Ever since Wellington-native Peter Jackson chose New Zealand as the setting of his film version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, fans have flocked to experience the nation’s incredible scenery.
And now The Hobbit stars have fallen under the country’s spell; including Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt, who made a new life in Wellington with his wife Sonia and daughters Peggy, 14, and Mary, 10, for the duration of the 18-month shoot.
"We had a wonderful time and it’s such a beautiful country you can’t help but enjoy it," James told HELLO!. "You know, the dwarves go on an adventure but we went on one too."
With pick ups (filming additional material) about to begin for the second Hobbit movie (released in December), HELLO! Online discovered some of the perfect ways to explore Middle Earth – and some of the locals’ favourite celeb-spotting moments…
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Wellington: The heart of Middle Earth
New Zealand's cool, culture-rich capital is home to the film industry's most innovative companies, and where director Peter Jackson calls home. Visit Miramar's Weta Cave, to see how the innovate effects company has grown over the years, and buy gifts including original artwork, replica jewellery and swords made on-site!
Weta has now launched a new Window Into Workshop tour of the company's workshop floor, where visitors are guided through the team's creative process by an experienced designer – and their passion for the job is easy to see.
"It's really all about satisfying the creative itch for us," designer Daniel Falconer told HELLO!. He not only worked on The Hobbit but has written an accompanying book series about Weta’s work on the trilogy. "Most of our team get home from work and start working on their own projects!"
Daniel does admit to being starstruck on the odd occasion: "Cate Blanchett's return as Galadriel in The Hobbit was really cool. It was a big moment for us. She has an amazing, commanding presence on set, so it’s surprising how down to earth she is. She's like royalty. She changes a room when she comes into it."
While in the city, don’t miss Rover Tours' official Lord of the Rings trip to visit the locations of your favourite scenes. Specialist tour guides will share fantastic first-hand anecdotes about top locations including the setting for Rivendell, in the Kaitoke Regional Park's temperate rainforest.
"It's difficult to find many of the filming locations, because they're not signposted," explained Rover Tours guide Nathan Clear – who was cast as an Elf in the Lord of the Rings. "In fact, Rivendell is the only signposted location, because tourists were getting lost in the rainforest, trying to find it!"
To dine among the stars, you can't go wrong with the Museum Art Hotel, where cast members including comedian Billy Connelly, Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), and Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) stayed. The hotel also hosted the English cricket team in March, and boasts the exquisite Hippopotamus French-style restaurant.
Queenstown: adventures in the South Island
Surrounded by the dramatic mountain range The Remarkables, Queenstown is a stunning and chilled out base for your South Island excursions – and the best way to sightsee is by helicopter.
Companies such as Heliworks helped transport cast and crew to remote locations and now offer scenic flights over the astonishing mountains and lakes from the films.
For other exciting excursions, Nomad Safari Tours can combine location visits with thrilling off-road drives to historic gold-minding settlements like Arrowtown, where you can try your hand at panning for gold.
Make the most of the perfectly preserved village by visiting the Saffron restaurant – another favourite of cast members such as James Nesbitt, who enjoyed his meal so much he made up a little ditty for the owners, chef Peter and Melissa Gawron.
"On that same evening, a guest, whose son had Down's Syndrome, asked if Ian McKellen might give him an autograph as he adored Gandalf," Melissa told HELLO!. "Ian sat down with the young man and his mother for the rest of their meal, swapping stories and reciting lines for him. It was so overwhelming for them."
For wine-lovers, the outskirts of Queenstown host vineyards famous for their crisp local wines. The Amisfield wine company and bistro is a perfect place to lunch on a sunny day, with beautiful views of the land and a "Trust the Chef" sharing menu. It was also a favourite haunt of Orlando Bloom and Andy Serkis.
"Orlando was amazing, and he really liked our rosé," said assistant manager David Morrison. "Andy Serkis also brought his dad in. I'm a huge fan so was starstruck, but he's such an approachable person."
While in the South Island, it’s well worth a trip further south to Mackenzie country and the stunning turquoise glacier lakes such as Tekapo. The area is perfect for hiking, horse treks and spa retreats at hotels like Tekapo's Peppers Bluewater.
Of course, it's impossible to visit New Zealand without a trip to Bilbo Baggins' home in Hobbiton, near Matamata village in the north island. The set was permanently installed on the private farm when The Hobbit started filming, and now also boasts a fully functional English-style pub, The Green Dragon, where tourists can sample unique Shire Ales created by local micro-breweries.
Novotel hotels in nearby Hamilton and at Auckland Airport make it simple to enjoy the rolling hills and agricultural land that first inspired Peter Jackson.
Air New Zealand, the official airline of Middle-earth, flies daily from London Heathrow to New Zealand (via LA). Economy fares from £1217 and upgrades to Economy Skycouch from £169 per sector. To plan your trip visit Tourism New Zealand at www.newzealand.com
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out on DVD and Blu-ray now
It's a little princess!