Sydney’s Iconic Harbor Bridge, a photo montage…. and some thoughts about the city as a tourist destination.

[Updated, with more hard information added]
The Harbor Bridge, in Sydney Australia, which Wikipedia claims locals refer to as the coat hanger (although in the three months I’ve been here I’ve yet to hear it referred to as such), and the combined views of it and the Sydney Opera House … are as iconic of the city of Sydney as the Golden Gate is to San Francisco.

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Taken from the west, Opera House to left

A visit to Sydney, Australia is a bucket list item for most people. To any and all first time visitors — even those with mobility issues, I strongly suggest that you devote ALL of your first sunny day to appreciating the views of the city, with its iconic Harbor bridge and Opera House by taking full advantage of the city’s low priced ferry system.

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Taken from the East, Opera House to right

If you use their Opal card system, you can ride ALL day for a maximum charge of $15 AUD per adults, $7.50 for kids, and $2.50 for pensioners — no matter how many ferry rides you take; and if can arrange to do it on a Sunday (weather permitting), the maximum fee drops to ONLY $2.70 AUD!!! If you don’t suffer from sea sickness, its a heavenly and restful way to spend a day (bring your sunscreen), and CHEAP.

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For another $15 AUD you can climb up a three story tower that sits on the Harbor bridge from which you obtain an elevated view of the thing; my friend who did it said wasn’t that high… but because the price included a small museum about the bridge’s construction, he felt was worth it.

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I thought that if I rode over it on a bus (elevated) I’d get a good view but not so much, so it might be worth climbing that tower, if you’ve the strength to do it.

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From a bus, from a car you can’t see much

If you are both highly athletic (which I am NOT) and rich, a lot of my friends have really enjoyed the Harbor Bridge Climb. This will cost you between you between $174 ($124 USD) and $268 AUD ($192 USD), depending on which climb you sign up for (pregnant women and those above 75 years old will require a doctor’s permission before being allowed to do it). As this is more money for between a 2 to 3.5 hours adventure (which will leave you exhausted) than you’d spend on a full day ticket to Disney World, to be honest even IF I was energetic enough to do it, I’d still balk at the price. But that said, there’s so little to do in Sydney that I think a lot of folks sign up for it because they’ve already spent about 1K just on the airfare to get here, and feel they have to make that expenditure worth the price.

That said, having grown up in the Chicagoland area and having LIVED in cities like London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Seoul (the latter of which I consider to be one of the most overhyped cites in the world –the rest of Korea is great, but Seoul itself, is Soulless), and I have visited Rio and Los Angelus (I HATE LA)… I’ve now visited Sydney twice for extended periods (although the first one was mostly about the massive concussion I suffered, which a year later I am still dealing with) and am still trying to figure out what it is about this city …OTHER than its impressive natural beauty — which is complimented by the Sea Shell like Opera house and the bridge, makes this city top most people’s lists as a tourist draw…. Seriously, I don’t see it.

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That said, I was really happy to see that Travel.com agrees with me that once you get past the views of the bridge and the Opera house — which admittedly are SO good that you can happily spend weeks just admiring them — that the city of Sydney itself is completely overhyped… especially if like me, the beach really isn’t a major draw.

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That said, the views are really quite impressive…. Every time I walk around areas where you can view nature, and admittedly Sydney offers a lot of them… you’re often times also seeing the bridge

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[With regards to the Opera House, I’ve heard the six performance spaces it holds are more about great acoustics than about looking impressive — once I’ve seen shows in them, then I’ll post about the interiors]

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208a.jpgGot to love the double bridge effect in the photo above…. first the rainbow bridge, and then the Sydney bridge

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And as is obvious from the images above… I’ve spent many hours enjoy it from my Airbnb’s bedroom window … DAMN did we have a view or did we have a view???!!! (Not very expensive either considering it was an entire two bedroom apartment at the height of the Sydney travel season… about $140/night)

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Watched fireworks over it

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and bats flying in front of it

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2064.jpgThe ONLY things I’ve yet to do is walk across it — I will at some point when I’m feeling athletic and the weather is not too hot… that and climb up it… which I’ve seen people do regularly… it’s a THING for tourists to do, but I am no longer capable of it now that I’m in my mid 50’s, 50 lb overweight and suffering problems with my hips, knees and balance.

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That said I felt I should probably to a photo montage at this point of some of my best images of it to date.

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Me and My former travel buddy
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Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand: Evening Banquet Tour, and the Economic Impact that Lord of the Rings has had on the country

Located in what once was the laid-back Dairy town of Matamata, New Zealand (NZ), is the movie set turned tourist attraction, Hobbiton. It is a must see for any fan of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie series, of the J. R. R. Tolkien books of the same names. From an economic standpoint, this single tourist attraction, which happened almost by accident, has become the “flagship” for what is now the impressive movie-tourism industry that has evolved in NZ over the past 20 years. As a result, visitors can swing through the entire country on any number of “see all of the LOTR locations in 14 days” type tours, (most of whom also throw in a taste of Māori culture for good measure). However, for myself, I prefer to take my time when traveling. As such I suggest spending the night in or near Matamata, and timing your visit so that you can attend a Hobbiton evening Tour and Banquet, which only happens a few times a week — all told, for any Tolkien fan, it’s well worth the price (and the food ROCKS!!).

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[I need to do a quick shout out to the Hobbiton staff who worked “on set” on the evening of March 3, 2019. They are all amazingly well-trained customer service wonks who all seemed to love their jobs and not only never squashed our excitement, but rather actually aided our enjoyment. None of them were “phoning it in” so to speak. While the whole thing was impressively well choreographed (looking at youtube videos I see the same thing over and over), none of it FELT rehearsed or false. The whole time I felt as though I were being led through the set by friendly folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy our excitement to be doing it (like great teachers are) … And the food was not only delectable, but just enough to make sure everyone who wants seconds can have them (with just enough left over to feed the pigs); while not so much as to be a waste, etc,. That, and the timing of the meal was also perfect, so that no one ever felt rushed. BRAVO on a great performance! That said, shame that some of the staff at Shire’s rest aren’t that good, although, but, on second thought… maybe that’s why they were delegated to that location and kept off set.]

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FIRST thing you’ll see when exiting International Arrivals in Aukland, need I say more? As in RIGHT in your line of sight after customs.

Let’s be real, if you’re a nerd/geek like I am, your number one motivator to go to New Zealand was probably to see the 12 acre Hobbiton movie set. Other than for that, it’s hard to think of what other reason might have drawn over half a million people to the small town of Matamata in just over 10 years. Even the town itself recognizes this reality, to the extent that their welcome sign says “Welcome to Hobbiton” in BIG letters, and only refers to itself as Matamata in the small print (see first image above)….Most tourists coming here believe the set, is simply what was left behind from when they made the LOTR movies back in the early 2000’s, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

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Local businesses in Matamata clearly understand what’s drawing people to them

Peter Jackson chose to build his Hobbit Shire in this general part of New Zealand because the region’s natural landscape of green rolling hills already conformed with his mind’s eye vision of the shire, as described in the books. In essence, the local topography is grass-covered sand dunes. This is why the area mostly supports things like dairy and wool production, as it is great for feeding livestock but less so for planting. While sandy soil is good for growing things like root vegetables and corn, that is only when the land is generally flat. With hills like these, any farming of that sort becomes difficult. Driving past the other farms that encircle the movie set area you quickly realize that this Hobbit like topography is NOT special or limited to the small farm inhabited by the movie set; the below image for instance was taken along a road about a 20 minute drive southeast of where the Hobbiton set is located, and could just have easily been chosen.

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Photo taken outside of Tapapa, about 20 min south of Hobbiton

According to the Hobbiton website, construction of what was intended to be 39 temporary hobbit-hole homes began in March 1999, and filming started in December of that same year… and lasted only three months. Once filming completed in early 2000, they began to tear down the set (as had been set forward in the initial contract) but then the rainy season began, which put a halt to the process. During that time the owner of the farm began giving private tours to friends and family, but word got out and then strangers began to trickle in, wanting to see Hobbiton with their own eyes (only he didn’t have the legal permission to allow that, let alone charge for it).

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NOTE the sign saying FULLY BOOKED, and this was off season

As such, the owner changed his mind and negotiated with the film company to stop the dismantling of the set, which left a bunch of empty holes in the ground and only 17 plain white plywood facades in place [click this link for an article with images of how it looked then]. The negotiations to turn it into a tourism business took about a year, and included the stipulation that the studio earn a percentage of the money from every tour given. When finally completed in 2002, formalized tours of the movie-set began, and a former sheep shearing building that belonged to the owner was retrofitted into the “Shire’s Rest,” an area where tourists assembled before being taken onto the grounds proper.

The following are clips showing how this whole location, which took a lot of money to build was actually only used for a few short minutes in the films….

Keep in mind that Hobbiton is JUST the exterior shots, all interior ones happened in an entirely different part of New Zealand, in a film studio.

Among the people in my tour group were an older couple who told me that this was their third visit to the site. Their first had been back around this time in the early 2000’s, and that at the time the whole thing looked more than a bit dilapidated… with bits of plywood where the doors had been … sort of like a boarded up Hobbit ghost town, and yet, the tourists came… but they claimed that this had not dampened their excitement at the time to be able to see it, even with weeds growing everywhere, etc.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28abWhen the studio returned to the site in 2009, asking if they could use the land again for the filming of the second trilogy which focused on “The Hobbit” (released in 2012, 2013 and 2014), the owner agreed, with the “price” being that this time rather than using materials intended for temporary film sets, all of the Hobbit holes had to be built using quality materials — and that they be left in place afterwards to support his now ongoing tourist trade. The rebuilding proceeded in 2010. At that time, since the location was now going to be a much more central feature to the films, five additional Hobbit Holes were added. (As I showed above, in the first trilogy the shire was only visible in the movie for a few minutes) When filming began again in 2011, actors commented on how the location, rather than showing any of the tell-tale signs of being a movie set, now looked like a real, but idealized, village where people lived and worked. This in turn, increased the value for visitors ten-fold, and like Disney World adding a new ride, word of mouth about the improvements generated not only return business, but new interest as well.

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However, at that time, no “tourist facilities” existed within the movie set area itself, which the ever-increasing number of attendees made problematic.  If you needed bathrooms or snacks, those needs could only be fulfilled back at the Shire’s Rest facility, before or after your visit (or porta potties, YUCH!). So in 2012 The Green Dragon Inn was built; it is an exact replica of the Inn, as seen in the movies. This final ‘destination building’ not only provided bathrooms, but solved a major complaint of tourists up until then.

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The Dragon Inn’s bathrooms: as imagined by the studio’s designers — I’m guessing, because this wasn’t in the movie… love the handicapped hobbit

As our guides made a point of telling us REPEATEDLY, Hobbiton was only built to provide exterior shots for the LOTR movies, and all interior ones were done at a movie studio, so “no, you can’t go into any of the hobbit homes” (let alone ask to use their bathrooms); and even where you could step in, what’s behind the door is not a real home (see images below). The Green Dragon Inn filled that gap in the experience by giving tourists the much longed for chance to enjoy a hobbit interior. As such, the Dragon acts as both the conclusion and the “HIGH point/climax” of your visit. It is both a place where tourists can have that experience, while having a rest (for a very limited time before being shuffled off the set again). There they are given one free drink of their choosing (from their special brews, for sale at the Shire’s Rest and at other gift shops in Matamata), and the option to buy more drinks, and/or a snack (or use the bathroom). BUT, as I said, on the normal tours your visit to the Inn is VERY limited, about 10 minutes tops. So signing up for an evening tour that includes the Banquet is the ONLY way you’ll be allowed to truly enjoy it at your leisure.

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The closest I got to Mount Ngauruhoe, this trip…

However, Hobbiton is just the flagship/main attraction, for a movie based travel industry that has evolved in the nation. What I’m about to say is a bit bizarre, and might offend some New Zealanders … but bear with me…. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, arguably at least as many locations to see as there are ‘things to do’ at Disney World — the world’s most famous movie-based attraction (if you include all the shuttle ferries, stuff to see at the hotels, etc). And both offer no shortage of tour books and web sites to help visitors discover where each and every one of those ‘attractions’ are and how best to appreciate them. Only while the excitement offered at Disney tends to be more passive (you sit, and are taken through something), New Zealand’s LOTR attractions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island or most of Paris Disney, are all walk through experiences, only with a lot more exertion required, trekking and mountain climbing, etc., and a lot fewer rides (think the tour busses). So it is in fact comparable, albeit different.

So for example, Mordor’s Mount Doom in LOTR is actually Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, that is one of the two such peaks located within Tongariro National Park; and like ALL mountain tops in NZ, it is a sacred place to her Māori people, and as such, by law, you are NOT allowed to drive to the top without first obtaining special permission. In fact, if you look at the google map for the place, while there are dirt roads going by it (accessible for those with mobility problems only if you rented a 4-wheel drive, and got official authorization in advance), there are in fact no roads that go up it; so if you want to see it your options are to hire a helicopter to fly you over (like I said, a movie-travel industry), or even more popularly, you can find local lodgings and choose to spend a full day hiking to the top. Oh, and if you want “shows” like at Disney, I suggest Māori cultural experiences. For myself, I STRONGLY prefer taking the time to relish things, and if I ever got the capacity back (unlikely without surgery and PT) would totally hike it.

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That said, the reality is, you actually don’t need to pay for a group tour to take you to see the LOTR sites/sights if you don’t want to, nor even buy a book on the subject to help you plan your trip. If you’re not someone who’s into pre-planning, you can in fact just impulsively fly to NZ, and figure it out as you go along. To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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The government clearly knows from whence its tourist prosperity comes, and embraces that connection to Lord of the Rings, especially in Matamata. The town’s i-SITE building was even built to look like a cross between a traditional British home, and a Hobbiton one (note the round doors). While you COULD book your tickets here, in this particular case I REALLY don’t suggest leaving THAT to the last-minute. As mentioned repeatedly, Hobbiton is the flagship attraction to a WHOLE industry, and demand is high while availability limited. The set can only accommodate a finite group of tourists per day … particularly if you want to take advantage of any of the “tour and a meal” options. So seriously, book ahead for this part of you LOTR’s tour of NZ.

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While the Hobbiton tours began officially in 2002, in what was a half-broken down movie set, by 2012, after the repairs and upgrades had been completed (including the Green Dragon Inn) it had become enough of an attraction that it had 17 full-time people working on staff, and by 2013, attendance was said to average about 400 to 600 people daily, with as many as 2,000 showing up at the peak of the season; so, somewhere around 220,000 visitors annually, a number which increased to 350,000 in 2015Tours usually leave Shire’s Rest for the movie set every half hour (you can NOT enter the set on your own, you MUST be part of a tour) and, each of those lasts for about two hours. On average days, the last tour starts at 3:30, and on peak ones their hours are extended by just one hour, so that the last regular/no meal tour starts at 4:30. And, when they say pre-booking is essential, they mean it. As such, I would NOT expect to show up at the site, or even at the i-sight center the day of (or even the day before) and expect to be able to just walk on… unless you are very very lucky. I booked my ticket for the banquet tour a good three weeks in advance… during the OFF season, and there was already only limited seating available.

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One of the things that really amused me when we got to the Shire’s Rest parking lot was the sheer number of Jucy vans parked there…  for those who don’t know, this company was founded in Australia initially as a campervan rental company (vans converted into campers), although they’ve expanded into renting cars. For the most part (although they’ve come out with some subtler ones recently — note the plain white ones in the upper right image) these rentals tend to be pretty hard to miss. Most of the vans are the garish green you see above, while others are covered in what looks like graffiti art with off-color images and messages written on them. For those, you’ll rarely see two exactly alike. Their business model is to provide small, energy-efficient, well designed and highly functional, camper vans… at an affordable price. Their product initially was aimed at the backpacker crowd (young travelers), but as they’ve expanded into the family market they’ve toned down the exteriors of their rentals. If you want to do a LOTR tour of the island on your own (not part of a 14 day tour group), then you might seriously want to consider renting one of these.

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Adjacent to the parking lot you’ll find this small Information building, where those who have already reserved their tickets on-line (i.e., pretty much everyone) are asked to check in. (The window off to the left is a small ice cream shop.) When I was booking I wanted the longest stay possible, once I discovered that you’re NOT allowed to wander around the place on your own. I considered both the Tour & Meal combo, and the Evening Banquet tour options, but the former appeared no real competition to the latter. The “meal” option puts you into a tent that’s ADJACENT to the Dragon Inn (NOT inside), where there’s a Buffett… i.e., standing in line with lord knows how many other people to fill your plate. This option lasts for 2.5-3 hours (2 hours for the tour, and then about a full hour to eat). While the banquet option involves sitting down to an already drool worthy, family style laid out table where instead of being in a tent you’re comfortably INSIDE the warmth and comfort of the Dragon Inn. AND not only do you get to see the shire during the golden hour, with the sun setting over the hills, but you also get led through a 2nd time, late at night. So you see it in daylight, and you get to see it lit up by candlelight (well electric, but close enough). The Banquet tour is the longest visit option, lasting about 4+ hours: 2 hours for the tour, and then about an hour and a half spent at the inn, followed by the 2nd walk through the shire at night….. more details to come (see below).

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Once you arrive at the Shire’s Rest, originally the farm’s sheep shearing and wool shed building, which was retrofitted to its new purpose, there are sufficient things to do that, while you’re REQUIRED to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your tour’s departure time, you might want to get there a full half hour before that.

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To the right of the building (image above) is a small shaded area of benches and ropes, where you line up when it’s time to load onto the busses. The first floor of the main building holds the ticketing center, and a gift-shop selling a wide variety of LOTR “stuff” (most of which is available from online sellers). My tendency when it comes to places like this is, I window-shop the shops, but don’t buy. Having worked as a catalog photographer back when I was in my 20’s, I know full well how good we were able to make piece of crap items look in the photos… so before I buy I want to see the items with my own eyes. However, places like this tend to be overpriced and rely on your excitement about the visit (impulse buying) to drive sales. So, I take photos of the stuff that interests me (try to get the name of the producers, etc.) and then try to find it used on eBay.  Probably the only location specific items I’d seriously consider buying here are the postcards, and the LOTR themed Southfarthing™ beverage range, of Middleearth wines and such, which can be purchased here, or at the i-SITE center back at Matamata, or at the Green Dragon (but that are NOT available on-line… I’ve been looking, no luck)… and of course there are clothing items to be purchased made of local wools.

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The guy bottom right brought his Gollum character on the tour (will show up again later)

Upstairs on the building’s 2nd floor is a full service cafe that will provide you with cooked foods and hot coffee until 3pm, at which point their kitchen closes. Here is where you can find “second breakfast,” lamb burgers, and fish and chips. After 3pm, any already prepared foods that are still in the refrigerated case are available for sale, until the close of business, but nothing hot. Apparently, Shire’s Rest’s kitchen is also available to cater weddings, functions and company events.

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Adjacent to the main building is a smaller establishment called the Garden Bar, which offers outdoor seating only, and sells wine, beer and a small selection of nibbles. There are bathrooms adjacent to both the bar and the cafe. When it’s time for your tour you assemble in the area I described before, and are loaded up into busses and vans.

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If you’re given a choice (you might not be) the difference is this: The busses have a built-in video system where you’ll be shown a composite movie timed to last the entire trip. It is made-up from all scenes shot in this location, and all six LOTR movies, so that when you arrive you’ll have been recently reminded of what you’re looking at.

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The vans do not have this system, and instead there’ll be a tour guide who will recite to you about all sorts of facts and figures about the location (which I assume the movie also does), and will point out the one film location the busses pass (the one in the image above); the guide however can do something that the movie can’t, i.e., answer any questions you might have. I was in the van. The location above, if I recall correctly, was where the wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Frodo pass through, while riding together on the wagon when traveling towards the shire at the beginning of the first trilogy.

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Once you arrive on the set proper, the entire group from all the conveyances will collect together and be given instructions of what you can and can not do: where you can walk, etc. The group will then be broken into manageable subgroups, each with its own guide. The groups will all take slightly different paths so that there’s never too many people in one place at one time, but all of the groups will ultimately see all the same things, but will come at them from different paths.

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According to a Forbes article from 2012, the making of the Lord of the Rings movies in NZ has touched the lives of each and every New Zealander, whether they realize it or not. Firstly, NZ is a place which, back when I was in high-school in the 1980’s I remember being laughingly described as having more sheep than people, and not much else. As a result, (and this excludes the people who have moved to the country in the 15 years since the movies came out) pretty much the entire population found themselves at one degree of separation from the film’s production.

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Firstly, from a country of 3.88 million (at the time) about 20,000 locals were hired as extras to work in the films (about 1/16 of 1% of the population) — BUT if the average Facebook account is any measure — limiting it to those who will only friend people they know because of face to face interactions — each of these have about 450 friends, family and co-workers each… and 20,000 X 450 = 9 million…. far more than the 3.88 million of New Zealand’s population in 2001. But the hiring of local resources in the making of the film didn’t stop there by ANY measure…

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According to this site, 1,200 suits of armor, 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears were made and used along with 2,000 weapons to recreate the battle scenes — and even if these were made abroad and imported, all of these had to be handled, organized, and distributed locally… which requires manpower. (The following video, which clarifies a lot of misunderstandings about the story that are held by people who’ve seen the movies but not read the books, includes a scene where two people are struggling to get a prosthetic hobbit’s foot onto an actor’s real one — its worth watching)

And the hiring did not end there; according to one of the officials for Tourism New Zealand whose job it is to focus on people arriving from abroad, Gregg Anderson “During a fight scene in Return of the King, I can see my niece’s horse.”

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Additionally, according to the same source, in order to create Hobbiton, 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens were planted a year before filming. According to our tour guide while MOST of Hobbiton is natural landscape, the homes did need to be dug into the hillsides, and some of the contours of those hills were changed subtly to support the lie that there were homes within them…

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As already mentioned, only a few of the doorways built into the sides of these hills actually lead to any sort of interior space. In such cases, there is usually JUST enough room for an actor or actors, to open a door and walk in or out (see the image below) … MOST of the doors in Hobbiton are just exterior facades leading to nothing– although they all had to LOOK like they are doors of actual homes that lead to something.

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The above home with the Red door, was the ONE such accessible space that tourists to the Hobbiton set are allowed into.  There was enough standing space inside for maybe three people, if one of them was crouched… and the tour guide sort of lined us up so each of us who wanted it could get a picture of themselves standing in the doorway.

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Bag-end, Bilbo’s Home

In each of the cases where the door opens to an actual space (as in actors must be able to enter), only enough of the interior is decorated as was necessary to support the illusion when said actor opened the door and the camera peered through it, if only for an instant. The above is Bag End the home of one of the main characters, Bilbo Baggins, the elder Hobbit who is in possession of the ring at the beginning of the initial LOTR movie trilogy, and the protagonist of the The Hobbit, the second movie trilogy. And as you can see, if you look through the doorway, you are given the impression there’s an actual hallway behind it… This however is the least impressive of the illusions of the set…

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That reward goes to the large tree above Bag End … it is a FAKE tree!!! While in the original movie there was a real tree there (although apparently even that was a cut-down tree used for the filming), what currently stands is a smaller replica with silk leaves. This is because of continuity issues in film making. When they filmed the original LOTR, they didn’t know it would be SUCH a big hit, or that they’d be filming The Hobbit a few years later. The first trilogy filmed (LOTR), in the fictional time-line, happened 60 years AFTER the story that happened in the second trilogy, The Hobbit (confused yet?), and trees GROW quite a bit in 60 years. As such, for the Hobbit (60 years before), that tree (which had been seen in the LOTR) had to be a smaller tree, requiring that they shrink the tree in order to maintain continuity… with no way to find a 2nd smaller tree to cut down with exactly the same sort of branch pattern as in the first trilogy (no two trees are exactly alike). SO, it was just easier to make a fake one! Movie Magic!%JrDeNLsSfmes89bJfdzBA_thumb_d92a

Another illusion manufactured at the location has to do with the size of Hobbits. According to Tolkien, hobbits are supposed to be between two and four feet tall, so the biggest are a bit shorter than the small boy in the pink shirt. I on the other hand stand 5’4″. The reason there’s such variation in the size of the doors is to manufacture the lie, with door sized calculated to falsify the impression of size the various actors had to create vis-à-vis the characters they were playing.

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An actor is seen outside of the above yellow door, so it’s human sized

Returning however to the economics of the thing: The (so far) SIX Lord of the Ring movies (which together cost slightly over one billion to make) were all major world-wide hits whose combined releases have to date generated $5,886,273,810 in worldwide box-office revenue. Because of the various businesses that have developed to support both the film industry and tourism, the massive success has gone on to have a long-term economic impact on the country of New Zealand that can not be overstated. As evidence, the positive impact of the first three LOTR films on NZ’s economy was enough to ensure that the government has not only gave Peter Jackson some controversial tax breaks, but also changed local employment laws in order to ensure that he didn’t keep to his threat of moving the Hobbit and all other future movies to cheaper locations.

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Currently tourism is New Zealand’s second largest industry after Dairy. Ask any of the long time locals and they’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s choice to use their country’s topography as the backdrop for his movies did more to advertise those natural wonders, and hence to put their nation on the tourism map, than ANY amount of advertising done by their government.

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Between the LOTR’s initial release in 2001, and 2012, the country saw a 50% increase in tourism, and even though only 1% of travelers (in 2012) said the movies were the ONLY thing that drew them, 6% of those asked admitted that the movies, and seeing the locations with their own eyes was one of the motivators for flying there — which accounted for about $162 million USD in tourism dollars. Even among those who were NOT motivated to travel to New Zealand because of the movies, 80% of them knew the films had been and were continuing to be filmed there, because of her unique natural wonders, a knowledge which helped them to see it as a desirable tourism destination.

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That said, the fact is that Peter Jackson, COULD have filmed all of his interior scenes anywhere in the world, but because he chose to shoot all of them in his home country of New Zealand, and then insisted on doing all of the post production  work there as well … at Weta Digital (a special effects house he founded) and at Park Road Post (formerly a small state-owned post production facility, but now a large one owned by Jackson) in Wellington — sometimes referred to as the house Frodo built, and due to Jackson’s influence now considered by some to be the best in the world … all of this together helped to build film facilities within the country that are now a 3 billion dollar industry NZD (New Zealand dollars).

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As mentioned previously, back in 2013 there was apparently some upset when Peter Jackson had threatened to move the filming and production of the Hobbit trilogy to places like Eastern Europe, etc., where it could have been filmed more affordably. By doing so, he successfully blackmailed the country’s government into not only coughing up $67 million NZD in tax breaks for his production, on top of having already in 2010, having had the country’s employment laws changed to his likings. The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill resulted in a lot of outcry not just from actors, but also from the nation’s workers at large. This change in the law barred anyone working in NZ’s film industry from collective bargaining, and stipulated that any actors working in film production would be listed as contractors, unless they signed a contract that explicitly listed them as employees, i.e., sort of a BIG DEAL from the point of unions, etc.

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One has to keep in mind that just the parts of the film industry that evolved out of LOTR had in 2016 added $1.015 billion to NZ’s real Gross Domestic Product, so clearly, those tax breaks were paid back, with interest, and that was only about 1/3 of NZ’s entire $3.3 billion in revenue earned from the screen industry at large for that same year. In part this is because the LOTR franchise helps to supports 2,700 other businesses  (carpenters, costumers, set catering, etc) …. businesses that can then go on to serve other productions in the movie industry, and whose very existence make NZ a more attractive alternative to movie makers in general, including the new online-TV production companies like Netflix and Amazon…. it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak.

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And, the cream in that coffee is that most of these jobs are supported to the tune of 80-90% by money from the film budgets of FOREIGN companies (not NZ tax dollars), the majority of which come from Hollywood that again feeds money into the local NZ economies. All of this LOTR prosperity may account for why the New Zealand post office released stamps with the Hobbit characters on them, and Air New Zealand has two planes decorated with a Tolkienesque theme. And things like this:

This also explains why, in 2018, the new government had under pressure given in to taking a look at making changes to the Hobbit Law, while refusing to repeal it entirely (which is what their constituency had wanted); and this rejection was in spite of being WAY more liberal than the previous government. As a general rule, no government is going to ‘kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs’ without extreme provocation.

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Another VERY important point to know (that would surprise most people), is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution. This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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Deregulation is almost always a good thing…. in the beginning. According to one study, between 1978 and 1998 employment in NZ increased by 50,000 jobs, an increase of 2.6% in a country that at the time had a population that grew, during that period, from 3.121 million to 3.8 million, and kept growing to today’s 4.794 million, all of which demanded a LOT of new buildings to go up, especially in city centers like Auckland. Keep in mind Peter Jackson began building the Hobbiton Movie set within this deregulatory economic context, in 1999. Of course the downside of deregulation is shoddy construction, increased pollution, etc.

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View from our Airbnb in Auckland, New Zealand, note all the new construction

I had my first hint that something of the sort was going on during my first days in the country, when we were at our Airbnb in Auckland. At the time I had commented to my travel buddy on the high number of newly constructed buildings that (to my well-traveled eye) looked like Asian construction. Architecturally, there’s all sorts of decorative devices you see in Asia that you’ll never see in the west, for good reason. Back when I was in my 20’s I did an internship with a Japanese ceramics firm that among a plethora of other things, made the easy to clean decorative tiles you see lining the sides of Japanese buildings. When I asked my boss why they didn’t expand into the US market, he told me, “We can’t. Those tiles are only stuck to the sides with a sort of glue, and they have a tendency to fall down from time to time and hit people in the head. In Asia, that’s no big deal because if it happens the victim’s family looks on it as just being bad karma. In the USA you blame the company for unsafe building practices, and it ends up in a massive lawsuit.” And then of course I lived in Korea for a few years, so I’m more than familiar with this sort of pretty but questionable constructionUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cbc3

One day as I was stepping out of that same Airbnb (in Auckland), I came across a real estate saleswoman trying to sell an apartment in our building to this young guy. He was clearly annoyed and wanted to know if she had anything NOT in this building. Out of curiosity I asked her what was the place they were selling and the price, it was about $200K USD, which struck me as suspiciously cheap for a one bedroom in a high-rise apartment in the middle of any downtown, let alone in the nations largest city. She admitted the building had “problems.” I asked what kind, and she admitted it had all sorts of problems, not just one or two, and that the owners might not be able to fix any of them although they were trying. The price was so low because you needed to be able to pay in cash as no bank would give you a loan to buy a place in this building… In other words, these beautiful new buildings in downtown Auckland, most of which looked to me like Asian construction, were in fact, of … probably Chinese construction. Again, what happens when you deregulate the construction industry…. is builders don’t do what they’re not absolutely required to do… which can lead to problems.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_294fBut in the land of deregulation well…. it’s a double-edged sword. But for the deregulated environment, I doubt that Jackson would have had it so easy making his film here, or building his post production companies, and quite likely Hollywood would have pressured him into making the film elsewhere.

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Deregulation, like Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in GOT can be HIGHLY problematic doubled edged swords

And but for his having had done all that in New Zealand, we’d not be having this conversation. Additionally, had regulations existed, its questionable if Hobbiton as a tourist attraction would have been legally allowed to develop in the haphazard way it did, as things of this sort normally have to jump through any number of regulatory health and safety hoops…. like it not having a bathroom for the first 10 years of its existence … So… there’s that.

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The Dragon Inn even  has a resident cat!

Returning to the tour: After an unexpectedly long wait, during which folks explored the area and took lots of pictures (see the ones above)… we were all brought together in the bar area, where a pair of heavy velvet curtains hid the dining room from us. We were asked to PLEASE not take pictures until we were seated at our tables, although they understood the temptation, because if we did the food would get cold and they promised that there’d be plenty of time to inspect the room between our main course and the desserts.

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They then made a big To-do of opening the curtains, asking for volunteers from the group to do the big reveal (the two women in the photo, bottom left) and we all piled into the room like a bunch of excited kids … (really the excitement in the room was palpable)

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That said the spread was HIGHLY impressive not only to look at but also to taste. There were two big roasted chickens which seemed to be of the rotisserie variety and hence very moist and flavorful, a big chunk of salmon that was also not dry in any way, a roasted pumpkin stuffed with succotash (which kind of surprised me because that’s very much an American dish — corn, tomatoes, and peppers all being New World foods — but as I said sandy soil like the sort that the local topography is made of supports growing corn, so I’m guessing these were all local ingredients). There as also a big tray full of lamb shanks that sat on a bed of bubble and squeak, and came with a huge jug of brown gravy, and a mushroom dish that was to DIE for (if you like mushrooms, which I do). There was this huge dish containing a single coiled sausage cut like pizza, resulting in slices of varying sizes (quite tasty).

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Remember the Gollum from before? The guy put him on the table to watch us eat… And look at that guy licking his fingers, you can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm

There was one tray of roasted vegetables, and a big bowl of roasted cut up potato (with spices) again very good… A green salad which to be honest I didn’t touch… cause with all this… fuck no I’m not eating a salad.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2949There was also a bowl of mashed sweet potato, which apparently in NZ is called Kumara, and has been a Māori/ Polynesian staple from BEFORE the white man arrived. This is kind of fascinating, again, because the sweet potato is believed to also be a new world food. I looked it up and the carbon dating of some sweet potatoes in Polynesia verified the vegetable’s presence there as early as 1400 CE., so before Columbus’s 1492 sailing. There are two theories, one is that Polynesians were SUCH masters of the ocean that they were already in limited trade contact with South America before the European discovery of the same. Another theory (for which no physical supporting evidence has yet been found), suggests that sweet potatoes might have already been on the Polynesian islands before the first humans ever arrived.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2978

My LEAST favorite dish was a beef stew type thing, which they described as being beef and ale. It wasn’t very tasty (kind of bland actually) and the beef chunks were very dry and chewy. That said, there were other people at the table talking about how good it was, so to quote one of my mom’s favorite sayings:
על טעם וריח אין להתווכח
….which translates to, “on taste and smell there is nothing on which to argue”

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What amused me no end was that the Green Dragon’s resident cat came to join us when it was time to sit down to dinner. He (she?) walked around the room, and then spotted an empty chair at our table and jumped up into it. The cat was VERY well-behaved, made no attempt to get at the food and just sat and waited for one of us to serve her — at least until she was spotted by one of the servers and shooed out …

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This almost made me cry because I had a cat (R.I.P.) that used to do the same thing. After my mom had died, every Friday night, I cooked all the other nights, my dad made dinner which included his home-made chicken soup. (To die for: the man used actual chicken feet which is the missing secret ingredient for why your soup is never as good as your grandmothers — as almost no one cooks whole chickens anymore.) Our cat would come and sit by the table, wait to be served … he loved that soup… and then went away, having never put his paws on the table, cause he knew it wasn’t allowed.

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More than enough time was given to us (and enough food supplied) that you could go back for seconds if you wanted to. Me, my stomach isn’t that big and I wanted to save room for dessert… so when I was done I walked around took some more pictures, allowing me to see some of the area in twilight.

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And then once EVERYONE was finished, and not before… One of the great things about this meal was you got no sense of being rushed during the banquet, the waiters came and cleared the tables, and then almost completely reset them to prepare for our dessert. During that time everyone got a chance to enjoy the twilight, or explore the room and all its details. (Not sure where this girl found the map of middle earth) While the trays of dessert were much smaller than what had been laid out when we first arrived, realistically we were all so full from the first course that it was more than enough, and there were leftovers when we were done. (Clearly, these guys have done this before — HAH! — and have the serving sizes down to a science, although the staff does a great job of making their performances ‘fresh’ so that you feel like you’re in a warm embrace of friends rather than being shuffled through something choreographed.)

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Look at that anticipation!

The dessert tray consisted firstly of a kiwi and strawberry sauce filled Pavlova (one of the national dishes of both Australia and NZ) topped with fresh cream. For those who don’t know, the Pavlova is essentially a large bowl-shaped container made of white meringue, created in honor of the famous Russian prima ballerina of the same name, who was also the first ever to go on a world-wide tour, and was responsible for introducing modern ballet to the world. This tour included Australia and New Zealand, and at the time she was the single most famous performer to ever visit here… so it was a REALLY big deal. In honor of her arrival the dessert was created, but it’s a point of serious contention between the two countries — a sort of tongue in cheek war that is talked about AD NAUSEUM — as to which one did it first … as apparently it was a great minds think alike sort of issue with two different chefs in the two nations coming up with the same idea for the SAME dessert named in her honor

…. because her most famous dance was The Dying Swan, a dance she performed 4,000 times, which involves wearing a white tutu that looked like Meringue.

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In addition to the obligatory Pavlova, there was a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit, British Bakewell tarts (bottom of image), butterscotch sauce (in the orange jug, which went REALLY well on the tarts), an Irish apple crumble (top of the photo), a bowl of Yogurt with honey and cinnamon (which at first we thought might be cream but it tasted wrong, and no one really knew what to do with it…), and a big metal jug full of Vanilla custard… which kind of goes well with anything

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After the meal was over, they handed about every third one of us a lantern, and they took us on a walk through the set at night. More than a few people supplemented that light with the flashlight function on their smartphones… The night was so clear, and there was SO little light pollution that if you look very hard at the photo above towards the upper right corner, you can see a star!!!

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I had NO trouble photographing the night sky with my iPhone’s camera (which generally sucks at low light images) and seeing stars in the image (see above)… because it was SO dark that what my eye was seeing wasn’t just a few stars, it was the Milky Way.

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After the walk through they had us form a circle and talked to us about our trip, asking us to remember our favorite moments and hold them in our memories. And then they had all the lights turned off, had us close our eyes for about a minute and then open them and look up… and just wow. IF you’re lucky enough to go on a night when the sky is clear, and I was… just wow…  and then those of us who wanted to got our photos taken in front of this one door, which was lit up with a powerful spot lamp

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After much searching I found this professionally shot advertisement for the banquet tour… that includes drone shots and (what were clearly directed actors as) tourists… but it shows stuff I could never have accurately filmed, like the night-time walk with lanterns … and the scene of the guy taking a bite out of a chicken leg so enthusiastically that it made me drool

As I’ve already said, I think it’s important to remember that Hobbiton is just the flagship for what’s become an entire LOTR based travel industry. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, enough to necessitate MULTIPLE trips on the part of any obsessed fan who wants to see them all, which can of course include multiple visits to Hobbiton. AND, because of the huge success that was the Game of Thrones (GOT) — which I’m currently bingeing in preparation for the release of the final season next week, Amazon has gotten on the SciFi band wagon and has ponied up a budget of one BILLION dollars for what is being advertised as the most expensive TV show ever made, an original five season Lord of the Rings. This is sure to happen because Amazon has ALREADY paid $250 million to Tolkien‘s estate, just for the film rights, which were given with the caveat that the film HAS to go into production in the next two years

The following is a preview of the new series (although the first 30 seconds is about the wildly successful of GOT and how that influenced Amazon decision. Warning, contains spoilers):

All of which means that most likely not only will the Hobbiton set be closed once again for filming, and hence more changes will be made, but that there are going to be EVEN MORE LOTR locations to be visited in New Zealand, in addition to the 170 that already there. All of which, should the show be as big a hit as the movies were, will mostly likely generate even more increased tourism to New Zealand.

[Note, not that this matters to you guys but, I had spent 3 solid days composing a very detailed discussion with research and backing statistics… which WordPress LOST; I had revised it multiple times, always making sure the software said it had saved it, even quit and restarted the program a few times… each time was told it HAD saved, only to hit publish once I had it all as I wanted…  and have the WHOLE thing get erased…. well… but for the title, THAT got saved (I had changed it only about an hour before hitting publish). Many emails back and forth to company later and all I got from them was a “we’re sorry, its not on our servers, must have been a bug with the new update” … YOU THINK!!! Every photo uploaded got saved (and in the correct order), and the new title (which I had only just modified before posting)… but all the text, GONE. So the above is me trying to reconstruct it using my google search history,  the photos, in order to try to remind me what I had said the first time. Which took twice as long in part because it was so frustrating]

When in Israel, which cell company should I buy my sim from?

International roaming is NEVER as good as it should be, and can also be very expensive. As such, IF you’re a tourist, traveling in such a way as to stay in a country a month or more, than you’re going to NEED to buy a prepaid sim card from a local carrier (suffering for a week or so is manageable, but not a month). I only spotted one carrier company selling prepaid sims in the airport and as I later learned they’re not necessarily going to be your best choice. Various carriers in Israel, such as Orange (which is changing its name to partner) offer a wide variety of sims for travelers with contracts of 1 week, 2 weeks or a month… BUT because of data coverage issues, its best to research in advance which company’s sim to buy based on your specific travel plans… IF you’re only going to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, then pretty much any provider will work and you can just go with the cheapest one… but if your plans include historically Arab towns, or more out-of-the-way locations, then you’re going to have explore which carrier provides coverage where. In other words, there’s no easy “best” answer… sorry

Israel is a TINY country, and is one of the most advanced high-tech countries in the world; as such I’d EXPECTED them to have great coverage, just like equally high-tech and even more mountainous South Korea does — a country also in a state of war. In Korea it really doesn’t matter which company you sign up with, cell phone coverage is affordable, and not only is connectivity a given assumption (your phone works in Seoul’s train tunnels AND at the tops of mountains in bumblefuck Korea), but with that phone connectivity also comes access to the internet that is omnipresent, fast, and reliable. So you’d expect this to also be true in Israel… but it’s not. Up until recently only two providers existed and it was expensive and bad; recently an opening of the market has brought down prices and increased coverage, but at the price of customer service (which has gone from bad to worse).

When I arrived, My US provider’s roaming (T-mobile) completely failed me my first night out, even though I had read that their roaming coverage in Israel was actually pretty good and there’d be no need to buy a sim. When my plane first landed my roaming worked just fine in the airport (phone and data), so I had hopes, and didn’t buy the sim cards sold there (which actually turned out to be a good thing). However, once I’d arrived, and unpacked and was ready to go out… I discovered that once I was a few steps away from my Airbnb, which was located right next to one of the major tourist hotels and smack in the middle of two major tourist draw areas (so you’d expect coverage)… I could talk and text but found I could NOT contact Uber to call myself a taxi to the restaurant where I was meeting up with friends (see my post on how YES Israel has Uber, no matter what you’ve read), and had to walk back within range of the house’s WiFi to do it.

Then, later that night, when I ordered my return Uber (using the restaurant’s free WiFi), I found I could no longer see the taxi’s progress to my location or even which taxi was the one sent after I had stepped on to the pavement in front of the place. Again, I had to go BACK into the boundaries of their WiFi signal and reboot the app, and then had to stay there till the taxi arrived, rather than at the edge of the street as I normally would. Forget about using google maps to give me walking directions from place to place, unless I downloaded the map to my phone, but even then, the directions function didn’t work (I had to go low tech and actually READ the map for myself). So with US roaming I had 3 bars for making phone calls but NO DATA!!!!

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking at cell providers nothing pisses me off faster than seeing three or four bars for cell coverage, and NOTHING for data. Not to be repetitive, but in this day and age ISSUE is increasingly becoming data, NOT the ability to make a phone call. This is ESPECIALLY true when you’re traveling to see the place, rather than on business (business folks still need to make calls). But I’m retired, I really don’t use my iPhone much as a phone anymore. I only makes calls when I really need to and almost no one calls me other than doctors offices and businesses, I’m far more likely to text or use a messenger app of some sort. My friends are either on Facebook or they email me, or use videophone applications to reach me … As such, my iPhone is my link to the world, when out and about, and it’s how I find my way around strange cities, call myself a cab, and decide where to eat.

That said, once I started doing my due diligence (rather than just buying the first sim card I saw) which sim card to buy turned out to be a far more complicated question than I would have imagined. As this web page that I found shows (it tracks current data coverage by carrier/provider, with distinctions for 3G, 4G, etc.), data coverage in Israel kind of seriously sucks.

When using the page you have to select a provider from the pull down menu, and then zoom in to specific neighborhoods to see actual coverage. Looking at the results, the map shows that if you stay in Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem, pretty much any sim will work. However, if like me your trip is going to include spending a full month in places like the Historic town of Acre (pronounced as Akko), located just north of Haifa, not so good. Haifa has GREAT coverage, Akko’s kind of sucks. What was REALLY irritating was learning that even though my T-mobile is roaming using Cellcom’s network, and I was IN neighborhoods where cellcom had STRONG coverage, my T-mobile sim wasn’t seeing that data stream …

I have a theory that this may be because T-mobile’s roaming only sees 3G and 4G and in areas that have upgraded to 4G+, it just can’t read the stuff… but its a theory only.

Anyway, If you can I STRONGLY suggest contacting your host and or hosts and asking them WHICH provider has the best data coverage in the places you’ll be spending the most time. My Host in Tel Aviv had suggested the provider Golan, as the best and cheapest, but I discovered it had NO coverage, NONE in Akko, where I was going to be on my 2nd month. So I contacted that host, and he suggested that I buy the Orange sim (which recently changed its name to Partner)

ALSO, MOST of the shops that are selling sim cards in Israel have HORRIBLE customer service — they’re NOT like in the USA. (At this point I want to kill the guys who sold me my orange card just for being asses). Most of the sellers are just little stalls in malls and such and the folks working them only know what he has in stock and expects you to show up knowing what you want. If you want help making the decision based on needs you’re going to HAVE to go one of their Customer service centers . A way to know is if there’s a guy standing behind the counter and you didn’t have to take a number to talk to him, expect NO CUSTOMER SERVICE. The ones where they actually know enough and have been trained to help you, for those you’ll have to take a number and then sit and wait to see a guy who is SITTING behind a counter. Standing means no customer service, while take and number and sit = customer service.

Israel DOES have Uber, of a sort.

Before coming to Israel I was trying to find out DID Israel have Uber, and every website I saw said they did not. Even locals I spoke to told me “Uber doesn’t work in Israel.” This is in fact WRONG…  It does … at least for as much as you the customer actually care… You open your app, you call for a ride, you get one… it’s just going to be from an actual taxi with a yellow taxi thing on its hood… but you get your ride and pay via the app, and let’s face it that’s all we care about.

That said, you ARE going to want to use Uber. When I grabbed a cab at the airport without Uber, the girl who talked to me when I got into the cab at the designated cab stand, officiously informed me that my cab would only cost 110 shekels because the cab could only charge me based on the distance (not the time) and because of the location I was going to that was the charge. She handed me a print out with a website to reach for feedback (but no mention of the set charge), and she promised me he would take my credit card. When I got there he said his WiFi didn’t work, so he couldn’t charge the card… and when I asked how much, he said that because of how backed up the highway had been, and how long it took to get here, the fee was 145 shekels. I was too tired at the time to make a stink — because Israeli’s LOVE to argue and I was once punched in the face by an Israeli shoe repair man, in Israel, because I had refused to pay as he’d totally botched up the job, and now know better than to NOT expect a potential for violence when in Israel … I’ve seen more than a few minor fender benders turn violent over the years (keep in mind a good chunk of the population has PTSD) ….  So I just paid the extra and let it go… but knew I’d just been ripped off.

So yes, you’re going to want to use Uber if for no other reason than the cab drivers get paid via the app, and this gives them no opportunity to pull that kind of con on travelers.

Oh, and in Israel cab drivers are NOT generally tipped, although waiters in restaurants and bars still are. Cab drivers don’t expect it, and the app isn’t set up to do it. I do NOT however know if they’ll give you bad feedback if you don’t, which is what was happening in the USA which is why Uber added after the fact tipping.

In Israel it’s not Uber so much as the Uber business model of the gig economy that’s illegal; i.e., individuals using their own cars to drive as taxi’s. If you think about it that’s probably a good thing as Israel is a country in a state of war and terrorism is most definitely a thing. You’ve all heard the stories of the folks faking being Uber drivers in order to rape or steal from people, well in Israel using Uber to kidnap and kill could easily become part of the terror campaign, so I understand why the Israeli government wouldn’t allow it.

That said, you can STILL use your Uber app to get a ride. Apparently, Uber has teamed up with licensed cab drivers and given them access to their software. When you call an Uber what arrives has a formal yellow “Taxi” thing attached to their roof. I think what’s happened is all the small independent companies and/or drivers, who can’t afford to have the sort of software/app/etc that Uber has are the ones who have teamed up with Uber. Israel has in fact a LONG history of this sort of small businessman… before it was nationalized all busses in Israel were privately owned and operated by their drivers, even though they were on organized routes. (My mom had more than few friends who were doing this for a living back when I was like 4 years old).

 

Lake Rotoiti, in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island, New Zealand

If you ever have the chance to road-trip the length of New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Rotoiti (previously also known as Lake Arthur), which is located in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is one of the tourist spots so picturesque that it shows up not only on postcards but also on T-shirts.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_d222.jpgWhile this isn’t in my mind a “destination stop” unless you’re a local, it is a very pleasant place to stop and stretch your legs. We needed a place like that because we had the evening before taken the 2pm ferry from Wellington to Picton, which arrived at around 6:15 pm, and then rented a car, and spent the night in a very nice Airbnb with an en-suite bathroom, a walk in closet, and a hot tub,UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a3.jpgin the small town of Blenheim, a place that felt like I was at the Hilton for the price of cheap motel — got to love Airbnb. We were just pit stopping there, but apparently it’s an area known for its vineyards, and a lot of people who are into wine will stay for extended visits.

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After that we took a drive heading in the general direction of Christchurch, but because we had a few days to kill (and because the most direct route is still being rebuilt after the 2011 earthquake which completely changed some of the geography along the south island’s Northeast coast), we opted to take a route that took us along the island’s west coast.

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I LOVE how my apple watch allows me to set up shots (you can see what the iPhone sees on the watch), which in this case the smartphone was sitting on the hood of our rental car.

One thing to keep in mind is New Zealand actually has TWO lakes called Rotoiti (the Maori word for center) one on the North Island, and one in the South, I’m currently talking about the latter. (Yes it’s confusing, but at least it’s one per islands, think of it like there’s 88 different towns and cities in the USA called Washington, and 41 different Springfields, etc.)

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Please note the restrictions of which vehicles are allowed on this lake, it’s important. There are a lot of formerly clean lakes that have been polluted by things like personal jet skies and such, all of which leak oil and gas into the water, turning it green and murky. One of the things that makes this lake so impressive, in my own opinion, is just how clear this water is.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a9.jpg

The picture with the boats at the end of the pier gives you an idea of how much deeper it is there. And still… this water is almost as clear as my bathtub. The upper left image is the water as seen from near the beach, while the bottom right one is taken from the far end of the pier… and you can still clearly see the rocks below

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After I took this image I started to see postcards and stuff depicting this lake, and they almost always have just this same shot… only framed better (my friend took it and for love or money I couldn’t teach him to frame a shot) and without the boats parked alongside the pier.

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Giapo, a very different sort Ice Cream experience in Auckland, New Zealand

Located in downtown Auckland, New Zealand, is a gourmet Ice cream shop that offers up something entirely different. Called, Giapo, they serve not just unique flavors, but a unique ice cream experience. The place is highly popular not only with tourists, but with the areas’s locals. That said, if you’re not willing to wait in a long line, I strongly suggest you get at an off peak hour (NOT dinner time on a weekend).

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This tourist draw, as luck would have it, was located on the first floor of the building our Airbnb was located in, and adjacent to our buildings front door. When you walk out of your building and see ice cream creations like the giant Squid above, you just HAVE to try it… diet be damned. That said, neither I nor my friend ordered the giant squid…

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When you arrive, be prepared for a bit of a wait. It is NOT like pretty much every ice cream store on the planet where you walk in and have to choose from 25 or more different flavors… no. Customers rather than being catered to one at a time are brought in as small groups of about five to seven people, who will crowd around a small table.

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Once there, you will be put through a dog and pony show demonstration of the “vision” of their founding “ice cream chefs” and what it is that makes their product unique both in terms of flavors and presentation

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This will start with a tasting, where they bring out small a selection of small shot glasses, one per flavor (not one per customer) and a bunch of tongue depressor sticks. They will ask if anyone has any food allergies. Then, the “hostess” (I didn’t see a single male host during our multiple visits), who will be dressed in all black — like in a trendy gourmet restaurant — will bring out one flavor at a time, pass it around to the guests at the table, and everyone will get to take a “tasting” from each of the shot-glasses — using the sticks as spoons …. (I think they use a stick instead of a spoon as it severely limits the amount of ice cream you can scoop up)

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[Note: they always seem to start with the first person on their left, so if you the last person in the line, you tend to get to ‘clean up’ whatever’s left behind, if you want to, so it’s a strategic place to stand]

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Then, once the tasting has been completed and you have an idea of which flavor or flavors you’d like, you get to choose HOW you want it served to you. This can be as simple as in a cup, or a house made waffle cone…. or a bit more daring, but still mundane, you can choose it served in a cone that’s been encrusted with a variety of different flavorings… but why be so boring?!

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The wilder options include (upper left to bottom right, of the image above) 1) the Pikorua, a Māori symbol for the bond between two people, be it based in friendship, love or blood… usually used in their traditional jewelry (which I learned should be gifted rather than purchased for yourself). This is two cones of ice cream that have covered in a layer of hard chocolate (ice cream AND cone), that have massive hard chocolate curvy things on top… the major benefit of which is not only a massive amount of chocolate but also the photo opportunity of standing side by side as the two ice creams touch. 2) Wearable mini cones… designed to be worn on your fingers as you eat them. 3) A chocolate copy of the Aukland tower (I didn’t see a single person order that one). 4) the massive hard chocolate Squid — which I didn’t try but would had we stayed longer, 5) the “selfie” cone… I suppose you’re supposed to hold it in one hand so that it fames your face with chocolate as you take your selfie

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For myself, I opted their traditional British Yorkshire pudding whose interior was lined with milk chocolate (to keep the melt from soaking into the bread), loaded up with two flavors of ice cream: the Chocolate Evolution (bottom), which was topped by a scoop of the Blackberry & Martini Rosso (top), which was then dipped in topping of berries and something white…. SO GOOD!!!! UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2891.jpg

My travel buddy opted for a boring old waffle cone filled with their Hokey Pokey flavor (it’s a traditional New Zealand concoction of plain vanilla ice cream with small, solid lumps of honeycomb toffee) which was then dipped in corn flakes and topped with a chocolate cookie. He was VERY happy with his choice.

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the chef serving up the LAST Yorkshire pudding of the day, and the waitress stressing out because two people had ordered it

One of the things to keep in mind when coming here is that every morning they make a large quantity of about nine different flavors, and an assortment of the ‘delivery’ options… but that’s it. They don’t make more than they think they will serve that day, and when it’s run out, its out…

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An annoyed chef showing the waitress an order that can’t be filled because she didn’t do her job correctly

In the picture above, off to the left of the window is a white board which shows on the left side, how many of certain options are left, and on the right, what’s sold out. In the photo four of the flavors from that day’s option of nine were sold out by 10pm, and the store wasn’t due to close for a while yet. Waitresses are SUPPOSED to change the amount available as they sell them, apparently this girl hadn’t been doing it so while the board said 11 Yorkshire puddings left, in fact there was only ONE.  SO, I strongly suggest if you want to try this place, get there early.

Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne Australia and The Not Captain Cook’s Cottage

[Updated – forgot to add some stuff before] Melbourne refers to itself as the garden city of Australia, and Fitzroy Garden is one of the city’s many landscaped gardens that earns it that title. The most famous attraction located within the garden is Cook’s cottage, which some sites advertise as having belonged to the famous Captain Cook, the explorer who ‘discovered Australia’; historical buff that I am, this made me excited to see it, but that claim — if you come across it, is wrong. It was never his, it was one of his parent’s homes, and he never lived there. That said Fitzroy Garden where the house is located, is free to explore, but the Cook’s Cottage itself — which has been one of the major tourist draws in Melbourne since it was first moved here in 1934… is NOT, free that is…

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Me, standing as close as you can get to the house without paying a fee

Fitzroy Gardens, in the suburb of East Melbourne. To be technical about it… It’s not actually IN Melbourne, which is one of these TINY dot on the map cities that has never annexed adjacent suburbs so that it could ‘grow’, like Chicago or New York City did, and has ‘neighborhoods’ that are legally separate entities; as such you really have to think of it as the greater Melbourne area when visiting, because Aussies seem to get very irritated when we call East Melbourne, just plain old Melbourne… because it’s not.

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“Technically” considered to be the Oldest building in all of the greater Melbourne area, as it has been dated to at least 1755 [Melbourne was founded in 1835], the cottage had belonged (at one time) to the father of James Cook (1728 –1779), the famous British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy, who was also the first “recorded” European to “discover” Australia…. That said, the man who “discovered” Australia MAY have (we don’t know for sure that he ever did), at best, slept there… when/if he visited his folks in his home town (one has to assume he may have at some point)…. so yes, the connection is a bit tenuous …

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Originally located in the village of Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, where Captain Cook was born, the building was brought to Melbourne in in 1934 by the Chemist and Philanthropist Russell Grimwade, who gifted it to the State of Victoria in honor of the celebration of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the settlement of Melbourne (1835). The owner had put it up for bid, on condition that it be moved to someplace else “in England”, but (according to Wikipedia) when the highest local bid had been £300 versus Grimwade’s bid of £800, she was ‘convinced’ to change that requirement to “in the British Empire.”

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Originally sold as the home of Captain Cook’s early days, the cottage is now only called “Cook’s Cottage” because later historians, rightly, called foul. While the initials J.C. and the year of 1755 had been engraved into a lintel above one of the doors… the JC did not denote James Cook the son and Captain, but rather James his father, a farm laborer who was originally from Scotland.

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The engraved lintel (covered in plexiglass, I assume for its protection from vandals)

What is not known for sure, however, is was the house built in 1755, or possibly rebuilt… or just purchased by Cook’s father. Also, since James Cook, the Jr., was born in 1728, and had moved away from home at 16 — which was normal at the time, he would have been 27 by 1755, the year engraved probably with his own home; this, in fact, was was the same year he had joined the Royal Navy in hopes of greater advancement, after having already served in the British Merchant Navy where he had been promoted about as far as he could in that profession, i.e., already an adult man with a career and his own private life…. Therefore, it is HIGHLY unlikely that he had actually ever LIVED in the house, at best he may have visited, it was therefore a misleading to continue to call it “Captain Cook’s Cottage”…

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The laminated 3-ring notebook you can reference if you want to know more about the house

The Cottage itself is open every day from 9 to 5, but you have to buy a ticket. These can be found across the walkway at the information building/Visitor Center and Conservatory, which also has a cafe, where you can have a meal, pamphlets about other things to see and do in the area

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And of course a gift shop…. with some very cute items for sale that I had not seen elsewhere, so worth checking out if you’re shopping for souvenirs

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I think these were hand-made Xmas tree ornaments, but they’re cute enough that even I’d buy them … the seemed to be made of pine prickles shoved into a form, sculpted and painted, or something of the like

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Although a bit steep for a rubber ducky at $14.95 AUD, I was seriously tempted to buy one of these …. afterwards I found a few other museums with sections devoted to Captain Cook that also sell them… for the same price. I might give in and buy one next time see it.

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Once you have purchased your ticket you cross over to the cottage and enter through a gate that scans your ticket (like at the airport). Inside were two docents dressed in period garb whose job it was to help orient you, or have their pictures taken with you (which I didn’t opt to do), or help you into the garb if you wanted to dress up yourself… but for the most part it’s all self guided.

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There were two 3 ringed notebooks of laminated pages devoted to the spot if you bother to take the time to notice them (almost no one did) located just in the doorway of the home (where folks would remove their coats and muddy shoes, I assume). The house consisted of a kitchen/living room/dining room with a running voice narrative that sounds like it’s supposed to be Captain Cook’s mother, talking about what it was like to live and work in the house

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Upstairs there was a narrow flight of stairs that were a lot steeper than we’re used to (most definitely NOT disability friendly), and required that visitors make way for each other going up or down

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You find a master bedroom, with more written explanation (and no voice narrative)

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and two small bedrooms, one upstairs and one down

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And in the back of the house is an herb garden

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Around the back/side of the house is the stable, which has been converted into a sort of museum/movie theater

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I am pretty sure I watched four different movies that were on display there, one about Captain cook discovering Australia, one about the sale and transport of the house, one about the history of the house, and one about his parent’s lives. One of the cool things was there were three screens, one of which was showing the same movie at the same time, on a smaller screen, with Chinese subtitles. Every time Chinese visitors stepped in I would point them towards that, because they tended to walk in, see the main screen, hear the English, and looked a little sad… only to have me point out the Chinese screen and have their faces light up… I’m thinking one of the docents should have been in there doing that.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2526.jpgBeyond the cottage, I found that overall Fitzroy is less of a garden, in my mind (relatively few flowers), and more of an urban green space, with tree lined avenues that before air-conditioning probably offered much needed shade in the summer heat. While it has some boring almost obligatory stuff, like the Grey Street Fountain… UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2514.jpg

…. and the River God Fountain, both of which are perfectly nice

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…these looked pretty much like any old fashioned/classic fountain and garden you’d find in any park …anywhere (especially in France or the UK). What’s cool/different about the garden is that it tends towards things that are a bit more fanciful and fun, such as it’s children’s playground, which has a dragon slide and a giraffe like swing set

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And a model Kentish Tudor village. The story on this is kind of cute in that all the homes were built by an elderly pensioner, Mr. Edgar Wilson who lived in the UK and liked to build these things out of concrete, just for fun, as his hobby. He gifted them in 1948 to Melbourne in appreciation of the food that Australia sent to England during WWII

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The town included a scale model of the house owned by Shakespeare’s wife (the one he quickly abandoned) the widow Anne Hathaway. I will admit that when I read the garden had a Tudor Village, I was expecting something radically different from what I found. In my minds eye I expected to find some full or at least half sized Tudor homes that you could walk through … maybe with some staff, sort of like what I had found at Cook’s cottage…. at least tall enough for small children to enter… but nope

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Instead I found a collection of homes that at best might come to my knee, and the homes are all completely fenced off, so little kids can’t really enjoy them much either… and adjacent to the Tudor village I found the the Fairies Tree

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which I was sad to see was ALSO surrounded by a fence, so that you can’t get up close and personal with it. BUT after I got home and studied it I understood why — did NOT find any description of this at the spot. This tree isn’t some modern thing made for kids to play on … The Fairies tree was carved back in the 1930’s by a local artist and author by the name of Ola Cohn, into the stump of a 300+ year old River Red Gum tree which had been original to the garden. Ms Cohn (who was of Danish extraction) was a well known (her portrait hangs in a museum in Canberra, and the link includes an image of her carving the tree) and respected local artist, who went on to be appointed a Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry — a sort of knighthood, for her work in the service of art. Because she’d carved it into what was then already a dead tree, there’s been issues with degradation and rot over time, so that in 1977, in order to stop the rot, they had to pull the whole thing out of the ground, removed wood that had already rotted — they found a perfectly preserved mummified Brushtail possum at that point (!!!), and then treated the remaining tree with chemicals to stop any further rot… remounted the tree into a concrete base and returned it to the garden.

So I get the history of the things, and why they might want to preserve them… but I have to think little kids don’t really enjoy either of them much as a result. So Nice but kind of meh…

I think my favorite fountain was the Dolphin Fountain, which seemed to be much more modern in construction….

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in fact it turned out to have been built in 1982, and for some reason the park’s website said that it was “controversial” but didn’t explain why…

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After some research I found this website explaining, some of the argument was regarding WHERE in the garden this $30,000 gift payed for by Dinah and Henry Krongold and created by a sculptress by the name of June Arnold should go… or if it was suited to the Fitzroy gardens at all because it wasn’t in keeping with the garden’s naturalism (???)

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Not surprisingly, little kid (according to what I’ve read) LOVE this fountain as it’s the only one they’re actually allowed to interact with… I saw parents lifting their small children up on to the rocks, etc.

Eight Hour Day Monument, Melbourne Australia

This monument, commemorates the institution of the eight-hour work day movement, which began in Australia in 1856 following organized protests by Melbourne’s stonemasons, i.e, HIGHLY skilled and necessary workers who worked for the local government. The 888 concept went on to become one of the central tenants of the Union movement, dictating a human need for 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of living (being with family, relaxing, etc), and not just a life of solely work and sleep. Although there were two such movements in Australia, one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne, according to this website, Australians credit the Melbourne one for improving workers rights in Australia at large because while the stonemasons in Sydney had achieved the same a year earlier, their brothers in Melbourne managed to do it with no loss of pay (i.e., same total wages, while working fewer hours). As such, it’s Melbourne that therefore gets the credit. The entire state of Victoria (where Melbourne is located) went on to pass the Eight Hours Act in 1916, 60 years later

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The top of the monument shows 888

[When considering the success of the Melbourne movement in 1856, it’s important to keep in mind some key points: 1) the Melbourne area was first purchase, invaded, or incorporated as a settlement — depending on your point of view, by settlers from the penal colony in what is now Hobart in Tasmania, in 1835 — always with the intent of making it a city; 2) the milestone which was achieved (traditionally only given to towns with Cathedrals) in in 1947, upon completion of the Old St. James (Anglican), by declaration of Queen Victoria; and 3) it became the capitol of the newly formed State of Victoria in 1951  — as it’s population doubled in year, and then grew exponentially as a result of one of the world’s biggest gold rushes, as gold was found in nearby places like Ballarat (where the Sovereign Hill park is located). The combination of factors meant that the government NEEDED these guys, whose skill sets were in short supply, happy and working. To quote Wikipedia:

“The 1850s and 1860s saw the commencement of Parliament House, the Treasury Building, the Old Melbourne GaolVictoria Barracks, the State LibraryUniversity of MelbourneGeneral Post OfficeCustoms House, the Melbourne Town HallSt Patrick’s cathedral, though many remained uncompleted for decades, with some still not finished as of 2018.”]

However, the 8 hour work day, 40 hours a week or short-time movement, while it did achieve some of its earliest success in Melbourne was NOT, in origin, an Australian idea; although, based on the little amount of testing I have done I think more than a few of my Aussie friends would be surprised to know that. The slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest” was actually coined by Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, in 1817. It was these sorts of movements… that were popular in that period, that resulted in social experiments — mostly failed, like Lagrange Phalanx experiment in Indiana. A shorter working day was also part of what the Chartist movement reformers (1838 to 1857) in the UK were fighting for

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That said, it was not Australia, but rather Uruguay who in 2015 first instituted a national 8 hour workday, with Australia following five years later in 1920, but with a 6 day workweek; Australia didn’t achieve the 40-hour, 5 day work week until 1948.

The Store of Requirement: or, all things Harry Potter, Melbourne Australia

Harry Potter fans UNITE! While walking from my Airbnb to the local Coles grocery store I stumbled upon a really cool store in Melbourne devoted to all things “the boy who lived” … First time I came by it was closed. I assumed that was because it was the wrong time of day, but later I discovered it keeps funky house. It’s closed Mondays and Tuesday, opens at noon most other weekdays, till 7pm; and keeps its most “normal hours” on weekends, Sat & Sun, from 10 till 5pm.

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Apparently the store has two brick and mortar branches, the one in Melbourne, and another in the suburbs of Brisbane, plus a third an on-line portal which on a quick perusal sells pretty much all of what I saw in the stores… including the limited edition stuff (I’m guessing both stores ship merchandise for the on-line store).

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The interior has been made over too a bit conform to the classic/quirky British style that Harry Potter’s world tends to embrace — for instance it has wallpaper that is fake brick, and the back room reminds me a bit of the common rooms in Hogwarts’ dorms, etc.,

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That said, its one of the better collections of these sorts of stuff and has everything from stuff you can easily find for sale on-line like games, puzzles, mugs, bags, figurines, etc.,

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collectible figurines and wands, plus appliqués to put on windows to mimic stained glass

And the sort of stuff it sells is the same sort of stuff you’d see at stores in “The Harry Potter Experience” sections of Universal’s amusement parks… but more from on-line sources and less from the stuff made exclusive to the parks.

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The Jewelry top left is HORRIBLY nar I say OFFENSIVELY Overpriced… $89 Australian, for earring that AliExpress, a Chinese on-line store, sells the exact same pair for $1.36…  while Amazon sells identical ones for $15… but I know from experience that Universal is also selling the exact same erring in its amusement park stores for about the same price as this store… so I strongly suggest that the buyer beware, and Google these things to do comparative pricing before buying.

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At this store, however, were some collectibles I’ve not seen before, like these limited run lithograph/prints and cards from what I’m guessing is a local artist (??) … although I would have to assume that they have permission from Warner brothers or whomever so as to not infringe the copyright.

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For myself these Gryffindor, 3d (puffy) vinyl stickers for the backs of cars, etc., caught my eye (I’m not seeing an equivalent product for sale on Amazon in the US) — only I DID find it selling for 1/2 their price at a different Austrian shop. Also a friend of mine’s son LOVES these metal model things… although these looked more like Hobbit than Harry Potter. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_24cd.jpg

Ernest Hemingway’s house, Key West, Florida

IF you go to the Florida Keys, the home of Ernest Hemingway, is a MUST SEE. Back in December of 2016 when I was staying in the Miami area I got into my car and after four hours of driving, made it to Key West. [Warning, if you are allergic to cats, or phobic of them, this is NOT the place for you!!!]

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For those who don’t know who is (SHAME ON YOU)… he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for his novel the The Old Man and the Sea

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(although some argue it is actually one of his lesser books, and that the wins were more for, For Whom the bell Tolls, which was also nominated for both but didn’t win anything, although everyone felt should have… hence his next hit won the prizes) ….  And of course he is considered one of the great American authors, as well as one of the greatest authors of modern literature.

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Part of what Hemingway was famous for was what was called the Ice-burg theory of writing, namely that it’s not only ok, but BETTER to omit everything other than the surface elements of a story … as he had needed to do as a journalist.

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He believed any deeper meanings should always be implicit. That this helped to create a concentration of focus on the part of the reader, creating a sense of immediacy. The goal was to get the most from the least by pruning your language down to the minimum of the minimum.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_51a1.jpgThere’s a 2012 movie … made for TV … Called Hemingway & Gellhorn, with  Nicole KidmanClive Owen about his relationship to one of his wives, Gellhorn, a famous war journalist of her time, where you see him ripping out sheets from his typewriter, crumpling them up and filling a garbage can with them, all because he had used one word too many in a sentence … life was a lot harder for writers before the invention of the world processor

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One of the things I learned while there was he also received a bronze star for his work as a war correspondent.

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I had wanted to stay in the Keys for at least a week, but Airbnb’s seemed to be non-existent and hotel rooms were completely out of my price range…. so DROVE the four hours down, bought my ticket to see the house …  its open 9am-5pm, 365 days a year. Admission for an adult was $16, which wasn’t horrible. The picture above was around 3pm when I arrived, the one below was folks still streaming an hour later … again a week day, and OFF season…

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I was kind of seriously surprised that on a week day off-season I still had to book a tour, but the good news was they have them pretty much every 15 minutes, and I only had to wait about a half hour till the next open one….

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The home is a National Historic Landmark

That said, if your going ON season, or on a weekend, I’m thinking booking your tour in advance might be a good idea….  Did I mention I had to wait a half hour (2 tours had to clear) before there was one with space for me… on a weekday, OFF season…

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The BAD news is because it is such a popular destination, 1) parking can be a bit difficult, 2) the tours are large, even in the off-season on a mid-week day, 3) they shuffle you through there pretty quickly, so there was no time for me to take any notes…. and I’m writing this thing in Feb of 2019… so like… at this point, I’m not remembering much.

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The good news is There’s an app for that!!!! For $5.99 you can essentially see everything I did, and hear the tour I heard…

That said…

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I do remember that this wall amused me somewhat… the center photo is of him, the four surrounding him are of his four different wives…. which made the next thing REALLY ironic…

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Quick rehearsal before the event

The Hemingway Home is a REALLY popular locations for locals to get married

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The buffet setup: Note the lighthouse in the upper right corner

I mean, isn’t this a bit like using your divorced mom’s wedding dress? I.e, probably BAD luck for the longevity of your wedding?

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Other than that, one of the big “attractions” of the place is the HUGE family (40-50 of them) of polydactyl six-toed cats,

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The cats are everywhere in and around the home, which is their home, that you are only visiting… although most of them are either very friendly, or more than willing to be petted, as is their due

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And the lives of each and every cat has been commemorated. They all have names, often those of Great writers or Hollywood stars…. although not always

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And you will find them everywhere in the house… so for instance Hemingway kept a private writing studio in an apartment above his garage, that he had initially constructed a catwalk (get it?) allowing easy access to it from the 2nd floor of the house.

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Catwalk, get it? Cat Walk…. (I crack myself up)

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And even there (which is now only accessible via a staircase, I found a cat

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SO, if you do NOT like cats, or have a sever allergy to them… Hemingway’s home is NOT for you. VE2ZKMhRT2aP9PKpfHh8pQ_thumb_51f7.jpg

After leaving the home, I wandered a bit… the other things I might have liked to see where already closed or closing soon at that point, so … like the light station, which closes its gates to new customers at 4:30pm

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Apparently there’s also this cute little tourist choo-choo-train shuttle which tours tourists around the island… but that didn’t interest me, and it was getting time to do the 4 hour drive BACK to Coconut Grove, just south of Miami, where I was staying.

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One of the things that sort of amused me was that not a block away from the Hemingway House I discovered that apparently locals are allowed to keep pet chickens, and they are NOT required to keep the penned up… or at least that was the impression…

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Based on the number of really fancy looking roosters I saw running around free. After that I drove the four hours back….(No I was not listening the audio book of old man in and the sea while doing it). That said, I stopped at a place called the Key Largo Fisheries on the way back, which a friend whose family goes down to the Keys regularly suggested to me as a MUST stop (closes at 8pm, so I really had to make time in order to get there early enough to have a meal)…  That said it totally lived up to the promise of VERY fresh fish cooked simply

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This amused me, it was in their bathroom