There and Back Again: Visting Hobbiton

So secretly or not so secretly, one of the major driving forces for getting me to New Zealand has always been my love of the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson’s trilogy essentially introduced me to the north and south islands and sparked my initial interest in the country. And even though there were computer generated flourishes added to New Zealand’s many natural landmarks in the movies, it did very little to diminish the actual grandeur of these locations when you see them without cinematic alteration. Mt. Doom, Isenguard, Rivendale, Edoras. All these places exist in some form in New Zealand. The country has a palette of landscapes so diverse that it can pretty much double for any terrain needed for a fantasy epic like LOTR.

“  In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...  ” 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...” 

But for me the one location that has always tugged at my wanderlust, calling me to the southern hemisphere has also been one of its simplest. Hobbiton. The idyllic bucolic lifestyle of the Hobbits appealed to me as a sort of perfect sleepy agrarian utopia where the tenants till the land, regularly have elevenses and second breakfastes, and find cause to celebrate even the most trivial events. It's basically an Amish community where everyone drinks a lot and doesn’t wear shoes.   

Bulletin board down at the old mill. 

Bulletin board down at the old mill. 

So when I learned that Hobbiton actually existed beyond the film sets in Peter Jackson’s Wellington based WETA facility and could be visited by the general public, I knew I had to go. Hobbiton is my mecca, at least until they build the Mos Eisley Cantina (which they strangely enough actually appear to be building). The movie set is located in Matamata, a small farming town located about two hours south of Auckland, tucked deep into the countryside amongst the endlessly green rolling hills of the north island and the wandering masses of grazing livestock that occupy them. 

Because the set is on privately owned land, you can only access it through a tour that departs from about ten minutes away at The Shire’s Rest. You can also start tours from Matamata or Auckland, but I’d recommend driving to the Shire’s Rest if you have a car, as it is the most convenient starting point. The Shire’s Rest is the main hub for the attraction and has a café and a well stocked (but expensive) gift shop where you can douse your travel budget with gasoline and watch it burn as you load up on more Hobbit merch than you could possibly fit in your suitcase, all while you wait for your tour to depart.  

All sorts of expensive things you don't need but can't resist...besides, it's in NZ dollars. I'm sure after you convert $165 NZ, it can't be more than $20 or $30 US*....right?...    *(It's actually $110 US, so it's still expensive)

All sorts of expensive things you don't need but can't resist...besides, it's in NZ dollars. I'm sure after you convert $165 NZ, it can't be more than $20 or $30 US*....right?...    *(It's actually $110 US, so it's still expensive)

Once you are loaded onto your bus, you pass through a locked gate and your tour begins. Winding down the road we were lucky enough to catch the owner of the farm herding his sheep down the road by motorbike while his sheep dog trotted along, nipping at any strays that fell out of line. It was a nice touch to kick off the tour, a sort of contemporary vignette of what you expected to see down the road. And after a few quick bends down the road and a brief general history and overview of the farm, you finally arrive at your destination. Hobbiton.

Departing the bus, I saw the wreathed Hobbiton sign and immediately felt a nostalgic gawkiness wash over me. It reminded me of going to Disneyland as a kid. The sort of experience where you plod along the entire time with a stupid grin plastered on your face, making any subsequent pictures taken of you unusable because of your inelegant look.

And Hobbiton did not disappoint. It was filled with pleasant surprises. I thought at most the grounds would be Bag End, the Green Dragon and a few other shoddily propped up Hobbit house fronts, but I was wrong. It far surpassed my expectations in that respect. There were over fifty intact Hobbit home fronts (none of them are functional in the sense that you can go inside, but the exteriors are so meticulously crafted and maintained that you can’t help but feel that this is a real living, breathing village) and a sizable grounds staff sprinkled around the shire, tending to the gardens, changing clotheslines and touching up the paint on the doors.

One of the many Hobbit doors. 

One of the many Hobbit doors. 

It’s an impressive operation. Along with the existence of Bag End, I was excited to see the Gamgee estate with its iconic trilogy ending yellow door, the celebration grounds for Bilbo’s birthday and a functional Green Dragon tavern (the Green Dragon is an especial delight, where you can enjoy pints of shire brewed ale and even rent out the tavern for private events).

The Gamgee estate. 

The Gamgee estate. 

Even with the Hobbit movies out of theaters and interest arguably waning for the franchise, Hobbiton is still packed with tourists and the upkeep of the grounds reflects the demand. There is not a shoddy corner, nook or alcove on the grounds. They’ve done a superb job with the upkeep and maintenance. And the tours were especially informative. I consider myself at least a mild Rings nerd and I still learned a lot that day. So, if you’re on the fence about visiting Hobbiton, do it. I mean, it’s the Shire, man. Come on. 

The board at the Green Dragon. 

The board at the Green Dragon. 

All and all, Hobbiton was easily one of my favorite stops in New Zealand. I loved every second of it. It's not just a quick cash grab tourist site. It's the real deal.  

Next stop. Mount Doom to destroy rings of power and wreck my feet even more! Onward!

Stray observations:

- Originally when they constructed the shire sets for the original LOTR movies, they built them with materials that were not meant to last and tore them down after finishing principle photography. It wasn’t until Jackson shot the Hobbit movies seven years later that the crew erected a Hobbiton that could withstand the elements and linger as a sustainable location that could be visited. So, you may not like the Hobbit movies, but you can thank them for the existence of a tourable Shire. But yes, while we’re on the subject, Battle of the Five Armies was pretty terrible. There, there. I know. 

- 95% of the greenery and gardens you see in Hobbiton are real, tended patches of land. That’s pretty cool. The other 5 % are mostly objects that have been exaggerated and manipulated beyond natural means for the purpose of scale. The most notable is the tree that stands atop Bag End. Once upon a time in the LOTR trilogy, it was a real arboreal object, but for the Hobbit they were forced to fashion a fake tree, painstakingly hand tying each individual leaf to the branches. The reasoning being that they needed a much younger looking tree for flashbacks in the Hobbit that predated the LOTR shots of the Bag End. Now that’s dedication to the details, folks.

- I want to be a gardener at Bag End. Seriously. How do I get that job? I’m willing to take a pay cut and relocate. 

- I know many people disliked, tolerated or simply shrugged off the first Hobbit movie, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit because of the large portions where they revisited Hobbiton. There was a lot of grumbling that these sections were slow, stuffed with too much exposition, character introductions and frivolous sing-songy compositions, and they’re not wrong, but I would have watched a whole movie of Bilbo going to buy fish at the market. I know, it’s weird. 

- I didn't get to take it, but I hear the private evening lantern lit tour of Hobbiton is supposed to be a must. It even includes dinner at the Green Dragon.