Stepping into the Shire – a visit to New Zealand’s Hobbiton Movie Set

It was a few days before Christmas, in 2001. Amanda and I, having been engaged for less than a year, lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. One evening, we went to the movies to see the first in the trilogy series of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

I remember watching that movie, and getting swept away in the majestic scenery of the Shire and Middle -Earth: from its soaring, rugged mountains to the lush, green rolling valleys. What made this so amazing to me was that the movie was shot on location, instead of being computer animated. Later, in watching a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the movie, I learned the movie locations were in New Zealand. And, if a movie could make me fall in love with the beautiful landscapes, I knew that this had to be a country that we needed to visit someday.

That someday, came fifteen years later!

Touring most of New Zealand during our cruise with Holland America, each of the ten ports of call offered various types of excursions we could take. We did not want every excursion to be based on the LOTR and “The Hobbit” trilogies. But, seeing that a visit to the Hobbiton Movie Set was a choice during our stop in Tauranga, New Zealand, we circled this, as our one “movie geek” trip to take…and, we were not disappointed.

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Our visit to Hobbiton happened on 27 December 2015, just as summertime was beginning in New Zealand. This part of New Zealand had been experiencing a drought. As our tour guide explained, the landscape was not as ‘green’ as it normally was…that is incredible though, as it was pretty green to us.

It’s about a 45-60 minute drive from the port city of Tauranga on the north island of New Zealand to Hobbiton. Tauranga is a harbour-side town located in what is called the “Bay of Plenty”, and is the 5th largest city in New Zealand.

Driving southwest out of the city, the town’s buildings begin to disappear into rolling, green grasslands, as far as the eye can see. There are no large towns, just small crossroads along the way.

Eventually, a sign appears pointing the way to the “Hobbiton Movie Set” as the small two-lane road twists its way between the green grass hills turning into an even smaller two-lane road ahead.

The first indication that we arrived at a tourist destination was seeing large green tour buses going from the parking lot in front of the visitor center, down a wide, one-lane road that disappeared over a hill. From the main highway, if we can call it that, the site of the movie set is not visible. Not even the large “Party Tree” from the movie (shown in the center of the panoramic picture above) is visible from the highway.

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Looking at the Hobbit Holes (homes), it looks as though these structures have been here for centuries. How did this area of New Zealand become Hobbiton?

In 1998, the LOTR director, Peter Jackson, who himself is a native Kiwi, was flown by helicopter over different parts of New Zealand, looking for the perfect place to call “the Shire”.

Flying over a 15,000 acre farm that the Alexander family had owned since 1978, Peter Jackson saw the green hills, lakes, and trees, and to him the land had already looked as if the Hobbits were already living there. After negotiating with the family, work began on the construction of the site.

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Being a large farm, infrastructure had to be built to accommodate the 400+ actors and crew members for the movie production. To build a road from the highway to the movie set, the New Zealand Army built a wide one-lane road from the highway to the filming location that stretched 0.9 miles into the farm. The family was told not to tell anyone that a movie was being filmed here to keep out any onlookers or to reveal any of the set designs. Our tour guide told us, however, that the neighbors began to worry when they saw the Army equipment moving in. The family had to tell the neighbors that they leased the land to the military for exercises.

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Peter Jackson wanted the set to look and feel real, almost as if you would expect a Hobbit to walk up to you at any moment. This realism would transition itself to the screen, making the Shire come to life. To maintain the sense of realism, actual clothes are hung out on clotheslines across the site (these are still changed out daily even now, years after filming, to continue that sense of realism for tourists).

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37 Hobbit homes, a mill, a pub, and a stone bridge were built in early 1999. Gardens were planted and weeds were allowed to grow, so that by December 1999, when filming began, the realism of the movie set was in place. Each of the homes have incredibly ornate details. From flower pots to the plates left out on picnic tables, the movie set looks like a real village that is lived in.

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The filming started in December 1999, and lasted 3 months…and…then…the movie set was left, basically as is. The set was not built to last (i.e., the original Hobbit Holes were made from untreated wood and foam). At the time of filming the LOTR movies, the idea that the trilogy of ‘The Hobbit” would later be made, was not planned. Funny how plans change, when your 3 movies become the highest grossing trilogy of all time at $2.9 billion — yeah, that’s a billion with a ‘B’

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After the release of the movie in December 2001, tourists began to visit the set location. By now, a Welcome Center had been built, and a tour company looked after the site, allowing tourists to visit.

Next, fast forward to 2009, the set was rebuilt with more permanent construction materials in preparation of filming ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” trilogy (technically, it was one movie in three parts), which began filming in 2011…for only 12 days! The total gross sales of “The Hobbit” movies…just another $2.9 billion!

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“The Hobbit” trilogy is a prequel to the LOTR, and they are all based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fun fact: ‘The Hobbit’ is one of the first books I remember reading in my 8th Grade English class (thanks, Mrs. Brown!).IMG_0885

While these pictures do not show them, there were easily 200+ people walking through the movie set on the afternoon we were here. The tour guides do a good job of “spacing” the groups apart to allow for unobstructed views for picture-taking. It is a large site with a lot of different Hobbit Holes. I did not notice it, but others felt like they were being rushed through the site.

TIP: stay at the back of the group, and let them start to walk to the next stopping point along the tour. This way, all the people in your group will walk away, and this gives a great chance to take pictures without anyone else standing in the way…but, hurry before the next tour comes up.

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An actual working mill and water wheel…it is crazy because we had a sense that we were walking through others’ homes and gardens…

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Some of the Hobbit Holes are open to allow for a quick peek inside. I felt like a giant standing in the doorway.

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It’s almost like you expect a Hobbit to come out of their house to greet you. It feels so real.

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Landscapers take care of all the plants and flowers across the movie set.

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I am 6’4″ (or 1.94 meters) tall, and this provides a sense of how big the Hobbit Holes are. To get the shot in the movie where Frodo or another Hobbit could be seen walking through the door, this was accomplished through different camera angles or by having a larger replica doorway to walk through…movie magic without CGI.

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The “Party Tree” and the field where in the movies large celebrations under tents were held. No tents today, unfortunately, as it was close to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) on this day of our visit.

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Our tour through the site lasted about an hour and a half, ending at the tavern pub for refreshments. One free drink, either beer or ginger-ale, was included in the tour, poured from equally impressive beer taps. The drinks were served with pastry scones, which were delicious after our walk on this fine summer day in December.

After one final stop at the Welcome Center, we began our hour drive back to Tauranga to board our ship. Even though this is a movie set, the attention to detail and the realism there, brings to life the Shire, which we first saw on our date night fifteen years earlier.

 

 

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