One of the most popular restaurants in Reykjavík is a Hotdog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur: Reykjavík Iceland

 

On any day in the historic part of Reykjavik (adjacent to the countries only flea market), you’ll find a LONG line of people braving the elements for a taste of one of the country’s favorite street foods. Bæjarins beztu pylsur (which in English translates to the best hot dog in town), first opened in 1937, and offers up what Condé Nast declared the “one dish to eat in Iceland“; this is a hotdog that is unique because it is made from a combination of mostly lamb/mutton (mixed with some beef, and pork) that is then covered in ketchup, sweet mustard, remouladecrisp fried onion and raw onion.

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The stand was made world famous in 2004 when former US president, Bill Clinton stopped there for a meal. Its a dog is considered so good that 2006 the UK’s Guardian newspaper declared it to be the best hot dog in all of Europe, and in 2014 Forbes Magazine noted that it was the economically successful hotdog stand in the world. And as such you’ll find a constant flow of visitors from all over the world lining up to get a taste… and even such famous foodies as Anthony Bourdain (RIP) make sure to go there when visiting Iceland.

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This Icelandic hotdog is unique in large part because it is mostly made of lamb/mutton (for those not in the know, mutton is what you call the meat of an adult sheep, while lamb is … well from lambs). But of course, this is Iceland after all, where sheep are the most commonly farmed animal and lamb/mutton is a staple of the local diet in the same way Americans eat beef.

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Now I’m from Chicago, where we take our hotdogs VERY seriously. Not only are we the former meat processing capitol of America, but we hold a claim to fame as the pivotal location for the developments of the dish. While the frankfurter began in Germany (although some dispute this and say it goes back as far as the Roman period) it was a dish traditionally served on plate that you ate with a knife and fork. It is generally accepted that the concept of serving said sausage on a soft white bun with condiments, as a roadside food that you can eat as you walk, is an idea that originated in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — sometimes known as the White City — when a guy by the name of Antoine Feuchtwanger, came up with the idea of serving it on a soft white bun — rather than a crusty roll that would leave crumbs all over your shirt … and even gave his customers white gloves (which were kept as souvenirs) to keep their hands clean. New Yorkers however dispute this and claim the idea of serving it on bun started in Coney Island, but we Chicagoans reject this. That said, the Chicago hotdog is deeply influenced by the Jewish community of the town, and is as such, 100% beef… and more than a few of the brands are also kosher certified.

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From that perspective, I found the presentation of the dog horrible (seriously, look at the thing) and taste of the dog to be a bit bland, and the texture a bit soft (the dog SHOULD be the star of the show) … when compared to a Chicago style hot dog. The selling point for ME (my opinion) was the toppings were amazing. The remoulade is sort of sweet (it tastes like there might be apples in it) and the mustard which is also sweet and brown … and then that is topped with these amazing fried onions which the locals call cronions, and were WAY crunchier than any fried onion I’ve had before so that at first I thought they were crumbled up fried pork rinds — because I was tasting pork, but now I think they are just onions fried in lard — but I’m not sure… which is then combined with raw chopped onion. The combination was REALLY tasty.

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Sid’s Diner: El Reno, OK

Located on Route 66 in El Reno Oklahoma is a cute little diner called Sid’s, which has been serving up delicious food for over 40 years. Although it doesn’t look like all that much, this restaurant has actually achieved some notoriety on the national level for the quality of it’s cheap eats.

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While it takes advantage of their route 66 address, and has been written up in guidebooks as part of a Route 66 road trip, it’s important for authenticity’s sake (I believe) to remember that Sid’s is NOT technically a historic 66 diner. Sid opened the place in 1989, five years AFTER route 66 had already been decommissioned (in ’84).

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Their claim to fame, isn’t that, but rather the food… specifically their fried onion burgers, which are considered to be so good that the Food Network listed them as among the top 5 burgers in the whole US of A., and the Travel Channel has listed them as one of the must visit road side diners in the country in the cheap eats catagory.

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Note: the french fries here are STILL called Freedom Fries… will get back to this later

Their burger (i.e., the regular) consists of a large number of thinly sliced onions that are then smashed into the raw meat so that they merge with it, but as a solid layer– a bit like what happens with hash-browns. The King is just a larger quantity of beef.

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I watched them making these, and based on the massive amount of fat involved wasn’t going to even try them (as they were completely off of diet). But as I was asking about the sandwich, they insisted I have at least a taste of one for free. (This is a VERY friendly place.) So they made up one and cut me off 1/4 of it so I could try it. Normally the burger includes a huge gob of mayonnaise, but they-made this one without

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The remaining 3/4 were given to this this elderly woman sitting next to me, who was a regular. From what I overheard, she’s apparently in dire economic straits and they’re always adding free add-ons to her meals. I therefore insisted that I pay for the whole of her meal, my 3/4 and everything else she was eating.

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As a result they insisted that we have a picture taken together. I have to say she was a very nice lady, very cheerful and upbeat.

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Like I noted previously, the “French fries” in this restaurant are still referred to as Freedom Fries. That, and the heavy references to American’s armed forces kind of tells you all you need to know about the politics of this town, and the restaurant’s owner.

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This is term that was adopted in 2003, and to this day is still used by the most hardcore Republicans around the country. The renaming (let’s keep in mind that french fries are actually from Belgium and not France) was the idea of a guy who owned a diner in Beaufort, North Carolina by the name of Neal Rowland. This patriotic act was in response to France‘s opposition to America’s proposed invasion of Iraq (which we went ahead and did anyway, without world support). Not long after two Republican politicians picked up the idea and ran with it; the first was Walter B. Jones, who represented Rowland’s district’s in Congress and the second was Bob Ney, a Representative from Ohio who in 2008, was convicted on corruption charges and did jail time — why yes this does make me smile. In 2003, Ney was still the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, and therefore in charge of managing all the general ‘stuff’ for the members of the house of Representatives. What these “patriots” did was to … as a way of sticking to the French (who are always quick to point out that French Fries are NOT French), insist that the cafeterias that serve politicians in Congress change the name of the fries likewise.

qh96DA2xSCaW7zxlXDfXrQ_thumb_ad7a.jpgAnd, why YES, the locals who El Reno did in fact, in majority, vote for Trump.

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Uri Buri: A World Renowned Seafood Restaurant in Acre, Israel

Located at the edge of the Mediterranean, in a completely renovated 400 year old Ottoman building in Acre, is what many consider to be the best fish restaurant in all of Israel, Uri Buri. According to Forbes Magazine, it is one of the three restaurants in Israel any traveler to the country must try…. and considering the place was literally a 4 minute walk from my Airbnb for a month… how could I not. That said, if you go to seafood restaurants hoping to be able to get a healthy low-fat meal… this is NOT the place for you. The place offers up what can best be described as Israeli/French/Asian fusion food, that’s heavy on the cream and oils.

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The sign faces the ocean and the road… and is translucent (so I was looking through from the back)…  I reversed the image making the writing no longer backwards

I knew Uri Buri was there and that a couple had spent the night at my Airbnb just so that they could have dinner there, and it was supposed to be THAT good… but as it was also really expensive. While in my 50 odd years, and they’ve been odd… I’ve had occasion to eat at some of the world’s top restaurants, I really do tend to prefer expensive meals when someone else is paying for them. If I’m going to pay three times the price for my meal I want it to taste three times as good as the cheaper alternatives… and that rarely happen. ONCE in my life, while in Kyoto, Japan, I got taken to french restaurant that only at like 14 people at a time, and was so expensive that the menu didn’t include prices (as in if you care about price, you probably shouldn’t eat there anyway) and that meal was SO good it was better than sex…. but like I said, I wasn’t paying that night. So, while I knew Uri Buri was just next door… I hadn’t really considered going in.

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That said a friend of the family, when he came to pick me up to bring me to his parent’s for dinner, when he saw I was literally a stone’s throw from the place — well not with my pitching arm but a GOOD thrower could do it from the patio of my airbnb, see the image above — he said that I HAD to eat there at least once while I was staying in Acre. See the red and blue sign on top of the building on the left side image, that’s the patio of the airbnb I stayed at for 29 days; the stone building on the right edge of that image is Uri Buri… as is the low flat squarish building visible from the patio, looking down. THAT is how close I was to the place…

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So of course I HAD to go there…. how often in life are you THAT close to world-famous restaurant? The first time I went was a weekday at three in the afternoon —  without a reservation. In spite of it being mid-week and middle of the day, they told me they had no spare seating inside; but they could, however, seat me outside… if I was willing. It was one of those odd days when it is too hot to sit in the sun while too chilly to be sitting in the shade, and insanely windy…. but, never the less…  I said yes.

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For this first visit, I approached Uri Buri as I do MOST restaurants… I explained about my fatty liver diagnoses, what that meant in terms of my dietary needs, and asked them what they could serve me that would not piss off my doctors. They promised to bring me a very low-fat grilled piece of fish that was healthy… on a bed of purred squash with balsamic… sounded good… and looked very good

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Sadly, on closer inspection the fillet had been pan-fried, and was dripping with oil. My first thought was that maybe the concept of my having a serious medical condition that demanded I eat very low-fat meals had fallen on deaf ears…  Later I considered that maybe the food here was normally SO ridiculously oily, that from the chefs perspective this in fact was their idea of low fat by comparison … as in maybe the dish is normally served swimming in rosemary butter.  That said, it was clear to me that really, no one could eat come here with the expectation of a really healthy meal.

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A picture of my host, Nzar

Afterwards my Airbnb host, who had converted his childhood home into a guest house… suggested that I really should try Uri Buri’s tasting menu at least once before leaving. [For this they charge you for every item you eat, but the portions are smaller than if you ordered each dish alone.] This Airbnb, while GREAT, has a host who loves his guests and demonstrates that love by laying out a daily Smörgåsbord of food… and my impulse control is NULL… as a result my diet has been LOUSY during my stay anyway, and I’ve gained a good bit of weight… so in my mind, I might as well try this famous tasting menu as I’ve decidedly screwed my diet anyway …. and then try hard to get back on the bandwagon afterwards.

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When he got to that table, I heard him speaking in German to the customers, NOT Israelis

So I went back about two weeks later in order to try their tasting menu, and discovered why that is: see the guy who looks like Father Christmas? He’s the famous chef who owns the restaurant. Looking at him as an American, yah he’s a bit on the heavy side… but looking at him as an Israeli… I can not overstate this… he’s morbidly obese. Walking around Israel, IF you see anyone that’s anywhere near as heavy as he is.. than either they’re tourists visiting from abroad, or moved here recently, after having spent most of the lives in countries that have obesity issues. Israeli’s are almost never fat by US standards (at worst they develop a bit of a belly in old age). This is because they eat a diet that’s very low in processed foods, and because meat is very expensive here, if there’s protein on their plates at all, it’s usually chicken, fish, lamb or mutton — and for many its only eaten one meal a day, with the rest being vegetarian (or an egg). Most meals consist of a small amount of meat protein, and high amounts of vegetable ones… like hummus. And all meals arrive with multiple vegetable salad options on the side. As such, the average Israeli can afford to eat his cooking to no ill effect, because it’s not a daily thing. He on the other hand DOES eat his own cooking daily … and well… nuff said.

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All of the folks in this photo were Israeli (I heard them all speaking Hebrew), note the sizes

This time I also arrived mid-week, and without a reservation at about 2:00 in the afternoon, but this time it was during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan (and I had noticed a significant drop in tourists to the guest house since the festival began). As such I was guessing I could probably get a table, and yes, this time they were able to seat me inside the building … and I ordered the tasting menu.

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17 ₪ and 14 ₪, so  $4.76 & $3.92 USD

The first course was a seafood bruschetta, with some sort of white fish sitting on a puréed eggplant with what I thought were poppy seeds and drizzled with olive oil.  It came with an espresso cup full of mushroom soup. topped with truffle oil, according to the waitress. Immediately I was like, “huh?” as this is an ingredient while trendy is usually considered verboten by top ranked chefs, who consider it an abomination. But this guy prides himself on being “self-taught” so … whatever. The soup was consistent with how Israelis like their mushroom soup (there’s a particular taste to it, not how I like it but… this is Israel and it’s how they expect it)… but already between the cream in the soup and the truffle oil, PLUS the oil drizzled on the bruschetta … my body mouth and stomach were going, SERIOUSLY??!! But at this point my body isn’t really used to a lot of oil at one time… most people are. So… fine, whatever…

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18 ₪ = $5.04 USD

The next course was a Scallop sitting on a purée of artichoke with spirulina syrup. First I had a hard time understanding what the waitress was saying — she had a very strong Israeli accent — and then once I did I was kind of surprised. In the states this is usually the word used for the dietary supplement, not the food… which basically is just a high protein blue-green algae (the sort of thing that was supposed to solve the world’s food shortages once upon a time, think Soylent Green). I suppose spirulina sounds better than algae to the average Israeli… most of whom are a bit pedantic when it comes to food. That said, The scallop was a few seconds under cooked (you can see that in the picture… it should be clean white ALL the way through, not just at the edges… while not being rubbery (which is over cooked). This one is solid white at the edges and then shifts towards a sort of translucent white … which means not fully cooked. But that said… I regularly eat scallop sashimi and/or sushi, but still, this was supposed to be cooked, not seared. And, if that weren’t bad enough… it tasted slightly fishy (so not particularly fresh). Also, you couldn’t really taste the artichoke at all while the after taste of olive oil was strong. When the waitress asked me how I like it, she get defensive and said that was how the scallops are supposed to be when cooked… ah no, sorry.

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The next items were “Caramelized Tilapia on a bed of Beets” along with their signature dish  … “Salmon Sashimi with Wasabi ice cream/sorbet” — which the waitress I had the first time I came here had been trying to push at me as something “really special!”

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27 ₪ = $7.56 USD

 

 

Firstly, lets start with the tilapia… a fish I HATE by the way. Sometimes referred to as the aqua-chicken, because it’s the easiest sort of fish to farm in pools and hence super cheap… it’s not any one sort of fish, actually, but rather a random assortment of small white fish that have been selectively bred in order to assure they grow quickly and survive in captivity. Basically the same way we’ve screwed with chickens and cows … which is how it got its other nickname, “frankenfish.” There’s a lot of debate about this fish and how healthy it may or may not be at this point. But, that said, it’s almost always a very very mild fish, and as such is great to serve to people who don’t like fish…. because it barely tastes of anything. If you then go and  give it a teriyaki glaze, which is what they did… calling it caramelized was a bit of a misnomer, then you’re not really going to taste ANYTHING because teriyaki is a pretty strong flavor. If you then place it on top of pickled beets… YUP, not fresh beets which would have been great… these were pickled… sort of Jewish food 101… well then between the pickled beets and the teriyaki you’re REALLY not going to taste the fish. The fish was completely overpowered by the other items on the plate. This time the waitress said I didn’t have to eat it if I didn’t like it… but beets are good for you, and pickles are probiotic… so I finished it like a good girl…

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Then there was salmon sashimi with wasabi ice cream, their signature dish… which I was told to eat on the provided bread (good bread, tasted like multi grain)… I skipped the butter cause… butter

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The salmon was ok, except for once again having been drowned in a sweet teriyaki sauce rather than just soy (there was something really glutenous about it). I think again it is because Israelis who eat sashimi do so because they want to be seen as cool, not because they actually enjoy raw fish. So add sweet soy and they’ll like it more. As to the Wasabi ice cream… firstly it didn’t taste anything isn’t wasabi, not even the American sort which ISN’T (no really it’s not) … the American stuff is usually made of the mildest horseradish they can find, with color added (actual wasabi has to be ground fresh and eaten within about 15 minutes of grinding… and has a mild floral sort of thing going on that opens your sinuses gently, rather than painfully) …. This stuff however was a very STRONG horseradish, as in it didn’t even TRY to approximate wasabi.

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52 ₪ = $14.56 USD

It was like the horse-radish Jews eat at passover … straight.. so we can experience the suffering of slavery. Only this was that… with a lot of sweet added to it. When the waitress asked me my opinion of this dish, she was like: “well you’ve never had wasabi ice cream before!” And I was like, actually I have, many many times. The waitress was shocked as she had believed the chef had invented the stuff…

 

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17 ₪ = $4.76 USD

The next dish was finally one that made me happy. It was seafood soup, what looked like squid and shrimp cut up small, with coconut milk and a touch of curry.  The heat began as barely perceptible, although the taste of curry was there, and then grew as I ate it but never past the level of a soothing warmth. Total winner! One thing to know is that in Israel seafood does not mean a mixture of fish and shellfish, as it does in the rest of the world; rather, it means shellfish. Fish is fish, but seafood is shellfish; this is a way of distinguishing between kosher and not… fish in Israel is always KOSHER fishes (fins and scales that are easy to see and remove), and seafood is not… so it might include catfish, shark, dolphin, etc., but I’ve never seen it.

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69 ₪ = $19.33 USD

The next dish was Shrimp in a Mediterranean sauce—- LOTS of garlic, oil, what I thought was fresh parsley but the menu said was coriander …and enough lemon that the garlic tasted almost pickled … along with a few bits of sliced up jalapeños.. this dish had a nice fresh flavor and wasn’t TOO oily (once I allowed the sauce to drip away from the shrimps)

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free apparently

She then asked me how full was I, as there are still two main dishes to go, and did I have room for both? I thought about it, and said, no I really could only do one more, so she gave me a choice from those two options. Then she brought out a sorbet to clean my palette of all the garlic… first taste was still full of garlic so I thought it was mango but she said it was mandarin orange… when I said it wasn’t sweet enough and had a bit too much bite… she said that’s how they are in Israel… ok fine… it did what it was supposed to do, clean the palette.

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The final main dish was Trout in a cream sauce with green onions, and a side of risotto. It arrived with … lots of fan-fair in a super hot cast iron pot. The the fish was allowed to finish cooking in the bubbling cream sauce, and was then moved to the plate and a dish of yellow rice was then dumped in the cream and stirred “to make risotto” according to her. My brain went straight to… “risotto isn’t just rice with sauce added to it” … but I kept my mouth shut (it’s a starchy variety of rice cooked a specific way).

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67 ₪ = $18.77

The resultant side dish was heavy on the cream but tasty … and the fish is good

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For dessert I decided to getting the Palestinian dessert knafeh which she promised me would be the very best example of this dish I’ve ever had. In Acre they make it differently than how its done in Tel Aviv — where to my taste it is WAY too sweet… in Acre its subtly sweet, and to my mind, much tastier. She promised me that this one would be way better than even what’s sold by the local bakeries in town. After my having “already had wasabi ice cream” issue, she wanted to know if they had a flavor I’d never had… She assumed it would be Cardamon, but I’ve had that and rose….  so she’s said she’d bring it with date ice cream … but brought the requisite rose-water ice cream as well

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42 ₪ = $11.76 USD, and she threw in the 2nd ice cream free

the Rose Ice cream was actually Meh… inferior to what I’ve had before, but the date ice cream was really nice… the knafeh was … eeeh… again not WAY better than the other places in town. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b2b.jpg

Toward the end of my meal a young German couple arrived who were VERY excited to eating here (like seeing a movie star excited) … according to the girl there’s a German travel food show that this restaurant was presented on as a MUST experience once in your life kind of place….

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That said, my very FILLING lunch (my stomach was distended) took two hours to eat and came to 323 ₪/shekels…  ~$90 USD…. before the %15 tip… and in spite of it feeling like I’d eaten a lot of food (mostly because of how much cream and oil my stomach was having to deal with… it was almost gurgling because of all the gas… I was a farting machine for the rest of the day) with the possible exception of that one soup… nothing struck me as being worth the price. By US prices (and keeping in mind it was small portions of every item) it doesn’t seem to bad… but any other restaurant in town would give you a triple portion of that shrimp dish for $14 USD and with it would be huge portions of at least six different salads (humus, tahini, Jerusalem salad, beet salad, cabbage, tabouleh, etc.) which are ALL YOU CAN EAT, like at a Korean place…. plus all the pita bread you need to go with it.

How to eat during Ramadan in an Arab town, such as Acre (Akko/Acco), Israel

This month is the first time in my life I’ve spent Ramadan in an Arab town. I’m SO naive about these things that I didn’t even THINK about that when planning this trip.

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  1. First thing to remember is that while Arabs are of two predominant religious groups, Muslim AND Christian. The first keeps Ramadan, the second does NOT…
  2. … and not all sects of those two major groups are alike. While Bahá’í and Druze are both, historically, offshoots of Islam, the Bahá’ís DO keep Ramadan but the Durūz/Druzim [transliterated Arabic & Hebrew spellings for the plural] do NOT …
  3. Christian owned restaurants tend to hire mostly Christian workers (friends and family), and are in retrospect easy to spot because they’re the ones that offer beer and wine options on the menu.
  4. Muslim owned places do NOT have beer or wine on the menu.
    *Noting this distinction in advance will tell you which of your favorite eateries are likely to be open or not
  5. And of course, Acco being in Israel, there are a handful of Kosher places in town… that hire Jewish workers and as such will be open: This includes the VERY expensive Uri Buri (which will demand reservations), which has won all sorts of culinary awards, is considered to be one of the best resturants in Israel, and while it has shellfish on the menu is also set up to cook Kosher food. (Warning: its “French” style, so after a full meal here, you’re going to want to go out to eat)
  6. That said, NO restaurant can afford to be closed for one month every year!!!
    According to my Airbnb host (a Xtian who has lived here his whole life) the first THREE days of Ramadan is when it’s an issue. Employers give their muslim workers that much time to acclimate into the pattern of NOT eating during the day, and then will open back up for business because there’s a tourist market that has to be served.or of course you can load up the fridge in advance and feed yourself… something I neglected to do…

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]

P.S. I was just watching this 60 minutes show about the making of Game of Thrones, and broke into a cheer when I learned the sets for places like Castle Black are following the lead of Hobbiton. They were built to withstand the elements, and will be turned into tourist attractions. WOOT!

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.

Ned Kelly: The Story of Australia’s Billy the Kid, Glenrowan, Victoria

If you ever happen to be driving from Sydney to Melbourne (or visa versa — or looking for a day-trip from either), Glenrowan, the location of Ned Kelly’s final standoff with police, is a must see.  If you’ve never heard of him, Edward “Ned” Kelly (1854 – 1880) is a central figure in Australia’s ideology of self.

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At a relatively young age he became one of Australia’s last, and still to this day best known Bushrangers; he was also a cop killer, and ultimately the leader of his own gang — although he’s best known for inventing a suit of bulletproof armor to wear during a shoot-out with police.

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I actually came here twice, the first time was only about a month after my massive concussion which was so sever it dislocated my jaw and took a good year to actually heal from; at that time between the heat of the day (which drained me), and my very limited energy to begin with (just sitting in a moving vehicle was a mental strain) we didn’t actually get to see much… as I discovered upon writing up this blog post the first time (in early 2018) — I had in fact missed a LOT (which made me VERY sad).

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Can you believe I missed THIS the first time… THIS!!! And here’s how very much OUT of it I was… we were not 100 feet away from it and I DID NOT notice it. It was directly in our line of sight, I’m shitting you NOT, and I did not SEE it… WHAT THE FUCK!!! But that tells you JUST how out of it I was by the end of our first visit.

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The second time was almost a full year later, the weather was MUCH cooler and I wasn’t sick… so we saw must of the things we missed, except for THIS attraction, which I wanted to see… to compare it to things like the Battles For Chattanooga attraction …. but which my travel buddy is as a matter of course NOT game for things of this sort (I would have had to pay for his ticket for him to be willing to do it… which I was NOT game for).

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Before ever coming to Australia, every book that I read on Aussie history that covered the settlement of the non-Sydney parts of the country talked about him (yes, I’m THAT sort of traveler, I read in advance), and he’s about to have the 11th movie about him go into production in the coming months (and if you move very quickly, you could be in it). [This part was written a year ago, I’m afraid it’s currently in post-production and it should be released soon].

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Portraits of Ned, his mother (who is a central figure to his story), and his sister

The first time I came here my travel partner on this trip and I were driving from Melbourne to Sydney (it was a really pretty day…)

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When we passed this sign, which he felt was really funny, and a good example of Australian humor (that an official sign would look like this)… I didn’t get the joke then, I still don’t. The area is famous for two things, wine and Ned Kelly, and that helmet says “Ned Kelly” to any Australian who knows his story… which is pretty much all of them.

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Anyway, he explained that it kind of looks like Ned Kelly is holding up a wine bottle… and that we were about to drive by the town of Ned Kelly a famous bushranger, and then he started to explain to me who he was. I stopped him and told him that not only did I already know… I had read about him in two different Australian history books, but that I was also about midway through a book devoted to his story (that had won the very prestigious Booker Prize), and could we please stop because I would really like to see the place… and anyways we needed to have lunch. So we stopped here, at Billy Tea RoomsIMG_2007

I had the “house made Pikelets” in large part because it would be something new (I learned while researching for this piece that they are Welsh in origin, and are often referred to as the ‘poor man’s crumpet’) but upon eating them, they tasted indistinguishable from pancakes — just small ones. I also had the pumpkin soup (which in Australia is served savory with a lot of pepper… never sweet, the way it is in the US) and a cup of tea … 

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Then we went to the museum dedicated to Ned Kelly’s story. So I already knew from the book I was reading that when Ned was very young, he became the town hero by saving the life of the son of one of the richest families in town (who almost drowned). As a reward Ned was gifted by the father with a purple sash. You’d think since the kid he saved was very rich and Ned’s family very poor it would have been something more tangible, but it wasn’t… which in my mind almost makes it a symbol of the inequality with which Irish immigrants were treated …

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That said, the sash was deeply meaningful to Ned (supposedly the finest piece of cloth he’d ever felt in his young life) and was such a treasured possession that he chose to wear it under his metal armor on the day when he knew he would be facing impossible odds, and might well die — some 20 years later.

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Mrs. Kelly, Ned’s elderly mother was a major element in his life. Ultimately she was arrested and thrown in prison, unjustly, as a way to capture Ned. He fought to have her freed, including writing a manifesto letter that he tried unsuccessfully to have printed, intended to make people aware of the injustice. But he failed, all that was printed were annotated summaries that distorted it’s meaning in a way that made the government look good and Ned look bad.

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What happened is long and complicated, but the part that all Australians remember was the final showdown where he wore the armor, that he believed would protect him for the bullets of the police — and its as common a symbol to them as a bell with a crack in it screams Liberty Bell to Americans.

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Saw this Ned Kelly at Paddy’s Market in Sydney

but was ultimately his plan failed, he was seriously wounded instead of killed, and as such he was captured, so that instead of dying while defending himself, he was taken to the gallows.

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Inside the museum were a large collection of collected objects about Ned or his family, including a selection of items that were supposedly owned by them. My friend and travel buddy, was overwhelmed by seeing a plate that supposedly had belonged to Ned’s sister. As a child, my friend had learned about Ned in part by reading a book written from Ned’s sister’s point of view… so seeing something as simple as a plate, that she had actually owned, was a deeply emotional experience for him.

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Behind the museum was a reconstruction(!!!) of the Kelly Homestead, filled with the sorts of items they were known to have owned. The actual homestead is located about 9km away from Glenrowan and still owned by the Kelly family, and is NOT open to the public. That said, I remembered reading in the book about the walls covered in newspaper, so it was interesting to see it here… I have no idea how realistic this reconstruction might be.

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Behind the house were some pet Cockatoos, pictured here because they’re cute

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On our 2nd visit to this place we didn’t redo any of our previous visits, but instead tried to see all the stuff we’d missed the first time. Firstly, we approached the town from the other side of the railroad… which is where Ned Kelly’s standoff with the police actually happened in 1880… to find signposts explaining the history laid out around the town in the order of where various events had occurred, that you could follow around… the first one we found being #4, the site of Ned’s capture (which was clearly shown on our google maps when driving here)

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Possibly because his capture was something police take pride in, in 1885 the town built a new police station directly adjacent to the location of the stand-off, as a “Look at how Good we are at our job, don’t fuck with us statement.” (Let’s forget the fact that Ned was entirely outgunned, and the only reason they caught him was he was too honorable to leave those he held near and dear behind to face their wrath at NOT catching him.)UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2410.jpg

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Not far from where he was ultimately captured, we found location #1, a piece of land where the Glenrowan Inn had once stood (where Ned had taken hostages while waiting for a large group of police that were coming to get him by rail) .

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LOVELY replica of the original sign, don’t you think? Almost transcendentUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2417.jpg

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Kiddy corner from the Inn was location #2,  where the 35 police who ultimately arrived took up position, protected by some trees

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#4 and #5 I already showed, (where he hunkered down while putting on his metal armor and shooting at the police, and then where he was finally captured)….  but somehow I managed to miss taking pictures of location #6… please to forgive me….

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I think it involved walking over to where the railway station was, but it had started to rain by that point, so I never got there….  That said, before we went to see locations 1, 2 &3 we had taken the bridge across the railway to A) go to the bathroom (we both really needed to go) and B) pick up some lunch.

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Nice bathrooms out back, a shop and a cafe

The selection of Ned Kelly themed items available for sale amused me

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There was the Ned Kelly Tea Towel with his wanted poster printed on it (I was tempted, but they were too heavy to shlep around the world –It’s Feb and I won’t be going back to the States till October; Ned Kelly socks that say “such is life” — purported to be Ned’s last words before they hung him by the neck ….

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Ned Kelly soap (???) and of course the obligatory mugs… WHY does EVERYPLACE have mugs? I mean how many mugs can one person reasonably own?

My friend had wanted to go to the same Tea shop we went to last time at the other end of town, but I rejected that, suggesting we try one of the other places… ultimately we got sandwiches from the bakery shop (they’ve got some deli fixing and you can make the sandwiches up however you want to). My friend had some sort of vegetarian combo, while I had ham & mustard, with beetroot (red beets), black olives and lettuce on whole grain (and hold the butter). Although in retrospect I’m thinking maybe we should have eaten at the Vintage Hall cafe…. anyway…

While there we found location #7….

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That said, here’s The Ned Kelley story told in cartoon format:

 

Bondi Beach, Sydney Australia: You know you are in a Jewish neighborhood when…

A trip to Bondi Beach is one of THE things to do if you’re visiting Sydney; for instance, if you look at TripAdvisor’s top things to do while in Sydney, a trip to Bondi is #2 on the list. It’s the nearest/best beachfront neighborhood to downtown Sydney and while the train doesn’t go the whole distance, there’s busses almost every five minutes to take you the rest of the way. That said, this is my SECOND year spending a few weeks in this neighborhood, so I’ve decided to update this post more than a bit, rather than do a 2nd post on the same subject

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What most people miss when they come here are all the clues that tell those of us who are MOT “members of the tribe” that this is also one of THE most Jewish neighborhoods in all of Australia. For instance, the fact that almost every seller of Jewelry have stars of David for sale, as well as Chais, and Hamsas. Of course the latter, isn’t really a Jewish item as such, but rather a symbol that has been traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, that is used by all the various religious groups of the area, and is sometimes referred to as either the hand of Fatima (for those who don’t know, the favorite daughter of Muhammad), Mary (Jesus’s mother), Miriam (sister of Moses), or just ‘the goddess’…  But of course the evidence goes deeper than that.

IMG_6500.JPGThis is now my second year of spending a few weeks in Bondi. Like I said in a previous post, the first time I came to Australia it was a fairly last-minute decision. I had contacted my travel buddy, who goes to Sydney (his hometown) almost every year during their summer months (Dec through March) in part so that he can spend Christmas with his mother, but also just to be there. His mother lives in a retirement village in the suburbs, so he opts to stay in an apartment rental in one of his old stomping grounds.

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A mural adjacent to Bondi Beach, note my T-shirt, and my Chai necklace (which is also an AT-AT)

Now granted, on the day when I first arrived I didn’t know this… and my friend isn’t Jewish and was utterly oblivious to stuff like this, so he didn’t know either. Anyway, we took the train from the airport to Bondi Junction, at which point — because my friend seems to like to walk everywhere (even when lugging suitcases) we walked  (suitcases in hand) to an eatery called Savta Cafe, which he said was supposed to be good. I was SO tired after my flight that my brain didn’t trigger to the fact that Savta was the Hebrew word for grandmother. That said, the menu made it pretty obvious that this was an Israeli restaurant — something my friend had not realized. I got very excited and ordered the Shakshouka, a dish invented by Tunisian Jews, and pretty common in Israel.

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That said, it was not the best I’ve ever eaten (the excessive use of mushrooms confused me) but it was ok… After that we lugged the suitcases to his rented a ‘room in an apartment’ (but not an Airbnb) in an area called Bellevue Hill, right near St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, that is located just west of Bondi beach and just east of the Bondi Junction Train station — [The map refuses to embed, so please check the location via the link].

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But ONE Israeli cafe does not a Jewish neighborhood necessarily make. The next hint however was SO in your face that I couldn’t possibly miss the implication. The next day he took me on a walk from our apartment to the beach, and we passed THIS house along the way…

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Let’s Welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness

For those who don’t know who this guy is, his name is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Many of his followers (I am not one) had actually believed that he was THE Moshiach, aka the Messiah, a concept that should not be confused with Jesus/Christ … even if the Chabad-Lubavitch (who can be referred to with either term) are the most Catholic of Jews — a concept to complex to explain here…  at least until Schneerson died.

To tell you how Jewish I am, I’m one step away from Schneerson via more than a few people even though I am NOT one of his followers; most closely of whom was our family friend and cardiologist (until he retired) who was flown in to also be part of Schneerson’s medical team before he died. [Personal story…. Ira came to my father’s funeral. After the service, he took me by the hands, looked me in the eye and told me how sorry he was to have been out-of-town during my fathers final days — and hence unable to help him personally, but told me that he called in regularly, and had heard via the nurses and doctors at the hospital how I had been at my father’s side every day from his admittance until he died… and he said to me, “Rebecca, you have raised the bar in terms of how a child should be with a sick parent.” … to this day it is probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, and just thinking about it makes me want to cry. Ira is a real man of G-d, instead of going to synagogue and making himself the center of attention, he spends every sabbath quietly in the hospital, saving lives.]

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Anyway, the VERY public display of the Rebbe’s picture on the side of a home (see above) made me realize there must be Lubbavitch in the neighborhood… but what I didn’t realize until I had actually been there a few days and explored the place it was that it was ALSO spitting distance from The Central Synagogue, which is a modern orthodox congregation

AND Adath Yisroel Congregation / Tzemach Tzedek … (when looking at these maps, please note all the OTHER Jewish institutions that Google popped, assuming they were also of interest to me, when I searched the synagogues’ names

AND The Sephardi Synagogue

AND an easy walking distance from the Chabad-Lubavitch House

In fact, there turned out to be about EIGHT … EIGHT synagogues all within an easy walking distance of our apartment!!!! (Not to mention a bunch of other Jewish institutions)…. For those who are not Jewish, in all of Orlando Florida, I think there are maybe four synagogues scattered throughout the entire metropolitan area… miles apart (driving distance). Only THE MOST orthodox of Jewish neighborhoods, the ones where there are all sorts of guys walking around dressed like Jews (which MOST Jews do not do) …  have this many synagogues so close together…. (Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to be exerting themselves on sabbath — day of rest — and they can’t ride on cars, busses, or horses either for that matter …so they have to live an easy walking distance of their temples … which made it easy for the Nazi’s to round them up… but that’s a different issue.) Speaking of my oblivious travel buddy… by the end of our few weeks in Bundi (a please he’d been to a thousand times before) I was finally able to teach him how to identify orthodox Jews by their tell tale clothing choices.

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The next thing I discovered in Bondi there were actually quite a few Israeli restaurants, alongside Turkish and other middle eastern ones, which are also popular in the area.

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The above restaurant is, Sabbaba (Hebrew slang, derived from the Arabic word tzababa, meaning “cool”, “great” or “ok”)– which not only had a COMPLETELY authentic Israeli style falafel sandwich, but the manager was Israeli (I spoke Hebrew with him) and they were serving MALT STAR (a non alcoholic beer that is almost ubiquitous in Israel) to wash it down with!! (As it should be!) This turned out to be a local chain (there are a three of them scattered around Sydney,) but based on my experience the only one that had the Malt Star was in Bondi … which says something about this outlet’s clientele

About a block or so away from that I found a third Israeli place, called Lyfe Cafe (Life with a Y, again, think of the Jewish Chai symbol) again the owner was an Israeli (again, I spoke Hebrew with them) and I also tried their Shakshouka — a bit better than the last place, but still not “up to snuff” in my opinion.

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While eating at Sabbaba the first time, I spotted a Kosher butcher, called, “Hadassa Kosher Butchery PTY Ltd” located RIGHT across the street from them, which I later learned was an ALL Kosher butcher, that cuts it’s own meat, while serving the diverse clientele that lives in Boni.

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They cut their own meat!!! So rare in this day and age.

and just a shop or two down the street from that I found “Golds World of Judaica” where I ended up spending a few hundred dollars on Jewish/Australian souvenirs to give as gifts to friends, and of course for myself…

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An Australian Kippah! Got more than few of these

Specifically they had fusion Jewish/Aboriginal Australian items, like the above kippot (about $18 USD each… over two years I think I bought about 16 of them, because everyone I had given one to GREATLY appreciated them), as well as Challah Covers.

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During the few weeks I spent in Bondi on my visit a year late I came across Katzy’s Food World, which I didn’t realize was a Kosher restaurant till I got inside, located sort of Kiddy corner from Sabbaba.

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This is a fleishig, or meat restaurant — note the chicken, burgers, and the ‘Ruben’ sandwich with no Swiss cheese and mayo instead of Russian dressing (WTF PEOPLE!!! THAT IS NOT A RUBEN!!!) on the menu?

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When I was there, trying to decide what to eat, the girl working behind the counter told me that Katz’s for instance is FAMOUS for the Aussie meat pies — which is sort of a laughable statement if you understand it, in large part because its one of the VERY few places in the whole country that has Aussie meat pies made with Kosher meat, in a kosher kitchen… and hence if you keep kosher and want to try an Aussie meat pie… this is most likely where got it. (They even serve sausage rolls… which I have a feeling are more ‘pigs in a blanket’, i.e., all beef hotdogs in pastry… than sausage rolls, because there’s no such thing as kosher pork.)

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A mom trying to find a kosher Parve snack for her kids in a meat restaurant (??)

because of the dietary restriction of mixing meat with milk Kosher restaurants tend to serve one or the other but rarely both…  Falafel falls into the parve category, being never meat more milk. The mom in the above picture is clearly just back from taking her kids to the beach. From what was happening, it was clear the kids had been given ice cream while there (milk) and she wanted to get them a mid-afternoon snack but it couldn’t be meat because not enough hours had passed since they’d eaten the milk meal (seriously… there are rules to ensure that the meat and milk don’t even combine in your belly.)

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The two-handled red cup is for the ritual of washing your hands before meals

IF an Israeli restaurant is Kosher (which is NOT a given) then it will have falafel and meat, falafel and cheese, but not both…. Sabbaba has both and as such while it’s Jewish/Israeli it is NOT someplace the Jews who keep Kosher would eat at…. if you ever go to Israel you’ll quickly notice that NOT all the food served there is Kosher… if it is there’s be a big sign over the door advertising the fact in no uncertain terms.

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While at Katz’s I tried their Matzah ball soup. It was ok… my father made better. The “trick” to REALLY good chicken soup is you boil the WHOLE chicken, feet, beak and all, which this place did not do. If you don’t add those ingredients, the soup tends to have a sort of weak flavor and consistency. The feet are what provides pectin, and also a sort of super saturated chicken flavor. Today… when most grocery stores don’t even have the feet to sell you… folks rely on bullion cubes to provide them with that flavor — because they’ve forgotten what it was about grandma’s soup that made it just, better.

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Finally, Not only did I find Krinsky’s, the larges kosher grocery store in Sydney (its the size of a small Kosher market in Chicago), during my 2nd visit, but up in the mall next to Bondi Junction, there are three different supermarkets, and in one of them I found an absolutely MASSIVE (for a non-kosher market) kosher section

Ochre: a restaurant with a taste for native Australian flavors, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Located along the boardwalk in Cairns is a MUST TRY gourmet restaurant of the sort you’d THINK would be easy to find in Australia (especially in tourist heavy locations like Downtown Sydney or Bondi Beach), but which really is NOT; namely, eateries whose chefs promote flavors that are UNIQUE to the continent of Australia; places that offer A fusion of native ingredients used by Aboriginals before the European invasion and modern gourmet cooking.  Ochre is just such a restaurant.

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Currently I’m in Sydney, and I have friends coming from Korea, and I’ve been searching, and SEARCHING (for DAYS!!!!) trying and trying to find a chef’s pallet of local flavors that comes anywhere NEAR what’s on offer at Ochre, so that my friends can have the same experience… and I have been failing HORRIBLY… I’ve even reached out to locals and  … SHOCKINGLY the animal does NOT exist is Sydney!!!

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I’m serious! You can find places serving Kangaroo, crocodile and Moreton bay bugs (which are NOT worth the price in my opinion), but that would be about it. There’s a handful of places that offer up maybe ONE dish with a native ingredient flare to it…
but I couldn’t find anyplace with Wallaby and even Davidson Plum and lemon myrtle were rare, and salt bush was only available at this one gimmick chain-restaurant steak place (not all that different from American owned, based in Florida, but Aussie themed Outback Steakhouse). hXvhAh7oTJagcuH8zFkYWA_thumb_c257.jpg

None had a menu anything like what’s listed above — where every item with a (sort of multicolored) stamp next to it (which included ALL the deserts) … i.e., almost half the menu… is a dish that stars, or utilizes native flavors.

Personally, nothing makes me happier than trying foods and flavors I’ve never had before. When I realized a place with THIS many native ingredients existed that played starring roles in the dishes…. I was really looking forward to trying it … Only to learn that not surprisingly, it’s won all sorts of culinary awards.

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My friend (the vegetarian) for his appetizer had a Wattle Seed Damper loaf (a traditional Aussie bread) with an Aussie variation of the Egyptian dukka that made with pepperleaf (actually any of three different plants) and lemon myrtle, in macadamia oil for his starter — and yes the Macadamia which I always thought was a Hawaiian thing is actually native to Australia. I tried it just to have a taste, and it was rustic, but quite good.

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For his main dish he had a Quinoa, roast beetroot and macadamia salad with fennel, orange, pickled muntries and tom burratta (a kind of Italian cheese)… which we both agreed was VERY good … 

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I had a Wallaby fillet (looks exactly like a Kangaroo, but is at least half the size) with an Argentinian influenced Chimichurri (which tasted more like a sort of sweet chutney) — that I think was made of something local… served on a salad of puffed amaranth, green tomatoes and topped with sprigs of salt bush (it’s the green thing on top of the meat… and it tasted salty)… the Wallaby I’m sorry to say had a very odd flavor that I didn’t much like, and while it was supposed to be much more tender than Kangaroo, it was in my mind just as chewy… The Chimichurri they served with it hid the flavor nicely, and combined (which I think is the intent) the merged flavors was better than either alone …. and the salad combo it was sitting on was VERY nice.

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For dessert we shared a Davidson Plum Mousse with macadamia Pacoca (normally a a candy made out of ground peanuts, sugar and salt), which was served with a lemon myrtle and coconut ice cream…. It arrived looking like three small cherries with springs of mint on top and some sort of white flower that I’m still not sure what it was — COULD be sprigs of Lemon myrtle but I’m guessing.  The mousse was REALLY REALLY good. The outside was a sort of gelatin (bright red) and it was filled with a more pinkish, tart and fruity, just sweet enough to take the bite off mousse.

I REALLY wish these guys had branch in Sydney… or SOMEONE else would open something similar.

Goodies Cafe – the good food store!, Mossman, Queensland

A local fixture since 1988, Goodies Cafe in Mossman Queensland is an unassuming but great place to stop for a healthy affordable lunch. Catering mostly to the morning and afternoon crowds, the cafe is closed on Sundays, and opens at 5:30 am every other day… with a closing time of 4:30 for every day except for Saturday, when it closes at 1pm.

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Americans beware, MOST cafe’s in Australia keep just these sorts of hours… I have no idea why. In fact, finding a coffee place that’s open in the evenings can be something of a challenge in small towns. Also, there seems to be a belief that bread must have butter on it, even if you’re putting something else like humus or tahini on it… so be prepared to tell them, “no butter” if you don’t want it.

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Also, when Australian cafe’s say pie, they don’t mean apple or cherry… they been Australian pies, which are more like our pot pie’s or the Cornish pasty… only meant to be eaten with your hands

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That said, I was actually a bit impressed with this place.

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They offer a really flexible, healthy menu,

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where you can choose from their offerings,

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or design your own wraps and sandwiches from available ingredients.

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As a result, no matter what your dietary needs, odds are you can probably get a really tasty fresh meal from here.

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I ordered a chicken sandwich on whole grain bread with sprouts, beetroot, cucumber and tahini…. unfortunately … and I didn’t realize this till after when my friend told me, Australians automatically put butter… so my bread had butter on it.

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My travel buddy, the vegetarian… ordered an avocado/cheese toast and smoothie, and we were both VERY happy with our meals.

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