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There’s nothing like a winter road trip to break up bleak days. My son loves the Hobbit, so we decided it was time to head to the Hobbiton film set in Matamata. To make a weekend of it, we added a night in the spa town of Te Aroha, and threw in our padded shorts so we could cycle part of the Hauraki Rail Trail.
The first most important thing for a comfy road-trip, is the right vehicle. We loved the stylish Commodore Sport Wagon from Europcar, booked through VroomVroomVroom. There was so much room in the back for all our bits and pieces. The leather interior was luxurious, and I loved the reversing camera and blind spot indicators. Safety first!
Te Aroha is a comfortable 50 minute drive from the city of Hamilton, or a longer one hour thirty drive from the Auckland Airport. It’s a historic spa town made famous in Victorian times. Since the 1880s people have visited to soak in the healing, natural mineral ‘soda’ waters. The town has developed around the spa complex, featuring a central domain and park with beautifully preserved weather-board buildings. The town is dominated by the land mark of Mt Te Aroha. This brooding mountain was in full view when we arrived on the Saturday afternoon, but lost in cloud by Sunday. Adventurous types can take a walk to the summit. It’s a four hour return trip, with views to Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki on a fine day.
We stayed at Aroha Mountain Lodge, a gorgeous villa on the lower slopes of the mountain, at the entrance to the spa complex. They have beautifully appointed en-suite bedrooms in the lodge, with shared lounge and kitchen facilities. Hosts Greg and Linda also offer the Chocolate Box, a very cute self-catering cottage with three bedrooms.
Time slots at the mineral spa need to be booked in advance. We started our evening at the Te Aroha Leisure Pools, a chlorinated 20 metre family pool; then wrapped up in towels and did the chilly dash 200 metres down a lane to the Te Aroha Spa. We had a half hour session in a private room with its own toilet, shower, and of course, the cedar hot tub. The fresh-piped soda water needed to be diluted with some from the cold tap to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Ah bliss! The Victorians had it right. A good soak is one of life’s simple pleasures. After a session in the Te Aroha pools, the high silica minerals leave a rejuvenating film on your skin. To get the maximum benefit, you shouldn’t shower straight away, but let the minerals stay on your skin.
Te Aroha is part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, one of the tracks on New Zealand’s Cycle Trail network. The trail joins the towns of Thames, Waihi, Paeroa and Te Aroha in a ride that can take up to three days. A great idea is to ride the 21 km Paeroa to Te Aroha section, and finish with a hot soak. We made a short ride of it, just a 30 minute out and back from the town. The trail is flat and takes in some classic Waikato farming countryside.
By the time we finished, the cafes in town were full of lycra-clad cyclists guzzling flat whites, so we headed off to our next stop in Matamata. It’s an agricultural service town just 30 minutes’ drive from Te Aroha. Its main claim to fame is as the gateway to the Hobbiton movie set, however it does have a couple of exceptional cafes; with Eat. Urban Foodstuffs, which serves innovative café food, and offers takeaway deli items. There’s also the long-standing funky Workmans café, which does great breakfasts and brunches.
We were there for Hobbiton though, so we got ourselves over to the thatched roof Matamata i-site building and booked in. Even on a drizzly winter’s afternoon, places on the tour were filling up. You can catch a shuttle to the attraction, or drive yourself which takes around twenty minutes’ drive time. It is necessary to book on a tour, it is no good trying to drive by, as no part of the set is visible from the road.
The tour is conducted on a bus, and our guide was a very pleasant and knowledgeable local young man. His stories gave great insight into the care and attention Peter Jackson had put into the movies. My favourite story involved the oak tree that stands on the hill above Bilbo’s home, Bag End. In order to find the perfect oak tree, Peter Jackson had scoured the countryside in his helicopter. Once he located one that was up to the job, he persuaded the farmer who owned it to let him remove it. This was achieved by dividing the tree into four sections, and helicoptering it back to the set. The tree didn’t survive the move, and had no leaves. The next step was to import silk leaves for the tree from Taiwan, which were then individually attached.
The tour finished at the atmospheric Green Dragon Pub, with complimentary tea, coffee or ginger beer. From there, it was time to take a completely expected journey from the green of the Waikato, back home.
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