New Zealand for 'Hobbit,' 'Lord of the Rings' lovers

The Shire Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand, was The Shire Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand, was where much of "The Hobbit" was filmed. (Dec. 21, 2011) Photo Credit: Handout

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Bilbo and company are back on the silver screen in the second of director Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of the adventure-fantasy book "The Hobbit." While fans flood to theaters, New Zealand's tourism machine is pumping out new location tours the way only Kiwis do -- with a dash of down-home and a heap of adrenaline.

But do movie locations make sense as a basis for travel? If you're looking for some thrills and a lot of scenery, it just may. According to Jared Connon, supervising locations manager for all three "Hobbit" films, "What's amazing about filming on location in New Zealand is how diverse the landscape is and how quickly it changes. You can travel from snow-topped mountains, through lush tropical forests, across gently rolling countryside and down to the ocean all within the space of three hours."

I started my own journey through Middle-earth with a list of the latest tour operators, winding my way south from Auckland via rental cars equipped with GPS and a few quick commuter flights.

RUAKURI CAVE

After a night flight to Auckland from Los Angeles, I headed south to Ruakuri Cave in the North Island's Waitomo region. (Many place names in New Zealand come from the language of the indigenous Maori people.) One of 300 known limestone caves in the area, Ruakuri played a sound-only role in the first "Hobbit" movie. Here, ancient limestone formations and spectacular crystal tapestries are not only stunning geologic wonders but also give a chilling bounce to sound that made them ideal for recording the background noises in the "Hobbit's" goblin cave scenes.

While guided walking tours are the best way to get an overview of cave science, it's the spelunking, tubing and water rafting excursions run by fifth-generation farmer Angus Stubbs that provide the real action.

As a destination itself, Ruakuri Cave is somewhat off the beaten track. But as a stepping-off point for one of the newest locations operators, Hairy Feet Waitomo, it's well worth the trip.

WAITOMO

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From Waitomo it's roughly a 45-minute, winding drive to the Mangaotaki Valley just beyond the small farming community of PioPio, widely recognized as the shearing capital of the world. It's also home to Hairy Feet Waitomo, managed by Suzie and Warrick Denize on their rugged 280-acre sheep spread. Undulating hills stippled with boulders rest below massive limestone bluffs. This is Trollshaw Forest to Hobbitophiles.

While nothing remains of the filming that took place over four weeks here, for die-hard fans the location is instantly familiar.

A rock path through gnarled, ancient-looking trees leads to the massive, slightly tilting boulder marking the entrance of the Trolls' cave. The only reminder filming took place here is a small blue X still taped to the ground, a place marker for the character Bilbo as he examines his new sword, Sting. A few snaps with a replica sword and it's off to stand where Radagast the Brown and his Rhosgobel Rabbit sleigh led Orcs and Wargs away from the company of dwarves.

HOBBITON

The Shire Hobbiton, the most commercially successful filming site appearing in both trilogies, is a must-see on any travel itinerary. Devotees can walk along the Shire's winding paths, past 37 Hobbit holes, a community garden and the famous party tree. While the Hobbit holes are still just facades -- you can dip into one and see how they were constructed into mounds of earth -- tours end with a mug of ale at the very real Green Dragon Inn, now a working pub.

Located in the small farming community of Matamata, 12 acres of local sheep farmer Russell Alexander's 1,250-acre farm were transformed into The Shire more than a decade ago. Here, the landscape softens and rolling hills dotted with sheep dominate every view. Its similarity with the English countryside is unmistakable, a reminder that Tolkien wrote his books while a professor at Oxford University in England.

ARATIATIA RAPIDS

Some of the most memorable scenes from the second "Hobbit" movie are the dwarves bobbing in barrels. Filming was done at two locations, the Aratiatia Rapids on the Waikato River just off the North Island's Volcanic Highway, and the South Island's beech-tree-lined Pelorus River in the Marlborough region.

On a rocky outcrop at the base of the Aratiatia Rapids, 10 minutes outside the town of Taupo, film crews spent two days capturing roiling waters falling over boulders. Short of a perilous walk down slippery rocks, a spin in a jetboat is the preferred way to see the rapids at their base.

I hopped on a jetboat at Rapids Jet, just off State Highway 5, below the rapids. The ride started with a quick zip up to the steep rapids. The magic came after half an hour careening up and down the river, jumping rapids and doing speed-spins -- I was soaking wet when I stumbled onto the dock.

A commuter flight to the South Island's Marlborough region followed, and then a short drive to the coastal town of Havelock for a visit to Pelorus Eco Adventures. Here it's all about nature and a slower pace. I donned a vest and used an inflatable kayak for a half-day paddle down the Pelorus River's placid waters to see the rocky outcrop where barrel-riding dwarves exited their barrels and negotiated a ride into Dale in the second "Hobbit" movie.

DART STABLES

An hour north of Queenstown is Paradise, where I visited Dart Stables for its Ride of the Rings trek on one of six horses of Rohan still working at the stables. The 1½-hour trek took me through the woods of Lothlorien, past the Misty Mountains, to the site where the film crew spent two months building Beorn's house for the second film.

A favorite filming location of both cast and crew, "it is not only one of the most gorgeous parts of the country, but it means we all get to spend time in Queenstown, which is always a lot of fun," according to locations manager Jared Connon.

And, after all, isn't that the point of travel?

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If you go

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Air New Zealand is offering a Middle-earth economy package. Fly from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Auckland for $1,198, plus one other New Zealand city for $100 more. For travel Feb. 9-March 31, May 3-June 1 and July 29-Sept. 21. Book by Jan. 21 at airnewzealand.com.

For more info on Ruakuri and other Waitomo-area caves: waitomo.com.

Guided walking tours run by Hairy Feet Waitomo are at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily; hairyfeetwaitomo.co.nz.

Hobbiton offers walking tours with a mug of ale at the Green Dragon at the end; hobbitontours.com.

Rapids Jet offers 35-minute rides beginning on the hour; rapidsjet.com.

Dart Stables offers several trails and accommodates all riding levels; dartstables.com.

For more Middle-earth itineraries, check out The Halfling's Ramble, Elven Magic and The Great Wizard's Journey at newzealand.com/int/feature/middle-earthitineraries.

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