Welcome to Middle Earth, downunder! Since the filming of the Peter Jackson trilogy took place in New Zealand, thousands of international tourists have made the pilgrimage to this tiny South Pacific country to walk the earth that hobbits trod. New Zealand even dubbed their Minister for the Arts the 'Minister for Middle Earth' in recognition of the enormous effect the films have had on the lives of New Zealand people.
New Zealand lies to the south east of Australia, is about the same size as the United Kingdom, yet has only recently recorded an all time population high of four million people (about the same number that take the Tube every day). It's known for its wide open spaces, majestic mountains, fine beaches, and hospitable people.
When to go
Travel to New Zealand between December and early March to enjoy a mild but pleasant summer. However, if you're interested in skiing or winter sports, pack your woolies and plan to arrive from July to September.
What to do - North Island
If you're a Lord Of The Rings buff, first port of call must be Hobbiton - close to the rural town of Matamata. Most international flights to New Zealand terminate in Auckland, so spend a few days in New Zealand's 'city of sails' before you head off.
Auckland is New Zealand's largest city and boasts some incredible beaches, bars and a simple laid back lifestyle to boot. You can choose from a range of basic or upmarket accommodation... try the Ascot Parnell for a great mid-range B&B with all the benefits of a city centre luxury hotel (rooms start at £66 for a double) or cross the harbour to beautiful Birkenhead and stay at Stafford Villa for some pampering starting at £100 a night.
Spend a day shopping in Auckland's very cool Ponsonby Road, try the designer stores in Newtown and Queen Street, then explore Auckland's Hauraki Gulf on a day trip to Waiheke Island - a wee island packed with vineyards and restaurants.
Although flying domestically is easy and cheap on the pound, some of New Zealand's best scenery can only be enjoyed by road. Hiring a car in New Zealand is relatively cheap and hassle-free. A four-door Toyota Corolla or similar should cost you around £16 a day - unlimited mileage, tax and insurance included. Try Apex.
The AA can help you with road maps, and you're on your way to Hobbiton. Such is the interest in the hobbit holes and fields of 'The Shire', created just for Lord Of The Rings, that tour companies have been set up to guide travellers through the site. Hobbiton Tours should be your first port of call.
Head further south east to the stunning vineyards of the Hawkes Bay and the attractive art deco city of Napier, then check out Wellington, New Zealand's capital.
Once upon a time, the only remarkable thing about Wellington was its propensity for earthquakes and a whole lotta wind. Now, it's also known as home to not only LOTR director Peter Jackson (head out to Scorching Bay to see if you can spot his house) and the incredible Weta production team, but also some of New Zealand's finest bars and restaurants, a number of uber-funky clothes designers, the national museum, Te Papa, and New Zealand's personable female Prime Minister (and avid mountaineer) Helen Clark.
Time your visit around New Zealand's national day of celebration, Waitangi Day (on 6 February) and Wellington comes alive with music, food and a fair bit of inebriation. The One Love festival, organised annually by independent radio station Radio Active is a must-do, with local and national dance, dub, and funk bands playing live by the water, lots of stuff for kids to do and a traditional kiwi barbecue if you're peckish.
Year-round, shop at ZFA and Starfish for original, beautiful New Zealand fashion, eat drink and dance at the LOTR stars' fave hangout The Matterhorn and be pampered by the ex-London beauty team at Pure Beauty in Oriental Parade. Liv Tyler was a fan of their super-gorgeous Margaret Hema products - a must-try for any treatment junkie.
What to do - South Island
Wellington is only a hop, skip and jump to the South Island. If you're sick of flying, try taking a ferry to Picton, the South Island's northernmost port (some ferries also take cars). From Picton, you're able to explore the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. Catch a water taxi to the Lazy Fish www.lazyfish.co.nz for a few days of luxury in one of the most remote locations you can possibly imagine, or if you're on a budget, try the Lochmara Lodge, also accessible only by water. Dorm rooms are from £9 a night, private rooms from £27 per double.
If you were intrigued by the elaborate costuming in LOTR, head to Nelson - home to the Wearable Arts Awards, held every September. Here, fashion designers (many of whom were involved in costuming for the trilogy) compete for coveted prizes. It's a weird, wacky and wonderful event held in a beautiful beach city.
Further south, discover Queenstown, tourist mecca and place of exceptional beauty in almost every department. It has mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, forests... you name it. Queenstown and the surrounding area was home to several LOTR locations... the local school was used as a headquarters for auditions and local people were transformed into Orcs and the people of Rohan.
Take a cruise on the old lake ship The Earnslaw for a glimpse of the mountain used as Amon Hen (known as Closeburn to locals). The Remarkables skifield was also used to film those stunning scenes with sexy Aragorn traipsing down the slopes of Dimrill Dale. You could actually ski the same slopes as Viggo Mortensen in winter, but if you visit in summer time the best option is to take a guided tour via helicopter for absolutely breathtaking views. www.helitours.co.nz will send you skywards for some real Kiwi magic.
Finally, make sure you take a side trip to Arrowtown, just 20 minutes by road from Queenstown. A historic gold mining village, this area was popular with Chinese fortune-seekers in the 1860s and has retained many original features from this time. Cute cobbled streets, stone cottages and the tiny local bakeries, museums and pubs invoke a sense of New Zealand history you won't find anywhere else in the country.
The New Zealand Tourism Board can help with general info about locations, accommodation and activities. Flying to New Zealand will cost upwards of £500, depending on season. Try Bridge The World for the latest deals - they're an Australia/NZ specialist - or contact Air New Zealand. Flights route through the USA or South East Asia, although Emirates Air has recently introduced a good economy fare routed through Dubai and Sydney.
The GB pound is consistently in a strong position against the New Zealand dollar so be prepared to shop, eat and travel cheaply within New Zealand. Most items will cost you less than half of what you would spend in the UK.