A 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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).