let’s just say we had the modern equivalent of a chamber pot when I didn’t feel like going outside.”

Around the country there are serviced campgrounds (showers, electricity, pool, cabins etc) and caravan parks or, for the more adventurous, unserviced grounds deep within National Parks and Reserves with perhaps a “long drop” and a rainwater tank.

Some parks create an instant community, complete with social nights, sausage sizzles and happy hours while others are simply quiet retreats. Or choose somewhere on your own and enjoy the solace and seclusion of a night under the stars with just the sound of a breeze in the trees and birds as your alarm clock.

“After my experiences in the ‘50s, I never thought I’d camp again, but the gear is just so much better now and the caravan parks and campgrounds are almost like resorts now with restaurants, games rooms and activities,” says Mum, “Boy, we did it rough back then!”

A road trip doesn’t mean a remake of “The Long Long Trailer”, instead travel light and lean and consider the camping option to extend your trip and keep costs down.

Tourists in Trees

[for Get Up N Go]

Tourists in Trees

Shunning the popular mega ship experience, Roderick Eime disappears into the Alaskan wilderness for a taste of the true outdoors.

The two mighty V8 engines erupt into a loud angry growl and the little jet boat begins to spin wildly in the rough white water. Passengers are screaming, hanging on for dear life as the scenery of sheer jagged cliffs and enormous boulders whiz past bare metres away. Then suddenly, we lurch to a violent halt, followed by a deluge over the stern that completely inundates those clinging desperately to the railings.

"How's that?!" yells Jim from the shelter of the tiny wheelhouse.

"Fantastic!" comes the exuberant reply from the saturated clients, still shaking the chilly mountain water from their hair and spray jackets. Skipper, Jim Leslie, is not a show-off, but after some gentle coaxing will execute a hair-raising '360' for the sheer thrill of it.

Husband and wife team, Wilma and Jim Leslie, operate Alaska Waters, a tour company in the little town of Wrangell Alaska, tucked delicately into a sheltered bay on the island of the same name. Wilma, a proud first nation woman, and Jim a dedicated outdoorsman with tough military training, conduct personalised, small group tours from the quaint little fishing hamlet that is almost dormant between weekly visits from the huge cruise liners.

Now that logging and mining are winding down in the area, tourism is moving in, and Jim and Wilma have become de facto tourism ambassadors for the town, representing the community’s interests at government level.

When the big ships arrive, like the huge Norwegian Sun and her 2000 passengers, the town is transformed into a veritable fairground. Local traders are out in force toting their wares and the tiny tour companies whisk batches of tourists around the town to the museum and other local attractions like Chief Shakes House. I can’t help but feel these folk, while lavished with all the trappings of the giant cruise ship, are missing out on the genuine local touch.

Australians are travelling to Alaska in record numbers, the majority enjoying well-rehearsed and orchestrated experiences that expose travellers on brief itineraries to the substantial natural beauty of this abundant land. But those with a more independent bent can “jump ship” at any of the little ports and experience the true small town Alaska made famous in such television shows as “Men in Trees” and the earlier hit, “Northern Exposure”.

I believe this one-on-one experience delivers a totally different perspective on travel to this great wilderness area of North America. Australians, with their undeniable love of the outback and open air, will embrace this convivial and intimate alternative.

Served by

Served by

Wilma and Jim's signature adventure tour is a two-night, white water wilderness expedition up the magnificent Stikine River into the largely uninhabited forests of British Columbia. Jim pilots the Chutine Warrior upstream for six hours [165 miles], through wide shallow flats bordered by sheer majestic peaks and dense wooded fringes. About halfway, Jim pulls up to a small island for a BBQ lunch. The island, which he calls Devil's Elbow, is a handy refuge. Safely ashore, he can put down his heavy weapon, the last line of defence against inquisitive Grizzly or black bears, and cook some sausages. Giant paw prints decorate the narrow silt beach, interspersed with impressions from moose, bears and even a wolf, attesting to the abundance of big game roaming the neighbourhood.

The adventure culminates in a stay at the quaint Riversong Lodge way up the Stikine River in the forgotten backblocks of British Columbia where some local touring and spirited jetboat adventures take place.

Wrangell, as an example, is not driven by an all-consuming tourism agenda. Behind the dockside commercial centre is a quiet village surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery imaginable. A small wooded hill overlooking the town is carefully landscaped to include a walking trail and lookout while a delightful nine-hole golf course is also on offer.

For my mind, Wrangell is an authentic microcosm of small town Alaska. Quirky, quaint, rough-around-the-edges maybe, but with an infinitely wholesome down-to-earth appeal that left this writer feeling a warm satisfaction and a bonding affection with the townsfolk who welcomed me so heartily for a few scant days one July.

Fact File:

Where: Wrangell, Alaska

Local Sights and Attractions: Stikine River, Shakes Glacier, Telegraph Creek, LeConte Glacier, ancient petroglyphs and Anan Wildlife Observatory

Activities: Hiking, fishing, sightseeing, golfing, bicycling,

Accommodation: Stikine Inn, Zimovia B&B, GrandView Bnb, Rooney's Roost B&B, Fennimore's B&B, Thunderbird Hotel

How to Get There: Alaska Airlines flies daily to Wrangell from Seattle (AS65) or Juneau (AS64). The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system visits Wrangell four times a week in summer.

Contact: Australians can arrange travel to Wrangell with local Alaska specialist, Spectrum Holidays.

Spectrum Holidays,
511 Whitehorse Road,
Mitcham VIC 3132


Tel: +61 3 8804 2420
Fax: +61 3 8804 2426

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

New Italian Mega Liner a Floating Pantheon

Passengers arriving aboard the brand new Costa Cruises flagship, Costa Serena, could be forgiven for thinking they'd walked into some Greco-Roman epic. Roderick Eime stows away for a glimpse of glamour cruising, Italian-style.

Costa SerenaLaunched amid great fanfare in Marseilles on May 19, the 114,000 tonne, 1500-berth leviathan is the latest in the frantic Costa build programme that will bring the fleet to 15 vessels by 2010. Following her slightly smaller sister, Costa Concordia, she will be followed by the similarly massive, Costa Luminosa in 2008.

Walking her twelve passenger decks, that make her as high as a 23-storey building, the overriding theme of classic mythology is overwhelmingly evident, over-the-top even. But chief designer, American Jo Farcus, makes no apologies.

"I used the characters of classical mythology to create the sense of fantasy and escapism," asserts Farcus, "and each of the public spaces from the bars and restaurants to the casino and theatre bear the name of a famous Greek or Roman God."

Jupiter, the god of light and skies, gives his name to the high-tech theatre; Apollo, the god of music and song adorns the main bar and dance floor; Venus, fittingly sponsors the beauty salon, while Giano, the Romans’ two-faced divinity presides ominously over the casino.

One of the significant points of difference in this latest Costa offering is the Samsara Spa and Wellness concept which includes premium cabins and staterooms, dining and spa access. The Samsara Spa itself is enormous, occupying over 2000 sqm, and acknowledging that the latest trends in land-based hospitality are extending offshore.

Besides the food, wine and therapies, guests can extend their menu of fantasies to include a stint in a state-of-art Grand Prix driving simulator that employs a full scale replica of a Formula One car coupled to the equivalent of a computer flight simulator.

Farcus is also unashamedly excited about the multi-million dollar expenditure on works of art, both original and reproductions, that adorn every corner of the public spaces.

"The is very little off-the-shelf in my designs," he avows, "almost everything is custom-made from original Costa designs."

During our preview cruise from Genoa to Venice, much ado was also made of the Michelin star chef, Ettore Bocchia, who will create the a la carte menu for the exclusive Club Bacco Restaurant named after, you guessed it, Bacchus the God of wine and good living.

Costa Serena embarks on her initial programme, sailing from her home port of Venice, on a series of Mediterraean cruises that will include the Greek Islands, Istanbul and the Adriatic Coast.

  • 4 Swimming pools (2 with retractable roofs)
  • 5 Jacuzzi hydromassage baths
  • Jogging Track
  • 2,100 sq.m. Spa and Wellness Centre
  • 5 Restaurants, including one a la carte

* Who for: Suit couples, honeymooners, families
* Itinerary: 7 nights inc Greece, Turkey and Croatia
* Lead in price: AU$3499.00 inc airfares
* Vessel: Costa Serena
* Star Rating: Not Yet Rated, but expect 4.5-5 star
* Tonnage: 114,500
* Max Passenger Capacity: 3780
* Entered Service: May 2007

The writer was a guest of and Costa Cruises

Sunday, June 03, 2007

High Calorie Adventure; the World of Swiss Chocolate

All Aboard the Chocolate Express

Think Switzerland and your shortlist should read watches, banks, Matterhorns, cheese and chocolate. Wrap all these in silver paper and put them in a fancy box and you have the Montreux-Bernese Oberland Railway, a privately-owned, beautifully restored Pullman Express.

It’s a crisp clear summer morning at Montreaux station and the three “Belle Epoque” carriages are waiting with the expectant chocophiles milling about chatting excitedly in anticipation of this classic Swiss big day out. Built around 1915, the original narrow-gauge carriages have undergone an extensive and expensive restoration to bring them to pristine condition.

“We had a lot of trouble getting the right wood, windows and fitting, because some of the original ones were broken,” says Niklaus, the tour guide with obvious pride. His perfectly tailored blue tunic and classic cap are in the same style and it’s clear he feels like the living part of the train.

The Chocolate Train, is a minor misnomer. Sure it terminates, at the famous Callier chocolate factory in Broc, but the entire 9am – 5pm journey is a dairy drenched gastronomic extravaganza.

With the modern electric locomotive at work up front, the journey is deceptively silent except for the muffled rush of metal-on-metal as the picture postcard Swiss scenery rolls past.

The train makes its first stop at the village of Gruyères, where the unsuspecting gastromes pile off for a demonstration of classic cheeesemaking at the Maison du Gruyères dairy. Even though this is a tourist factory, the master cheese-makers produce 48 round 355kg Gruyères cheeses every day. Try to resist the double cream meringues; you’ll need room for the chocolate!

Speaking of which, the piece d’resistance is the factory at Broc. Part of the Nestle empire, it’s still a great treat albeit a highly branded exercise. The new exhibition was opened in May 2006 and is the result of collaboration with French architect and designer Jean Nouvel and culminates, predicably enough, in a chocolate gorge-fest where every product is on display and there for the sampling. I told you to resist the meringues!

If the Broc experience is a little too “arm’s length” and multinational for you, there is the compact and intimate Alprose Chocolate Factory in Lugano-Caslano. Here you can follow the catwalk across the factory floor while diligent chocolatiers produce the famous blocks right before your eyes. Complete with tummy-rumbling aromas, you can observe the raw ingredients transformed into creamy packaged delights which you can later intercept in the factory store.

Closer to home, local Melbourne gourmet tour guide, Suzie Wharton, conducts two-hour chocoholic discoveries through the mysterious narrow lanes and back alleys of Melbourne. The walk will do you good as you explore the creamy underbelly of Melbourne’s secret chocolate society. Tastings included.

The Roots of Chocolate Spread to Switzerland
The word chocolate is probably derived from the ancient Mayan word "Xocolatl" which describes a potent brew the natives made from the beans which were then roasted, ground and mixed with water and spices to form a foamy liquid. The Aztecs, Incas and Toltecs also dabbled with cocoa recipes and, along with their gold and other resources, greatly interested the invading Spanish conquistadors.

Snatched back across the Atlantic, the new chocolate drink soon became a hit throughout the royal courts of Europe. But it wasn’t until the early 19th Century that the French began marketing the solid product in the familiar block form we see today.

Not to be outdone by their lowly neighbours, the Swiss knew they could improve on the rough mass produced stuff from the West. Names like Rudolph Lindt, François-Louis Cailler, Rudolf Sprüngli and Daniel Peter all developed special processes that refined and defined the Swiss product throughout the 19th Century into the world-renown delicacy it is today. Milk chocolate and melting chocolate were both invented by the Swiss.

At the very beginning of the 20th Century, such was the popularity that the Union of Swiss Chocolate Manufacturers (now Chocosuisse) was formed to represent and protect the Swiss product around the world.

Chocolate Speak

Keep the conversation rolling at your next dinner party. Here are some impressive chocolate facts.

There are three distinct types of cocoa beans, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.

Criollo is the purest, most expensive type of bean native to Central America and the northern regions of South America.
Forastero is the robust, cultivated variety most commonly used in commercial plantations. Lacks some of the subtle flavours of the Crillo.
Trinitario, a natural hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, originating in Trinidad. Can exhibit a variety of flavours depending on region, hybrid mix and cultivation methods.
  • Couverture: a special smooth, glossy, easily melted chocolate used by chefs for coating things like strawberries. High in cocoa butter.
  • Conching: one finalisation process that determines the smoothness of the product. Metal beads in a “fountain” grind the cocoa and sugar into tiny, inseparable particles. The longer the better.
  • Tempering: is heat manipulation that is the very last process and determines the final crystal size of the product. Properly tempered chocolate is smooth, firm and glossy and snaps when broken. It also stores and travels best.
Half of the 150,000 tonnes of chocolate produced in Switzerland every year never escapes. The Swiss still account for 50% of their own production. Australia takes nearly 5% of the exported half. Most goes to the greedy Germans (20%).

Most cocoa comes from Ivory Coast in Africa.

The total Swiss chocolate industry turns over A$1.5 Billion annually.

The quick and dirty:

Cocoa pods are harvested, the beans removed and dried over three days. The beans are roasted and ground. Cocoa butter is separated from the chocolate mulch (or liquor) either by pressing or collecting drips. The residue is cocoa powder.

The liquor and butter is re-blended with other ingredients like sugar milk and vanilla to form the different varieties we see (Dark, milk and white).

Chocolate Montezuma

70 g plain chocolate
500 ml milk
2 tbsp of honey
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 small glass of rum
1/4 small glass of arrack
allspice, ginger

As exotic as the king of the Aztecs! Dissolve the chocolate in the milk over a low heat and leave to cool in the fridge. In a mixer or shaker, mix the honey, lemon zest, rum, arrack and 1/4 tsp each of allspice and ginger into the cold liquid. Pour into a tall, iced glass and garnish with mint.

If You Go

Cosmos Tours

Grand Tour of Switzerland

8 days from Zurich to Zurich (priced from $1,196 per person, twin share)

15 days from Zurich to Zurich including 7 nights in Interlaken (priced from $1,988 per person, twin share)

Departures from March to October 2007

Sightseeing: Visits to Appenzell, Liechtenstein, St. Moritz, Lugano, a chocolate factory at Caslano, Lake Maggiore, Täsch, Zermatt, Lausanne, Gruyère village, Berne, Interlaken, Lucerne; on tour 6025: Jungfraujoch excursion (value approximately $120)

Scenic highlights: Julier Pass, Engadine Valley, Swiss-Italian Lake District, Simplon Pass, Lake Geneva, the Bernese Oberland

Guides: Services of a professional Tour Director while touring

Transportation: Touring by private first-class air-conditioned motorcoach. The Bernina Express Train, Mountain Train Täsch-Zermatt

Details: Licensed travel agents or

Can’t Get to Switzerland? Then try Suzie Wharton’s Chocoholic Tours in Melbourne. $30 for a two-hour walking tour that includes samples and tastings. See