Indeed, the holes in the ground at Hobbiton in New Zealand’s Waikato district are not nasty, dirty or wet. Truth be told, they are hardly holes at all, just the facades of Hobbit holes created for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, but they are as bright and colourful as you might remember them, if a little less populated.
Hobbiton is the carefully preserved and maintained set of Peter Jackson’s world renowned films, situated on the picturesque 500 hectare Alexander family farm. Jackson famously discovered the site while searching by helicopter for a location to film, and the property was developed with help from the New Zealand Army for the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Part of the agreement at the end of filming was that the farm would be returned to its original state, and so the Hobbit holes, gardens and quaint signs of village life were dutifully packed away.
However, fans were soon making their interest in the location known and some visitors were shown around the property to see where the sets had been, with only the iconic ‘party tree’ remaining. When the Hobbit films began production, the farm owners welcomed the film-makers back on the proviso that the set be made from more durable materials and left behind when the camera crews were done. Thus Hobbiton, the attraction, was born and has gone from strength to strength.
The experience starts at the Shires Rest, a well stocked and appropriately themed visitor centre for the set. There is a cafe, gift store and tour office that are kept busy catering to the variety of guests that come and go on the half-hourly tours.
Each tour departs by custom-painted coach, winding through the beautiful scenery that leads to the set. Surprisingly the farm is still very much a viable agricultural business, and sheep and cows graze alongside the road as the driver gives helpful background to the site and setup.
Once at the start of the set proper, everyone disembarks and is introduced to their guide. The guide leads the group through the winding paths, pointing out features of the set and answering questions along the way. They are very knowledgeable but don’t push or hurry visitors, allowing plenty of time for everyone to get photos and really look around.
There is a bit of walking to do to explore the set, and the paths are not paved, nor particularly flat. They meander between the Hobbit holes, up and down hillsides, so very small children might need help but the way is negotiable to strollers with a little effort. It’s not difficult walking, but anyone with limited mobility should check the suitability of the tour before they head out.
The ‘holes’ are actually facades, the furthest any goes back into the hillside is about two metres, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at them. Ornaments line window sills, laundry hangs on outdoor lines and various bits of furniture and life’s accoutrements lie about outside. Hobbiton employs up to 8 full time gardeners to maintain the feeling of a lived-in village, and it is very convincing. Everything but the ‘fresh’ produce gathered in baskets by doorways and fence posts is really grown there on site.
While the Hobbit holes are the stars of the show, make sure you pay attention to the guides as they are a wealth of background information for fans of the films. If you lag too far behind you may miss the story about the enormous oak that stands above Bag End, and how it blew down in a storm between the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit movies, and so was replaced with a resin-cast replica. Each of the thousands of artificial leaves was attached by hand, and the finished product is the single most expensive prop in the trilogies. While you will want to get photos alongside the well-known ‘No Admittance’ sign on Bilbo’s front gate, make sure you don’t miss the information on offer, for the fullest experience.
The tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn, a faithful replica of the Inn seen in the movies, where guests are refreshed with a complimentary glass of one of the locally brewed favourites – ale, cider or ginger beer. The Dragon feels just like you imagine it would, with worn furniture and roaring fires. It has a fully staffed kitchen and serves hearty meals with a distinctive Middle Earth flavor. You would be forgiven for looking for dwarves in the cozy corners of the dining room.
Tours around Hobbiton take between two and three hours, depending on the size of the group and how quickly everyone moves through. Most of it is outdoors, so it would not be as much fun in poor weather, and the dirt paths could become a little boggy after heavy rain. However, this only adds to the authenticity of the experience, and helps deepen the sense of really being in the Shire.