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Exploring Middle-earth in Wellington

This week the wait is over for Tolkien fans eagerly awaiting the Dec. 14 debut of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." 

But if seeing it on the silver screen isn't enough (at the new format of 48 frames per second, no less), a trip to New Zealand is the closest thing to being transported into Middle-earth itself.

Hobbit-fever is running high in the country. Special stamps and coins have been produced, there are numerous Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings tours to go on, even Air New Zealand's inflight safety video is full of characters from the movies - including a cameo from Jackson himself.

But Wellington, the country's second largest city, is where journey begins. 

Arguably, there’s no city more beautiful or exciting in all of New Zealand—a country hardly short on stunning scenery and fun things to do—than its capital. A hilly Victorian jewel wrapping around Oriental Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, Wellington has an artsy Pacific Northwest flair rivaling Portland and Seattle, greenery for days, and a passionate coffee culture, with more cafes per capita than any other city on the planet. 

Kiwis expected that Wellington would experience a tourism boon after Jackson filmed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in his hometown; little did they know just how significantly. Since  debut in 2001, Wellington has experienced a 700 percent tourism increase, with the film studio suburb of Miramar—known locally as Wellywood—particularly blossoming. 

Suddenly, there’s Roxy Cinema (an art-deco 3D movie theater), a myriad of cafes, restaurants and shops, and a new school to accommodate the (often American) children of film people. James Cameron is making Wellington his permanent residence. Celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr regularly pop up in the laid-back Seatoun-area cafes, baby Flynn in tow. 

With great food, epic cocktail bar, and endless entertainment options Wellington is so much more than just hobbits.  Here are a few places not to be missed.

Going Kiwi
Land at Wellington International Airport and hop a cab—they’re cheap, safe, and abundantly available—to your hotel. Wellington houses many upscale hotels like the InterContinental and the Copthorne, but I recommend the funky, art-laden Museum Hotel, where you can opt for a traditional hotel room or an apartment-like suite, complete with kitchen and separate private entrances.

Expect to feel mildly jetlagged, although an affordable Premium Economy upgrade on Air New Zealand—or simply a sleeping pill and a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc—will make the 11-hour journey from Los Angeles to Auckland surprisingly easy. (It’s the return flight that’ll exhaust you!) From Auckland, Wellington is a short 45-minute flight.

The Middle of Middle-Earth
Peter Jackson has turned Wellington into a mini-Hollywood, with his Stone Street Studios and Weta Workshop at the center of it all. Ask the Museum Hotel concierge to arrange you a cab, and travel 10 minutes to the other side of the Harbor to explore Wellywood’s epicenter Miramar.

The hills below Mt. Victoria’s summit are where many scenes from the first Lord of the Rings were filmed. Take a Wellington Rover Lord of the Rings tour and indulge your inner hobbit. 

(If your schedule permits, go further afield—about two hours south of Auckland—with Hobbiton Tours to Hobbiton, the filming location for the Shire. Built "on private farmland near Matamata in the North Island, it's where Jackson shot "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit.")

Next up: Weta Cave, a museum attached to Weta Workshop featuring props, miniatures and replicas from movies that have been digitally produced in Weta Workshop’s fX studios, including "King Kong," "Avatar," "District 9" and The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Once "The Hobbit" debuts, expect those props to make their way into Weta Cave, too.

After you’ve worked up an appetite, check out one of the beach-front gems in Miramar and along Wellington’s east bay: stop in for fish-and-chips at Scorch-O-Rama in Scorching Bay, or queue at Maranui Café in Lyall Bay, a kitchy spot popular with locals and celebrities alike—including  "Lord of the Rings" alums Viggo Mortenson and Billy Boyd—for lunches and coffee.

Exploring Wellington
Stave off tiredness by immersing yourself in Wellington’s coffee culture and ordering a Flat White: two parts espresso to one part milk, without any froth. You won’t be hurting for options, but I liked organic Deluxe Express Bar on Kent Terrace, a few doors down from the majestic Embassy theater where The Hobbit had its world-premiere. Another local favorite: always packed Caffe L’Affare, on College Street.  

Wellington is compact, so you can stroll through the city easily and are never more than 15 or 20 minutes from most sights. Check out Cuba Street, Wellington’s bohemian spiritual heart: it’s full of eclectic restaurants, bars and boutiques—like vintage clothing shop Rag Mama Rag—and is a great place to buy art and pick up souvenirs.

Explore New Zealand’s rich Maori heritage at Te Papa National Museum, a six-floor monument to everything New Zealand past and present. Kids will be entertained by the High Ride and the Deep Ride, two simulator tours, and installations range from fashion to history to architecture. While you could zoom through the main exhibits in an hour, give yourself an afternoon to do the museum justice. (It’s not all Hobbits and Shires in Kiwiland.)

Whether on foot or via cab, majestic, hilly Mt. Victoria is a must-visit, with stunning views of the city and Oriental Bay. Wellington is an athletic, energetic town, and so it’s not unusual to see people jogging or riding their bikes, sporting t-shirts and shorts whether hot or cold, rain or shine. Don’t forget to pack a small umbrella and layers, even in summer, and be prepared for wind: like Chicago, Windy Wellington packs a punch.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Back in the heart of Wellington, you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from delicious food. Local favorites include brunch-magnet Floriditas on Cuba Street (a favorite of Hobbit Martin Freeman) and Duke Carvell’s on Swan Lane for tapas in a raucous family-and-friends setting. The gauntlet for 5-star cuisine with exceptional service is thrown down at Logan Brown on Cuba Street, where Elijah Wood was a regular. One of Wellington’s newer restaurants, Ancestral on Courtenay Place, is packed every night with locals both feasting on sharable-yet-upscale Chinese dishes and packing the chic, masculine-looking bar.

Speaking of bars, we were blown away by the city’s cocktail offerings. From Irish pubs to wine bars to microbreweries, there’s no shortage of watering holes—it is the country’s capital, after all!—but it was the abundance and inventiveness of the city’s many cocktail bars that really impressed us. No drink request is too obscure at the 1940s-vibe OSS-inspired Motel, which has an extensive Scotch and cigar collection. The bartenders at wood-paneled Hawthorne Lounge will pour you a labor-intensive bespoke cocktail while giving you a history lesson on its liquors. Other favorites include funky Library Bar, which features an extensive book selection and a decorative bathtub, and retro, see-and-be-seen Matterhorn, regularly named to World’s Best lists and a can’t-miss spot for sightings of the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" casts.