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A Trip to Tolkien’s Shire from Tauranga, New Zealand

Do you dream in Hobbit?

Often when we do the New Zealand cruise (which for us as Kiwis, is a great way to visit friends and family), people would naturally ask where we were from. I would respond, “here!” “Here??” would be my fellow passenger’s inquisitive, disbelieving reply. “Yes, here.” At which point, the passenger would invariably say, “I thought only Hobbits lived in New Zealand!” I would predictably walk away, shaking my head in disbelief.

But you know what? After today, I also believe that! New Zealand is well and truly populated by Hobbits!!

We docked at Mount Maunganui (Tauranga) on a very inauspicious morning, with rain and fog enshrouding the Oosterdam. My first thought was whether I really wanted to drive over the Kaimai Ranges to Hobbiton, but then decided that at the very least, the rain and fog could give an almost ethereal look to Hobbiton, much as it does to Milford Sound. So, we collected our rental car and drove across the hills, to a much drier, albeit cloudy Friday morning.

We were met at the gate by our wonderful guide, New Zealand photographer and author, Ian Brodie, whom amongst other works, has written “The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook.” We hopped in one of Hobbiton’s cars (a full-size car — not a Hobbit-sized car), with Ian driving the short distance to the film set itself. The site is well hidden on magnificent farmland, without any panorama of civilisation, yet with panoramas which expand the Shire’s outlook for miles and miles over the surrounding countryside. In fact, the site was purposely chosen by Sir Peter Jackson after spotting the property during an aerial search for suitable film sites for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy: the views and rolling countryside of what is the Alexander Farm bear an eerie resemblance to The Shire as described by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Construction of the site started in March 1999 with the New Zealand Army and their heavy earthmoving machinery sculpting the hillsides. Total site construction took nine months, with filming commencing in December 1999. But as with any home building, thoughts of refurbishment began to surface, and 10 years later, the set — which is the largest film set in the world — was rebuilt in 2011 for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which recently premiered in Wellington, New Zealand, and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.”

What we saw today is permanent, complete and sustainable, with hobbit holes, gardens and of course, the Green Dragon Pub, where we were treated to a wonderful pork pie and ginger beer, very much the recipes that our partying, gourmandising Hobbit friends might have enjoyed.

Walking around, it was not always easy to trust your senses. What looked real was often not — for example, a tree, so lifelike, but made of plastic, whilst other trees were indeed real. What looked life size really wasn’t — the chair and the mailbox in front of the door to the hobbit hole were sized for Hobbits but your senses told you otherwise. And even the stonework on the Cotswold-style bridge isn’t real, but instead is made up of hollow structures which look like large building stones.

Walking around, there was only one perception, and that you are strolling along the narrow pathways of The Shire, surrounded by rustic gardens and listening to the frog rivetting away in the pond … was it a real frog or the digital voice of a frog? Barberry hedges and trees were brought in and planted on the site; English wildflowers and honeysuckle made you feel that you are in a different place.

Hobbit holes in the hillside.

Thirty-seven hobbit holes were built into the hillsides, each made of untreated timber, ply and polystyrene and many with their resident’s mailbox at the end of the path leading to the hobbit hole. Each mailbox bears a motif indicating who lives there, e.g., flowers on the mailbox mean that the gardener lives there.

The 26-tonne oak tree overlooking Bag End was cut down and transported to the site from the nearby town, with each branch numbered and chopped, and then bolted together on top of Bag End. Artificial leaves were imported from Taiwan and individually wired onto the dead tree, while the thatch on the pub and the mills roofs was cut from rushes around the Alexander Farm, on which The Shire is located.

I asked Ian if he dreams in Hobbit … I think I shall, too.

Wendy R. London is a HAL Mariner and corporate affairs manager and founder of CruiseBubble.com, sailing aboard Oosterdam.

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