Hey everyone. Well, I’m back from 3 fantastic weeks on the North Island of New Zealand, with lots of stories to tell. Given the demands of work and life in general, I suspect I won’t be able to keep up with my daily posts, but I’ll definitely be writing as much as I can, up to 365 posts (and beyond?). Let’s get the new year started with…

Wow Place 188: Hobbiton, Matamata, New Zealand

“Where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled Earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow.” –Bilbo Baggins

So let’s get something straight; I know Hobbits aren’t real. My brain understands that Hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards and orcs are all fictional characters created by JRR Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings books (and the Hobbit). So why is it that, as I walk around Sir Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton movie sets in Matamata, New Zealand, I feel certain that I’m actually IN the Shire, where Hobbits still live, breathe and eat elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper? All credit for this illusion goes to Jackson and his design crew who, in 1998, transformed the Alexander family sheep farm, about 2 hours southeast of Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand, into a strikingly realistic Middle-Earth habitat. The Alexander farm at that time had a lot going for it, Hobbit-wise: rolling green hills, no buildings, no roads, no power lines, and a magnificent pine tree up high on a hill. Over the next nine months, Jackson’s production team went at the area in earnest, creating 39 temporary, plywood Hobbit Holes scattered across a 12-acre plot. After wrapping the Lord of the Rings movies in 1999, the Shire movie sets were sadly dismantled – until, that is, Jackson returned to the farm a few years later to shoot three more Hobbit movies, rebuilding the original sets and adding another five Hobbit Holes. At “Hobbiton” today, you can find 44 Hobbit abodes, along with a mill, a lake and the Dragon’s Inn Tavern – a literal Lord of the Rings theme park.

Except it doesn’t feel like Disneyland. No one is selling elf ears or wizard-themed buckets of popcorn. I did NOT purchase the one ring to rule them all! The designers of the current Hobbiton attraction, thankfully, took a much more subtle approach when opening the movie set to the public in 2002. For one thing, the place is treated more as a tour than a free-for-all theme park. When our 8:30 am booking time arrives, my wife Donica and I are ushered from the visitor center onto a bright green bus with about 20 other people, then transported 10 minutes through gorgeous, green pasturelands to the site of the movie sets. The tours are staggered, so it’s just you and your group in each section of Hobbiton, allowing you to soak up the atmosphere without TOO many camera-snapping tourists destroying the illusion. Our guide, Tiberius (yes, named for the T. in James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame), a handsome, young Canadian lad, walks us through “the Shire,” pointing out the remarkable detail poured into the set design. For example, each Hobbit Hole houses a different craftsman and his family. So you’ll see drying fish and fishing rods outside the fisherman’s home, pies and cakes outside the baker’s abode, honey and jars in front of the beekeeper’s residence. Real fresh vegetables grow in the gardens nearby, wet clothes hang out to dry, and a maypole stands in a field, ready for festivals. Commanding the town is the towering Party Tree, just above Bilbo’s “Bag End” – an impressive pine tree that is, in fact, made of cement! According to Tiberius, Peter Jackson didn’t quite like the look of the original tree so he replaced it with a fake one. Legend has it that just days before shooting, he demanded that the leaves be repainted, one by one, because the color wasn’t quite right. Talk about attention to detail!

Although a majority of the site is authentic to the movies, one exciting new detail was added just this month (December 2023): an actual Hobbit home to go into and explore. Donica and I are among the first lucky few to wander the rooms of Samwise Gangee and his wife, Rosie – a near-perfectly-imagined Middle-earth domicile with a kitchen, storage room, bedrooms, fireplace, etc. It’s a VERY cool experience, sitting in a tiny chair in Sam’s study, imagining the daily life of a Hobbit who has (spoiler alert) journeyed to Mordor and back and lived to the tell the tale.

Our tour ends at the Dragon’s Inn, a recreated tavern that I don’t believe was in the movies but definitely looks the part. Here we’re offered a choice of a free glass of local ale or a fizzy ginger beer, along with a chance to dress up as bar maids or tavern keepers. The entire Hobbiton experience takes about 3 hours and is one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand. Yes, I know none of it was real! But nevertheless, I felt like I went on a journey to another place, another time, where heroic Hobbits might have rested and recuperated after performing brave deeds in ancient land of fantasy.

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” –Galadriel

(A wise man once said, “Happiness is having no expectations.” Although I agree with this statement, in theory, I find myself to be a creature of expectations. I can’t help it. I look forward to things and find myself frequently disappointed. Perhaps a more realistic credo to live by might be, “Happiness is expectations exceeded.” That’s how I felt about Hobbiton. Oh, I had expectations about the place – and, happily, they were exceeded. What are your expectations for the New Year? How can you make them high enough to be challenging and worthwhile, but not so high that they can’t be exceeded?)