Rolling, bright green hills dotted with fluffy sheep greeted us as we made our way through the countryside. Around every turn, I pictured Gandalf and his merry band of hobbits strolling through the meadows as they made their way from Bag End. The closer we came to our destination, the more real this trip into Middle Earth became. As we planned our recent trip to New Zealand, we quickly realized how much there was to see in this amazing country. This is a place you will want to return to over and over. For our ten day journey, we decided to concentrate on the North Island. We included Waiheke Island, Waipoua Forest, Auckland, Rotorua, and the Hamilton area on our list of can't miss destinations. My husband, Jeff, and I both read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as kids. We loved the movies, and really wanted to see at least one location featured in the films. What better place than the hamlet where it all started - The Shire! The drive out to Hobbiton is absolutely gorgeous, you will want to stop and take lots of pictures, just allow plenty of time so you don't miss your tour. We arrived 30 minutes before it started, and unpacked our camera gear. We wanted to capture amazing long exposures of the night sky and the movie sets lit from within each burrow. This is the point where I discovered that my tripod had been broken during baggage inspection on our trip to New Zealand. It was in pieces, and I was crushed. We had to punt. I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark 3 and fast glass, so I set my ISO high and opened up my aperture. I looked for fence posts and railings that I could set my camera on for some images, to try to open up the shadows with slow exposures. Not ideal, but I made it work.
On the tour we learned all about how this entire set was created for Lord of the Rings in a farmer's empty field. After the movie wrapped, it was dismantled completely. Little did they know what a huge worldwide success the movie franchise was going to be. When The Hobbit began filming, Peter Jackson and the landowner decided to make the set more permanent, with the idea of creating a destination for movie fans. The detail throughout the twelve-acre set is incredible. Smoke comes out of the tiny chimneys, little Hobbit pants and shirts are hanging on a line, gardens are planted with vegetables, and at Bag End there is a familiar sign on the gate. We loved hearing all of the behind the scenes information on how the film crew made the magic happen.
As the sun began to set behind the hills, we wound our way from Bag End down the hill. Around every turn in the path, there was another surprise. Tiny ladders leaning up into apple trees in the orchard, tools leaning on a fence like the owner had just stepped away for a moment - every detail was charming and made the town come alive. Soon we spied a sign pointing the way to our next destination. We were headed to the Green Dragon Inn for a banquet - Hobbit style.
The Green Dragon Inn was perfect. It was like a cozy English pub with fires lit and drinks ready for an evening of feasting and celebration. At the appointed hour, curtains were flung back and the banquet was revealed! Tables were piled high with roasted chicken, beef and ale stew, lamb shanks, squash, bubble and squeak, potatoes, sausages, loaves of house-made bread and cheese. Desserts were plentiful too, with regional favorites including Bakewell tarts - any Great British Baking Show fans out there? - and fresh fruit pavlova. The food was delicious, I was sure there were master Middle Earth chefs in the kitchen. It was just as I imagined a Shire celebration would have been. We sat at long tables family-style and met people from all over the world. Everyone was having fun. This was a festive bucket list item for so many people at our table!
After dinner, we each received a lantern so we could wander around Hobbiton on our own. It was breath-taking - every hobbit hole was lit as if the inhabitants had settled in for the evening. The whole village centered on a green and pond lit with lights that pulled you right into the fairytale. At the end of the tour, we gathered together as a group. We turned off all of our lanterns and looked up. The night sky was filled with more stars than I have ever seen. It was truly breath-taking. I can't wait to go back again - New Zealand is calling.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is located between Hamilton and Rotorua on the North Island in New Zealand. The Hobbiton Evening Banquet and Tour is open to 50 guests, Sunday thru Wednesday evenings, after the village empties out for the day. Tickets are available online here for $195 USD. I bought them months in advance as the spots fill quickly. We stayed the night before our tour in a great little bed and breakfast in Cambridge, called Huntington Stables. It's in horse country, about 30 minutes away from Hamilton. Our host was friendly and warm, and our accommodations were really nice. She even included fresh fruit, eggs from the hen house, and everything we needed to make a hot breakfast in our kitchen the next morning.