If someone proposed that you travel to Middle Earth with your kids, would you respond, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today!”? Or would you assemble your Company?
When my sister moved to New Zealand, the thought of visiting her filled me with glee. No matter getting there involved one of the longest flights in the world. We didn’t make the trip at first, though—never enough time, nor money. Then I got pregnant and my sister got engaged within a few months of each other. Her wedding was planned for New Zealand when our daughter would be eleven months old. Flying that far with a young child filled my husband and me with trepidation instead of glee, but I wasn’t going to miss my sister’s wedding, and she wanted her niece there. We figured out how to make it work (I’ll tell you some of the tricks we used, below), and everyone had a great trip. (Seriously, everyone. Even our fellow travelers on the plane.)
At that time, filming was underway for the Lord of the Rings, and we visited a few sites in the North Island that were designated Hobbit-friendly (and kid-friendly). Almost a decade later, we returned for a multi-week camper-adventure in the South Island, so that our daughter could get to know her distant aunt and uncle better.
While on that trip, we found many opportunities to walk in Gandalf’s and Bilbo’s footsteps.
So, for those of you contemplating a trip to Middle Earth with your family, I’m here to tell you it’s doable. There are ways to make things slightly more economical too: using airline miles for part of the trip, staying in family campgrounds/holiday parks, and cooking meals rather than dining out.
They’ve decorated the airports for you. And the airplanes too.
If thirteen-plus hours of flying time isn’t your thing, consider armchair travel. Google has you covered with an interactive map.
How we got there
The hard way: The first time we traveled as a family to New Zealand (for the wedding), we did so using a lot of airline miles. This meant flying from the east coast U.S. to the midwest, then to Los Angeles, then to Fiji, then, finally, to Auckland. Total travel time, each way: 34 hours. Eight takeoffs and landings, total. Not ideal, but cheaper, and our daughter flew like a pro. A few takeaways:
- Equalize early and often. Takeoffs and landings are much easier on kids and infants when they have something to sip on. The swallowing mechanism helps them equalize as cabin pressure changes.
- Boredom is the enemy. Bring a variety of small things to play with (but without too many pieces, as those roll). We packed several small toys she’d never seen before, and wrapped them while she napped between flights. By wrapping, I mean in multiple sheets of wrapping paper and as much tape as we could apply (this is an important step). When boredom struck, we’d pull one out. The unwrapping took a lot of time, as we’d hoped, but she loved it. The play took more time. By then, the boredom funk was broken and she was happy again. We found we could re-wrap things and “gift” them again too. (Don’t try that with older kids.)
- Plan ahead. When traveling with children under 12 months, book early to get a bassinet row. This means less legroom, but, for a young child, a flat space to stretch out is worth the trade.
- Trade off. We slept in 2-4 hour shifts, so that one of us was always a little fresher and able to entertain/distract our daughter. We still feel very lucky to have a good flier.
The less hard way: The second time, we spent a night in San Francisco and flew direct to Auckland the next day. We were the better for it. Total travel time (minus overnight): 18 hours. Takeaways:
- Get Creative. This time, my daughter and I worked together to make a book that would be her trip journal, and a music mix with songs from local New Zealand bands (Anika Moa, Bic Runga, OMC, Opshop, The Aeotera Maori Chorale, Goldenhorse, and yes, The Split Enz. Sue me. If it were now, I’d add Lorde.) and tracks from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. She also took a drawing pad and iPad movies. She wrote in her journal, listened to music, played games with us, watched films, and slept. The plane (Air New Zealand) also had an excellent selection of movies. Great service, too.
- Pack snacks. On the way home, food service got flipped and kids were served breakfast for dinner (a huge hit) and then dinner for breakfast (not a huge hit). We staved off the inevitable sugar crash with some bars and fruit I’d bought in the airport.
Note: When flying into New Zealand, you may not import food or plants. There’s a place to toss things before entry, but don’t for a second think they’re joking. Imagine angry Ents. Then forget them, because the border guards are actually quite nice, but they will still take you aside if you or your offspring accidentally sneak food in.
When you’re there—Some Middle Earth Highlights
Hamilton & Waitamo – The location of the Shire and the tourist site of Hobbiton. You can book a tour, http://www.hobbitontours.com, and adults can even try the beers at the Green Dragon, a working pub.
Not to miss, nearby: Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
Wellington & Wairapara – Locations for Rivendell, Fords of Isen, and Anduin. Also home of Weta Workshop, the not to miss special effects shop for TLotR and The Hobbit (and many other movies). You can take a movie tour here too.
Other sites to see in the North Island: Bay of Islands, Auckland (the city of sails), The Coromandel (Particularly Cathedral Cove, where the opening beach scenes of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was filmed, and Hot Water Beach, with its thermal activity), Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and Wai O Tapu.
Here’s where much of the most gorgeous filming in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was done.
Central Otago: The Company flees from Orcs and Wargs across the rocky hills and mountains of Central Otago. In New Zealand, this is a region between Christchurch and Dunedin. There are seaside towns along the way that feature penguins and sea lions, instead of Orcs and Wargs. See also: Sheep. Lots of sheep. And a most incredible set of boulders—the Moeraki Boulders—which are hard to get to, but worth the time.
Queenstown: With its airport, you can fly in and begin your journey here. Queenstown is the sport capitol of the south island—opportunities for boating, hiking, and more abound. In Middle Earth, Queenstown, and the small town of Glenorchy a few hours away, are the settings for Isengard and Lothlorien. There are a wide range places to stay in town, including several well-equipped holiday parks for campers, and plenty of places to eat.
Glenorchy: This tiny town is off the beaten path, but well worth your time. It is also the jumping off point for one of New Zealand’s most beautiful multi-day hikes, the Routeburn Track. That’s tough to do with young kids, so we enjoyed the Glenorchy Walkway around the gorgeous lakeside. There is also the Earnslaw Burn Track, a challenging 4-hour hike that goes up over the mountains, with views of the Earnslaw Burn Glacier, where the Company continued their quest after departing Rivendell.
Fjordlands: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s eagle-assisted escape took place against the mountains of the South Island’s fjordlands. What you won’t see in the movies is the incredible glacier-created sounds and their natural surroundings. Well worth your time, but pack plenty of bug spray—the South Island’s blackflies are something else. An overnight boat trip is a special treat.
Other things to see – Fox Glacier. Abel Tasman National Park (this list could go on)…. One of the best things about New Zealand are the hikes and walks. Make like the Company, and the Fellowship: Walk as much as you can.
How to get around
Car or camper? We’ve done both, but for the around-the-south-island trip, a camper was absolutely the right decision. You can get any size camper (some are enormous), but we rented the compact and affordable Dart 4 from Wilderness Motorhomes in Christchurch and were delighted with how easy it was to drive, as well as sleep in. Cooking was a bit tight, but having a fridge and all the tools along was certainly a money saver. Accommodations were tight too—the Dart was perfect for three—a little tight for four.
Some camper tips: My friend Lynette from Wilderness Motor Homes says,
“As for material on camper etiquette and Kiwi-style camping, you can’t go past Wilderness Motorhomes’ Road Trip Guide that is packed full of great information for camping in New Zealand. Also go to ‘Tips for a great New Zealand camping holiday.’
Kiwi-style camping is becoming more sophisticated with all the “mod-cons” available, but the true “dinkum” camping holiday is all about a good tent, fresh air, basic food, real paper books, family games, and starry nights. Most people pack a fishing line or two. … It is a communal activity and a great opportunity to meet other like-minded kiwis, especially good for the kids to connect with other kids. New Zealand has a range of camping grounds [with a range of facilities], but many look to “freedom camp” in idyllic locations, either free or at very low cost. Wilderness Motorhomes has just produced a booklet on “Freedom Camping,” but you might like to also check out Rankers, or Go NewZealand. … The big motto is “Leave the area as you found it.” Kiwis are intolerant of litter and the “open toilet” look. It is all about being responsible.
Lynette has provided a fantastic list of kid-friendly Hobbit-related activities, below.
Where to stay
Finding accommodations and mapping potential trips is easy on the NewZealand.com site. So is losing hours to daydreaming. But the recommendations for all levels of hotels, motels, and family stays are excellent.
Campgrounds, a.k.a. Holiday Parks: One thing the New Zealanders know how to do is provide campground accommodations that are affordable, if a bit rough. Every place we stayed featured great playground equipment too. Here’s where to find them.
More of what to do
Lynette from Wilderness Motor Homes adds:
1. Lord of the Rings – Journey to Edoras
2. Funyak canoes on the Dart River (passing locations used in movies to illustrate Middle Earth)
3. South Island Lord of the Rings Tours
4. A blog on horse-trekking deep into Middle Earth territory
5. The Southern Lakes – Centre of Middle Earth
6. Lord of the Rings in South Canterbury
7. Wellington Lord of the Rings locations and sets
The Wilde family’s advice? Take a copy of The Hobbit, load the movies on your devices, make your own soundtrack, and assemble your Company in a quest to find Middle Earth.
Eagle transport not guaranteed.