Photograph by Trevor Gamon
For more of the world's greatest driving tours, get National Geographic's new book Drives of a Lifetime.
Boasting some of the most varied and rugged landscapes on Earth, New Zealand has long been a source of adventure. In addition, its eclectic Polynesian and European heritage makes it a remarkable center of culture and history. Given New Zealand's varied attributes, it is little wonder it was the pick of Kiwi Peter Jackson as the stand-in for Middle-Earth in his film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy.
Driving across New Zealand is a prime way not only to see the movies' ethereal locations but also to experience a true taste of Kiwiland. Several routes will satisfy your Lord of the Rings hunger, but the jaunt between Auckland and Wellington, spanning the length of the North Island, is perhaps the best way to see a sizeable stretch of the country. This 460-mile (740-kilometer) route will take you through the real-life versions of Hobbiton, Mordor, and Bree, as well as through some of New Zealand’s most diverse regions: volcanic fields, lush rain forest, ragged mountains, rolling hills of farmland, and the country's largest lake.
Begin in Auckland
Kick off your tour in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, with a visit to the Auckland Museum (09 309 0443; www.aucklandmuseum.com), where you can learn about the country's ancient peoples and natural history. Here, watch a Maori cultural performance, scheduled daily.
Sample local award-winning wines at Coopers Creek Vineyard (601 State Hwy. 16, Huapai, Auckland; 09 412 8560; www.cooperscreek.co.nz), which also hosts jazz concerts every Sunday from January through Easter. Stop in at Elephant House (237 Parnell Rd., Parnell, Auckland; 09 309 8740), an artist's cooperative in the historic Parnell Village suburb, to buy and view works from hundreds of Kiwi artists.
The Waikato region offers some of the most spectacular hiking in the country. See native kauri trees on the Kauri Loop Track at Hakarimata Scenic Reserve or climb an ancient volcano on the Karioi Summit Track. While here, stop in at Port Waikato, the city that stood in as Weathertop Hill, where Frodo was stabbed by a Black Rider. Nearby Matamata marks the real-world home of Hobbiton, the grassy village in which the hobbits lived comfortably before setting off on their dangerous journey. Visit Hobbiton on a guided tour (Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours; 101 Arawa St., Matamata; 07 888 9913; www.hobbitontours.com) and stop by Bag End, the only Hobbit hole that visitors can enter.
With its hot geysers and steaming volcanoes, the Rotorua region is one of the most well known Kiwi attractions. Take a brief side trip to any of several geothermal parks—such as Hell's Gate and Wai Ora Spa (State Highway 30, Tikitere, Rotorua; 07 345 3151; www.hellsgate.co.nz)—for a gander at hot, spewing geysers and craters of boiling mud. The area's location on the Pacific Ring of Fire means it experiences continuous volcanic activity with natural underground steam venting even on the modern streets of downtown Rotorua.
Stop for a bite at The Woodbox (Corner of Mystery Creek and Angus Rds., Hamilton; 07 823 6411; www.thewoodbox.co.nz), whose extensive menu features modern Kiwi fare and native wines. After a scenic day of driving and volcano-watching, drop in for a stay at Hillside Homestead B&B (99 Tihi Rd., Springfield, Rotorua; 07 347 9337; www.hillsidehomestead.co.nz), where the host will serenade you with traditional Maori songs accompanied by guitar.
Relax at Taupo Hot Springs Spa (Napier Taupo Highway, Taupo; 07 377 6502; www.taupohotsprings.com) on Lake Taupo, locally renowned for its geothermal pools—try a "wet massage" with organic products made from native beeswax. The town of Taupo sits on the northern shore of the lake—New Zealand's largest—with ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, or a simple stroll along the waterfront.
Gaze at traditional Maori rock art on a boat cruise along the Western Bays while at Lake Taupo. Barbary Cruises & Sail Taupo (272 888 853; www.barbary.co.nz) will take you on a 2.5-hour sailboat cruise to see the 30-foot (9-meter) rock carvings at Mine Bay, carved in the 1970s by master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell and depicting characters from Maori oral histories. More intrepid travelers can kayak to the carvings with Wilderness Escapes (07 378 3413; www.wildernessescapes.co.nz).
Kaimanawa Forest Park
Hike through Kaimanawa Forest Park, which boasts diverse endemic flora and fauna, like the rare whio (blue duck). From short walks to overnight treks, the park has something for every adventurer. Stop by nearby Whakapapa Ski Area to see the eerie slopes of Mordor and Emyn Muil, where Frodo and Samwise set off to finish their arduous journey alone.
Browse Maori artwork at Te Awa Kopiko cultural center in Foxton or attend a workshop to learn about Maori carving, tattooing, or language. Follow in the footsteps of Frodo and company at Otaki, whose forest of native totara trees was transformed into Hobbiton Woods. Otaki Gorge Road stood in for the road to Hobbiton.
The final stop on your route and the nation's capital, Wellington served as the home for the trilogy's cast and crew for almost three years. Several tour operators will take you on tours to Lord of the Rings filming locations, including Bree and Minas Tirith. Stroll the Wellington Waterfront (6 Queens Wharf, Wellington; 04 495 7820; www.wellingtonwaterfront.co.nz) to sample boutiques, restaurants, museums, and art centers.
Shop at Zambesi (107 Customhouse Quay; 04 472 3638; www.zambesi.co.nz), a carrier of Hema organic skin care products, a favorite of Liv Tyler. View rare and endangered animals during a walk through Karori Sanctuary (31 Waiapu Rd., Karori, Wellington; 04 920 9200; www.sanctuary.org.nz), a conservation area where endemics such as the little-spotted kiwi, tuatara, and saddleback birds have been released.
At the end of the day, toast a successful trip at Bodega (101 Ghuznee St.; Te Aro; 04 384 8212; www.bodega.co.nz), a Wellington haunt known for its daily live performances from up-and-coming New Zealand musicians. It's also known for its vast supply of local and imported beers, including brews from Wellington's own Tuatara Brewing Company.
The journey takes about four days to complete and follows State Highways 1, 5, and 47. Find maps and general information about the route at www.newzealand.com/travel/getting-to-around-nz/driving-routes/hobbiton-mordor-river-anduin-itinerary.cfm. A valid U.S. driver's license is sufficient for driving, but remember that New Zealanders drive on the left and have a unique yield rule for intersections. Speeds are posted in kilometers, and roads are often hilly and winding. For more information, visit the government's Land Transport department Web site for foreign drivers at www.ltsa.govt.nz/overseasdrivers/driving-in-nz.html. New Zealand's telephone country code is 64. The route is driveable in all seasons, but check www.metservice.co.nz for local weather conditions.
—Text by Kristen Gunderson
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!