Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
I wonder if the people here appreciate the fact that they live in, literally, a fantasy land. Everything about the terrain here is breathtaking. Undulating hills, covered by the richest shades of green, often hosting more than a few sheep. In the distance, misty mountains – or perhaps the Misty Mountains, seem to hold in the beauty and keep out the rest of the world.
I’m sure that, objectively, a New Zealander can appreciate their land’s natural beauty, but I’m left to wonder if that’s a feeling they hold onto on a daily basis. I think we’re all probably guilty of overlooking our own backyards. I know plenty of people in Jacksonville, my home, who might make it out to the beach once each year, or have never been on our beautiful river. There are plenty in colder climes that couldn’t possibly understand how that could be, yet the more drab aspects of life often help keep us from appreciating what’s around us.
There’s at least one place a day’s trip from Auckland, though, that seems to hold special sway over even locals, where the beauty of the local area is brought into focus thanks to an aura of fantasy: the leftover remains of Hobbiton, the town at the center of the Shire, home of hobbits and holy shrine to fans of Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings.
It’s possible to book tours to Hobbiton directly from Auckland, with bus service that will whisk you back and forth from the city. Don’t. Rent a car, save at least $100 – and far more for a group – and drive there yourself. Busses will pay no heed to the overwhelming urge you’ll feel to stop often and take in the incredible vistas seemingly at the top of every hill, nor allow you to explore some of the other natural beauty nearby like Wairere Falls once your tour is complete.
New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, much as they do in the UK, which might be enough to scare American explorers away from the thought of driving themselves. I’d never driven on the left until my trip south of Auckland, but after a few harrowing minutes, I realized the key was to just not think about it too much. Simply follow the lead of traffic in front of you, don’t worry about going too slow for the tastes of the driver behind you, and pay extra attention to signs.
Important directional signage is largely in line with what’s found on American roadways; only a few self-obvious signs borrowing from the UK’s road system are to be found, such as a round, red circle highlighting the present speed limit and yield signs that instead read “Give Way.” Critically, I do recommend a GPS system. I’d originally intended to use only Google Maps on my phone, but benefitted immensely from the unit built into the dash of my rented Hyundai Santa Fe.
I picked up my rental on a quiet Sunday morning in Auckland, with scarcely a person or moving vehicle in sight. That made getting my bearings a bit easier as I started winding my way out of the city. Soon, I was on a highway heading south with full confidence, at least until I’d forget my turn signal was on the right instead of the left, inadvertently activating the windshield wipers before lane shifts.
There’s not much to see at first other than the novelty of New Zealand-unique big box retailers or not-at-all-unique American fast food restaurants, but after 45 minutes or so, Auckland and its outlying suburbs fade away, the road slims to fewer lanes, and the journey into Middle Earth begins.
I stopped more than once on my way to Hobbiton, unable to contain the urge to snap a picture any longer. Some of the most fantastic views remain uncaptured; a small gap in the hills on a turn reveals miles of descending hills and sheep; a single pig rolls happily in mud in a pen outsider a farmer’s house; horses wearing blankets nibble at grass in a meadow. At times, there’s simply nowhere to stop and take in the beauty for more than the fleeting instant while you drive by.
After 100 kilometers or so – how long the drive takes is purely a matter of how many times you can stand to not stop for another picture – you’ll arrive in Matamata. Throughout New Zealand, you’ll see I-Site locations, helpful kiosks that provide brochures and information about the surrounding area that sell tickets for local attractions. The one in Matamata stands alone, though, made to appear as if it would fit firmly within the bounds of Tolkein’s imagination.
Inside, you’ll find a small variety of souvenirs and a statue of Gollum crafted by the same artists at Weta who worked on The Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit films.
Additionally, there’s a place to leave any luggage you don’t need on the tour with a name sure to bring a smile to Tolkien fans.
It’s possible to book your tour of Hobbiton to leave from and return to the Matamata I-Site, but it’s only about 15 more minutes’ drive away if you’d rather get there on your own. Winding past a small college, you’ll soon see a large, barn-like building on the left, overlooking more hills and more sheep.
There’s a ticket office here, as well as a café and souvenir shop. The café has a variety of breakfast and lunch fare, as well as second breakfast and elevensies options for the hobbits in your party.
It’s possible to reserve your ticket online and pick it up on site so long as you arrive 15 minutes before your tour is set to begin. I grabbed my ticket and hastily scarfed down a turkey and brie wrap from the cafe, with just a few minutes until the 2-hour tour was set to begin.
There were plenty of foreigners – American, Australian, British and Chinese, from the sounds and looks of it – but also a larger number of New Zealanders than I would have expected. This is no mere tourist trap; it’s a location quite popular with the locals. In fact, that’s how Hobbiton’s accessibility to the public first began.
The First Hobbiton
The location that would become Hobbiton was discovered on a scouting trip by Peter Jackson and an associate in 1998. Wherever they picked for filming had to meet several important qualifications. There needed to be a fairly steep hill with a clear top where the residence of Bilbo Baggins – Bag End – could be placed. This hilly area needed to overlook a lake. Finally, a large tree fitting the description of the one mentioned by Tolkien must be in the right place. The land was part of a sheep and cattle farm. Settling for a nearly-perfect hillside and lakefront, the filmmakers decided to cut down a tree fitting the bill in nearby Matamata and bring it to the site, hand-wiring it with thousands of new, artificial leaves once on site.
The Hobbiton constructed for the filming of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy consisted almost entirely of temporary materials: cardboard, polystyrene and the like made up the facade. Behind the doors of hobbit homes was little more than a retaining wall and some dirt. Only a pair of doors even opened; scenes inside of Bag End and elsewhere were filmed off-site. The agreement New Line made with the farm’s owners mandated that the set be torn down once filming was completed, and the land restored to its original condition.
Filming completed, New Line set about fulfilling their promise, but monstrous storms hit the area with demolition work only halfway complete. The film company asked for an extension of six months to complete their deconstruction, since the heavy equipment needed to finish clearing the area couldn’t pass through the muddy fields until they dried out. The owners agreed. That’s when the phone started ringing.
As the films grew in popularity, word started spreading that portions of the set for Hobbiton remained in place. The farm was inundated with calls from people requesting permission to explore the area and for tours. Work on the set’s demolition continued once the area had dried out, but the farm owners’ were inspired by the outpouring of demand to visit what was once a mere grazing field for their sheep.
When Peter Jackson and New Line decided to move forward with films based on The Hobbit, it became clear it would be necessary to rebuild Hobbiton, as closely in design to the one used in the previously film trilogy as possible. The farm owners once again allowed Peter Jackson and his design crew at Weta to transform the hill into a Middle Earth centerpiece, but with one new requirement: all structures must be built using permanent materials, rather than temporary ones to be simply torn down after filming. The owners negotiated a deal with New Line to allow for tours of the property once filming was complete.
Hobbiton – really the second of its ilk – is now built from brick and wood and steel, made to last for many years to come.
Of course, the town wasn’t supposed to appear as a glistening, new town in the films, so after the filmmakers finished building a brand new Hobbiton, they set about wearing it down and aging it as much as possible. Peter Jackson’s design and effects studio, Weta, took charge of this process as they did for nearly all visual aspects of the films. Set designers concocted a substance that could be painted and molded into place on railings and doorways that resembled moss. The chief ingredient in the substance was, of all things, yogurt, which had the added benefit of promoting the growth of natural moss. In time, movie magic is becoming reality.
Some hobbit holes are far larger than others. The smallest were used to film outdoor sequences with Gandalf, the wizard meant to be well over twice as tall as the diminutive hobbits. Large holes were used as backdrops when filming sequences featuring Hobbits, in order to make the actors appear appropriately small.
Though the set was rebuilt using permanent materials, most hobbit holes remain little more than beautiful facades, behind which nothing but a retaining wall is waiting. Two hobbit homes serve as exceptions: Bag End itself, which is sealed off from visitors entering, and one other hobbit home that tourers are allowed to enter, which serves as a popular photo stop.
It hardly feels like a set. Built to be an encompassing area for all manner of outdoor shots, Hobbiton feels like the real deal. Artificial vegetable patches, miniaturized farming equipment and even laundry lines give the feeling that surely Frodo has just gone out for the day and is expected to return shortly.
The tour winds its way counterclockwise from the base of the village. Along the way, an extension of three more hobbit holes can be seen over a ridge. These were apparently built for use in the Hobbit trilogy but have yet to make an appearance in the final product. No one seems to be certain if they’ll finally have their debut in the third and final Hobbit film or if they’ll remain a curiosity only possible to see by visiting the site.
At the top of the hill rests Bag End, home of Bilbo Baggins. Unfortunately – but understandably – the perimeter for this hobbit hole is wider than the ones surrounding others, to ensure it can remain pristine. The indoor shots may have been filmed on set elsewhere, and this Bag End might be little more than a door that swings open a bit, but you’d be forgiven for swearing the whole house was hiding behind it.
At the end of the tour, we headed back down the hill, this time across a small bridge and through a meadow to the Green Dragon Inn. The storied pub of Hobbiton is, like most of the town, now in its second iteration. The original was little more than an outdoor set, and was burned down in the final shot filmed on location for the original trilogy, part of a dream sequence warning Frodo of the dire consequences of failing to destroy the One Ring. It was rebuilt, but this time as far more than an exterior shooting space.
The Green Dragon was brought fully to life in a new building on the grounds. It’s now a functioning pub, lovingly crafted to look and feel just like it should, inside and out. The pub even lays claim to its own brews – a golden ale, a stout, a cider and a non-alcoholic ginger beer. Each tour guest is given a free glass of their choice, and a variety of pub food is available for purchase at reasonable prices.
The golden ale and a steak and ale pie by the fire were delicious on their own right, but even more-so by the fireplace, where one could easily believe cloaked hobbits on a secret mission were sure to pass by.
Hobbiton is a fantastic place, fantastic in the sense that it is a place of true fantasy. Yet in the end, it’s not the hobbit holes, the vegetable patches or the Green Dragon that make it so. It’s not Bag End, the painstakingly engineered tree on its top or the festive decorations proclaiming Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday. It’s the place itself, the natural beauty that first drew Peter Jackson and the other filmmakers to the location. It is truly the Shire in the way that a small patch of Tunisia is truly Tatooine: a place where exactly what you’d imagine is waiting to be discovered.