Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones

Regardless of your feelings about the series finale, one cannot argue that Game of Thrones failed to leave a lasting mark on the collective TV viewing audience around the world. Even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, I think you can still enjoy the photos and descriptions here since I’m telling my story, not JRR Martin’s. I enjoyed the books a lot (wish he’d finish!) and I like most of the TV show as well, even many parts that diverged greatly from the books. However, this is not a blog about a TV show, it is about Ireland: the museum exhibit in Belfast, and the outdoor landmarks which would are enjoyable on their own, minus the CGI and regardless of their attachment to the show.


Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition: Belfast

At the time I was in Ireland, the GoT Touring Exhibition was in the TEC in Belfast. I understand that it was in Belfast from April – September of 2019. I was told that there will be some part of the exhibit which will permanently stay in Belfast due to it size, but as I write this, there’s zero information on the TEC website because it’s all closed due to Covid-19. Additionally, the exhibition’s tour schedule is currently suspended for the same reason. I’d love to be able to tell you where to go to see it, but I can’t.

Warning: there are SPOILERS. If for some reason you are living under a rock and haven’t seen season 8 (or already had it spoiled for you) and still want to experience that… uh, experience, then maybe just look at the pictures or skip to the outdoor part of the GoT sightseeing.

I booked tickets well in advance because I was warned it might be sold out and we were on a bit of a schedule. There’s plenty of parking at the TEC and a place to get a cup of coffee and a snack in the lobby. It was such a relief to have an indoor activity on a rainy day. I got there before opening because I wanted to be in the door before the crowds arrived. There weren’t actually that many people there, but I’m still glad I went early because it was filling up by the time we left about 3 hours later.

The exhibit hall was enormous. It was divided into smaller rooms by theme and there was a suggested path to follow. There was a plethora of information about every item on display as well as knowledgeable staff everywhere, most of whom had worked on the show when it was being filmed and had personal on set anecdotes to share about the actors or scenes. Generally all of them were happy to have had the experience which made it nice to have the staff share fandom and enthusiasm.

Photos were allowed everywhere, but flash photography was forbidden and the lighting was very low, so most of my photos did not turn out terribly well, I’m afraid. Honestly, you can see wide shots of the costumes and props in the show, so the impressive part of the exhibit is being able to look at the close up details involved in the dresses, jewelry, weapons and other props that are never seen on screen, or shown for only fractions of a second. There are so many more things in the exhibit than I can show here, in part because no one wants to see that many photos and the rest because so many of my photos turned out blurry or dark or both.


The display starts by introducing the houses of Westeros and their relationships and fealty with a dazzling array of flowcharts accompanied by a variety of common or popular character costumes for the main houses.


It moves next into an area that replicates the Stark family crypt at Winterfell. I was told by the guide for this portion that these statues would not be moving on with the exhibition tour since they were too large and fragile. The room was dark and the statues lit moodily as though by torch light. It was a fun effect to walk through, but a frustrating one to photograph.


The third module gets into the further houses such as those of Dorne and the Iron Islands as well as Stannis Baratheon’s unholy union with Melisandre.

The fourth section is arguably the best. It’s a room full of dragon skulls, the very same ones Tyrion finds while under the palace in Kings Landing that belonged to the Targaryans of days past. I have rarely been so sad about low lighting, but it did make the skulls feel a little creepy and alive, and lived experience is always better than a photo. The skulls are seriously dinosaur sized. The smallest one could probably bite me in half, and the largest could swallow me whole. Standing up. Without opening it’s jaw all the way. So incredibly cool.


Following the dragon skulls were all things Mother of Dragons. Daenerys’ most iconic costumes and jewelry as well as models of the dragon eggs and baby dragons.


There’s an interactive display of the temple of the Faceless Men. Arya trained there, learning deep ancient secrets of how to assassinate people and then NEVER USED THEM. *sigh The display is still cool. You can pose for a photo and have your face digitally added to the wall of faces.


Next up is the Wall where John Snow joins the Night Watch to protect the realms against the coming of the Night King and his horde of walking dead that kill all the Dothraki and then… shatter?… when Arya stabs him, not using her Girl Has No Name skills in any way… ugh. Look at the shiny costumes!


The final display is the Iron Throne in King’s Landing with some of the later season costumes arrayed around it. In addition to all the beautiful set pieces and costumes, there are several interactive stations where you can pose with Arya’s sword Needle, John’s sword Longclaw, the Wall (a cute trick with mirrors to make it look like you’re holding on to a rope for dear life), and the Iron Throne itself. You can walk both forward and backward through the display, so I was able to double back and have a closer look at a few things. All in all, a lovely experience combining museum quality displays and fantastical world building.


On the way out, one of the staff told us to keep an eye out in the parking lot for the King’s Landing set. He implied that one day it might be open to the public as part of a permanent exhibit, but not yet. I tried to find any information about it online, but again, since tourism is closed, there’s no telling if or when the full size set that was used to film the burning of King’s Landing in season 8 will ever be a public attraction or not.
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The Film Locations

A large number of the stunning landscapes of the show are part of Northern Ireland. There are scads of websites dedicated to helping people find and enjoy GoT filming locations. Many of the locations are empty fields where this or that battle was filmed, while others had significant CGI added in post production. There are specialized tours where you can play dress up and act out scenes from the show. There’s even a very expensive opportunity to spend some time with the actual animals who played the Stark children’s direwolves.

*The photos that follow are a mix of screenshots from Game of Thrones and my own photos of the locations I visited for comparison and contrast.*

Dark Hedges

This was probably the shortest stop and yet the most beautiful. The Dark Hedges were a popular site in Northern Ireland even before the show. They also have the honor of being one of the only locations that was not CGI enhanced and are therefore quite recognizable as the King’s Road in seasons 1 and 2, as well as the place where Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing.

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From the outside, the dark hedges just look like a little stand of trees in between two large fields. The short stretch of road runs through a private farm, and although the patient farmer has to put up with tourists on the public road, he also seems to have a good sense of humor about the situation. Busloads of tourists come through both on Game of Thrones themed tours and on regular tours of the area because it’s famous for more than just it’s show appearance. As a result, parking is scarce. There was supposedly a parking lot some distance away, but everyone simply parked on the side of the road that ran perpendicular to the hedges. There’s not supposed to be any cars on the hedge road itself, but of course there are always people who think the rules don’t apply to them.


It’s a short stop for most tours, so if photography is your goal, you might want to go on your own. I only spent about 30 minutes there and took a lot of photos which I was eventually able to parlay into a version that makes it look totally empty! Yay, photoshop? Otherwise, it’s very easy to see how true to life this set is between the show and the reality.

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Downhill Demesne & Mussenden Temple

Here is the filming location of Dragonstone in Season 2. Downhill Strand is the place where the seven gods of Westeros were sacrificed by Lady Melisandre. Dragonstone was the ancestral home of House Targaryen and current stronghold of the Stannis Baratheon. The scene in question is filmed at night on the beach below, so there’s no real way to see it in the show. Nonetheless, it seems that the tourism board has installed statues of the seven on the beach for eager fans to see. I didn’t make it down to the beach, but rather came through the Downhill Demesne gardens and grounds. If you want to see the beach, I think the A2 road goes there pretty directly.

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We entered via Bishop’s Gate and enjoyed the gardens with a variety of flowering bushes and trees, water features and stonework. Following the trail, we came upon an open area where the ruins of the old manor stood. Finally, walking all the way to the cliff edge, I found Mussenden Temple. Contrary to it’s name, it was never a temple, merely modeled after one. It was in fact a library. It is possible to enter the “temple” during the day, but by the time we arrived it was locked up for the night.

Dunluce (again)

I did not actually realize it at the time, since it didn’t show up on my initial searches for GoT locations, but Dunluce Castle was also Pyke Castle of House Grayjoy on the Iron Islands. I had to look it up and it turns out this is one of the locations that was extreme CGI. I would say more that Dunluce was the inspiration rather than the location, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. I wrote more about Dunluce in my description of the Causeway Route.

Castle Ward

This was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, and turned into the greatest disappointment. It’s advertised as “the real life Winterfell” and while it was technically the place where Winterfell was filmed… CGI.

In all fairness, one of the reasons I did not enjoy the stop was that we were experiencing some of the hardest and most vicious rain of the entire trip that day. Ireland kind of always rains. For some reason, I thought that was like Seattle rain which is really just heavy mist and no native Seattlite owns an umbrella (at least not for rain). I had a travel umbrella and I had rain booties to keep my shoes dry and I thought that would be enough. Mostly it was. There was one terrible soaking I got while on a ferry, but other than that, I’d been mostly dry or at least only merely damp.

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Not so this day. The rain was opaque. It was as though the sky was trying to be the sea. In addition, the signage for where to go and park in the sprawling acreage of Castle Ward is not clear. I followed the signs for Winterfell and wound up in a very small parking lot which in retrospect might have been staff parking, but we were so lost by then that I just gave up and parked anyway. (Now I know we should have parked at the Shore Parking Lot, but it was not obvious in any way when we drove in that day) It turned out to still be a long walk from the trail head to the actual “Winterfell” area, and on a beautiful day, or even a merely drizzly day it probably would have been a lovely walk through the National Trust. It’s still very pretty, but it was harder to appreciate while wet.

Another reason I think I was disappointed is that I’ve been to Hobbiton in New Zealand. There are plenty of LOTR locations you can visit there that are just unchanged landscape and like Northern Ireland, they are beautiful and worth seeing, just… not like the movies. Hobbiton, on the other hand, was purpose built (twice) for the LOTR and Hobbit movies. Although the farmer who owned the land originally didn’t want permanent structures, after seeing the huge influx of tourism money, he decided to keep them after all.

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Thus, walking around Hobbiton, you feel like you are THERE. I knew that most of the locations I visited for GoT were not altered for the show or for tourism, but Winterfell was so highly advertised as this great experience, like being in Winterfell, stepping into the show, that I imagined it would be at least a little like Hobbiton, and give me a sense of being at the Stark family home.

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When I finally arrived at “Winterfell” I felt very let down. It looked like a reconstructed historical village, the kind that kids take school field trips to see. I expect that it was meant to be a replica of the original Castle Ward. It wasn’t ugly or anything, it just wasn’t at all like Winterfell.

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There are a ton of pay to play style activities at the Winterfell center. You can take an archery class, an axe throwing class, rent a bicycle and tour the park while wearing a cape and a special GoT messenger bag that purportedly takes you to 20 different filming locations within the grounds, most of which are “this tree” or “that field”. I don’t want to diminish from anyone who enjoys this kind of experience. If that is your jam, rock on. For me, a place has to be cool for more than just being the canvas on which CGI was painted. In addition, I was traveling with an older person who simply wasn’t up for lots of hikes or bikes.

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I wanted to simply see the grounds and enjoy the castle. The thing is… it’s not really there. The closest you come is one short tower and part of a wall that kind of look like Winterfell if you squint. In the courtyard there were a dozen or so cars and a huge tent, which made getting decent photos of the type that are shown on the website nearly impossible. This is the closest angle of any building that I found to resemble the castle on the show (show: top, reality: bottom). The resemblance is there, but the feel was lacking.

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In addition to the experience selling shops, there was a small art gallery and a gift shop. I spent a long time hiding in the replica ruins of an old mill waiting for another torrent to pass long enough to walk again. The rain was so extensive that the ground was almost entirely underwater.

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It just goes to show that managing expectations is extremely important. I think I would have been able to overlook the disappointment of either the weather or the failure to be anything like Winterfell, but I wasn’t able to overcome them both and I left feeling profoundly damp in shoes and spirits.

Inch Abbey

Thankfully, that day I had one more GoT location to visit, and it was the ruins of an old abby, which it’s almost impossible for me to feel let down by. The scene is where Robb Stark’s bannermen rallied to their leader after taking victory (and Jaime Lannister prisoner) at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. While Winterfell had made the cut onto my list because of my (mistaken) belief that it would be a grand immersive experience, Inch Abbey made the list just for being old ruins.

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The first traces of a sacred building on this site go all the way back to 800 C.E., although it is thought that the monestary of Inis Cumhscraigh (as it was called at the time) was mainly earth and wood, so little of it remains today. The beautiful stonework remains that makes this site stand out were not built until 1180-88. It remained an active catholic monastery until 1542 when Henry the Eighth left the Catholic church because he wanted a divorce and then forced everyone under his rule to become Church of England.

The rain had eased back significantly, and one of the local tour bus drivers even offered us spare ponchos as his passengers were offloading. The tour group was rather amusing, and seemed to be having an absolute blast. They were equipped with cloaks and replica swords which appeared to be blunt steel, not plastic or wood. The tour guide, like many of those working on GoT tourist sites, had been an extra on the show and enjoyed telling stories from being on set.

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They all gathered together and, at the guide’s prompting, everyone bent the knee to one lady, swords aloft and shouted “the queen in the north!”, echoing the original scene in which Robb was named such for the first time, but with a nod to the fact that Sansa (at that time) had taken up her brother’s title. I didn’t reach the group in time to catch that pose, but I did happen to get another that shows off their costumes and props. Once the group photos were over, they had a few minutes to go and take individual poses around the ruins before being herded back onto the bus.

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At one point the guide expressed a thought that had not occured to me as a fan, and I want to share that as well. I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the final battle of Winterfell because it was SO DARK (among other things, so many other things). The guide for the group that was at Inch Abbey that day had been an extra in the final battle and talked about the extreme conditions that the cast and crew worked in: not sleeping, being wet and cold all the time, running up and down over and over again until they were just physically wrecked. It was something he put a lot of work into and it was really hard for him to turn around and face the criticism online.


I still think the shows writers, producers, and cinematographers FAILED in every way for that scene, but I now I also think about all the people who didn’t have any creative control, or any idea what the final product would look like who were just excited to work on such a popular and groundbreaking show. In addition, the tragedy that is season 8 has not stopped most fans from continuing to love the series, the characters, and the world of Westeros. We complain a lot online, but I think it’s important to use fan voices to say thanks as well. So, thanks to all the cast and crew who worked their asses off and had no control over what happened in the scripting and editing process.


The group didn’t stay long, and soon we had the ruins to ourselves and I was able to tramp around with impunity, my umbrella enough to keep the now light rain off. The ruins themselves are stunning, and I think that the rain brought out the beautiful contrast of the stones and the grass that would not have been as strong on a sunny day. The stones themselves are fascinating as you can see the remnants of interior structures long since crumbled and it was exactly the kind of film location I had been hoping to see combining real life beauty with my fandom.

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Inch Abbey was the final stop on both my Game of Thrones self-tour, and the Northern Ireland portion of the road trip. We tried to go to Newgrange on the way back to Dublin, but there was a series of unfortunate events involving Germans and cars (why is it always Germans I have car problems with?) that only Lemony Snicket could possibly narrate which prevented us from doing so. I did learn that you have to go there and put your name on the wait list in person. You can’t make reservations ahead of time and you can’t go without signing up… so. This seems like an event that it might be easier to do with a tour group than on your own. Maybe next time? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my sojourn through Northern Ireland, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as the story takes me back into the south.

 

Ten Days in NZ: Hobbiton

Possibly the most anticipated blog from my New Zealand adventure has finally arrived. Hobbits! If you’re an avid Tolkein fiend, Jackson junkie or Frodo follower, this post is for you. Come with me into the magical lands of Middle Earth as brought to life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.


I Love Hobbits

10261107_oriI remember having some picture books as a kid about Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They were highly simplified versions of the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but my mother loved those stories so much, she made sure I got started early. The books had read along audio cassettes that I could play in my own little cassette player (because digitial music didn’t exist yet, that’s why). I learned about Golum and the One Ring while I was learning to read. It’s safe to say that the stories of Middle Earth are embeded in my foundation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn high school, we used to use Dwarven runes to write secret notes and one of my friends even learned basic Elvish. In 1999 or 2000, my mother and I were walking out of some movie or other and saw a poster on the wall of the theater with Elijiah Wood and my mother immediately exclaimed, “It’s Frodo!” without even reading the text on the poster. It was indeed Frodo, and the poster was the first advertisement for Peter Jackson’s film rendition of the epic stories. Now the books have spawned a movie franchise, sharing Tolkien’s work with a whole new group of fans with 6 movies so far, and I hear more in the works. So, when I found out that the Hobbiton movie set was still alive and well in New Zealand, I of course fantasized about going there. And, when I found my travels taking me down under this year, I finally got my chance.

The Movie Set

The Hobbiton movie set is on private land. Jackson and his team chose from among several farms in NZ, finally selecting this one for the combination of the Party Tree (that giant tree Bilbo stands under at his 111th birthday party), and the natural hillside that enabled them to build Bag End in such a way that matched the physical description in the books. Jackson’s attention to the detail in the books was demanding, sometimes to an insane level, but it made the movies match the mental image so many readers and artists had carried for years after reading the tales. When Jackson asked permission to use the land, the farmer agreed with the proviso that the land be returned to exactly the way it was after filming. However, when Jackson returned to film the Hobbit movies, the farmer saw an opportunity, and this time demanded the set be built to last a minimum of 50 years so that tourists could come to visit after the filming was done.

Visiting Hobbiton is not an inexpensive proposition. It costs a little over 50$ US for the tour, but this goes into maintaining the amazing detail of the set, a full time staff of gardeners and repairpersons as well as guides and staff at the Green Dragon to brew ale and cook Hobbit food. It’s so much more than a movie set left behind, it’s a very nearly living village that makes one believe the Hobbits have just ducked out for a moment but will be right back. Also there is no way to view the Shire from the public roads, so if you want to see Hobbit holes, this is it.

The Tour Begins

20160821_130200The tour is 2 hours long and starts at the visitors center where a massive car park surrounds a quaint gift shop and cafe. I was truly surprised at the number of cars in the lot when I arrived. The movie set is outside Matamata, and is quite remote. I had seen more sheep than people my whole drive over, and the nearest petrol station was more than 10 minutes away. When I turned into the car park, however, it was like a shopping mall on a Black Friday, I nearly didn’t find a parking spot. I did go on a Sunday, which may have accounted for the higher turn out, but there is no doubt that Hobbiton is a prime attraction. There is a fleet of green buses (the color of Bag End’s front door) emblazoned with the Hobbiton logo that drive visitors from the car park over to the movie set itself. On the way, the guide, Sam (our guide was named Sam, he swears it’s his real name and just a coincidence) told us that originally there had been no road into the farm this way. The New Zealand Army was contracted to come in and build the road so that all the set and filming equipment could be moved in. The farmer himself was under a non-disclosure agreement, so when one of his neighbors asked why the army was on his farm, all he could say was that they had been selected for a random road building exercise.

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Deep in the farm, past many more sheep and the now empty fields that once once housed the set construction, make up tents, cast trailers and craft services hall, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Shire, the water mill and the Inn of the Green Dragon on the lake. The excitement on the bus was palpable. Despite the huge numbers of tourists visiting each day, it seemed that very few were idle viewers and most were just as happy as was to be arriving at the real, physical, 3D version of Bilbo’s home town. We piled out of the bus to begin our walking portion of the tour next to some last minute bathrooms. I hadn’t had a chance to go at the visitor’s center so I decided to do so here. The outside looks like nothing so much as a rustic gardener’s shed, and I rather expected the inside to be about the same. Instead was surprised to encounter one of the cleanest and most well appointed restrooms I’ve ever seen outside a formal restaurant. So that’s one more thing the entrance fee is covering, well done.

Welcome to Hobbiton

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There is a sign at the entrance with old drawings of the Shire and an overgrowth of ivy. It welcomed us to Hobbiton and marks the real edge of where Earth becomes Middle Earth. As we continued on, we came through a narrow path with a high stone wall, the exact path that Gandalf uses to enter Hobbiton in his first appearance. Sam did a great job of pointing out all the details from the movie, as well as the books as we passed by, including many interesting stories of how and why the sets were built the way they were. The scene with Frodo and Gandalf on the cart uses forced perspective to make Elijia Wood seem Hobbit sized, so the path itself is very long and narrow to aid in the cinematic illusion.

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As we continued into the town, we encountered a few differently sized Hobbit holes. Each set was built based on whether it would be used as background for a “normal” sized actor playing a human or a Hobbit, or a smaller actor playing a Hobbit, or simply as background, all to create the forced perspective illusion that Hobbits and their homes are small in comparison with the visiting wizard.

After each explanation, we had time to wander around the immediate area and take pictures. Apparently the record for most pictures on one tour is over 3,000 and I’m happy to say I didn’t come anywhere near that. The detail on the sets was incredible. Tiny windows set into the mounds of earth with even tinier window dressings. Knickknacks, tools, tiny Hobbit sized clothing out on a line to dry in the sun, stacks of firewood, jars of honey, fish out to smoke, picnic tables set for second breakfast, the garden bursting with real produce, as though we were intruders in a life still lived.

We circled around the gardens, the frog pond, up the hill past the baker’s house, taking in the sweeping view of the Shire as we slowly ascended the Hill toward a familiar oak tree and the distant shadow of a green door. Most of the sets are closed off by gates, and Sam asked us to leave them shut, but there are a few without gates, where we could get much closer, 20160821_135942and even one with an open door to give us the chance to stand inside the traditional round portal. There is nothing inside, of course, the interior of the Hobbit holes were only filmed in the studio, but it makes for a unique and fun photo opportunity to place yourself in the role of a Hobbit. I didn’t have time on this trip, but when I get the chance to go back and stay in NZ longer, I’d love to dress up and get some photos in cosplay on this set. I’d also love to bring my niece and nephew before they get too big (Gnome, Squidgette, I’m talking to you) because so many of the Hobbit sized sets are perfect child size and include a lot of props that are not hidden behind gates. There was a Chinese family in our group and watching the little ones pose in front of the smallest Hobbit holes was a cuteness overload.

Up the Hill

The higher we got up the Hill, the more amazing the view became. I had to present my vacation to my students (learn English so you can do this too!) and I used a clip from the beginning of the Fellowship to show off the Shire before starting and it really made me appreciate just how very much like walking through the movie this place was. 20160821_135226.jpgJackson’s attention to detail and commitment to the book was so intense that during the filming, he was unable to find plum trees in the right size to match a written description of Hobbit children sitting under plum trees, so instead he brought in pear and peach, but stripped them of their fruit and leaves to replace it with plum foliage, each leaf wired on by hand. The scene is only in the extended edition and only visible for about 2 seconds.

20160821_134507Other examples of his eccentric dedication include the frog pond which had such an abundance of loud frogs that staff had to be employed to catch and move the frogs before filming each day because they were too loud to work around and managed to return each night. Finally, the famous oak tree above Bag End. New Zealand does not have oak trees, so the entire tree was built from steel and plaster, with real (although dead) tree branches for the outer boughs to imitate the movement of wood in wind. The leaves were made in Taiwan and shipped in, then stitched or wired onto the tree frame one by one. On the actual day of filming, the leaves had faded and were no longer the right color, so Jackson sent a team up the tree to paint them.

Bag End

When we finally reached that oh so familiar green door and the sign on the gate reminding us that there were to be no visitors except on party business, it was as though a piece of my childhood had stepped from the pages of a book and come to life in front of me.

The gate was closed, and our tour was not there on party business, so we remained just below the entryway, but we could still see through the partially opened door, the hallway decorations of Bilbo’s house. Because Bag End was filmed from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, the entryway of Bilbo’s house needed to be correctly decorated, unlike the open door we’d been able to stand in for photo ops earlier in the tour. Additionally, while that opening door concealed a small space that only 2-3 people could stand in, the interior of Bag End can hold about 30 people and film equipment. The all-interior shots were filmed in a sound stage, but anything that showed Bilbo or Frodo framed against the open door with the Shire in the background had to be filmed there on site.

The Party Tree

20160821_1402101It was very hard to leave behind the house on the the Hill, but our next stop was the party tree and the green field where Bilbo’s 111th birthday party was held. However magestic the party tree looked from afar, it was even more imposing up close. It wasn’t so big as Tane Mahuta, but it was taller and still an impressive girth. Unlike the oak tree, the party tree is a real and living tree that was one of the main reasons this piece of land was selected to be the Shire. Within the meadow, there were party decorations and Hobbit games for people to try out including a maypole, some stilts, a game of ring-toss and some see-saws. Children and adults alike had fun testing out the various activities and admiring the detail of the design. 20160821_1424021Even the fence, which looked old and overgrown with lichen was artistically aged with plaster and paint, but indistinguishable even after we knew what to look for. Before we left the meadow, we stopped off at Samwise Gamgee’s own yellow round door where you could just imagine Rosy and the children playing in the garden.

Around the Lake

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From the party tree, we could see the Inn of the Green Dragon across the lake, but still needed to walk a fair way to come to it around the water. We passed yet more Hobbit holes, which is hardly a surprise because there are 44 total home fronts in the Shire (up from 39 for the Lord of the Rings), crossed a tiny bridge and came to a signpost dividing the path between Hobbiton and the Green Dragon. The path went into the forest as we left the town behind and I suddenly realized why so much of my time in New Zealand had reminded me so strongly of Middle Earth (you know, aside from the fact that nearly everything outdoors was filmed here). The forest path we were on, taking us around the lake, may or may not have been in any of the scenes, but it so clearly belonged there and just as clearly echoed so much of the landscape I’d been tromping through for the last week. 20160821_142646.jpgThere is something familiar yet otherworldly about the unique flora of New Zealand that must only seem familiar to the Kiwis themselves. For the rest of us, it is just different enough from what we are used to that it provides a sense of otherness, of the fantasitcal and created without being so foreign as to seem alien. The main context that I (and probably many of you) have become familiar with these plants unique qualities is in the films themselves, so it is no surprise that more than just the buildings here make me feel like I am walking in the footsteps of Bilbo himself.

The Inn of the Green Dragon

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As we emerge from the woods, we come to the stone bridge that leads us past the Mill and into the waiting arms of the Inn. This is possibly the only part of the tour that I have any complaints about and it is only because there is simply too much to do and see in the amount of time we are given here. The exterior is amazing enough, with the same level of detail and attention as every part of the set. There are places to pose, things to climb on, and shadowed alcoves to investigate, but inside is, if anything, even more intense. The indoor scenes of the Green Dragon were not filmed here (like all indoor scenes, they were done on a sound stage far away), but the Inn here at Matamata has been designed to replicate the indoor set in every way with the understandable exception of the small area that serves food and the modern plumbing. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a pint (yes, Pippin, it comes in pints) of locally brewed (for the brave and true) ale but there is much, much more. 20160821_144212.jpgThere are comfy armchairs by the fire, and artwork all over the walls. You can have a taste of Hobbit food if you fancy a light snack (I tried the steak and ale pie, it was yummy), you can try on Hobbit clothes, wield Gandalf’s staff, and explore room after room reading the local Hobbit bulletin board, peeking at the range of knickknacks on shelves, visiting the Inn’s cat (not in the movies, but, you know, cats), or just admiring the large wooden carving that gives the Inn it’s namesake. I tried my best to multi-task, to take it all in, but I felt like I’d only begun to scratch the surface when Sam gathered us up to continue our trek.

Farewell Shire

Walking past the pavilion (used for the Hobbit feast if you’re up for the price tag, and for private events like weddings and birthdays), we continued around the lake back toward the path we had entered from. The weather that afternoon was a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that reflected so perfectly on the face of the still water along with the Mill, the trees and the few water front Hobbit holes. Although these photos aren’t movie accurate, they were still some of my favorite images of the day.

Our bus back may well have been a magic box that transported us from Middle Earth back to the land of car parks and gift shops. The gift shop itself is nothing special. About the only unique thing there is the beer and wine brewed for the movies and now for the tourists. There is a better selection of LOTR merch online, but that’s ok, this isn’t about the gift shop. Just expect that your souvenirs of Hobbiton will be your photos and your memories.

Despite it’s potential for crass commercialization, I enjoy movie magic. I’ve been to Universal Studios (still have to do the Harry Potter exhibit, but..) Hobbiton is different. It isn’t the costumes, actors or creatures that make Middle Earth come to life here, it’s the land itself. The majesty of the Party Tree, the sweeping vista visible from the front of Bag End that, as you stand there makes you feel that it is indeed a dangerous business, going out that front door, stepping onto that road because there really is no telling where it will take you…but you’re sure it will be one heck of a ride20160821_145225


I have so many wonderful photos and memories of this day. I sincerely hope you’ll take a moment to go and see the full album on Facebook. If you’re a Hobbit fan, it’s worth it. May the hair on your toes never fall out!

Ten Days in New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.


My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.

Tipping:

This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.

Driving:

For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.

Insurance:

Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.

Water:

Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.

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I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:

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All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.

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I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂