You get to the Shire long before you get to the Shire. You pass through Rohan, too. That's the beauty of northern New Zealand. Leave Auckland, and with the right set of eyes, you're transported to Middle Earth.
A few hours south is the tiny town of Matamata, home to Hobbiton. Originally just a set and slated to be torn down after filming, it got turned into a tourist attraction. When they rebuilt it for the Hobbit movies, they built it to last.
Now you can tour it all, looking as good (or better) than it did during filming of the movies. If you can't make the trek to New Zealand, here's aof the whole place.
I'll be honest -- I wasn't sure what to expect. I've been on a lot of film sets, and they're quite often a disappointment. There's a lot of detail left out of film sets and props, and since they're far enough away the camera doesn't pick up the lack.
That wasn't the case here.
For me, the tour started early in the morning in Auckland. The train service in New Zealand isn't great, so it's largely busses (unless you rent a car). From Auckland to Matamata is several hours, then from the Middle Earth-themed visitors' center, it's another few minutes drive to the main entrance of the still-active farm where Hobbiton sits. You get glimpses of the hobbit-ness as you go over the lovely rolling hills of the area.
After your tour guide lays down a few ground rules (no wandering off, etc.), you walk a few steps down a path and suddenly you're in Hobbiton.
The effect is fantastic. It's less a film set and more a recreation of another world. It looks more like it does in the movies than what I had expected of a well-used film set. Each hobbit hole -- and there are dozens -- is decorated and maintained. There are groundskeepers (big people, not Sam-sized) tending gardens and maintaining the grass, trees, and flowers.
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The hobbit holes are different sizes, depending on how they were used during filming, and what actor or character they needed to appear a certain size. Only Bag End itself is full size.
After walking through the lower areas, you work your way overhill toward Bag End. The view is fantastic, even without Weta Digital's skilled hand making it look more Middle-Earthy.
I was a little disappointed we didn't get more time in front of Bag End, but it was great to see it so close, and so real. You can't go in, of course, because there is no "in." Each hobbit hole, while externally complete, has little more than a small space on the other side of the door (so actors can enter and leave).
From Bag End, the tour works its way down to the party field and the tree where Bilbo gave his birthday speech.
From there, around the pond to the Green Dragon Inn. This is fully functional -- an actual pub with ale and food. You get one free drink with the tour, from a selection of beers brewed specifically for Hobbiton. I got a stout, and it was actually quite good. You can order food, but we weren't given much time. I believe if you skip the bus and drive yourself to the Shire's Rest, the gift shop/gate house for Hobbiton, you might get more time.
After a few more pictures, we caught the bus back to the gift shop, and then back to Matamata and Auckland.
It was a long day, 13 hours, and a lot of time on buses, but you get to see a chunk of the incredible New Zealand countryside, and of the awesomeness of Hobbiton. Highly recommended. Check out HobbitonTours.com for more info.
If you should get to New Zealand, it's also worth making your way to the beautiful city of Wellington and doing a tour of The Cave at Weta FX. You can't take pictures, but you get to see and touch costumes and props from "LotR," "The Hobbit," "District 9," and more. I stayed at The Dwellington, which was a fantastic few days.
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As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.