MATAMATA, N.Z. -- To the casual visitor, what appear to be tiny doll-size dwellings built into the sides of lush rolling hills on the Alexander farm look like something out of a fairytale.
No wonder. Everyone who travels narrow Buckland Rd. to reach the site hidden amid 500 hectares of fenced pastures knows that's exactly what this tiny, colourful place represents.
But for devotees of the "Middle-earth" world that Oxford professor, poet and philosopher John Ronald Reuel Tolkien created with his highly successful fantasy novels, Hobbiton is precious -- a must-see destination for fans, who have mostly seen the village only in cinemas, or perhaps their dreams.
The 44 beautiful facades of homes called "Hobbit Holes," plus moss-covered stone paths, gardens, the Green Dragon Inn and an old-fashioned mill were all built for the three highly successful Lord of the Rings films, and the just released first of three films featuring the hairy-toed Hobbits.
The diminutive 1.3-metre-tall pointy-eared characters came to literary life starting with The Hobbit in 1937, followed by The Lord of the Rings in 1954, and later The Silmarillion, which Christopher Tolkien had published after his father's death in 1973.
The mecca among more than 30-related destinations in New Zealand -- and the place where Wingnut Films producer-director Sir Peter Jackson filmed his series -- Alexander farm was spotted by a movie location scout in"October 1998. Russell Alexander -- part-owner of Wingnut of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours -- said its selection barely distracted his dad, Ian, from a key rugby game on TV which -- like devoted hockey fans in Canada -- had his full attention.
"The scout asked permission to look around ... He was looking for a farm property for a movie," and "Dad said 'go ahead,' then went back to watching the second half of the game," Alexander said with a chuckle as we drove along a 1.8-km access road soldiers built before 400 movie-makers moved onto the Waikato-region farm, where the family also has 13,000 sheep and 300 beef cattle.
Six weeks later, Jackson and several associates "spent all day here."
A deal, greatly influenced by the presence of a giant tree that became the village's "Party Tree," was struck six months later.
The family wanted to continue farming, and keep Hobbiton intact, already considering future tourism, which grew over the years with more and more people asking to visit the 4-hectare village.
Construction crews spent nine months completing 39 hillside "Hobbit Hole" facades made of untreated timber, plywood and polystyrene, a double-arch bridge, rustic stone mill and nearby pub, plus what looks like a 26-tonne oak tree that stands above the home of eccentric characters Bilbo Baggins and his cousin Frodo Baggins.
Three months of filming began in December 1999, with actors including Sir Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, plus Hobbits portrayed by Elijah Wood as Frodo, Sir Ian Holm as Bilbo, Sean Astin as Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee, Billy Boyd as Peregrin 'Pippin' Took, and Dominic Monaghan as Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck.
The family opened the farm to the public three years later.
Alexander said the two-hour tours attracted 11,000 visitors in 2002 -- the day of the second Lord of the Rings movie's premiere. By the time filming for the Hobbit trilogy began last October, 200,000 people had visited the exterior set for what Tolkien called "The Shire," with this year's target up to 100,000.
"We try to get people totally immersed in Hobbiton when they're here," Alexander said. "It's been an unexpected journey."
Tours were postponed for filming of the sequels, with the set "completely rebuilt" for the latest film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which just opened in Canada.
Now a permanent attraction, instead of the original "temporary one," additional Hobbit Holes were built, but only two of the 44 can be entered, Alexander said, outside Bilbo and Frodo's Bag End home. Interior scenes were filmed on sets.
After walking along several rustic paths, stopping to chat with a gardener -- one of about 70 full-time employees -- we reached The Green Dragon, where carpenters, wood-carvers, plasterers and plumbers were working to finalize an interior for more than 100 patrons. To complete the image, several large trees were transplanted and a parking lot added.
"It's fantastic," Martin Coup, head of the King's Country beef and lamb council, said in the cafe. "You learn a lot."
Coup, who was accompanying members on a tour break from their annual general meeting, said the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours "is a good opportunity to draw people, instead of just a boring meeting."
While he has not read Tolkien's novels, "I've seen a couple of the Lord of the Rings movies."
Coup called the village set "really well-done. They've spent a lot of money ... they've made it really authentic ... It's really part of our heritage now."
When he lived in the U.S. in the 1980s, "no one knew where New Zealand was. Now you meet people from the U.S. and they know, largely because of the movies," he added.
Flat Earth tours take fans into film territory
Flat Earth tour guide Jack Machiela leaves few stones unturned in his quest to share the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings film sites.
Starting on Lower Hutt River, where actors and Hobbit figures rode the Anduin River in boats, our tour finished in Mount Victoria forest, where mushroom-seeking Hobbits hid from Nazgul/Black Riders in Hobbiton Woods.
Although it helps to know the movies and books, I was impressed by explanations of how producer Sir Peter Jackson's team turned rivers, forests and parks into the magical locales Machiela shared on his iPad.
The Fernside rural estate's man-made lake was the Gladden River, where Smeagol strangled his Hobbit kinsman, Deagol, for the long-lost, coveted One Ring.
In lush Kaitoke Regional Park, site of the Rivendell outpost in The Fellowship of the Ring, Machiela loaned a hooded cloak and sword to Cathy Smith, 23, a medical laboratory scientist from Dublin, Ireland, then took a photo she said was a highlight of her visit.
After enjoying fabulous thin-crust pizza in the quaint Cuckoo Cafe at Greytown, we drove to Harcourt Park, where Sir Christopher Lee as the scheming wizard Saruman talked with Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellan's good wizard in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Machiela explained each location's use -- in some cases with trees duplicated by studio computer experts -- after being filmed from various angles.
At the Weta Cave shop and mini-museum in the Miramar suburb, where a video provided background and interviews with key contributors about what became one of New Zealand's best-known industries, we came face-to-face with preserved figures and film artifacts.
One employee, jovial Mark Fry, spent three weeks as an Orc soldier, but "all the scenes were cut," he said with a sigh.
Cathy's dad, Liam Smith, a Google security employee, said "we found the tour very enjoyable."
Calling Machiela "very knowledgeable and interesting ... him being a big Lord of the Rings fan helped.
"The tour took eight hours but we were never bored," he said. "You do not have to be a fan of the movies to enjoy it."
NEED TO KNOW
Tourists contribute more than $9 billion to New Zealand's annual economy, second only to dairy farming, with Lord of the Rings-related sites and events ranking among the top attractions.
-- For more about Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, which cost about $53 Cdn. per adult, see hobbitontours.com. The Shires Rest Cafe and shop, which has refreshments and souvenirs, are in the yard where buses rendezvous with visitors. Visitors can meet the family's sheep, and children can feed the lambs. Wedding parties can be accommodated. The Alexander farm is about two hour's drive south of Auckland on the North Island, and one hour's drive from Rotorua, where tour buses depart twice daily.
-- Air New Zealand flies direct, non-stop out of Vancouver (five times per week during the winter), daily out of San Francisco and twice daily out of Los Angeles. Check aircanada.com for flights to Vancouver, L.A. and San Francisco.