On Dart Stables’ tour, visitors can ride on horses that were featured in the films. // © 2014 Dart Stables
Although English author J. R. R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” and other stories revolving around the world of Middle-earth in order to create a “mythology for England,” that mythology has extended beyond its Northern European origins to the other side of the globe.
Thanks to the massive popularity of director Sir Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, more recently, “The Hobbit” films, New Zealand has become inextricably tied to Middle-earth, producing a big draw for Tolkien fans and a marketing advantage for Tourism New Zealand.
“There can be no denying the attraction of traveling to Middle-earth,” said New Zealand’s associate minister of tourism, Chris Tremain, who emphasized the government’s commitment to capitalizing on the success of the films.
While there are many companies that cater specifically to fans who want to explore Middle-earth, the various filming locations are worth visiting for their beauty alone. Here are some of the top tours and companies to check out for clients wishing to combine film-inspired sightseeing with great activities in New Zealand.
Explore Waitomo Caves
While the spectacular Waitomo Caves should be on any traveler’s list of New Zealand destinations, fans of “The Hobbit” will particularly enjoy their visit knowing that sound effects for the goblin caves scene in the trilogy’s first installment were recorded here. Usually referred to as the “Waitomo Glowworm Caves,” this destination presents an otherworldly experience with stalactites and stalagmites, as well as the thousands of glittering glowworms that light up the caves’ ceilings.
Visitors can take walking tours with guides who provide commentary about the caves’ historical and geological significance. These tours culminate in a boat ride along the underground Waitomo River in the Glowworm Grotto, where the glowworms illuminate the caves and produce a bizarre, starry atmosphere.
Adventurous travelers can also book tours with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., which leads visitors on rafting, rappelling, climbing and tubing excursions through Ruakuri Cave.
Go on a Dart River Adventure
Based at the village of Glenorchy at the north end of Lake Wakatipu, Dart River Jet operates the only jet boating and funyak tours allowed on the Dart River, taking clients into Mount Aspiring National Park and past multiple Middle-earth filming sites.
The “Wilderness Jet” trip departs from the head of the lake and continues deep into the national park, where guests will learn more about the area’s rich history and get a chance to walk through the ancient beech forest. Clients who prefer a leisurely pace can opt for a “Funyak" trip, which explores the river and national park by floating downstream to the Paradise area in an inflatable canoe.
The region surrounding Glenorchy and nearby Queenstown is home to many locations from the film, including Lothlorien, the Ford of Bruinen and the Gladden Fields.
Tour the Hobbiton Set
A must-see for any Tolkien fan, the Hobbiton Movie Set is now a permanent fixture on the Alexander Farm near Matamata. After tearing down the set upon completion of filming for “The Lord the Rings,” the team working on “The Hobbit” films rebuilt the set in 2011 –– and this time, they built it to last.
Starting with a picturesque drive through the 1,250-acre sheep farm, visitors can take daily guided tours of Hobbiton to learn about the site’s film history, view the Hobbit holes and other structures from the films and enjoy a day in the life of Middle-earth’s hairy-footed inhabitants.
Perhaps best of all, visitors can spend the afternoon at the Green Dragon Inn, the hobbits’ favorite haunt from the film that now operates as a fully functional restaurant and pub serving themed meals and drinks, including the signature Southfarthing ales and cider.
Ride through the Country on Horseback
Owned and operated by a former professional steeplechase jockey, Dart Stables prides itself on the quality of its horses and the beautiful surroundings of its tours. With film-inspired tours such as “The Ride of the Rings” and “The Trilogy Loop,” the company gives visitors the chance to explore Glenorchy and Paradise on horseback while highlighting filming locations from “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, including the Misty Mountains, Lothlorien, Amon Hen and the Wizard’s Vale, the location of Saruman’s fortress of Isengard in the films.
Dart Stables provides rides at walking pace to accommodate beginners as well as exhilarating rides for advanced riders. As an added bonus for film fans, six of the company’s horses were used in “The Lord of the Rings” for the riders of Rohan, and Dart Stables still uses two of them part-time for visitors to ride during their tours.
Take a Glacier Helicopter Tour
While New Zealand is home to many helicopter tour operators, Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters has a special claim to fame for fans of the films: the company’s pilots provided most of the aerial filming for both “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. The operator offers flights over many beautiful destinations, including Queenstown, the Wakatipu Basin, Skipper Canyon and Milford Sound, with glacier landings and picnics in national parks.
Specifically for Tolkien fans, the company provides two tours that feature various locations from the films, such as Dimrill Dale, the Ford of Bruinen and the small mountain lake the Rohirrim refugees passed by in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Clients who want to experience more of the films’ landscapes can instead arrange a Middle-earth private charter in order to see more locations and receive extra behind-the-scenes insights from pilots who worked with the production crews.
Experience a New Zealand Safari
With more than 10 years of experience leading tours to various locations from “The Lord of the Rings,” Nomad Safaris is one of New Zealand’s oldest Middle-earth tour companies. Although the company has a wide variety of four-wheel drive and ATV excursions, a handful of its tours are devoted exclusively to visiting areas depicted in the films.
Full-day and half-day safaris include visits to Glenorchy, Paradise Valley, the Wakatipu Basin, the Remarkables mountain range and Kawarau Gorge, where filmmakers shot such movie locales as the forest of Lothlorien, the Ithilien camp, the Misty Mountains and the Pillars of the Kings. For diehard fans, Nomad Safaris even provides authentic replica props so that visitors can dress up and take photos at the filming sites.