The little nation has gone nuts for ‘The Hobbit’, which, like ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, is almost entirely filmed in New Zealand. It’s also helmed by a native (Peter Jackson) and all the sets and props were created by Wellington-based effects house WETA.
From re-branding the airport to Hobbit-themed stamps, they’ve gone all out to associate the country with Middle-earth, and Tolkien tourism is now big business there.
With the imminent release of the first ‘Hobbit’ flick, Tourism New Zealand very kindly let us have a look round what is perhaps the country’s premier Hobbit attraction, the actual sets where all the Hobbiton scenes in both film series were filmed.
The home of Bilbo Baggins is actually a massive private farm near Matamata in the north island. It was about an hour’s drive from Rotorua airport in special Hobbiton-themed buses. Tolkien intended The Shire to closely resemble rural England, so perhaps appropriately it was coats and scarves weather when we visited in July.
The countryside is also very familiar, and reminded us of Somerset and Devon in the UK… only a bit more epic.
The Hobbiton attraction is not a cheap day out at a basic $75 per adult (around £38). Tours picking you up from Rotorua airport are also available, as are packages to stay near the site in ‘farm’ accommodation.
When we arrived we pitched up at ‘The Shire’s Rest’, a slightly kitsch café serving fare like ‘The Second breakfast’ (a Hobbit staple) as well as lamb and chips, burgers and so on.
It was here we met Russell Alexander, whose family has owned the site since 1978. He’s managing director of the farm and responsible for allowing Peter Jackson and his army of staff to invade his land back in 1999, and subsequently transform it into a working tourist attraction.
He told us that when ‘Hobbit’ producers New Line originally pitched up on his land, they contracted the New Zealand army to build a road up to the remote site.
Apparently 44 Hobbit holes were built in different sizes to help create the optical illusions needed for Middle-earth’s little and large races (see the illustration).
Weirdly, he also said the oak tree overlooking Bag End wasn’t actually alive. It was cut down in nearby Matamata, chopped up (with each branch numbered), transported to the Hobbiton site then painstakingly reassembled. Fake leaves made in Taiwan were then individually wired on to the dead tree. It was on screen for less than a minute!
We were actually allowed inside the iconic Bag End (most punters aren’t), and so could recreate the famous image of the shire from Bilbo’s house – as seen on the ‘Hobbit’ poster. Russell told us fans get especially excited in this spot - he’s seen several wedding proposals happen here.
After wandering past dozens of beautiful Hobbit holes, we made our way past an artificial lake and came across the Green Dragon Pub – or at least the front of it. Workmen were busy converting the skeleton structure into a fully functioning pub for functions in time for the release of the new films.
We took one final snap of the famous Party Tree - familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Fellowship Of The Ring’ - before we were sadly whisked out of Middle-earth and back into the real world.
Click on the 5 rings to collect 5 letters from 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' themed pages across Yahoo! for the chance to win 4 tickets to the UK Premiere. Click here for more info.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is released in the UK on 13 December.