8 great movie locations

8 great: movie locations in Aotearoa

The cinematic qualities and unique light of New Zealand’s landscapes have attracted moviemakers from around the world. Wendy Montrose checks out eight of the most stunning filming locations that are well worth knowing about and adding to your travel bucket list.

1. Karekare Beach (The Piano)

That stunning scene in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning drama, The Piano, of a pale-skinned and windswept mother and daughter in black bonnets with their grand piano in the surf was filmed at Karekare Beach on Auckland’s west coast. About 50 minutes from central Auckland and framed by spectacular cliffs and rugged rocks, the beach is a surfer’s paradise and a great place to just walk and take in the spectacular scenery.

2. Matamata & Hutt Valley (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit)

8 great movie locations
Hobbiton is perhaps the most visited place in the Waikato. Photo: Nate Johnston

Hobbiton is probably the most visited place in the Waikato, with people coming from all over the world to visit Middle Earth. Located near Matamata, there’s a to-hobbit-scale version of The Shire, comprising 40-odd hobbit houses, a lake, and the Green Dragon Inn. But many more beautiful and dramatic landscapes feature in the films. Also in the North Island are remnants of the Elvin settlement of Rivendell, ‘where elves yet dwell in glades,’ including a half-size replica archway in the Kaitoke Regional Park in the Hutt Valley. Helpful signs point out the locations, including where Elrond says farewell to the Fellowship of the Ring and where Frodo looks out from the balcony during his recovery after being stabbed by a Morgul-knife.

3. Taranaki (The Last Samurai)

8 great movie locations
Mount Taranaki stood in for Mount Fuji in The Last Samurai. Photo: Sulthan Aauliya

Tom Cruise may have the soul of a warrior, but the star of this film was most definitely Mount Taranaki, which did an amazing job filling in as Japan’s Mount Fujiyama. Much of the filming took place in the Uruti Valley on SH 3 in North Taranaki with the area adapted to represent rural Japan in the 1860s. Pukekura Park, which includes two lakes, a fountain, and a waterfall is also worth a visit and was the setting for the Imperial Army Parade area and Palace in the movie. Taranaki has no shortage of rugged scenery, and the Uruti War Memorial Church is also worth a visit.

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4. Oreti Beach (The World’s Fastest Indian)

8 great movie locations
Oreti Beach

This popular film about Invercargill speed bike racer, Burt Munro features the beautiful Oreti Beach where he practised riding his motorbike. Having set numerous speed records in New Zealand from the 1940s, he went on to break world records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the US, in true Kiwi style, on the smell of an oily rag. Burt is a national hero and every February, the Southland Motorcycle Club runs the Burt Munro Challenge in a range of locations, including the long emptiness of Oreti Beach. Offering a 26km stretch of perfectly smooth sand, it has plenty of visual impact. The southern end (Sandy Point) is popular for walking and mountain biking.

5. Ida Valley, Otago (The Power of the Dog)

8 great movie locations
The stunning Hawkdun Range became Montana for The Power of the Dog

Based on the Western novel about two brothers on a cattle ranch in Montana, this film adaption was shot in Otago’s Hawkdun Ranges. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst were nominated for Academy Awards and Jane Campion won Best Director for the 2021 film. But with wide-angle shots of cattle flowing over hills or marching, silhouetted against a skyline of immense black storm clouds, the flat-topped ranges are the real star. Forming the backdrop to the Maniototo and Ida Valleys, it’s serious backcountry and worth the effort to get there. This geologically fascinating area is rich in discovered fossils, which offer a tantalising glimpse into its origins and features jaw-dropping schist bedrock and valleys, and soaring sandstone cliffs.

6. Rotorua (Pete’s Dragon)

8 great movie locations
The Redwood Forest in Rotorua, home of Pete’s Dragon. Photo: Janna Peat

Almost entirely filmed in New Zealand, this 2016 American fantasy adventure film is about five-year-old Pete whose parents are killed in a car crash. He survives and is saved by a large dragon with wings, green fur, and yellow eyes. A key location for the film was the Redwood Forest in Rotorua, which provided the setting for the dragon’s home. Part of the larger Whakarewarewa Forest, the first redwoods were planted there in 1901 and in 1975, the area was declared a forest park open to the public. Walking tracks were established, followed by the opening of the first mountain bike track in 1993. Today, the Redwood Forest is a major recreation and tourist attraction with dedicated tracks for walkers, cyclists, and horse riders, a world-class tree walk, and the tree-like Shroud Art toilets.

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7. Ahuriri Valley (Mulan)

8 great movie locations
The Ahuriri Valley was the perfect location for a battle scene

Disney’s live-action adaptation of the animated film Mulan was filmed in New Zealand and China, with critics lauding its stunning scenery. Based on a Chinese legend about a young female warrior, the training camp and battle scenes were shot in the Ahuriri Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty, with views of the Southern Alps and the Ahuriri River meandering through open grasslands and tussock-covered hills. The 49,000-hectare Ahuriri Conservation Park is popular with trout fishers, mountain bikers, and walkers and has several camping spots.

8. Whāngārā (Whale Rider, 2002)

Whale Rider, the movie based on Witi Ihimaera’s book of the same name was filmed on location in the tiny community of Whāngārā, between Gisborne and Tolaga Bay. Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as 12-year-old Kahu fighting to become the chief of the tribe against her koro’s opposition. The scenery is every bit as stunning as the film and what you’d expect from State Highway 35. Pa Road takes you past Whitireia Marae to the beach where local Māori legend says the voyager Paikea arrived from Hawaiki, riding on the back of a whale. Whāngārā Island with its distinctive whale shape is said to be Piakea’s whale turned to rock.

Feature image: Karekare Beach, location of Jane Campion’s film, The Piano. Photo: Bill Fairs.

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