Conga-ing in costume: My surreal night with billionaire Clive Palmer

Eleven courses, authentic turn-of-the-century garb and Clive Palmer in a conga line. On Saturday night, reporter Amy Remeikis was a paying customer at the Titanic-themed dinner at Palmer Coolum Resort on the Sunshine Coast. Here's how her night unfolded.

5pm

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clive Palmer's Titanic night of nights begins with a press conference, to which Clive is 15 minutes late.

Clive Palmer and journalist Amy Remeikis at the Captain's Atlantic Dinner.
Clive Palmer and journalist Amy Remeikis at the Captain's Atlantic Dinner. Photo: Michelle Smith

He arrives in top and tails, holding his top hat like a gentleman of old.

He talks about the Titanic II, politics, takes shots at the local paper for saying he'll be cloning dinosaurs ("How do you even do that?") and Titanic dinners he is planning on recreating in New York and London. Oh, and if no one on the Sunshine Coast wants his planned new resort, he'll just take it somewhere else.

He barely takes a breath between statements. Lord Astor eat your heart out.

In other news, he likes my hat.

5.50pm

We arrive at the front of the resort for the evening proper. Clive is greeting early guests. Some are brave enough to ask for a photo. I ask him to be the Leonardo to my Kate. He compromises by standing behind me being theatrical with his top hat. Now everyone wants Clive to be their Leonardo. He's got things to do, so he says no.

"Enjoy your evening. You've dressed the part. Thank you," he says in parting.

An ABC journalist stops him to say hello. He makes a crack that he only listens to the ABC because "who else would I listen to?" and complains again about the lack of quality media in Australia.

5.55pm

We are ushered into an early 1900s Morris. The young driver tells us he drove Mr Palmer around the resort last night and was quite scared, "but he is a really nice guy". He did not receive a tip, but is happy to be driving the guests tonight. It's one of 50 vintage cars Clive owns, we're told. Seven of them are running tonight. Apparently you've got to "really give it to it" when dealing with a 100-year-old clutch.

6.01pm

We arrive at the ballroom and are faced with a boarding plank and a kilted man with bagpipes. On the other side we are greeted by waiters holding Champagne. The piper bows to us and for the first time in my life, it feels right to curtesy. He clicks his heels and heads back over the plank to repeat his act. I want a piper to precede me into every room from now on.

6.05pm

We are met by "Captain Edward Smith". His manner and accent encourages us to look past the taped on beard and hair. He tells us we are on time for departure. As we are among only 10 of the 200 or so guests meant to be arriving, we don't believe him.

6.23pm

We are approached by a caricaturist for an illustration. "I think the idea came from the movie, he says. Leonardo's character was a caricaturist, so that's me tonight. I can draw better than he can, but he's better looking. So it's half right."

6.27pm

We're told by one of the staff that Clive decided against a buffet in favour of 11 courses - bar the squab, which is "really hard to get. Maybe they ate them all in the 1900s." He says we'll be here until 1am but "the chef managed to bring it back from 2am".

Dear God.

6.30pm

The staff, in period costume, are starting to get a bit antsy. "There is a lot to get through. We need to start getting people in." We're shuffled in. The room is dappled blue with lighting, there are candles everywhere and old Titanic movies are playing. A string quartet starts up. This must be what it's like to be the Duchess of Cambridge.

6.45pm

Captain Smith greets us again. He tells us to avoid steerage. Well obviously. I'm not wearing an entire goose on my head for some dirty steerage passenger.

7pm

Clive arrives at the dinner. He surveys his domain. He's pretty happy. Someone asks him if he's a genius or a maniac. He seems a bit offended.

7.14pm

Captain Edward Smith starts the evening to the strains of Rule Britannia. He calls us toffs and tells us to prepare for a night of disaster. We all laugh, but I think we all agree that the night could go either way.

7.16pm

First course is served: oysters. They are delicious. But the plates! Blue and gold and so heavy, there is no chink when your cutlery hits it. We are tres impressed.

7.41pm

Clive stops by our table with his young daughter, Mary, in tow.

"Having a good night? It will get better. The captain is very good. Hope he steers us okay," he says.

He answers a few polite questions and wanders off to the next table. He really is being a very gracious host. Mary is left with us and begins performing pirouettes. Mid-spin she realises her dad has moved on.

"Where's dad?" she asks. We look around. A man in a top hat is surprisingly difficult to make out in this room. We point in the direction we last saw him, but Mary doesn't believe us. Smart kid. He's already back behind us. She shakes her head at us and runs off in his direction yelling, "Dad!" We're charmed.

7.45pm

Second course is served: it's soup. We have cream of barley. It's delicious and rich and really filling. Nine courses to go, which includes four desserts which will be served as one course.

"No wonder they all sank," my dining companion comments. She is right. Those poor souls would have gone down not only well fed but slightly drunk, if the way the alcohol is being offered is also authentic. 'Cept those dirty buggers in steerage. That's what they get for not paying the $120,000 or so ticket price.

A punter takes my photo. He likes my hat. "Good on ya mate," he says, a little drunk.

Clive's daughter is still running around the dining room. She also likes my hat. "Pretty," she says and runs off.

8pm

I'm pulled up on stage for an entertainment bit. It's because of the hat.

Mary is running around grinning like a 4-year-old past her bedtime does. Clive looks bemused as one of the actresses sings about women's fashions. He does not wooooo in the appropriate parts. His wife, Anna, laughs along and claps. She smiles at Mary every time she runs past.

8.15pm

Third course: it's salmon. I'm pretty full already.

8.21pm

James Cameron's Titanic movie is now playing. The old woman has just seen her old butterfly comb for the first time. It's quite moving.

8.30pm

Titanic has been taken off and replaced with... Titanic. But this one is in black and white. And no Leonardo.

8.38pm

Fourth course: Filet Mignonette Lili. Sooooo full now.

We've just spoken to the bagpipe players. They are pretty cold but handling it pretty well for men in skirts. They are here until Clive's speech. "When is that?" Three-quarters of an hour ago, according to the schedule. Talk in the bathroom is that Mary is adorable, but not chatty. "I think she's been told not to talk to crazy people" says one lady. "Which is all of us," another answers. "This night is surreal."

8.42pm

We're now standing for God Saves The King. Clive knows all the words. And he's not afraid to sing it. With gusto. I'm told I missed the didgeridoo while in the bathroom.

8.44pm

The bagpipe players are in the room. People are unsure whether to keep eating. The pipers stand at the head of Clive's table. He takes the microphone. Half his shirt is now untucked. He doesn't care.

8.45pm

"You're eating the exact same menu they ate on the Titanic that last night," he tells us. Forty-five chefs spent two weeks preparing it. I'm not surprised. Whatever is happening in that kitchen is amazing.

Then Clive tells us to remember that this was the last ever meal for some people. It's a bit of a downer, really. Clive senses this and turns to happier topics.

"We're building the Titanic and we'll be having this dinner in New York and London later this year, so you are the guinea pigs," Clive tells us.

Clive also hopes that in 100 years someone builds Titanic 3. We're all a part of that now, he says.

We remember those who lost their lives building the Titanic 1.

And now Clive's happy about Titanic 2. There are too many Titanics. It's hard to keep track. He tells us to have a good night and sits back down. We're dizzy.

8.48pm

There's another bit. It involves dancing. Clive's wife claps enthuasiastically. She seems to be having a great time. So do most of the guests. Mary is loving the clapping. Clive puts a couple of hands together but seems content watching everyone else having a great time.

We've just had an iceberg warning. It's apparently from the transcript of the actual warning. I'm no captain, but it seemed pretty clear to me.

8.54pm

Most of the room is now up dancing. Clive is dancing with Anna. Mary is dancing with one of the actors. Everyone is smiling. Clive is quite the waltzer.

8.58pm

Fifth course: it's chicken. People are starting to wonder how they will fit it all in. How does a duchess do it? There is extra rice made available with this dish. Most of us ignore it.

People at my table are starting to talk about whether they could steal the plates. Keep in mind that it is mostly media sitting at this table. We're unlikely to dine like this again unless royalty comes to town.

9.12pm

Just realised the chefs have substituted duckling for squab. Old McDonald's farm has been seriously depleted by this dinner. Beef, chicken, lamb, duckling, and then more beef. How did these people do this? More to the point, how did their bodies keep operating? Mine is threatening to shut down, like a bear in winter.

9.17pm

Captain Smith has lost his beard. There's another entertainment bit. Clive loves it. He claps along.

9.28pm

Sixth course: it's lamb.

I'm close to tapping out.

9.45pm

We're handed a souvenir. It a pin of the ship with 'Titanic The Artefact Exhibition' written on it. People are greedily unwrapping and pinning it to their clothes around the room. "Oh, I didn't expect a gift," one woman says. "We did pay $155 for our ticket," her husband sort of slurs. "You've already drank more than that," she points out. Touché.

Our table photo is taken. The photographer wants us to move so we all fit in. It's a massive issue. People have seemingly lost the ability to move. We're like snakes who have just swallowed the Titanic of possums.

9.50pm

There is a woman asleep in the corner of the room. There is another iceberg warning. I fear the sleeping woman will be lost.

10pm

The band has left us. So much for playing to the bitter end. They just don't make Titanic bands like they used to. We're now listening to the modern Titanic movie soundtrack. On screen the black and white movie actors are taking their imminent deaths very well. Stiff upper lip and all that. I have a sneaky suspicion the actual evacuation was more like a Valley taxi rank at 4am on a Saturday. But with more clothes.

10.05pm

Seventh course: it's duckling. I can't do it. My dining companion wishes I'd stop reminding her that she is eating duckling. I can't do that either.

We get another iceberg warning.

The actors are wearing life jackets. I think things are about to get real.

10.10pm

We've hit the iceberg. Lights are flashing. The actors are stressed. It's all very dramatic. The actual transmission script is being read out over speakers. Again, I'm no captain, but it doesn't seem like the actual Captain Smith handled the situation overly well. "Grab the champagne and get the f--- out of here," is the call from one of the tables. That seems to be an authentic 2012 reaction.

People don't know whether to eat or watch the tragedy unfold.

10.15pm

We're told that 1500 people died on board. Maritime laws were changed, many of the rich survived, society was torn apart by the events on the ship. It's all very sobering. But wait! We're rich, so we made it off the ship. Hoorah!

Now New York, New York is playing.

10.18pm

There is a conga line. No one seems to know what to do, so Clive takes charge. He begins running around the tables to make people get up. I swear to God I am not making this up.

10.20pm

Clive has ordered me into a conga line. Ordered. In the nicest possible way. "I'm conga-ing!" he says. "Come on! Get up and have some fun!"

10.21pm

Almost the entire room, about 230 people, are snaking around the tables in a giant conga line. It's surreal. Clive is ordering the stragglers to the end of the line. He's just about to grab the waist of the person at the end of the line when... the music stops. Clive actually looks disappointed.

10.23pm

There's an Irish band now. Clive is enjoying a bit of a jig. The man can move.

10.26pm

Clive comes by to tell us the conga line is the secret of the Titanic. His tongue is firmly in his cheek. "That's the secret of the 1900s. As the ship went down, they were doing the conga!" he tells us.

Clive tells us our table setting is recreated from the original first-class dining room. "You won't see that in the movie," he says, a little defensively. "But they are. I had them commissioned especially for tonight."

He asks if we are having a good time and seems genuinely interested in our answer.

He tells us his favourite dish has been the duckling. I cringe on the inside. He poses for a few photos with some other guests. "Got it?" he asks the iPhone photographers. "Good." He wanders off again.

10.35pm

Eighth course: it's more beef. I can't breathe. No wonder women suffered from the "headache" during this time. The poor gals were probably crying out for just a simple salad. And a dinner that didn't go for four hours.

10.55pm

Ninth course: it's a punch. Thank God. News has broken about BreastScreen Queensland changes. People are shocked. If Twitter was around in 1912, that ship wouldn't have gone down. "Ummm, lots of icebergs in the Atlantic tonight. Be careful #Titanic. #Carpathia #Unsinkable"

11pm

A woman from the performance troupe tells me Clive is "the most amazing man" and that he and Alexander Downer walked into their Melbourne Titanic Theatre restaurant recently and had dinner. Days later there's a phone call. Clive wants them. They came up and put together the show for Clive. "I've been in tourism hospitality for years and I've never seen such hospitality. Everyone loves Clive. They want to do it for him. A 13-course or whatever it is dinner? The staff's response is 'Yes, we can do that. Let's give it a shot.' The man makes things happen".

11.04pm

Mary has tapped out and is sleeping on her mother's chest.

11.06pm

People are up dancing. Clive is chatting. Everyone is pretty happy. Mary's out. A little pram/ bed thing has been brought out for her. I'm a bit jealous. I'm not drinking so the fatigue has set in. A waiter notices and asks if I'd like a cola. I wasn't treated so well at my own wedding.

11.12pm

10th course. We are almost there. My dining partner and I are giddy with tired delirium. Those around us are giddy on expensive French wines. It turns out the Titanic folks had asparagus before dessert. They are either crazy or geniuses.

11.17pm

Stickies have arrived! If sticky wines are being served, then dessert must be imminent. The Irish band are playing Danny Boy. I could cry.

11.20pm

Clive and I have a chat.

I ask him about BreastScreen.

"Personally, I think it's a tragedy and you shouldn't be cutting health services, but that's my personal view.

"The fact is, if people or governments are not going to support big projects which will bring money into the state, then some things, tragically, get cut."

The big projects he is talking about are his. Mining and tourism.

He says he is at a point in his life where money doesn't matter, but he wants to leave something behind and create jobs for his friends and communities children.

We discuss political views - he picks that perhaps ours aren't the same, but doesn't press.

We agree to disagree.

We chat about the media, about his planned website. "I was thinking Rage like angry age," he says. "But people didn't get it. They thought I was talking about that ABC show. But we'll see."

He tells me he has always had an interest in the media, since he studied journalism at university, but doesn't think today's media is always very fair. We discuss "fair" versus "favourable" and how a report can be unfavourable, but fair. He thinks on this for a moment and then shrugs.

"Well, at least I'm giving them something to write about. I'm keeping most journalists in Australia employed at the moment."

I tell him if he thinks that then he doesn't need to run for parliament.

He winks.

He says he likes my hat; I tell him I like his dinner.

"It's a bit of fun isn't it?" he says, looking around.

He tells me his entire family have enjoyed it.

His diet was ignored "not that I'm really on a diet", his sleep apnoea treatment is going well and when he hits 80 kilos he is going to run a marathon.

Which one?

"I don't know. I'll make one. That's what we do here; we build things," he says.

One of his advisers comes over to "rescue" Clive and tells him I'm a reporter. Clive nods. I made that clear at the beginning. Then he introduces me to someone as the "State Communist Party leader," he laughs. He seems to find it funnier than I do, but I have just spent 10 minutes grilling him on the LNP, so I guess we're even.

11.36pm

Final course. Four desserts. The eclair is decorated with gold leaf. It's been a marathon. We made it. They're playing the music from the Titanic soundtrack. I feel that if this was real and the ship went down, I wouldn't really care. I'm too exhausted. But looking around at the joviality in the room, I think most of these folks would make it, even if they were dunked in the Atlantic. There's been enough alcohol served in this room to warm the coldest of bloods.

12am

It's Sunday. Clive is still going strong. So is most of the room. The Irish band are now playing more modern songs. As in songs released later than 1915. An accordion really does lend itself to "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me."

12.05am

We leave. We're handed an umbrella with "White Star" printed on it and escorted towards an 1920s Chevy. There's no pipers as I walk across the gangplank this time. I miss them.

Our driver is older. He also seems in awe of Clive. My dining companions chat a little, but we are all a little stunned.

"But did you have a good night?" our driver asks us.

I think about it, but the honest answer comes easily.

"Yes," I tell him. "I've had an amazing night."

Comments