Thursday, November 13, 2008
There’s no second chance to make a first impression and at Otahuna Lodge, tucked discreetly away in the backblocks of outer Christchurch, one certainly knows when one has arrived.
Jack, our taxi driver and Christchurch native, turned off the meter as we poked about the Tai Tapu hedgerows in search of this mysterious mansion. “That looks like a pretty fancy one over there,” he says excitedly, indicating a substantial modern home of about six bedrooms.
“I don’t think so,” I replied kindly, remembering the image from the website, “That’s it over there.”
I’d just caught a glimpse of a gabled roofline beyond some magnificent, semi-wild woodland trees. A remote controlled gate was our only clue. After a rudimentary introduction via the intercom, it swung open to reveal a winding track through imposing gardens. “Oh, my!” said Jack as if plunging into some Lewis Carroll scenario. Eyes like saucers, he drives carefully up the oak and acacia-lined carriageway until we arrive in the forecourt where Head Guest Host, Belinda was waiting. With an enormous smile, we’re met with a simple but effective; “Welcome to Otahuna!”
Seeing Jack struggle with our excess baggage, Belinda announces, “I might just get Jeremy to help with this one.” Sous-chef Jeremy Scheiblauer is filling in for executive chef, Jimmy McIntyre, famed for his wondrous five-course degustation menus. Jeremy’s about the right size to handle our portly port, and it’s up the hand-carved kauri staircase - with rimu detail - and into the luxurious Rhodes suite before you can say “Scallop Ceviche”.
Maybe I’m easily impressed, but to call Otahuna a ‘lodge’, is akin to calling a Bentley a ‘sedan’. To me at least, it’s every bit the manor house, with a history to match.
Built in 1895 for Sir Heaton Rhodes, a wealthy and influential Canterbury businessman, long-term parliamentarian, military officer, stockbreeder and keen horticulturist. The name “Otahuna” is Maori and popularly translates as “little hill among the hills.” The homestead, again excuse the understatement, sits atop a small hill, between the rocky outcrops of the Banks Peninsula, with expansive views of the gardens and across the plains to the distant Southern Alps.
Following their wedding in 1891, Sir Heaton Rhodes and his wife Jessie honeymooned in Japan, perhaps the first New Zealanders to visit Japan as tourists. They took in exotic sights including Shinto shrines and Sumo wrestling.
Taken with the architecture of Japan, Jessie persuaded Heaton to incorporate a subtle Japanese influence when they built Otahuna four years later. This octagonally-shaped structure adjacent to the Drawing Room and now serves as one of the Lodge’s several private dining areas.
After the venerable Sir Heaton passed away in 1956 at the ripe old age of 95, a bonfire raged on the lawns for the next week as his personal records and books were burned. There’s some mystery as to whether this was an instruction in his final will or some act of spite by his last housekeeper, Olive Nicholas, who would withhold Sir Heaton’s nightly whiskey if the mischievous, fun-loving old gent misbehaved. She was apparently left empty-handed in the final accounting while all other employees, relatives and charities received generous payouts.
Now heritage-listed, Otahuna became a monastery then a hippy colony in ‘70s with over 40 residents, half of whom were children.
Current owners, Miles Refo and Hall Cannon, discovered Otahuna while investigating an escape from Manhattan where they’d lived and worked for eight years. Barely in their 30s, the young lords fell under Otahuna’s spell after their first sighting in May 2005.
“When we first saw Otahuna, we both thought ‘wow, what an amazing house’,” recalls Hall, “but it just needed so much work. Daunted by the task, we just kept driving – all the way to Canada!”
“We came back in January 2006 and decided we’d live here in New Zealand, somewhere on the South Island and came back to see the house to cross it off our list once and for all. But it had us under its spell and by August, we owned it.”
Despite extensive structural renovations over the preceding five years, the property still needed much internal refinement. The duo hired Auckland-based interior designer, Stephen Cashmore, known for his sympathetic treatment of historic properties. New colour palates, fabrics, furnishings and bathroom enhancements were added. Several lost treasures were recovered and returned to their rightful place, like the antique mantle clock now in the ballroom.
Hall relished the opportunity to exercise his love of art and worked closely with Queenstown-based consultant Pauline Giles. Works from noted artists Peter Beadle and Anna Caselberg were added along with several from as yet unknowns.
The imposing portrait of Maori war hero, Ngati Maniapoto, takes pride of place in the entrance hall.
But beyond the Queen Anne-style home itself, 30 acres of botanical gardens were subject to their own extensive restoration and remain as a lasting legacy from Sir Heaton. 19 acres are devoted to natural produce including an orchard, potager and Dutch garden. In a touching gesture, Hall and Miles have revived the three acre paddock of daffodils, opening it up to the public each September just as Sir Heaton did, using the proceeds to fund local initiatives like libraries, schools and hospitals.
With a house of such character, I’m tempted to ask the obvious question, “What about ghosts?”
“You know,” says Hall with a curious squint, “I’ve heard stories of ghosts, but no-one has ever reported anything to me since we’ve taken over. Certainly I’ve never sensed anything.”
With Otahuna, arguably the most significant private residence in New Zealand restored to a glory even beyond Sir Heaton’s lavish tastes and appetite for fine living, perhaps his ghost is just quietly enjoying a spectral whiskey in the billiard room finally freed from the disapproving gaze of wicked Nurse Nicholas?
Roderick Eime traces the path of Australia’s forthcoming epic motion picture through some of the oldest landscapes on Earth.
He stares down on me as if from the heavens, mute and limbless, his power over the elements is total. The Wandjina are the spirit gods of the Kimberley who control the weather and their images abound throughout the caves and craggy overhangs of this rugged and foreboding corner of Australia.
For countless thousands of years the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley, with such evocative names as the Ngarinyin, Umida, Wunambul and Unggarangi, kept watch over the Wandjina figures, just as their spirits kept watch over them. Today, privileged visitors can still see these images in all their mysterious glory gazing imperiously down from their cave ceiling frescos.
The landscape of the Kimberley is among the oldest formations in the world, dating back some 1.8 billion years.
“Where are the fossils?” I innocently enquire of Carly, my naturalist guide at the El Questro Wilderness Park.
“There are none,” comes the matter-of-fact reply, “these rocks were formed before there was any life to fossilise.”
It takes a moment for me to compute that data and I return my gaze to the deep orange hues of the ultra-hard sandstone cliffs along Chamberlain Gorge. The namesake river, replete with fresh, crystal clear water is home to a seemingly endless supply of mighty Barramundi, guarded by a permanent squad of freshwater crocodiles.
Just over one hundred years ago, white Europeans brought cattle to the Kimberley from the east in search of new pastures. Pioneering drover, the Irish-born Patrick Durack, established Argyle Station in 1886 after bringing 7000 head from Queensland and arriving with about half of them. If ever a harsh and unforgiving land epitomised the bush spirit of early European settlement, it is the Kimberley. Blessed with clean, permanent water, but cursed with oppressive heat and humidity, the Kimberley tolerates man’s presence, but offers no comfort.
The sprawling, 400,000 ha El Questro Wilderness Park is still a working cattle station and provides a range of accommodation options for intrepid visitors. From humble, riverside camping plots to the iconic, ultra-chic El Questro Homestead, visitors can indulge their outback passion no matter what their budget.
In 2006, the rumour mill erupted with word that acclaimed film producer, Baz Luhrmann would be filming an epic Australian film in the region and for several months in mid-2007, the area was swarming with cast and crew filming key scenes for the forthcoming production.
Now the secret is out and the film, ‘Australia’, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is set for release in November. The movie traces Kidman’s character, Lady Sarah Ashley, as she arrives from England in the 1930s in search of her renegade husband and his cattle station. The movie culminates with the dramatic bombing of Darwin some ten years hence.
A few kilometres south of Wyndham along the King River is the unassuming Diggers Rest, a knockabout homestead that was home to 90 crew during two months of filming. Now reverted to its regular persona of quaint fishing camp and simple lodge, the tiny bar and games room still bears the evidence – dozens of autographs scrawled on the wall above the flat screen TV.
“We had some pretty wild nights here,” confesses Alida Woodland, who runs the property with husband Roderick, “we put almost one hundred tents out the back and built that new ablution block. It looked like an army camp here for about two months!”
A few kilometres down the Karunjie Road are the wide mud flats used to film some of the stock mustering scenes. With the ample Pentecost River to the west and the vast Cockburn Ranges to the east, the scene will contrast the harsh territory and stark beauty of the Kimberley.
At the other end of the rough track is Home Valley Station, another site frequented by the cast and crew both on and off duty.
“Baz just loved the view across the (Pentecost) river toward the Cockburn Ranges,” says Nicolle Fenech who manages the station with husband Chris, “so he spent a lot of time filming the vistas and sunset panoramas you’ll see in the movie.”
Home Valley Station is a recently refurbished destination property offering visitors quality accommodation, food and even conference facilities. Owned by the Indigenous Land Council (ILC) on behalf of the Balanggarra people of the East Kimberley, Home Valley is an accredited TAFE training college where locals learn the art of hospitality as well as pastoral skills.
There’s a lot riding on Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’, including a major international marketing offensive for Tourism Australia designed to re-route the wayward “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.
Meanwhile, the Wandjina cast their hollow eyes down impassively on those below, their task long pre-defined in the Dreamtime, their destiny beyond our reach and comprehension.
Regional activities: Fishing, 4WDing, trekking, flight-seeing, camping
El Questro Wilderness Park (Google Map: -16.01, 127.98)
08 9169 1777
110 kilometres west of Kununurra by road
Home Valley Station (Google Map: -15.722, 127.82)
120 kilometres west of Kununurra by road
Phone: +61 (8) 9161 4322
Diggers Rest Station (Google Map: -15.64, 128.08)
(08) 9161 1029
37 kilometres south of Wyndam
Nearest Airport: Kununurra (KNX)
Serviced by Qantas, Skywest, Airnorth
Monday, November 03, 2008
The rugged high country of New Zealand's Southern Alps is no place for lightweights. The weather can be ferocious; windy and icy cold in winter and baking hot in the summer months. But none of that was going to stop mountain man, Tom Butler, from fulfilling his dream of a picture perfect guest lodge amid the stunning, blockbuster scenery.
Still in short pants, young Tom helped family friend and then owner, Oliver Newbegin, create his vision of an ideal rural retreat near the foreboding Arthurs Pass, 160 kilometres west up the steep glacial ranges from Christchurch. After school, Tom would head up to the site where the historic homestead was being painstakingly restored. His duties were modest; digging, shovelling and carting material from site to site.
Dating from the 1870s, the original structure was built by Arthur Hawdon, one of the Canterbury region's pioneer settlers. The house and the landholding passed through a century of convoluted transactions to Oliver in 1988. Over the years, the property had bred beef cattle, fine merino wool and deer for venison and continues to do so today with the working portion of the land leased out.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings, Tom was already well familiar and deeply fond of the area around the tiny, former fettlers' village of Cass, one stop before Arthurs Pass on the famous TranzAlpine Railway that cheerfully lugs tourists between both sides of the South Island to Greymouth on the West (wet) Coast.
With obvious affection, Tom shows lodge guests around what's left of Cass, pointing out the 'batch' (shack) his family regularly visited while he was growing up.
"Mum and Dad would bring the whole family up for weekends of tramping (hiking), fishing and later, hunting," recalls Tom, still an enthusiastic and expert hiker, climber and kayaker.
After the bulk of the work was finished and the homestead began welcoming its first guests, Tom set off for the UK and later returned to finish his university studies. Proudly clutching his new degree, Tom was quickly back at the lodge to exercise his new management qualifications. Things went well and Oliver gracefully faded into retirement, leaving the running and ownership of the lodge with Tom and another local business partner.
All staff, including Tom, live fulltime on the property attending to guests whims around the clock. The lodge is continually being added to and improved with the original homestead rooms converted to spa treatment, dining and relaxation areas. Accommodation for the maximum of twenty guests is now in brand new suites, a cottage and chalet that attract the highest echelon of luxury and affluent travellers from all over the world. Tom is not a name-dropper like some, but with a little prompting will divulge some of his celebrity visitors.
"I'll always remember Billy Crystal as a regular, down-to-earth guy who mixed with the other guests and was gracious and uncomplicated," says Tom, "he and his wife did like to dine alone in the cottage, but otherwise he was another guest enjoying the experience."
The much-revered and anonymous luxury arbiter, Andrew Harper, rates Tom's lodge as one of his favourites in New Zealand, describing it "a sensationally sited high-country hideaway that luxuriates beneath some of New Zealand's most awesome alpine scenery "
"Mr Harper has been here three times now," says Tom with a curious twist, "but I've never met him. He always books under a pseudonym and keeps a very low profile."
Then there's the story of the Texas oil baron who, obviously charmed by Tom and his ranch, bought two acres from a sub-division on the property after dinner one night.
Now, if you've followed the story so far you are probably wondering what the name of this esteemed lodge is. A member of both Select Hotels and Small Luxury Hotels, it consistently rates among the top luxury properties in Australia and New Zealand, gathering awards and accolades each year.
The retreat is Grasmere Lodge and its overwhelming success is the result of a bloke who displays vision and foresight beyond his years. Girls take note, Tom Butler, athletic outdoorsman, entrepreneur and lover of life is still in his early 30s and very single.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Blank faced and expressionless, he stood there staring at me. His slender arms adorned with intricate tassels hold a clutch of boomerangs as if inviting me to hunt with him. Literally frozen in time, this ancient gent has held this pose for perhaps 20,000 years.
I sat there staring back with the sort of spine-tingling sensation one experiences when confronted by the alien and inexplicable. He was not alone. Surrounding him were lesser, fainter figures, some dancing, some apparently paying homage, others plain and nude. What does this gathering mean? What is their message?
The Gwion Gwion people of Australia’s Kimberley are long gone, but their art remains in abundance, decorating sheltered rock caves and overhangs, lookouts and frescos throughout an area twice the size of Victoria. Often referred to as ‘Bradshaw Art’, these finely detailed and intricate figures remain a mystery to researchers and academics, fuelling vigorous debate about their origins and meaning.
Some explain them simply as the earliest examples of Australian Aboriginal art, transitioning through several periods over tens of thousands of years. Others, like lifelong researcher Grahame Walsh, believe they belong to a race long since vanished from our shores, even pre-dating current Aboriginal settlement. He draws comparisons with art and cultures as far afield as Papua New Guinea and Africa, but carefully stops short of making the claim as to their origins.
Beyond debate is their obvious contrast to the more modern ‘Wandjina’ art typified by the mouthless, ethereal figures representing the Aboriginal creators and controllers of all earthly things. At many sites the two art forms collide in an uncomfortable jostle that clearly demonstrates the contempt modern Aboriginals held for the Gwion Gwion. Heads of the delicate tasselled men are hammered and defaced in some cases, while elsewhere they are painted over by sprawling murals of the omnipotent Wandjinas.
The pigment used to create the beautiful Gwion Gwion is extremely resilient, so much so that C14 radiocarbon and other scientific dating methods cannot differentiate between it and the rock canvas. An indicator of their age was determined by a fossilised wasp nest built by the insects on top of a Bradshaw figure. It was reckoned to be at least 17,000 years old, placing the art beneath an indeterminate age beyond.
A shrill whistle from Gavin, our guide, interrupted my stupor and signalled time for an urgent return to the tender before the rapidly falling tide stranded us all. I scrambled down the escarpment and across the greedy mud bank, my feet disappearing beyond my knees in my haste to meet the outstretched arms frantically beckoning me aboard. Gavin engaged the outboard and immediately threw up a ‘rooster tail’ of grey-brown muck in an attempt to extricate the struggling craft. Kimberley tides are notoriously treacherous, rising and falling at the rate of over a metre an hour and swinging between ten metre extremes.
Man-handled back aboard, puffing and wheezing from the combined effects of excitement and exertion, Gavin smiles benevolently down on me from the pulpit of the centre-console runabout. “How was that?” he asks plainly as we make our way back to our 1000 tonne mother ship, True North, across the choppy Prince Regent River. “Lost for words?” For once, I was.
Gavin is the chief mate and expedition leader aboard the 36-passenger luxury adventure yacht and has spent most of his working life amongst the billion year old landscape of the Kimberleys. An expert fisherman, boat handler and unrepentant conservationist, Gavin rarely shares his most coveted Bradshaw art sites with guests.
“If people show a genuine interest in seeing some Braddies,” says Gavin, “we can usually find something on short notice. You and a handful of others are the only ones who’ve ever seen that site.” Yet his extensive catalogue of cave art sites is not recorded anywhere, instead the locations are closely guarded secrets entrusted to a few of the North Star Cruises masters and senior guides alone. “They’re up here,” he replies, pointing a finger purposefully to his temple.
I glance back across the wake of the dinghy trying to spot the high outcrop I had just scaled for my teasing glimpse of the most ancient Australians, but it’s quickly consumed by the enormity of my surroundings. The ship’s Bell jet helicopter races above us, ferrying goggle-eyed passengers back from a swim and frolic in a crystal clear, spring-fed water hole miles inland. Precipitous, golden-hued sandstone cliffs, vast mud banks and mangrove forests typify the landscape that has remained unchanged since before the time of the dinosaurs. Our brief incursion is but a minute speck of time in this geological calendar.
Regardless of your stance on the Bradshaw/Gwion Gwion debate, it’s abundantly clear that my handsome, lithesome hunter, having survived at least two ice ages, will be around long after my entire generation has departed. Perhaps his cryptic code will only be revealed by the next civilisation – if they can even find him again.
North Star Cruises operate the 50 metre, 36-passenger luxury expedition vessel, True North II on six and 12 night itineraries throughout the Kimberley region. Their twenty-plus year experience and intimate knowledge of the largely uncharted river and inlet system sets them apart from other similar operators in Australia’s remote North West.
Prices start from $8995 per person twin share for the six night expedition and $13,995 for twelve nights. Includes all meals, transfers and water-based excursions. Helicopter excursions separate.
For further information contact North Star Cruises on 08 9192 1829 or visit www.northstarcruises.com.au
Monday, July 21, 2008
Beyond mere five-star, there exists a level of luxury that transcends any hotel rating system. A rarefied statusphere where the experience is valued and remembered long after the account is settled. Roderick Eime rose briefly above his station to glimpse life at the very top.
Long envied for their premium cachet and set amid dramatic, blockbuster locations, New Zealand's ultra exclusive 'Super Lodges' continue to earn the praise of luxury travellers and hard-nosed critics alike. Not to be outdone, Australia has launched a counterattack and brought the battle right up to their transTasman cousins. We compare the “front row” from each side.
Grasmere Lodge Cass, South Island NZ
Playing heavily on their dramatic location near Arthurs Pass, Grasmere Lodge will always command the attention of those looking for quiet and comfort in a nostalgic colonial style. Set amidst the spectacular Southern Alps, you'll be wondering which Hollywood epic you're in.
The original homestead harks back to 1858 and, with gradual and tasteful modernisation, now presents the perfect complement to the natural grandeur of its surroundings.
Every guest room at Grasmere Lodge has one king or two single beds, two armchairs and a coffee table, CD player, minibar, a work desk with a modem plug and chair. Each private patio or deck has two outdoor chairs for enjoying the views and fresh mountain air.
A Lake View Deluxe Room is $NZ435.00 per person (dbl occupancy) and includes pre-dinner cocktail hour, a five-course table d'hôte gourmet dinner, and full cooked or continental breakfast. [ www.grasmerelodge.com ]
Huka Lodge Taupo NZ
Widely considered the top lodge in New Zealand despite fierce competition, Huka continues to garner awards from the most prestigious judges including Travel + Leisure, Condé Naste, Andrew Harper and the Robb Report.
Ideally positioned in a private hideaway adjacent the sublime Waikato River and surrounded by virtual botanic gardens, Huka Lodge was originally a private fishing lodge in the 1920s, but its reputation for fine food and natural serenity spread far and wide.
Executive chef, John Allred, enjoys a substantial reputation thanks to his international schooling courtesy of lodge owner and multimillionaire banker and investor Alex van Heeren.
Instead of grandeur and opulence, the lodge is compact and snug and gives the impression of embracing its guests. Apart from the famed Owners Cottage, Huka Lodge provides 20 guest suites, all decorated in keeping with the main lodge.
Tariffs begin at NZ$730.00 per person, fully inclusive. [ www.hukalodge.com ]
Maungatautari Lodge Lake Karapiro NZ
Unlike many of its contemporaries throughout the country, Maungatautari Lodge is a relatively recent construction, built by its owner-hosts, Peter and Christine Scoular, to their own personal design. This same personal touch extends to their exemplary hospitality, which makes guests feel like old friends visiting for an extended dinner.
Set on 30ha of park-like gardens, there are stud horses and sheep just beyond the colourful expanses of lavender, organic vegetable gardens and citrus orchards. The property is also part of an ambitious wildlife conservation program that aims to preserve and protect the many threatened NZ species such as kiwi, kereru, tui, korimako (bellbirds), kokako, kaka, kakariki, hihi (stitchbirds), toutouwai (robins), skinks, geckos, giant weta and tuatara.
The lodge itself is roomy, bright and airy assisted by broad picture windows with views all the way to Lake Karapiro. Christine does most of the cooking and even occasionally invites guests into the kitchen to share in the culinary experience.
A double occupancy suite is NZ$970 and includes dinner, bed and breakfast. [ www.malodge.com ]
Also in the pack; Treetops Luxury Lodge, Rotorua; Peppers on the Point, Rotorua; Kawaha Point Lodge, Rotorua; Otahuna Lodge, Christchurch; Select Braemar Lodge & Spa, Hanmer Springs; Blanket Bay Lodge, Queenstown.
|From Lord Howe - A...|
Arajilla Retreat, Lord Howe Island
Discretely tucked away amid luxuriant kentia palms and banyan trees on World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island, Arajilla Retreat is perfectly placed to deliver relaxation and rejuvenation.
Owned and operated by the Shead family, Arajilla is one of only two such premium properties on the tiny and remote island, in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. Resurrected from a tumbledown knick-knack and snack store over twenty years ago, Arajilla now offers international standard accommodation and cuisine along with Ayurvedic spa therapy and massage.
Despite its comfort and welcoming air, guests are more likely to find themselves cycling the few quiet roads, swimming in the turquoise waters of the lagoon or hiking the magnificent landscapes.
Rates begin at AU$470 per person and includes all activities, full breakfast, light lunch, selected pre-dinner drinks, three course dinner with menu changing daily, mountain bikes and return airport transfers on the island. [ www.arajilla.com.au ]
Peppers Spicers Peak Lodge Scenic Rim, Queensland
Perched imperiously atop its namesake mountain, Peppers Spicers Peak Lodge is one of the very few such regal properties on the Australian mainland that can match the reputation of the kiwi counterparts.
Built by travel industry entrepreneur and environmental advocate, Graham Turner and his wife Jude, the multi-award-winning, architecturally exquisite property regularly attracts the highest echelon of Australian and international business executives and celebrities seeking a brief, but intense dose of relaxation and sensory pampering. While some choose to explore the glorious bush environs by mountain bike or on foot, most are content to recline in the all-embracing lounge with a good book and a fine wine, just within earshot of the next dinner bell.
Rates begin at A$445.00 per person and includes full breakfast daily, morning and afternoon tea. Your choice of al fresco style lunch or gourmet picnic hamper on the day of arrival. Seven course degustation dinner. All beverages throughout your stay including wines with dinner. [ www.spicerspeaklodge.com.au ]
qualia, Great Barrier Reef
Part of a new wave of Australian ‘ultra lodges’, qualia is located on Hamilton Island amongst the heavenly Whitsunday Group on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef and creates a new stratum of premium accommodation.
An unabashed hedonistic resort, qualia claims to “immerse you in a relaxed atmosphere, offering personalised and intuitive service”. It’s open, breezy suites were designed by Australian architect Chris Beckingham for billionaire owner Bob Oatley with the objective of harmony with the delicate natural surroundings. Choose from Leeward or Windward Suites, or for that special occasion, grab the two-couple Beach House.
Rates begin at A$725 per person for a minimum two night stay and includes all on-island transfers, meals in both restaurants within qualia, non-alcoholic beverages, plus your own electric golf buggy. The Beach House? A$3100.00 per night. [ www.qualia.com.au ]
Also in the pack: Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island; Bloomfield Lodge, Cape Tribulation; Cape Lodge, Margaret River; Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa; Voyages Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef; The Byron at Byron, Byron Bay
Elevate yourself – Watch this Space
Select Hotels www.selecthotels.com
Small Luxury Hotels www.slh.com
HK$10 = A$1.30 = NZ$1.66
(as at 17 July 08)
Thursday, July 03, 2008
for HM Magazine
The rush for ‘green’ credentials and kudos has many people asking questions – and none more so than the travelling public.
The travel industry as a whole is drawing both praise and criticism for its impact on the environment. Carbon-burners like airlines, road transport and cruise ships are under scrutiny for their obvious greenhouse gas emissions, but hotels and resorts are not immune either.
Luxury travel is seen, with some justification, as indulgent and pampering with scant regard paid to the consequences of such hedonistic and selfish actions. Golf courses suck fresh water from precious reserves while locals gather drinking water in leaky buckets. Outdoor floodlights illuminate empty tennis courts as nearby barefooted villagers cook over smoky stoves and candlelight. We’ve all seen it.
As probing and questioning eyes fall upon the hospitality industry, the industry is responding with various mechanisms and programs, some genuinely practical and effective – others less so.
Accor recently announced a new twist to the ‘hang your towel for re-use’ practice common in most hotels around the world. Touted by some as a ‘save the planet’ action, most guests quickly see through this request as simply a means to save the hotel money and boost profit rather than as some altruistic gesture.
Acknowledging this, Accor has introduced a formula to determine how much savings can be made through towel re-use and pledged to donate these funds to UNEP’s reforestation programme.
According to their media statement, to prepare for the full-scale introduction, Accor is offering special training for housekeepers and is planning a campaign to build awareness among guests, who will be personally encouraged to take part in the program through a message posted in their bathrooms informing them that “Here, your towels plant trees.”
“The project should enable us to finance the planting of three million trees by 2012,” said Gilles Pélisson, Accor Chief Executive Officer. “I am very proud that the Group is actively supporting the United Nations Environment Programme in this reforestation project, which involves operators and customers of all our hotel brands, from economy to luxury.”
Accor’s program also receives the glowing endorsement of the UNEP.
“All countries are concerned by deforestation,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP. “With this reforestation project, Accor is also helping to combat global warming, restore ecosystems, wipe out epidemics and preserve the planet’s fresh water.”
Even if the money were not going to replant trees, the reduction in waste water and chemical use is a small but real gesture any hotel or motel can make.
Although reforestation is a critical activity in many areas, trees planted today will take at least twenty years to reach maturity. The critics will argue that attention needs to be directed at “now” schemes. What can we do to reduce and offset emissions today?
Marriott, a US$13 billion-a-year company has pledged to donate $2 million over the next three years to encourage Brazilian natives not to chop down trees. Through the Sustainable Amazon Foundation, a newly-formed non-profit organization, Marriott will also solicit contributions from its employees and hotel guests who want to offset their carbon footprint and help save the Amazon.
A novel mechanism employed by the historic Badrutt’s Hotel in St. Moritz was to install a massive heat pump plant utilising the vast water reserves of the lake. When it came time to replace the hotel’s aging oil-fired heaters, it was calculated that by harnessing the heat reserves from the lake water, 475000 litres of heating oil would be saved annually. Additionally, St. Moritz has also installed an extensive array of solar panels around the town leading them to claim the town makes renewable energy not only sensible, but “chic and sexy.”
Hilton Hotels, on a ‘save energy’ drive for over a decade, says it has delivered savings of over 10 per cent last year across more than 80 hotels in Europe as well as cutting water consumption by five percent. The ‘we care!’ initiative, which involves a suite of global actions and targets, has saved the company almost $10 million and instilled a new environmental culture targeting waste, chemicals, energy and water.
Frank Hubbard is the Director of Sustainability, InterContinental Hotels Group ANZSP and says that part of IHG’s philosophy, and an essential component of implementing sound environmental practices, is to provide relevant training and resources.
All these schemes and claims sound great, but who is out there to ‘keep the blighters honest.” What accreditation program or benchmarking exists?
AAA Tourism, the STAR raters, make the refreshingly candid assertion that “recent research has confirmed that consumers have a keen interest in properties that are environmentally friendly. Two out of three say a Green endorsement would positively impact their decision on which accommodation to choose.” So ‘Green Star’ is born, encouraging members to self-assess their property and get a $225 marketing pack with tips on how to promote their new ‘environmentally friendly’ status.
AAA Tourism go on to point out that their Green Star is not an alternative to the better known Green Globe standard, merely a stepping stone to the internationally recognised travel and tourism certification system.
“Green STAR Accreditation is an entry level program for all accommodation operators who wish to reduce the environmental impact of their business; particularly those running small businesses that don’t have vast sums of money to implement costly initiatives. Green STAR is by no means as demanding as Green Globe’s Certification; however a number of practical standards must be met to alleviate pressure on the environment. Put simply, 1000 Green STAR Accredited properties is a far better outcome for the environment than only handful of properties meeting the most rigorous standards,” says Paul Baumgartner, National Manager of STAR Ratings.
Green Globe, according to their website, “aims to deliver the best travel and tourism benchmarking and certification products and services in the world, which facilitate sustainable travel and tourism for companies, communities, ecotourism operations and precincts.” Note keywords; “products” and “deliver”, so Green Globe recognise that green is good business.
Despite the onerous compliance, Heritage Hotels in eco-conscious New Zealand have tackled this head-on and achieved Green Globe benchmarking since 2002. (see break out for their eco-tips)
Another benchmarking program with a respected profile is the home-grown Eco Certification Program from Ecotourism Australia. More rigorous than even Green Globe’s strict criteria, Ecotourism Australia were recently awarded the World Travel and Tourism Council’s “Tourism for Tomorrow” Award for Conservation at the World Tourism Summit in Dubai.
“Ecotourism Australia’s Chairman, Mr Alastair McCracken, said the comprehensive ECO Certification program was a world first when it was introduced in 1995 and the Australian ecotourism industry can be proud of the way it embraced this initiative with its many stringently audited criteria to ensure environmental, economic and cultural sustainability.”
“This program is now an inspiration worldwide as governments and tourism operators seek to measure and manage the environmental impact of human activity,” Mr McCracken said.
Realistically, very few small accommodation operators will be able to achieve Ecotourism Australia standards.
The danger with moving reactively to pressure from environmental criticism is to adopt measures that appear green but have little real impact, with the imperative to be seen to be green more important than implementing actual reductions in emissions or waste.
At a recent ANTOR seminar in Sydney, media spokesman for Choice Magazine, Christopher Zinn, warned the travel industry not to fall into the trap that attracts the attention of his ferociously impartial magazine, namely to make unsubstantiated and unsupported claims.
“In the UK recently, the giant Shell oil company was taken to task by the advertising watchdog for a series of advertisements that pictured flowers sprouting from oil refineries,” said Zinn, “and they found that this was likely to mislead the public.”
The consequences of being ‘outed’ for misleading advertising are many; negative public relations, damaged credibility and big fines to name the obvious ones.
Kris Madden of the Eco Media Group, is a consultant to government and industry on strategic communication as well as eco- and sustainable tourism, has the same warning.
“Although I acknowledge the contribution of the travel industry to global warming, I’m still more than a little suspicious of all these carbon offset schemes popping up,” warns Madden, “there is no framework of operation, no benchmarks and no real checks and balances under which these schemes operate. One has to wonder whether there is a real environmental benefit from some of them, or whether it’s just ‘greenwash’.”
In the fierce competition for consumer sentiment, true carbon consciousness and fuzzy green schemes will be difficult to isolate as more and more businesses fly the “carbon neutral” flag and put green stickers on their windows.
“Sure, it’s better than doing nothing and it certainly raises awareness of the problem, but I fear it is more important for some of the worst offenders to be seen to be reacting to the climate change issue than actually making a difference.”
There is the danger that the cost of offsetting carbon consumption will simply disappear into the cost structure of business and the true intention of greenhouse gas reduction at source will be lost. Carbon trading is big business and getting bigger. According to carbon trader Guy Oilan of Cleaner Climate, the global carbon “market” is worth US$92 billion and growing and is currently valuing one tonne of carbon emission at A$40. So where does the money go?
“Cleaner Climate only develops and supports projects with independently certified and measured emission reductions,” says Oilan, “Our projects adhere to the standards, processes and requirements of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and The Voluntary Carbon Standard. An example is the WISE wind farm in Karnataka, India, eliminating 2,532 tonnes of CO2 annually.”
To simply and cynically view ‘green’ as the new ‘black’ without moderating our habits and behaviour at both macro- and micro- level is to trivialise the climate change issue.
“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today and how we respond will shape the lives of future generations,” says IHG CEO, Andy Cosslett.
HM will continue to monitor develops in this field and report regularly on green initiatives and climate change abatement in the hospitality industry.
- ENDS –
Breakout or pull-quote:
"Ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation". - definition of ecotourism adopted by Ecotourism Australia
“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today and how we respond will shape the lives of future generations.” - IHG CEO, Andy Cosslett
Eco-Tips from Heritage Hotels – Green Globe benchmarked since 2002.
The Heritage Hotel group is committed to creating an environmentally safe working place and as such have been members of Green Globe since 2002. The group has the largest commitment of hotel inventory Green Globe benchmarked for sustainability in the country.
This commitment has been reflected in the implementation of a number of power-saving and sustainability initiatives such as:
* Using energy-saving lamps
* Installing water saving devices such as different showerheads throughout the hotel
* Encouraging guests to re-use towels in order to use less water and reduce detergents
* Introducing glass and plastic bottle recycling program
* Using fire extinguishers that are not CFC based
* Using live plants within the hotel
* Ensuring our suppliers deliver as many items as possible in reusable plastic crates
* Encouraging staff to utilise energy efficiently
* Reusing paper where appropriate within each department
As a result of their involvement, Heritage Auckland has saved 44.5% on energy consumption, 38% on electricity consumption and 44% on water consumption since original benchmarking in 2002. All of this directly impacts positively on the environment.
It’s no longer headline news that many hotels, chains and even humble guest houses are outsourcing many of their non-core activities.
Sometimes it’s as simple as house-keeping and maintenance, in some cases entire hotels are sold with the management company simply retaining operating rights under an agreement with the new owners, usually a large funds management company.
Regardless, it’s a long, sometimes hard, self-analysis that requires identification of core competencies and a commitment to performing those to optimum efficiency.
The criticisms of outsourcing are many, especially when they involve job losses to overseas contractors; airline maintenance and call centres being just two that spring to mind. The overriding issues here are loss of employment opportunities to locals and questions about service quality and control. That said, there are times when outsourcing makes good sense and creates winners all around.
Here at HM Magazine, outsourced public relations is one of the commonest disciplines we encounter. Luke Starr of Starr PR is one of dozens of independent practitioners serving the hospitality industry.
“My clients hire me because I’m a specialist,” says Starr, “my contacts and expertise extend beyond their company and they rightly expect those contacts to yield opportunities that they may not otherwise encounter as a large hotel brand.”
Another simple and obvious example is housekeeping. For many years AHS Hospitality has provided outsourced housekeeping services to the accommodation industry.
However, AHS work in partnership with hotels to provide more than just housekeeping services. Apart from temporary and permanent staff placement, AHS provide linen and laundry management, manage and design OHS systems within the hotel, provide hotel safety checks, train staff in service and procedures plus conduct departmental assessments. Third party assessments have obvious benefits in being able to compare industry-wide standards isolated from any internal culture.
Additionally, the selection of staff and their suitability to a particular property is crucial. AHS recognise this and have proven it to be achievable.
“Outsourcing is fundamental to our business and has been for many years. Our guests are extremely demanding and we need to maintain the highest standards possible,” says Sarah Henderson General Manager, The Como Hotel, Melbourne, “Our housekeeping department is an important part of keeping our guests satisfied. Recently we had a change of senior personnel in our housekeeping operation and AHS handled this with utmost care and professionalism. They have retained top talent in our hotel and we see the benefits of this every day. I very much treat the team like I would if they were employed by me, we are all one team with a common goal.”
Just when you think it’s all getting you down, recruitment, training, human resources, and OHS tasks can be handled by AHS in a timely, sympathetic and efficient manner.
“I outsourced the housekeeping department over 12 months ago to AHS, “ says Tish Nyar, General Manager at Rydges World Square. “We needed to make substantial change - both cultural and operational - and partnering with AHS meant I was able to focus on my revenue generating departments during a particularly challenging time. The benefits for my team have included the additional support from the AHS operational team. With the recently improved quality process AHS has in place we are seeing a continuous lift in standards.”
‘Quality’, to state the obvious, is a fundamental factor in the running of any hotel and from the front desk to the humblest housekeeping tasks, can make or break a property’s reputation.
[ Steve Tochner Quote ]
An area commonly sought for outsourcing is HR. Sydney-based Hostec was formed in 1997 and specialises in executive search, training, and Australian traineeships targeted at international hotels, resorts and associated premier tourism, hospitality and leisure service providers.
“At Hostec, there are plenty of benefits in outsourcing training and recruitment services. People are our business and hospitality and tourism is our passion,” says Ian Wilson, CEO.
“Critically important is understanding people culture and business needs; What is the company looking to achieve in the next three to five years? What strategies to achieve maximum results for shareholders? How do you maintain successful and positive people culture with longevity to the business and brand? After all, it’s our business to be leaders in benchmarking global trends in identifying, developing and retaining better people.”
Wilson says Hostec’s outsourcing success is based on long-term, strategic relationships with growing world-class tourism, hospitality and leisure groups. Critical innovations include technology, workforce efficiencies, consistency and risk minimisation for shareholders. Other benefits include a strategic approach in maximising the Australian Government incentives nationally.
Hostec’s clients include Fairmont, Hilton, Hyatt, Jumeirah, Mirvac, Peninsula, Sofitel and Shangri-la.
If your hotel or chain is considering outsourcing any of your current in-house services, a simple, no-obligation call to any of the qualified hospitality operators will help you decide – one way or the other.
Reasons for outsourcing. Are you ready?
Organisations that outsource are seeking to realise benefits or address the following issues:
* Cost savings. The lowering of the overall cost of the service to the business. This will involve reducing the scope, defining quality levels, re-pricing, re-negotiation, cost re-structuring. Access to lower cost economies through offshoring called "labor arbitrage" generated by the wage gap between industrialised and developing nations.
* Cost restructuring. Operating leverage is a measure that compares fixed costs to variable costs. Outsourcing changes the balance of this ratio by offering a move from fixed to variable cost and also by making variable costs more predictable.
* Improve quality. Achieve a step change in quality through contracting out the service with a new service level agreement.
* Knowledge. Access to intellectual property and wider experience and knowledge.
* Contract. Services will be provided to a legally binding contract with financial penalties and legal redress. This is not the case with internal services.
* Operational expertise. Access to operational best practice that would be too difficult or time consuming to develop in-house.
* Staffing issues. Access to a larger talent pool and a sustainable source of skills.
* Capacity management. An improved method of capacity management of services and technology where the risk in providing the excess capacity is borne by the supplier.
* Catalyst for change. An organisation can use an outsourcing agreement as a catalyst for major step change that can not be achieved alone. The outsourcer becomes a Change agent in the process.
* Reduce time to market. The acceleration of the development or production of a product through the additional capability brought by the supplier.
* Commodification. The trend of standardising business processes, IT Services and application services enabling businesses to intelligently buy at the right price. Allows a wide range of businesses access to services previously only available to large corporations.
* Risk management. An approach to risk management for some types of risks is to partner with an outsourcer who is better able to provide the mitigation.
* Time zone. A sequential task can be done during normal day shift in different time zones - to make it seamlessly available 24x7. Same/similar can be done on a longer term between earth's hemispheres of summer/winter.
* Customer Pressure. Customers may see benefits in dealing with your company, but are not happy with the performance of certain elements of the business, which they may not see a solution to except through outsourcing.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Just as the great sporting nations enjoy a healthy rivalry, so too does Melbourne enjoy a respect among the great city destinations of the world.
With her annual Formula One Grand Prix engaging many millions of television viewers from around the globe, the fast-paced, cosmopolitan face of Melbourne is front-and-centre on the world stage. However, so much of what Melbourne has to offer will always remain hidden from cable channel surfers and TV sports fans. Even Melbournians themselves are only now beginning to uncover some of the secret nooks and crannies of their own city.
To get an idea of this unseen urban terrain, hold your breath as you dangle almost 300 metres above the streetscape from Skydeck on Level 88 of the awe-inspiring Eureka Tower. It’s the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere and the Edge Experience, where visitors enter a glass-floored chamber, is one of the Melbourne’s home-grown heartstoppers.
Almost straight down and to the immediate north and northwest, you’ll see one of the oldest and least-developed parts of the city starting across from busy Flinders Street Station. Ornate 19th Century Victorian buildings, old warehouses and little shopfronts call back to a time before the growth of the mighty glass and marble monoliths just up the street in the big end of town.
To properly explore this historic sandstone-walled, mini-jungle, you can pop into any of the information centres and collect a Melbourne Walks No.4 leaflet. Take a 90-minute self-guided tour into the narrow back-alleys of Degraves Street and into the myriad lanes and arcades, or join the popular Hidden Secrets Tour for a full four hour exposé.
Born-and-bred Melbournian, Fiona Sweetman, is your stylish and vivacious guide. Follow her as she swirls and glides along the narrow courtyards and alleys pointing out the history and significant architectural features of the old buildings and shops now transformed into trendy boutiques and irresistible cafés.
“This started a few years ago as a shopping tour for the girls,” says Fiona, “but it’s just grown as people want more. I also do an Art and Design tour that attracts couples and a few single guys too. Everyone seems to have great fun.”
The tour group assembles at the Melbourne Visitor Centre in Federation Square, the new arts and entertainment hub across from Flinders Street station. Anything but secret, Federation Square was completed in 2002 to celebrate the Australia’s “coming of age” in 1901. It houses the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the state-of-the-art Australian Centre for the Moving Image plus 20 bars, restaurants and cafes centred around the city’s most vibrant public space.
But we’re about to go underground with Fiona, figuratively and literally. She guides us down a set of stairs that takes us below the pavement of busy Flinders Street. Once virtually abandoned, this pedestrian tunnel is part art-space, part funky retail.
“After languishing for many years, these shops have been reclaimed by some innovative designers and retailers,“ says Fiona pointing to racks of racy vintage wear in the memorably named boutique, Lola von Lixx.
We surface in Degraves Street proper, a typically rejuvenated alleyway, now overflowing with cool chic and the unmistakable aroma of freshly ground coffee. A healthy throng of patrons fills the seats, engaged in animated chatter and obviously enjoying the ambiance. Melbourne is a social city, where people eat out, promenade and engage with a sense of community not so common anymore. Fiona throws waves, kisses and greetings to the shopkeepers and staff like a flower girl throws confetti at a wedding.
Our group ogles shoes, handbags and frocks; many are totally unique creations, handmade by the budding designers and fashionistas that make Melbourne famous. Il Papiro, on the other hand, sells an exquisite assortment of stationery and specialty paper products. This delightful store could be just as much at home in the lanes of Venice.
Beyond Degraves is Union Lane. Upon first inspection, you may recoil at the vast graffiti murals, but in this lane at least, the spraycan artform is celebrated. Artists tag their vivid, oversize and abstract portraiture with their street personas: EFC, FT, Trance, SWB TGC, ID Boys, Siloe, Na, Sub rock and Deb.
Homegrown stores with such evocative names as Aesop, Manvious, Shag and Fat perfectly capture the ingenious and irreverent style that gives their products unique flair. Be sure to stroll through elegant Block Place and Arcade for style and grace, then cross over to the elegant 19th Century Royal Arcade – Australia’s oldest. In the ceiling are Gog and Magog, two giant mythological Britons who have struck their gongs every hour since 1892.
Morning tea is a special event in Melbourne. Rest your tired feet and put down those shopping bags, you’ve earned a treat. We’re heading for Koko Black in the Royal Arcade for a hot chocolate that transcends the senses. Want something to talk about? Try the Chilli Hot Chocolate, perfect for a cold winter’s day. Or true ‘chocophiles’ can indulge themselves with the Traditional Belgian Blend. Those on a diet can watch resident chocolatier, Kim Linssen, through the window as she sculpts her latest creamy creations.
Fiona’s tours culminate in a gourmet lunch at Caboose in City Square. Choose a scrumptious tortellini or risotto, or if you’ve really worked up an appetite, go the 300g Angus sirloin with caramelised onions and pink peppercorn jus. There’s a glass of great Aussie wine on offer too. Oh, my!
[More information: www.hiddensecretstours.com and www.thatsmelbourne.com.au ]
Melbourne rejoices in its many cosmopolitan flavours as much as it does its “dinkum” Aussie fare. There’s a lively Chinatown in Little Bourke Street and a little Athens in Lonsdale Street, while a distinctly Parisian feel pervades the designer boutiques of Collins Street.
Café culture is another highlight of Melbourne and its inner suburbs. With strong Italian and Greek influences throughout the city, great coffee was always a part of life.
Maria Paoli, an accredited barista, coffee judge and trainer, runs The Historical Coffee Trek through central Melbourne, visiting the premium coffee houses and cafés. What’s a perfect extraction? How do you tell a top crema? Spend two hours with Maria and you’ll never drink instant coffee again.
[More information: www.thecoffeeguide.com.au ]
Australia’s great coastal cities enjoy world renown for their incomparable outdoor lifestyle. Sydney and Brisbane for their sun-drenched, water-based relaxation; Perth for great beaches; and Adelaide for parks and scenic hills. Yet Melbourne stands apart with an open-air character of its own; cosmopolitan and sophisticated, yet still essentially Australian in every way.
Set out to explore Melbourne and you’ll find a multi-faceted city full of surprises. And with an explorer’s mind, you’ll uncover things mere tourists will almost certainly overlook. To get your adventurous juices flowing, start your journey at the vast Visitor Information Centre in Federation Square, that un-missable landmark right across from Flinders Street Station. You can book tours, buy tickets or just get maps for your own self-guided voyage of discovery.
Outside in Federation Square you're just as likely to see street theatre, musicians or all manner of performance artists - and if you're not careful, you may end up as part of the entertainment! Opened in 2002 to celebrate the nation's coming of age, futuristic Federation Square offers a wide assortment of art, dining and entertainment options all ideally located. And if the clouds gather, there's plenty to do indoors.
Australians, as you’ll find out, enjoy a special sense of humour and Melbourne is often teased about its varying weather. But in truth, a glorious sunny day in Autumn or Spring is no time to be hanging around inside and Melbournians and their guests can be found strolling the leafy banks of the Yarra, picnicking, cycling or enjoying one of the superb al fresco dining experiences along Southbank or any of the city streets.
If the classic river steamer passing under Princes Bridge looks inviting, why not give it a try? Climb aboard M.V. Grower, the river’s oldest working ferry, just in front of Southbank for a half- or one hour tour.
You just can’t get a bad coffee in Melbourne. Pull up a seat at any outdoor café and sit back for an hour and just soak up the atmosphere while you ponder an aromatic macchiato or dense restrito. Just like a good café, Melbourne offers way more than a simple cappuccino.
If you want to cover some ground in a short time, you can hire a bicycle at Federation Square and head down to the new docklands area on the western edge of the CBD; a recently redeveloped cityscape, transformed into a modern living space from grungy warehouses and wharfs. Even the locals are only starting to discover this new part of town. With the massive Telstra Dome, the new home of Aussie Rules football, as its centrepiece, the list of quality eateries, restaurants and cafes rolls on like the never-ending movie credits. Stop for a moment though and admire the Variety Australian Entertainers of the Century and Walk of Stars, where 100 plaques, a mosaic wall and bronze figures commemorate Australia’s finest entertainers.
Pedal northeast past the historic Flagstaff Gardens to the Queen Victoria Market. No matter where in the world you travel, the local outdoor markets will always give you an insight into the character of a city. The Queen Victoria Markets are Melbourne’s market and, in keeping with the outgoing flair of the city, often provide entertaining street theatre and music that can be as simple as talented buskers, right through to the lavish Opera in the Market with a lineup including Opera Australia’s Taryn Fiebig, tenor sensation Roy Best, and the international flautist Jane Rutter. Sunday’s the day.
Let’s do lunch – and where else but the thriving cosmopolitan and gastronomic centre of Melbourne; Lygon Street, Carlton. Nationally recognised for its wonderful diversity of cuisine, it is probably best known for fabulous Italian dining. The historic heartland of Melbourne’s Italian community, it’s the place where the city’s famous café culture was born – or so they say!
In Lygon Street, you’ll find pasta and pizza like you’ve never imagined. Such wonderfully evocative names such as Il Gusto, Il Fresco and Piccolo Mondo will greet you as you try to make a choice from the scores that line both sides of the street. Relax, you can’t choose a bad one.
After a satisfying repast and perhaps a vino, stroll or pedal across the few hundred metres to the magnificent Carlton Gardens and Melbourne Museum. Established in 1857, the classically-designed gardens are dominated by the imposing UNESCO World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building.
Following the garden trail, we can continue clockwise around the CBD to the expansive Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens with its superb conservatory and the relocated Cooks Cottage, brought out from Yorkshire in barrels and crates and reassembled in 1934 to commemorate the great navigator and discoverer.
Back in the city we can track down a few unusual and eclectic attractions. In summer, climb to the top of 252 Swanston Street, right in the heart of the city, and enjoy some al fresco shopping. That’s right, The Rooftop Market, is open from 11am until 3.30pm every Friday and is “chock-a-block” full of quirky and cute designer label like Aduki, Hamb, Gorman and Boy on a Bike. At night the space reverts to the Rooftop Cinema where you can relax in a deckchair and take in a classic with a drink from the bar.
Did I say bar? No-one goes thirsty in Melbourne and the cocktail bars and nightlife are an institution in Melbourne. Within the city, try a Manhattan at Madame Brussels, a Long Island Tea at The Order of Melbourne, or a Margarita at the Meccca Bah, Docklands. You’ll never run out of choice.
To top off your Melbourne experience, book in advance for a table or bar stool at Taxi back in Federation Square. Immensely popular, multi-award winning Taxi is *the* current hot ticket in town. Michael Lambie’s vast and intriguing menu can only be conquered by repeat visits, but a degustation is a wise choice for those wishing to get cross section. Just make sure the wagyu beef is on the list.
Tour planning and attractions:
Visitor Information Centres: Federation Square, Burke Street Mall
Taxi Dining Room – Level 1, Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Cnr Flinders and Swanston Sts, 9654 8808
Rooftop Market - 252 Swanston Street - www.rooftopmarket.com
Queen Victoria Market, Corner Elizabeth and Victoria Streets Tel: (03) 9320 5822 www.qvm.com.au
City of Melbourne Local Government (for Parks and Gardens) Phone: +61 3 9658 9658 www.melbourne.vic.gov.au
Served by traveloscopy.com
Friday, May 23, 2008
Abandon your plans, throw away the brochures and take the flight of fancy. Jump into the swirling pool of last minute travel opportunities and see where you end up. Roderick Eime dares you.
For many, the family holiday is as meticulously planned as a military operation. Timetables, visas, schedules and check-in/check outs all conspire to make vacation planning as stressful as the life we are attempting to escape from. How about throwing plans out the window and trying some of the many “last minute” travel, holiday and adventure possibilities flourishing on the ‘net?
It’s no secret that hotel and resort bookings can be found on the Internet at rock bottom prices, especially if you seek them out close to your anticipated travel time.
Industry leader in what the trade calls “distressed inventory” is perhaps the website www.wotif.com which currently offers more than 10,000 properties in 40 countries and books almost 3 million room nights each year – numbers that grow every day.
“Large hotels will always drop their rates if they look like getting stuck with unoccupied rooms,” advises Carolyn Prendergast from Wotif.com, “a conference cancellation, for example, can result in a lot of empty rooms at short notice and this is the time to act. The downside, if there is one, is that it might not be the exact hotel in the preferred location, but that’s the fun of it.”
Prendergast also says slightly out-of-the-way locations, serviced apartments and avoiding peak times should be considered.
About 12 months ago, the other industry leader, lastminute.com.au, announced Secret Hotels, a stealthy plot to offer premium 5-star properties at bargain basement rates.
"Secret Hotels is the proactive way for hotels to sell discounted rooms without fear of brand erosion because the hotel name is not advertised to the general public. The results have been incredible; with some hotels selling in excess of 1000 room nights in a single month, which would otherwise have stayed empty," says Brad Gurrie, General Manager Hotels at lastminute.com.au.
Recent examples from the Secret Hotel menu include rates as low as $155 per person, per night twin share for 5-star Sydney CBD hotel. Full relaxation or naughty weekend packages are well under $400 per couple per night and often include such niceties as spa treatments, champagne, chocolates, premium in-room movies, full breakfast or even dinner. A spokesperson for lastminute.com.au was tight-lipped about which properties are participating in the programme, but would neither confirm nor deny such landmark Sydney hotels as Marriott, InterContinental, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons or Amora Jamison.
Tip: Wotif.com offers a similar service with their WotHotel? listings at their site.
Lastminute.com.au is quick to remind us that their array of product extends well beyond crisp linen and comfy pillows. If you’re on a loose end, you could choose from a joyride in an authentic combat fighter, bunk down with the animals at Taronga Zoo, skydive or go rally driving in a fully-tricked Subaru WRX. These spontaneous activities can set you back up to $750pp, but for penny-pinchers, why not take The Rocks Ghost Tour and be scared witless for just $34.
Fancy a Cruise?
Just like hotel rooms, cruise lines must fill cabins and there are some wild bargains to be had.
Since launching in 2000 with just two staff, on-line cruise agency, www.ecruising.travel, has grown on the back of Australians’ love of the cruise ship product to become one of Australia’s top cruise-only agents with over 30 consultants.
“Even though we are not strictly a ‘last minute’ agent, we have sold thousands of cabins through our ability to reach people quickly and efficiently via the ‘net and through our regular newsletter,” says ecruising.travel MD Brett Dudley. “Cruisers have become used to finding amazing cruise bargains at our site. They can find a cruise and be booked and ticketed, with flights if needed, often in less than an hour and sometimes sail within a few days.”
Dudley advises that it is often the less desirable cabins, low and inside, that cruise lines find harder to sell. If you don’t care for a balcony or an owners’ suite, then all your other shipboard facilities are equal. Savings of up to 65 per cent are possible and Dudley predicts that with P&O’s newer, much larger Pacific Dawn now in Australia, bargains will be easier to find.
Timing is Everything
Just as airlines have peak, shoulder and off-peak times, so too have hotels, resorts, cruise lines and experiential products. Needless to say, the holiday crush is the least likely time to yield bargains, but if you can defer to outside peak seasons, your savings will quickly add up.
Tip: Stay flexible with travel times and be ready to pounce on a deal as soon as you see it. If you wanted to travel on Friday but there’s a better deal on Saturday, consider changing your plans slightly.
And don’t give up. Keep checking the sites regularly, maybe even more than once per day, as the dynamic information can, and does, change any time.
Don’t fixate on a destination. You just want a getaway at the right price, yeah? Look in the general regions and states. For example, if you can’t get the deal you want in Surfers Paradise, there may be a better offer from Noosa, Townsville or Cairns. That’s the joy of spontaneity!
Every travel supplier will want you to stay in touch with them regularly, and why not? Each one has their own bulletin and newsletter packed with opportunities and must conform to stringent e-mail privacy guidelines. You can opt out at any time and just get the information when you want it.
Get a Lesson in Life
It’s a great double header to snare a deal and have great holiday, but to spice the recipe with spontaneity can add an element that might lift your next vacation from routine to truly memorable.
Monday, May 05, 2008
They stood before us like condemned men, their proud tradition and heritage had run its course. These well-weathered, handsome men of the jungle were the last real mahouts, trained in the ancient and dangerous art of wild elephant capture.
The mighty Asian elephant has featured large in Asian culture for centuries. This enormous beast, a perennial symbol of strength and power, has been tamed and trained to perform in a variety of roles in agriculture, royal ceremonies, circuses and even combat.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
“New Zealand. Show me one good thing about it,” asked a cynical Peter FitzSimons in Tourism NZ’s highly successful 2004 TV campaign. His artificial rhetoric has come home and our Kiwi cousins are basking in tourism success.
Of course, catalysts like Lord of the Rings and even Zena, Warrior Princess catapulted New Zealand’s spectacular scenery and landscapes onto the world stage. Almost at once, Middle Earth and 100% Pure New Zealand were indistinguishable.
I’ve made three trips across the Tasman in as many years and one thing that sticks with me is the Kiwis’ consummate expertise in service excellence. And not just the five star hotels and resorts in which they excel, but right down to the little corner shop. Regular folks, it seems, are ready to go the extra mile for visitors, something I’m sure we don’t manage here at home. “Youse right there?” I still get from staff at large retailers here when I attempt to interrupt their leisure time behind the counter.
Eco-tourism, adventure tourism, adrenalin jumps, luxury lodges and indigenous tourism are all putting a swagger into the step of the New Zealand tourism industry as they command world attention and premium pricing for their products.
“The fact is, times are good and high-end American travellers generally remain unflustered by the lofty rates,” asserts de luxe maestro, Andrew Harper, editor of the salubrious Hideaway Report.
But for just how long can they keep it up?
The luxury sector for example, is a wriggly one and hard to define. What is luxury exactly and who exactly is buying it? For some clues on this I consulted a panel of of acknowledged luxury experts:
“First of all you must define just what luxury is. Luxury isn’t just a commodity. It is a rare quality that isn’t available in abundance,” explains Welf J Ebeling, Executive Vice President and COO of The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW).
“The upscale traveller wants authenticity and individuality when he travels, especially for leisure. They are looking for an experience that matches the destination and the cultural and natural environment. And of course, the human touch, service.”
And New Zealand has produced some eye-popping examples of blockbuster locations for their lodges. Take Huka, Grasmere, Peppers on the Point and Blanket Bay to name just a few. Ebeling was in this part of the world for a good reason. He was having a darned good look at these properties for his company which already has nearly 500 elite establishments in its portfolio. Just not enough down here.
And they’re getting the asking price, for now. All-inclusive tariffs for the Kiwi properties listed above start at $1000 per couple per night. No tyre-kickers here thank you.
So what does this mean?
For this one I asked Richard Rosebery, executive director, Select Hotels and Resorts International. The NZ “super lodges”, as he calls them, have earned their prestige, position and pricing, but concedes there is downward pressure on tariffs generally.
“Australia’s problem,” he proclaims with gusto, “is that we are underpriced! Traditionally our (marketing) reaction has been to discount in the event of crisis. We seem to be forever trying to recover our tariffs, not grow them. And even though our friends the Kiwi’s may have to moderate only slightly, their lower dollar keeps them attractive.”
In pulling this rationale together, Richard views the problem as more on our side of the “ditch.
“So, in effect, we have the best value up-market lodges here, but the danger is that they become potentially unprofitable.
To illustrate his point, an equivalent all-inclusive package at the glorious Cape Lodge on WA’s Margaret River is roughly half of the NZ rate.
Across the street, Lynn Ireland, regional director, Asia Pacific, Small Luxury Hotels of the World says the luxury travel market is extremely resilient and New Zealand, in particular, has demonstrated stalwart “year-on-year” growth.
“Pricing may sometimes be adjusted due to seasonality, events or trends in the market; however these have not been significant, remaining at a maximum (negative swing) of 7 per cent on average rate over the toughest times,” says Lynn.
“Australians are actually the second largest market for New Zealand SLH properties and the third largest worldwide. How about that?”
So despite our convict upbringing and propensity for underarm deliveries, we are waking up to luxury products and falling in line with international luxury buyers.
As a person intimately in touch with the luxury travel mindset, Claudia Rossi Hudson, managing director, Mary Rossi Travel is quick to acknowledge the growing sophistication of the discerning Australian clientele.
“New Zealand was once the preferred budget blue rinse destination but, to the credit of Tourism NZ, it has completely turned around,” says Claudia, “clients are often surprised at the range of superb properties across the Tasman.”
And what about Australia’s perception in the luxury destination market compared to New Zealand?
”I don't think Australia’s international marketing is doing any favours for our best properties. Shrimps on barbies and ‘bloody hells’ are not raising our profile in this segment,” concludes Claudia with thinly disguised understatement.
And the luxury market is changing all over the world as countries like China, India and Russia soar headfirst into the rarefied atmosphere of the high flyers.
Robb Report’s Chief Luxury Officer, Carol Brodie, says “The whole face of luxury is changing. Even though luxury consumers across different cultural backgrounds have one thing in common, namely wealth, their desires, passions and interests are very different. They are attracted to luxury brands, but they want different things from each brand.”
So how is this forever shifting landscape going to affect us? Will we entice the nouveau luxophiles from China and the sub-continent, growing at a rate of 15 per cent per annum according to BNP Paribas’s World Luxury Index, or will our barbies and bikini bottoms send them scurrying for the Kiwi alternative? Watch this space.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Almost one thousand expectant guests crammed the auditorium, a record-breaking sellout for the Sydney Morning Herald Dymocks Literary Lunch. The mainly grey-haired, bespectacled audience sat entranced, their veal fillets a mere side dish for the main course; English adventurer and raconteur, Michael Palin.
With New Europe, Michael claims to fill what has been a void in his own experience and that of many of his own generation. In all he visits 20 countries, starting high in the Julian Alps on the border between Slovenia and Italy where the Iron Curtain once ran, he travelled through the Balkans and the countries bordering the Black Sea before turning northwards through the heart of old East Europe to the Baltic States, almost as far north as St Petersburg.
I sit diligently listening and making notes, preparing for the scant fifteen minutes I will get to ask him my own questions, when he answers one, unprompted, from the podium.
It’s day 86, Estonia, and Michael has an appointment with a hirudotherapist. “After a small striptease, Ms Agajeva, a woman in her fifties and buxom in a generous, motherly sort of way is applying leeches to my torso. Why? Because Roger the cameraman thought it would be painful and unpleasant - and therefore mandatory. Apparently the application of leeches is an ancient and proven way of treating impotence, high blood pressure and a myriad other complaints.
“After fifteen minutes the little buggers are swollen and satisfied and have supplied sufficient discomfort to delight Roger. Lyudmilla, we’re on first name terms by now, dresses my wounds with a thick, industrial sticking plaster warning me that further blood loss is likely until the anti-coagulant is absorbed. Back in Tallinn I feel a celebration is in order and I end having more than a glass of wine or two at the excellent restaurant in Tallinn’s Hotel St Petersburg.
“Next morning I wake to a re-run from The Godfather, the bed and my T-shirt are soaked in blood and I look around for the horse’s head that thankfully is not there. I rip off Lyudmilla’s military grade bandages to an ear-splitting noise and the promised 300 mls of blood sprays around the bathroom. Now it’s like a scene from M*A*S*H. I tidy up, check out and am well on the way to Latvia before someone discovers the frightening scene I’ve left behind. It was a charming hotel though.”
The lunch continues amid intermittent waves of laughter and applause, and yes, someone urges Michael to sing the lumberjack song, which he obligingly does, only in German, to a rapturous ovation.
After the 200 metre queue for book signings disperses, I prepare for my introduction. “Hello Michael, I’m Roderick” to which he looks at me with the hint of annoyance reserved for such a feeble attempt at humour. “No, really” I say, handing him my card. He looks at it and then at me with a revised, apologetic gaze, “Oh, you poor man.” My copy of New Europe is duly signed with an official apology from Pontius Pilate. But I’m forgiving, after all I have him to thank for my freedom. (If you haven’t seen Life of Brian, then the joke is lost and you’re probably not reading this anyway).
My turn. Michael, your experience at the Hotel St Petersburg had us in stiches, was that your worst hotel experience?
“Well, to be fair it was me who spoilt it, the hotel was excellent. But several places in China were pretty strange and one comes to mind: the Rongbuk Guest House was a stand out.”
This is how Michael describes it. Day 60, Himalaya. “From the filthy, littered courtyard to the soulless concrete rooms with broken windows and the foul, doorless lavatories, Rongbuk Guest House is pretty much a hell hole.”
Michael adds some flavour that was missing in the book. “It’s run by a bunch of monks whose minds are clearly elsewhere. The toilet was down a freezing corridor and just a slit in the floor. So many people had used it over the years that there was this stalactite of frozen excrement protruding out of it. A shame, such a spectacular location right next to Mount Everest.”
Your favourite hotel?
“Our lodge in the Torres del Paine National Park overlooking the glaciers was just the most magnificent location.”
Day 161 from Full Circle: “Few souls have ventured far into the park at this time of year and we have the hosteria almost to ourselves. Sit by the wood-burning stove, playing dominoes and drinking seven-year-old scotch with seven thousand-year-old glacier ice. Sometimes work is almost bearable.”
On a more serious note, I ask Michael – with all his experience in branded city hotels – what is the one thing a hotel needs to get right?
“Well I think that, just like in good restaurants, a manager or person in authority should be around at all times. When a manager says, ‘Call me anytime if you need something’ they should mean it, not just between 10 and 12 or after 9. It’s service after all.”
“Hiltons, I find are particularly good. The name certainly stands for something and they have a standard of service I can trust.”
Day 80 Pole to Pole: Addis Ababa. “Culture shock as we arrive at the Addis Hilton, into a world of white faces, blond hair, thick legs, full bellies. Curfew from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m, but telephones and mini-bars. Gorgeous, sensational and wonderful shower. The dust runs off in muddy channels. My eyes are red-rimmed and sore, and I have picked up a cluster of flea bites from somewhere but I suppose that's a small price to pay for what we've just been through.”
At 65, Michael Palin seems as bright and spritely as a man half his age, or just a bit older than me. For a bloke who has circled the Earth on both the horizontal and vertical perimeters, climbed mountains, crossed deserts and stood in front of a camera (for two takes) at minus 50 degrees at the South Pole, he’s in pretty fair nick. I don’t need to ask him the next question because it’s written all over him. Travel is obviously a great tonic. Drink your fill!
Palin became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television in 2000.
Along with each member of Monty Python, Palin has an asteroid named after him. His is Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin.
In recognition of his many rail journeys, Palin has two British trains named after him. In 2002, Virgin’s new £5m high speed Super Voyager train number 221130 was named "Michael Palin".
Michael Palin is president of Campaign for Better Transport whose motto is "transport that improves our quality of life and reduces our environmental impact."
In 1993, following his award winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda, Michael agreed to (well, he had to) the naming of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.
As in all his series, Palin's NEW EUROPE takes the form of a journey through countries with rich and complex cultures. Few have survived intact, as the ebb and flow of warring armies have continually changed the map of Europe.
ISBN 0297844490 (978-029-784449-5)
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The enormous chunk of tuna flesh bobbed on the end of the line supported by a small foam ball. Matt ladled great gobs of minced gills and guts onto the surface creating a lumpy, letterbox red slick just behind the boat. Then he struck.
We’d seen his ominous black shadow patrolling beneath us like a menacing midget submarine probing for a weakness, but nothing prepared us for what happened next. In a heart-stopping explosion of gaping crimson jaws filled with rows of razor sharp teeth, the 5 metre, 1000kg monster breached its full torso out of the water in a triumphant display of total dominance. Gotcha!
Underwater, the view is even more terrifying. The seemingly flimsy aluminium cage appears barely strong enough to withstand the fury of this consummate killing machine. Those who remember the Jaws trilogy will recall the complete inadequacy of the metal sanctuary and in no coincidence, many of the scenes that employed live sharks as stunt doubles to the mechanical star were filmed in these very waters. Rodney Fox, the famous diver who displays gruesome body décor courtesy of the great white, is moored alongside with his own clients.
The cage is tethered to the stern with tough mooring lines and divers enter via a manhole in the top. Air is surface fed via a compressor and up to four ‘clients’ squeeze together in a tantalising clump that draws hungry and inquisitive gazes from the circling creatures. Our feet are hooked under a rail in the floor and we cling nervously to handles arranged around the sides while surveying the waters for sharks through viewing holes which strike me as overgenerous. Suddenly there’s a tug on my shoulder and a rubberised finger jabs frantically into the gloom. That famous theme tune plays in my mind as a dark shadow slowly morphs into a full size predator with a very determined purpose.
For thirty minutes we watch totally awestruck as three adult great whites glide effortlessly past in search of the tuna bait dangling rather too close for my liking. That lifeless, inexpressive eye is a porthole to a tiny brain pre-programmed for one task only. A ladle of guts excites them and they’re now intent on the juicy prize. Mouth agape and on target, Matt jerks the bait away at the last minute but the shark lunges again taking the chunk whole, thrashing heavily against the cage’s already dented structure. The water around us is full of bubbles and froth both from the shark’s turbulent antics and our combined hyperventilation. “Mmmerrh!” I scream incomprehensibly into my mouthpiece.
Moose, a 5m male Great White Shark, is a regular visitor off Neptune Island at the very end of South Australia’s Gulf St Vincent and is identified by the red tag applied by Andrew as well as the multitude of battle scars. The nearby Australian Sea Lion colony keeps the carnivorous monsters hanging around, preying on some of the four thousand pups born here each year. Andrew and Matt operate shark cage diving expeditions from nearby Port Lincoln and are regularly booked out months in advance, but today is a special charter for passengers from the luxury expedition yacht, True North, undertaking its inaugural Southern Safari itinerary in the azure waters around South Australia’s peninsulas.
Purpose built for the burgeoning domestic adventure cruise industry, Broome-based North Star Cruises operate the 740 tonne, 36 passenger boutique vessel between March and September among the astonishing rock formations and wilderness waterways of Australia’s Kimberley region. But such is the demand for new and exciting destinations from the growing throng of repeat customers that the company has been obliged to seek out new activities during what were once the off months.
“Our style of touring is very Australian,” says director Craig Howson, also along for the ride, “Some folks take a little while to settle into our deliberately informal atmosphere, but after they’ve got used to bare feet, t-shirts and char-grilled Wagu beef fillet or lobster tail for dinner there’s no going back.”
At the close of the Kimberley season she sets sail for Papua New Guinea via Darwin and Cairns before heading to Sydney for New Year festivities. The brand new, 8-night Southern Safari is a creative utilisation of the return journey to Perth. After taking on its cargo of discerning guests in Adelaide, True North then heads momentarily south to explore the abundant wine region of McLaren Vale before making the crossing to Kangaroo Island. After that, it’s the visual and gastronomic delights of ‘tuna town’ Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay before the trip’s culmination in Streaky Bay.
Expedition cruising is often a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous and North Star Cruises’ version is a well-balanced blend of gourmet cuisine, natural, historical and ethnological enrichment with the occasion adrenalin burst thrown in for good measure. True North is one of the very few local vessels equipped for helicopter operations which she makes use of in the Kimberley and PNG.
After the jaw-dropping exploits of the great marine marauders, those not totally spooked don wetsuits for a serene swim with the sharks’ preferred foodstuff. The playful pups and young adults are almost jumping out of their skin in anticipation and are quick to engage in exuberant interaction when the swimmers enter the water. The mammals swirl and twirl in an aquatic ballet around their hopelessly inept and oversize playmates, yet display a generous tolerance that keeps us entertained for over an hour. It’s tragic to recall this delightful naivety was repaid with lethal consequences when both British and American sealers plundered the happy herds to near extinction in the 19th century. Even today the species are still listed as rare and endangered.
Back in Port Lincoln, there’s a visit to Matt Waller’s tuna farm and again we’re in the water hand-feeding his baby (20kg) Southern Blue Fin. More foodie frolics ensue in Coffin Bay where tray after tray of delicious oysters are served up in various concoctions with surprisingly good local Port Lincoln wines. Coffin Bay oysters are not, as the name might suggest, endemic shellfish, but rather the imported Pacific gourmet variety which thrive in the ideal conditions along the west coast of Eyre Peninsula.
The adventure winds down in Streaky Bay and the passengers, many now friends for life, gather to exchange final farewells before setting course for home. The chatter is overwhelmingly positive with many openly scorning the mass market, big ship alternative. Even by local standards, True North is one of the smaller such vessels but its track record, including two national awards for adventure tourism, speaks volumes for the little company in far-flung Broome and for the growing appreciation among sophisticated travellers for small capacity, intimate and personal vessels offering destinations and experiences that will always be off limits for the mega vessels.
North Star Cruises’ annual 8-night Southern Safari departs Adelaide in January and visits McLaren Vale, Kangaroo Island, Neptune Island, Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay, the Investigator Group and Streaky Bay.
Prices start at $6995pp and includes all meals, shore excursions and activities. Alcohol, laundry and satellite communications are extra.
True North accommodates 36 passengers in three cabin grades and offers al fresco bar, lounge/theatre, dining room, observation deck and boutique. Scuba diving is offered on selected itineraries.
Details: North Star Cruises 08 9192 1829 or www.northstarcruises.com.au