Friday, October 28, 2016

Despite having not read the books or watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Hobbit Trilogy movies, I decided to visit New Zealand’s main attraction on the north island.  To get to the Hobbiton movie set, you have a few choices: find a separate tour provider that has Hobbiton on the itinerary and an official guide joins your bus when you get there, take a bus to the site from official pickup spots in either Rotorua or Matamata, or drive there yourself.  My suggestion is skip busses and organized tours, rent a car, stay the night somewhere nearby, and sign up for the 9am tour that leaves from Shires Rest.  No tour group ahead of you so you basically are only competing for photos with your lot of 40.  Better yet, skip the crowded day scene and see if they are doing one of the evening dinner events at the Green Dragon.  I was told that not only do you get the escorted tour of Hobbiton for the first hour, but then you get to feast and are given a lantern to take back out into Hobbiton after dinner.  I thought the dinners were only on Wednesday and Sunday, per the website, but my guide told me there were other nights as well.  I was super bummed because I could have gone! 

Hobbiton is the actual movie set designed by Peter Jackson to be used in the movies.  Your guide will point out specific details that he insisted upon only to have the detail show up on the screen for seconds.  When I think about how the total run time of all 6 extended versions of the movies is over 20 hours, my eyes pop out.  That is some attention to detail!  There are 39 hobbit holes in total, plus the party green, a mill, and the Green Dragon pub where you can actually enter and order a tasty beverage.  Of course you don’t have a whole lot of time to sip and savor since you’ll eventually be told you have to leave to catch the bus back.  Yep, the set is on private farm land, so there is absolutely no unescorted access.   Which makes sense.  There are some pretty intense fans of these movies.  We were told the story of one German fan who came dressed as Bilbo Baggins, then refused to leave the Green Dragon.  It took hours for the staff to get him to leave, after which he said he was leaving because he had an adventure to start, which I think is a reference to the movie.

Most of the hobbit holes were built to size, as you can see from the perspective in the photo below.  They were also built as either facades in the hill with just a small bit of room inside the door or actual filming interiors like the main house - Bag End.  You can tell the occupation of the hobbit often by the goods for sale on the tables out front.  The main homes of lead characters were scaled up for their heights to accommodate that they were over 5'4", or hobbit height.

Anyway, yes it is a 2 hour drive from Auckland, but think of it as a way to get out of the city and do a nice drive into the country.  The north island is populated with hundreds of farms, mostly cows it seems in comparison to the predominantly sheep fields in the south island.  While you are down in the area, consider taking an extra hour to drive further south to visit the geothermal springs around Rotorua.  It won’t smell good if you're not a fan of sulfur, but the colors of the Champagne Spring at Wai-O-Tapu are somewhat similar to the rainbow at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.   I suspect the difference is the depth of the drop off after the first orange shelf.

Also check out the Blue Springs north of Matamata.  The color of the water is so clear, it’s like the plantlife are captured in resin.  The springs are about a 10 minute walk up a designated path randomly in the middle of pure farm land.

Posted on Friday, October 28, 2016 by Julie


Thursday, October 13, 2016

I joined Instagram a couple of years ago and started to slowly discover a group of landscape photographers who consistently produced some stunning images.  As I looked a little deeper into their portfolio, I realized some of them had a common thread.  They were all primarily shooting in Alberta's Banff National Park.  And it was there my obsession with the bright turquoise Canadian lakes was born.  After a too long period of lusting after these photos, I finally made it to see the beauty with my own eyes!  My adventure started with a few days in Jasper, as I talked about in a previous post.  It was a great idea to get warmed up for the big leagues down in Banff.  First stop, THE lake of lakes in my opinion:  Moraine Lake!  Here are a few shots at different times of the day.  Sadly, the clouds and lightning started to roll in before I could get all my Milky Way shots completed.  Best time for the bright blue, besides heading to the park in July and August, is late morning when the sun's angle maximizes the illuminating rock flour in the water.

Moraine Lake's popularity on social media has created a serious traffic and parking problem in the area.  Every day I was there, the road to the lake would often close by 10am and not reopen until 4pm or 5pm because parking is very limited and it was not safe to park along the road.  While the rockpile is the destination for visitors wanting iconic photos, there are several trails around the lake that appeal to varying levels of skill and interest.  The easiest trail is the shoreline trail to the right of the lodge. Just down the hill from Moraine Lake is an equally popular destination: Lake Louise.  With Victoria Glacier across the lake from the luxury Fairmont Lake Louise hotel, you're in for some fantastic views.  The same crowding issues exist at Louise, and often they will close the road leading up from town to both lakes, forcing tourists to head down the highway to a designated shuttle stop/parking area.

Heading into the actual park, another popular lake is the oddly shaped Peyto Lake, named after an early park warden of Banff National Park.  There is a designated viewing platform as well as other, better views of the lake along hiking trails.  Yes!  It is REALLY THAT BLUE!

You can't miss the other lakes that are right along the Icefields Parkway:  Bow Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, etc.  Take advantage of pullouts on the road to stop and soak it all in.

While I came to Banff for the blue water, my absolute favorite experience was hiking to Sunshine Meadows located in the back country area of a local ski resort.  It is also a starting point for hikes heading toward the Canadian Rockies' tallest mountain in the southern range:  Mt. Assiniboine

There is a viewing platform that is ideal for photos and meal breaks at the top of a peak.  The afternoon I was there, the clouds were at their best creating dancing light on the bright green fields.  And the visibility was so good that there was a clear view to see Mt. Assiniboine peeking through (photobombing) two other peaks.  The mountain had the perfect amount of snow to make it a near replica of the matterhorn ride at Disneyland.

Oh hey, there's Lego Julie taking photos too!

In addition to lakes and high elevation hikes, Banff National Park also has some great rivers that are rushing through beautifully shaped gorges.  You really need 5-7 days to enjoy it all.

Normally when I go somewhere with high expectations, I am somewhat disappointed.  I can say with absolute certainty that my expectations were sky high for Banff, and I left with them exceeded. When can I go back!!??

For lodging, we stayed in the town of Lake Louise, and it was the perfect location.  There were several restaurants there for dinner and a few smaller shops for breakfast.  

Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2016 by Julie