News and Tips from the 2018 New York Times Travel Show, Part One

I’ve just visited the 2018 New York Times Travel Show: a review of information, tips, and trends for travel in 2018.

I spent my weekend at The New York Times Travel Show — which was celebrating its 15th anniversary. This was my second visit to the NYT show; I attend to listen to and to network with top travel bloggers, PR professionals, and other people in the travel industry, and to learn more about trends in travel.

New York Times Travel Show exhibit: Getting a hug from Soohorang, the mascot of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, is a white tiger -- the guardian animal of South Korea.
Getting a hug from Soohorang, the mascot of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, is a white tiger — the guardian animal of South Korea.

The show lasts three days: Friday is always industry only, but as a travel blogger, it is my industry now 🙂 . Then Friday and Saturday are for the general public: the trade show with more that 560 exhibitors and 170 countries represented, seminars, book signings, and cultural presentations of dance, music, and food.

I’ll be sharing some of the things I learned in a two-part series, since there is so much information, a single article simply won’t hold it all!

The Frugal Traveler with Lucas Peterson

Lucas Peterson writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times — giving tips for traveling on a tight budget. He arrived late for his session, with a funny story about relying on public transportation in New York.

Peterson is an entertaining and humorous speaker, and the 45 minutes we did have with him was well worth the time.

Lucas Peterson, who writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Lucas Peterson, who writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

“I am the Frugal Traveler, not the Luxurious Traveler. But — It’s not about a race to the bottom! I’m not looking to find the worst hostel in Paraguay to sleep on a dirt floor and be miserable. It’s about getting the best experience possible for the least amount of money.”

He went on to say that frugal travel frequently gives travelers more rewarding experiences. Americans often use “money like a body guard.” While it may insulate you from bad experiences, it also insulates you from the culture and the opportunity to have authentic interactions in the country.

When you are trying to save money on a trip, lodging is the big key — prices vary greatly, experiences vary greatly. The Internet has democratized getting the best airfare out there, so the place you stand to save the most money is with where you choose to stay.

Where does Peterson stay? A combination of hotels, Airbnb rooms, and the occasional hostel — though fewer of those than in the past.

On the subject of hostels, Peterson said, “I don’t do the bunk bed thing where there are six to ten people in a single room. What I like to do is to get a private room. These are often only $18-$20 a night.” You get privacy, but you also get access to the common room where you have an opportunity to meet other travelers.

Airbnb? Peterson said that many of the complaints about the company are justified — because “it wrecks the rental market in some cities because many owners aren’t doing it the way it was intended.” This happens when companies buy up whole sets of homes and apartments and run a rental business, rather than it being an owner leasing their own apartment, or a room in their home. When Peterson does Airbnb, he likes to rent a room in a house, which ensures he isn’t supporting the kind of behavior he described. He particularly loves renting rooms from retired couples because they have more time to spend with him, and they often show him around their city or town.

Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building
Trend: with foreign travel to the USA down by more than 4%, travel in the US should be a good deal in 2018. Photo by Brian Sugden on Unsplash

Travel Trends

What does Peterson see as the biggest travel trends? Travel today is all about experiences: cooking classes in someone’s home; learning to surf with a professional in Malibu. Experiential travel has been trending strongly over the last few years, and he only sees it becoming a stronger part of the travel market. Peterson’s favorite sites to find experiences:

The other big trend Peterson discussed: overseas travel to the United States is down by more than 4% over this last year. Regardless of what your politics are, Peterson said, Trump’s policies on immigration have had an impact on how other nations view the U.S. in its friendliness is towards foreign visitors.

The upside for American travelers? Travel in our country should be a good deal in 2018, so if you are brainstorming where you might like to travel, consider things like our own National Parks, or a trip to one of our amazing cities, like NYC.

Biggest Travel Myths

Myth One: “There is secret to getting upgraded on a flight. Every click-bait article that says there is, well, there isn’t. It’s not that it never happens, and you can always ask for an upgrade, and hey — you might get upgraded from Cattle Car to Cattle Car Plus, but there is no secret method. You get it by having status with your airline.”

Free upgrades happen less than ever before, and when they do happen, it’s generally to elite members of their loyalty programs. New Flash: Airlines don’t like to give things away.

Peterson quoted stats from Delta saying that the company used to sell only 14% of first class seats just a few years ago, while it now sells almost 70% of them. Often this happens when they offer to sell those seats to passengers who booked the main cabin — perhaps in an email, or as the person is checking in online. Tip: you can often purchase an upgrade at this point for less than if you bought that Premium Economy or First Class at the outset.

Delta flight leaves Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Photograph, iStock Photos.
Delta flight leaves Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Photograph, iStock Photos.

Myth Two: “If you buy your ticket at 4:38 in the morning during a full moon, it’s going to be magically less . . . .  No. No, it’s not true. It doesn’t matter when you buy your ticket, but it does make a difference which days you  choose to travel.” Know the high season, low season, and shoulder season. The key to getting the best price is being flexible (Note, Pauline Frommer contradicted this in her talk the second day of the show — will report her findings in the next article in this series on the NYT Travel Show).

Lucas’s favorite sites to search for airfares are listed below, and of course he recommends setting alerts on these sites so you know when a flight price drops:

One of my favorite things that Peterson said in his seminar: If you have even a modest disposable income right now, you can afford to travel.

He gave an example of a friend who he was trying to get to go with him on a trip. “Oh, I just don’t have any money for that,” she said. He pointed at the sunglasses perched on top of her head . . . “How much did those cost?” — $300.

It’s a priority. What do you want to spend your money on?

Peterson talked generally about OTA’s (online travel agent sites, like Expedia). While you may think there are many competitors, there aren’t. Expedia owns: Travelocity, Orbitz, Trivago, Home Away, VRBO, Hotels.com, Hotwire, and Egencia. Priceline owns: Booking.com, Kayak, Agoda, CheapFlights, Rentalcars.com, Momondo, and Open Table. Trip Advisor owns: Airfarewatchdog, Booking Buddy, Viator, Holiday Watchdog, Jetsetter, and GateGuru.

Peterson’s top reasons to use OTA’s:

  • easy-to-use interface,
  • one stop shopping,
  • the ability to shop across multiple airlines and hotel chains with only one log-in and password
  • reward systems with points that you can use at many hotel brands

His top reasons to avoid OTA’s:

Peterson ended his talk pretty quickly as he ran out of time, since he’s gotten a late start. His final points had to do with credit cards, but I didn’t see any new or interesting information here. I find the Points Guy to be the most knowledgeable source for comparing cards, points, and a person’s travel needs and habits.

So — I leave you with an overview video from the NYT Trade Show hall:

 

Never heard of the New York Times Travel Show? It’s hit its fifteenth year, and I’ve learned so much both years I attended, that I’ll be back in 2019.

Wondering whether there are similar travel shows in your area? You might try the Travel Adventure Show Expos that take place in 8 different cities around the country, starting on February 10, 2018, and the last one finishes on March 17, 2018.

 

Darkest Hour: Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

A visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London: photographs and history of this famous underground complex where Winston Churchill directed the war.

Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph
Darkest Hour: The statue of Winston Churchill looks towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, iStock Photos.

You haven’t seen home in 3 days, and the thing is . . . you aren’t sure your home is actually still there. The bombing has been relentless for nights. One of the reports you read indicates one hit very, very close to your street.

Recently, you whole existence seems to be defined by a warren of passageways and rooms just a few feet below the ground. You’ve been awake for 18 hours now, and you’ll be spending another night in the dormitory here. The mad clatter of typing gets suddenly louder as someone opens a door.

The air, heavy with cigarette smoke, is stale in other ways that have become normal: a combination of food smells lingering from supper a couple of hours ago, and a tinge of the latrine that never seems to quite go away. But he’s here — you’re sure of it. There’s the unmistakable odor of a cigar somewhere close. And that always means the PM is nearby . . .

I visited the Churchill War Rooms when I was last in London. I had planned to write about the War Rooms later this spring, but after seeing Darkest Hour yesterday — I can think of little else. It immediately took me back to my exploration of the underground complex where the leaders of the British Government directed WWII.

It doesn’t take much to imagine yourself on staff and part of this extraordinary period in history.

The London Milkman, 1940
The London Milkman, 1940. The British government censored photographs of Luftwaffe bombing to prevent the Germans from knowing how the British countermeasures were working. This was a staged photograph, designed to say to both the British AND the Germans that English daily life continued — despite the best efforts of the Nazis to destroy their spirit.

Yes. We all think we understand how horrific the bombing of Britain was, but the gulf between an academic understanding, and a personal knowledge is vast. Look at the map below showing the sites of all the bombs dropped between October 7, 1940, and June 6, 1941.

Chilling, isn’t it?

There is something about the visual — all of those pins, all of those bombs, so thick at this zoom level that they all simply merge together in a massive red lump. The brilliance of this project is that on the Bomb Site Project, you can zoom in to the detail of each, single bomb strike, street by street, and bring up information and pictures.

Map from the Bomb Sight Project
“The Bomb Sight project is mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.” — from the Bomb Sight Project

As the 1930’s progressed and the situation in Europe deteriorated, many in the British government thought that having an alternative meeting site, protected from potential bombing, was imperative. But indeed, with budget cuts and a habit of continually putting the project off, there nearly wasn’t an underground war room. While the idea had been under discussion for some years, going back to 1933 when Hitler left the League of Nations, nothing had been done.

On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria to force its incorporation into the Nazi state. At this time, the British government “planned” to include an underground war room in the basement of a building that was to be constructed and completed in, perhaps,  four years time.

On March 16, 1938, Colonel Hastings Ismay (Deputy Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence) felt sure hostilities were imminent, and there was no time to wait for new construction. He had available basement spaces surveyed, and by May 31, 1938, identified the basements under the New Public Offices (now the Treasury) on Great George Street as the ones best suited to their needs.

The intention was for this to be a temporary underground headquarters until something better could be built. Ismay assigned Brigadier Leslie Hollis to manage the conversion of the space into the central nervous system for a war-time government, and it was full steam ahead.

Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.
Hitler reviews troops in Prague after annexation of the Sudetenland.

In September 1938, as Hitler threatened to annex Czechoslovakia, Ismay rushed into outfitting a ventilation system and reinforcing the ceilings of the basement rooms.

Then came the Munich Agreement: on September 30, 1938, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy reached an agreement that permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.

While this agreement did little else beneficial, it bought time for the War Room project to be improved to the point it could actually be used. It took much of 1939 to convert what Hollis called ‘the hole in the ground’ to the set of facilities we see today. The first test meeting held in the War Rooms came on October 21, 1939.

May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Just a few days later, he went down into the underground complex to look at the Cabinet Room. The moment was later described by Brigadier Leslie Hollis:

As he looked around the empty room, the poignancy if the moment touched him. No one could say what the news would be within the hour, whether or not England was even then under her first invasion in a thousand years. The little group stood for a moment in silence under the humming fans, each thinking his own thoughts, and then Mr. Churchill took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed at the homely wooden chair at the head of the table. ‘This is the room from which I’ll direct the war,’ he said slowly.

Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.
Winston Churchill in the Map Room, July 1945, with and Captain RP Pim next to him.

The Main Corridor

Main Corridor in the War Rooms in London
Main Corridor in the War Rooms.
Weather Indicator in the Churchill War Rooms letting people know what things were like above ground.
Weather Indicator letting people know what things were like above ground.

What’s the weather like outside? You certainly don’t know if you’ve been below ground for any length of time. Check your handy weather indicator sign to the left — Fine and Warm today! And that’s a good thing isn’t it? Did you know that if it says “Windy” that’s a euphemism for heavy bombing in progress!

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms
War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Cabinet Room

The War Cabinet met every day, sometimes twice a day, depending current circumstances.

“The morning meeting invariably starts with reports by the Services on the military situation, and by the Foreign Secretary on political developments.” — General Ismay

War Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms in London
Another view of the War Cabinet Room. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The Imperial War Museum chose to preserve the Cabinet Room the way it would have looked just before a meeting on October 15, 1940, when bombs had caused significant damage to 10 Downing Street the night before — an event that finally persuaded Churchill to meet regularly in the underground War Rooms.

Note the layout of the seating.

Churchill would have been seated in front of the map where his red dispatch box is, and the cabinet members in the other seats around the outside of the square.

The seats in the inside of the square? The hot seats, where heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force would sit directly across from the PM to be grilled.

How would you feel staring eyeball to eyeball with Winston Churchill?

Map Room

One week before the war began, the first team of officers took their seats in the Map Room. As the central nervous system of all war planning the Map Room was never empty. Shifts of staff worked round the clock for six years . . . until the war was over and the entire War Room complex closed and locked.

The Map Room looks as it did at the end of the war, reflecting Allied positions in the hours before Japan’s surrender.

The Map Room in the underground War Rooms in London
Churchill’s favorite room in the underground facility? The map room. Photograph, Ann Fisher

Churchill’s Room

Churchill's private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC.
Churchill’s private room in the underground complex. Across the room is his desk where he delivered several addresses to the nation on the BBC. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Just next to the map room, you’ll find Churchill’s private room. While he spent only a handful of nights in his underground bedroom, he regularly used the room as an office before or after meetings with the War Cabinet. Churchill also took a number of his famous afternoon naps here. Additionally, four of his BBC broadcasts were made from the desk in this room.

You’ll find photographs of more of the rooms in the underground complex below, including the Chiefs of Staff room, Mrs. Churchill’s bedroom, as well as the Churchill’s kitchen and dining room.

In the fall of 1940, Churchill discovered that the War Rooms were not strong enough to survive a direct hit from a bomb. On his orders, a concrete slab was built between the basement ceiling and the floor of the building above, and other sections of the War Rooms were filled with concrete to make them more bomb-resistant.

End of the War

On Tuesday, August 16, 1945, the doors to the War Rooms were closed. Even then, the British government recognized the extraordinary historic value of the space. According to Asbury’s book the Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, impromptu tours of the space were happening as early as 1946, even though there were still top secret documents present. These were removed in 1947.

In the 1970’s, as many as 5,000 people were touring the War Rooms each year. With growing concern about the conservation of the site and its contents, the IWM (Imperial War Museum) finally took steps to turn the space into a museum. On April 4, 1984, the Churchill War Rooms officially opened to the public.

Darkest Hour and the War Rooms

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).
Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Universal Pictures).

Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as Churchill has been roundly acclaimed by both historians and film critics. This is one of my favorite films of 2017, and is now on my list of best WWII films ever made.

Scenes from the film take place in Parliament, and 10 Downing Street of course, but nearly four weeks of filming happened in the War Rooms, which were painstakingly reproduced by designer Sarah Greenwood at Ealing Studios in London.

In an interview with Mental Floss magazine, Greenwood said, “I designed [the War Rooms set], drew up the rough plans and everything over a weekend, and when I showed it to Joe, he was just like—and this is very rare—he was like, ‘Yep, that’s great.’ There were very few changes that we made to that,” Greenwood says. “And I think that came from knowing what it was going to be like. Because we’d been to the real War Rooms, we knew what we were trying to capture.”

If you want to get a sense of Churchill in these spaces, the Darkest Hour is the perfect film to watch before a visit to the War Rooms.

Two thoughtful reviews of Darkest Hour are available here: RogerEbert.com and the review in The Atlantic.

Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.
Gary Oldman as Churchill in the Map Room.

Information for Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

How long should you spend at the Churchill War Rooms?

I would say, at minimum, plan for a visit of 90 minutes. For those with a great interest in WWII, you could easily spend half a day.

In addition to the War Rooms, your admission gets you into the Churchill Museum, an award winning interactive museum about the life and times of Winston Churchill. You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill Museum on your tour of the War Rooms. On my visit, due to time constraints, I focused on the War Rooms. For more information, visit the Churchill Museum information here.

If you do want to spend several hours here, the War Rooms has a Cafe that is quite good. They serve tarts, stews, a variety of salads, and sandwiches. Conveniently located partway through the War Room path, it’s a great place to rest and ready yourself for more time exploring.

Cost

Tickets to visit the Churchill War Rooms are priced two ways: purchased day of visit, most expensive £21 – Adult — (bought ahead online £18.90),  £10.50 – child, 5 – 15 — (bought ahead online£9.45), as of January 2018. There is family pricing that varies depending on the number of adults.

Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Statue of Winston Churchill facing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Photograph, Mohana Anton Meryl, iStock Photos.

Seeing the War Rooms for less money: If you are doing general sightseeing around London, consider buying a London Pass that gives entry t0 over 70 attractions, including the Churchill War Rooms. Also included is a one day hop-on hop-off bus pass.

You can buy the pass in 1 day up to 6 day lengths. The London Pass is sold by a number of vendors. I recommend reading about the pass on the official London Pass site and then compare prices at Viator (London Pass on Viator), where I found the best price. Viator also gives you the option of purchasing the London Pass in conjunction with an Oyster Card for travel on the red buses and London Underground.

As you compare prices, keep in mind that on the official site, prices are in British Pounds, so you’ll need to convert them to compare value.

Location

Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms, Clive Steps, London
Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 

You’ll find the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms at the bottom of the Clive Steps. See the map below for directions.

Other Tips for seeing the War Rooms

During the summer and other high-travel seasons, the Churchill War Rooms will be crowded. Very crowded. It’s a tight warren-like maze of hallways and rooms, and it’s a big tourist draw, so it simply makes sense to be there when they open.

If you are a World War II buff, then the Churchill War Rooms should be on your short list of places to visit in London. If your significant other and/or children aren’t interested, do yourself a favor. DITCH THEM.  Send them off to do something they like, then go get your Churchill on! All of you will be happy you did . . .


Interested in WWII Planes?

Onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress

Beautiful: The slow drone of four radial piston engines on a crystal clear November morning as I stepped back in time with this great warbird. This morning, I drove out to a small airport north of Houston for a bucket list experience.


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The 2018 Taiwan Lantern Festival

Every year in Taiwan, the first full moon of the Chinese New Year is celebrated with the extraordinary Lantern Festival. Learn about the 2018 Lantern Festival in Taiwan!

The Lantern Festival of Taiwan.
The Lantern Festival of Taiwan. Photograph courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Every year in Taiwan, the first full moon of the Chinese New Year is celebrated with the extraordinary Lantern Festival.

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau held the first Lantern Festival in 1990; it was designed to be an event to celebrate local folklore, and planned to coincide with the Ping Xi Sky Lantern festival and the Yanshuei Beehive Fireworks Festival.

The Lantern Festival has grown into an amazing national event in Taiwan. Originally held in the Chiang Chai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, it now moves to a different part of the country each year. Counties all over Taiwan compete for the honor to host the Lantern Festival.

In 2018, the Year of the Dog, the Taiwan Lantern Festival will be celebrated from March 2 through March 11 in Chiayi County. Ten days of scheduled events will bring tourism, culture, art, and technology together in a series of shows that rival some of the most magnificent anywhere in the world.

Taiwan Lantern Festival
The Taiwan Lantern Festival. Photograph courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

The Lantern Festival shows in Chiayi will be divided into “water,” “land,” and “air” zones.

The famous Sea of Clouds, along with sunrise, forest railways, and the Alishan cherry blossoms will be just of few of the themes depicted in the water zone. For those unfamiliar with Alishan and the Sea of Clouds this time lapse video below will give you a little glimpse into the extraordinary beauty of this phenomenon.

Each night, lantern shows focused on the “land” will be accompanied by professional dance performances, showcasing the history of Chiayi County while displaying traditional crafts created by local artists. Additionally, the “air” lantern shows will feature high-tech lanterns — made in innovative ways, showing new materials and techniques — creating something never before seen. This year’s Lantern Festival will be the very first technology inspired lantern festival. The combination of traditional culture and the artful incorporation of new technology will be central to the buzz about the 2018 Lantern Festival in Taiwan.

The Taiwan Lantern Festival.
The Taiwan Lantern Festival. Photograph courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Other Places to Celebrate the Lantern Festival

Ping Xi Sky Lantern Festival

Visitors can celebrate the Lantern Festival all over Taiwan, but about one hour’s drive from Taipei, there is a very special small village called Ping Xi that is famous for its sky lanterns.

Ping Xi stages a very special Sky Lantern Festival that coincides with the Lantern Festival. Sky lanterns were first used to send military information during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-265) and are considered to be the ancient precursor to hot air balloons.

On this special night during the Lantern Festival, thousands of sky lanterns are released, dotting the night sky with the glowing wishes for family and friends. It’s no wonder that National Geographic’s editors selected a visit to see Ping Xi’s sky lanterns as one of their Top Ten Winter Trips.

Ping Xi Sky Lantern Festival
Ping Xi Sky Lantern Festival. Photograph courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Tainan Yanshuei (Yanshui) Beehive Fireworks Festival

In 1885, at the height of a disastrous cholera epidemic, the panic-stricken citizens of Yanshuei prayed to Guan Di, the god of war to bring an end to the pestilence that was killing so many. And it was on the Lantern Evening General Zhou Cang paraded through the city, with Guan Di’s palanquin at the end of the entourage. The people of Yanshuei followed the palanquin, setting off firecrackers all along the way, continuing to wind their way through the city until dawn to show their devotion. The cholera broke, and the plague ended.

The tradition continues to this day, with palanquins parading around the city, symbolically armed. Thousands of citizens and visitors encircle the palanquins, walking with them, following them as they snake through the streets. There are small “gun walls” set up all over Yanshuei — they each hold thousands of rockets that are ignited at one time as a palanquin passes by — a massive bee-like sound that draws the crowds in excitement to “rush the beehive barricades.” The people of Yanshuei believe that this massive cleansing by fireworks washes away bad luck and helps improve fortune at the beginning of the new year.

Tainan Yanshuei (Yanshui) Beehive Fireworks Festival
Tainan Yanshuei (Yanshui) Beehive Fireworks Festival. Photograph courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Bombing of Master Han Dan in Taitung City

On the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese New Year, Taitung City celebrates with the annual inspection tour of Master Han Dan, a God of Wealth and guardian of the celestial treasury. It is believed that in life, Han Dan was an actual person called Zhao Gong-ming. His annual inspection tour of the human world is an occasion for throngs of people to celebrate as they pray for the god’s blessing and for good fortune in the New Year.

Bombing of Master Han Dan in Taitung City
Bombing of Master Han Dan in Taitung City. Photograph courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

On the day of Han Dan’s inspection tour, gods from many temples in Taitung and surrounding towns join the God of Wealth in a great procession. All along the parade’s route, people make offerings of fruit and fresh flowers, and light strings of firecrackers to welcome Master Han Dan. The actual person who plays Han Dan wears only a mask, a scarf, and a pair of red shorts. He must stand calmly in the middle of an ongoing blaze of firecrackers all around him, protected by a single leafy tree branch.

Why to the people throw firecrackers at Han Dan? The most commonly accepted tale is that Master Han Dan is the god of hooligans — and as people throw firecrackers, Han Dan’s power grows and grows from the loudness of all of the explosions. A second, less popular story says that Han Dan dislikes the cold, so people who throw firecrackers keep the god warm, thus winning his blessing.

The 2018 Lantern Festival in Taiwan — an extraordinary time to visit this exciting country

Official poster of the 2018 Taiwan Lantern Festival.
Official poster of the 2018 Taiwan Lantern Festival.

For More information about visiting Taiwan, visit the link below:

Taiwan Tourism official website

Taiwan Lantern Festival website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


This post was sponsored by Taiwan: the Heart of Asia.


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Fixe Restaurant – Southern Charm in Downtown Austin Texas

A 2018 review of Fixe restaurant in downtown Austin: Upscale and down-home — a hopping, somewhat noisy ambiance — like grandma’s back porch has been dressed up and adopted by the coolest city in Texas.

Fixe restaurant in downtown Austin: Upscale and down-home — a hopping, somewhat noisy ambiance — like grandma’s back porch has been dressed up and adopted by the coolest city in Texas.

Bar at Fixe restaurant in Austin Texas
Bar at Fixe restaurant. Reclaimed wood, tall leather chairs, and grandma’s plate collection on the wall in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Chef James Robert and co-owner Keith House opened Fixe in 2015, with the concept of transporting guests to home-cooked southern Sunday dinner. Chef Robert, a native of Opelousas, Louisiana, used family recipes as a starting point for his menu, but don’t expect simple Cajun soul food — either in terms of food OR price. The dishes are innovative and often surprising takes on traditional preparations.

My first visit to Fixe was in the fall of  2016 — while I was in town for the Austin City Limits Festival. After a great afternoon of music, my sister and her friend cleaned up and headed to Fixe for cocktails and dinner — one so memorable I asked to go back.

So here we are back on a warm December night — sisters and friends celebrating the end of 2017.

It’s as good as I remembered.

Barrel Aged Manhattan at Fixe restaurant in Austin Texas great craft cocktail with: Woodward Reserve, Carpano Antica, garnished with candied bacon and a dried cherry.
Barrel Aged Manhattan at Fixe: Woodward Reserve, Carpano Antica, garnished with candied bacon and a dried cherry. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Beet A-Rita cocktail at Fixe restaurant in downtown Austin
The Beet A-Rita: Milagro tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and pickled beet juice. Calvin says — not again.

Happy Hour at Fixe is a good deal — a selection of their hand-crafted cocktails at $7 instead of the usual $14. Of course, my favorite, the Barrel Aged Manhattan — isn’t offered on the Happy Hour menu 😦 .

From the Happy Hour selection: Calvin ordered the Beet A-Rita.  He rates it as good, but not outstanding — and would go with something else the next time around. Carolyn and Karolina both opted for wine — Fixe regularly features very good ones by the glass.

We ordered the smoked trout from the Happy Hour appetizer menu. After a very light lunch much earlier in the day, we were ready for something to go along with the cocktails. Smoked trout with buttermilk, trout roe, and fermented leeks crispy, topped with a togarashi-seasoned trout skin — outstanding. The crisp black chips made of Carolina rice and seeds paired well with the mild smoky flavor and creamy texture of the trout, with a few drops of the hot chili sauce to give it a kick.

Smoked trout dip at Fixe restaurant's bar in Austin Texas
So good! Smoked trout dip with crispy rice chips. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.
The central section of Fixe restaurant in Austin makes you feel like you're sitting outside on a screened porch.
The central section of Fixe makes you feel like you’re sitting outside on a screened porch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Once we finished our cocktails, we moved on to our table.

The central part of the dining room at Fixe is a framed space made to feel like a big wooden porch, with outdoor light strings running back and forth across the ceiling (see above). Seating in this area is a collection of different kinds of comfortable leather chairs and banquettes, and wooden tables are set simply, with no table cloths, in keeping with the casual theme.

There are private rooms along one side of the porch area, and these feel like you’re in the house looking out onto the porch. As you can see from the picture, you might be at Aunt Mildred’s dining room table — but it’s just family, and she hasn’t pulled out the formal linens. Creative design touches include a distressed wall, a collection of trays used as wall art, and a nouveau-industrial chandelier suspended from a formal plaster ceiling medallion.

Low pass table in the kitchen at Fixe.
Low pass table in the kitchen at Fixe. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Our table was near the kitchen, which is open — and watching the activity can be a great part of your dining experience at Fixe depending on the location of your table. From my seat, I had a good view.

I loved the design of the kitchen. The low pass tables feel more like a big island in a home kitchen than an industrial space — building on the feeling of being invited to someone’s house for Sunday dinner.

Fixe Biscuits — the restaurant is rightly famous for them, and the recipe is a secret!

One must-order at Fixe. The BISCUITS — which are perfect, and are always on the list of the best in Austin. Golden brown on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside — could not be better. They are made fresh to order, so put your order in the minute you sit down. The biscuits are served with seasonal preserves and a savory nduja (a spreadable spicy salami), but I think they’re much better with just butter.

Our server was highly competent and knowledgeable of both the menu and the wine list. He was funny but not obtrusive, and it’s obvious that Chef Robert does regular food and wine tastings with his staff so that all of them know what is coming out of the kitchen — almost as well as the line cooks and the chef.

We ordered the beef tartare as a starter for the table. This was wonderful, and unlike the tartare I’ve eaten anywhere else. The quality of beef is outstanding, and we cut the oysters into smaller pieces so that we could all make bites that combined all of the ingredients. The beef, accompanied by the acidity of the gooseberries, and a little texture variation from the crisp oyster — all wrapped in a tender cornmeal pancake — so good!

Beef Tartare served with two crispy fried oysters, pickled gooseberry, celery root remoulade, and corn meal pancakes. Fixe Southern restaurant in Austin Texas
Beef Tartare served with two crispy fried oysters, pickled gooseberry, celery root remoulade, and corn meal pancakes. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Grits play a major role on the menu, served three different ways: Herbivore (kale, farm egg, garlic, romesco, and salsa verde); Carnivore (Texas quail, pickled pears, pecan granola, and BBQ consommé); and finally, Pescavore (Texas shrimp, freeze-dried corn, shrimp butter, bottarga).

However, as a girl who grew up eating too many grits in Mississippi (I nearly turned into a grit) they aren’t my favorite thing — so I rarely order them. If you are a grit connoisseur, you should try them here: they are supposed to be very good at Fixe.

On this evening, our main dish selections were the duck breast, the braised Duroc pork shoulder, the blackened red snapper, and as a side, we chose the charred broccoli. All of the main dishes were outstanding.

What was the best dish of the evening? Impossible for me to say.

My braised pork was wonderful, and I would order it again. Incredibly tender and flavorful, with a slight counterpoint of bitterness from the mustard greens. The potlikker beans? Cooked in the pot liquor of the pork — well, let’s just say they are well-named, in both senses of the word.

After tasting Karolina’s blackened red snapper, the poaching liquid was so good, we all wanted to drink it out of the bowl 🙂 . Carolyn loved her duck breast, so the entrees were a big hit all the way around.

The one thing I wouldn’t order again: the charred broccoli with blue cheese. This was a table consensus. Two members of our party actively disliked it . . . and while I love blue cheese, I wasn’t a big fan either. I felt like the strong flavors detracted from my braised pork, and we left most of this either on our plates or in the serving bowl.

The dessert? We were all SO full we almost passed it up, but ended up ordering one for the table to share. We chose the brioche donut with a creamy vanilla bean custard-ice cream. So glad we did — it was outstanding — one of those desserts that tastes as good as it looks.

Brioche donut dessert at Fixe restaurant in Austin, Texas
Brioche Donut, vanilla bean custard, sunflower seed streusel, preserved fruit, honey ice cream. Pretty thing, isn’t it? 🙂 Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Practical Information

How much? Menu prices at Fixe in January 2018:

  • Most of the appetizers range from $8 to $12, but there are two more expensive choices: the ahi tuna and the beef tartare at $18 to $19.
  • Most of the entrees range from $21 to $30; the higher priced menu items are the dry-aged ribeye at $48, and the expensive dish, a massive 32 ounce tomahawk ribeye at $85.
  • Sides run from $8 to $18.
  • Desserts are from $8 to $10.

Could a vegetarian or vegan eat here? This is a very meat-and-fish-centric restaurant; however, a vegetarian would be able to create a good meal from the sides and a few of the starter options. I would not bring my vegan friends here.

Find current menu options, prices, and Happy Hour menus for Fixe here.

Location and parking: See map below, and valet parking at the front door solves the parking question.

Inside the kitchen at Fixe restaurant in Austin Texas
In the kitchen at Fixe restaurant, where they showcase just a few of the many local farms they work with on their menu that emphasizes locally produced meat and produce. Photograph, Ann Fisher

 

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Ladies – Packing for a Two Week Cruise: a Capsule Wardrobe for the Caribbean and Central America

What do you bring on a two week cruise? Photograph, Peter Hansen, Unsplash.

There are some times we must pack light. European trips involving frequent train travel — it’s the only way to go. But ladies, when we talk road trips and cruises, we have a lot more latitude. You can bring the BIG suitcase!

This is a Travelpro 25″ spinner. I never travel with suitcases larger than this — because you will definitely exceed bag weight limits on the airlines. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

As I prepare to launch of for a month of travel, starting with two weeks of road-tripping through Florida, then culminating in a two week Celebrity cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale, I’ve ditched my carry-on spinner for a full-sized (25 inch) suitcase.

I’ve just replaced my full-sized suitcase with a new Travelpro. I loved my smaller carry-on size Travelpro spinner that I took to Italy in September, so I thought I’d try another bag from this luggage company.

If you’re interested in looking at the Travelpro 25″ Spinner, you’ll find it here on eBags, or here on AmazonTravelpro Platinum Magna 2 25” Expandable Spinner Suiter (Olive,25-inch)

Travel wardrobes still require thought, even when you do have more space. Capsule wardrobes help you get more outfits from of fewer pieces of clothing. Regardless of whether you’re traveling, or simply improving your home wardrobe, they’re a smart way to think.

What is a capsule wardrobe?

The concept originated with Susie Faux in 1973, at her shop Wardrobe in London’s West End.

The idea is to choose neutral, well-made pieces of clothing with the maximum ability to coordinate with one another, giving you as many outfits as possible. Capsule wardrobing is a great concept for anyone paring down their closet at home, but it is also perfectly suited to traveling.

Due to spending time on the beach, in the Caribbean, and in hot climates in Central and South America, I’m certainly going with lighter colors than I would if I were traveling in Europe.

A classic 4 x 4 Capsule wardrobe should have 16 pieces of clothing, not counting accessories, and can broken down as follows:

  • First Core of Four: Four pieces of clothing in a darker neutral (2 bottoms, 1 top, and 2nd top – preferably one cardigan or jacket)
  • Second Core of Four: Four pieces of clothing in a lighter neutral (2 bottoms, 1 top, 2nd top — preferably a cardigan or jacket)
  • Bridge/Expansion Four: Four tops that go with ALL of the Core pieces of clothing. Think either tops with patterns that have both of the core colors in them, or tops in colors that simply complement both of the core colors well.
  • Mileage Four: This might be 4 additional tops, or instead — perhaps 2 tops, an additional bottom, and a dress. For my trip, I added one extra piece here, so it turned out to be the Mileage Five :-).
  • Additional: Accent Accessories: scarves, jewelry, shoes, purses that work with the core pieces. I like scarves that bring pops of color to the basic neutral pieces of the wardrobe.

In addition, I am taking 2 swimsuits, one cover-up, and a pair of flip flops, which are not shown in the image below.

Capsule Travel Wardrobe showing what to pack for a two week cruise Caribbean
A Capsule Travel Wardrobe for a Two-Week Cruise in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Within the two Core sets of neutrals, I’m taking  one light-weight cardigan in white, and one beige jacket. The white ruffled-front cardigan can hang open or be knotted at the waist. Purses: a soft blue Fossil hobo, as well as a Cole Haan black cross-body bag and a small silver clutch for evenings — giving me some variety and the ability to carry reading glasses, a Sea Pass card, and my iPhone.

What women choose to wear on “formal” nights varies dramatically, and you’ll see everything: cocktail dresses, more elegant maxi-style dresses, cropped pants with glittery tops, and some who have inexplicably chosen dresses that look like high school prom night. Note: on smaller, boutique cruise lines, like Windstar and Star Clippers, there are no formal nights. Every night is smart-casual.

For the dressier evenings on the ship, I have chosen NOT to bring a cocktail dress. I often bring a cocktail dress, but this on this trip I’m giving that a big miss. Since I have a two week road trip before the cruise, I need more versatile pieces of clothing.

Once onboard, my “dress night” garb will my black dress, and the cropped black pants with blue camisole or black tank top with more formal pieces of jewelry. I’ve done this on many cruises, and it’s worked well for me. Ladies, this is one place that we all vary. For my readers wanting dressier options, I’d switch out a couple of pieces within the Mileage category, and simply replace them with more formal options.

For my full four week trip, I’ll certainly be doing laundry — on the Florida road trip, the condo in Miami has a washing machine and dryer, so I’ll board the Celebrity Reflection with everything clean. Once onboard, I plan to send laundry out once. One thing to keep in mind: the industrial laundry on ships isn’t gentle. Hand washing knits or other delicate items in your room may be the smart way to go.

Here are images to give you an idea of just a few of the many combinations you can get from the Travel Capsule Wardrobe shown above.

Set of possible day time wardrobe combinations from the 2 Week Cruise Capsule Wardrobe
Possible combinations, Set 1.
Set 2 of possible wardrobe combinations from the 2 Week Cruise Capsule Wardrobe
Possible Combinations, Set 2.
Set of possible wardrobe combinations from the 2 Week Cruise Capsule Wardrobe
Possible combinations, Set 3.
Set of possible evening wardrobe combinations from the 2 Week Cruise Capsule Wardrobe
Possible evening combinations, Set 4.

 

 Packing List
    • 5 bottoms, either pants, sorts, skirts, or capris
    • 9 tops
    • 1 dress
    • 2 cardigans
    • 3-5 silk scarves
    • 2 pairs of flat sandals
    • 1 pair strappy evening sandals
    • 7 pairs underwear — you’ll either being sink washing, or sending wash out while onboard
    • 2 bras
    • 2 bathing suits and 1 cover-up *not included in the Capsule wardrobe. I consider these to be a separate category
    • flip-flops
    • tennis shoes
    • water shoes for coral or rocky beaches
    • Hat(s)
    • Sleepwear
    • workout clothes
    • toiletries & makeup
      • Be sure to bring sunscreen & possibly mosquito repellent.
    • medicine
    • 1 tall kitchen garbage bag + 2 large ziploc bags (good for dirty clothes, wet bathing suits, etc.)
    • Beach tote: one that zips up and folds down into nothing!

Packing Folder and Cube System

Packing efficiently: I am a BIG believer in packing folders and packing cubes. Honestly, I’m not sure how I packed before getting the folders and cubes. In the nineties, I had a folding “suiter” case that had a central section for hanging close, then multiple zipping sections and pockets — and back then, that was as good is you could get.

In 2003, when that case wore out, I bought a new 25″ Samsonite case — you know, a standard suitcase with one central black hole of a big space. I bought my first packing folder and a couple of cubes, and I was sold. SO much better than the older suiter case that I’d had. If you haven’t used the folders and cubes, the Pack It video from Eagle Creek demonstrates how the system works.

For this packing list, I used two medium Eagle Creek Pack-It folders: one for bottoms + dress, and the other for tops, cardigan, and jacket. Then I put the undies, bras, sleepwear, and scarves in one cube, and swimsuits and cover-up in a second cube. Toiletries and makeup have separate bags. Everything fit in my 25″ Travelpro Spinner, no problem.

I love the folders, because while no packing method is wrinkle free, they decrease wrinkling better than any other method I’ve tried. I also love that I can pull the folders and cubes out of my suitcase, pop them into drawers, and I’m unpacked in a couple of minutes.

Eagle Creek Medium Pack-It Folder on eBags 
 Eagle Creek Pack It Medium Pack-It Folder on Amazon
 

Things People often FORGET to Pack for a Cruise

 Things you’ll probably need Things that might come in handy
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito Repellent – whether you’re in Costa Rica or Alaska, mosquitos get around!
  • Calamine or other bug bite itch cream
  • Spare pair of glasses (sun and/or reading)
  • Dramamine, Bonine, or other medication for being sea sick. Even if you don’t need them on the big ship, you may for an excursion in a smaller boat.
  • Good walking shoes. Many tours require close-toed shoes.
  • OTC meds — yes, you can buy ibuprofen, Tums, etc. on the ship, but they are expensive!
  • Razor
  • Stain wipes
  • Travel magnifying mirror. If you use one at home, you’ll need one here as well.
  • Dry pak case for phone or camera — or at least a Ziploc bag as protection from the unexpected afternoon thunderstorm.
  • Highlighter for daily news letter
  • Power strip for our power hungry life styles
  • Water shoes
  • Beach bag/shopping bag
  • Lanyard – for your Sea Pass card. Or you can pay 3 times more for one on the ship 🙂
  • Sticky notes — for leaving notes for your steward or group members
  • Towel clips – keeps your towel from blowing off pool loungers
  • Suction cup hooks — great for things like hats
  • Shoe bag for bathroom: can hang on the door hook to hold things you don’t want to give shelf space to
  • Traveling with a group? Consider a magnetic door sign — message board. State room doors all look the same – and can be handy for leaving messages.

Bon Voyage!

Wake behind cruise ship.
Happy packing and have a wonderful cruise! Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Notes: clothing shown comes from Chico’s and Eddie Bauer — but you can obviously build wardrobes like this with any brand of clothing. Scarves: Gucci and Missoni from Nordstrom, Tiffany scarf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Packing lighter for a European trip where you’re hopping on trains?

Hereford Road: Great Neighborhood Restaurant in Notting Hill

Looking for a great restaurant in the Notting Hill or Bayswater areas of London? Hereford Road specializes in British cuisine using locally source fish, meat, and produce.

globe artichoke served with vinaigrette at the Hereford Road restaurant Notting Hill Gate in London
A perfectly cooked globe artichoke served with vinaigrette as my starter the first evening. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hereford Road specializes in British cuisine using locally sourced fish, meat, and produce. Owner-chef Tom Pemberton opened his Notting Hill restaurant in 2007 with the aim of providing the area with a neighborhood restaurant serving great food at reasonable prices.

A row of Victorian townhouses in the Bayswater area of West London.
A row of Victorian townhouses in the Bayswater area of West London. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I stayed in the Bayswater area on my last trip to London, and on my first evening didn’t feel like making a cab or tube ride to a different part of the city. I was happy to find Hereford Road in easy walking distance of my hotel, located on the border of the Bayswater and Notting Hill neighborhoods in the western part of the city.

The restaurant has a pleasing decor, cozy booths, and a feeling of being friendly and unpretentious. This is simple food, beautifully prepared — served by a wait staff that is knowledgeable and competent — at affordable prices.

The front part of Hereford Road Restaurant in Notting Hill has cozy leather booths facing the open kitchen.
The front part of Hereford Road has cozy leather booths facing the open kitchen. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hereford Road occupies a site that was home to a butcher shop in the Victorian era. The design is light and informal, using white ceramic tiles that evoke its butcher shop past. Cozy red-leather booths for two in the front have a view of the open kitchen, and the restaurant opens into a larger room with a skylight in the back furnished with a combination of tables and six-person booths. When I was there, clientele appeared to be predominantly British, ranging from their thirties to their sixties in age.

The globe artichoke starter.

There is not a bar, and the selection of hard spirits is limited. This is offset by a good wine menu; most of the offerings are organic or biodynamic, and more than a dozen are available by the glass or half-carafe.

During the day, the skylight brings in great natural light, which prevents the back room from having that claustrophobic feeling many long restaurants without side windows have.

I visited Hereford Road for dinner two evenings in a row. Why? First, the food really was that good, and then a second visit allows me to try more things AND to see whether service is consistent.

The first evening I started with the globe artichoke served with vinaigrette in a ramekin. In late August artichokes in Britain are still in season, and this one was perfectly cooked — tender but not overdone.

Braised rabbit with turnips and bacon at the Hereford Road restaurant Notting Hill and Bayswater London
The braised rabbit with turnips and bacon was so wonderful, I started right in before taking the photograph — so sorry! Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I worked my way down through the leaves, then cleaned the choke off the heart. For anyone who has not eaten artichokes, they are mild, with a texture similar to a boiled potato, but with a nutty sweetness that is a perfect foil to the mildly acidic vinaigrette.

For the main course, I chose the braised rabbit served with turnips and bacon. The rabbit was so tender that it was almost falling off the bone. The braising broth flavored with turnips and bacon was savory and delicious, well-balanced, and did not overpower the mild rabbit. What beautiful comfort food!

The next evening, I returned. As a starter, I chose the smoked eel, served with potato and frisée with horseradish based dressing.

Smoked eel served cold along with potatoes and a bit of frisée. Hereford Road restaurant Notting Hill London
Smoked eel served cold along with potatoes and a bit of frisée. Photograph, Ann Fisher

I have not eaten smoked eel in a long time, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s rarely served in the United States. It’s firm and fine-grained, with just enough fattiness to lend itself well to smoking. This was delicate and delicious, and truly lovely with the potatoes and mild horseradish. Eel has a long culinary history in Great Britain — and it will be on my list to repeat when I’m back in London.

My final course at Hereford Road? The Blythburg pork belly with white beans, hispi, and mustard. Hispi cabbage has a pointy shape, is sweeter than regular cabbage, and is sometimes called sweetheart cabbage.

Pork belly with white beans and hispi at the Hereford Road restaurant in London
Pork belly with white beans and hispi. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The Hereford Road pork belly is another fine example of British comfort food — simple in its nature, but beautifully prepared. Glistening, flavorful, tender — all the things you look for in this type of dish.

Menu at Hereford Road restaurant in Notting Hill London
The menu at Hereford Road changes frequently — often from one day to the other.

What about dessert? Well, I’m more of a savory-focused diner :-). And I was so well satisfied by my meals both evenings, that I simply couldn’t eat another bite — perhaps on my next visit to London!

The menu at Hereford Road changes almost daily, depending on the season and the availability of ingredients.

The restaurant typically offers seven starters, seven mains, and five desserts. Prices (in British pounds) range from £6.50 -£8.50 for appetizers, £12.00 – £16.50 for entrees, and £6.00 for desserts. In London, this is incredibly reasonable for a restaurant of this quality.

You’ll find the current Hereford Road Menu here.

Finding Hereford Road: the restaurant is located at 3 Hereford Road, Westbourne Grove, London, W2 4AB.

 

The Hereford Road restaurant is between the Bayswater area and its upscale neighbor, the affluent Notting Hill.
The Hereford Road restaurant is located between the Bayswater area and its upscale neighbor, the affluent Notting Hill. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 


 

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Postcards from Royal Clipper: Tall Ship Cruise, Windward and Grenadine Islands

Photographs from back-to-back cruises on the tall ship Royal Clipper to the Windward Islands and then to the Grenadines. What beautiful islands! I love this part of the Caribbean.

Photographs from back-to-back cruises on the tall ship Royal Clipper to the Windward Islands and then to the Grenadines. What beautiful islands! I love this part of the Caribbean.

If you like sailing, and are interested in reading more, you’ll find the full article here: Onboard the Royal Clipper.

Note: As always, I retain full rights to my photographs. Never use my images without my written permission.

 

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