Finding fantasy in Tolkien's creations
Immerse yourself in Middle-earth and see the filming locations of The Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit film series in New Zealand
Whether or not you are a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien and his epic Middle-earth, a visit to New Zealand will inevitably take you to some of the film locations for The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit movie trilogies.
The Tolkien connection starts the moment you board the plane when you fly Air New Zealand.
In 2014, the national carrier paid tribute to the English writer and the fantasy world he created with The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made, featuring characters from the movies, complete with battle scenes and appearances by cast members.
The clip went viral, and has since been viewed more than 18 million times on YouTube.
Even if you have not seen the movies, the scenery at the filming locations is spectacular and worth a visit.
A must-see would be the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, where New Zealand director Peter Jackson created an entire village of hobbit-sized proportions.
It took 70 set builders to construct 44 hobbit holes across approximately 4ha of land, making it the most popular tourist attraction in New Zealand, with more than 468,000 visitors last year.
The set is a two-hour drive from Auckland and is within easy reach of other North Island tourist destinations, such as Rotorua and Waitomo.
Each hobbit hole is intricately detailed, transporting you into Tolkien's vision with its startling authenticity.
The Hobbiton Movie Set celebrated International Hobbit Day on Sept 22, said to be the birthday of Tolkien's characters Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
This year also marks 100 years since Tolkien's first published story, and we were there to enjoy the special festivities commemorating the day,
Tickets were sold out months ahead of the event.
As the sun set over the stunning Matamata countryside, we meandered down the rambling path to The Green Dragon Inn, where ales, cider and non-alcoholic ginger beer - brewed exclusively for Hobbiton by Good George Brewing - are tapped from barrels and tables groaned under the weight of hearty traditional fare.
With waiters dressed as hairy-footed hobbits scurrying around, it was easy to transport ourselves into Tolkien's pages and Jackson's scenes.
The magic of the moment lasted right to the end, as guests were treated to a display of fireworks.
Then, lantern in hand, we ambled along through Hobbiton village again, back to where a tour bus - the only thing that broke the fantasy - awaited. Looking at the lines of hobbits walking along the hills, past smoking chimneys and glowing lanterns, you cannot help but feel the spirit of Tolkien's creations.
According to Hobbiton general manager Russell Alexander, next year's celebration is expected to be bigger, with an exclusive event planned for more than 400 fans.
Book your tickets now - at NZ$295 (S$275) a person - they are already on sale.
For a different behind-the-scenes experience, head to Weta Workshop in Wellington.
Sir Richard Taylor, called it "an artisan studio servicing the world's creative industries" in an interview with The New Paper.
In other words, this is where movie magic happens.
It took 70 set builders to construct 44 hobbit holes across approximately 4ha of land, making it the most popular tourist attraction in New Zealand.
Work for both the LOTR and The Hobbit trilogies - from special effects to post-production and editing - were done at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. A total of 48,000 items were created for LOTR, which helped Weta Workshop win four Oscars.
The Weta Cave, where original movie props, memorabilia and artwork are displayed, is a tour-worthy destination, a powerful reminder of how far creativity and innovation can take you.
Mr Taylor said that such craftsmanship is important as "in this digitally connected world where most of the young are living in the 'vanilla-flavoured Ikea future', the tactility in this modernity becomes critical".
The third place I highly recommend to truly immerse yourself in Middle-earth would be Piopio town in Waitomo district. With towering limestone cliffs, massive rock formations and primeval forests, the Mangaotaki Valley family-owned farm was used by Jackson to create Trollshaws Forest, where Bilbo, Gandalf and company encounter three large trolls in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The stunning landscapes also served as the backdrop for several other scenes from the movie.
For a guided small group tour of this beautiful area, sign up for the aptly named Hairy Feet Waitomo tours, owned by Suzie and Warrick Denize.
The LOTR-Hobbit phenomenon has undoubtedly contributed to the influx of tourists to New Zealand, which was recently named one of the top 10 countries to visit next year for the first time since 2010, ranking fifth on Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2018 list.
Going by the number of visitor sign-ups for tours, the Tolkien effect does not seem to have diminished even though the last film, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, was released in 2014.
Mr Alexander, Mr Taylor and the Denizes noted there has been a huge increase in the flow of fans and tourists since filming wrapped, and the global success of the franchise continues to be a matter of national pride for New Zealand, affectionately known as "the real Middle-earth".
This is the first of our three-part series on New Zealand