Becoming Bilbo Baggins (Part 1)

“I’m going on an adventure!”

New Zealand is a country that ushers people outdoors. It is the place where the sun radiantly shines on people strolling along beaches; colossal mountain ranges and untamed rivers affectionately identified by the Lord of the Rings fans as Middle Earth for intrepid travellers to explore; and snow-capped mountains in the South Island that offer winter dreamy getaways.

In truth, New Zealand is clearly a favourite among Malaysian holiday-makers and leisure travellers, chalking up an of average 56,000 tourist arrivals into New Zealand per year. Most of the travellers come for long stays – say, two weeks on average – and they rent campervans to discover the country’s best offerings.

Steven Dixon, who is Tourism New Zealand’s Regional Manager for South and South East Asia, believes that accessibility is key: travellers can embark on a journey of epic contrasts since everything is within reach. The ability to enjoy vibrant multi-cultural cities and then leave for the remote countryside within an hour’s drive strongly appeals to most travellers.

Read on to find out what I experienced when I explored this mystifying antipodean two-main-island nation and learn from my trip!

AUCKLAND

Bush Walk Tour (www.bushandbeach.co.nz)

Auckland is a creative, intimate city where you can live in the forest yet only 15 to 30 minutes’ away from a world-class art gallery. It also has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world that is home to some of the country’s top residential, commercial and entertainment areas. It is recommended that travellers take a day or two to explore the city at their own leisure pace to completely take it all in.

Otherwise, they could also join the tours by Bush and Beach tour operator, led by genuinely helpful guides whose expertise is in showing the city’s best gems. We took the half-day Wilderness Experience to find peace and greenery in Auckland, and it was worthwhile. Our guides, Fiona and Ollie – who are also great storytellers, I must add – brought us to the Waitakere Ranges located 40 minutes away from the city centre. The first stop was Arataki Centre where visitors could admire the panoramic views stretching from the Manukau Harbour on the Tasman Sea to the sparkling Waitemata Harbour on the Pacific Ocean.

From there, we proceeded deeper into the ranges and found another patch of serenity in the form of a majestic waterfall called Karekare Falls. When I first saw it, my jaw dropped – the dramatic towering cascades were so beautiful that it was selected as a backdrop for the Oscar-winning movie, The Piano.

We continued walking through the bushes and lush greeneries; the further I explored, the further I fell in love with the shapes of the indigenous trees and their distinctive barks. The end of the narrow sandy pathway presented another great reveal: the Piha black sand beach, which is a favourite surf spot for the locals; non-surfers would still find it breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless. The beach’s sand is black due to the presence of volcanic minerals. From afar, the stretch of sand on the beach forms a glossy mirror-like reflection whenever the wave breaks. We concluded our tour during tea time to savour New Zealand’s specialties such as cookies dipped in Manuka honey, fresh kiwi juice and a spot of Marmite.

WAIKATO

Hobbiton (www.hobbitontours.com)
The facade of the iconic Bilbo Baggin’s house

Yes, yes, yes! Dreams do come true! It had been a forever dream of mine to visit The Shire, home of the quaint little hobbit-hole village called Hobbiton. Even if you’re not a fan of Peter Jackson’s popular films The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies, Hobbiton would still be a place that you might have already heard. In 2016, it received more than 468,000 visitors, making it the most popular tourist attraction in New Zealand.

On 22 September 2017, Hobbiton became extra special as all ‘Hobbits’ across the world came to celebrate the International Hobbit Day. The date was selected as the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the main characters of the said films.

The festivity began with the happy ‘Hobbits’ being brought to tour all 44 hobbit holes, including Bag End (Bilbo’s home) while recounting the details of how the movie set was created. This was also the time when I discovered that to be cast as a hobbit, one should be ‘five-foot-two’ and has ‘round of face’ – hey, guess who fits the bill? I’ve also learned that hobbit holes are built to different scales according to the size of the actors being filmed; to make Sir Ian McKellen who played Gandalf taller than Bilbo and Frodo, he had to stand in front of the doors that were of 60 per cent scale, whereby actors who resembled the other hobbits were shot in front of doors that were of 90 per cent scale to make it believable.

The group then proceeded to the vibrant Marketplace featuring individually themed stalls bursting with traditional Hobbit fare. A fantastic duo comprising violinist and ukulele-player warmed up the ears with folk songs while ‘Hobbits’ looking their best with beer, ale or non-alcoholic ginger beer in hand settled either in front of the open fires in The Green Dragon Inn or al fresco, ready to toast the birthday boys. During that magical moment, it did feel like we were transported right into one of scenes found in Tolkien’s books.

Of course, in true Hobbit fashion, a celebration won’t complete without a full buffet dinner. The ‘Hobbits’ were treated to a grand feast, and second (even third) helpings were encouraged, especially those belonging to Peregrin Took’s clan. Sarah McLeod, who played Rosie Cotton in the film, also joined in the festivity. Those who felt extra creative were given a makeover at Weta Studio’s booth to become one of the characters created by Tolkien; as a matter of fact, one guest became an overnight sensation because he transformed into a realistic looking dwarf!

The night ended in the most magical way possible: strolling through The Shire under the moonlight with an authentic handheld lantern to light the way. If this kind of celebration speaks to your inner Hobbit, be sure to book your tickets now as they are usually sold out months ahead of the event. Hobbiton General Manager, Russel Alexander, promises the celebration in 2018 would be bigger. Refer to the website for information regarding the International Hobbit Day.

HAMILTON

The Good George (www.goodgeorge.co.nz)

If you were a beer drinker, there is a fair chance that you would love the Southfarthing range of crafted beer served at the Green Dragon Inn, Hobbiton, which is brewed exclusively by The Good George, a Hamilton-based brewery. Since these unique brews are only available in Hobbiton, the Green Dragon Inn is probably one of the busiest bars in the country even during off-season, serving an average of 300 litres of beer every week that is specially delivered to the site using a fire truck (yes, you heard it right).

The Good George operates weekly tours out of its main branch on Somerset Street in Hamilton should fans want to try stealing the brewery’s recipes (good luck in that). What I found cool was the fact that the brewery’s giant chiller is installed with techno disco lights and an impressive stereo system that plays 70s rock hits! The brewery sits in what used to be a 1960’s chapel. The place now has a charming Dining Hall offering local comfort food and of course, their award-winning handcrafted beers. Their non-alcoholic ginger beer is equally tasty too.

Hamilton Gardens (hamiltongardens.co.nz)
The Italian Renaissance Garden at Hamilton Gardens

A former waste disposal site in the city, the Hamilton Gardens is one successful transformation story that turns an eyesore into an oasis. It spans across 54 hectares of land comprising enclosed gardens, open lawns, lake, nursery, convention centre and the Hamilton East Cemetery. The main stars here are of course the 22 pristine gardens landscaped to represent various civilisations, sectioned into five categories: The Paradise Collection, The Productive Collection, The Fantasy Collection, The Cultivar Collection and The Landscape Collection.

My personal favourites are the exquisite symmetric Italian Renaissance Garden and the immaculate Chinese Scholar’s Garden inspired from the Sung Dynasty. Te Parapara, on the other hand, is an interesting traditional Maori garden offers travellers a glimpse of the Maoris grew food before Europeans began settling in New Zealand. Expect to spend half a day here and understand why this place was conferred the title as ‘Garden of the Year’ during the 2014 International Garden Tourism Awards.

ROTORUA

Te Puia (tepuia.com)
A beautiful Maori lady.

Like most people in the world, I got to know haka through the All Blacks team members who never miss performing the iconic ‘war dance’ at the start of each rugby game. Though it does look spine-chilling, haka represents more than just a chant to intimidate the opponents on the field; it also symbolises unity shared by all Kiwis from various backgrounds across the nation. Inspiringly, this Maori-originated tradition is treated with high respect, and this fact alone recognises the importance of Maori influence in today’s New Zealand.

The Maoris arrived in the country over 700 years ago from Polynesia, in which popular theory claims that these Polynesians were originated from America. But when I visited Te Puia – a top Maori Cultural Centre in Rotorua – little did I know that there are historians who believe differently: they maintain that Polynesians came from China and travelled all the way across Southeast Asia to Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand that means ‘the land of the long white cloud’.) This idea is backed up by the similar characteristics shared in terms of traditions and linguistics between the Maoris and the Asian indigenous groups like the Orang Asli in Malaysia and the Amis in Taiwan. Some instances are the words ikan (Malay) and ika (Maori) for fish or lima (Malay) and rima (Maori) for five.

However, if you find linguistics too complex for a casual cultural outing, Te Puia presents more opportunities to peer deep into the Maori culture through different aspects such as crafts, food and music. You may even get to join in a powhiri, the welcoming ceremony on an open lawn before entering the marae where guests are serenaded with popular Maori songs, including my personal favourite, the emotional love song called ‘Pokarekare Ana’. This cultural show usually concludes with interactive haka and poi dances performed by the centre’s resident artists together with travellers. On top of these, travellers may also choose to include dinner at the end of the show to experience hangi feast whereby food is traditionally cooked in an underground pit.

Geyser eruption at Te Puia

Additionally, a visit to Te Puia also opens the door for travellers to appreciate fascinating natural sights such as the boiling mud pool and Rotorua’s famous Pohutu Geyser, which is the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere. Due to its list of offerings, be prepared to spend at least three to four hours at the centre.

Canopy Tours (canopytours.co.nz)

It was a bit cold and drizzly morning when we arrived at the Canopy Tours’ base at the Rotorua city centre – for a second, I was afraid that the plan would be cancelled due to the disagreeable weather. Fortunately it didn’t, thanks to the comprehensive equipment readily available at the centre that kept all participants dry and warm regardless of the weather.

We were then brought to the virgin native forest of the Mamaku Plateau located only minutes away from town, where a total of 1.2-kilometre network of ziplines, walking trails, suspended bridges and tree top platforms up to 22 metres above ground awaited us. The forest floor was soft beneath our shoes since it had been raining. The air was fresh and crisp that I could feel my lungs thanking me silently for being there. The birds – some of them were robins, the regular residents of the forest –were chirping joyfully over us.

But I was told by our guides – Scott and Cheynne – that the chirping sounds we heard was not common back in the early days when the tour started in 2012. I was also told that there are at least 70,000 birds killed per night in New Zealand by introduced predators like possums, stoats and men’s greatest enemy: rats. Hence, they knew an immediate action should be taken to prevent more losses like what happened to the big moas and the mighty Haast’s eagles, which are now extinct. Canopy Tours collaborated with local universities in creating and setting up traps for predators across the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve to restore New Zealand’s flora and fauna. As such, the birds are slowly returning as I witnessed myself during the tour – I even handfed some of them on the way to the first zipline platform.

Oh yes, I meant to talk about the ziplines, which was the main reason why I was brought to Mamaku Plateau in the first place. But with the educational information that I’ve been receiving from Scott and Cheynne regarding the ecosystem, I completely forgotten about it. After being strapped up in a harness and hooked onto a steel cable, we started flying along the 40-metre long Tomtit zipline, which was the shortest one as a warm-up. We then proceeded with the 49-metre long ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ zipline before shooting even further to the ‘Tui Song’ stage, where we launched from the canopy of a 500-year old rimu tree and ziplined as far as 220 metres through cloud-brushed tree tops over a long forgotten valley.

The whole experience was amazing! Most importantly, the tour provides the opportunity for travellers to take part in a noble cause because a portion from the sale proceeds is ploughed back into environmental conservation. Therefore, it is no surprise that Rotorua Canopy Tours won the 2016 New Zealand Supreme Tourism Awards due to its laudable effort.

I thought I would try my luck spotting cute little kiwis in the wild; unfortunately, it was trickier than I expected considering these fluffy birds are endangered and nocturnal. Travellers should consider visiting the nearby Rainbow Springs National Park – a renowned kiwi conservation and breeding centre – after the tour for a better chance to see them.

Skyline Rotorua (www.skyline.co.nz/en/rotorua)
The eight-seater gondolas that whisk visitors up to Skyline Rotorua Complex

For lunch or dinner in Rotorua, travellers should try dining at the multi-award winning Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar that sits near the top of Mount Ngongotaha overlooking the panoramic Lake Rotorua. It is a part of the Skyline Rotorua Complex comprising INZPIRED store, Jelly Belly Concept Store and Art Gallery, Volcanic Hills Winery, Market Kitchen and a recreational park where travellers can luge, mountain bike, zoom zipline and skyswing. This gorgeous restaurant, which is furnished with the equally gorgeous David Trubridge lights, features hearty buffet offerings from across the world, including Asia. Be sure to taste the mouth-watering ‘Art of the Grill’ selections using the locally sourced beef and lamb, and its dessert assortment is to die for. To get up there, travellers need to ride on eight-seater gondola cabins that will whisk them up to the complex.

Redwoods Treewalk (www.treewalk.co.nz)

Redwoods, also knowns as Whakarewarewa Forest is popular among hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders. It was also one of the filming locations for the Disney’s film entitled Pete’s Dragon. The forest seemed otherworldly in the movie, but I was not prepared to find it soul-stirringly magical at night when I took a tour deep into the forest along a 553-metre-long treewalk consisting of a series of 23 suspension bridges connecting 22 majestic 115-year old redwood trees. The bespoke David Trubridge’s lighting might also have helped in elevating the tour experience since it is designed in the form of 30 alien-spaceship-style lanterns with over 40 multicoloured spotlights that illuminate the trees, forest ferns and pungas. The bridges gradually incline from six metres in height to 12 metres at its peak, yet can easily be traversed by travellers of all ages.

***

In short, it is safe to say that there is always something about New Zealand that excites us travellers, be it breathtaking landscapes, prominent cultural identity or even the downright friendliness of its people. New Zealand is an advanced country that strive to conserve its natural and cultural heritage, an exemplary attribute that travellers should learn and bring back home.

In the next issue, my story continues with another interesting facets of New Zealand: the range of extreme sports being offered and world-class filming locations. Imagine traversing verdant rolling hills crossing mystical forest and meeting peculiar mythical creatures – yes, we’re going on an adventure ala Bilbo Baggins! So, do watch out for the next issue!

WHERE TO STAY

Heritage Auckland (www.heritagehotels.co.nz)

Formerly the iconic Auckland’s Farmers department store, the site has now been tastefully transformed into the glamourous Heritage Auckland hotel. The building retains its original 1920s charm and character while at the same time providing contemporary facilities such as heated swimming pool, spa, gym, and the hotel’s only food and beverage outlet called Hector’s Restaurant where guests can indulge in delightful dishes in a seven-storey atrium under a canopy of palms.

Novotel Auckland Airport Hotel (www.accorhotels.com)

Being located right at the opposite of Auckland International Airport makes the hotel an ideal base for transiting or resting. It has won multiple awards in the previous years and recognised for its green and sustainable design reflecting New Zealand’s identity. The hotel’s full-length soundproof windows allow guests to continue their slumber throughout the night unperturbed.

Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel (www.accorhotels.com)

Located within an earshot from the CBD, the hotel provides guests an easy access to go out and about. The adjacent picturesque view of Lake Rotorua soothes the eyes and the hotel’s extensive breakfast buffet spread at Atlas Restaurant keeps guests’ pleasantly satiated.

Ventura Inn & Suites Hamilton (www.venturainns.co.nz)

This place’s reasonable prices make for affordable stay close to various local attractions. It is also ideal for large travelling groups since it offers apartments with kitchen facilities. Every stay comes with a complimentary continental buffet breakfast, Wi-Fi access, local telephone calls and parking.

2 Comments

  1. Nicely put and fun to read! Oh, and the new layout of your website is great! So much sexier <3 Just one thing, i think that image resolution can be adjusted a little. Right now a little too compressed. Some of the images appear pixelated and not sharp. You guys have great images. Don’t let them lose appeal just because of the display quality. Looking forward to more articles!

    1. Shahida Sakeri

      Hey AJ! Thank you for your kind words – we truly appreciate it. Hope the article inspires you to go to New Zealand! And we take note on your comment about the quality of the pictures; we will take action accordingly. Thanks for the feedback again, and here’s to enriching you with more travel inspirations!

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