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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!”
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…
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
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.
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…
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.
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)
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.
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).
The resultant side dish was heavy on the cream but tasty … and the fish is good
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
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.
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….
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.
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!!).
[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.]
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.
Peter Jackson chose to build his HobbitShire 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.
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).
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2015. Tours 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 construction
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
There 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.
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”
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 …
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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!!!
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.
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
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!
Built in 1935 (and on the National Register of Historic Places), the Ariston Cafe located on Route 66 in Litchfield, Illinois is the longest continuously running cafe along the route’s whole stretch. So I planned my trip so as to include a meal here.
According to Wikipedia, with the exception of having added a banquet room and a few other minor tweaks, the interior of the Cafe has not been altered substantially since it first opened. In most other locations would be a bad thing, but on Route 66, it’s a selling point.
As restaurants go it has a highly confused menu; they have: Mexican, Greek, Deli, classic American, Southern, Italian, Steak, and Seafood … with 7 different kinds of fish — where most places would do one or two
but I guess if you’re a restaurant in a small town you sort of have to be all things to all people. That said, they also have an all you can eat soup and salad bar which had some tasty stuff on it… even if it is kind of seriously old-fashioned.
I asked the waitress what the difference was between the pond and fillet catfish dishes. The pond catfish is two big catfish served on the bone for $15, while the fillet is one catfish filleted for $14… as two would have been too much food me, I got the fillet… but if I lived nearby I’d have ordered the pond for $15 and taken home leftovers.
That said, the Catfish was rubbery and had a funny after taste …which I think the chef was trying to hide with all the spices. But with seven different kinds of fish, unless fish is VERY popular in this town, I don’t see how they can be serving anything remotely close to fresh.
There was a large selection of HUGE slabs of various kinds of cake… but passed. When the owner noted that I was keeping notes about meal, posting to social media, etc., he came over and gave me two postcards and a refrigerator magnet.
The Hoito is an unimpressive looking but historically important Finnish restaurant located in Thunder Bay Ontario Canada.
It drew my attention both as being one of the highest ranked restaurants in Thunder Bay on all the customer review websites (pulling four or five stars at each), but also because FINNISH food!!! Seriously how often do see that being offered up.
My airbnb host asked where I was intending to go for my meal and when I said “that Finnish place, the Hoito”, he said, “Good choice, I love that place.”
After I arriving there I discovered the Hoito is historically important restaurant, established in 1918 (Wikipedia). Founded by loggers over 100 years ago, and running continuously since then, the restaurant is co-operative and is so deeply embedded in the labor movement that it is considered to be socialist.
Regular customers buy membership cards that allow them to vote at the Finnish Labor Temple located directly above the restaurant, and until the 1970’s customers could buy meal tickets too, if they ate here regularly, and the food was served on long communal tables. This restaurant was even written about in the New York Times.
I had suolakala (pronounced soo-la-ka-la) which is described as a salted fish sandwich — open-faced. It’s a bit like gravlox, in that it’s cured salmon… only it’s not smoked. Thing is I eat lox sandwiches almost daily so…
— I HAD wanted kalakeitto (a salmon soup) but they have run out. They also gave me a single Finnish meatball (to try) … because I refused the suggestion to order it as it definitely is NOT on my diet
The Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant is located on the Trans-Canadian Highway, Route 1, in Michipicoten, Ontario Canada, and based on the reviews is hands down the best restaurant in the area, if you don’t include chains…
I was staying up the road and according to Yelp, this was the best restaurant in the area where I had a decent chance of getting a healthy meal… and there was BISON on the menu!!!! Love me my bison.
My first impression was this restaurant couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to be. Take a look at the menu offerings… at best they seem to want to be all things to all people… There’s German, Polish, Italian, American, Chinese, Caribbean, and lord only knows what offered on the menu
Unfortunately, not only were they out of the Bison, according to the waitress they’d not had it in a while and she wasn’t sure why it was still on the menu… grrrrrr….
The tomato soup was offered to everybody as free with our dinner — mostly I think because it was a full hour wait between when I ordered and when they brought me my food. I talked to some locals and they said this is normal at that restaurant, so if you know this about your chef, if DON’T at least dull the customer’s hunger with some free soup, odds are you won’t have many.
So my dinner, because there was no bison, was the grilled trout– The fish was supposed to come with dill potatoes and some other stuff I couldn’t eat, but they modified it to meet my needs. That said, the food was very good… but clearly the chef has no idea how to cook quickly. So it’s a good thing he hasn’t much competition in the area.
Because the wait was SO long… I asked them if I could wander around their patio and garden while the food was being made, and could they come out and get me….
While they do have a beautiful view and garden — what they did not have was any Wi-Fi … which is particularly egregious as there isn’t any 3G or anything in this town. So all in all, its supposed to be the best place in town, but be ready for a VERY long wait
Route 66 has two endpoints: one is in downtown Chicago, which many people think of as ‘the start’ of the route (because of the order in the “get your kicks on Route 66”, song), while the other is (currently) at the Santa Monica Pier, just west of Downtown Los Angeles, which is where I started my trip. In Chicago route 66 is a little complicated as it exists on two one way streets, Adams, which travels west, and Jackson, which travels east. SINCE most people take 66 going west, that’s where you’ll find most of the signs…
Because Chicago is home and I’ve pretty much walked or driven most of these roads at one time or another without realizing they ARE 66, I have to admit that once I did, I opted to fudge it a bit once I passed Dell Rheas’s Chicken basket in Willowbrook IL (a town I’ve only ever passed by while driving on I-55) and felt that I had for all intents and purposes I had finished the route on the 24th of October. (I admit this is largely because I knew the neighborhoods I would be passing through… knew most of them to HIGHLY unsafe ones with nasty traffic. When I go downtown I stick to safe routes and park my car in safe areas.)
So for instance, the above are some photos of me in 2001 having dinner with friends at what was then arguably the best Greek Restaurant in Chicago’s GreekTown (on Halstead between Adams and Jackson … i.e., 66) the now closed Roditites Greek Restaurant, which used to be one of my favorite go to’s (it was open for 45 years). (All of the old Greektown classic restaurants seem to be closing, I think the children weren’t interested in taking over the businesses)but on the 31st of October I had business I had to deal with downtown, and as such took the opportunity to finish my 66 trek (only this time on foot, cause driving into the city is NUTS). I was staying at my friend’s home in Northbrook, and took the Metra Train from North Glenview station to Union Station, which is also located between Adams and Jackson (again, both are Route 66, it just depends on which direction you’re going) with exits to either street. Ironically, I have only ever been in this station once before. The Metra train line adjacent to my parents home went to a different station, the Ogilvie Center, a few blocks north. Unlike that station, which only services local lines, this station is where you go in Chicago if you’re taking an Amtrak line. As such, the only other time I was ever here was when I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco back when I was in my late 20’s.The odds are you’ve seen this station before, even if you’ve never been to Chicago, as it’s been used more than few times in movies. The list includes Public Enemies (with Jonny Depp), My Best Friend’s Wedding (with Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett), Man of Steel (one of the Superman movies), Derailed, and most prominently in the movie The Untouchables, about Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) … with a scene steeling Oscar worthy supporting performance from Sean Connery… which had a LOT of Chicago locations in it.
From the station I went straight to my 11am appointment, and then double backed to have lunch at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant & Bakery (click link for my blog post about it), which is located a half block west of Union Station, and is probably the only historic Route 66 eatery to be in the Michelin guide. After lunch I walked back east, along Adams (Route 66 west bound) past Union station and to the Chicago River which forms the station’s eastern boundary.
If you ever come to Chicago I strongly suggest taking one of our Water Taxi’s from Union Station (i.e, Route 66) to Navy Pier (the Orange line on the map above) which travels to where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan… that said I’m about to go a bit off topic, but really… you have GOT to try the water Taxis
While at Navy pier, before switching to the next Taxi, you might want to go up on the Ferris Wheel (which is sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel, as it actually served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side) which offers some great views of the city
but then make sure to take the Water Taxi that travels from the pier via Lake Michigan to Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, even if you don’t want to go to the Museums.
The skyscraper on the left is the Big Willy (see below), the one in the middle is the Standard Oil building — no self-respecting Chicagoan refers to it as the Aon center and if you asked them where the Aon center was I doubt they’d know, and one to the right is the John Hancock (where I used to work back when I was in my 20’s)….. again, NO ONE calls it 875 North Michigan Avenue. Apparently the John Hancock building, the corporate headquarters for the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co, at around 2013 ceased to be their headquarters, and just a few months ago the name got changed to its address. The pics above were from when I did this back in 2013 when my friend, who I knew from when I was teaching in S. Korea, came to visit during a summer break.
But I digress… returning to Route 66….
From there I continued my trek down Adams (the west bound 66). The above picture is looking west down the street, across the bridge I had just passed over… and, the ‘small’ white building just above the black van is Union station.
Again, this photo is looking west. The sky scraper in the distance is the same one shown in the picture from the Water Taxi. Which I referred to as “The big Willy.” It was originally called the Sears Tower (my best friend from high-school has worked there for almost 15 years), and when first built in 1973 (I remember it going up) it was the tallest building in the world. But Sears then sold it to Willis Insurance in 2009, who renamed it as The Willis Tower. Many Chicagoans to this day absolutely refuse to use that name, but I, personally, LOVE IT… because it allows me to call it “the big Willy” (Willy being a British slang word for penis) and just how great is that?! The GORGEOUS historic building in the foreground of the picture is the SIDE entrance (if you can believe it) of the Rookery Building, which designed by deeply important architectural firm of Burnham and Root in 1888. If you have ever read the best-selling novel The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, about the Chicago world’s fair, you know who they are. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but the lobby was design by Frank Loyd Wright. If you’re an architecture enthusiast you will LOVE Chicago.
Another thing Chicago is famous for, one of which is visible on Route 66, is our collection of public art. The above is Alexander Calder‘s Flamingo (sculpture). I remember when it was first unveiled in 1974, none of us could make heads or tails of what it was… but it’s pretty.
After this I pit stopped off at the historic Berghoff Restaurant (click the link for a fully review of the place) for a mug of their root beer (they brew it themselves). For some reason this iconic German restaurant which is a landmark of downtown Chicago, its been there since 1898… is NOT in the Michelin guide… shrug?… I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the image above, and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. If you love German food, EAT HERE, this place has been rocking my socks off my whole life… if you don’t… at least try the root beer and look around, the interior is just amazing to look at and reeks of Chicago history (photos and murals of Chicago Exposition line the walls)
AND THIS is also a route 66 establishment — and I never realized it was that until this trip. Did I mention I have been eaten here my whole life.
If you look carefully at the building, you’ll see how the sign above… which I’ve never seen before, and keep in mind the roman looking building is Art Institute of Chicago, were I went to school for four years….. and this one below are on either end of the same city block…
The Berghoff Restaurant is a MUST visit traditional German restaurant in downtown Chicago, which is also one of the city’s landmarks. First opened in 1898 by Herman Joseph Berghoff, a recent immigrant from Germany, this restaurant has been run by successive generations of the founding family until it first closed 2006. Unrecognized by the family, the restaurant was so iconic to Chicago residents that its closing created something of major scandal, with outcries of horror and loss so resounding and vociferous that one of the great-grandchildren of the founders, who had not wanted to run it, changed her mind and reopened it shortly there after.
In 2016 that same great-granddaughter (who REALLY had not wanted to run) sold it to her brother, but other than laying off the entire staff and only rehiring the ones who were NOT cantankerous old farts (I will say service has improved MARKEDLY since they did it) nothing has really changed.
They have essentially kept the menu full of its old artery clogging classics, but have added some new newer, healthier options (when people ask me what German food is like I describe it thus, “meat, meat, meat… more meat, a bit more meat… and something white on the side.”). So if you look at the images below it is photos from two different visits one in 2013, with a friend visiting from China, and the other with a one I’ve known my whole life (I actually just went to the Shiva for her mother in law last night) where we got healthy food.
I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the very first image of this post (see above), and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of what is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. Every time my mom took me there, that visit was almost always followed up by a meal the Berghoff.
This time, like EVERY other, I got a mug of their Root-beer. I LOVE their root beer, it has a licorice taste to it which you don’t normally find in root beers. That said, during this last visit I noted they were installing a microbrewery INSIDE the restaurant. This place has ALWAYS had their own brew, but I guess having the huge brewing vat sitting in your place makes you a bit trendier (and hopefully more profitable) … but again, no substantial changes.
All through the restaurant are murals and photographs of the Chicago world’s fair, including this one bottom left of the ORIGINAL Ferris Wheel (sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel), which served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, i.e., the Chicago world’s fair, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side. In its honor Chicago has opened up one on Navy Pier by the lake, which offers some great views of the city
One thing that I had never realized and this is one of my favorite places to go to where I have eaten at my whole life… is that the Adams street, where the Berghoff is located, is also one of the end points for Route 66… who knew?
Per the suggestion of a friend, and one of those “places you need to check out on Route 66 lists” I stopped for a meal at the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Not only is the Cafe original to the 66 experience (the place has been there since 1939, and used to be a Grey Hound Bus stop), but when the Pixar folks were doing their Route 66 road trip as research for the animated movie Cars, they came here, and so fell in love with the place’s owner, Dawn Welch, a Route 66 restoration activist who had moved to Stroud and bought the restaurant in large part to help resurrect the town… that they based one of the main characters for the movie on her; namely, the animated character Sally Carrera (shown as a blue, 2002 Porsche 911) the owner of the Cozy Cone Motel, who serves both as the love interest of/and protagonist against Lightning McQueen, was based almost entirely on .
I found YouTube video by her, where you a taste of what the Pixar folks saw
That said, she wasn’t there the day I visited, and odds are you won’t meet her either… so lets talk about the restaurant she owns.
I found the menu of the Rock Cafe to be far more upmarket/chef driven than I would have expected based on most of the other historic eateries in town (and more than a few of the dishes made me wonder about the German Heritage of Stroud)
Of course anyone know knows me well knows which of the items on this menu I went for (although I admit the Jagersnitzel & Spaetzle with cheese were calling to me)…. but I opted for food more in line with my dietary restrictions (low fat)
The Buffalo burger was ok. The meat patty was thin and crunchy rather than thick and juicy, and the amount of mustard they put on completely overwhelmed the flavor of the meat (which should have been the star of the dish). But it had a good bun…
After eating I checked out the gift shop and IF they had offered this T-shirt on a more feminine cut shirt (a V neck or a scoop neck) I would have purchased it…. but they didn’t.
It’s the Sally Carrera character that’s based on the Rock Cafe’s owner, in front of the cafe and a route 66 sign. (I’ve emailed the owner and she’s agreed she needs some women’s versions, hopefully she’ll get back to me when she has one and I’ll buy it on-line).
These two shopping areas, The Grove at Farmers Market & The Original LA Farmers Market are directly adjacent to each other, are built on what was initially one property, are radically different from each other and still, should be done as one visit. The Grove is a VERY upscale open-air shopping mall that is frequented by locals, and out-of-town tourist flock to in hopes of seeing movie stars. The Farmers Market, by comparison is a historic landmark, is a far more down-market, mostly indoor facility where the locals go to buy fresh produce and to grab very tasty but affordable meals from over 100 small vendors … that also sells a lot of affordable tourist stuff (T-shirts, mugs, etc).Anyone who watches TMZ is familiar with The Grove; it is supposedly frequented by Actors and stars; and as such, it’s just a major draw for tourists hoping to run into said stars. According to a friend of mine who is movie star adjacent (he grew up in Beverly Hills and has worked in the film industry his whole life, not an actor) they in actuality NEVER shop there… with the caveat that if they do, they’ll usually call the photographers before they get there to let them know they’re coming. Usually they have a project about to be released that needs press, or their marriage is rumored to be in trouble so it’ll be a “happy family” outing, etc. My friend went so far as say that the mall has a sort of copacetic (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) relationship with said actors, singers, etc., to make sure that they choose The Grove as the location for said ‘upstaged out-on-the-town ‘ photos. And it’s “outdoor” venue is highly useful in that respect.
[I have to admit, I watch TMZ live regularly, as in almost every night. I load their pod cast, put it next to my pillow; I don’t usually really listen to it closely, so much as it lulls me to sleep. Occasionally it holds my attention and is genuinely interesting and informative, but more often than not — on the days when there’s no real “news” of any note, they’ll start with something about the Kardashians or Kanye West and I’m out like a light. So, that said, I was a bit excited to see it. (AND, my cousin lives walking distance from it so it was it was walking distance from the Airbnb I rented in order to be near her.)]
But, now that I’m here, I don’t get what the big deal is…
it’s an outdoor mall, a bit like Old Orchard in Skokie, near where I grew up… maybe a bit nicer/newer.. but similar… although a bit more upmarket… unlike the Grove, Old Orchard does NOT have its own trolley that runs INSIDE the mall area
Among the stores was this desert place called Dominique Ansel Bakery that was kind of to die for from the looks of it. It makes all sorts of very fancy looking deserts and ice cream concoctions that look like other kinds of food.
I got the water melon thing, which was made with a non-dairy ice-cream… but in retrospect I wish I’d gotten the avocado sandwich, because the other than the little chocolate seeds and the actual hollowed out melon, it was a major let down. (The non-dairy ice-cream kind of seriously sucked. It didn’t taste good, nor did it taste like watermelon… I ended up dumping it into the trash and just eating the fruit and the chocolate)
—OK then, I had to go to the bathroom and discovered it is the NICEST mall bathroom I have ever seen, it is far more like a 4-star hotel’s bathroom.
… and after that, as I was standing at the roundabout where you’re supposed to get picked up by “Taxi”‘s (including Uber and Lyft), the valet guy offered me two bottles of water one for myself and one for the cab driver… (this is NOT a level of service I’ve ever encountered at a mall before) …so, that said, I think I’ve discovered what the big deal is
The Farmer’s market was (with the exception of the Grove’s bathroom) far more my speed. I went there one night on my own, and discovered it has a music scene
The night that I was there (a week night) a game of trivia was being hosted
There were SO many tasty choices… I could eat here over and over and go months before I had to repeat a dish.
But I found this Afghan/Middle eastern place called Moishe’s — known by most for their Falafel, but they were also selling one of my favorite things, so I bought it, and it was good… I got a doughnut at Bob’s for desert, as they were described as baked and not fried (it was too bready/cakey for my taste).
and then my cousin and her spouse brought me here for dinner. They’re vegetarians, so they got the Falafel from the vender I had eaten at the night before, and I opted for this seafood place which I discovered puts all the food that’s already out in their case for sale at half price starting at 7pm on weekdays. I got a very large lox and bagel sandwich — tasted like they were using Costco purchased lox and bagels, but I love that stuff. Afterwards we got ice-cream from Bennet’s, which they promised me was handmade. I got one of those cones dipped in chocolate and topped with nuts. It was very good.
Like I said my cousin lives nearby, and she and her wife come here to eat regularly and buy produce — which she did again that night.
I’ve only been in this town for two days and I already don’t like it. [Postscript… if you can only stay at one, spend a few days in Williams, AZ, rather than this dump of a town]
Firstly, the Airbnb owner who I had initially booked with had double booked the room — apparently she was advertising it on multiple sites and got confused — and was trying to manipulate ME into cancelling the reservation. In airbnb the person who cancels using the web site, is the person who pays their fee, so sketchy. THEN she expressly tried to trick me into NOT doing was calling them, saying she’d already spoken with them and it wasn’t necessary … which of course I called bullshit on… and call them is what I did. She knew (and I knew) that once they read the emails they would set the cancellation as though SHE had done it even if I initiated the phone call, so not only was she going to have pay their fee for using their site, but as a hostess, she was going to loose a lot of points in their “trustworthy” rankings. IF she’d done it herself, she’d have lost them anyway (unless she lied and said a death in the family or some such) plus the fee. So, I called them and explained the situation in full, they cancelled it and gave me a full refund. [Now one person is not a town, but unfortunately, this did ultimately prove to be the “culture” of the town… to my experience.]
Her home was in the historic section of town, which is where I wanted to be. All other rentals were in the new parts … and if I was going to be there I’d rather be in a hotel since there are SO many of them in this town that rooms here are well within my budget (A quick look on google found about 120 motels/hotels in 34 square miles, with the next largest employer being the hospital… I think its safe to say that tourism is their main industry). I opted for Ramada.
That said, no one comes to Kingman to see Kingman. Kingman is on I-40, Route 66, and its a about a two hour drive from here to either the west ridge of the Grand Canyon and/or the Hoover Dam (… so it’s a good base location for short stays while seeing other things.
When I got here, my hotel room had no wifi… it turns out that whole side of the structure has no wifi and they’ve known about it for a while and haven’t bothered to fix it. What killed me was how nasty the staff was to me about it. Orlando has a lot to teach Kingman about customer service when your whole economy depends on on it.
Oh, and I’ve decided that REALLY there’s no reason to stay in downtown Kingman or even on route 66 (which is where my hotel is). The hotels in the other side of town are cheaper, newer, and most likely nicer… and the food there is better… although still not good.
That said, I tried FOUR different locally owned restaurants only to be DEEPLY disappointed. I even tried the steak house on 66 .. my fish smelled bad and tasted off. The Chinese couple at the next table were clearly really unhappy with their steaks, as in DEEPLY unhappy.
The sad fact is that in this town … with the exception of Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner which not only came highly rated on every site I looked at, but I noticed it was full of the local high-school kids on their high-school’s homecoming night … but that didn’t have one healthy thing on it’s menu (it really is all about the burgers, fries and milk shakes)
…. you really are better off eating at any of the plethora of national chain restaurants in town.
I even tried the Garlic Clove, which is supposed to be one of the better Italian mom and pops in town, and having done so, I seriously question if ANYTHING they serve isn’t frozen, or from a can. That and I had the WORST case of gas and acid reflux afterwards.
OK, I found someplace NOT horrible. It’s totally out of the tourist area. It’s past the hospital and out by the car dealership (I have a feeling it’s the affluent part of town)… it’s called the Kingman Chophouse (king of steak). I got a baked not fried crab cake, a bowl of bean medley soup and a baked sweat potato… and everything tasted just fine.