Step away from your screen(s)

An African sunset, truly magical

Since March 2022 I’ve been a local explorer. During the autumn preceding the COVID pandemic, my hubby and I had visited Ireland, and over the December holidays we’d spent time with a relative outside Nashville, TN, so at least we had those under our belts to hold us while we waited to see how the global disease was going to play out.

Some of our friends and relatives decided to travel outside the country, bucking the requests and advice of our government; we chose to stay within our province for the greater good. So if you’ve been following this blog during that time, you’ll have seen memories from all the local adventures I’ve been embarking on. On those journeys, there has been so much history and local culture to discover, and plenty of local beauty as well. Most of my, and our, best moments have happened out and about.

We have spectacular ornamental cherry blossoms in our area each spring, but hardly anyone goes out to see them

I was intrigued to see what advice a 100-year old traveller – someone who’s reached a milestone most of us never will – would have to offer, in a recent article posted on AFAR Magazine, and wasn’t really surprised to see that it dovetails with my own philosophy.

Both Deborah Szekely and I (and most of my friends) grew up in the decades before smartphones, tablets or even the internet existed. We had no other option than to really embrace the world around us and be in the moment all the time. It was a great time to travel, sometimes by the seat of our pants, and without the benefit of GPS, online city guides, or any kind of convenient app. That meant that we had to think on our feet, pay attention to our surroundings and form our own opinions.

Now, I see all kinds of travellers with their faces buried in their screens, completely missing what’s going on around them. They base their choices on the opinions of influencers who offer no guarantee that they know what they’re talking about, and often present false fronts on their media sites. People destroy popular tourist sites so they can take a photo of themselves looking cool, thus being a general nuisance and often ruining the site for any visitors that try to come after them.

This beautiful iris in the cloud forest of Peru only blooms one day a year; exploring by myself, I was the only person in our tour group to see it

According to the article about Szekely, her philosophy is “to find our own inner peace by looking away from our screens and immersing ourselves in the beauty of the world. And sometimes, the best antidote to doom scrolling is by going on a walk—not on the treadmill, but in nature—and by focusing our awareness on the birds and other wildlife around us, we’ll find “all kinds of answers.” “ 1

Building on that, if you look through history, political clashes come and go and the human race goes on. Devastating epidemics have occurred over the centuries – the Black Death killed 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, the Spanish Flu anywhere from 17 million to possibly 100 million worldwide – and humanity survived those with far less medical advances than we have today. Many people are working hard to save species and our planet.

Things you see on the side of the road deep in the African bush: an elephant refreshing itself in the hot afternoon sun

It’s important for us to stay informed enough to remain safe, but not to drive ourselves crazy with it. Conspiracy theories count on fear to help them spread, but wouldn’t you rather feel good about life and stop worrying that everyone’s out to get you? Sure, there’s bad in the world, but there’s a lot of good also, and that’s the kind of news I want to look at.

My advice builds on what Szekely has to say: stop living your life through an electronic device. Get out and actually live! The world is still very beautiful and there are plenty of wonderful people in it. But you’ll only experience all of that when you look up. Go someplace, see what it has to offer without any preconceived ideas, and make up your own mind about it. Learn to rely on your own opinions and judgements. Travel locally or travel abroad, safely and with full awareness of where you are. And then let me know what you found 😊

Look up, look down, look all around — you’ll be amazed at what you see

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

1After Living, Traveling, and Learning Her Way to 100, Deborah Szekely Has Some Advice for You, byChloe Arrojado for AFAR Magazine, May 10, 2022, www.afar.com/magazine/wellness-tips-from-100-year-old-legend-deborah-szekely

It’s alive!

Cyclamen?

Our local weather has been completely conflicted as March draws to a close, flipping from snow and hail to balmy spring temperatures and back to cold again within 24 hours spurts. The other day I snuck out on one of the good days to my favourite botanical garden to look for any signs of life among the often dismal days that have comprised our early spring so far. What I found was far more than I expected: myriad brave flowers lifting my spirits as they lifted their heads to the fickle sunlight.

I expected to see a few stalwart snowdrops, but there were hundreds of them bursting out all over the lawns and organized gardens
The rhododendrons were already readying their flower buds
All kinds of crocus were sprayed across the lawns; this blue variety was especially lovely
These look like daffodil stalks; their vibrant green shoots poking out of the drab soil just made me smile
The netted iris, which I hadn’t seen before, were absolutely breathtaking
Hellebores in the Woodland Garden were out in all their ruffly spring dress
A pair of glorious yellow crocus also made an appearance in the Woodland Garden
Crinkly yellow witch hazel flowers glowing against one of our rare sunny blue skies lately
In the meantime, the local horticultural students have been busy preparing the flower beds for their spring plantings

If you’ve also been waiting impatiently for signs of spring, I hope these photos cheer you up as much as the real-life versions did me 🙂

Jekyll and Hyde – the two faces of the spillway at 3rd Canal Lock 22

What a difference four weeks made in our ongoing exploration of the Welland Canal in all of its iterations. The canal system in use today — version 4 — is shut down every winter when the ice comes in, roughly early January to mid-March. The waters are drained and maintenance work commences. If you’ve wondered what our engineering marvel looks like when it’s not full of water, the photo above shows you. It’s essentially a large dirt ditch, not nearly as glamorous or picturesque as it is during shipping season, when boats large and small use the only marine pathway linking Lakes Ontario and Erie. Below you can see a completely empty lock — this one at the Port Weller bridge and dry docks.

During the winter more of the older Third Canal sections and locks become visible, revealed by low water levels and bare forest surrounds. Two weeks ago, crunching our way through thick snow that was crusty on the surface but getting soft underneath, every other footstep became a wrestling match with the deep pit our boots had sunk into.

Old walls lay exposed, as well as the bottom of parts of the old canal. Geese took the opportunity to stroll across thin layers of ice and snow until they reached patches of swimmable water.

To the right, not visible in the photo above, the walls of old Lock 21 stretched. The footing was so treacherous, though, that I couldn’t get photos of everything. Below, we’re looking at the deteriorating walls of Lock 22; in the water, wood debris suggests part of one of the old lock gates, but I don’t know that with any certainty.

According to the Historic Welland Canals Mapping Project (HWCMP), some of old Lock 22 was repurposed as a water diversion channel for the current Canal, not far from the Thorold Tunnel, where one of the main transportation arteries in Niagara runs crosses the Canal by running underneath it. In early March, the water below the spillway that diverts overflow from the Lock (to the best of my knowledge — details about how the modern canal is filled and emptied have been really difficult to find) was serene under grey skies.

Fast forward just a couple of weeks, after early spring weather finally made an appearance, and the Welland Canal has been filled in advance of its March 24th reopening this year.

The old canal section and its surrounding reservoirs have a new look. In the upper ‘lake’, the ice is breaking up and launching small floes down toward the weir that feeds the spillway.

The geese can swim about freely between the walls of the old canal.

Trails, such as they are in this area, have dried and offer a pleasant walk on a mild spring day. No idea what this interesting yellow framework was once a part of.

Trees are thick along the banks, but today’s adventure was good timing — the lack of leaves allowed a glimpse of old Lock 21’s walls in the distance.

We were also able to get closer to the edge of the cliffs lining Lock 22, where the noise of rushing water filled the air and the green-tinged water started showing signs of froth.

The water grew increasingly rougher as we continued toward the mouth of the spillway.

There’s a side channel that was flowing swiftly over the west wall of the canal, which apparently has deteriorated from the infiltration of roots reaching from the woods through which the canal runs. The water joined the flow from the spillway to create a wildly churning and rushing mass of water that created its own mist.

As we approached the spillway, the ferocity of the released water was stunning. I took a video clip of it, but for some reason it won’t download to my laptop. (If any of my readers have a remedy for getting a Windows computer to recognize an MTS or MP4 file from a Sony Cybershot — not sure which as I can’t even pull up the video file — I’d very much appreciate hearing it! No luck finding a solution online.)

Below you’ll see the actual spillway. The sight was mesmerizing; we could have watched it for hours. The photo gives you a small idea of the power of the flip side of the waters of the Welland Canal — fascinating, and hazardous if you’re not careful.

When the Seaway puts up signs like these, it’s obvious why they mean business. Should you go exploring in the area, please do heed their warnings, so you can enjoy but still stay safe!

All photos by me, and all rights reserved. Also, a heads-up that I’ll be changing this blog to an every-other-week format so that I can devote more time to my new author blog, Roads’ Guide to the Galaxy 🙂 I hope you enjoy both.

Ice-capades

This week our area experienced a rare day above freezing temperatures — the sunny afternoon raised the temperature as high as 11 degrees C (almost 52 degrees F). It was practically imperative that we get outside and enjoy the break in what’s been an unusually snowy and chilly winter for our region.

Meeting my hiking buddy at Morningstar Mill, we donned hiking boots with deeply-treaded soles for our adventure. First up, a walk around the mill grounds to see the Decew Falls, currently in a spectacular state between thick towers of ice and lacy sprays of thawed water.

The falls drop about 70 feet into a wide bowl-shaped gorge. Standing beside the falls, we could see groundwater that had seeped through the layers of sedimentary rock on the opposite side, only to freeze into massive icicles as it emerged into the cold air.

We walked the trail that runs from Decew House farther down the road, along Moodie Lake, which feeds the Decew Falls Generating Station, and through the woods back to the Mill.

Although much of the ground is still covered in snow, there was plenty to see. We came upon a tree that looked like it had been freshly felled by a beaver.

Along the water’s edge, old bittersweet vines provided a spot of colour.

This tree was heavily encrusted with tiny bits of fungus.

Odd bursts of autumn leaves that had refused to fall were highlighted by the sunshine. The photo also illustrates how close much of the trail, after it departs from the edge of the lake, runs along the steep cliffs of the escarpment. This section of the hike is best for people who aren’t bothered by heights.

The walking was slow-going; for every step or two forward, our feet would then sink through the softening snow and have to be yanked back out. Some of the rises and falls of the trail along the dips in the landscape were slippery and required caution to avoid sliding over the cliffs. It was manageable, but sometimes a little nerve-wracking. But the warmth of the sun, the freshness of the mild air, and the opportunity to see the forest without the clutter of summer leaves made the experience worth it. The fallen tree below had some intriguing tunnels deep inside. I’m guessing they were made by some type of tree borer, but if you have more exact knowledge I’d love to know.

Another deceased tree, still leaning at an angle across the path, had been artistically stripped of some of its bark like a mummy wrap.

In one sunny spot the snow had melted away to reveal velvety green moss strewn with acorns — a great prize for any squirrels in the area.

As we reached the final stretch of the trail leading back to the mill along the creek formed by the falling water, the snow had been packed down under a slick melting layer and the walking became very slippery. Hikers coming in the opposite direction from the mill asked us what conditions were like behind us.

In Ontario, this image is iconic of winter transitioning into spring: rivulets of water opening up a tunnel in the melting ice.

An even more iconic sign of spring made a surprise appearance: eight to ten robins hopping around the trees above the creek.

As we approached the falls from the far side of the gorge, the last rays of sun before a bank of clouds rolled in illuminated the layers of the falls themselves, with a curtain of melt-water falling over ethereal columns of ice behind it.

All in all, a wonderful hike on a glorious spring-like day. These are the gifts of Nature that you accept as they’re offered, enjoying the transitory beauty one fabulous day at a time.

Outside the box wellness: winter’s magic

It’s a disheartening time to be a Canadian. There’s a large philosophical divide between the truckers who refuse to get vaccinated and the thousands of us who believe that in a world-wide pandemic, the greater good supersedes individual contrariness. We thousands have all had the vaccine and are doing just fine, apart from a couple of days of flu-type malaise after each injection. The development of vaccines has meant that millions of people no longer die from diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria and polio. I don’t argue the truckers’ right to protest, just their complete disregard of how their gatherings are disrupting the lives of thousands of people who, I believe, have just as much right to avoid getting sick.

When my frustrations reach boiling point, I head out to spend time in the peace and beauty of nature. Even in winter, you say? Winter is a wonderful time to get outside. I bundle up, grab my camera, and enjoy the artistry of the winter landscape.

Snow forms complex patterns on the frozen surface of the Welland Canal
A bollard creates its own animal shadow — I see a horse’s head
What appears to be some kind of buoy forms a bright spot on the ice of the Canal
Multiple tracks in the snow — I think some are squirrel, one white-tailed deer, and other I’m not sure of
A gorgeous blue jay explores a thicket along the Canal
The white backdrop makes everything look sculptural, like these black benches and bright red dogwood branches
An unidentified tree has buds on it!
A picturesque fence draped with tangled vines
More anthropomorphism — an evergreen shrub is transformed into a hulking winged beast
Even the snow has patterns, from smooth white, to windy swirls, to these granules that I assume dropped down from the trees above

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.