Dreaming of Middle-earth in the middle of winter

As I write this blog post, Ontario is riding out a second major storm. I’ve been baking bread, working on the second book of my urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy, and reading about places I can only dream of going to for the time being.

Actually, hubby and I had the good fortune to visit New Zealand several years ago, and as the country is gearing up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings films, I thought I’d share some of our highlights as well as some tips for visiting.

Please note: the contents of this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without my permission, particularly the photos. Also, I apologize for the messy layout; WordPress was giving me headaches trying to format this properly.

Getting to New Zealand

We flew via a special package offered by Air Tahiti Nui, which included flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti, three free nights of accommodation in Tahiti, then onward to Auckland, New Zealand, and returning to Los Angeles via Tahiti. The package price was phenomenal: approx. $1400 CAN for all of those flights and the hotel/resort in Tahiti (a choice of hotels were included for free, but optional upgrades were available). The amount of time we spent in New Zealand was entirely up to us, and travel within New Zealand was on our own account.

It’s a lot of flying from Canada: 4.5 hours from Toronto to L.A., then 8 hours L.A. to Papeete. We had enough air miles for free business class seats to L.A. and back, so that was very comfortable. Unfortunately, Economy on Air Tahiti was uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t sleep, which is really unusual. The seats were the most cramped that we’ve ever experienced, and the food was passable. By the time we arrived in Papeete around 5 a.m., we were both quite tired from lack of sleep.

Fortunately, the resort was able to get us into our over-water bungalow by 10am (an upgrade from the standard room that I’d pre-arranged), and after exploring our amazing bungalow on stilts in the beautiful blue waters of the lagoon on the northwest corner of the island, we opened the windows in the bedroom and fell asleep to the sound of gentle waves for the afternoon.

It was the best sleep we’ve had in a long time, and if you ever have the opportunity to stay in an over-water bungalow, don’t pass it up! Over-water bungalows can be extremely expensive, but become affordable if you can find a special deal, as we did.

For the return trip, we purchased business class seats for the Tahiti-Los Angeles leg when we arrived at the airport. This used to be a little-known option: if any business class seats are still open, the airline will let you buy an upgrade for much less than their normal cost. I believe we paid about $1000 each to upgrade, and it was completely worth it: use of the quiet, air-conditioned business class lounge to wait for boarding (with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails included), roomy seats, good food, and a good sleep for most of the 8 hours on board.

From Tahiti we had another approx. 4 hours of flying to New Zealand, but the time in Tahiti had been a good break, and the island is a beautiful place to spend some time.

Travelling around New Zealand First, it’s important to understand that New Zealand consists of two islands, each quite different from the other, and with unique things to see and do. North Island is where the geothermal activity predominates (driving past towering active volcanoes and vents blowing steam geysers all over the landscape), the movie recreation of the town of Hobbiton from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies lives on for visitors, and where you can visit Maori communities for an authentic Hangi pit barbecue and ceremonial performance.

On the South Island you’ll find famous glaciers, beautiful mountainous regions, Mt. Cook (where Edmund Hillary practiced for his famous summit of Mt. Everest), extensive hiking, and a wide variety of adventure activities.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, depending on what your interests are. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • If you want to do both islands, you’ll need to cross the (in)famous Cook Strait, which is often stormy and has some of the roughest water in the world. You can cross by either ferry (about a 3-hour trip each way, if the weather’s decent; potentially several hours longer in rough seas), or by plane (which may not be any less rough under the same circumstances).
  • South Island is largely mountainous, which means two things: it takes several hours to get anywhere, so you’ll need to factor in driving time between stops, and many of the roads wind (sometimes tortuously) along the edges of the mountain faces, with a steep drop-off just a few feet from the edge of the road. If you suffer from vertigo or a fear of heights, South Island may not be for you, or you book an organized tour where you don’t have to worry about the driving.
  • New Zealand is expensive to visit. All the activities you may want to do can quickly add up to a substantial amount of money; unless you have deep pockets, you’ll need to pick and choose which ones you most want to do. We found meals to be reasonable enough, but hotels can also be very expensive.

We found a few ways to save on costs, and ended up having more fun than if we’d gone the more standard route.

  1. Instead of hotels, think either camper-van or one of the variety of holiday parks. These holiday parks are a brilliant alternative to traditional accommodations: each park has a range of places to stay, from camping spots to motels, all on the same property. We stayed in the motels, which range from basic (but clean) to more amenities, depending on the location. There are no places to eat onsite, but each park has a small tuck shop where you can get snacks, as well as a play area for kids, a laundry room, and boatloads of authentic atmosphere.

We considered a camper-van, as in New Zealand you can camp almost anywhere, especially if your camper-van includes its own toilet facilities. There were two reasons we didn’t: my hubby uses a CPAP machine, so we needed access to electricity every night, and the fare for the ferry crossing is significantly higher for the taller vehicles, which offset the benefit of not having to pay for a room every night. Camper-vans are a popular option and looked like a lot of fun, but keep in mind that they’ll require more gas, and can be more challenging to navigate up and down the mountains of South Island.

We bought a temporary membership with TOP 10 Holiday Parks, which gave us a decent discount on the ferry crossing as well. All of their accommodations were clean and very convenient, and much more affordable than hotels – generally $100 or less a night. You can book them in advance; we were travelling in the off-season and had no trouble just showing up and getting a room, which gave us a lot more flexibility with our itinerary.One of the things we particularly liked about using the holiday parks is that the lack of an onsite restaurant forced us to go into town and explore the food scene, something we might not have done as much of if we’d have access to a hotel restaurant at the end of a long day. New Zealanders are foodies, and we had superb meals everywhere. The food is fairly British in general, so do make a point of going for an indigenous Hangi meal at some point. Renting a small car proved to be a great option for us. Driving in New Zealand is on the left, like it is in Britain, for example, so make sure you’re comfortable with that before you decide to self-drive. We rented through Jucy, a popular budget-friendly rental company, and had no issues whatsoever; we’d use them again.

We spent 12 days in New Zealand, covering both islands. It entailed a lot of driving, but since the population of the country is quite low compared to other places we’ve been, traffic on the roads was sparse and my hubby found the driving unexpectedly relaxing. The scenery was quite beautiful to drive through, and we could stop at any little café or tea shop whenever we felt like it, as well as spending as much time at the sights as we wanted to.

I’ll get to the Hobbit/LOTR places shortly, but first I’ll mention a few highlights we enjoyed. After we landed in Auckland, we picked up our rental car and headed south straight to Wellington and the Interislander ferry to South Island. The crossing was smooth on that leg.

We should have overnighted in Picton, where we landed, instead of continuing on to Nelson, a two-hour journey along the most winding road we’ve ever encountered. Nelson is quite lovely, but I was pretty queasy by the time we got there, which may have been augmented by the mild motion of the crossing.

The west coast of South Island has spectacular waves and moody weather.

We visited Franz Josef Glacier, which requires about 40-minute hike through a primeval-looking rainforest to the expansive gravel bed of the receding glacier, through a landscape that made me think of Mordor, past gorgeous waterfalls to the base of the still-massive glacier. The parking area is frequented by pesky keas, a type of parrot that loves to rip apart your vehicle’s soft parts; they weren’t around the day we visited, thankfully.

We based ourselves in Wanaka for several nights, rather than the more famous Queenstown, as we decided to fly to the Milford Sound Fjord to save about 10 hours of driving time. Wanaka is a great small town at the edge of beautiful Lake Wanaka. The flight was something of a bust: delayed for several hours because of bad weather, when we did get on the plane it quickly became apparent that we were flying through the mountains, not over them as we’d thought. The plane was constantly buffeted by winds, and by the time we reached Milford I was the most nauseated I’d ever been on a plane; on top of that, it was to windy to land and the pilot had to turn around and take us back to Wanaka. The airline refunded us the price of the cruise through the Sound, and we did have one-in-a-lifetime views of the tips of a mountain range, very up-close-and-personal. (I vomited three times and spent the rest of the day sleeping.)

I’ve always been fascinated by Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb of Mt. Everest, so the opportunity to visit the mountain he practised on was really special. Some of the most famous hiking trails in New Zealand can be accessed from the same location. We hiked the Hooker Valley trail, which was the least strenuous option after my hubby’s two hip surgeries; there were two avalanches on the mountain while we stood below at a safe distance and watched the rumbling snow flow down the face. Finishing our hike by mid-afternoon, we then had afternoon tea in the Old Mountaineers Café, overlooking the mountain.

Hooker Valley hiking trail

Even the drive to get there was spectacular.

  1. There are a number of absolutely gorgeous lakes on the South Island, some of them an unearthly shade of blue; the waters of New Zealand hold the most extraordinary colours and are a worthy sight on their own.
  1. Christchurch is a really interesting big city, regularly recovering from a succession of major earthquakes. It’s the home of the International Antarctic Centre https://www.iceberg.co.nz/ , with a great museum where you can learn all about the expeditions that leave from there to the frozen continent, as well as being a rescue centre for adorable Little Blue penguins. If you like gardens, there’s a fantastic botanical garden there that’s even free to visit!
  2. While we were in Christchurch we were checking the weather reports for our ferry crossing back to the North Island. It wasn’t good: wind 15 to 25 knots, swells up to 9 metres. I called, and the ferry was still running; they advised us that under those conditions, a flight wouldn’t be any more pleasant. We had to cross that day, so we decided to stick with the ferry. On the drive to get there, we passed through beautiful winelands, and saw plenty of seals and red-footed boobies along the coast.

After watching the majestic ferry arrive in the harbour and maneuver into place, then parking our car inside the lower deck as directed, we made our way up to the main deck to have some lunch. The seas were quite wavy, but the ferry is so large that I didn’t notice a lot of movement. Some people did, however. We ventured out onto the top deck for a while, where we held on tightly in the cold, buffeting winds, enjoying the fresh air and watching poorly-dressed passengers almost have their tops ripped off by the strong gusts. All in all, we had a blast.

  • After getting off the ferry, we overnighted at a B&B motel in Palmerston North, where our genial host told us to visit the Chateau Tongariro Hotel for afternoon tea. We decided to track it down, and it was one of the highlights of the trip. The Chateau was built in 1929 and looks as if you’ve stepped through a time portal. The hotel is gorgeous and elegant; afternoon tea is held in a room with big windows that overlook the very active Tongariro volcano – we could feel it rumbling the entire time we enjoyed our classic, delicious tea meal.
  • The road led us past the other two huge volcanoes, Mt. Ruapehu, and the almost perfectly-conical Mt. Ngauruhoe, which served as Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings. It’s an amazing sight.

Rotorua is very special. There are thermal vents everywhere, and a trip to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is incredible. The pools formed by the hot springs are all psychedelic colours, as you walk along steam-shrouded paths past huge pits in the ground and weirdly bubbling mud pools. I see that Wai-O-Tapu is currently closed for renovation; if you travel this year, check to see if it’s reopening in time for your trip.

Our final stop was in Matamata: Hobbiton! I am a long-time fan of both the Lord of the Rings trilogy in book form and The Hobbit as well. Let me be candid about the movies: I despised the three LOTR films. If you’ve never read the books, I imagine the movies are quite spectacular, and I do know some fans of the books who also liked the movies. I have many issues with those movies, which I won’t discuss here.

However, what Peter Jackson did do is build a terrific version of Hobbiton. After the LOTR movies, some of the set was dismantled, but a lot of it remained when he decided to turn The Hobbit into a further 3 movies; those I enjoyed. The family who owns the land on which Hobbiton was constructed then arranged for the rights to turn the Hobbiton set into a tourist attraction, and it is a fantastic place to visit if you’re a fan.

I don’t have many photos, as they were all stored on a previous laptop that crashed unexpectedly and disastrously (lesson learned: I now back up everything onto two separate external drives), but what you see in the Hobbit movie is exactly what you see, and get to walk around, when you’re there. You can see the field set up for Bilbo’s 110th birthday, tree and all, walk past Sam Gamgee’s cottage, stand at the gate to Bilbo and Frodo’s house, and even stand inside the doorway to have your photo taken (the interior was a film set in a studio).

I highly, highly recommend forking out the extra cash for the Evening Banquet Tour, because after your 2-hour tour of Hobbiton village, you walk at dusk through a small woods along a path winding down to the Green Dragon Inn for ale and a wonderful dinner. The meal takes place at long communal tables that are literally covered in either plates or food – and the food is very good. (The photos on the website are exactly what you can look forward to.) You get to meet fellow fans from all over the world. Afterward you’re given a lantern for the walk back to town. When we did it, we were all  encouraged to do a Hobbit-dance in the party field under the stars before returning to the shuttle that took us back to the car park. It was truly a magical night, so if you’re trying to stick to a budget, this is a worthy splurge. There’s a shop onsite where you can indulge yourself before the tour; the items are quite pricey, so I settled for a key to Erebor, which now sits on the campaign desk in our living room.

New Zealand is a great country to visit – the residents are incredibly friendly and seem to genuinely love talking to visitors, the food is great and the landscapes are beautiful. A trip there will take you to one of the 8 continents; after that, hubby and I have two more to go to complete them all (bucket list!).

One word of warning: New Zealand has had a really bad time with invasive foreign species; much of what you’ll see isn’t actually native to the country, including the gorgeous swathes of yellow broom that carpet the hills and mountains of South Island. When you land at the airport, expect a rigorous screening. Do NOT bring any foreign food with you into the country; you can bring some candies or gum for the long flights, but you must declare them on arrival – if you don’t and are caught with them, the fine is very steep. For information on more Middle-earth sites, check out this article by Goway Travel. New Zealand is starting to slowly reopen its borders; check on the status if you’re planning your own Middle-earth adventure.

Published by

ejurus

I started Lion Tail Magic as a way to help people recapture the adventurous spirit of their childhood -- exploration, curiosity about everything, and a belief that anything is possible if you want it and are willing to work towards it. I am a travel coach, professional speaker, writer and endlessly curious world traveller.

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