Come f ly with me

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

YOUR De­par­ture Lounge is ad­dicted to the tele­vi­sion se­ries Come Dine With Me, in which ( mostly) com­pellingly aw­ful peo­ple host din­ner par­ties for strangers. It’s hard enough to have peo­ple you know to din­ner, let alone get in­volved in the roulette of en­ter­tain­ing those you’ve never clapped eyes on, like some sort of hor­rid com­mu­nal blind date.

Din­ner par­ties are not very fash­ion­able any more, de­spite the phe­nom­e­non of MasterChef and myr­iad telly pro­grams show­ing us how to dice and splice, puree and pot-roast like ex­perts. Lit­tle Lounge used to be called in at the start of her par­ents’ din­ner par­ties, just as the devils on horse­back and prawn cock­tails were be­ing served, as a sort of added at­trac­tion to show off her bal­let steps and re­cite her times ta­bles. The Se­nior Lounges wrote that off as a tricky idea, though, when nosy guests once asked six-year-old Lit­tle Lounge what she’d learned that day. ‘‘In Bi­ble class,’’ she be­gan (a good start; en­cour­ag­ing smiles all round), ‘‘we were taught that Je­sus healed some leop­ards.’’

Snig­gers all round, which was un­fair, as it was hardly Lit­tle Lounge’s fault that the di­vin­ity teacher at her Sur­rey vil­lage school had an un­a­gree­able lisp.

Lounge has been more or less off din­ner par­ties ever since, but the Come Dine With Me se­ries has got her think­ing who she’d in­vite to a travel-themed soiree; guests could be from past or present eras (and, judg­ing by the too-mouthy din­ers on the telly show, lack of a pulse would be a bonus) but must have strong con­nec­tions to the world of travel and tourism.

So Lounge has drawn up a guest list, start­ing with English travel pi­o­neer Thomas Cook, who more or less in­vented mass tourism in July 1841 when he or­gan­ised a group deal with a rail com­pany to trans­port fel­low tem­per­ance cam­paign­ers on a one-day ex­cur­sion, at a shilling a head, from Le­ices­ter to Lough­bor­ough, where they at­tended a rally.

Three years later, the Mid­land Coun­ties Rail­way Com­pany agreed to a per­ma­nent ar­range­ment for Cook’s groups so he started a busi­ness run­ning ‘‘plea­sure ex­cur­sions’’ by train.

The rest, as they say, is travel busi­ness his­tory, but good­ness knows what he would make of events at the 2011 Thomas Cook an­nual gen­eral meet­ing, where share­hold­ers mounted a ‘‘revolt’’ against ex­ec­u­tive bonuses.

Lounge would also have to in­vite a few of those dar­ing lady trav­ellers of the Vic­to­rian era, with their stout shoes and serge skirts, al­ways off on botan­i­cal walks in the Alps and pok­ing crocs in the eye with their um­brel­las on the Zam­bezi. Is­abella Bird would fit the bill and wouldn’t be fussy about the food, hav­ing rid­den around Morocco at the age of 70 astride a black stal­lion given to her by a sul­tan and eaten who knows what in the name of tagine. In Hawaii, Bird climbed to the sum­mits of vol­ca­noes and camped on their craters, and she jour­neyed through Ja­pan in 1887 with a cus­tom-made In­dia-rub­ber bath, fold­ing bed and manser­vant known sim­ply as Ito.

From the present era, hope­fully the stel­lar au­thor and ‘‘chron­i­cler of cities’’ Jan Morris would be avail­able, and she’d be up for a white peach bellini, hav­ing writ­ten so el­e­gantly about drink­ing same at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Jan used to be James, of course, so what would be the pro­to­cols of putting her next to an­other must-have guest, Is­abelle Eber­hardt, who dressed as a man, call­ing her­self Si Mah­moud Es­sadi and con­vert­ing to Is­lam? This trousered, Ara­bic-speak­ing vi­rago was a true loner who died, im­prob­a­bly, in a flash flood in the Al­ge­rian desert in 1904.

If this were be­ing filmed for Come Dine With Me, the pro­duc­ers would lap it up.

Eber­hardt would have ri­val­rous de­bates, I fear, with Hester Stan­hope, an­other 19th-cen­tury English trav­eller — and a tall, imperious ter­ror she was, un­afraid of any per­ils that con­spired to hin­der her pas­sage. In 1810, she set off abroad at the then on-the-shelf age of 34. She never re­turned to Eng­land but rein­vented her­self from so­ci­ety spin­ster to so-called Queen of the Bedouin, bed­ding young chaps, gather­ing in­flu­en­tial friends ( and foes) from Con­stantino­ple to Jerusalem, and swearing to great ef­fect in ob­tuse lan­guages.

They don’t make them like that any more.

Aside from the oc­ca­sion­ally dar­ing Morris (who, in­ci­den­tally, wrote a bril­liant trav­el­ogue in 1985 ti­tled Last Let­ters from Hav, about a place that doesn’t ex­ist, which had read­ers from Paris to Patag­o­nia ring­ing Thomas Cook agents to book in­stant pas­sage there), other con­tem­po­rary travel writers who Lounge would love to en­ter­tain in­clude Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron and Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple. And, please, the com­pletely zany Tahir Shah, whose most re­cent nar­ra­tive is The Caliph’s House, in which he buys a ru­ined palace in Casablanca that comes with res­i­dent jinns, ‘‘an army of in­vis­i­ble spir­its’’ whose ob­scure needs must be met at the most in­con­ve­nient mo­ments.

A lovely, gen­tle guest would be Adrian Zecha, who’s a true vi­sion­ary; he started Aman­re­sorts in the late 1980s and re­de­fined the way we think about or­ganic ho­tel de­sign, es­pe­cially in airy trop­i­cal climes such as Bali and Thai­land. Copy­cat com­pa­nies are a dime a dozen but Aman­re­sorts still rules the be­spoke bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion world and Zecha might have a thing or two to say to Cook about his one-size-fits-all tours, and to those doughty English­women who slept in goats’ quar­ters and camel pens in Ara­bia. Oops, Lounge would have to take all her branded ho­tel soaps out of the guest lava­tory, though, just in case Zecha recog­nised any of his.

Lounge had a most con­vivial lunch with Michael Palin in Syd­ney in 1999 and he was wear­ing some­one else’s trousers. They had been re­turned to his Syd­ney ho­tel room from the guest dry-clean­ing ser­vice and were so pressed and pleated, they’d lost all fa­mil­iar­ity.

‘‘Such sav­age pleat­ing,’’ he mar­velled, invit­ing me to in­spect the creases. ‘‘Sounds like a small town in Eng­land.’’ A chewy county ac­cent kicked in: ‘‘Ooo, aye, we’re orf to Sav­age Pleat­ing.’’

Palin is charm­ing and funny and would keep things go­ing, come what may; you’d have to hope he’d ar­rive with a dead par­rot on his shoul­der. He’s not the sort of chap to com­plain about things too much, such as lack of ex­pert hostess­ing, be­cause through­out this gather­ing Lounge would be in the kitchen, turn­ing out who knows what but def­i­nitely pulp­ing white peaches for Morris.

But un­like many a con­tes­tant on Come Dine With Me who de­cides to try a new recipe (‘‘Ooo, I’ve never cooked this be­fore but it looks nice on the packet!’’) or put on the seven-hour slow-cooked lamb j ust as the door­bell rings an­nounc­ing the first guest, she would not be stretch­ing her­self.

In fact, why not get the damned thing catered, which Mrs Se­nior Lounge used to do on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, mean­ing she could con­cen­trate on smok­ing fil­ter tips and slink­ing around in her host­ess py­ja­mas while ladies in white pinafores served tooth­pickskew­ered coloured cock­tail onions and cheese cubes.

She was an avid trav­eller who’d talk end­lessly to guests about her favourite spots, which is what Lounge would like to do all these years later, al­though she sus­pects this fas­ci­nat­ing lot would take not a blind bit of no­tice of their host­ess even if she were wear­ing leop­ard-print.

TOM JELLETT

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