No trip to New Zealand would be complete without a pilgrimage to the mecca of Lord of the Rings tourism, Hobbiton. Conveniently, Hobbiton is located halfway between Whakatane and Auckland and we had half of Sunday to kill. Even more conveniently, my coworker was more than happy to drop us off at the remote farm that Hobbiton is located on and spend two hours in the closest town. And so, M and I booked tickets for the 2:00 tour, waved goodbye to our ride, and soaked up the picturesque atmosphere.
We were there about half an hour early, so we poked around the gift shop looking at the overpriced replica goods ($200 for Gandalf’s hat) and had a quick, surprisingly reasonably priced lunch. After lunch, we saw that the gift shop had a cute mailbox where you could drop off mail, but as we only had a few minutes until the tour, no one’s getting a postcard from Hobbiton from us. We queued up for the tour bus with the rest of the multinational tourists while the perky tour guide made sure we were all there. The large bus pulled up and we were on our way!
On the drive through the farm to the site, the bus driver made a few lame jokes and told us a little bit about how this location was chosen. Peter Jackson originally had nine different potential locations for Hobbiton, but his scouts took him to this farm first and immediately afterward he cancelled his plans to see any more. The owner of the farm hadn’t heard of The Lord of the Rings before the project and I guess didn’t realize how big it would be, but his neighbors recognized the local mountains in the background of one of the shots and demanded to know what was up with all the traffic on his farm. He gave them a tour of the abandoned, temporary set and thus the Hobbiton tours were born!
Soon after, we arrived at the set itself. A lot of people won’t know that there have actually been two Hobbitons here; for the LoTR films, the NZ government was adamant that anything done to the set had to be temporary and reversed entirely when filming was finished to restore the environment. By the time of the Hobbit films, they’d realised the tourism goldmine they had (remember the themed plane?) and allowed it to be rebuilt in permanent materials like bricks and timber! The tour guide led us to the first set of hobbit holes and a cute hobbit-sized vegetable patch. A team of full-time gardeners maintains the grounds so all the vegetables, except the lettuce, is real (real lettuce goes off too quickly to be practical).
The hobbit holes come in two flavors, half and full size. The half-sized ones are for Middle-earth humans to look large next to, and the full-sized ones are for Middle-earth hobbits to look reasonable next to. At each stop on the tour, the guide let us wander around the immediate area for a bit, taking pictures and admiring the attention to detail – each hole has accessories that relate to the owner’s profession.
As another example of Peter Jackson’s fanatical attention to detail, he (or rather, his talented crew) replaced the leaves and fruit on one of the apple trees in the orchard to make it a plum tree that was small enough for hobbit children, simply because there was one line in the book that dictated that the children picked plums. There’s a total of forty-some hobbit holes in Hobbiton, but five of them are never seen; they’re just there in case Jackson wanted to have wide shot of the area. Of course, these holes are around a glade with palm trees so I want to see him magic away those!
We wandered up the hill to the most famous of hobbit holes, Bag End. Since the last Hobbit film isn’t out yet and Peter Jackson (according to the guide) could swoop in at any second to reshoot some scenes, we couldn’t go past the gate or touch anything. The hobbit hole took up the entire top of the hill and above it was a large oak tree. During the first trilogy this tree was real, but it died after the filming. When the Hobbit films were announced they built an exact replica of the huge tree out of steel and fiberglass and around 300,000 artificial leaves with only one change: they made it look 60 years younger to account for the time difference between the two trilogies (of course).
After Bag End, we walked back down the hill to the party field. This was the location where Bilbo Baggins held his eleventy-first birthday party and subsequently disappeared under the Party Tree. The disappearing act couldn’t be done in the middle of the actual field so they replicated the first four meters of the tree in their Wellington studios (where all the interior work for the hobbit holes was done). The field had good views of the rest of the Shire, including our next destination, the Green Dragon.
We walked over the charming bridge to the town center area, which was really just the full-sized, fully operational pub. After an hour and a half of looking at exteriors, it was very nice to go into a decked-out interior. The Green Dragon boasted two fireplaces and lots of cozy seats, but M’s favorite feature by far was the free pint of ale. I got a cider; both varieties were brewed exclusively for Hobbiton and were actually pretty darn tasty. We relaxed in the pub, looking at the hobbity knickknacks on the wall and the more real-life memorabilia, until the tour guide dragged us all away and back onto the bus.
If the films ever fall out of popularity, the whole farm (minus the set) is still a fully operational sheep farm. But until then, there’s definitely a reason that Hobbiton is one of New Zealand’s top attractions: it’s really cool!