As holiday blockbusters open on the silver screen, there’s one that beckons those with a sense of wanderlust. Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” which is in theaters now, is as much about the fantastical cinematography and sweeping landscapes of New Zealand as it is a tale of hobbits, wizards, dwarves and dragons.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien was “very vivid in the way he describes landscapes,” Jackson says. “In these books, the landscape and the environment and even the weather, and the heather or the moss or the grass is described in quite loving detail.”
Jackson has magically brought Tolkien’s words to life with the help of the magnificent backdrops, landscapes and vistas of New Zealand. So if the movie inspires you to add New Zealand to your 2014 itinerary, here’s a guide to the key locations in the latest hobbit installment.
1. Pelorus River, Marlborough
The perfect spot to have dwarves make a grand escape by floating down a river in barrels? The Pelorus River, a spot on the South Island that Jackson says he visited as a child and even then saw its potential for just the right scene. One of the actors who portrayed the dwarf Bombur said it was his favorite day on set.
You don’t need a barrel to see this mighty river; you can see it by kayak. Tours take you past waterfalls, streams and the exact spot where the dwarves floated down river. Be sure to traverse the narrow swing bridge that was built in the 1950s and crosses the river. Hike to a rock pool and up a 1,360-foot peak, and keep an eye out for a wide variety of native birds.
2. Arcadia Station, Paradise Valley
See the setting of Beorn’s grand home and fortress, which Jackson spent six weeks building, at Arcadia Station in Paradise Valley, a remote farming valley on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park. The trek to get there is worth it. Arcadia Station is a privately owned high country farm located along Diamond Lake with views of mountain peaks, including the dominant Mount Earnslaw.
While Paradise Valley sits in isolation, it is just a short drive from Queenstown, New Zealand’s No. 1 tourist destination, making it a popular filming spot and a good stop for travelers. Nearby Glenorchy, on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, is also worth a visit. It’s considered one of the best scenic drives in the world and is known as the “gateway to Paradise.”
3. Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
The majestic turquoise lake in “The Desolation of Smaug” is Lake Pukaki on the South Island, which sits at the base of the magnificent Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Glacial lakes that feed Lake Pukaki contribute to its vibrant blue color.
About three and a half hours south of Christ Church, the area surrounding the lake has several trails for hikers, which traverse patches of mountain flax, glacial boulders and pine trees, all while offering stunning views of Mount Cook and its alpine peaks.
4. Turoa, Ruapehu
Cyclists will love this location, known for its rocky slopes and grassy mounds, where Jackson filmed the entrance to the Lonely Mountain. The Ruapehu region, home to Tongariro World Heritage Park with its three stately volcanoes, offers an abundance of cycling and hiking trails.
Two New Zealand Cycle Trail Networks run through the area, connecting the mountains to the sea, along with several smaller cycling trails. The Tongariro Crossing, which takes hikers through meadows, craters, lakes and volcanic rock, at two hours is known as one of the best one-day walks in the world. This area is also popular with skiers; it’s the site of two of the North Island’s top ski fields.
In Matamata, just a short distance from Auckland City on the North Island, you can literally step into the movie at the film set of the town of Hobbiton in the Shire. Set among rolling green pastures, visitors can tour the set that Bilbo and Frodo called home and where their fantastical journeys began with Hobbiton Movie Set Tours.
The tour takes Middle Earth fans through Bag End, past more than 40 hobbit holes, the mill, the Green Dragon Inn, where you can actually drink ale and dine on beef and ale pie, and the Party Tree. It also includes information about how the movie was filmed, along with its special effects, such as how the filmmakers enabled the actors who played hobbits to look small enough to fit the part. Hobbit fans will definitely want to make a stop at The Shire Store to pick up some one-of-a-kind Middle Earth memorabilia, including cloaks, woolen products, maps and more.
Lyn Mettler is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based travel writer. You can find her at www.GotoTravelGal.com or on Twitter at @GotoTravelGal.