Kia ora: Matamata

The 'H's: Hobbit holes, horses and heartfelt hospitality, writes Elisabeth Easther.

Hobbit holes from the movie set of 'The Hobbit' in Matamata. Photo / Christine Cornege
Hobbit holes from the movie set of 'The Hobbit' in Matamata. Photo / Christine Cornege

Where is it? In the heart of the Waikato, two hours' drive from Auckland, one hour to Rotorua and 45 minutes to either Tauranga or Hamilton.

Origin of name: Maori for Headland, Matamata was the name of a pa established in 1830 by Ngati Haua chief, Te Waharoa who built on a ridge of high ground above the marshy valley of the Waitoa River.

Population: 13,000 (town and country).

Town slogan: Racing Ahead - although that doesn't refer to the boom in visitor numbers, thanks to Lord of the Rings tourism. Rather it's a nod to the multimillion-dollar horse-racing empires surrounding the town.

Town mascot: The "Welcome to Hobbiton" facility on Broadway is the most obvious icon although the clock tower is beautiful too, especially at night when it's lit up.

Tower power: In 1881 Josiah Firth built a tower at his property now known as the Firth Tower Museum - Josiah was quite the man about town and often referred to as the Duke of Matamata.

Famous locals: Dame Cath Tizard, Maurice Williamson, Judith Collins and Sue Moroney - it would appear that Matamata people are right into politics. Also, Sir Dryden Spring, Laureate of the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame, is a Matamata resident, ditto former jockey Lance O'Sullivan and Casey Kopua (nee Williams).

Best website: matamatanz.co.nz.

Biggest business: J Swap contracts all over the North Island and is involved with everything from roading to stock feed. Hobbiton Movie Set Tours keeps locals busy, ditto the racing industry, and don't forget the cows.

Source of pride: Matamata's very chuffed about its connection to Hobbiton and the newly built Matamata i-Site Gatehouse is proof they'll be trading on that hairy feat for some time to come.

Town fiestas: The Breeders Stakes every year in February is major; the Festival of Flowers every three years is blooming spectacular; the Sculpture Symposium is happening every March and is shaping up to be a big event.

Here for a short time: Visit Hobbiton and take a movie set tour or, if you're trying to kick the hobbit habit, try gliding - the updrafts here are legendary.

Popular reason to stop: People love taking photos of the Matamata i-Site Gatehouse.

Best place to take the kids: Opal Hot Springs is great for families.

Best playground: The Domain offers all the usual swings and slides fun, great for stretching the limbs.

Best facilities: The toilets at the end of the Hetana St carpark are incredibly well tended, the cleaner there is so dedicated she puts fresh flowers in vases each day and sometimes there's even music.

Best walk: The Wairere Falls Walk through beautiful bush in the Kaimai Ranges drops over the Okauia Fault in two stages passing through groves of native trees offering spectacular views of the falls. Other super walks include the Kaimai Summit Loop Track (approx 20 minutes) and the Centennial Drive Walks (approx 15 minutes) that goes through the botanical park and the town centre. Admire a wide variety of trees from all over the world.

Best view: Either from the Firth Tower Museum or the top of the Kaimai Ranges.

Best swim: Opal Hot Springs or for all weather swimming the Matamata Sports Centre has great covered pools.

Best museum: Firth Tower Museum sits in the most amazing estate ringed by mature trees. Aside from the historical exhibits there's the old homestead, post office, jail, schoolhouse and the church makes a perfectly pastoral location for weddings.

Tops for coffee: Everyone here serves quality coffee, but check out Workman's Cafe and Bar, owned by Syd Workman. They've won lots of awards and Syd is a real character.

Best food: There are loads of cafes, bars and restaurants including Thai, Indian, Turkish and an Italian place is opening soon.

Wet your whistle: The Redoubt Bar and Eatery and the Horse & Jockey Inn are good for drinks and do delicious food too.

Best adventure: Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, if you hadn't already got that memo. Or how about turning your hand to aviation at the Middle Earth Flying School?

Best kept secret: Most of the locals signed confidentiality agreements when Peter Jackson was shooting his films, so the best kept secrets are going to stay that way.

When a local has visitors staying: They take them to Hobbiton for a stroll among the 44 hobbit holes, a browse in the gift shop and a drink in The Green Dragon Inn. Recently they held their first evening tour complete with a banquet.

Visitors say: What's the Matamata?

Locals say: Nothing's the Matamata, although be warned, our town is hobbit forming.

Thanks to the Matamata Public Relations Association, they really love their town.

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