On board: verdict on Gaddafi’s $697 million luxury liner

I am taking in 180-degree views of the sparkling Mediterranean while sipping on a stiff gin and tonic that has been served to me by a strikingly tall Ukrainian lady, who looks as if she was previously a supermodel.

Life doesn’t get much more glamorous than in the exclusive Top Sail lounge in the Yacht Club section on the 16th-level of the newly-launched luxury cruise ship MSC Preziosa.

And I am very lucky to be here. The man who was supposed to have been enjoying the views of distant Barcelona and the top-shelf drinks is none other than the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi and his cohorts.

The MSC Preziosa was originally ordered and designed by the deposed Libyan regime leader’s son Hannibal and was under construction in St Nazaire in Brittany when Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

Italian billionaire Gianluigi Aponte, whose Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) Cruises is now the third-largest cruise company in the world after having been formed only just over a decade ago, stepped in and snapped up the half-finished vessel and had it finished to MSC specifications.

Out went Gaddafi’s plans for a massive shark tank to dominate the fifth-floor atrium; in went a glittering staircase and a Hyatt-style glass elevator.

Christened late last month at a glittering black-tie ceremony in Genoa, the MSC Preziosa was sent off on her maiden voyage by veteran actress Sophia Loren, the “Godmother” of the MSC cruise fleet, to music conducted by the great composer Ennio Morricone.

The new-look Preziosa, which will start life doing seven-day cruises visiting Naples, Messina, La Goulette in Tunisia, Barcelona and Marseille, has a total of 1751 cabins and can host up to 3500 guests at any one time.

At 330 metres long, more than the length of three football pitches, she has a top speed of 24 knots. She is the 12th ship in the MSC Cruises fleet and the fourth Fantasia class vessel.

The Preziosa cost $697 million to build and has four swimming pools, 26 lifts (still not enough at peak times), a mini bowling alley, and no fewer than 21 bars and restaurants over 18 decks. It feels less like a ship and more like a city afloat.

The exclusive Yacht Club suites, originally conceived as the Gaddafi family’s private quarters on board, are just 69 in all and home to the movers and shakers on each cruise. These guests sip their drinks, barely getting their lips wet, as a pianist in the lounge tinkles unobtrusively in Richard Clayderman-style.

Those staying in the Yacht Club enjoy cabins with walk-in wardrobes, full bathrooms with bath and showers (and towels that are replaced twice daily on request), a complimentary mini bar, balcony or panoramic views and room service. There’s king-sized bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, widescreen TV and a reserved area in the ship’s Aurea Spa facility, operated by Balinese therapists.

Yacht Club guests also have their own private pool and jacuzzis on the bow of the ship, unlimited alcohol and canapes, and are served high tea each afternoon, while a daily paper from your home country is delivered to your cabin each morning. Everything a dictator could wish for, really.

There are private butler and concierge services as well, should you need another selection from the pillow menu or to book a shore excursion. Concierge Maria, an Italian who speaks six languages, organises my visit to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, while butler Jeannot, from Madagascar, is on hand to help should I need escorting to the Palmeraie restaurant on the first night of the cruise.

Rather bizarrely, the Palmeraie, the dedicated restaurant for Yacht Club guests, is at the stern of the ship – several hundred metres away. No one seems to have an explanation for this – maybe it was a Gaddafi foible.

The food throughout the ship has a largely Mediterranean vibe – and many of the chefs and waiters are Italian, although there were crew from 48 different nations on board the inaugural cruise.

The boast is “the flavours and aromas of the Mediterranean”, which seemed to please most guests, with the possible exception of a stern group of Russians and their pneumatically-enhanced companions, who spent much of their time in the small smoking section of the Top Sail Lounge apparently fearful that the world was about to run out of cigarettes.

The rest of us enjoyed the 120-metre-long Vertigo water slide (the longest on any ship), and nightly entertainment offerings as diverse as bingo and the on-board casino to a 4D cinema, wine bar and the Eataly restaurant – the first afloat – which highlights artisanal Italian dishes like roast veal with vegetable couscous and organic Italian wines.

There are black-tie dinners on board for those who enjoy a bit of pomp, but plenty of options for those who do not – and meals from the two buffet restaurants are on offer 20 hours a day. There’s shopping and dancing – and also the chance to switch off. I missed one early morning appointment because I was still fast asleep.

There are children’s clubs and facilities for when mum and dad need a break and there is the choice of organised excursions at each port, or self exploration. Naples is grim but fortunately Vesuvius, Pompei, Capri and Sorrento are all close by; while Messina is a jumping off point for Toarmina and Etna, although I just took a train to the delightful seaside resort of Giardini.

Choose from historic Carthage or Medina, or both, in Tunisia, while both Barcelona and Marseille, the European capital of culture for 2013, are stunning in the spring.

As someone who can be seasick on the Manly ferry, I found the Preziosa wonderfully stable. The lift queues were sometimes annoying, disembarkation needs attention and I would have liked more choice of TV channels. These, however, are minor quibbles about a very special experience.

Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by Libyan rebels in late 2011. No doubt many of them objected to his luxurious lifestyle. His son Hannibal survived but fled to Algeria. I, meanwhile, ordered a cocktail and thought how fortunate I was.

Photos: On board the MSC Preziosa

The writer was a guest of MSC Cruises and Emirates Airways.

Seven-night Yacht Club class cruises on board the MSC Preziosa start from $2369 per person including priority check-in, butler service, complimentary drinks and al a carte dining. For bookings and introductory offers contact MSC Cruises at www.msccruises.co-m.au.

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Sydney gets real-time train apps

In train: Real-time apps take the uncertainty out of commuting. Photo: Louise Kennerley Sydney train commuters are now able to track in real-time how far away their train is with smartphone apps.

State Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian unveiled six updated apps on Thursday that will have the real-time capability, which makes use of markers on stations that will receive information from trains, and then pass it on to the apps.

The release of up-to-the-minute information about where trains are on the network follows the release late last year of real-time bus information.

Before Thursday, Sydney public transport apps had been limited to providing published train timetables. But – as commuters know only too well – trains often arrive well outside their scheduled time.

“This government has been committed to providing customers with more information and the launch of these real-time train apps follows the successful roll-out of the real-time bus apps in December which have so far been downloaded more than 1 million times,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“The train apps mean customers will know when to leave work or home to meet their train at the station and also provides the information customers need to make decisions about their journeys,” she said.

Each of the six apps – TripGo, Triptastic, TripView, Arrivo Sydney, Hidden City and TransitTimes – offers different features for customers and there are free versions as well as versions costing up to $2.99. The apps are available from the iTunes Store, Google Play and the Windows App Store.

The apps will initially provide real-time train location information for trains on the Western, Bankstown, Inner West, Northern, Cumberland, Airport and East Hills, South and North Shore Lines as well as the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line to Heathcote.

The six apps have been developed in conjunction with app developers who won a competition organised by the NSW Government. Transport for NSW said it would continue to work with the developers to further improve and expand the information provided for future releases.

with Jacob Saulwick

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When a dinner complaint got out of hand

Jamil Hossan, who claims he was stabbed in the hand with a skewer at Hot Chilli restaurant, Lakemba. Photo: Sahlan Hayes Restaurant stabbing

Jamil Hossain clearly remembers what he ordered for his five friends at the Red Chilli restaurant in Lakemba after celebrating Bangladesh’s Independence Day on March 31.

“Eight naan, two roti, a vegetable dish, a lamb and chicken curry and a beef vindaloo,” he said.

It was to be a sumptuous meal after a day celebrating his country of birth’s struggle for nationhood, when it seceded from Pakistan in 1971.

But little did the 47-year-old father of three think he would end up on the end of a tandoori skewer.

“The skewer went right through, it had to be operated on and I still have it wrapped in bandages,” he said.

Mr Hossain spent the night at Sydney Hospital , which specialises in hand and eye injuries.

“I was scared and very frightened,” he said.

On Wednesday, Campsie police arrested the owner-chef of Red Chilli, Rehana Mati, who will face Burwood Local court on May 2 on a charge of reckless wounding.

Pakistani-born Mr Mati, 43, declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.

Mr Hossain, who won a Canterbury Council Citizen of the Year Award in 2010 for his community work in local cricket, said he will never eat at Red Chilli again.

“It was the first and will be the last time I go there. It was a terrible end to a truly wonderful day,” he said.

Mr Hossain said after celebrations at Wiley Park, their group arrived at the restaurant at 9.30pm but had to wait half an hour to be served, then almost another hour for their food.

Mr Hossain said the dispute arose after they asked how much longer their food would take to be served.”

“It was unbelievable. There were only two other customers. We politely asked the waitress where our food was.”

Mr Hossain’s group, who he says weren’t drinking as “we are Muslims”, felt intimidated and left the restaurant before calling police.

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Elegant masterpiece comes with a man shed

Home work: Architect Roger Nelson’s renovated three-level St Kilda West home has a roomy interior and a tropics-inspired garden. The home in St Kilda West.

The home in St Kilda West.

Attention!: The five-bedroom 61 David Street, Preston, was once a Salvation Army barracks.

61 David Street, Preston.

Entertaining: This riverside home at Hawthorn is family-friendly.

This riverside home at Hawthorn.

Creative: A feature pond by Ola Cohn at the house built by Marcus Martin.

1A Wellington Street, Brighton.

740 Burwood Road, Hawthorn East.

222/299 Queen Street.

Known for his work on city landmarks such as QV, the Melbourne Convention Centre and the redevelopment of Myer’s Bourke Street store, architect Roger Nelson has turned his attention to a smaller-scale project – the sale of his St Kilda West home.

Nelson is the principal of NHArchitecture, which at present is involved in projects including the redevelopment of the Margaret Court Arena and part of central Christchurch, in New Zealand.

He and his wife Jane, who have four adult children, bought the house, which dates from the early 20th century, in early 2004 and completed a ”major overhaul” of the property – including the addition of new bathrooms and repolishing of the floors – two years ago. They’re now upsizing to accommodate the extended family on a single site.

The three-level property at 327 Beaconsfield Parade features up to five bedrooms, including one they use as a library, and a loft bedroom, or home office, on the top floor.

The first floor features open-plan living and dining areas leading to a balcony and bay views, while the ground floor has a back family room that opens to extensive decking and a tropics-inspired garden with fish ponds. There’s also a ”man shed” built into the home’s north wall.

The property goes to auction at 1.30pm on May 4, with expectations of $2.9 million-plus. Graeme Wilson, of Wilson Agents, is handling the sale.

Family gem by the river

Builder Renato Virgona, of Virgon Constructions, has listed his riverside Hawthorn house for private sale with an asking price of $3.75 million, after it failed to snag a buyer via expressions of interest.

Mr Virgona built the three-level property at 5 Muir Street about five years ago. It has five bedrooms, three bathrooms, formal and informal living areas as well as a home cinema or rumpus room and a gym. There’s also a three-car garage, pool and spa, and a child-friendly garden.

Sam Wilkinson, of Kay & Burton, is handling the sale.

History and society style

The former South Yarra home of prolific mid-20th century society architect Marcus Martin will be auctioned at 12.30pm on April 27.

The property, 240 Walsh Street, was built by Martin, who died in 1981, as his residence about 1935.

Previously listed for private sale, the property comes with an Edna Walling-designed walled garden and a central feature pond designed by Ola Cohn.

Jock Langley, of Abercromby’s, is quoting $2 million-plus.

If the walls could talk

Its uses have been many and varied – from a Salvation Army barracks to palais de dance and gospel hall – but the building at 61 David Street in Preston, which dates from the early 1890s, has more latterly been used as a home.

It has five bedrooms, including a separate guest bedroom or retreat with its own balcony, open-plan living and dining area with a central aquarium and a double garage.

Listed for auction at 11.30am on April 20, Andrew Montalto, of Hocking Stuart, is quoting $950,000 to $1.05 million.

Fame and charm

You might recognise this Brighton property from its appearances in housing magazines and television commercials, including ads for Country Road and Tassal Salmon.

The house of interiors stylist and social worker Jo Neal and her venture capitalist husband John, 1A Wellington Street has been refurbished since they bought it five years ago. ”We ramped up the charm,” says Ms Neal, who describes it as ”Beatrix Potter-style”.

Only metres from the beach, the two-storey house has four bedrooms, five living areas and a second-storey deck. The garden, which has featured in the Open Garden Scheme, includes a trampoline, swimming pool, chicken coop and even a small citrus grove.

The house is for private sale. Kate Strickland, of Marshall White, is asking $2.89 million.

Big kids at the back

The Hawthorn East house of internet pioneers Rod and Liz Keys was designed to provide space between parents and their adult offspring by including a self-contained two-bedroom apartment at the back.

The Keys, directors of Total Internet, bought the Victorian-era property at 740 Burwood Road about eight years ago and in 2012 completed the apartment above the carport for the elder two of their three sons.

But with work commitments requiring a move closer into the city, they’re selling it with expectations of $1.5 million-plus.

Apartment aside, the main house has three bedrooms, a separate sitting room, open-plan living and a deck.

Scott Patterson and Judy Balloch, of Kay & Burton, are overseeing an expressions-of-interest campaign closing at 5pm on May 7.

Grand city views

Eye surgeon James La Nauze is selling his inner-city property as he looks to spend more time at his other house in central Victoria.

Mr La Nauze bought the property at 222/299 Queen Street more than five years ago and extensively reconfigured and renovated it.

”[It’s] created even more of a sense of space,” he says.

On the 22nd floor of the Nonda Katsalidis-designed Republic Tower, the three-bedroom apartment features a two-storey glass-walled void with city views, a home office or upstairs retreat and two carparks on title as well as access to common facilities such as a gym, swimming pool and sauna.

Anton Wongtrakun of Dingle Partners expects $2.5 million-plus. Expressions of interest close at 5pm on April 30.

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Let us keep dividend, RBA urged Swan

Treasurer Wayne Swan asked for a $500 million dividend from the RBA, saying it was ‘‘appropriate’’ that taxpayers receive the payment. Photo: Andrew MearesThe Reserve Bank projects it will have $550 million available for distribution in the 12 months to June 30, a year after it was forced to hand the government almost half its earnings against Governor Glenn Stevens’s wishes, documents show.

Mr Stevens urged Treasurer Wayne Swan to forego a dividend from the RBA for the year to June 2012 to allow the governor to rebuild a buffer drained by the high currency.

‘‘This would be consistent with your earlier agreement to this approach to begin the process of restoring the balance of this Reserve,’’ Mr Stevens wrote in a July 13, 2012, letter to Mr Swan released today under a Freedom of Information Act request by Bloomberg News.

Mr Swan rebuffed the request, and asked for a $500 million dividend from the RBA, saying it was ‘‘appropriate’’ that taxpayers receive the payment.

The conflicting claims reflect the impact a higher local currency is having on Treasury, where tax receipts are weakening, and the central bank, which has lost money on its international assets.

‘‘The position of the Reserve Bank has been complicated by the strong Australian dollar and the fact that it keeps going higher and higher,’’ said Shane Oliver, Sydney-based head of investment strategy at AMP Capital Investors. ‘‘Paying the government a dividend isn’t a problem in normal times, but if difficult financial conditions fall on the economy it may restrict the central bank’s ability to provide assistance.’’

In a February 8, 2013, letter from the RBA to Treasury, the central bank said it projected earnings of $863 million for the year to June 30, 2013, with $550 million of that available for distribution as a dividend in the following financial year or to credit the Reserve Fund.

‘‘Exchange rates, in particular, can fluctuate widely over time and may have a significant effect on the bank’s profits,’’ RBA Assistant Governor (Corporate Services) Frank Campbell wrote in the letter to Treasury.

‘‘Although the bank currently records unrealized gains so far in 2012-13, if the Australian dollar appreciated over the remainder of 2012-13 unrealised losses may be recorded.’’

The Australian dollar traded at $US1.0520 this afternoon, up 1.6 per cent from the $US1.0353 level on February 6 that was used by the RBA when making its projections for distributable earnings in fiscal 2013.

The forecast distribution available noted in the February letter was $413 million higher than a September projection, Mr Campbell wrote. He said the Reserve Fund’s ‘‘balance remains below a level consistent with the board’s policy for this Reserve, which is to target a balance of 10 per cent of assets at risk.’’

A 10 per cent appreciation in Australia’s dollar could result in an unrealised loss of about $3.43 billion, he wrote.

The Reserve Fund, which provides the capacity for the RBA to absorb losses, stood at $1.9 billion in February, Mr Stevens told a parliamentary panel in Canberra on February 22. He said that when the central bank held between $6 billion and $7 billion ‘‘that was roughly at the target at the time.’’

In Mr Stevens’s July 13 letter to Mr Swan, he wrote: ‘‘The board seeks your approval to transfer all of the bank’s distributable earnings in 2012 to the Reserve Bank Reserve Fund.’’

In a reply dated August 28 from Mr Swan to the governor, the Treasurer said ‘‘the government believes it is appropriate that tax payers receive a dividend from the Reserve Bank where circumstances permit.’’

‘‘However, I agree it is prudent that the Reserve Bank work towards replenishing the Reserve Bank Reserve Fund, and for this reason should retain a portion of its 2011-12 profits,’’ Mr Swan wrote in the letter.

The Reserve Bank Act states that the central bank’s owner, the Australian government through the treasurer, determines how much of the earnings available for distribution will be taken as a dividend. After paying the dividend to Treasury, the RBA had $596 million of its earnings in 2011-12 left to top up its Reserve Fund, according to its annual report published in September.

‘‘My preference would be to keep all of it, frankly, until we rebuild the capital, but it is the treasurer’s prerogative to decide,’’ Mr Stevens told lawmakers in Canberra on February 22. ‘‘In the current situation he was quite amenable to us keeping more than half of the earnings available for the year, but he wished to take the 500 dividend. That is his prerogative, and he is perfectly entitled legally under the acts to do.’’


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