Director Peter Jackson found an ideal location in 1998 to serve as The Shire, the Hobbits’ idyllic homeland, for his “Lord of the Rings” movies: a sprawling sheep farm in Matamata on New Zealand’s North Island.
By the next day, as the story goes, a New Zealand army convoy was building access roads to the site. “We couldn’t believe it,” recalled farm owner Russell Alexander. “This guy has command of our army?”
Perhaps not, but it’s easy to see the major role Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003) and “The Hobbit” (2011-2013) movie trilogies have assumed in New Zealand tourism. The six films grossed nearly $6 billion worldwide, and the “The Return of the King,” the finale of the first trio, won a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture.
After Alexander’s farm reprised its Shire role for “The Hobbit,” he contracted with Jackson to make the 44 hillside “hobbit holes” permanent. Tours became more polished, and today “Hobbiton” hosts up to 3,000 daily visitors, the nation’s third-most popular tourism site.
Visitors meander the J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired countryside with an amiable guide, who shares hobbit lore and tales from the movie set while pointing out notable dwellings, such as Samwise Gamgee’s No. 3 Bagshot Row. The tour crosses a quaint bridge and ends at the Green Dragon Inn, where weary travelers can enjoy a cider, an ale, or even second breakfast.
Jackson grew up about 20 miles outside Wellington in Pukerua Bay, and he used more than 100 New Zealand locations in his filming. While several of the breathtaking locales are on the South Island, we stayed on the North Island.
Tongariro National Park, a two-hour drive south of Rotorua, boasts one site that’s tough to miss: Mount Ngauruhoe, an active 7,500-foot volcano with a distinctive cone that served as menacing Mount Doom in LOTR. Just 2½ miles south of the park’s visitor center is the turnoff to lovely Tawhai Falls, also known as Gollum’s Pool, where he sings a song as he catches and eats a fish in “The Two Towers.”
In Wellington, several LOTR-themed bus tours will take you to Weta Cave and Workshop in the Miramar neighborhood, the hub of movie magic and special effects — not just for the Tolkien films, but for “Planet of the Apes,” Marvel’s “Avengers,” the “Narnia” series, and Jackson’s “King Kong,” among others. Fans will geek out at the staggering details in the armor, weaponry, costumes, makeup and props for the LOTR films. Collectibles are available for purchase, and a short film chronicles Weta’s rise in the industry.
About 45 minutes outside Wellington — a.k.a. “Wellywood,” thanks to Jackson’s studio empire — is Kaitoke Regional Park, northeast of Upper Hutt. The stunning preserve includes a swaying footbridge over the Hutt River, with the additional draw of having served as Rivendell, the elves’ ancestral home, in all three LOTR films. An “elven arch” and several signposts direct visitors to filming locations, including the site of the Fellowship of the Ring’s departure on their quest.
Before departing Wellington, air travelers can salute wizard Gandalf the Grey, who is suspended above the floor of the main airport terminal astride a giant eagle.