The travel buzz about New Zealand has reached a hornet pitch, thanks to the country's boffo performance as Middle-earth in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. After three blockbusters, and...

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The travel buzz about New Zealand has reached a hornet pitch, thanks to the country’s boffo performance as Middle-earth in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. After three blockbusters, and a clean sweep at the Oscars , the passport-control lines at the Auckland airport are jammed with tourists eager to follow in Elijah Wood’s wide Hobbit footprints.

After the 13-hour flight from Los Angeles, Auckland’s Victoria Park is a good place to stroll out the coach-class kinks and begin yanking your brain into a new time zone. More importantly, it’s a place to begin decoding New Zealand’s core paradox: Everything here is familiar, but nothing is quite the same.

Auckland, where about a third of the country’s 4 million people live, is like a small-scale Seattle, with a modest clot of waterfront high-rises surrounded by undulating neighborhoods of frame houses and high-street shopping. In Victoria Park, overlooking downtown and the sailboat-crowded harbor, the concentric paths and formal gardens could be anywhere in the British Commonwealth; that clock tower would look at home in Oxford.

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But wait, the swirly carving on the tower is not so much Anglican as, what, Polynesian? And these massive waxy trees waving in the Pacific breeze and those towering ferns around the statue of Queen Victoria, they don’t grow anywhere in London or Toronto or Boston. And that otherwise ordinary steakhouse by the ferry dock specializes in thick cuts of … ostrich. (“You want it medium well,” the waitress advised. “Cooked any more and it’s tough. Any less and it’s like eating raw ostrich.”)

TRACY LEE SILVERIA / LOS ANGELES TIMES

In Matamata, you can tour Hobbiton, the only remaining “Rings” movie set in New Zealand.


It’s this patina of the bizarro on the commonplace that makes New Zealand so endlessly interesting. A rolling, velvety baize of pastureland here could be a patch of Ireland’s County Cork, except for the swath of Hawaiian forest that borders it. And what looms above both? A snowcapped mountain peak clipped from a postcard of Switzerland.

“This is nothing like Bavaria,” marvels Benedikt Schendel, a young German brewer on a six-week hitchhiking tour of New Zealand. I’m giving him a ride from Auckland to Rotorua, a tourist town about halfway down the North Island. He mulls the shifting agricultural scenery out the rental-car window as I concentrate on staying on the right — which is to say the left — side of the road. “I think I may move here,” he says finally. “I think I could find work in a brewery.” He’s been in New Zealand three days.

Halfway to Rotorua, we a stop in the village of Matamata, one of hundreds of low-rise, nondescript farm towns scattered around the countryside. For decades, this sleepy hamlet was known, if at all, as a dairy center and the hub of New Zealand’s small horse training industry. Now it’s a tour-bus magnet.

“Welcome to Hobbiton,” brays the sign at the edge of town. Along the once-quiet street, fish-and-chips stands and snack bars are crowded with foreign tourists. Across the road from the feed-and-seed store, a plywood entryway in the shape of a round Hobbit door has been added onto the small visitors center. I buy a $50 ticket (about U.S. $30) and board a bus for a two-hour pilgrimage out to the only existing film set from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“We heard they were making a movie at the Alexander farm and figured it was just some made-for-TV thing,” says Jan the tour guide, after we disembark at a comely 1,250-acre sheep farm 20 minutes from town. “It turned out to be a bit more than that.”

Once director Peter Jackson picked the Alexander farm for the location of Bilbo Baggins’ hometown, the government slapped a no-fly zone over the property, the army built a road through the rolling hills and a few thousand carpenters, engineers, caterers, gardeners and veterinarians began building Hobbiton.

Five years later, what’s still there is the unmistakable backdrop of the trilogy’s opening scenes, including the massive party tree still hung with a single fading streamer from Bilbo’s 111th birthday fete. The bare facades from seven round hobbit homes remain, but only as unpainted frames. By agreement with New Line Cinema, the Alexanders can bring tourists here, but they can’t restore the painting, stonework, planting or other details from the finished film.

“It needs color,” says Leanne Faulkner, 14, a self-described “Rings” fanatic visiting from England, as we look down on the quiet veld. Suddenly, an electronic sample of “Lord of the Rings” theme music erupts in the windy quiet and Leanne scrabbles for her cellphone.

“She’s mad for Orlando Bloom,” whispers her mother, Irene.

Leanne listens to the tour guide’s anecdote-filled spiel with wide eyes, and as we climb the hill to Bilbo’s very house — the only one large enough to actually enter — she’s on the phone again. “I’m serious. I’m in front of his house right now!” she bubbles internationally.

It’s an eye-grabbing, cinematic landscape for sure, “Lord of the Rings” or no. And these panoramas are slightly different than the smaller scales of the North Island. “Up north,” as South Islanders say, the country is more populated, more settled, a little rainier. But it’s also more volcanic. Rotorua, a ticky-tacky tourist town near the center of the country, is New Zealand’s Yellowstone. Hundreds of geysers and steam vents and boiling mud pits pock the countryside, including some right in town that perfume the air with sulfur.

Almost every tourist visits Rotorua, and it is pleasant to soak in the thermal pools — if you don’t mind smelling like a matchbook for the rest of the day. And, as a center of Maori culture, Rotorua does teach visitors a lot about the Polynesians who, a thousand years ago, were the first to discover what a nice place this is to live. (And who still stamp the culture with such town names as Paraparaumu and Paekakariki.)

But they’ve begun to call the place “Roto-vegas” for a reason — the density of motels and gimcrack places is near the tipping point. I gave it a night, being more eager to linger over the urbane museums and cafes of Wellington and the hippie-dippy arts scene on Waiheke, a by-ferry-only island in Auckland Harbour.

On the South Island, where I had flown halfway through my all-too-brief Kiwi quest, the skies are bigger and the geology grander generally. Queenstown is New Zealand’s recreational capital (and here, that means a lot). In the winter, which is to say June, July and August, it’s a ski center. In warmer weather, tourists browse the Maori galleries and ride jet boats on the lake or take coach trips over to Milford Sound, the dramatic 13-mile-long fiord on the Tasman Sea.

The drive across the South Island — endless vistas, empty highways — cements my growing impression that only isolation protects New Zealand from its own perfection. Drive an hour and you’ll cross half a dozen fly-fishing streams, a few wineries, the odd town with smart cafes, witty theater and cable TV. If New Zealand could be towed a thousand miles closer to the Northern Hemisphere, 100 million people would live here.

Fortunately, the only population boom is of sheep — there are about 40 million of those.

Mixing the old ways and the latest thing is a guiding principle at Houston’s Lakeview Homestay, a working farm tucked in the lee of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. The farm part is traditional, and Rusty Houston, the personable sheep farmer, is happy to let you tag along on his rounds. (“That wee wire’s got about 3,000 volts running through it, so it’s not to be touched,” he tells me, just as I’m throwing one leg over the crotch-high strand.) The food, too, is sheep-station classic, with mutton that’s allowed to hang for a few days before being roasted to meringue tenderness by his wife, Wendy.

But the house itself is a modern, stylish showplace that would look at home in Queenstown — or Vail. It’s built low along a hilltop, with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the landscape like Imax screens. Playing on one side is the creamy blue lake, Pukaki. On the other side is Mount Cook, rising above the toothy horizon of the Southern Alps.

It’s impossible not to settle in here. After several colossal meals, a family trip to the pub and some serious pasture time, I tell the Houstons that I feel as if I’ve returned to the real New Zealand, the part still untouched by the ubiquitous cinema hype.

“Oh, you mean ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” Wendy says, standing. She points out the window to the rolling plains to the south. “Right down there is where they filmed one of the biggest battle scenes. It was massive, horses and tents everywhere. You can even take a tour if you like.”