‘Rings’ spotlights other Down Under

Photo © JAE-HA KIM | jaehakim.com

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
December 15, 2002

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — For decades, the joke around Wellington was that Americans only knew of New Zealand as “that place by Australia.” But thanks to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was filmed in Wellington–New Zealand’s capital–the country is stepping out of Australia’s shadow.

Chicagoans should feel right at home in Wellington, which is situated at the southern tip of the country’s North Island. The city has a reputation for being one of the windiest cities in the world. Not that a little wind would bother the hearty natives. At times, it seemed that all 4 million of them had roles as extras in the films.

Because Wellington isn’t Hollywood–thank goodness–or even Vancouver, it’s a big deal when a film company plants its roots for a couple years and shoots a trio of Oscar-worthy epic films. Even the Starbucks that dot the city got into the act. One placard outside the ubiquitous coffee chain depicted a drawing of actor Elijah Wood, who portrays lead hobbit Frodo, and stated, “Don’t be shire. Come in and claim a Frappuccino … Elijah Would. Caution: Frappuccinos are extremely Hobbit forming.”


“Everyone is pretty respectful of the actors,” says Wellington resident Jeanette Maris, 26. “We’re not a country that’s that impressed by fame. But it is a lot of fun having all this here. There was a time when my friends and I were running into a couple of [the cast members] almost every weekend at some restaurant or club.

“Wellington’s not that big. You don’t have to look that hard to find them.”

John Forde, who served as E! Online’s Wellington correspondent during the filming of the trilogy, remembers seeing various cast members at many of the city’s hottest spots. He even accompanied Sir Ian McKellen (who portrays Gandalf the wizard) to a bar that wasn’t quite what either expected.

“I took Sir Ian to Wellington’s one-and-only gay bar one night only to discover it was Drag King Night,” Forde says. “The place was packed floor to ceiling with lesbians. I remember standing at the entrance thinking, ‘I’m here with one of the most famous gay men in the world, and it’s bloody lesbian night!’ There was even a lesbian performance artist who did a ‘Flashdance’ strip routine, complete with gas welder and boiler suit. He had a fabulous time, though.”

Unfortunately, that infamous bar–Bojangles–has since closed.

Though principal filming has long been completed, director Peter Jackson–a native Kiwi and self-proclaimed perfectionist–rounded up the actors last summer to return to Wellington to do re-shoots for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which opens Dec. 28. He’ll most likely do the same thing next year for the final chapter, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which is scheduled to be released Christmas 2003.

So you could wait until then in the hope of running into your favorite hobbit or elf. Or, you could go now and see for yourself where Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) ate fresh oysters or where Liv Tyler (Arwen) shopped for her latest duds.

Note: The seasons in New Zealand are in reverse to those of the Northern Hemisphere, so if you’re planning on traveling before February, pack light. It’s summer here now.

Blow Bar, 20 Blair St. (64 4 384 1006). Located in central Wellington, this trendy bar has tiny lights dotting the ceiling and a United Nations-worthy sea of flags adorning the place (although that may have been a tribute to the World Cup matches that were being played during the summer). Dressed in a black leather jacket, Andy Serkis–who portrays the once-Hobbitesque Smeagol, who has been transformed into the pathetic creature Gollum–has been known to hold court here.

Brava Bar, 2 Courtenay Place (64 4 384 1159). Frodo himself was a frequent visitor at this favored watering hole. Elijah Wood liked the beer selection and the pretty ladies. He even briefly dated one of the Brava waitresses. Might we add, bravo!

Fidel’s, 234 Cuba St. (64 4 801 6868). Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin) bonded on set and over breakfasts at Fidel’s. The coffee is out of this world but it’s the eggs–over-easy, scrambled or folded into omelets–that are a must-try.

Chow, 45 Tory St. (64 4 382 8585). My small party managed to get in one evening and enjoyed a lovely dinner of pan-Asian food and fried alligator. The udon noodles were tasty, although one of the Japanese women in our group verified that it wasn’t authentic.

Motel Bar, Forresters Lane and Courtenay Place (64 4 384 9084). The locals refer to this nightspot as the Bar That Turned Away Liv Tyler, who portrays Elven beauty Arwen. It wasn’t that the staff didn’t recognize her famous mug. But rather her group was too big to fit into the already full establishment that night, and the Kiwis weren’t about to throw out regulars to make space. They did invite her to come back at a later date, though. No grudges were held.

Zambesi, 107 Customhouse Quay (64 4 472 3638). Tyler’s couture costumes cost as much as $25,000 each, but that didn’t stop the fashion-forward actress from hunting for more designer clothes. The former model favored Zambesi’s eclectic minimalist designs, which are showcased at www.zambesi.co.nz. She also bopped over to Karen Walker, 126 Wakefield St. (64 4 499 3558) to check out the pristine collection (www.karenwalker.com).

Green Parrott Restaurant,16 Taranaki St., Te Aro (64 4 384 6080). Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) feasted on oysters so fresh here he vowed to never eat them anywhere else. While we’re not going to hold it against him if he does, the food here is pretty awesome and reasonably priced, especially considering the strength of the U.S. dollar (about 2 to 1). Mortensen liked this place so much that besides dining frequently–sans shoes–he also had his book-signing here.

Chocolate Fish, 497 A Karaka Bay Rd., Seatoun (64 4 388 2808). Tyler had no problems getting into this gorgeous little seaside cafe. The sweets are delicious, but the scenery makes the trip worthwhile. This was one of the most popular hangouts for the cast. Director Peter Jackson lives in this seaside suburb (as did many of the cast members) and still is a frequent visitor. One day, some tourists hoping to do a bit of star gazing asked the maitre d’ if any of the “Rings” actors were there. He said no, but pointing to a nearby table, he added, “But you can see another Oscar winner.” It was Jane Campion, the New Zealand-born director of “The Piano.”

White House, 232 Oriental Parade, Oriental Parade (64 4 385 8555). The beauty of Wellington is its casual style. One of the city’s better restaurants, the White House has a dress code that is refreshingly lax. Aside from keeping everything covered, anything goes. Various cast members milled around the bar many a night before heading back to their hotels.

Duxton Hotel, 120 Wakefield St. (64 4 473 3900). A few cast members rented homes during their stays, but most of the actors stayed at the Duxton. Located opposite the $317 million Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa–which is worth a visit regardless of whether a celebrity stopped by–the hotel has access to some fine shopping, as well as the Queen’s Wharf Events Centre.

Molly Malones Irish Pub and restaurant, corner of Taranaki and Courtenay Place (64 4 384 2896). After a late night of shooting, Wood and his fellow cast members enjoyed hearing live bands play. The atmosphere is as laidback as an Irish bar can be and although their presence drew their shares of “oohs” and “ahhs,” the actors were pretty much left alone.

Matterhorn, 106 Cuba St. (64 4 384 3359). When the cast wanted to grab a drink and eat something yummy, the Matterhorn was a no-brainer. Polenta and herb-crusted eggplant with kumara (called sweet potatoes in most other countries), orange and mint salad (about $5 in American dollars) is a house specialty. A waiter said Tyler was partial to the the chocolate martini (vodka, creme de cacao)–about $10 (U.S.).


For more information about New Zealand, check out:

www.PureNZ.com and www.wellingtonnz.com.

I also used Let’s Go New Zealand ($19.99, St. Martin’s Press).

New Zealand Facts Capital: Wellington
Age of Independent New Zealand: 54 years
Age of oldest working brewery: 125 years
Age of New Zealand Rugby Football Union: 109 years
Ratio of sheep to people at lambing time: 35 to 1
Drinking age: 18
Summer: December through February
Winter: June to August

Comments (2)

  1. Benjamin says:

    That’s awesome! I see you (in your photo) standing by the sets which I went to see after they went on tour in 2006.

    I loved those books and felt that Weta Digital (the SFX company) did a stellar job of recreating a world which millions had imagined.

    Thanks for the aritcle!

  2. Jae-Ha Kim says:

    Thanks for posting, Benjamin. I, too, loved the books (and the films). It was a lot of fun to see how parts of the trilogy were shot.

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