The Bay of Plenty, where we were based on the east coast of the North Island, is in a land of plenty. We found a prosperous and thriving economy, with the New Zealand dollar strong and almost at parity with the Australian dollar. The prices were downright expensive for us Americans. Although wages could sometimes be better, according to our friends, and the real estate market has perhaps not fully recovered from the worldwide crisis beginning in 2008, the nation is by and large enjoying a season of abundance. Neil and Jill took us on a number of day trips, all of which were punctuated by the religious observance of morning coffee or tea (as in mid-morning, not to be confused with the cup of tea first thing in the morning) and afternoon coffee. And let me tell you, the Kiwis know how to do coffee and tea. Starbucks are few and far between, and instead there are numerous coffee shops and cafes with not only a “proper cuppa” balwut a large selection of delectable baked goods. As you might expect, these are also pricey for American travelers, but are more than worth being built into the budget. (For coffee lovers: our friends would ays order a "flat white," what seemed to this non-coffee drinker to be espresso with a thin layer of foamed milk on top. We had just been back in the States a few days when we noticed Starbucks had begun to offer the flat white, which has been part of Aussie and Kiwi coffee shop fare for some time.)
These day trips included “The Mount,” the nickname given to an extinct volcano just outside Tauranga whose official name is Mount Maunganui. Becky and I climbed to the top, where there is a dizzying view of the beaches and the gorgeous Pacific waters below. We discovered that if you make it to the top, you then have to get back down to the bottom, but it is more than worth the shin splints or sore knees from the descent.
If we were there to see a most remarkable corner of God’s creation, we were also there to reconnect with our dearest friends from our days in Amsterdam, where two of our sons and one of their daughters were born. So it was important to see Neil and Jill’s home towns and meet their relatives and closest friends. These afforded us not only wonderful visits, meals and cups of tea, but also a visit to the largest goat farm in the country and one of the largest dairy farms. Yes, New Zealand has been known for years as a leading wool producer, with the sheep population far outnumbering the humans; but for several years now the dairy industry has surpassed the sheep and wool industry, and New Zealand pumps out milk to a large number of trading partners, including China.
These visits to friends and family also provided visits to some great areas such as Whakatane, called the sunshine capital of the north island (east coast) and the black sand beaches of Raglan on the west coast. We once made the road trip from west coast to east, at basically the same latitude, in almost exactly two hours.
Being avid JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson fans, we considered it necessary to visit Hobbiton, the movie set where all the fabled Shire scenes from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films were shot. The little village is situated about 10 minutes outside the town of Matamata, in the heart of North Island farm country. While we found no drive in New Zealand boring, the area around Matamata was not particularly noteworthy until we had almost arrived at Hobbiton, where the rolling hills became deeper and the greens somehow became greener, if that were possible. Location manager Doug Comer, who recently passed away, scouted the length and breadth of the North Island by helicopter, and instructed the pilot to touch down on this pristine sheep farm where he knocked on the door and was answered by a Mr. Alexander, who was not particularly pleased to be taken away from the All Blacks (New Zealand's legendary rugby team) on TV. He must have eventually gotten over the inconvenience and has now retired a wealthy man in Matamata, having turned the farm over to his son.
It is impossible not to appreciate the creative and insistent attention to detail at Hobbiton. I don't have the space here to describe the countless ways this is manifest, but the most memorable example is the artificial tree that overlooks Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit hole. With a skeleton of steel, its 250,000 leaves were manually attached. The tree was then painted, only for the crew to learn that it wasn't quite the right color green. They then repainted the tree, making it the most expensive tree in the country, in terms of man hours, with a value of half a million NZ dollars (about USD 415,000).
Whether the visit to the Shire is actually worth the hefty $75 entrance fee (~USD 62.50) is subject to debate, when you realize that just a little more than that gets you a whole day at, say, Disneyworld. For us, it was one of those things we felt we had to experience once, which will do us just fine. In any case, New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson's company which owns Hobbiton, probably knows they just get most of their visitors only once.