Hitting the Hobbit trail in New Zealand
With the premiere of the first installment of "The Hobbit" trilogy looming, New Zealand is prepping for another surge of film tourists.
The New York Times
Hobbit tours, info
Tours, travel info
A one-stop shop for accurate countrywide travel advice and booking help is Positively Wellington, the capital's tourism division, www.wellingtonnz.com.
The hill is perfect — steep, shaggy and as green as a radioactive shamrock, like the matching hills around it. The sheep seem pretty idyllic themselves: polite little nibblers who only sometimes block the road.
As for the oak tree on the hill's crest, it is quite literally perfect. Every flickering leaf was handcrafted, right down to the spidery plastic veins, a tribute to the meticulousness of Sir Peter Jackson, the movie director who staged this place, even creating the pond. (Where better for Paradise Geese to land?)
You are standing in Hobbiton, the place where J.R.R. Tolkien's furry-footed Hobbits came to life in Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and will soon reappear in his "Hobbit" prequels.
For Jackson, New Zealand and the millions of fans who spent the last decade tromping this island country in search of "Lord of the Rings" filming locations, the journey is about to begin again. In Wellington, more than 100,000 onlookers are expected to turn up on Nov. 28 outside the red-carpet premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three "Hobbit" films planned for release by 2014.
(The first film will be released in the U.S. on Dec. 14.)
If all goes according to plan, "The Hobbit" and its sequels will also reopen the floodgates of film tourism in New Zealand.
Movies — ephemeral, imaginary — have a way of sending fans in search of something real. "The Sound of Music" left such an imprint on Salzburg after filming there in 1964 that tours to see where Julie Andrews played "Do-Re-Mi" on her guitar still attract tens of thousands of visitors annually. In Scotland, tourism skyrocketed at the Wallace Monument after the 1995 release of "Braveheart." But the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which took in more than $3 billion at the global box office between 2001 and 2004, changed the film-tourism game entirely. To the surprise of almost everyone, it took possession of an entire country.
'Welcome to Middle-earth'
When New Line Cinema released the first of the movies in December 2001, tourism officials here hoped the film would, at best, move New Zealand up a notch or two on the list of travel destinations. After all, Jackson bulldozed half of his Hobbit village when he had finished filming. Who in their right mind would drive hours into the rural countryside to see it to begin with?
But people came. Since the first film's release, about 266,000 people have visited the half-ruined Hobbiton, according to Tourism New Zealand, with a majority from abroad. More than 50,000 people came in 2004 alone, when "Lord of the Rings" fever peaked after the release of the Oscar-winning third installment.
In fact, 6 percent of all New Zealand visitors that year, or about 150,000 people, listed the movies as a "main" reason for coming; 11,200 said it was their only reason.
New Zealand's travel and hospitality industries, initially caught off guard, raced to meet demand. In Queenstown on the South Island, where Jackson filmed numerous mountain scenes, 17 tour companies, many of them popping up overnight, started offering movie-related excursions. Hotels across the country rolled out "Lord of the Rings" promotions and packages, and airport customs officials strung up "Welcome to Middle-earth" banners. In all, the country is spending at least $50 million on Hobbit-related tourism promotions, with the biggest attraction remaining this 1,200-acre farm in the slow-moving, once-upon-a-time North Island town of Matamata.
Where it began
On its website, Matamata (pronounced MAW-da MAW-da) is billed as "a rural hinterland." For the most part, it is exactly that. The town center has about 6,000 inhabitants. Another 6,000 are spread across farms that fall within Matamata's boundaries. It all sits two hours by car or bus south of Auckland.
Once you arrive in Matamata you'll find a few older, no-frills motels and a smattering of bed-and-breakfasts catering to Hobbit visitors, including the new Chestnut Lane Cottage, where the charming owners greeted us with warm scones slathered in orange jam and whipped cream. The local newspaper prominently reports soil temperatures, and businesses are practical, like Boltholder Limited, "specialists in bolts and nuts."
Matamata caught its star, just barely, in 1998, when a farmer named Russell Alexander — jovial, bald and blunt — saw a stranger with binoculars peering across his land. Soon that interloper and his bearded boss, Jackson, returned with a request to build a "Lord of the Rings" movie set there.
Alexander recalled his father blurting out: "Lord of the what?" Alexander said he "kicked him under the table."
What Jackson and his associates originally built on a hillside and at the bottom of a deep hollow was a wonderland. Through a camera's lens or to a casual visitor, it looked like a fairy-tale village and a Hobbit's Shire, with a munchkin-size mill and dozens of brightly painted Hobbit hole homes, each with a circular front door and most with itty-bitty chimneys and the mossy look of someplace you might stop to rest.
But once the movies had been made, what remained was an unlikely destination for tourists. As Alexander described it, untreated plywood sat warping in the rain. A bridge constructed from polystyrene "rocks" began to collapse. Sheep grazed through a half-bulldozed Shire that was kept somewhat intact only because Alexander undertook the cost of basic maintenance and repair.
"The movie studio actively discouraged me," he said. Nevertheless, "People just kept coming."
So Alexander, while continuing to graze 10,000 sheep on the property, started to formalize the business, adding restrooms, building a restaurant and buying modern buses to cart people between those amenities and Jackson's set, located down a gravel road in the interior of the farm.
Two years ago, when Jackson returned to Matamata to film his new "Hobbit" prequels, Alexander persuaded him to kick in a few million dollars to make the restored set permanent.
Now a 50-50 venture between the Alexanders and Wingnut Films, which is Jackson's production company, Hobbiton recently unveiled the improvements timed to the movie's release and New Zealand's summer tourism season, which starts in November. New features include a pub, more Hobbit homes, an electric fence to keep out the sheep and a gift shop offering high-end collectibles (magic cloaks, 900 New Zealand dollars, about $760 U.S.)
A hard trek to Mordor
Hobbiton is just a starting point for serious Tolkien tourists who will need focus, stamina and time to make a dent in the hundreds of miles and some 70 sites (spread across two islands) portrayed in Jackson's movies. The locations stretch from Port Waikato at the top of the country's North Island (used to film the author's Weathertop fortress ruins) to the bottom of the South Island, a spot where "Hobbit" characters seek refuge with a man who can transform himself into a bear. The distance between those two places is about 1,000 miles, and attempting to visit all — or even most — of the sites would require various forms of transit and a questionably zealous determination.
For anyone interested in a four-day Middle-earth excursion situated solely on the more populated North Island, start in Auckland and rent a car, making sure to pick up a copy of Ian Brodie's "Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook." HarperCollins, which published the book in 2002, originally expected it to sell 18,000 copies, but Brodie, who helps supervise Hobbiton, said 500,000 are now in print. He will publish a new guide as soon as Jackson permits disclosure of the "Hobbit" film sites.
After Hobbiton, drive about two hours south to the 300-square-mile Tongariro National Park, which has three active volcanoes and was selected by Jackson to stand in as Tolkien's foreboding Mordor.
The park, visited by about a million people annually, requires hard-core hiking to see properly, with an arduous eight-hour trek called Alpine Crossing taking you through scorched terrain to emerald lakes and steam vents. Film tourism here is not organized; most people follow the detailed where-to-go instructions Brodie offers in his guidebook.
After a day in the shadow of Mordor, head to Wellington, a four-hour drive to the southern end of the island where Jackson's film studio is. The offbeat, slightly San Francisco-ish capital offers more organized movie tours with visits to anywhere from seven to 25 "Lord of the Rings" filming locations.
But don't expect to see much at Jackson's Weta Digital, a visual-effects facility, or Stone Street Studios, which has four sound stages and all of the usual filmmaking trappings. Both are closed to the public.
As a Plan B, fans hang out in Wellington's Seatoun district, a windy coastal enclave where Jackson owns property and has been seen driving one of his toys — a fanciful touring car used in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Or one can do a surgical strike and skip straight to the Weta Cave — a gift shop, mini-museum and theater devoted to Jackson's movies — near Weta Digital.
Having only six days to investigate the Tolkien universe that is the country of New Zealand, we had to miss some no doubt impressive sights. But we didn't want to skip the South Island altogether, in part because it is where New Zealand's most jaw-dropping mountains are.
Moviemaking here is centered on Queenstown, a ski village nestled against a deep glacial lake. But filmmakers come for the Remarkables, jagged peaks featured prominently in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and to which Jackson returned for extensive "Hobbit" filming.
Nomad Safaris was one of the first tour operators to start selling a themed excursion when fans started arriving a decade ago. "We completely underestimated the intensity of these fans," said Nomad's highly caffeinated owner, a British expat named David Gatward-Ferguson. "People would come and bawl their eyes out looking at where Aragorn stood."
Nomad now offers two "Safari of the Scenes" options, each priced at about $134 for adults and $65 for children and lasting four hours. The company said about 10,000 people took tours last year.