The Misty Mountains are real. So are the Eregion Hills, Trollshaw Forest and Hobbit-holes.
I’ve seen them. Or at least I’ve seen their stand-ins in New Zealand, the tiny Pacific island nation that played Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s not hard to understand why the director chose his homeland to film “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King” (2003) — or why he returned for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which opens in New York on Friday.
For one thing, both Jackson and his production company are based in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. But just outside its cities, the country offers mind-blowing scenery, from snow-capped peaks to lush valleys to roaring rivers. New Zealand provided more than 150 locations for Jackson’s films.
Luckily, many of them are within reach for “Lord of the Rings” fans — or any intrepid traveler who braves the 18-hour trek from New York to Auckland via Los Angeles.
One the Hobbit homes on a ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie tour
What’s been called Tolkien tourism has exploded since the first film’s release. In every city, you’ll find tour companies, guides, street signs, even license plates with connections to Middle Earth. And you can’t swing an elf without hitting a site from the films.
Full disclosure: I’d characterize myself as a “Rings” admirer rather than devotee. But getting close to film locations — and learning more about the wizardry behind them — has renewed my wonder for Jackson’s onscreen world. It’s also made me salivate for “The Hobbit,” the first film in another planned trilogy.
You’ll likely land in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. As befits a bustling burg, it’s nonchalant about the “Rings” phenomenon. But stow your bags and grab a camera, because mecca on a “Lord of the Rings” pilgrimage is just two hours south — rural Matamata, the home of Hobbiton.
In 1998, a location scout decided the Alexander family’s 1,250-acre sheep farm would make the perfect setting for key scenes of a planned production based on Tolkien’s fantasy epics. The farm went on to star in all three “Rings” pictures.
While sheep and cows still reside there, permanent replicas of film sets now dot the property. No matter your level of “Rings” knowledge, it’s a thrill to see the green door of Bag End — Bilbo and Frodo’s home. This is among 44 “Hobbit-holes” re-created with loving attention to detail, down to the tiny ladders and crockery strewn outside each circular door.
“It’s the most iconic spot in the movie,” says Russell Alexander, whose family owns the farm and partnered with Jackson to create Hobbiton. “Rings” fans will also plotz at their first glance of the towering Party Tree, the Hobbits’ gathering place and a centerpiece of filming for all three movies.
In person, it’s breathtaking. When I visited, a construction crew was putting final touches on the Green Dragon Inn, a replica of the happening Hobbit hangout in the movies; it’ll open this month with a menu of craft beers and “food an English farmer from 1700 would have eaten,” Alexander says.
Sculpture of Gandalf at the Weta Cave in Miramar, N.Z.
To get to Matamata, I made the mistake of renting a car straight off the plane. Don’t do that. New Zealanders drive British-style, on the opposite side, which my jet-lagged brain couldn’t process. Instead, make Auckland your home base, book a tour, and let someone else take the wheel.Three hundred miles south and an easy flight from Auckland, you’ll find another mecca for “Rings” devotees — Wellington, New Zealand’s cosmopolitan capital. The giant, ceiling-mounted Gollum sculpture that greets you at Wellington Airport provides a clue to the “Rings” mania that awaits.
Even my sixtysomething airport cab driver radiated fanboy enthusiasm. He noted that Mount Crawford, which you’ll see en route to town, has a supporting role in “The Hobbit.” They don’t call it Wellywood for nothing.
Once checked into your hotel, make a beeline for the tony southeast suburb of Miramar, where Jackson’s Wingnut Films is based. You can’t get in the building, but you can visit the mini-museum opened by Weta Workshop, the special-effects company Jackson co-founded with a crew of fellow film geeks.
Weta Cave, as it’s called, is a trove. The place is packed with tchotchkes from the “Rings” franchise — Gollum statues, Hobbit ears, lifelike Uruk-hai statues — and features fun artifacts from Weta’s other projects, like miniatures of District 9’s icky “prawn” aliens and disembodied heads from the early Jackson grossout epic “Bad Taste.”
Naturally, it’s also overflowing with merch. If 99-cent “Rings”-themed temporary tattoos don’t grab you, consider the glittery $11,498.85 sword — sorry, “ament blade of elven make” — designed by Weta’s own swordsmiths.
For a more organic “Rings” experience, head to wooded Mount Victoria, just east of the city center and a short drive from Miramar. A number of key scenes were shot in this city park, which was closed to locals during filming. As a bonus, you’ll take in sweeping 360-degree views of Wellington.
Just a few yards down a tree-shaded path, eagle-eyed fans will recognize iconic spots from “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The locations include the hill where the four main Hobbits tumble at the edge of a (digitally added) cornfield to hide from Black Riders during the tense “Get off the road!” scene.
You’ll see crouching fans getting photos snapped in that spot. An unremarkable hill turns out to be where “Fellowship’s” race to Bucklebury Ferry was filmed. You’ll spot fans with “Rings” action figures re-creating these scenes in miniature.
On the way back downtown, on Taranaki St., you’ll pass the Green Parrot, a slightly louche pub where Viggo Mortensen was reputed to hang out after hours.
The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is a scenic delight.
Queenstown, on New Zealand’s less populated South Island, sits 600 miles from Wellington, but feels like a different planet. Its otherworldly beauty guaranteed the tiny city, and its environs, a starring role in the “Rings” films and “The Hobbit.” You can’t miss the jagged peaks called the Remarkables from anywhere in town. They played both the Snowy Mountains and the Mountains of Mordor in the films.
You could rent a car and explore on your own. Ian Brodie’s superb “Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook” (HarperCollins, $44) meticulously details scenes and sites. But you’re better off letting a tour company navigate the rough turf.
My Queenstown guide went into microscopic detail about “Rings” sites as we bounced around a route along the Dart River in a Toyota Land Cruiser. From tiny Glenorchy, our first stop, you can see Greenstone Valley, where Jackson filmed the Battle of Dunharrow for “The Return of the King.”
A few miles deeper into woodlands, you’ll see Dan’s Paddock, a giant’s thumbprint of land that (digitally) became the valley of Isengard, home of Saruman (Christopher Lee) in the films. You’ll recognize the road where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) rode to meet him in “Fellowship.”
Our guide was sworn to secrecy by the mystical forces of Warner Bros. But he revealed that “Hobbit” filming also took place here — “the paddocks were packed with trucks” — and in Paradise Forest, which played the Lothlorien forest through the trilogy. The forest’s most striking sight: imposing trees whose massive roots apparently inspired the design of the fearsome Orcs. Indeed, the giant trees almost look like living creatures.
The trees also left me with an epiphany of sorts. Whether or not you’re a fan, a movie-inspired New Zealand tour won’t just rekindle interest in “The Lord of the Rings,” or whet your appetite for “The Hobbit.” It might also spark your imagination. And as a traveler, you can’t hope for anything more.
IF YOU GO
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) flies to Auckland twice daily via LAX. From around $1,600 round-trip.
Auckland: Ultracool Hotel de Brett (2 High St., 09-925-9000, hoteldebrett.com) boasts stylish touches from owners John Courtney and Michelle Deery. From about $300. Budget: Basic, clean Best Western President (27-35 Victoria St. W., 9-303-1333) offers an unbeatable location. From about $75.
Wellington: Museum Hotel (90 Cable St., 4-802-8900, museumhotel.co.nz) features eye-popping art and red-hot eatery Hippopotamus. From about $210. Budget: Bright and functional Mercure Hotel Wellington (345 The Terrace, 04-385-9829, mercure.com) sits near hip Cuba St. From about $90.
Queenstown: Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel (21 Robins Road, 3-441-8441) balances smallish rooms with ultrapersonal service. From about $235. Budget: The tidy Crowne Plaza (Beach St., 3-441-0095, crowneplaza.com) won’t inspire awe, but its waterfront location will.
Auckland: Dida’s (118 Wellesley St. W., 09-308-8319, didas.co.nz) serves spectacular omelets ($16) and killer coffee ($4) in a big, comfy room.
Wellington: Elijah Wood hung out at “Kiwi kitsch” spot Matterhorn (106 Cuba St., 4-384-3359, matterhorn.co.nz). Try venison tartare with pickled radish ($14).
Queenstown: Chef Josh Emett’s riffs on tradition at Rata (43 Ballarat St., 3-442-9393, ratadining.co.nz) include flawless cured salmon with pumpkin ($36).
Auckland: “Hobbiton Express” tours with reliable Bush & Beach (bushandbeach.co.nz) include lunch and souvenirs.(From $274 in New Zealand currency, or about $220 in U.S. dollars, for a full day.)
Wellington: Mike Stearne, my Flat Earth Tours (flatearth.co.nz) guide, was a “Rings” extra who probably knew more about the movies than the crew. From $159 for a half day.
Queenstown: Nomad Safaris (nomadsafaris.co.nz) takes you deep into Middle Earth territory with informed guides in 4WD vehicles. From $169 for a half day.
Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom, among other Ring-ers, brought pounamu pendants ($20-$1,000) at Wellington’s Kura Art + Design (19 Allen St., 4-802-4934, kuragallery.co.nz). The green stone is precious to Maoris. Michael Kaminer
A LAND CRAZY FOR COFFEE
When I saw Retro Coffee (retroespresso.com), an espresso bar in a converted trailer outside the doors of Auckland Airport, I knew I’d feel at home in New Zealand.
The country’s crazy for coffee.
With a population of 4.5 million, New Zealand boasts 150 coffee roasters. Stateside, that ratio would translate to 10,000 coffee roasters. Wellington — as locals love reminding visitors — has more cafes per capita than New York.
Considering the country’s British heritage, you’d figure tea would dominate — and it did until about the ’80s. Though I’ve read it all started with Italian immigrants in Australia, none of the Kiwis I met could explain exactly why.
“Wellington’s a government town, and there’s a lot of paper-pushing,” theorized Jay Chapman, a head trainer at Mojo Coffee (mojocoffee.co.nz), a huge Wellington-based roaster with its own network of cafes. “Maybe with mundane jobs, you need an extra kick.”
Tracy Arnold, owner of the stylish Aro Cafe (90 Aro St., 4-384-4970, arocoffee.co.nz), thinks coffee caught on as a socially acceptable substitute for heavy drinking.
“Cafes became an alternative to bar culture,” says Arnold, who launched her own roastery, Aro Coffee, last year.
In Auckland, indie cafes are as prevalent as Starbucks in New York. Each proudly touts its bean of choice.
At Korean-run Caffe Madison (20 Lorne St., 9-357-0908, no website), shots come in stainless-steel cups and coffee hails from family-run Auckland roaster Yovin (yovin.co.nz). Buzzy new cafe Grassy Knoll (21 Shortland St., 9-309-6056, facebook.com/TheGrassyKnollNZ) relies on Auckland’s Atomic Coffee for its potent beans.
And I’m still dreaming about the complex, winey shot I had at Espresso Workshop (11 Britomart Place, 9-302-3691, espressoworkshop.co.nz), where two champion New Zealand baristas tend the coffee bar. The company roasts its own beans; a 7-ounce bag ($13) makes a perfect souvenir.
The coffee vocab’s different down here. My drink of choice, espresso, is a short black. A long black is like our Americano. A flat white is a single shot with a lot of textured milk, and served in a cappuccino cup.
Whatever you order, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. “Wellington consumers are spoiled,” said Mojo’s Chapman. “No one’s sending out a half-assed cup of coffee anywhere. This is one of the few places in the world where Starbucks had to close a store. Wellington has high expectations.”
Indeed Wellington-based Zest Food Tours (zestfoodtours.co.nz, 4-801-9198) offers coffee-themed walks, including visits with local roasters.
But at Queenstown’s Motogrill (62 Shotover St., 3-441-1486, facebook.com/motogrill) — hailed by New Zealand magazine Cuisine as the city’s best coffee — a busy barista dismissed Kiwi coffee culture altogether.
“I don’t think New Zealanders are crazier than any other country,” said Emily Gibbons as she pulled powerful shots made with L’affare beans from Wellington. “I’ve been making coffee here for the same grumpy men for years.”
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