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Monday, March 31, 2014

36 Hours in Mordor

Recently emerged from a long Stalinist cult-of-personality dictatorship, Mordor is a daunting destination for even the most seasoned travelers. But connoisseurs of adventure and cocktail-party bragging rights will find that the Shadow Realm makes for a memorable weekend getaway. Unspoiled and untouristed, it's the Gondor of 50 years ago.


The distinctive all-black livery of Mordor's flag carrier Nazgulia ("The Wings of No Man") is easy to spot. Still smarting from the spider-bite vaccinations mandatory for entry into the country, I was alarmed by the draconian oversized carry-on penalties meted out by the snarling, red-eyed gate agent. However the measures did reduce crowding on board.

The flight itself was an exercise in discomfort, with a full-plane smoking section and seats that would have made Ryanair's Michael O'Leary squirm. I was relieved when we landed at Amon Sul International Airport, where we were greeted at customs with a freshly-painted Ministry of Tourism sign reading "Mordor: We're Keeping an Eye Out for You!"

Dogged for years by low TripAdvisor ratings, the country's hotels remain more functional than luxurious. Recently acquired by Marriott, the Barad-Dur Resort and Spa has been rebranded as an eco-lodge. The Uruk-Hai at the front desk gruffly handed me brochures on rock-climbing, volcano-viewing, and Mordor's unique wildlife. My room was dusty but serviceable, with a few claw-clippings in the bathtub and scales in the bedsheets.


The day began with rock-climbing at Cirith Ungol. The stark scenery and heat were reminiscent of Palm Springs in July without the margaritas, but the views of distant Mount Doom were spectacular. I spent a fascinating afternoon exploring historic ruins, though I was dismayed by the number of tourists toting Rick Steves guidebooks. My guide was a former Ringwraith who was clearly nostalgic for the old days. "Sure it was a police state," he said, "but we all had jobs and health insurance. Now it's every Orc for himself."

Evening meant sampling Mordor's sophisticated side. Hipsters are everywhere these days and the Dark Land is no exception. The country's first Elvish restaurant was established by an urban-pioneering couple who were priced out of Lothlorien years ago. They serve excellent, delicate vegetarian fare, mostly raw and locally-foraged. Service was generally good, but our waiter confided that he was just here temporarily as his agent had him up for a part in the next Peter Jackson movie.


Brunch at the Barad-Dur was filling. I do think the management's idea of "Blood Orange Juice" was different from mine, but as they say, "when in Rome..."

On the flight home I sat next to an Orc on his way to meet with a developer. "You really should visit Mt. Doom next time you're here. Spectacular, though overcrowded with hobbits now. Always holding up nine fingers and snapping photos. Very offensive. But they're good tippers."