This article appeared in the Escape travel supplement of News Corp Australia newspapers and websites in September 2016.
When you are born and raised in New Zealand, the great beauty of its natural environment doesn’t really register with you.You see places and appreciate them of course, but never in the awestruck, lost-for-words way of visitors from overseas. We take the loveliness of our country for granted, and many of us are guilty of seeing more of the rest of the world than our homeland.
In August, a press tour by Tourism New Zealand gave me the opportunity of seeing my own land as if through the eyes of someone from far away. Standing amidst the adjective-defying scenery of the Dart Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park, I experienced the beauty of New Zealand in a way that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. No wonder film companies from around the world flock to make movies here.
By John Corbett
Attention all parents of young families: Disney’s charming reimagining of its classic 1977 movie, Pete’s Dragon (now showing) is set to unleash a wave of pester-power. Along with requests for the (very cute) soft toy, your Google-savvy littlies will soon campaign to visit the real-life places where Elliott, the endearingly aerodynamically-challenged dragon, swoops and flies.
There is good news on three fronts. Firstly, Pete’s Dragon was shot entirely in New Zealand, so it’s just across the Ditch. Secondly, the four official New Zealand movie locations (Rotorua, Wellington, Queenstown and Tapanui) are all in or close to main centres and thirdly, they’re surrounded by other family-friendly attractions. Here, from north to south, is a look at them.
“DEEP IN THE FOREST THERE DRAGONS WILL BE”
In Pete’s Dragon, New Zealand stands in effortlessly for the US Pacific Northwest, right down to the vast and mysterious redwood forests that are the home of Elliott and his orphaned ten-year-old friend, Pete.
Cue the Redwoods Treewalk in Rotorua, a major tourism centre 230-kilometres southeast of Auckland – and just 45 minutes from the wildly popular Hobbiton movie-set village in The Lord of the Rings. Many of the forest scenes in Pete’s Dragon were shot around Rotorua and the Treewalk vividly evokes the timeless green world in which Elliott can make himself invisible at will.
Already a smash hit with kids, the new Treewalk attraction is an aerial walkway over half a kilometre long suspended six to 12 metres above the forest floor. German-designed, it is impeccably engineered, very safe and very eco-sensitive, with lots of natural history information thrown in.
There are more redwoods across town at Mount Ngongotaha, where aerial gondolas glide 487 metres up the mountainside to the well-appointed Skyline complex. Three luge rides (Scenic, Intermediate and Advanced) take thrillseekers downhill through redwood-scented glades and back up on a chairlift. Skyline’s fully-licensed Stratosfare buffet restaurant has spectacular views over Rotorua and is good value for money.
To soak away the day’s exertions, Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa offers plenty of thermal bathing options; try the open-air Lakeside Pools which hover blissfully around warm-bath temperature. And no Rotorua visit is complete without seeing the thermal activity at Te Puia. Just as impressive as the geysers, mud pools and fumaroles is the sleekly modern tourism enterprise created by its indigenous Māori owners. An early-evening cultural performance followed by a hangi (Māori earth oven) dinner and buffet is a daily highlight.
ENCOUNTER WETAS IN WELLINGTON
“Be creative and make cool stuff” reads the souvenir T-shirt I bought at Weta Workshop in Wellington, a 70-minute flight or five-and-a-half-hour drive south from Rotorua. There is certainly a ton of cool movie costumes, characters and memorabilia on display in the daily Weta Cave Workshop studio tours. (Btw, a weta is a big, creepy-looking New Zealand insect that is basically harmless).
From humble beginnings in a motley collection of buildings near Wellington Airport, the multiple Academy Award-winning production house for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies has grown into a global behemoth that works on dozens of feature film and design projects every year. Weta’s digital division created the impressive CGI and other effects in Pete’s Dragon, including the 15 million CGI hairs of Elliott’s fur (big, green, friendly dragons of course do not have scales). Several forest scenes were shot ten minutes’ drive away at Mount Victoria Lookout.
Movie-making aside, Wellington offers visitors a serious dose of urban cool, with a vibrant coffee, craft beer and artisan food culture and more top-notch dining than you can shake a wizard’s wand at. For an absorbing look at the city’s pedestrian-friendly waterfront, cultural precinct and inner-city scene, take a small-group Zest Food Tour.
ZOOM AROUND QUEENSTOWN
An hour southwest from Wellington as the dragon (or Air New Zealand A320) flies is the alpine resort town of Queenstown, whose jaw-dropping lake, mountain and river gorge scenery appears throughout Pete’s Dragon. Local tour company Nomad Safaris can take you to spots like Windy Point and Peninsula Hill where key aerial scenes were filmed, and flying and zooming experiences here are definitely at the fore.
At AJ Hackett Bungy at Kawarau Bridge (an official Pete’s Dragon location), watch 12-year-olds and little old ladies put you to shame while you screw up your courage to take the 43-metre plunge. Less terrifying, the adjacent 130-metre-long Kawarau Zipline delivers a thrilling evocation of what it’s like to fly like a dragon down a river gorge.
There’s more flying and zooming on a Dart River Wilderness Jet Boat Tour that takes you deep into the adjective-defying scenery of Mount Aspiring National Park, another Pete’s Dragon location and the setting for many other movies including The Lord of the Rings’ Misty Mountains of Mordor. Standing on the wide, braided bed of the Dart River, you understand why so many movie companies film here: the light is magical and the landscapes fill you with childlike awe.
GO RETRO IN TAPANUI
Last, if you are road-tripping, a two-and-a-half-hour drive east from Queenstown (or two hours west from Dunedin) takes you to the agreeably retro township of Tapanui – “Millhaven” in Pete’s Dragon. Here, where Elliott follows Pete when he is “rescued” from the forest, the movie’s heart-warming themes of love, loyalty and belonging reach a peak. It’s the perfect place to end, or start, a great family holiday.
Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar and other carriers offer frequent services from Australian capital cities to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin. There are daily Air New Zealand and Jetstar connections to NZ regional airports.
Redwoods Treewalk treewalk.co.nz
Te Puia tepuia.com
Skyline Gondola, Restaurant & Luge skyline.co.nz
Polynesian Spa Blissful natural hot mineral bathing and luxury spa treatments. polynesianspa.co.nz
Regent of Rotorua An elegant, centrally situated boutique hotel accommodation with award-winning dining.
Okere Falls Store Classic Kiwiana décor and excellent café food. okerefallsstore.co.nz
Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar skyline.co.nz
Te Puia Try the hangi! tepuia.com
The Weta Cave wetaworkshop.com
Zest Food Tours zestfoodtours.co.nz
Novotel Wellington 4-star-plus accommodation close to the waterfront, shopping and museums. novotel.com
Pōneke by Mojo Waterfront café with menus by leading NZ chef, Martin Bosley. mojocofee.co.nz/location/Poneke
Matterhorn Dining and drinking for grown-ups. A Wellington institution. matterhorn.co.nz
Basque A rockin’ rooftop tapas bar with delicious food and great ambience. basque.co.nz
Coco at the Roxy Serves up Art Deco décor and flavours from around the globe. cocoattheroxy.co.nz
Fork and Brewer Savour the city’s flourishing craft-beer culture. forkandbrewer.co.nz
AJ Hackett Bungy and Kawarau Zipline bungy.co.nz
Dart River Wilderness Jet dartriverjetsafaris.com
Nomad Safaris nomadsafaris.co.nz
Novotel Queenstown Lakeside Well situated for restaurants, shopping and the lakefront esplanade. novotel.com
Botswana Butchery Top-class fine-dining for grown-ups. botswanabutchery.co.nz
Blue Kanu Delicious, innovative Asia-Pacific cuisine in stylish surroundings. bluekanu.co.nz
Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door Taste Central Otago’s world-famous pinot noir and aromatic white wines. amisfield.co.nz
Photos: Disney; John Corbett; rotoruanz