HOBBITON, New Zealand – Like the "Lord of the Rings" saga, the tale of the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour has grown in the telling. And like this year's most famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the folks behind the tour are scrambling to prepare for much more company.
The tale began in 1998, when "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson was looking for a New Zealand locale suitable to serve as the home for Bilbo, Frodo and the other 3-foot-6, hairy-footed characters from J.R.R. Tolkien's saga.
Ian Alexander's 1,250-acre sheep and cattle farm near Matamata fit the bill, and construction workers turned the place into the pastoral Shire, complete with dozens of hobbit holes. The set was mostly dismantled after the filmmakers were finished; nevertheless, one of Ian's sons, Russell Alexander, started taking "Lord of the Rings" fans on walking tours in 2002.
Fast forward to 2011: Jackson had the set rebuilt for the new film trilogy based on "The Hobbit," and partnered with the Alexander family to preserve the set after the filming was done. This time, the structures have been built with solid wood and stone rather than plywood and styrofoam. There's a sturdy stone bridge and a mill, a Shire-worthy pond frequented by swans, and a fully operational pub.
About 250,000 visitors have been on the tour over the past decade. But now that the first movie of the trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," is coming out, the operation is gearing up to accommodate 150,000 tourists in the next year. This month, the 105-minute Hobbiton Movie Set Tour will be departing from the Shire's Rest Cafe on the farm not just every half-hour, but every 15 minutes.
"It's been an unexpected journey," said Russell Alexander, who is now the general manager of the increasingy busy tourist operation. "I'm not a mad fantasy person by nature. I'm pragmatic."
What you see
The tour costs a pragmatic $75 in New Zealand currency ($63 U.S.), but I'd say we got our money's worth in the mad fantasy department.
We rode a bus down to the trailhead for a broad path that took us through the place where Gandalf set off fireworks for hobbit boys and girls in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Then we wound our way past the hillside where Bilbo lived at Bag End. (Sorry, no entry allowed, even if you're a wizard. You can go inside only one of the hobbit holes on the tour, and the interior of that one is just bare wood.)
Our tour guide told us about the photogenic oak tree that was found on a nearby farm, cut into pieces and reassembled as a movie prop on top of Bag End. Today the tree is totally fake, with plastic leaves that occasionally drop onto the grass around the hobbit hole. (It's OK to pick them up as impromptu ... and free ... souvenirs.)
Fortunately, the wide-spreading Party Tree is 100 percent natural. In fact, Jackson saw that tree as the biggest selling point when he chose the farm. Over the past couple of years, landscapers have cuted up the site's 44 hobbit holes with plenty of homey touches – including miniaturized gardens, lawn furniture, implements and even clotheslines. (That should appeal even to folks who would pass up Tolkien's tales for a look at Better Homes & Gardens.)
The piece de resistance is the Green Dragon, the last stop on the tour, which has just been built up to look like Frodo Baggins' favorite pub. Each member of the tour group gets to taste the "refreshing beverage of their choice," Hobbiton spokesman Ian Brodie says. There are two types of ale (bitter and traditional), an alcoholic apple cider and a non-alcoholic ginger beer.
Raise a mug to toast the end of your adventure, then get on the bus to head back to Shire's Rest. At the cafe, you can get a light meal and have a swig of SobeRing Thought, the near-beer that was developed for use on the "Lord of the Rings" set so the actors wouldn't get tipsy. You can also give in to your lust for "Hobbit" treasures at the gift shop next door. (A silver ring of power for $190? We wants it!)
What's in store
The $75 price applies to adults who book directly through the website or in person. You can ride a transfer bus from Matamata or Rotorua to Shire's Rest, or drive directly to the site (as we did) and pick up the tour. Some tour companies offer packages -- at a higher price -- that take in Hobbiton as well as other stops. These excursions typically involve a bus trip from Auckland or the Tauranga cruise terminal.
Hobbiton Tours can also arrange overnight stays at farms near the movie set, at prices ranging from $110 per person (for three at a B&B) to $165 for a single visitor looking for dinner and breakfast as well as a place to stay. (A hobbit-style second breakfast is apparently not included.)
There are rumors that more ambitious plans are in the works, perhaps including accommodations at the Green Dragon itself. On that point, Alexander is as silent as a Black Rider. But he promises that Hobbiton's tale will continue to grow in the telling.
"There'll be something new here every year," he said.