As the hub for the region, Hamilton makes a good base for exploring the Waikato region and its cluster of modest sights. Heading south from Auckland, the first place of real interest is the important Maori town of Ngaruawahia, though if you are headed for Raglan you may skip Ngaruawahia and follow the back roads past Waingaro Hot Springs. Art-lovers will want to nip east to the Wallace Gallery while Hobbit fans shouldn’t miss Hobbiton, on the outskirts of Matamata. Southeast of Hamilton, Cambridge and Tirau are really just waystations on the route to Taupo, while to the south, Te Awamutu celebrates its Maori, Pakeha and Finn brothers heritage.
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The dairy-farming and racehorse-breeding town of Matamata, 63km east of Hamilton, shot to prominence just after the millennium as the location of Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lifelike Lord of the Rings character statues have since been installed in the town centre but the only way to visit the Hobbiton location (on a working sheep farm 15km southwest of town) is on a tour.
Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours
Between the filming of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s and the master’s return a decade later to shoot the two films of The Hobbit (due for release in December 2012 and December 2013), there really wasn’t much to see at Hobbiton. The set was mostly dismantled and early visitors just got to see a handful of hobbit-hole facades amid the rolling hills of a working sheep farm. Interiors for all films were done in Wellington.
Since the shooting of The Hobbit in late 2011, however, almost all sets have been left intact. You can wander over a hillside of 42 hobbit-hole facades, some small, some large (to help give the sense of perspective when filming) and all superbly rendered to look old and hobbit-like. Chimneys appear to have soot on them, the fake lichen on fences looks totally authentic and there’s an orchard of apple and pear trees (one of which was turned into a plum tree for the filming to satisfy a single line in the book). Across the lake the film-makers have created two of New Zealand’s very few thatched buildings, a water mill connected by a “stone” bridge to The Green Dragon inn. Die-hard fans will revel in the tour guides’ unexpurgated tales of the filming, but at ninety minutes the tour is a long one for the less ardent. The Shire’s Rest Café sustains.
CAMBRIDGE, 24km southeast of Hamilton, was founded as a militia settlement at the navigable limit of the Waikato River in 1864, and today is surrounded by stud farms. Mosaics of Cambridge-bred winners are embedded in the pavements along the town’s Equine Stars Walk of Fame. The town’s collection of elegant nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings is mapped on a heritage trail brochure, making for a pleasant hour-long stroll.