While New Zealand’s South Island typically gets all the praise and glory, there is a lot to explore up in the north as well. We spent beautiful time discovering the city of Auckland, sampling wine on Waiheke Island, and hiking through the rain forest of Waitakere Range. Although, one place we were particularly anxious to get to was Hobbiton Movie Set. The 12-hour tour that we booked included a visit to the magical world of the Middle-earth, as well as Glowworm Caves in Waitomo – which is magical in its own way. Our bus driver Damien had a real gift for storytelling and kept us entertained the whole way with interesting facts and stories about New Zealand, as well as the sights we were visiting.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit
down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
For well over a decade now, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Hobbiton Movie Set has been attracting crowds from all over the world every single day. And for a good reason. The place is every bit as spectacular as you’d imagine. For the uninitiated, the Hobbiton Movie Set is located on a stunning 1,250-acre sheep farm of Alexander family close to the town of Matamata in the central part of New Zealand’s North Island.
Peter Jackson to the doorsteps of Alexander family. It was literally love at first sight. The location had everything he was looking for – the iconic rolling hills, lush green pastures, and a magnificent pine tree towering over a nearby lake. The surrounding areas were untouched; no power lines, no buildings and no roads in sight – ideal spot for creating a fantasy world of Middle-earth. Plus, it was secluded enough, which meant secrecy and no threat of exposure from media. Peter Jackson was able to tick all the required boxes, and after making corresponding arrangements with Alexander family, the crew started to create this imaginary world.
The initial movie set took nine months to construct and featured 39 temporary hobbit holes. It was never intended to turn into a popular tourist destination and the plan was to demolish everything and return the farm to its initial state. However, once the movie came out and the word got out about the location of the movie set (by that time there were 17 bare plywood facades remaining), public drew in to the Alexander farm to see the Hobbiton in person.
In 2009, Peter Jackson returned to the farm to film The Hobbit trilogy and was determined to create the most authentic-looking fantasy world a human eye had seen. He thought through every detail and made sure everything was constructed using high quality, durable material, which is now maintained all year round by a specialized staff. It is also worth noting that Hobbiton is the only full movie set left in-tact in New Zealand. Indeed, the attention to detail that went into creating this world is simply incredible and absolutely adorable: laundry lines with washing hung out to dry; a picnic set up on the dock, moss and lichen growing on the fences, brooms and gardening tools near hobbit doors, signs on notice boards. Unfortunately, you cannot go inside any of the hobbit holes, because there are just facades. The interior sets were all shot on a sound stage in Wellington.
Important thing to note about visiting the Hobbiton Movie Set is that you are not allowed to enter and wonder around independently. If you decide to get a rental car and drive here, you’ll join one of the tours provided by the staff on the set. There is a parking lot available. You can grab a bite at the café right there, buy souvenirs and, most importantly, purchase tickets for one of the tours – group, private or an Evening Banquet (delicious affair, but advance reservation might be needed). You’ll then board a bus that drives you through the Alexander farm to the movie set, get a guided walking tour and be escorted back to the parking lot. You can find out more about the available tours and events on their official website.
Needless to say, it was beyond amazing to wonder around the 12 acre set through the wandering paths of The Shire, past Hobbit Holes, the Mill and into the Green Dragon Inn, where we got to sample a pint of in-house brewed cider and beer to conclude our own Middle-earth adventure. By then we felt quite famished and were treated by a banquet lunch (included in the price of the tour) under a tent inside the movie set. I didn’t get the photos, but the food – served buffet style – was quite delicious and featured a variety of dishes. Overall, despite the hunch that it might be a tourist trap I must confess: Hobbiton was really worth visiting!
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
We then hopped back on a bus and set off to our second destination – Waitomo Glowworm Caves which sit in the heart of a lush New Zealand rain forest. The caves are actually a private property and belong to a Maori family. Every single person employed there is related.
Once you arrive, you join a guided tour that takes you through three different levels and begins at the top level of the cave and the Catacombs. You get to see breathtaking
caverns featuring beautiful limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The second level is called the Banquet Chamber where early visitors stopped to eat, while the third and final level goes down into the Cathedral which is absolutely beautiful and has perfect natural acoustics. Our guide even told us that their family often holds private events here, including weddings!
We then went further down into the bowl of the earth to an underground river and boarded a boat. The boat tour is unreal as you are led from pitch black caverns that are lighted by thousands of glowworms.
Glowworms, species found exclusively in New Zealand, glow to attract insects, which get caught in the glowworms sticky lines. When a female reaches adulthood it uses the light to attract a mate. The glow also protects them from getting eaten by predators and is used for burning waste. The glow is a reaction between chemicals given off by the glowworm and oxygen, otherwise known as bioluminescence. Glowworms can control how light its tail is by changing the amount of oxygen reaching its light organ.
Now, I should warn you that they are not as bright and shiny as they look on the photo above – adults are around the size of an average mosquito. Instead, imagine a night sky dotted with thousands of living lights. It was absolutely mesmerizing to see. We sat there for a while in total silence and darkness. The only thing I could hear was a soft echo of a trickling water and the only thing I could see were the myriads of these tiny creatures glowing beautifully replicating a starry night’s sky. I can honestly say that I have never had another experience even come close to what I saw in these caves.
I won’t lie it was a very long day. We headed home exhausted but full of great memories. We hardly made a dent on North Island, but I believe it deserves its own spotlight and is well worth the visit, if you plan to travel to New Zealand.