I never thought I’d get the chance to visit New Zealand–at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve always thought of it as exotic, wild, lush, mountainous, remote–and it is all those things, and more. We only had two and a half days in country on our way back to the States, so first we had to choose which island to visit, and then one or maybe two places to visit. I hear from NZers that a person needs six weeks to see both islands properly, and I believe it; problem is, I don’t think I could be persuaded to leave after six weeks. It took just 60 hours for me to not only fall in love with New Zealand, but to decide that if, for some reason, I had to move out of the US, it would be to that beautiful, friendly country. Apparently, my reaction is a common one–JP read that New Zealand has very tough immigration laws (yes, he’s in love, too).
So after flying into Auckland from Sydney, we hopped into a rental car and headed two hours south to Matamata. We chose this town because it is home to Hobbiton, the set of The Shire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As it was about 5pm by the time we got there, we hunted around for a room to rent and, due to two funerals, a wedding, and a once-every-three-years flower show, found that they were all booked. As Matamata is a town of only 8,000 people, there weren’t many rooms to be had in the first place. The owner of one motel that we went to was very kind and called around to homestays (B&Bs) in the area with no luck. Then she kind of cocked her head at us and said, “We’ve got a room in our basement that you can have for 60 dollars, if you like it.” We assured her that, sight-unseen, we would love it. While I would love to shout her praises to the world and advertise her motel in the most glowing terms, I know that she did us a great favor by offering the secret “Emergency Room,” so I shall keep it a (semi) secret by not revealing the particulars to Googlers.
After settling in, we asked about a good restaurant. Without hesitation, our innkeeper told us that we absolutely MUST eat at Workman’s, an award-winning cafe. She even called for a reservation for us–when the phone picked up at the restaurant and our innkeeper identified herself, I could hear a merry “Hello, dahling!” at the other end. There was no room for us until eight, so we took the opportunity to walk around the main streets of the town until it was our turn. Matamata (pronounced “Metameta” by the locals) is the coolest little town–great little restaurants and bakeries, clothing stores, stationery and gift shops, a nice bookstore, a spa and two gyms, and John’s favorite: several farm-machinery dealers (no, I’m serious. We spent as much time contemplating the typical single-hydraulic shafts of NZ tractors vs. the double-hydraulics that are more common here as we did window-shopping elsewhere in the town). Matamata is in the heart of dairy country and appears to be the gathering place for folks from miles around, so we saw as much farm equipment there as in Idaho.
At eight, we strolled in to Workman’s, a smallish, intimate, and rather bizarrely-decorated cafe. It was housed in what used to be two shops, so it was nearly bisected by one long wall, decorated on one side with freestanding ashtrays and on the other by old mirrors. Another wall displayed old radios and cameras, and a fourth was plastered in greeting cards from customers from all over. In the center of it all was Syd, the owner/manager/waiter/cashier/entertainer. To be sure, there were plenty of other waitstaff and workers, but Syd seemed to be everywhere; he sat us at a table, then in lieu of a menu, he pulled over a sandwichboard made of blackboard upon which was written the evening’s menu, plunked down at the table with us, and helped us choose our appetizer–we shared a salad with a wonderful fruity dressing, and veggie fritters, which were divine. Our silverware was not placed on the table, but brought out with each course, wrapped in napkins and set upright in a cool old tall sardine can with Russian writing on it. As we ate, we watched Syd: glass of wine in hand, he’d sit down at various diners’ tables for a few minutes, talking and laughing and calling all the men “mate” and all the women “dahling.” He seemed to know everyone; I watched him introduce a two men at one table to two women at another table, and sit between the two tables for a minute to get them all talking before he left for the register to ring up another diner’s check. He was fascinating, funny, and friendly, and I wish we could have his double open a restaurant in Emmett–I’d go every day.
For the main meal, I ordered a Thai red curry chicken dish that was nothing short of rapturous; John’s was a beef filet with a creamy burnt peppercorn sauce that he raved over. Then for dessert, I asked the waiter to surprise me with his favorite dessert. What he brought out to me was a rich chocolate cake, which he had warmed up, “piled all the extra icing bits on,” and topped with fresh cream. I tell you, after eating four evening meals in posh Sydney restaurants (thank you, HP!), this little place in this little town had them all beat by a mile, both in the food they served and in the atmosphere. Even though tips aren’t expected or even encouraged in New Zealand, we left a hearty one and resolved to send a card to add to the others on the Card Wall.
By then we were tired, and headed to bed. In the morning, I got up early and went on a walkabout, looking at people’s gardens and enjoying the feel of fall in May. After John got up, we checked out and headed downtown for breakfast–we were still feeling kinda full from the night before, so we just had some small-but-tasty scones with jam and fresh cream. We bought our tour tickets for The Shire and boarded the bus. Our tour guide explained that New Line Cinema’s contract with the farmer that gave permission to use his land specified that everything had to be torn down and restored to its former state; however, the rainy season precluded finishing the job, and, after letting his neighbors tour what was left of the set, the farmer struck a deal with New Line to allow him to create a tour of the remaining site. Here is a picture of most of the structures that are left, with Bag End at the top left:
The contract between the farmer and New Line Cinemas doesn’t allow anyone to recreate The Shire beyond what is there now (something about artistic rights), but what is left is still pretty cool. Here we are in front of Bag End:
Here’s the Party Tree (from Bilbo’s birthday party) as viewed from inside Bag End:
We learned all kinds of cool stuff about how the movie was made, how tempermental and exacting Peter Jackson was, and about the secrecy involving the sets. The nondisclosure contract made it so that the farmer couldn’t tell his neighbors what was going on at his place–he told them that it was army maneuvers! And New Zealand created a no-fly zone over the farmer’s property so that people couldn’t satisfly their curiosity from the air, either. Employees caught taking pictures were fired and their film and camera confiscated. Sheesh.
After the tour, John humored me and we went to the Flower Show, which was like a mini mini mini Chelsea Flower Show (yep, I got to see that one five years ago) where designers get all artsy, interpreting scenes and ideas with flowers. Here are a few of my favorite entries; first, part of a scene from Swan Lake:
. . . second, The Tooth Fairy:
You can’t see it very well, but the whole carpet and rug are made from flowers, and the patchwork quilt on the bed is also flowers. Kewl. Here is another one I liked, the Artiste:
As you can imagine, the whole building smelled wonderful and was an absolute feast for the eyes, as well. It was Providential that this once-every-three-years show was going on while we were there, so of course attendance was mandatory.
One last stop in Matamata for lunch (fish and chips with malted vinegar–dee lish), then on to Rotorua for Mauri culture and boiling mud pots. I’ll write about that next.