WELLINGTON, New Zealand – You'll find hobbit stamps on the letters, hobbit safety briefings on the planes, even shire beer at the Green Dragon bar. With this month's release of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," New Zealand hopes to reclaim some of the Middle-earth magic that helped boost tourism after the success of the previous movie trilogy "The Lord of the Rings." Whether you're a fan making a pilgrimage to the city where the films were made, or you have no interest whatsoever in dwarfs and goblins, there's plenty to do in Wellington. For free.
Consider yourself warned. Wellington has a well-deserved reputation as one of the windiest cities in the world, and not only because of all the politicians. But on a calm, sunny day the waterfront is hard to beat. You can start at the bars and restaurants at the northern end and finish at the beach in Oriental Bay. A brisk hike uphill through the city will also take you to the native bush and flower displays at the Botanic Garden and give you a view over the city and harbor. An alternative is catching a cable car — although that will cost a few dollars.
TE PAPA MUSEUM
New Zealand's national museum Te Papa (pronounced tay paah-paah) is well worth a visit. It has a large, open feel inside and the curators aren't afraid to use unusual juxtapositions, color and height to make a strong visual splash. You'll learn some of the history of the country's indigenous Maori. Children love the interactive exhibits, including one showing all the creepy crawlies you can accidentally smuggle with you in your luggage. The smaller Museum of Wellington City & Sea, which tells a more local story, is also free.
This is one for the Tolkien fans. Named after an oversized New Zealand insect, Weta Cave is located in the heart of director Peter Jackson's film empire in Miramar. Many of the costumes and special effects for his movies were created at the adjacent Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. The cave itself has figurines and memorabilia from the movies and a half-hour video. There is, however, a limited amount to see. Those who aren't fans might want to skip the cave and keep heading out east to rugged Breaker Bay beach (warning: some parts of the beach are a haunt for nude bathers) or to the more sedate Scorching Bay beach. Fans may also want to explore the Miramar peninsular some more to see if they can spot some of the filming locations used by Jackson.
Wellington is New Zealand's capital and laws are made in Parliament buildings. There are regular hour-long guided tours of both Parliament and the adjacent executive wing called the Beehive because of its distinctive, and rather impractical, cone shape. In addition to a tour, you may want to come along at 2 p.m. on a day Parliament is sitting to watch democracy in action. That's when you'll see the combative question-and-answer sessions in which lawmakers of different stripes try to make each other look foolish using rollicking British-style parliamentary banter.
MOUNT VICTORIA LOOKOUT
It's a serious climb or bike ride to the top of Mount Victoria, which is 196 meters (643 feet) above sea level. But at the lookout there are stunning views over the city and harbor. Across in the other direction, you can look out over the airport and ocean. And yes, Mount Vic, as it is known locally, was one of the locations used in the filming of the "Rings."