It’s funny the way we willingly indict ourselves into having totally manufactured and packaged experiences. No, I hear you cry. I only look for travel experiences where locals are frozen in time and signs of civilization and technological progress are non-existent. Nary a mobile phone to be found. Off the beaten track, is what I say!
And to that I say: that’s all well and good, but there are others, like myself (mere mortals though we may be), who are perfectly content to be indoctrinated and into reliving their childhood memories again. Even if it includes sweating through poofy polyester skirts. Even if you have to choke down butterbeer and pretend you like it.
Just ask Disney. They made a multi-billion dollar industry out of it.
Nostalgia can be a powerful thing.
And that, my friends, is how I found myself in the passenger seat of a rental Camry with dubious durability (that constant rattling in the tires is still the stuff of nightmares) in the North Island of New Zealand. I passed the time by eating gas station pork pies and dropping crumbs into all the crevices of the Camry, counting hundreds of sheep on impossibly green pastures. Just like thousands of Tolkien drones that had come before. Minus the pork pies probably.
It was absurdly idyllic and laughable cliché. And I was here for it.
If we backtrack a little to explore exactly why it was that I wanted to visit Hobbiton Movie Set with a manic enthusiasm that I usually only reserve for free pizza giveaways and supermarkets for rich vegans, it was because I wanted to back to a time when the television was a great hulking black box with menacing antennae, and when the remote control was as big as my forearm. Half of the buttons didn’t work. When life was simpler, but also mostly inconvenient.
(Inconvenient means I had to rise from where I’d glued my haunches to a couch and constantly feed DVDs into a tray instead of hovering my finger over “Play Next Episode” button like a mindless automaton. I assure you that that in the present day my transformation is nearly wholly complete).
These memories are relevant to the making of Lily: staunch fantasy novel consumer and lover of all things Elves, defender of Dwarves and unpleasant reader of George R. R. Martin books. The last point would have been okay, if not marginally quirky, if I didn’t make it my mission to tell this to literally everyone who would listen when HBO made a stratospherically popular show about them. Suspiciously, I also had fewer friends during this period.
This part of my personality used to make me feel like an interesting person, until I realized that I was one of thousands of Lord of the Rings zealots, and it really just made me kind of not special and obnoxious.
And so I forgot that part of my personality until I was old enough and rich enough to actually indulge in it properly – which is exactly why I am writing this post.
Note: My “rich enough” means a solid “rich enough to go on a packaged movie set tour” and not “rich enough to fly solo to Cannes on my private jet,” in case any of you get any ideas.
Booking Your Hobbiton Movie Set Tour
Your journey starts not in the Shire, but in a website so slickly designed that it screams “BUY ME BUY MEEEE!!!” This kind of site would never let a crash mar its glossy pages. This kind of site gets thousands of visitors a day.
Here are the types of tours that you’ll be able to buy once you inevitably succumb to descriptions like the one below about an upcoming Hobbiton beer festival (yes, there is such a thing, apparently!):
“With the moon hanging low over the Shire you will enjoy a tour at dusk of Hobbiton before arriving at the Green Dragon Inn with ample time to relax in front of open fires…where there will be a range of traditional Hobbit fare set out on platters sprawled in front of you.”
I mean, come on. Take my money. Just take it.
Ahem – back to the normal tours.
1. Tour only (84 – 119 NZD per person, depending on where you’d like to be picked up – from the Shire’s Rest in Matamata, or further away in Rotorua)
2. Tour and Meal combo (120 NZD per person)
3. Evening Banquet Tours (119 NZD per person)
And beyond these laypeople tours, if you’ve got the time and money, you can book Fancy Tours and Stays (not their term): Private Tours for your own group, accommodation at local farmstays, or times for private functions or weddings.
For the moderate fanatic like yours truly, a tour for the low, low, price of 84 New Zealand dollars (53 USD) a pop was in the cards.
Once you specify the number of people who will be on the tour, you’ll be brought to a payment page, where you’ll need a valid credit card to book the ticket. At the end of the payment process, you’ll be auto-emailed your confirmation, which you can then print and bring on the day of your tour – or simply flash them the email on your phone once you arrive.
Also, it comes with a free drink at the end, which is what I took this part to mean: “…presented with a complimentary, exclusive Hobbit Southfarthing beverage to conclude your Middle-earth adventure.” Which, well you know. If you were on the fence.
Traveling to Hobbiton
With sulfur hanging in the air and the cawing of seagulls on our motel roof in Rotorua, Giovanni and I set off for Matamata, home of Hobbiton the Movie Set. The address? The Shire’s Rest. They really try to get you to buy into the whole Middle-Earth-as-real-life-thing. And, sad sop that I am, I was blankly and lovingly buying into it. There we were, 168 New Zealand Dollars poorer, off to see a movie set. Sorry I keep mentioning the cost. Clearly I’m not over it. Remember what I said about that pesky nostalgia?
My initial charm with miles of sheep and cows and horses having worn off rather quickly, I stared out the window and imagined that I saw the first hints of the Brandywine river flowing into little streams, and that the next turn would bring me to the doorstep of the Bywater or Tuckborough.
But they didn’t materialize, and my eyes glazed over after seeing my 5,678th sheep.
Eventually, a turn did bring us to an enormous sign: The Shire’s Rest – followed by a non-descript ticket booth, which was followed by a cafe (the Shire’s Rest I’d read about on the website), serving painfully average but perfectly serviceable upmarked cafe fare: oversized croissants, several cakes, and my personal weakness: cheese scones).
Giovanni, forever the Italian, preferred to sit in the sun. He and I have wholly different definitions of “warmth.” Ever the compromising partner, I picked my way through a powdery almond croissant the size of a baby gorilla while my external digits slowly froze.
Eagerness at not being last to board the bus led me to stand firmly as the fifth person in line for our 9:10 tour. The queue grew longer and longer, eventually numbering to between 20 and 30 individuals. A smattering of languages filled the air.
And a monstrous green bus with “Hobbiton Movie Set” emblazoned on its side roared up the road. We were in.
Our tour guide, a peppy long-legged girl with a practiced done-this-a-million-times drawl, pressed play on the screen at the front of the bus.
There it was: Peter Jackson’s voice, telling us to sit back and enjoy the tour, finishing with the most easily recognizable film themes in the world – the wistful yearning of the Shire’s flute.
An Extremely Important Tip For You:
Sitting on the left side of the bus once you are inside affords you better views of the Shire when rolling into the set. I know this because that is not what I did, and I regret it to this day.
The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour
I am unfortunately not blessed with a superhuman memory. That would be pretty cool, though. Because then I could remember all the things that make my exes exes, and then they can stay my exes.
But alas, I am not. Therefore, the following bullet points are meant to illustrate parts of Hobbiton described to us by the aforementioned long-legged peppy guide that I did manage to remember in between photo opportunities.
– The Hobbiton Movie Set area was built on the Alexander Family Farm. Basically, a film scout who worked for Peter Jackson rolled up and was like “Hey, we like your farm and we want to make a movie on it, and you’ll probably be insanely rich for the rest of your life, and your children will be rich, and your children’s children will be rich.” They were like, “Cool.” (Please don’t quote me on this. But if you’re thinking about buying a farm, think about that – you too can be an enormously wealthy benefactor-turned-benefitter-of-a-Hollywood-franchise!).
– There are 44 hobbit holes in total.
– The large tree above Bag End, real as it may seem, is actually all artificial, from its massive trunk to each painstakingly glued-on-leaf. When the color faded from the sun, someone had to paint them all again by hand. This was presented as an allegedly “fun fact,” but to be honest, this does not sound like much fun. It’s a wonder that the tree got completed before the Leaf Painted stabbed ol’ Peter.
– Most of the hobbit holes in Hobbiton Movie Set are simply external faces – there is nothing on the inside, as most of the indoor scenes shot from the movies were shot from a studio in Wellington, New Zealand. So beware! If you saw some photo on IG that looks like it was taken from inside the hobbit hole – it might not be taken here, but in Wellington!
– In addition to being only facades, some of the hobbit holes are built to scale for the actors – meaning you’ll find holes 2-3 feet in height so that someone like Gandalf (Ian McKellan) could stand next to and look proportionate to said hole, but others which were built to be full-size (for someone like Elijah Wood, who played Frodo).
Why weren’t you paying closer attention, Lily? I hear you say. You paid 84 NZD for five measly bullets and to take photos for the gram?
Well, I posted one photo of Hobbiton on Instagram, but the real reason I didn’t pay as much attention as I could have is because the Hobbiton Movie Set tour, well-crafted and meticulously executed as it was, was not what I’d allowed myself to imagine it would be in my head.
Let me explain.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is, well, just that: a movie set.
It is where the shot the scenes in the Shire from Peter Jackson’s the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies (which, going by the number of times this is repeated during the tour, they mean for you never to forget).
Everything – from the parking spaces, to the Shire’s Rest cafe, to the bus, to the gift shop, and even the much-mentioned Green Dragon Inn of Shire lore is as tightly controlled as it could possibly be. The number of people allowed per tour is exactly the maximum number of people calculated to fit in a certain space before ticket-holders start jostling uncomfortable against each other and mixing with the wrong tour groups. It always felt T minus one person to “oh wow, this is crowded.” So it never felt crowded the way the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto is crowded, or Angkot Wat in Siem Reap is crowded, or the Rialto Bridge in Venice is crowded. But it also never once felt spacious.
The timing of the tour is militant. And it has to be, with each tour departing every ten minutes on a daily basis. It’s like Epcot on steroids.
You cannot explore the movie set alone – the walkable pathways are well-trodden and the signs are clearly marked. The only way to explore Hobbiton is to book the tour, and even then, there really isn’t any “exploring.” If you dare to trot off by yourself, prepare to be gently and sweetly threatened by tour-group-peer pressure to rejoin your cohort, the same way my dead-eyed substitute teacher Ms. Hobbs gripped my hand in kindergarten menacingly after I wandered off during animal cracker and apple juice distribution.
The entire thing gave me second grade field trip vibes with adult juice (beer) instead of milk carton pints, which I guess you can also argue is its own type of nostalgia.
I walked away amazed not at this immersive corner of Middle-earth, but rather at the calculated and careful detail of this film set. And as the tour guide’s voice faded away, I carefully studied the minutely put-together aspects of Hobbiton: the enormous party tree, the door Rosie greeted Sam from as he came home, to the sight of the Green Dragon across the water, the music lazily being carried by warm breeze.
Almost heartbreakingly, I couldn’t envisage the Middle-Earth that I’d grown up with as a child, because, well, I wasn’t a child anymore, and I could no more pretend to be a hobbit maiden than I could a bow-and-arrow wielding elf.
Instead, here I was, 25 years old, physically in a place I’d yearned to be close to my entire life, surrounded by strangers from Russia and Spain and Australia and the Philippines, plodding by meticulously erected cheese wheels (oh, hello, hobbit-cheesemonger), fishing rods, and frighteningly photogenic wax apples under bushes, snapping photos in front of round doors. It was Technicolor overdrive, like every pear and every chimney and every leaf had been dusted and polished within an inch of its life, seconds before our visit.
If you do a quick Google search, every blog post on Hobbiton Movie Set is prefixed with words like “Amazing,” “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” and a “A Must-Have Experience.” Without looking too hard, I was only able to find one post that willingly titled their experience as an Indifferent Guide. And you know what? That should be okay. Because if paying 53 US Dollars for simply a good experience rather than a “breathtaking” or “mind-blowing” one means I get to have the privilege of having that experience at all…I’ll take it. Even Coachella sucks sometimes. And your guilt about burning a hole in your wallet for that experience shouldn’t prevent you from being honest about it.
It didn’t have to be The Best Experience in order for me to have been happy that I’d had it.
By the time the two-hour tour had come to an end, and I clutched a mug of dark beer served by two decidedly non-halfling-sized young women from the Green Dragon (“brewed for Hobbiton,” they told me knowingly), I watched others laugh and giggle as they tried on hobbit bonnets and hobbit shawls and hobbit overalls, snapping photos.
I didn’t feel transported. I felt ordinary. But then, despite my momentary flash of disappointment, I realized that it was okay. The sun was shining. The breeze smelled of grass and fresh hay and not like sheep manure. Everyone around me was having a good time.
And as we rolled back to the Shire’s Rest from the movie site, we were presented once again with Martin Freeman and Peter Jackson and even Ian McKellan on the big screen. The flute music soared and swooped and faded away once more, and I contemplated that I’d…
Never find a beer so brown
Never find a beer so brown
As the one we drink in our hometown.
And in that moment, I serenely reflected that I, as we all do, had just grown up.
What to Know When You Visit Hobbiton Movie Set
– Getting there: Hobbiton Movie Set is set in a lush rural farm area at least a short drive away from where you’re likely to be staying. It’s located in Matamata, but the drive from Matamata to town center to the set is still 16 km (15 min drive).
1. From Rotorua (75 km/60 min drive)
2. From Auckland (177 km/120 min drive)
3. From Hamilton (48 km/45 min drive)
For about 20 NZD, you can opt to be picked up from Rotorua
– The first tour of the day starts at 9:00 and the last tour starts at 5:00.
– This is less an immersive medieval-fantasy experience and more an exacting movie set tour. The facts presented are not necessarily about Tolkien, his world, and about Middle-earth, but instead are about the creation of the set, trivia about shooting the movies, and how many days it took to set up and paint so-and-so hobbit hole.
– I recommend staying in Rotorua if this is part of your larger tour of North Island in New Zealand.
– Sit on the left side of the bus coming into the set. The left!
– The tour guides will allow about 5-7 minute long stops at designated areas and wait for everyone to take photos. You can loiter behind for a few more minutes, even if the tour continues on, but it won’t be long before the next tour group descends upon you.