Saturday, September 3, 2011

Leaving Charleville on sentimental note

Barely wide enough for two cars and threatened by trees tugging at the asphalt's edge, the road leading out to Charleville's cemetery is neatly paved but feels lonely and un-traveled.

The cemetery claims a patch of dirt near the edge of town, ironically close to the hospital.

A small shed holds the maintenance crew's tools while kangaroos guard the boundaries of the resting place.

The first plot is situated just steps from the parking lot. Three rows in, a tombstone marks the grave of Harry Corones, affectionately known as Poppa.

He died at 90-years-old. Poppa's legacy: a huge hotel and pub in Outback Australia.

In it's hey-day, Hotel Corones serviced a town of over 10,000 thirsty townspeople and competed with 12 local pubs.

Today, the town's population is 3,500 and Hotel Corones is one of only four bars in town.

On Charleville's main street, Corones' hotel stands above the town's other structures and at times the bar is filled to capacity.

But, on most days--like his resting place--Corones' hotel stubbornly faces the Outback sun, appearing indifferent to time passing.

Harry Corones with Nancy Bird in Charleville. Corones was an original shareholder of QANTAS, a major Australian-owned airline.

My time at Hotel Corones

I journeyed to Hotel Corones in June because I needed a job.

Determined to make it work, I stuck it out for more than two months even when it the fun had stopped and frustration set in.

On our last day off, we joined a "Stories and Scones" tour of the hotel.

Karl, our tour guide, walked us through the history of the property and shared tidbits about the Corones family.

Harry or "Poppa" was a money-conscious, stubborn man. But based on what I can tell from Karl's stories, "Poppa" was frugal--not greedy.

He arrived in Australia basically penniless. Through the help of fellow Greek immigrants in Sydney, "Poppa" moved to Charleville in hopes of becoming a successful businessman.

Corones owned three cafes and leased a pub in the town before he built Hotel Corones.

The endeavor took him five years but once complete, the hotel was the biggest in Australia.

For two hours every day at 2 p.m., Karl relives the grandeur of Corones' hotel and finds humor in stories of "Poppa's" penny-pinching ways.

Like the story of the legendary aviator Amy Johnson's visit to the hotel.

After showing the special guest to her room, "Poppa" told the pilot if there was anything he could do for her to just let him know.

Believing in the sincerity of "Poppa's" words, Amy asked the hotelier if his pub had French champagne.

His reply was that in fact his pub had the finest French champagne available!

It was then Amy revealed that she had always wanted to take a bath in champagne.

Not one to be caught without a plan (or without making a buck), Corones asked his guest to just wait a short while and he would return with the champagne.

"Poppa" raced to his office to call his wealthy friends with an investment proposition.

He wrangled up enough friends to buy 20 bottles of champagne on the promise they would each receive a bottle of the used champagne.

Corones figured the champagne would go up in value as Amy's fame grew. That appealed to his wealthy friends looking for a unique investment opportunity.

Satisfied that he could give his guest a champagne bath without losing a dime, Corones filled the tub with all 20 bottles of sparkling champagne.

Then, he removed all soaps and other toiletries from the bathroom so that Amy couldn't contaminate the champagne.

And so the legend goes: once the pilot finished her bath, she got dressed again and stood on the hotel balcony to speak to adoring fans below.

Corones shrewdly let himself back into the room and carefully re-filled the 20 champagne bottles.

As he secured the cap on bottle number 20, he was bewildered to see enough liquid in the tub to fill at least one more bottle.

Assuming the worst, he rushed to the balcony and yelled out, "Amy, Amy! I thought you were a lady!"

Of course, this garnered a nervous laugh from everyone on our tour. So, tour guide Karl concluded his story, tongue in cheek by saying, "Harry's champagne must have been cold and Amy simply turned on the tap to add warm water."

It was that story and more like it, that brought the hotel alive in a way I hadn't pictured it before.

We also learned that none of Corones' relatives lived in Charleville anymore.

Feeling a bit sentimental and sad that it's unlikely anyone visits Corones' grave now, we decided to drive to the cemetery after the tour.

Harry Corones' hotel was important for so many people in Charleville during its early days. And, it became important for us at the beginning of our trip.

But with our bank accounts replenished and plenty of stories to tell, we were itching to leave the Outback and head to the beach.

We caught the Wednesday evening train from Charleville to Briabane and arrived in the city Thursday afternoon.

Check back for more about our short stint in Brisbane.

We are now on our way up the east coast stopping first in Noosa.

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