“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
This geek likes to travel. Road trips, long flights, or short jaunts just down the road – I take what I can get. When I can, I try to combine travel with activities and sights that make my inner fangirl squeal. Those trips are my favorites. Film and TV locations, museums, old cemeteries, and sites with urban and rural decay top my list of “places I will detour to see.” The small stuff is just as enjoyable, too. It may not be possible for me to visit the actual castle used for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, but I can usually fit in a drive to see the oldest surviving American robot in Mansfield, Ohio. If you’d like to mix some geek stops into your next trip or even into your weekend, I have plenty of suggestions.
Long vacations full of adventure are glorious things. If you want to go all out for a trip, you can plan around a geeky destination. Iconic film locations lend themselves to this option because you can visit old sets by day and explore local food and culture by night. It’s the best of both worlds.
Middle Earth – You’d have to be living in a Hobbit hole to be unaware of the possible trips you can take through New Zealand (aka Middle Earth). The Lord of the Rings trilogy filmed there, and The Hobbit is being shot right now. Some of the locations are remote, but if you have the right amount of money or enough pipe weed from Southfarthing you can hire a private helicopter. More than a few companies, like Southern Lakes Sightseeing, have started to facilitate the inbound flow of tourists who want to see Hobbiton. Read reviews and contact other fans who have made the journey to choose the right tour for you. Don’t forget to stop at the Weta Cave.
Hoth, Naboo, and Tatooine – The Star Wars galaxy contains some beautiful and harsh locations. Why not embark on a mission to see as many of them as you can? Start with a combination of Tunisia (Tatooine), Finse, Norway (Hoth), and Caserta, Italy (Naboo). There will sadly not be tauntauns or Gungans, but the locations are just as they appear on screen. Thanks to preservation efforts, you can still see places like the Lars homestead standing in the desert. The gentlemen restoring that piece of film history, Mark Dermul, has traveled to these three countries and has tips and sample itineraries to help you plan your trip. Maybe you can
hijack borrow a Starspeeder from Disneyland.
Tatooine and Endor – Want Star Wars locations on a smaller scale? Just go to the Tatooine stand-in locations in California. You can actually start in the Redwood forests to see the setting for the forest moon of Endor. Drive south into Death Valley for the road to Jabba’s Palace and sweeping, barren vistas. Finish the drive in Yuma at the Sarlacc Pit (not in it though). This list of articles and maps will help guide you on your quest.
Area 51 – I’m not a conspiracy theory sort of person, but I still see the appeal in going to Roswell, New Mexico. I’d drive there just to take a picture of the entrance to Area 51 and eat an alien burger. Commercialism that encourages the belief in aliens is something I can totally support. You could pay a tour company, but I think you’d have just as much fun making it up as you go. Be sure to stop by the Very Large Array (known as the VLA because acronyms make everything fancier).
Dig up fossils – I went through a paleontologist phase when I was a kid. I buried objects in the yard and carefully pulled them out and dusted off the dirt with a toothbrush (it totally wasn’t my sister’s). I grew out of it, but the draw of playing in the dirt all day, cataloging, researching, and measuring still pulls me in. I’m not alone because companies exist to help people like me go to excavation sites to volunteer and learn. You can participate in digs from Montana to Egypt, and you should buy an Indiana Jones hat for the occasion. Start your search on the internet but use your head and research potential destinations before you take off with shovel in hand.
Set sail – If Master and Commander made you drool and if you’ve ever stayed up late reading Horatio Hornblower, consider a working tall ship cruise. Keeping a large ship afloat and moving is no small feat, and since technology keeps plunging forward, not a lot of people remain who understand how to sail tall ships. Tie ropes, learn how to set the jib, and become one of the few who at least understand how hard it is to navigate a 100’ ship through the water. Choose your voyage by ship size and time on the water.
If you’re short on time or cash, choose your destination accordingly. It’s easier than you think to find geeky hotspots within a day’s drive of your home or any city you’re visiting. It won’t always be possible, but if you look around, there’s probably at least an abandoned house you can enter and use to re-enact the Doctor Who episode “Blink.” (other people do that, right?)
When in Hawaii – You’re in Hawaii, and you’ve already spent three days on the beach and eaten at least ten pineapples. The obvious next step is to visit a site like Kualoa Ranch on Oahu to see where parts of movies like Jurassic Park and Godzilla were filmed. When I was 18, I got to crouch in the exact spot as Sam Neill when the herd of Gallimimus dinosaurs jumped over the log. It was memorable. Apparently a series called Lost was also filmed on the islands.
Wizarding World – In Orlando and over Disney? Escape to the magical world of Harry Potter. Sure it’s still a theme park, but it’s one with wands instead of mouse ears. The village of Hogsmeade looks absolutely enchanting, and really, wouldn’t you go just for the butter beer?
Yoda fountain and Rancho Obi-Wan – Maybe the Star Wars pilgrimages listed above are out of your reach. You still have options. Visit the home of Industrial Light & Magic at the Presidio in San Francisco. You can’t get into the offices, but you can have a quiet moment at the Yoda Fountain just outside the doors. Since you’re going to be in the area, email ahead and try to arrange a private tour at Rancho Obi-Wan. It’s Steve Sansweet’s massive, private Star Wars collection and only recently opened to regular folk for tours and events. Seriously, it looks like a magical place.
Vasquez Rocks – About a bazillion shows have filmed in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Vasquez Rocks is tucked away to the north in Aqua Dulce and has been seen in dozens of on screen hits, most notably Star Trek. It was the planet of Vulcan in the J.J. Abrams flick, and the setting for an important fight in the Original Series. The biggest perk? No fees. You can pretend to be Captain Kirk in the epic battle with the Gorn for absolutely zero dollars.
Doctor Who Experience – If you happen to be visiting London already and you’re a Doctor Who fan, the Doctor Who Experience exhibit is made for you. It houses the largest collection ever of original props and artifacts from the series, including the entire TARDIS set from the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) era episodes. If only I owned a TARDIS to get myself there.
All the museums and libraries – Buildings stuffed full of the old, nifty, and mysterious are everywhere. You’re guaranteed to find a museum or collection up your alley in the nearest big city, and you could stumble upon one much closer. Open your eyes, especially on vacation. I improved my trip to Aruba by going to a numismatic museum. Try out places like the Eaton Collection (largest public collection of sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp fiction in the world), Frazier International Museum (lots of weaponry), and House on the Rock (of American Gods fame). They’re all around you.
My list is far from inclusive. Use it as a place to start, but mostly I hope you start looking at destinations and surrounding areas through geek goggles. You can find all manner of wackiness off the beaten path. After you return from your trip, don’t forget to spread the word. The whole “Keep it secret, keep it safe,” rule that Gandalf mentioned at least a dozen times does not apply. Posting about places on the internet doesn’t mean they will be overrun. In fact, small businesses will probably be happy about any traffic you direct their way. So, be nice and help fellow geek travelers.