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“My PRECIOUSssss…” I whispered, clutching the Hobbiton map to my chest as our tour bus rolled through the lush green hills of New Zealand, straight to the Shire.
Ever since watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy way back in my college days (its epic 3 hour length was perfect for procrastinating from exam studying), I dreamt of going to New Zealand. There were two things I lusted over back then: Legolas’s sexy flowing blond mane and the dramatic snow-covered mountain peaks of New Zealand, where the movie was filmed. What I wouldn’t have given to sit inside a hobbit hole, hike to the peak of Mount Doom, or enjoy a pint at the famous Green Dragon pub.
Now, 12 years later, that dream finally became a reality. And now I was seal clapping and gushing over every tree, blade of grass, and hobbit hole I laid my eyes on. The entire 2-hour drive there from Auckland, we’d been listening to the movie soundtrack on a loop, and now, after a short 5 min bus ride from the studio entrance, I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in front of Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’ house!
“Notice anything strange about that tree?” asked our guide, a bubbly young brunette in full hobbit uniform, pointing to the oak tree on top of the roof.
I stared at its dark green leaves, squinting at the bright sun rays peeking through. I’d been so busy gaping at Bilbo’s pipe, lying on the bench in his front yard and the famous “No Admittance. Except on party business” sign that I hadn’t even noticed it.
“The leaves aren’t moving?” I replied.
“That’s right,” said our guide. “They’re fake! Peter Jackson had 40,000 artificial leaves flown in from Taiwan. They had to be individually attached by hand and spray painted to match the exact shade of green in the book.”
Geez, I thought. That’s more effort than I’ve put into anything in my whole life! Turns out the attention to detail didn’t stop there.
“Here’s another fun fact,” our guide continued. “You see those trees over there?”
“Tolkien describes children playing under plum trees in the book but Peter felt they would look too big relative to the rest of the set so he had apple and pear trees planted instead. But to be true to the descriptions, he had the fruit on the trees be manually replaced with fake plums.”
OK. This guy is either a genius or seriously OCD.
“They even had a designated ‘frog transporter’ on set, whose only job was to transport the frogs (which had to be flown in from Australia) to another pond so that their noises wouldn’t disrupt the dialogue in the film.”
Ok that’s insane. I wonder if that job came with health benefits. Like if you get warts or something, is that considered a work-related injury?
“And finally, do you know why this yellow hobbit hole door is much bigger than this blue one?”
“It’s a camera trick. Gandalf is a wizard who needs to be towering over Frodo, the hobbit. But since the actor Sir Ian Mckellen isn’t much taller than Elijah Wood, Peter Jackson had the door behind Elijah built bigger to make him look shorter and Sir Ian’s door built tiny to make him look giant.”
And this is why if you’re a film nerd, you can’t go to Auckland and not do a day trip to visit Hobbiton in Matamata. You can even have a drink at the Green Goblin inn without a designated driver on the way back, because they serve ginger beer. And here’s another fun fact: the Inn was actually burned down for the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel and sees orcs invading the Shire. They later built it back so it could be used as a tourist attraction.
Back in Auckland, we stayed in a Home Exchange, a massive 4 bedroom 2 bathroom house in Devonport, a quaint bayside village just a 15 minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland.
Devonport, I found out, also happened to be the birthplace of singer Lordes and had spectacular views of Auckland when you climbed to the top of the dormant North Head volcano (or “Maungauika” in Māori):
Renting a car was easy from Shore Rentals and given that the entire population of New Zealand is only 5 million (1.7 million of whom live in Auckland), the road weren’t too congested and other drivers were in general, quite chill.
Wanderer found it a bit unnerving to be driving on the opposite side of the road (although, if you’re from the UK, you’d feel right at home) but luckily our trusty Hobbiton guide told us about a lifesaving rule.
“Whenever you drive in a foreign country, think ‘Passenger = Pavement.’”
This means whenever you drive, keep your passenger on the pavement side of the road. This was helpful since it meant we didn’t have to think too hard about which direction to turn and which side of the road to be on. Plus, it works regardless of which country you are in.
Another highlight of our time in Auckland was meeting up with Joanne and Jon, a producer from Warner Brothers and a Hollywood director whom we met while working on a FIRE TV show. Prior to the pandemic, Jon had fallen in love with New Zealand after vacationing there with his wife and wanted to move there permanently. After meeting us, he ended up selling his house in L.A and doing the whole geo-arbitrage thing.
You know L.A prices are cray cray when you end up moving to New Zealand to save money. I know this because grocery prices in Auckland were atrocious! I thought Melbourne and Sydney were bad, but this was a whole new level.
Even after having been to Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, and Denmark, New Zealand still managed to sticker shock me whenever I hit the grocery stores. The only other place with more expensive groceries that we’d been to is Iceland.
Eggs were almost $1 each and even at that price, they ran out!
I was later told by my Home Exchange host that the reason why the prices are insane and inventory low is that the government recently passed a law phasing out caged eggs, which caused farmers to scramble (no pun intended), leading to a shortage.
Pack ‘n Save ended up being the cheapest grocery store, but difficult to get to without driving. Luckily, lamb was abundant and reasonably priced but sadly, since I can’t eat lamb, I lived vicariously through Wanderer who declared it the best lamb he’d ever eaten.
Other than a day trip to Hobbiton, attractions we visited in Auckland included taking a ferry to Waiheke island (a chill place for biking and hiking), the War Memorial museum (which is free on certain holidays like Anzac day), and a free walking tour downtown. We were also planning to visit Rangitoto, a dormant volcano you can climb, but ended up running out of time.
Our tour guide gave us helpful tips like visiting https://heartofthecity.co.nz for a list of city events and buying tickets through https://www.bookme.co.nz to get discounts for attractions all over New Zealand.
She also told us that New Zealand has 3 official languages: Māori, English, and Sign language. Their reverence for their Māori native culture was also reflected in their “silver fern” symbolism, a species of fern only found in New Zealand, whose leaves reflect moonlight, making it a useful guide to navigate through the bush at night.
If you’re coming to visit New Zealand, you basically have to land in Auckland, so if you are a Lord of the Rings nerd like me, don’t miss a day trip to Hobbiton while you’re here. Auckland is more of a place to work, so for nature, we ended leaving visiting another place in New Zealand, which in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in the world. We’ll talk about that in a future post, but in the meantime, can you guess what that place is?
Here’s how much we spent:
|Cost in USD/couple per day
|Cost in CAD/couple per day
|Since we stayed in a Home Exchange we ended up spending nothing on accommodations, except for the rent back home ($51/day for two people).
|$42.31 ($17.69 eating out, $24.62 groceries)
|Despite groceries being atrociously expensive, we managed to stock up at Pack ‘n Save after renting a car, and we saved a ton of money on eating out because the local grocery store had pre-made food discounted at 80% of the original price at the end of each day. We ended up packing sandwiches and eating out only once or twice the whole 9 days we were there.
|Transportation ended up being the most expensive category because not only did we need to by plane tickets for $200 USD/person to get from Sydney to Auckland, we also needed to rent the car ($50 USD/day + $35 for gas) for the day trip to Hobbiton, plus a few bus rides ($2.60 USD/person/day), the Uber to and from the Airport ($77 USD), and a ferry ride ($28 USD/person). Amortized over 9 days, it ended up costing us around $75 USD/couple/day.
|Hobbiton entry tickets cost us around $110 USD/person. We also tipped for the free walking tour. Amortized over 9 days, it ended up costing us around $15 USD/couple/day. Other than that, the museum, volcano, and hiking were free.
|Auckland is not a cheap place but it was worth every penny. I can’t believe I actually got to visit a Lord of the Rings set and the entry ticket to Hobbiton, in my opinion, is totally worth it.
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