A few days ago I talked about my trip to the Cook Islands last summer. If you missed it, click here to catch up – or I can give you the reader’s digest version: it was great, but not as great as I had hoped. The Cook Islands were like a lot of other places I’ve seen, just not quite as spectacular in one way or another.
And yet I wouldn’t trade that vacation in if I was given a shiny red redo button. Why not? Well, it’s all thanks to an airline mistake.
The Cook Islands aren’t exactly the most popular American summer vacation destination (never heard of the place? Neither had I!), so it makes sense that the flights aren’t very frequent. In fact, in order to get from San Francisco to the main island, Rarotonga, we had to take a flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand and then backtrack four hours from Auckland to Rarotonga. The trip home was supposed to be the exact opposite of that path, but one thing or another happened to the flight we were originally on from New Zealand home and we ended up with a whopping 36 hour layover.
Does anyone fancy sitting in the airport for 36 hours?
We didn’t either.
So instead we rented a car and drove to Middle Earth. Hobbiton, that is, which we happily discovered is just outside the small town of Matamata, a quick two hour drive south of the Auckland airport.
My major qualm with the Cook Islands was that I had seen it all before, but better. What I loved about our time in New Zealand was the fact that I couldn’t say that I had seen anything like it before. New Zealand is a world of its own and with just a little added imagination, the rolling green hills easily become a world where fiction and reality begin to blend.
Now, my whole family and I are dedicated Lord of the Rings fans. Not in the nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons way, but in the much more socially acceptable way where you appreciate the incredible cinematography, character development, and well-choreographed battle scenes. So we were reasonably nervous when we handed over our 79 New Zealand dollars per person, fearing that we were signing up for a cheesy, tourist trap, theme-park-style tour.
Our apprehensions couldn’t have been further from the reality as we stepped off the bus from the visitor’s center and onto the path that led to the Shire – the same path Gandalf followed in his first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring. The change was immediate. We weren’t in the middle of someone’s ranch anymore. We weren’t even in New Zealand. Hobbiton is as real as any other place you can visit and we might as well have planned our vacation there.
As we made our way along the path our tour guide told us the history of Hobbiton in Middle Earth, of the Hobbiton set in New Zealand, and about how the two came to be the same place with a little help from New Zealand’s army.
Peter Jackson was granted permission to rebuild the Hobbiton set for the Hobbit trilogy at the original filming location on the condition that it be a permanent structure and with this in mind the attention to detail was incredible. From the blooming flower gardens (in the middle of the New Zealand winter) to the clothes hung out on the line to dry to the smoke curling out of the chimneys, it wasn’t hard to believe that there were hobbits just on the other side of those bright, round doors.
After following the path through much of the Shire, we reached Bilbo’s house on the hill, complete with an artificial oak tree whose leaves were painted and adhered by hand in order to create a tree true to Tolkien’s own illustrations. This also offered a phenomenal vista from which to admire the entire expanse of the Shire.
The tour continued around the pond, iconic water wheel, and to the Green Dragon – a functioning pub and restaurant with its own friendly Shire cat – where we had the chance to get out of the light drizzle that had begun and enjoy a drink by the crackling fire.
In 36 hours New Zealand managed to accomplish what two weeks in the Cook Islands had not: we felt as though we had been somewhere new and seen something we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. As we drove away from the Shire, even the greenery framed highway seemed to be calling for us to come back someday.