Hobbit of a Lifetime; The first movie of the new Middle-earth trilogy opens next Friday. Clare Fitzsimons heads to New Zealand to explore the stunning sets.
From the mines of Moria and the giant volcano of Mordor, to Lothlorien forest and, of course, the village of Hobbiton in the Shire, New Zealand has everything a Tolkien fan could desire.
And even if you're not into the book or Peter Jackson's films, the country has something for everyone, with rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains, rainforests and pristine white beaches with sea lions playing on the rocks.
I had just 10 days to travel 11,500 miles and back, but even before take off on Air New Zealand you can get in the Middleearth mood with a quirky Hobbitthemed pre-flight safety video. Heading from North Island to South Island takes you on a magical trip through Middle-earth. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will see Bilbo Baggins set off on his big adventure.
My own big adventure began in Auckland, where I slept off my jet-lag at the five-star Langham Hotel.
Then it was straight on the road for an easy, two-and-a-half hour drive through lush green hills all the way to Matamata, where you'll find Hobbiton carefully disguised as a working sheep farm. I was taken round by The Lord of the Rings Location Guide Book author Ian Brodie. He revealed how the site was first spotted via an aerial search during preparations for the first LOTR trilogy.
After filming was wrapped up, it was agreed that the 50-plus Hobbit holes would stay as a permanent tourist attraction. From Sam's little house with his blooming garden to Frodo's instantly recognisable door, no detail is left out. Hobbit-sized chairs sit on the porch, while there's a full veg patch, pond and flower beds everywhere. The Hobbit holes vary from full size to almost waist-height to provide the perspective for filming.
Central to the whole area is the party tree - a memorable part of The Hobbit book and, presumably, film.
It's big with fans too - they've already had several proposals and a wedding held under the branches.
Not to mention the die-hard aficionados, who often turn up in full outfits, including hairy feet and elf costumes. Thankfully, I managed to restrain myself from going quite so far.
It's easy to see how people can be swept away. My friend Charlotte wouldn't have called herself a huge fan and yet she too was posing for a photo at every Hobbit house. The site is still expanding, with the Green Dragon village pub due to open soon.
And what it lacks in Hollywood glamour and the slick sophistication of CONTINUED ON PAGES 50 & 51
SHIRE BLISS CONTINUED FROM PAGE 49 multi-million-dollar theme parks, it makes up for in pure charm and authenticity.
You can't help imagining Bilbo and friends in the Shire - I half wanted to move in too and have nothing to worry about except what to have for my first and second Breakfast -.
Thankfully, I was well looked after at nearby Sarnia Park in Cambridge - the perfect venue for a fairytale wedding - with 29 acres of land, enormous gardens, lake, gazebo and rabbits bouncing around. The food was just as amazing. We had a gourmet meal that would have put most restaurants to shame.
After a great sleep, we set off for Hamilton airport to fly from the North Island to Nelson at the top of the South Island. Flying via Wellington, we went over Tongariro National Park - said to be worth a visit if you have more time as it's the location for Mount Doom (where Frodo destroys the One Ring).
Doom (where Frodo destroys the One Ring) g) g).
Sadly, time meant we had to head straight to Nelson and a visit to the jewellers who made that ring.
Jens Hansen designed the first ring but died before the films were released, so his sons carried on his work.
Now you can buy your own ring, from a relatively cheap NZ$195 version to a NZ$6,000 one for the real superfans.
There's even a giant ring used for close-up shots which is just as heavy as it looks.
But even the most dedicated enthusiast will struggle to beat the story of an American tourist who went to the shop and bought a $6,000 ring, before going on a helicopter trip over Tongariro and throwing it into the volcanic crater that portrayed Mount Doom.
rip Not having a spare few thousand to throw into a fictional fire, I contented myself with looking at them. And while a trip over Mordor wasn't on the cards, a flight up to Mount Owen - aka the mines of Moria - with Reid Helicopters was. The snow-covered mountain m. ow h rdor wa Ow Helicopt p ers was. The snow-covered mountHe d tain towers above Nelson and the rock formations create a spectacular backdrop and the setting for Dimrill Dale, where Frodo and his group finally escape the mines after losing Gandalf.
Landing on a tiny piece of flat ground in the snow on top of a mountain with cloud swirling around just added to the other-worldly feel.
The location is rumoured to be also making an appearance in The Hobbit films. And that's one of the problems - rumours are all we have.
Filming was only allowed on the basis that every stick and stone was put back exactly as it had been, leaving no clues for nosey tourists. And the studio has insisted on such a veil of secrecy over any Hobbit locations that the whispers of the locals are the best source of information.
that every stick and stoput back exactly as ileaving no clues for tourists. And the s insisted on such a secrecy over any locations that the of the locals are source of inform Thankfully Thankfully, they like a bit of a gossip. Back in Nelson, you can relax in one of the endless national parks and visit Takaka Hill and Canaan Downs - Chetwood Forest in the first trilogy.
There are lots of options for places to stay in Nelson, from the lovingly restored Warwick House Bed and Breakfast - complete with turrets in your room - to the beautiful and relaxed Wakefield Quay House, where owners Woodi and Johnny have nightly wine and nibbles on the porch to welcome guests.
After a fabulous dinner at the Boat Shed Cafe, where the cast of the Hobbit often went, and a few hours of sleep, it was time to head to Christchurch and a flight to the southernmost tip of the island.
There was just time for a quick stop at the Pelorus Bridge, about an hour east of Nelson, where chatty locals said the river barrel scenes from The Hobbit films were shot - if you haven't read the book, I won't spoil the surprise. After a quick flight to Queenstown, the adrenalinejunkie capital of New Zealand, I checked into the comfy Central Ridge Boutique Hotel to review my options.
After deciding against bungee jumping, swinging on a rope off a mountain or skydiving, I went for the more sedate option of a horseback Ride of the Rings.
I managed to cram in more sights on the 90-minute drive out to Dart Stables, passing the film locations of Ilithien and the Misty Mountains (in reality, the curiously named Remarkables) along the way.
This has to be one of the most scenic horse rides anywhere in the world.
The route goes through fictional Lothlorien, past Amon Hen and the tree where Sean Bean's character Boromir meets his end in the first LOTR film.
And while I didn't manage to spot a dwarf or hobbit on my travels, seeing Middle-earth left me wanting only one thing - a ticket for the movie on Friday.
Hobbit hometown Wellington has launched its own online film map. The New Zealand capital, also the base of movie director Sir Peter Jackson, has created the guide to show off its "Wellywood" sights from The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and other movies. It is downloadable via tinyurl.com/wellyfilms.
Air New Zealand has given one of its long-haul Boeing 777-300 aircraft a makeover inspired by The Hobbit film.
The jet with Middle-earth livery will fly on the London-Los Angeles-Auckland route and was used to fly the British members of the cast from Heathrow to the world premiere Down Under last week. www.airnewzealand.co.uk.
Travelbag has a 16nt trip to New Zealand with 3nts in Auckland at the Langham, three in Cambridge at the Cambridge Sarnia Park Lodge, three in Nelson at the Wakefield Quay House and three in Queenstown at the Central Ridge Boutique Hotel. Prices from PS2,599pp, inc international and internal flights with Air New Zealand, transfers and B&B stays based on two sharing. Book by Feb 14 for travel in March. www.travelbag.co.uk, 0871 703 4240. Hobbiton admission NZ$75 adult/ NZ$10 child. www.hobbitontours.com. Ride of Rings 1.5hrs tour, inc transfers from Queenstown NZ$175pp.
www.dartstables.co.nz. Reid Helicopters tours of LOTR and The Hobbit locations www.helicoptersnelson.co.nz/lord-ofthe-rings-guided-helicopter-tours. www.airnewzealand.co.uk.
NZ$ PS1 = 1.87
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HOME: Clare outside a Hobbit hole in Hobbiton
HOBBIT: Martin Freeman in role as Bilbo Baggins
MAGIC: Ian McKellen as Gandalf in the new film
PEAK: Clare on Mount Owen
GIANT: Clare with the jumbo ring used for movie close-ups
EMERALD: River at Pelorus Bridge
TRAIL: Clare and Charlotte riding near Queenstown
SET: The snow-capped Remarkables (Misty Mountains in the new film), near Arrowtown