Tuesday, September 07, 2010

From the land Down Under, part 2

Australian coffee rocks. It's not the thing the country is known for abroad, but it's an essential part of the quality of life there.

One of my favorite things when traveling is spending time in the local cafés. This may have something to do with growing up in France, where cafés play a key role in the social life -- despite the fact that the coffee you get there is actually terrible. The point is that they are a place where you can while away several hours with a drink and a book, or meet friends and reconfigure the world. Also, I'm a teetotaler so bars hold little interest to me.

Café life leaves a lot to be desired in New York: Other than some spots in the Village (now mostly tourist traps), I would argue that it's a relatively recent phenomenon here, having picked up after Starbucks came to town; contrary to politically correct opinion, Starbucks didn't kill independent coffee places here, it created them. (Strangely, a similar phenomenon didn't seem to happen in London.) The problem is that it's really hard to find a good coffee, whether espresso or drip. The lattes and cappuccinos, for instance, tend to be boiled beyond recognition. I used to think that the baristas weren't properly trained to use the machines, but now I think the problem is more that the majority of the baristas don't even grasp what a latte is supposed to taste like. They have no frame of reference.

So far, Stockholm has been the standard for civilized cafés, maybe because of the local tradition known as fika, ie a coffee break accompanied by a pastry. But Australia is right up there, perhaps even better -- you won't find a more perfect latte anywhere else. And it's not just in the specialized establishments: I've had impeccable cups in airports and gas stations! And unlike the NY coffee snobs, they don't try to impress with crap like how much they paid for their hand-tooled machine or whether the beans were picked by virgins on a single hill in Nicaragua.

Even better, we went to cafés every single day for ten days straight, and not once did we see someone on a laptop -- the scourge of NY coffee joints. People read the paper or had actual conversations with each other. Imagine that! You don't realize how antisocial laptops are until they're taken out of the equation and you find yourself in an environment where sociability is encouraged. Real-life one, not virtual one. I realize this sounds crazy but you must suspend your disbelief.

We hit a lot of good spots, but a particularly enjoyable one was Re:hab, in the small town of Port Douglas. A must if you ever find yourself in FNQ (Far North Queensland -- Aussies love acronyms).

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