New Zealand’s Middle Earth: behind the scenes of The HobbitA land of snow-capped peaks, primeval forests and glacier-carved river valleys, New Zealand seemed destined to play a starring role in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. As Middle Earth fans gear up for the last and final movie of the Hobbit series, here's a look at some of the fantastical set locations and fine behind-the-scenes craftwork that have helped shine a spotlight on one of the world’s most breathtaking countries.
Queenstown Bay and the Remarkables. Image by Photo Art by Mandy / Getty
New Zealand’s Middle Earth – Hobbiton
When director Peter Jackson flew over the gentle, rolling hills west of Matamata during location scouting on the North Island, he knew he’d struck pay dirt. Here was the Shire: a rambling and age-old countryside of fertile green hills framed by a picturesque lake and a towering pine tree – a dead ringer for Tolkien’s ‘party tree’ (where Bilbo Baggins was feted at his Farewell Birthday Party).
Today, you can wander through this otherworldly landscape, stepping past dozens of handsomely painted hobbit holes set in the hillsides. Tiny flower and vegetable gardens, hobbit-sized garden tools and even a mini-sized stone bridge and water mill add to the illusion that you are clearly no longer in Kansas. Visits to Hobbiton are by guided tour; end your stroll at the recreated Green Dragon Inn over a few draughts of ale (thankfully served in human-, rather than halfling-sized mugs).
Hobbit holes in Hobbiton on New Zealand’s North Island. Image by Regis St Louis / Lonely Planet
Movie magic comes to life in the rooms of Weta Workshop, creators of props, costumes, and oodles and oodles of orc blood. Founded in Wellington by special-effects auteurs Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger in 1987, this outfit has garnered an armful of Academy Awards for its artistry in bringing fantasy to life.
Middle Earth fans can take a guided 45-minute tour through the Weta Cave, and peruse the chainmail armour, weaponry and elf ears fabricated for the Lord of the Rings films. You can often see the artisans in action as this company is much in demand (Middle Earth aside, Weta was involved in Avatar, King Kong, The Last Samurai and countless other films).
It’s located in the suburb of Miramar, 8.5km southwest of the city centre. If you’re without transport, tours (including shuttle transport) go several times daily from central Wellington. If you can’t make it out to the workshop you can also see some of Weta’s creations at Wellington airport, where several massive installations – including a rather lifelike dragon snout (Smaug, of course) – can be spotted.
New Zealand’s adventure capital boasts a setting that is nothing short of spectacular. Flying in is a great intro to the impressive landscapes of the South Island, as planes land between soaring mountain peaks on the edge of sparkling Lake Wakatipu. Given such outlandish natural beauty, it’s no wonder that Peter Jackson chose many nearby sites as key filming locations. Just east of town, stands the aptly named Remarkables, a jagged mountain chain often capped with snow.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy these peaks featured as both the Snowy Mountains and the rugged, frightening scenery of Mordor. In the Hobbit trilogy they appear once again as the Misty Mountains.For stunning views, head up to 900-metre-high Queenstown Hill (a three-hour return walk from the town centre), or save a few calories by boarding the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak. At the top there are walking trails, a luge and a mountain bike park.
There are not too many places in the world where you can sip world-class wine while watching thrillseekers swan-dive off a bridge (bungee cord attached of course). But in the South Island’s Central Otago region, one of the world’s southernmost wine-producing spots, you can tour vineyards just around the bend from the Kawarau River, home to the world’s first commercial bungy jump. The Middle Earth cast, who spent some weeks in Queenstown filming, is no stranger to the area’s attractions.
Orlando Bloom (aka Legolas) was a big fan of AJ Hackett Bungy, located 23km north of Queenstown. The sometimes Sindar elf of the woodland realm was also spotted dining at Amisfield Winery (www.amisfield.co.nz), famed for its delectable tasting menu of farm-to-table cuisine, matched by lush pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs. The award-winning winery continues to garner attention. In April 2014, Prince William and Kate Middleton dined and drank there.
Near the north end of Lake Wakatipu, about 45 minutes’ drive from Queenstown, you find Glenorchy. This tiny village (population around 400) is the gateway to Paradise, a curiously (if not inappropriately) named region of shadowy beech forests, alpine lakes and chiselled peaks. On a visit to the area, you can pass by the film location of Beorn’s House in The Hobbit, as well as backdrops for Isengard.
Road to Paradise, Glenorchy: home to The Hobbit’s Beorn House. Image by Tim Jordan Photography / Getty
There are numerous ways to experience the beauty. You can book a 4WD tour with Nomad Safari, climb into the saddle for the ‘Ride of the Rings’ tour offered by Dart Stables, or blaze over mountain streams on a jet-boat ride. For something less adrenaline-pumping, there are some stunning walks (called ‘tramps’ in these parts) nearby, including the famed multi-day Routeburn Track, considered one of the finest ‘Great Walks’ of New Zealand.
With its sunny climate, gorgeous national parks and peaceful waterfront towns, the upper tip of the South Island makes a pretty perfect setting for a road trip. There’s also plenty of Middle Earth lore here. Picturesquely set along the eastern shores of Tasman Bay, the laid-back town of Nelson is known for its galleries, markets and strong craft traditions (in fact, it’s home to more than 350 working artists and artisans).
‘One ring to rule them all’: Lord of the Rings props at Nelson jewellers Jens Hansen. Image by Regis St Louis / Lonely Planet
You’ll find portraitists, glassblowers, Maori carvers and one famous ring maker. The Jeweller Jens Hansen designed and crafted dozens of rings for Peter Jackson’s six Middle Earth films, including a massive 8-inch gold-plated number used for special effects. Aside from licensed replicas of the movie rings, the small shop sells a wide range of handcrafted jewellery, all cast with the unique Scandinavian-like imprint of Hansen’s style.
A short drive east of Marlborough, not far from Nelson on the South Island, lies thick forests of towering beech trees flanking a rocky gorge carved by the fast-moving Pelorus River. Such a scenic locale provided the ideal backdrop to the Forest River, along which dwarves and one frightened hobbit floated in barrels past a marauding group of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Pelorus River played centre stage in the famous barrel scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smuag. Image by Regis St Louis / Lonely Planet
A kayak ride, like those offered by Pelorus Eco Adventures, is the best way to see the waterfalls and rock pools of this enchanting river. You can also camp along the riverbanks. Thankfully, you needn’t worry about poison-laden arrows or head-splitting scimitars (though this is the perfect spot to fantasise about such things, should you wish).
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We made it home yesterday afternoon and we must say that going through customs in New Zealand was a piece of cake versus here in the States. :)
Picking up the car in Wellington and driving on the ferry was a cool experience for both of us. The drive in the dark to Kaiteriteri was a little scary being it was dark and wasn't familiar with the roads but we made it safely to Kaiteriteri and even though the motel was closed Lance and Christine had instructions on the office door and we were welcomed to our little bungalow with the heater on and the bed all nice and warm with the electric blanket and a things to do list on Kaiteriteri. They were both nice and welcoming when we met them the next morning.
Chris got the hang of driving on the left side pretty quickly and driving through the country was beautiful. Loved seeing all the sheep with their baby lambs and cows and their calves..definitely the start of Spring time! The itinerary was spot on and when it said we take 2 hours or 5 hours to reach our destination it was always correct with the suggested stops along the way.
Each motel we stayed in was really nice and we were thankful for the heater and electrical blankets at each stay. Everyone we met was really nice and helpful.
We liked staying in Te Anau and spending time there and Milford Sound where we were given a special box of chocolates for our anniversary! Queenstown was a lot of fun, lots to do in town and the KJet boat was a blast as well as the Skyline Gondola. We had fun at Christchurch although it was raining the first day we got there but, Lee with Amcross Motor Lodge was really nice and let us check in early the first night we stayed there and lent us an umbrella so we could walk and check out the town and the Canterbury museum. It was nice to return back there our last night on the South Island and was greeted by Lee again. She is a very sweet and helpful lady.
North Island - Staying in the city those two nights in Auckland made us realize we aren't in the country anymore lol Because it was hard to park we just paid for parking at the Waldorf Stadium apartments and walked to check out the sights. I ended up at an information site for things to do and the gentleman was really helpful and we planed the following day with a short ferry ride to Davonport and then after we a had a three hour tour with a local guide named Paul and ended up it was just the two of us so took us around the town and checked out a volcano and toured couple parks and other tourist attractions, he was a lot of fun and personable.
Hobbiton at Matamata was fun and Rotarua is another favorite stop for us. We were sad to leave.
Chris enjoyed the fishing with Will and caught 4 fish with the last one being the biggest trout that Will said he ever saw caught out of that river. The trout weighed 8 pounds and took about 45 minuets for Chris to bring it in. Chris took to fly fishing like a natural an Will even set me up on a spot overlooking he and Chris with a chair and coffee, tea and hot chocolate and some goodies while I sat and watched and listen to all the birds singing.
All in all it was a great adventure for us being our first time out of the States. Everyone one we met was very friendly and just about guessed we were from Hawaii. The guide from Te Pua Cultural Center in Rotarua said we could pass for Maori. :)
You and Linda are awesome and we couldn't have planned this vacation without you!
Mahalo again for making this adventure one that we will never forget!
Debbie & Chris, USA - Sep 2018
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