New Zealand's Hobbit Trail

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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 Mr. Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and will soon reappear in his "Hobbit" prequels. The sky is dramatic, with sunbeams radiating like spotlights from behind thunderheads. You are woozy from the two-hour car ride from Auckland on a twisting two-lane road (nonstop chatter from Mr. and Mrs. Fanny Pack standing next to you doesn't help), but a few deep gulps of the agrarian air is restorative. And no matter how stubborn, cynical or reluctant you may be (we were all three), this place is most likely casting its spell.

For Mr. 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, over 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. If all goes according to plan, the pictures will also reopen the floodgates of film tourism here.

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 following the 1995 release of "Braveheart." And in Natchitoches, La., devotees continue to spend $175 a night to sleep in the Shelby Room, where Julia Roberts became a star in "Steel Magnolias" some 23 years ago. (Yes, it is pink.)

But the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which took in over $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.

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 world travel destinations. After all, Mr. 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. Over 50,000 people came in 2004 alone, when "Lord of the Rings" fever peaked following 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 Mr. 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.

The government is hoping that aggressive planning will raise the number of movie-fueled visitors exponentially this time around. Kiwi officials negotiated a deal with New Line to put a travel infomercial on every DVD. In August, the government began a global marketing campaign featuring the slogan "100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand." 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.

On its Web site, 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, whether by a relatively direct route that includes State Highway 27 or by a bewildering patchwork preferred by locals who hold to State Highway 1 and its adjuncts. We took the scenic route and drove ourselves, but Auckland's Red Carpet Tours offers a popular bus service.

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. In terms of restaurants, there is the homey yet stylish Redoubt Bar & Eatery, but this is a fundamentally provincial place. 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, Mr. Jackson, returned with a request to build a "Lord of the Rings" movie set there.

Speaking at his farm in late June, Mr. Alexander recalled his father blurting out: "Lord of the what?" Mr. Alexander said he "kicked him under the table."

What Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Alexander undertook the cost of basic maintenance and repair. "The movie studio actively discouraged me," he said. Nevertheless, "People just kept coming."

So Mr. 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 Mr. Jackson's set, located down a gravel road in the interior of the farm.

Two years ago, when Mr. Jackson returned to Matamata to film his new "Hobbit" prequels, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 at 1.18 New Zealand dollars to the United States dollar).

But, if a recent visit is any indication, one of Hobbiton's principal charms remains its lack of polish. Our guide, complete with naturally gnarled teeth and muddy work boots, approached us outside the gift shop (where you buy tour tickets) and herded us into an 11-seat van along with eight other foreign tourists, most of them devouring cookies purchased at Mr. Alexander's Shire's Rest cafe. We bumped along, reaching the set after stops to open and close several farm gates. Storm clouds looked ominous, so everyone grabbed an umbrella from a wooden rack and set forth behind our guide, who warned us to "watch out for rabbit holes."

Facts were recited: The tiny houses are sized for Hobbits, presumed to measure about 3 feet 6 inches. Pictures were taken: The 44 Hobbit homes are each equipped with fenced yards and windowsills filled with diminutive knickknacks. Orders were given: Do not open those little round doors. (A tour guide snapped when, inevitably, a member of the group did just that. There's nothing inside anyway. It's a film set, after all.)

Wandering freely on the vast set, about 12 acres, is not allowed, but we didn't feel the slightest bit rushed. Treacle is sparse here, which is part of the allure; there are no costumed Hobbits smiling and waving, Disney style. But we did see crews pruning hedges, expanding a parking lot and building that themed pub, in anticipation of the coming crowds.

Near the top of the hill, the fabric leaves of Mr. Jackson's fake tree fluttered in the breeze, and we gasped at how completely Hobbit Valley enveloped us. While Hobbiton and its sheep farm rival the size of the theme park at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, it is a unique environment -- a quiet, spare place where the line between nature and art fades to nothing.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Brodie, who helps supervise Hobbiton (and who can be seen in the "Rings" movies as a Gondorian bread seller), said 500,000 are now in print. He will publish a new guide as soon as Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Brodie offers in his book.

The centerpiece of Tongariro, aside from the volcanoes, of course, is an 83-year-old hotel called Chateau Tongariro, where Mr. Jackson and his crew camped, screening footage in its basement movie theater.

Though it looks from the outside like a cross between "The Shining" hotel and the Baltimore psychiatric hospital in "The Silence of the Lambs," inside the atmosphere is lovely, with a grand piano in the lobby, swollen grapefruit-colored portieres and the sweet smell of old wood. When we were there it seemed to be filled with New Zealanders enjoying a weekend away, more interested in lounging in the lobby with cocktails than hiking, which suited us just fine, as we had the trails almost entirely to ourselves.

The hotel's Ruapehu Room restaurant offers seafood appetizers and New Zealand standards as main dishes (a tasty rack of lamb with caramelized sweetbreads, 38 New Zealand dollars).

After a day in the shadow of Mordor, head to Wellington, a four-hour drive to the southern end of the island where Mr. Jackson's film studio is. The offbeat, slightly San Francisco-ish capital offers more organized movie tours with visits to anywhere from 7 to 25 "Lord of the Rings" filming locations.

But don't expect to see much at Mr. 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. (Though Stone Street's security guards may let you have a peek over the fence, depending on their mood.)

AS a Plan B, fans hang out in Wellington's Seatoun district, a windy coastal enclave where Mr. 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 Mr. Jackson's movies near Weta Digital. The Hobbit collectibles veer toward the tacky, but we did pick up a few unusual postcards adorned with real-life wetas, giant New Zealand insects that serve as Mr. Jackson's emblem.

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 -- the Rangitata Valley on this country's South Island, for example, where a grassy outcropping called Mount Sunday can be seen in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," as Rohan.

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 around Queenstown, a ski village nestled against a deep glacial lake. But filmmakers come for the Remarkables, a mountain chain so named because, well ... The jagged peaks have stood in for the Rockies in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," but it was the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that most prominently featured them, and Mr. 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 one last year.

When we arrived in June, after two-hour plane ride from Wellington, Queenstown was hoping for its first snow and Mr. Gatward-Ferguson was retooling one of his tours to include "Hobbit" locations. He offered to give us a sneak peek, so we paid our fee and climbed into one of Nomad's six-passenger S.U.V.'s, thrilled to have no other tourists in tow.

The first stop was a lakeside meadow outside Queenstown called Little Paradise, which Mr. Jackson transformed into a helipad to transport actors to a remote shooting location across the water. It was, well, a pretty little field.

Speeding along and spewing factoids, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson next turned onto a gravel road and came to an abrupt stop (while simultaneously tuning the radio and sipping his coffee) at a shallow river about 30 feet across. Our destination was on the other side. Muttering under his breath, he shifted to four-wheel drive and eased into the water -- gently -- as we clung to the seat and wondered if we had irrevocably crossed the line between casual Hobbit fan and self-destructive fanatic.

Then, after a few sharp turns through some woods, we emerged in a narrow valley, clear but with evergreens on both sides. Our guide parked and hopped out of the truck. On this site, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson announced triumphantly, Mr. Jackson filmed footage to create the Isengard fortress from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." Ah, yes: We recognized the place. The sun was sparkling, but a wind blasted down the mountainsides at what seemed like hurricane force. As a gust left us shivering, he pointed out a small hill that will figure prominently in the second "Hobbit" film as the home of Beorn, the man who can transform himself into a bear.

"Let's get back in the truck," he said cheerfully, as tree limbs whipped back and forth. "It's a bloody death trap around here when the wind blows."

About 10 minutes later, however, he was precariously parked again, this time on the side of an impossibly narrow road. After shooing us up an embankment and into a dense forest, he proceeded to re-enact the plundering of Mr. Jackson's evil Orcs. It was a good show; Mr. Gatward-Ferguson is no slouch as an Orc, having played one in the films. Still, our enjoyment might have been hampered by the words, "bloody deathtrap" ringing in our heads.

Barreling back toward town after a few more stops, the conversation turned to Nomad's high hopes for a Hobbit-fueled boom. This time, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson vowed, it would be positioned to take full advantage of any surge. There will be a new tour for hard-core fans involving costumes and props. ("We'll haul them into the forest and let them swing weapons around," he said.) And his store will be expanded and stocked with more themed merchandise, like plastic elf ears for 17 New Zealand dollars.

"No one should go home without some elf ears," he said. "Sometimes I wear a pair myself while driving around town."

TOURING TOLKIEN

MATAMATA

We stayed at Chestnut Lane Cottage, a five-minute drive from Hobbiton. Private and sparkling clean, this small bed-and-breakfast was where Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, stayed during filming of the "Hobbit" movies. Reservations are a must. A stand-alone one-bedroom cottage is 130 New Zealand dollars, including breakfast. Other rooms are 105 New Zealand dollars, about $89 at 1.18 New Zealand dollars to the United States dollar. (4 Chestnut Lane; 64-7-888-5173; chestnutlanecottage.com)

For dinner, try the Redoubt Bar & Eatery whose welcoming fireplace was ornamented with a women's brassiere when we were there. The menu is broad, but eating light can be hard in New Zealand. We went with the bacon-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with blue cheese, served on a Parmesan-coated portobello mushroom, 31 New Zealand dollars. (48 Broadway; 64-7-888-8585; facebook.com/redoubtmatamata)

There is also Workmans Cafe Bar, a greasy spoon down the street, which locals seem to like. (52 Broadway; 64-7-888-5498; matamata-info.co.nz/workmans)

TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK You can camp, rent a one-room "back country hut" or stay in a low-cost motel, but there is really only one place to stay here: the Chateau Tongariro. Rooms are standard-issue historic hotel (spare and medium-sized but clean) with cavernous bathrooms equipped with old-fashioned towel warmers. There are several nearby hiking trails (ask one of the friendly front-desk attendants for advice on which might be best for you), and other activities abound, including golf (on a simple nine-hole course) and, depending on the season, skiing and river rafting. (State Highway 48, Mount Ruapehu; 64-7-892-3809; chateau.co.nz)

WELLINGTON When Hollywood bigwigs come to Wellywood, as the film-industry here is known, they stay at the quirky Museum Hotel. Decorated in bright colors (magenta, turquoise, orange), the boutique hotel is on the waterfront across from Te Papa, New Zealand's newly opened national museum. Rooms start at 200 New Zealand dollars. (90 Cable Street; 64-4-802-8900; museumhotel.co.nz)

Eat locally sourced steak or lamb near one of the rounded windows of Hummingbird, an upscale, recently renovated restaurant, and watch the scene unfold on one of New Zealand's busiest night-life streets. (22 Courtenay Place; 64-4-801-6336; hummingbird.net.nz)

QUEENSTOWN

The Rees Hotel, a 60-room boutique hotel on the lakefront, is home to True South, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the area. (If our room service was any indication, the critics are right.) Rooms have expansive private balconies and chic wood furnishings by a local designer, Ed Cruikshank. Rates start at 195 New Zealand dollars. (377 Frankton Road; 64-3-450-1100; therees.co.nz)

Fat, messy sandwiches have made Fergburger a local favorite. The Little Lamby (12.50 New Zealand dollars) is "mutton on a bun" topped with mint jelly and tomato relish. The Big Al starts with a half-pound of beef, bacon, cheese, two eggs and a slice of beet. The motto for this hole in the wall: "Let there be burgers for people when they are drunk to hell." (42 Shotover Street; 64-3-441-1232; fergburger.com)

Tour Groups and Guides

The efficiency of New Zealand tour operators will thrill you, whether it's Red Carpet Tours in Auckland (64-9-410-6561; redcarpet-tours.com) or Queenstown's Nomad Safaris (64-3-442-6699; nomadsafaris.co.nz). A one-stop shop for accurate countrywide travel advice and booking help is Positively Wellington, the capital's tourism division (corner of Wakefield and Victoria streets; 64-4-916-1205; wellingtonnz.com).

Getting Around

We drove 500 miles in total, covering a wide swath of the North Island, with nothing more than the maps app on our iPhone as a guide. Car rental agencies are plentiful (remember to drive on the left). We found hopping on domestic flights to be shockingly easy. For our flight from Queenstown to Wellington, for instance, there was no security screening or gate announcement. An airport employee simply appeared while we milled around the central waiting area and said, "All right then, anyone who's going to Wellington, get on. That door."

Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply cover Hollywood from the Los Angeles bureau.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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