Reef Encounter

Lizard Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef offers holistic escape among nature’s wonders

Publisher: South China Morning Post

From 2000 metres above, the aquamarine lagoons and coral cays of the Great Barrier Reef, fringed by ribbons of silky white surf, stretch out as far as the eye can see. With its divine beauty, flying over the reef is an almost spiritual experience.

I’m en route to Lizard Island Resort, one of Australia’s most isolated and luxurious holiday destinations. The journey from the mainland takes an hour, before the single-engine Cessna arcs gracefully to land on the island’s tiny airstrip.

Twenty-seven kilometres from the coast of Queensland and 250 kilometres northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island sits in a pristine marine environment, and the resort’s close relationship with the reef is the core of its profound appeal. Delivering fine luxury with breathtaking reef encounters has consistently placed the resort in the Top 10 Hotels of the World list.

But along with the chic design of its 40 suites and villas, its fine dining and exquisite creature comforts, Lizard Island Resort is not about matching its uber-luxury peers, it’s more a life-changing experience – with exploring the unique natural environment in which it sits, at the heart of the experience.

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“There’s a lot of ‘bling’ out there for people who want six-star treatment,” says assistant general manager, Shaun Grant, as we stroll through the resort’s tropical bush gardens. “We match that, but without the bling. For us it’s about balancing the in-room and out-room experience. We bring those together so you get that holistic escape.

“There are very few places in the world where you can remember who you are, and disconnect from the world. That’s what we focus on.”

With no cellphone reception, the resort has restricted wi-fi internet access to one lounge, a limitation I found liberating. Due to popular demand however, Wi-Fi will be rolled out to its rooms this year. I stayed in one of the 18 Anchor Bay Suites; 936 spacious and elegant square feet of timber floors and unfussy finishes. With captivating sea views through a curtain of coconut palms, each suite has a path that leads to the beach 20 metres from your verandah.

If you want total privacy, book the most isolated villa. Beloved of British royals, the Pavilion, where Bollinger is provided on arrival and canapés at sunset, is for regal pampering. Perched on a rocky promontory, with private pool and expansive deck, the Pavilion affords a spectacular panorama of the Coral Sea. This is seriously comfortable solitude.

You’re not going to go hungry on Lizard. At Ospreys Restaurant, executive chef Anthony Healy brings an inventive light touch to new Australian cuisine, serving the freshest seafood in the southern hemisphere. Friendly, obliging wait staff add an informal touch to meal times.

Over at the Beach Club, the resort’s marine activity centre, guides suggest the best outlying beaches for coral reef snorkeling, and provide a water-taxi service for your commute. The island’s northerly location means the club offers dive trips to parts of the reef most mainland operators can’t reach.

Exploring the island on foot reveals a rich narrative of the discovery and settlement of Australia. A derelict cottage where sea cucumbers were processed in 1880 by English settler Mary Watson and two Chinese assistants – Ah Sam and Ah Leung – still stands beside the beach that bears her name.

Set upon by aboriginal tribes for trespassing on their sites, Ah Sam was speared and killed but Watson and Ah Leung escaped, using a tin bath they cooked sea cucumbers in as their boat. They died after running out of drinking water.

Head up to Cook’s Look and follow in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer James Cook, who discovered Lizard Island in 1770, when his vessel Endeavour ran aground on coral. Cook named the island after encountering one of its many reptile species. Nature makes this resort so special. Surrounded by lush tropical jungle, guests share living space with geckos, skinks, green tree frogs, and a vocal community of bush birds.

A scientific research station on the western side of Lizard hosts around 60 research projects a year – surely the world’s most inviting laboratory.
I spoke with marine biologist and station director Anne Hoggett, who in 22 years on the Island, has seen environmental threats to the reef increase. Monitoring the effect is a key part of the station’s work. “The reef is deteriorating at a small rate every year, but that rate is increasing,” says Hoggett.

“The best we can do is look after our carbon emissions; clean up our act globally. That’s not likely to happen in the near future is it?” But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Locally there’s a lot we can do,” she says. “Keep the water quality in good condition and look after our fisheries. There is hope.”

Coincidentally, Trevor Yang, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, was also a recent visitor to the station. Yang, who spent six days on the island with his wife and teenage sons, was “blown away” by the island’s management.

“It’s a great example of how commercial activity and environmental protection can work side by side. But it takes understanding on both sides, and a discerning clientele who respect the island for what it is,” says Yang. “In Hong Kong we claim to have more coral species than the Caribbean, but we don’t have fish in those corals because of over-fishing.”
What did Yang and his family enjoy? “We loved the snorkeling and the boys were ecstatic about the diving.” He plans to return.

One experience I’ll treasure above all is the resort’s “signature” activity, heading off on a sun-kissed morning in a dinghy (what’s the hurry?), to an idyllic tropical beach, all to ourselves. The sumptuous picnic hamper can wait. Mask, snorkel and fins attached, I swim to the shimmering coral; above giant clams, electric-blue starfish and alongside scuttling green turtles. Lizard Island Resort is total immersion in natural beauty, a rare, priceless gift.

Cathay Pacific flies direct to Cairns from Hong Kong three times a week.

Cretan Journeys: Dispatches from the Amari

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The Amari Valley in central Crete has a proud history and unique natural environment. Here a new generation of Amariots are intent on protecting this enchanting place and their precious heritage.

With the mighty Psiloritis mountain to the east and the Kedros range to the west, the Amari lies cradled 500 metres above sea level: a labyrinth of country lanes which connect tiny hamlets largely untouched by tourism. Between the villages – shaded by cypresses, plane trees, oaks and pines – lies a patchwork of fields of corn and cabbages, figs and apples, grapes and quinces, all nestling up to some of the oldest olive groves in Europe.

Set against the everchanging colours of the mountains, this shangri-la, just 45 minutes south-east of Rethymno, is Crete off the beaten track. I took the road to the Amari in November. Summer had long passed but it had left its mark: soil baked orange by the sun, oleanders in the hedgerows, splashing pink as the road snakes south.

Walnuts are in season, and the black-red cherries that arrived in summer’s blaze were now preserved for cooler days. Amid this glorious nature are some of Crete’s most precious Minoan and Byzantine churches, places of worship that convey the ancient spirituality of this place. Beside them, Amariots today eke out livelihoods in much the same way as their ancestors, with a reliance on agriculture – largely immune from the impact and economic benefits of tourism.

Like many isolated rural areas, depopulation and lack of infrastructure has seen the 30 or so villages that make up the Amari, struggle to maintain themselves and offer livelihoods to its younger generation. The valley’s population has been in decline for decades. Reversing the trend is the challenge for newly installed Amari mayor Adam Paradisanos.

“The valley’s population is about 6,000 today,” says Paradisanos in his office at the dimarxio in Agia Fotini, who has seen his own village Agios Ioannis shrink from 200 residents to just 50.

“Forty years ago it was very different. It was three or four times this number. The young have left and the people who stayed are old,” laments the former teacher.

But with the municipality’s resources limited, the valley’s future growth ultimately lies in the hands of Amariots with the imagination and courage to invest in their homeland.One such pioneer is Manolis Papadakis. Manolis opened Amari Villas four years ago – a loving restoration of his grandparents’ former home in the village of Amari, perched on the slopes of Samitos mountain.

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Manolis Papadakis

At Amari Villas, the 50-year-old entrepreneur has created the valley’s most stunning accommodation to date: two large and luxurious interconnecting villas with elegant traditional furnishings and views to die for. The villas may have a swimming pool with one of the most glorious vistas in Crete, but this is no soulless five-star experience. Rather, Papadakis’ project is something truly authentic: a reflection of the historic culture it sits within. Papadakis says that changing the Amari’s economic fortunes is about improving its most basic infrastructure.

“This is a poor area, and what we need is, for instance, help to clean and mark the paths between the churches, gorges, and historical sites,” says the electrical engineer, who accessed EU funds to help convert his property.

“We need government at all levels to get together, to improve things like refuse collection, sewerage, and water supply.”

The creation of the Amari Network, a long-awaited project that will see collaborations between the sectors that make up the Amari’s economy (farming, accommodation, restaurants, and handicrafts), says Papadakis, is key to moving forward.

“We don’t need huge projects that would distort Amari’s unique character. We must remain humble and at the same time, proud of our heritage, paying respect to the glorious environment and our history, that has been delivered to us, intact, by our ancestors”. Papadakis’ vision is not only about developing tourism in the valley, but encouraging its diaspora to return.

“We want people to come back to their homeland, to live and work here. We want Amari to flourish again and tourism could be the best way to move things forward”.

The Amari, with its stunning natural environment and historical sites, is an extraordinary place to visit – one of Crete’s most inspiring and enchanting landscapes and cultures. Just as the plough churns its rich soil in winter for next year’s crop, the valley prepares itself for a new season and regeneration. That’s the Amari way. For a glimpse of Crete at its richest, full of natural wonders and history, take the road to the Amari, a place that beckons like no other.

Heroism and sacrifice – WWII and the Amari

The Amari played a key role in resistance activity during the Nazi German occupation of Crete between 1941 and 1945.It was used by Allied secret agents like Tom Dunbabin, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding throughout the occupation (as a place to meet in relative safety, and as a route through which escaped Allied soldiers were taken to evacuation beaches on the south coast.

The Kedros villages on the Amari Valley’s western edge have been rebuilt virtually from scratch after their destruction in WWII. On 22 August 1944, German forces destroyed the villages that line the eastern slopes of the Kedros mountain after murdering 164 civilians, ostensibly as an act of reprisal for the abduction (by British secret agents) of the island’s garrison commander, General Heinrich Kreipe.

Most historians today concur that the massacre (carried out three months after the abduction and just weeks before the Germans withdrew their forces to Chania), was ordered to deter local partisans from attacking the occupation forces as they retreated, and to punish the communities who from the start of the occupation had consistently supported the resistance.

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Today a line of memorials, one in each village along the road that runs south-east from Gerakari, tells the tale of that terrible day. Those killed included 49 people from Gerakari – nine from the Kokkonas family alone, more than 40 from the tiny hamlets of Vryses and Kardaki, and 40 from Ano Meros. The Ano Meros monument is the most remarkable: a larger than life sculpture of a Cretan woman, stout and strong in traditional costume, wielding a hammer and chisel, carving the names of the dead into the stone monolith she faces: Mother Crete forever marking her childrens’ sacrifice.

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The Last Supper: 14th century frescoe at the abandoned Church of Panagia, Smiles

Another memorial has fewer visitors. Tucked into the fields in the valley below is the abandoned village of Smiles (pronounced smee-les). Set ablaze by the Nazis that August day, it was never rebuilt, and what remains of its wrecked, overgrown dwellings stand in silent testament to that awful terror.Smiles is not to be found on any commercially available map, but ask the locals. They know.

Places to stay and eat in the Amari

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Amari Villas
The valley’s most luxurious accommodation on the eastern slopes of Samitos mountain comprises two interconnecting villas (with pool) that can sleep up to 16. Open all year round, the villas make the perfect summer or winter retreat.   Click here for bookings Tel. (+30) 283 1051003 and 697 3557081

Meronas Eco House
Manolis Moschonas has transformed his old family home in the village of Meronas into a cosy interpretation of a traditional Amari residence, and one with a jacuzzi. Click here for bookings  Tel. (+30) 6985 120285

Moschovolies Traditional Taverna, Meronas
One of the valley’s best kept secrets, this delightful taverna run by the Moschonas family offers the freshest local produce and some of the best food in the Amari. Moshovolies on Facebook  Tel. (+30) 283 3022526 and 6956 657882

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Cretan Journeys: The Doma

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The remarkable story of the Doma Hotel in Chania

There aren’t many hotels in the world like the Doma, the century-old establishment perched on the waterfront just east of Chania town centre. To ascend its curved steps and pass across its threshold is to enter a portal to the past, and if you are looking for a spot to reflect on Crete’s rich, turbulent history – or just a perfect place to unwind – look no further.

Decorated with exquisite antique furnishings – the walls adorned with fading framed photographs, documents and objets d’art – this former diplomatic consulate is the family home of its present owners – sisters Irini ‘Rena’ Valyraki and Ioanna Koutsoudaki, and their story is inextricably linked to this special place.

Built in the late 19th century as the consulate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was like all consulates in Chania, located in the affluent seaside suburb of Halepa. As WWI redrew the map of Europe and the old dynasties fell, by 1918 Crete had been unified with Greece, and the building went into private hands. In 1933 the consulate and its extensive grounds was purchased by Ioanna and Rena’s grandmother. Irini was born there the same year, but as war approached, the sisters’ time in their childhood home was to be shortlived.

In 1940, with Hitler’s armies on the march across Europe, the British Consul in Chania persuaded their father Kyriakos Koutsoudakis (a former employee of the company that operated the telegraph line from Crete to Alexandria connecting England with India) to lease the house to the British government.

For a year the family lived with the consul and his staff, before – on the eve of the invasion of Crete in May 1941 – they moved out, leaving their furniture and most of their precious heirlooms behind. Ioanna still remembers vividly the day the soldiers came from the sky.

Fate decided that she and her family would be at the centre of the storm. “My father had arranged for us to be taken to a village near Maleme,” says Ioanna, as we sit in the Doma’s fourth-floor dining room, with its sweeping panorama looking out over the bay.

“I remember the first night of the invasion. I was very afraid, my father took me in his arms, and the next day he took us in his car to the village of Elos, south of Kissamos, in the mountains.”

When Chania fell on 27 May the victorious German paratroops took over the British Consulate to use as their command centre. Ioanna and Rena’s home would host the uninvited guests for four long years. “We came back soon after the invasion,” says Ioanna. “I remember saying ‘who are all these strange people?’ and my mother telling me ‘it’s not our house anymore’.”

For most of the occupation the Koutsoudakis family lived not far from their requisitioned home. Like so many displaced in a town that was decimated by war, they made the best of it. “There were ten of us in my aunt’s house. Once a German soldier gave me some chocolate, and my father told me ‘you must not take anything from those people because they are not our friends’.”

Athens saw the Germans leave in October 1944, but ‘Fortress Chania’ would remain under Nazi control until 9 May 1945. The German surrender of the town would be the final act of World War II in Europe, but not even Chania’s liberation meant the sisters could return to their home.

“The British came to my father and they said they wanted to operate the house again as their consulate,” says Ioanna. “They stayed for ten years and I hated this situation.”

It would be 1955 before the house was finally restored to its rightful owners. Ioanna went on to study in Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts. Fluent in French and Italian, in the 1960s she began travelling – first hitch-hiking her way across Europe and then venturing to Asia. It was a road less-travelled for a young Greek woman of the time.

She was married briefly – a life in the United States beckoned – but it wasn’t to be. Rena wed a dentist. Hers was a long and happy marriage lasting 45 years.

Then in the late 1960s, Ioanna, who by now was living in Athens and running a fabric design and dressmaking business in the fashionable suburb of Kolonaki, suggested they turn the old family home into a guesthouse. The idea sprang from her time in Italy when she had seen similar family homes open their doors to paying guests.

The Doma Hotel opened in December 1971, and within months word had spread of its unique charm. Soon artists, celebrities, politicians and poets were staying, drawn to the building’s story and its graceful hosts. Its reputation as one of the most elegant and distinguished hotels in Greece grew steadily.

Some guests would return each year. Many still do. One of Ioanna and Irene’s favourites was the celebrated Italian writer and poet Antonio Tabucchi, who became a lifelong friend. British military types with clipped English accents (who served in wartime Crete as secret agents) stayed too, along with their former adversaries.

Once in the 1980s, a German war veteran – a Herr Voutkas (with only one hand, remembers Rena) who had lived in the house during the occupation, returned. It was only while checking-out that he summoned the courage to admit the circumstances of his previous residence.

The Doma still carries the echoes of all its histories. This is a place where the presence of its former incarnations – and those who spent time here – is everywhere.

Beyond its powerful history, perhaps it’s the glorious dining room overlooking the bay that is the most memorable experience, its walls adorned with family portraits and fading framed documents; or precious time spent in the dappled light of the serene walled garden; perhaps it’s the peaceful lounge, decked in antique rugs beside the exotic headdresses Ioanna created inspired by her travels, that stays with you. It’s all these things and more.

Until the late 1980s the Doma was open all year round. Today it reveals its delights only between April and November. On my last visit to Chania a sturdy lock and chain were wrapped tightly around the hotel’s elegant wrought-iron gate.

Ioanna and Rena were preparing to travel to Athens, as they have done for forty years, to spend winter in their Kolonaki apartment. Like the swifts that return to their nests nearby each year, they will be back when the buds of spring arrive.

As the waves break on the pebbled shore below, the Doma will wait for its genteel owners to return, to bring back their gracious hospitality and the manners of a bygone era.

Michael Sweet traveled to Crete with the assistance of Aegean Airlines.

No one smiles anymore

28 June, 2011

Greece has ground to a halt. Flights in and out of Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport have been cancelled, ferries are at their moorings in Pireaus – the lifelines to the islands cut.

From the Ionian to Alexandroupoli, from Thessaloniki to Kythera and Kastelorizo – the Hellenic Republic is closed for business. 

Meanwhile, the Greek parliament has begun its debate on the swathe of new austerity measures that must become law if Greece is to receive further vital bailout funds. Those not on strike go about their business as best they can. As they did, I spoke to Australians of Greek descent who live and work in Greece, and whose lives and livelihoods depend upon how the current crisis unfolds. 

Rosalyn Geranikolas from Perth has been in Greece for 32 years. The owner of four hotels in Rhodes and Kastelorizo, Geranikolas says visitor numbers have thankfully remained unaffected by the crisis.

“The economic situation has affected us in the sense that there’s no credit available anymore – you have to pay 50 per cent when you order, and the balance before you receive the goods. If another government comes in, I think there’s not much else they could do; we’re in too far. It’s up to the people to pull their socks up.” 

Would you consider leaving Greece? “No, definitely not; a soldier never leaves his place of battle! I believe the Greek people have realised it’s up to us now. The austerity measures are hard, but it’s something we all have to do. The worse thing we could do is pack up and leave.”

Barbara Samantouros, from Brisbane, is the finance manager of AGREK, an agricultural products company in Chalkida.

“People are very pessimistic at the moment. They feel they can’t take on this extra burden and I think the government could have found other ways spread out the pain,” says Samantouros, who has lived in Greece for 25 years.

“They could have done more to repatriate funds that have gone out of the country. Something’s got to be implemented, but everything’s being done at the last moment. It hasn’t been well thought-out.”

As for her own company’s prospects, and the agricultural industry as a whole, she’s more upbeat.

“People are looking at the agri sector in a very optimistic light. The future for Greece depends on tourism, shipping and agriculture.” 

Have you considered leaving? “I’ve thought about it,” but it’s not to our advantage at the moment; we’re trying to do our bit for Greece. We believe there’s a future here.”

Con Kehagias has run his graphic design company in Thessaloniki for 15 years. Originally from Coburg, Victoria, Kehagias left for Greece as a 13 year-old.

“I don’t agree with what the government are doing. The politicians don’t care about the people; they’re putting so much pressure on, and the people are going to suffocate. The EU and IMF are economic assassins, they’re not helping Greece at all.”

Kehagias’ radical interpretation of the issues – the motivations of the various forces at work in the crisis are worryingly common. Like many who have strong opinions, he supports anti-government protests but admits job cuts, such as those that will affect Greece’s public service, are overdue. 

“That has to happen,” says the designer, who is now seriously exploring the idea of migrating back to Australia. “I’m married and have a little boy who is four years-old. Here the education system is awful. I see how I grew up in Australia and I make the comparison. I want to come back. Here wages are going to go down; people won’t have what’s necessary for living. No one smiles anymore.” 

Wednesday 29 June, 9.00 am, Syntagma Square:

Members of the Greek parliament run the gauntlet of protestors wishing to obstruct the day’s debate – before the fateful vote to endorse the government’s new 28 billion euro austerity plan. As the day goes on, clashes between the riot police defending the parliament and masked stone-throwing activists grow ever more violent. 

Sotiris Stregas, a sales rep for a dental products company has lived in Athens since 1990.

“It’s a ‘Catch 22’ situation. We don’t want these things imposed on us, but if things aren’t imposed, then we’ll never ever see a brighter day. People don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” says Melbourne-born Stregas, who is married and has two teenage daughters.

Though accepting of the need for an imposed solution, the urbane salesman, who was brought up in Sydney, doesn’t believe that the medicine Papandreou is prescribing is the answer.

“I don’t believe they should be increasing taxes; I think that’s counter-productive. Businesses are closing, so the pool from which you can get tax is decreasing.”

Stregas will stay in Greece largely because of his wife’s wishes not to migrate. He believes elections are just around the corner and that going to the polls will offer new possibilities to resolve the deteriorating situation.

“This government is faltering. I believe the politicians from the main political parties cannot give us a solution. Whatever new government is formed cannot have any connection with governments over the last 20 years. I don’t want the same people to govern us again. The politicians who brought us here cannot give us a solution. I would prefer foreigners – Germans, Australians, or Greeks from overseas to come in and help out. It would probably be our best chance.”

Diana Athanasiou is an English language teacher in Epirus who has been in Greece since 1988. “I don’t think Papandreou has a choice; he’s like a puppet. Greece isn’t governed internally, it’s governed externally.

Athanasiou shares the widely-held view that all Greece’s problems have come from corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of government, and believes the old party system will never deliver an effective solution. “It’s as if the Greeks were asleep. It is changing. They’ve finally woken up and they are asking for the truth. Ministers are going unpunished. The people are furious that we have a debt that we didn’t create.”

Perhaps the most worrying statement this Melbourne-born schoolteacher has to share, is the effect on the young people she teaches. “Students don’t see the point in studying,” says Athanasiou, whose pupils range from Grade 2 through to graduates. Living in the rural town of Paramithia she feels a sense of protection from the situation.

“I haven’t really felt the crisis as yet, but if Greece goes bankrupt, then I’m not going to have any students because Greeks will not be able to afford any private education.” 

Efstathios Paraskevopoulos is manager for South East Europe for a British on-demand video distribution company. Born in Adelaide, Stathis has been living and working in Greece on and off since 1969. 

Does he feel there’s an alternative to the path being proposed by Papandreou? “There is not much we can do but let us be clear; Papandreou is not proposing any path; the Troika is proposing the path, and we are simply doing what they tell us. 

“Is the Greek government capable of getting its books balanced? Not when you are running an ‘inherently’ corrupt system.” Stathis says he’s nervous. “We all are, because all is hanging on a thread. We are inherently an irresponsible nation – it is much easier to blame someone else and not take responsibility. We have always blamed someone else. Conspiracies, after all, are exciting.” 

Is he tempted to leave? “The thought has passed my mind. If the country goes bankrupt it will obviously have a domino effect everywhere so I would think of getting out of Europe.” 

Nick Geronimos is the Perth-born business entrepreneur who created Athens Backpackers and Studios, the popular Aussie-inspired tourist accommodation centre at the foot of the Acropolis. Geronimos pulls no punches in his analysis of the crisis. 

“The reason why this country is in such a mess is because of the bloated public-sector. How can a country with a population of 10 million people, with four-five million employed, justify a public sector of over one million? It is nonsense; a residual of the Ottoman empire. These people have got jobs because they sold their votes to the political parties. And now they don’t want to lose their privileged position of copping a pension for life at full pay, when they retire at the age of 45. It’s a sad and sorry state to see the public servants and the ‘no-hopers’ in Syntagma Square. Blaming someone else for your own shortcomings is a traditional trait of the modern Greek. 

“If you asked those public servants where there office was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you, because their pay goes into their bank account and they never go to work. Sort this out and you’ll sort out 50 per cent of the problem.” 

Geronimos says the austerity measures have had little or no effect on his business, but that the regular strike actions have a hugely negative effect. The 48-hour strike this week will cost him 20,000 euros in cancelled reservations with tourists nervous about travelling to and within Greece. “I’m 100 per cent behind Papandreou. I think he’s done a great job to date. I feel for the people who will lose their jobs, but in Australia we went through this in the 1970s and 1980s. Mitsotakis said 30 years ago that we should pay this debt off, and they laughed at him and threw him out of power. Well… ‘hello?!! ” 


Wednesday 29 June 4.00 pm, Syntagma Square

The Greek Parliament passes the vote to raise taxes to secure 14.09 billion euros over the next five years, and to make 14.32 billion euros worth of cuts in public spending. The vote is passed by 155 votes to 138. As news of the vote reaches protestors in Syntagma, fighting between the police and protestors intensifies; a post office in the same building as the finance ministry is set alight. 

Greece’s path to recovery is once again shrouded in a pall of tear gas, bringing water to the eyes of protestors and onlookers alike; tears shed for a country torn and in pain.

Loren Brown, the grand-daughter of Private John McGarrity, who was killed in April 1941 and whose remains have never been found. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
Loren Brown, the grand-daughter of Private John McGarrity, who was killed in April 1941 and whose remains have never been found. Photo: Meredith O’Shea
Taking cover behind a stone wall in northern Greece on April 12, 1941, two Australian soldiers, Private John McGarrity and Lance Corporal Robert Brown were breathless, having run for their lives through a hail of German heavy machinegun fire.

”I guess that was close,” McGarrity said, figuring they were safe for a moment, despite the enemy’s proximity. ”Let’s make the best of it and have a smoke.”

He rolled his cigarette, but never got to light it. ”He gave a soft cry and collapsed to the ground,” Brown later told the Red Cross.

Almost immediately, Brown was also hit. As the two Diggers lay bleeding on the freezing earth, a German officer appeared. Brown was told he was now a prisoner of war; medics would see to his mate.

”I had one last look at Private McGarrity,” he said in his Red Cross statement, ”but he was lying very still. I cannot say [if] he was dead or wounded – that was the last time I saw him.”

Brown’s testimony, from a German POW camp in 1943, is the only source of information about McGarrity’s fate: his body, like those of up to 20 other Australian soldiers killed during the same battle, was never recovered.

Now, with mixed emotions, McGarrity’s family, including his 75-year-old daughter, is preparing for the possible discovery of his remains in the grounds of a disused military compound near the tiny Greek village of Vevi.

Greece’s minister for Macedonia and Thrace (the region in which Vevi is located) has told Fairfax the Greek government is prepared to fund a dig at a site near where McGarrity and about 20 others are believed to have been buried anonymously in 1941.

If the dig proves its supporters correct, Vevi could resonate for Australians in the same way as the French town of Fromelles where, in 2009, researchers unearthed the remains of 250 Allied soldiers from World War I, including 124 Australians whose identities have been established by DNA tests.

Like the long campaign to unearth the Pheasant Wood site at Fromelles in northern France, the push to explore the fields around Vevi was initiated by amateur historians who have cross-referenced military documents with local knowledge and hearsay.

Keith Rossi, Victoria’s RSL historian for the past 26 years, is among those who believe an investigation of Vevi is well overdue.

”Look at Fromelles, when they had all that evidence – for years they didn’t do a bloody thing,” says the 91-year-old retired brigadier. ”Why doesn’t someone just go up and have a look?”

Rossi was in Vevi in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greek campaign when he had an illuminating encounter.

”I was standing there at the wreath-laying ceremony and an elderly chap spoke to me,” Rossi says. ”We got talking about dead soldiers and the 2/8th Battalion, and this local said there were Australian soldiers from the war buried across the road – behind the wall.”

Rossi has talked about his encounter ever since, but it has taken nearly a quarter of a century for the conversation to grow into a concerted campaign to unravel the mystery, and to prove – one way or the other – if the rumours are true.

John McGarrity, the son of an Irish Catholic shipwright, was born in Newcastle, England, in 1905, and emigrated to Australia with an assisted passage in 1928, listed as a labourer.

He worked as a farmhand in Victoria and in manufacturing in Sunshine, where he was a member of the local running club. In 1937, aged 32, he married Norma Plumridge. Daughter Patricia was born in October the same year and Margaret in February 1939.

Within months of Margaret’s birth, Australia was at war with Germany. McGarrity enlisted and in April 1940, his 2/8th Infantry Battalion left Melbourne for the Middle East. Having suffered the heaviest casualties of any Australian unit during the first battle for Tobruk in January 1941, it embarked for Greece on March 31.

John McGarrity and wife Norma at Luna Park, Melbourne in 1939.
John McGarrity and wife Norma at Luna Park, Melbourne in 1939.
Twelve days later, McGarrity, a popular soldier ”full of wit and humour”, according to a fellow Digger quoted in his military record, would become one of the first of more than 600 Anzac troops killed in the doomed Greek campaign.

It was an operation that began in the snows of northern Greece, where Australian and New Zealand forces – supported by Greek and British units – took on the might of Hitler’s invading Panzer army, and the SS Leibstandarte, the elite and fanatical Nazi division originally formed as bodyguards for Hitler.

Facing the same troops that had torn through Poland, France and Belgium, the Commonwealth forces were handicapped from the start by inferior armaments, poor communications and virtually no air cover.

On April 12, 1941, the 2/8th Battalion was 16 kilometres south of the border with Yugoslavia, clinging precariously to the eastern side of the Monastir Gap, near Vevi.

For more than 24 hours it repulsed the enemy. The mission was to hold the German advance long enough to allow the withdrawal of Greek forces on the Yugoslav and Albanian borders.

That afternoon, a vital phone line connecting the 2/8th’s front line to Battalion HQ was cut. McGarrity and Lance Corporal Brown volunteered to make the repair.

As they made their way forward, the German attack intensified. The 2/8th’s front line began to disintegrate, overrun by German infantry and fast-moving Panzers.

About 4pm, exposed in open ground, McGarrity and Brown came under heavy machinegun fire. The stone wall they sheltered behind proved useless, with both men shot and Brown taken prisoner of war.

McGarrity was among 28 Australian troops killed at Vevi, many of whom, from the 2/8th and 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, were never recovered.

He was reported as ”missing in action, presumed killed” and it would not be until 1944 that McGarrity’s wife, Norma, bringing up their two daughters in Kew, would receive confirmation from the army that her husband was dead. They could not tell her what happened to his body.

If Allied prisoners died of their wounds in enemy hands, German burial units would usually identify them from identity discs or paybooks and create written records, simplifying identification of a burial site and the individuals within it years later. No such documentation has ever been found for McGarrity and a number of other members of his battalion who fell at Vevi.

After Greece was liberated in 1944, the work of the Australian War Graves Commission – charged with finding burial sites – was hampered severely in northern Greece by the Greek Civil War. The remains of those who were found were reinterred at Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens. Some 2029 Commonwealth servicemen who died on the mainland in the Greek campaign are buried or commemorated at Phaleron; 596 of the burials are unidentified. Only one member of the 2/8th Battalion killed on April 12, 1941, has a known grave at Phaleron.

Maria Cameron is one of three amateur historians involved in research on the Vevi missing.

The Port Fairy researcher, whose other projects include identifying the remains of World War I Diggers at Fromelles, has cross-referenced Australian and German military records, and believes there is ample evidence to support the proposition that Vevi still holds the remains of Australians killed there.

”If the AWGC did recover bodies in the area after the war, the German records would have given the recovery units a clue. For McGarrity and others, there are no records of that kind at all,” Cameron says.

”The absence of information in the records on John McGarrity and others from the 2/8th show they’re the ones who were never recovered. ”It’s the same as Fromelles, we couldn’t say they were definitely there.”

Melbourne military historian Carl Johnson has also examined the records relating to Vevi, and says that McGarrity qualifies as a leading contender for a soldier who fell at Vevi and is likely to be still there.

”His files were held open to September 1945, which shows the total lack of information the military had about his final resting place,” says Johnson.

”In addition to McGarrity, I’d say there’s strong evidence for others being contenders for those never recovered from the 2/8th and 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment. There could be up to 20, from both units all told.”

A third researcher, Newcastle schoolteacher Tom Tsamouras, who has been working on identifying the site pointed out in 1991 by Rossi, is also confident about the location. ”What needs to happen is for the Australian government to help the Greek authorities investigate it,” he says.

A spokesperson for Unrecovered War Casualties – Army, the unit of the Australian Defence Force that investigates alleged burial locations of Australian soldiers, said while the department had ”no verifiable evidence”, it was looking into the matter.

The Greek government has been more enthusiastic. ”The army have already drafted plans for a preliminary 15-day dig covering an area of two acres at the location, which is near a disused military compound,” says Tsamouras, who, through Greek contacts, brought the matter to the attention of Greece’s Minister for Macedonia and Thrace, Theodoros Karaoglou.

Karaoglou confirmed these details and says he believes the cost of an initial dig would be less than €30,000 ($41,000). He has vowed to authorise the expenditure personally.

Karaoglou says the dig will go ahead once the Greek army, on whose land the site sits, gives permission.

Despite the likely imminence of the dig, there has been no communication between the Greek authorities and the Australian Defence Force, according to the UWCA spokesperson.

Nonetheless, members of McGarrity’s family believe the Australian government should get involved.

Daughter Margaret died last year, but Patricia still lives in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Pat’s daughter, Loren Brown, says she and her mother support the idea of an investigation taking place – whatever its findings.

”The possibility of an investigation has raised a mix of emotions in the family. Some believe we should leave history as it is, undisturbed. Others feel cautious optimism, to finally know the truth,” says Loren.

”It would be wonderful to give our grandfather a proper grave, titled and recognised. These men gave their young lives for their country. Surely it is Australia’s responsibility to find them and give them the recognition they deserve.”

Margaret’s son, Phillip Wittmer, agrees. ”It’s about honouring his memory,” he says. ”These men made the ultimate sacrifice. We owe them the honour of a proper burial, to dignify their lives, rather than leaving them. At the same time, I’m not getting my hopes up too much. What will be will be.”

Into the blue

It’s the colours that hit you first. From 9000ft the iridescent aquamarine atolls and coral cays, fringed by ribbons of silky white surf, stretch out as far as the eye can see. It’s a vast, jaw-droppingly beautiful grand design, which makes flying over the Great Barrier Reef an experience almost spiritual.

I’m en-route to Lizard Island, 240km north of Cairns, to visit its iconic resort and find out more about an underwater survey soon to be undertaken there: one that promises to reveal the Great Barrier Reef’s beauty and fragility to millions – without them even having to get their toes wet.

The survey, sponsored by international insurance group Catlin, will visit Lizard Island and 19 other sites the length and breadth of the reef in the coming months. With Google as a partner, the expedition is not just another scientific survey. Data gathered will strengthen scientific understanding of how climate change continues to affect the reef and marine ecosystems like it, but at the project’s heart is the hope to engage people globally with the issues like never before.

Virtually challenged

It’s the application of new technologies developed with Google that is the game-changer for the survey. The expedition will use a specially developed camera to capture thousands of 360-degree underwater panoramas, which when stitched together and uploaded to Google’s servers allow users to choose a location, dip underwater and go for a virtual dive.

It’s Google’s Street View submerged, where with a swipe of your trackpad you’ll navigate through the world’s greatest aquarium: a virtual immersion in the earth’s most beautiful marine environment.

Richard Severs, founder of the not-for-profit Underwater Earth which conceived the survey, says that time is running out.

“Over the last 50 years our oceans have been in an unprecedented state of decline – half the world’s coral reefs have been lost and numbers of large fish have plummeted by 90 per cent.

“The oceans remain as they have always done, out of sight and out of mind,” says Severs. Set to bring the Great Barrier Reef and the global issues it raises to the attention of millions, the survey’s results are expected to surface on Google in late 2013.

Above water

The 1000-hectare national park that is Lizard Island happens to be the site of one of the world’s most exclusive and iconic luxury holiday destinations.

Consistently making the Top 10 Hotels of the World list and recent winner of the Travel+ Leisure USA 2012 World’s Best Awards, Lizard Island Resort delivers an understated luxury experience, serenely combining exploration of the reef with a finely crafted out-of-water experience.

Creature comforts

The chic design of its 40 suites and villas overlooking their own powdery white sand beach, provides a level of comfort that is equal to the world’s finest hotels, but it’s not about ‘bling’ – rather something much more organic and nourishing.

If you want the resort’s ultimate experience book the most isolated villa: the Pavilion. Beloved of British royals, it is for those who want the highest level of isolation and exclusive pampering.

In the resort’s Osprey restaurant, executive chef Anthony Healy combines French classical with Mediterranean and Asia-Pacific influences to bring a deft inventive touch to new Australian cuisine.

Because of Lizard Island’s isolated northerly location, the resort offers dive trips to parts of the reef that most operators on the mainland can’t reach. Other draw cards include canoeing, sailing, some of the best fishing in the world, a spa and gym, and nature walks, to follow in the footsteps of explorer James Cook who scaled the island’s highest peak in 1770.

More modest adventurers can take a motorised dingy for the day, with a sumptuous picnic hamper, to find their very own perfect tropical beach. Before lunch, with mask, snorkel and fins attached, a few gentle strokes will take you to the dazzling coral; above ancient giant clams and electric blue starfish, to swim with lifeforms so colourful and miraculous, it makes your heart sing. Google viewers are going to have a rare treat when street view goes under water.

Je suis un fan

Photography: George Apostolidis.

 

Mandarin Oriental, Paris has just celebrated its first birthday. An oasis of contemporary luxury in the bustling heart of the fashionable Saint-Honoré district, to stay at this hotel is to savour modern Parisian style with a refined infusion of the Orient.

Paris Fashion Week was in full swing when our taxi plied its way slowly up the bustling narrow Rue Saint-Honoré to deposit us at the coolly understated entrance of Mandarin Oriental, Paris. Tucked between two grand old town houses, the approach to the lobby beneath a canopy of tiny glass lights – each sculpted as a butterfly – gives a first clue as to what’s in store. Inside the main lobby with its soaring grey marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s a second; a sculpture of a human form in two circles suspended in space.

We’ve arrived at a place of air and light – a location to free the body and soul.

The hotel’s design style takes its inspiration from the richness and modernity of the 1930s and Art Deco. The original building dates from 1928, and its 138 rooms and suites on eight floors are amongst the most spacious hotel rooms in Paris.

The welcome, like that experienced at all the group’s hotels was distinctive; warm and efficient. With all the fabulous creature comforts, it’s so often the staff, brought up in the unique Mandarin Oriental tradition, that makes staying at any of the group’s hotels a deeply satisfying and memorable experience.

We were graciously guided to room 514, a Suite Deluxe consisting of bedroom, bathroom, lounge and balcony overlooking the Rue Saint Honoré. With sliding doors separating its three areas and floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a large fluid space impeccably stylish and exquisitely furnished. Chic oriental touches and bold contemporary art, exude a feeling of understated contemporary glamour and luxurious exclusivity. “Look dad, it comes with its own iPad!” squealed my eight-year-old son son in glee.

The cutting-edge technology to hand, is of course bespoke – Bang & Olufsen as well as Apple, and three discretely-positioned widescreen TVs – including one seamlessly part of the wall in the stunning bathroom – offer state-of-the-art entertainment technology. My only concern was how would I ever get my son to leave this cocoon of luxurious technically advanced comfort. The indoor pool was the answer, part of the deeply tranquil retreat that is the hotel’s spa where subtle animated projections of butterflies in flight create a dreamlike world. Extending over two floors, the 900 square metre spa is one of the city’s largest.

Within this subterranean sanctuary, therapies developed by specialists in traditional Chinese medicine promote complete mind-body harmony. Evocatively titled treatments include Hu-Tieh Quan (the Butterfly Spring): a bath of warming ginger, uplifting mandarin and sacred frankincense followed by a soothing body mask and massage.

If all that holistic pampering makes you hungry, the hotel has two restaurants under the watchful eye of one of France’s most celebrated chefs – Thierry Marx, MO Paris’ Executive Chef; the gourmet Michelin-starred Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx, and Camélia, an all-day restaurant offering French cuisine influenced by Marx’s love and knowledge of Japan.

Spilling into an elegant courtyard garden, Camélia is also the venue for the sumptuous buffet breakfast: just what’s needed if you have designs on some serious retail fashion therapy.

The Rue Saint-Honoré is the heart of Paris haute couture and home to the world’s most famous fashion brands – Versace, Hermes, Chanel and Yves Saint Lauren, as well as newer kids on the block like the edgy Colette ‘concept’ store. They are all on your doorstep at Mandarin Oriental, Paris.

Whether you’re buying or just indulging in ‘lèche-vitrines’ (window shopping in French – literally ‘window-licking’), a stroll on the Rue Saint-Honoré is an experience not to be missed. But then if you simply want to pamper yourself chez Mandarin Oriental, the hotel has a fabulous optional extra that adds a new dimension to Parisian retail therapy. Not only will the concierge find any item you’ve set your heart on, but will arrange free pick-up and delivery to your room.

An up, close and personal encounter with Parisian history in all its magnificence is something that can’t be delivered – but it’s wonderfully close. Sitting in the capital’s premier arrondissement, you’re a five-minute stroll from two landmark Parisian squares – Place de la Concorde and Place Vendome. My son was less-enamoured with high-fashion and history but rather with simpler local delights. We headed to the Tuileries – the seventeenth century gardens that make up the central-most park in Paris; they have a funfair that he adored almost as much as our beloved suite.

Eurostar had whisked us in to Paris from London. We were there 48 hours, just enough time to scale the Eiffel Tower [tip: avoid long queues by getting there by 9.30am and walk the first two stages], take a boat trip along the Seine and of course, indulge in a touch of that retail therapy unique to the French capital.

Mandarin Oriental, Paris exemplifies modern, rather than classic, luxury, and it does so breathtakingly. The butterfly, that delicate emblem of rebirth and fleeting freedom runs discreetly throughout this sublime hotel; it’s a symbol that could not be more fitting for this oasis of chic refinement.

While only the fortunate few might be able to make a Suite Deluxe at the Mandarin Oriental their regular pied de terre in the French capital, for any discerning traveller every space here is an oasis to savour – a place to rest for exquisite nourishment before spreading your wings again.

Sensuous luxury – that doesn’t cost the earth

At Mandarin Oriental, Paris, providing luxury and fastidious customer service with environmentally sustainable practices is a seamless process

The hotel has committed itself to obtaining La Haute Qualité Environnementale or HQE (High Quality Environmental certification) – the highest standard for green buildings in France. As the first hotel in France to recognised for such a commitment to the environment, its eco-responsible policy approach saves between 20 and 30 per cent of its energy usage in comparison with a non-HQE building.

Child’s play

For families, Mandarin Oriental, Paris has created an experience to showcase the best of what Paris has to offer younger visitors.

Ideal for parents wanting to introduce their children to the city’s beauty and culture, J’aime Paris en famille allows families to improve their understanding of France and the French language in one fun-filled day.

Comprising an enchanting tour of the city’s most famous and child-friendly delights, the tour is guided by an expert not just in Parisian culture and history, but how to make it come alive for children new to the city.

After the day’s explorations, families can enjoy un goûter, a snack that French children traditionally enjoy at 4pm, which at Mandarin Oriental, Paris, is best enjoyed at the Cake Shop. Pastries and macarons will tempt the young, while a well-deserved glass of Bollinger awaits for parents at play.