With the world premiere of "The Hobbit" movie just a few weeks off, I've been thinking a lot about travel and Middle-earth, from here at the actual middle of the actual earth.
Turns out I'm not alone. These days, the New Zealand Tourism Board actively promotes tours of the 12-acre family farm that was spotted amid obscurity and lots of sheep in 1998 and transformed into The Shire of Tolkien lore.
In fact, the tourist board says at least 6 percent of visitors to the country cite "The Lord of the Rings" and upcoming "Hobbit" trilogies as the reason they came to New Zealand.
Over the course of the past decade, most of the sets used in filming have been disassembled, but Hobbiton -- the village of 44 hobbit holes dug into hillsides on the farm remain open for tours. And according to figures from the government, the peaceful shire has actually been overrun with an estimated 150,000 visitors taking the tour in 2012.
Strangely, that means Hobbiton is one of the few rural places in New Zealand where people actually outnumber sheep. Quite an accomplishment, considering there are more than 13,000 still roaming the working farm that constitutes the Shire.
If you can't make the trip yourself to visit, you could always create your own Hobbit hole. Apparently, balloons work quite well.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" opens December 13 in New Zealand and the following day in the U.S.