We got up early, ate breakfast in the room (banana, yogurt, nuts, oatmeal), and headed south to the farming community of Matamata and Hobbiton! We had been warned to allow extra travel time on all roads but our 30 minute buffer turned out to not be enough. With all the road construction, we just missed the first-of-the-day tour we had reserved but luckily they had space on the next one. Just after lunchtime, when we left, the place was completely filled up. This place is super cool and popular. If you are planning to visit, I highly recommend booking ahead.
Everything is well done there from the tour guides to the buses to even the toilets which were possibly the nicest we experienced in NZ. Of course the tour itself is fantastic. If you have watched any of the movies, it looks exactly like that. Unbelieveably real. They still continue to have gardeners come in and rotate crops making sure to have things that are constantly in bloom. Butterflies flit around. Hobbit clothes are washed and hung on lines daily.
My biggest regret is the size of the groups and the speed with which you move through the site. You are on a full-sized tour bus and your group fills it. So when you get off to walk around, it is a lot of people in a series of small settings. This means you can choose to either take pictures or listen to the guide but almost certainly not both.
We chose to divide and conquer. Melanie hung close to the guide trying her best to pick up tidbits for me. I tried to get a few pictures. They let me know that I shouldn’t bring all my camera gear and they were right. It was like shooting a sports event or wildlife photography. Forget changing lenses. A tripod is out of the question.
With so many people trying to get the exact same shots you either had the choice of waiting your turn and then hustling to catch your group or trying to skip ahead to an unpopulated area. You would only get a split second to take your picture before someone else was stepping in front of you or placing their kid in the middle of your shot.
Don’t let me leave you thinking that it isn’t worth the trip or that we didn’t love it, because we did. We both REALLY enjoyed ourselves and it was easily one of the trip highlights for both of us.
The gift shop was excellent. Shire’s Rest (a cafe) was excellent. The tour buses were excellent. The tour guide was knowledgeable, friendly, knew how to work a camera, and was excellent. The Green Dragon Inn, which is complete inside and out, is excellent (You get a complimentary beer or ginger ale there and can buy some tasty food if you can eat quickly). Even if you are not a LOTR fan, just go! It is so pretty there and they tell you cool behind the scenes stuff that almost anyone would find interesting.
CAMBRIDGE AND HAMILTON
Next we traveled through Cambridge. It had been described as a English-style horse-centric town. The parts we saw were quaint but not spectacular or as picturesque as I expected. There is no need to make a special trip here but you drive right through it if you follow our itinerary so why not enjoy the view as you pass through town.
We did stop in Hamilton and both thought it was a neat place. We were there to check out ArtsPost but unfortunately they were just in the process of changing exhibits so we only saw about half the stuff. The streets around there are very walkable and have a hip vibe. It looks like there is a lot to see and do there. We even happened upon the birthplace of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just like Cambridge, it really isn’t out of the way to visit, so just swing through and give it a looksee.
WAITOMO GLOWWORM CAVE
After that it was down to Waitomo for the world famous glowworm caves. We chose the original, most commercialized, quickest, easiest cave to visit. The guidebooks and the locals tell us that this is the least of all the glowworm caves but that even they are quite good. These people are correct. The experience was spectacular with even a few people around us commenting that it seemed like we were on a movie set. Like much of what we would see in New Zealand, it looked too good to be real, but it was.
The tour itself is about 45 minutes long and involves an extremely knowledgeable guide walking you down into the cathedral of the cave where all kinds of cave-y and worm-y things are explained to you. Next you continue down to a dock for a quiet boat ride with your guide silently pulling you along a crisscrossing cable roadway. It is earie to be moving around in a boat without the sound of a motor or the slap of a paddle but it is essential to prevent the glowworms from becoming scared and turning themselves off.
This tour created a very strong memory for me. Gliding through a silent peaceful blackness with Melanie leaning against me in the back of the boat then looking up at what appeared to be thousands of blue stars peeking through a forest canopy. The glowworms were so bright and numerous! In some parts of the cave system it seemed that they were close enough to touch! It is easy to see why this is the oldest and most popular tourist destination in the country.
We didn’t make it to Marokopa Falls as we had hoped. More road construction slowed us down and we opted to have a better and slower meal at Huhu which was just across the street from our B&B. The little village that surrounds the glowworm caves is tiny and so it really surprised us to have such an upscale establishment hanging off the side of the hill opposite our cottage. Both of our meals were excellent (lamb curry for me and pumpkin risotto salad for Mel) and we split the peanut butter ice cream tower thingy for dessert. Not one item disappointed and, as I think back on it, it is a contender for best meal of the trip.
After that we settled in at the Waitomo Caves B&B Guest Lodge. It is a series of small cottages that climb a hillside with a main house at the bottom for breakfast and check in. There are flowering plants nestled in around all the cottages reminiscent of Hobbiton. The owners are very friendly and we got along nicely with them. The room was clean and good. I had forgotten that it didn’t have A/C which wasn’t an issue on warmish but not overly hot day like ours but something to consider if you plan to visit in the summer. This place is quaint and charming but it is like being in a nice camp cabin – even though the room was well maintained, we did have some bugs, including a few roaches. I don’t think you could find better accommodations in the area and would consider staying here again on a return trip.
In the evening, I made a comment about always wanting to see the Southern Cross (not visible in the Northern Hemisphere) and it just so happened that Colin, one of the owners, used to be a science teacher and he took me up on a nearby hill to point out as many constellations and planets as we could see. We chatted about constellations, teaching, life in New Zealand, England, and Australia. All the while we moved about and had no problem seeing because of a really bright nearly full moon (which made photography out of the question).
After that it was time to be sung to sleep by the nighttime critters, insects, and the Huhu patrons alike.