By the end of our trip through New Zealand’s northern island, we had ticked off of our bucket list every place we wanted to see, and the truth was that they all had something to do with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had been driving around the island from north to south for a week, banging our heads to the music of the Mordor and the Rohan in the car and reliving the iconic scenes of the three movies. Even though our scenes were lacking some momentum, without the proper costumes and the appropriate props, it had been a dream come true.
Yet, there was another trilogy that had been filmed in New Zealand, one we had almost forgotten about. The first two movies had been a guilty pleasure of our childhood but the third one was a bit too mediocre to remember, hence our disregard. Our travel guide and the official site for tourism in New Zealand made sure to remind it to us though and, judging by the number of cars parked near the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, we weren’t the only ones that had taken the bait.
Located on the Coromandel Peninsula, in the north-eastern part of the island, the reserve had been named after a Maori tohunga named Hei, who had chosen the area as home for his tribe. The entire name indeed meant “the Great Bay of Hei”. The bay also went by the name Cathedral Cove, a name that fittingly described the shape of its iconic natural rock archway. However, it was best known to us as Cair Paravel, or rather as the place where a scene from the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian had been shot, as the Pevensie siblings traveled back to Narnia in the beginning of the movie. The archway in particular had been chosen to represent the tunnel through which they entered the magical land.
Contrary to the movie characters, we had to walk quite a while before actually entering the tunnel though. The cove was indeed quite remote from the parking lot and we had to follow a walking track along the cliff before we could access the beach. The track offered swiping views on the various rocky formations scattered along the bay and it also created a sense of anticipation, as we could see the infamous Cathedral Cove getting closer every step of the way.
Finally, upon a 45-minute walk, we reached the entrance of the real life tunnel, which was in fact more of an arched cavern. Due to its size and sheer majesty, we could only glimpse at the other side of the archway, making it seem like we were actually crossing from one dimension to the other. Once on the other side, there was no ruins of a fortress overlooking the sea though, no centaurs and fauns nor talking badgers. However, it was plain to see why the place had been picked as a filming location. The landscape was stunning, from the sandy beach that ranked among the most beautiful in the entire country to the dramatic shape of the “Te Hoho” rock rising from the sea, like the teeth of a giant extinct creature.
Cathedral Cove was believed to draw about 150,000 visitors a year. Some of them, like us, had come all the way because of the movies, enjoying the place for the nostalgic memories it conveyed, sending us straight back to our childhood. Some had come to enjoy its raw nature, as the reserve was said to be a feast for scuba-divers and snorkelers in particular. Others had come to indulge in a lazy picnic on the beach or to take a swim, although we sure weren’t brave enough to follow their example.
As it turned out, the reserve was multi-faceted enough to accommodate for all kinds of visitors. Even if the Narnia movies had probably acted as a tourist magnet and boosted the numbers of visitors - we were proof of that - Cathedral Cove had long been known as one of New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes. Contrary to a lot of movie locations, which could seem disappointing without the trappings of a movie set to enhance them, Cathedral Cove was a place to discover in its own right and we were glad we had taken such a long detour to get to it.