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23,000km kayak trip retraces epic 1930s journey to Australia

SPECKS IN THE OCEAN Australian adventurer Sandy Robson finished an impressive 23,000km kayak journey this month. Travelled in five stages over 5½ years, her epic trip began in Germany and took her through the Mediterranean, then around India and Sri Lanka, along the coastlines of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, much of Indonesia and around Papua New Guinea. Her final stop was the Australian island of Saibai, in the Torres Strait.

She was greeted by her father and Australian Border Force personnel, who gave her a warmer welcome than was received by the man whose journey her trip retraced, Oskar Speck. Having set off down the Danube, in his native Germany, in search of work in 1932, Speck eventually arrived on Saibai in 1939, soon after the outbreak of the second world war, and was interned as an enemy alien.

Another solo sea traveller of note was Donald Crowhurst, whose unusual life and death – a novice sailor, his empty boat was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean near the end of a round-the-world race he had been leading – are brilliantly examined in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, written in 1970 by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.

Described by a Washington Post reviewer as “one of the most moving and disturbing books I have ever read”, it will be republished next month to tie in with a new film. Directed by James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) and starring Colin Firth as Crowhurst, The Mercy should be in cinemas sometime next year, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Speck never wrote a book, but you can learn more about him, and the unsinkable Robson – who is writing one – at www.sandy-robson.com.

Romance in the air I can still remember my first flight with Dragonair. Kathmandu to Hong Kong, in April 1989. I sat in the cockpit for much of the journey, when such treats were quite routine, and I can still remember the captain’s name. We talked about turbulence and about my friend who was doing a stretch in a Kathmandu jail.

Flights were perhaps more memorable in those days. Since then I have flown with Dragonair to Shanghai, Kota Kinabalu, Beijing, Qingdao, Tokyo, Phuket and even Dhaka. On November 21, the name Dragonair will officially be replaced by Cathay Dragon, which to me sounds more like the name of a Qing dynasty pirate junk, or a Yangtze river steamboat in a 1950s pulp-fiction novel, than a modern airline.

It’s a name, then, that at least suggests (probably unintentionally) that the romance of air travel isn’t quite dead after all, and for that it deserves some applause.

PHUKET PIONEERS Describing itself as the first international hotel brand in Phuket Old Town, the Novotel Phuket Phokeethra started taking guests a few weeks ago, but has only just announced it has officially opened. If the building’s design already looks a bit dated, that’s because it used to be the Thavorn Grand Plaza Hotel, which was opened by the island’s prominent Thavornwongwongse family in 1992 and closed a few years ago.

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The same family opened what today claims to have been Phuket’s first “full-service” hotel, in the early 1960s, before the island had an international airport or even a bridge to the mainland. The Thavorn Hotel is still in business, despite its website’s bracingly honest admission that “until this day, it has never been considered a business success”.

Online reviews are few and far between (and pretty mixed), but with internet rates starting at about HK$160 a night, and its own museum, the old place might be worth a try. A surprisingly good website can be found at www.thavornhotel.com.

Room rates at the Novotel Phuket Phokeethra start from 2,880 baht (about HK$630) per night.

DEAL OF THE WEEK The cheap and cheerful Anise Hotel gets TLX Travel’s two-night Hanoi package under way from HK$1,630 per person (twin share), including flights with Cathay Pacific. The Hilton Hanoi Opera and Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake, though, are listed from only HK$2,080 and so are much better value. These prices include breakfast and travel insurance, and will be available for departure until December 21. For full details, more hotel choices and reservations, visit www.tlxtravel.com.