The Sopranos tour bus made its weekly run past dozens of North Jersey show sites, just as it has been doing for more than a decade. But the recent sudden death of 51-year-old star James Gandolfini, whose Tony Soprano is one of television's most memorable characters, made this four-hour ride different for the 51 tourists who came from such places as England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Hungary.
"It's a bit sombre, isn't it?" said Layla Razzak of London, as she stood on Kearny Ave near the site of the fictitious Satriale's Pork Store, during the second of the tour's four stops.
Her friend and fellow Londoner, Stacey Haid, agreed. "It's hard to even watch clips of the show now," she said.
But like more than 40 of the others of the bus, they had already booked the tour before the news of Gandolfini's death, and many didn't know if they'd ever get another chance to tour the Sopranos landscape. So they readily agreed to take the advice of tour guide Marc Baron, an actor who had several minor roles in the HBO series, to "celebrate James' life".
A highlight of the $59 tour, during which Baron pointed out scene locations in Jersey City, Harrison, Newark and other sites in between trivia questions and video clips, was a visit to Holsten's ice cream parlour in Bloomfield. That was the site of the enigmatic final scene of the series, and most in the group took the chance to be photographed at the booth where the footage was filmed. This time, it was adorned with a bouquet of flowers and a card that read, "Rest in Peace, James Gandolfini. Love, Holsten's".
Mats Lhado of Stockholm, on the tour with wife Susanne, declined to have his picture taken at the booth. "It just seems too soon," he explained.
The North Jersey scenery was just like Tony McSwaine of Brisbane had pictured it - "seedy and industrial". McSwaine added that although the sudden death of Gandolfini was upsetting, it made the tour "even more interesting now". "As soon as I get back [home], I'm going to watch the whole series all over again," he said.
Tour bus riders typically aren't allowed to take photos inside Satin Dolls, the Lodi strip club on Route 17 that was known as the Bada Bing! on the show. But this time management allowed photos of a modest memorial at "Tony's spot" in the club, where a framed photo of a downcast Tony Soprano was placed above a "SOPRANOS" New Jersey licence plate and two black T-shirts bearing the real and fictitious names of the club.
Tour guest Dominic Mastri of Pennsylvania and dancer Diana Lomoro rued the finality for The Sopranos caused by Gandolfini's death.
"It's such a shock - nobody really thought the show was over until now," said Lomoro, who said she spent time with Gandolfini on the set, shooting scenes for the show's third season.
Mastri, who called himself a "huge fan" of the show, tried to make the best of the situation.
"This is the first time I got my wife to go to a strip club," he said, then added, "I was always hoping that someday there would be a Sopranos movie. That's what makes this all so bittersweet."
Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies from Auckland to New York via Honolulu.
Further information: hawaiianairlines.co.nz.