The Hunger Games: It's the book that turned my 10-year-old from a hockey highlights/ Family Guy/iPad-game-playing bedtime creature into a reader on fire. After devouring the first, he raced through Catching Fire, consumed Mockingjay, plunged into the I Am Number Four series and hasn't looked back.
I knew a hands-on tour of the film locations in North Carolina would be a trip of a lifetime. And it was – from the moment we touched down in Charlotte, to the archery lesson in Brevard, ziplining in Asheville, hearing about snake-incidents with the crew during the Games scene and stories of brazen paparazzi in Shelby, to our conversations on the plane on the way home.
Here's our four-day, action-packed Hunger Games tour, organized by moments from the film.
The scene: District 12
We pick up a rental car in Charlotte and point in the direction of Hildebran, en route to the Henry River Mill village to see heroine Katniss Everdeen's house, the Mellark family bakery and the rest of the District 12 homes in the post-apocalyptic world of Panem. Clearly our Hunger Games adventure didn't have an arena-like border and a Games master in the Capitol forcing us in the right direction, as we end up having to turn around after crossing, inadvertently, into South Carolina. After a little more than an hour, certain we're in the wrong place once again, we round yet another corner and there it is, an abandoned village, helpfully marked with a sign: "For Sale: The Hunger Games Film Site." Though other signs warn us against trespassing, we see a couple of cars and decide to venture in. It turns out the owner, Wade Shepherd, is on site with a film crew from a local university. He tells us he just put up the For Sale signs on this 29-hectare cotton mill plantation a couple of days before, and already half have been stolen. We chat for a bit, he suggests we stay on the road to prevent falling in hidden holes in the grass, and we wander off. We needn't have been warned against walking through the meadow, though: The bees are so big and so plentiful we can't help but think of author Suzanne Collins's trackerjacks, the genetically modified killer yellow jackets. Especially on the cusp of spring, even in a state of abandoned decay, it's a beautiful property.
Do it yourself
Take I-85 west toward Gastonia, north on Highway 321, and then west again on Highway I-40 to Exit 19. Turn right on Center Street and continue onto Henry River Road. Afterward, head into Hildebran and stop at the Korner Café for an ice cream and a chat with the locals, who may share insights on the filming. We learn that the owner's husband is a member of the local fire department – and was called in to make rain.
The scenes: The Reaping, the Hob, the District 11 protest
Although the Reaping and the Hob are in District 12, they were shot about an hour away in the small town of Shelby. Here, an old cotton storage warehouse was converted into the Hob (filled by the crew with items purchased at nearby antique shops), and provided the backdrop for the Reaping (the scene in which a boy and girl from each district are selected to be "tributes" at the Games, a fight to the death) and the District 11 protest. The moment you step through the gate, you can imagine about a thousand local extras – cast, explains Shelby's executive director of tourism, Jackie Sibley, because they looked like they were starving – standing in the unseasonable 105-degree heat for three days while filming the Reaping scene. A quiet town that has seen better times, Shelby adjusted to the Hollywood extravaganza, and Hollywood adjusted to Shelby. Local police chased paparazzi off the buildings near the set (including the jailhouse), and the crew acted on orders to shop locally for new wardrobes to better fit in. (The Dale Earnhardt caps they bought didn't quite work – "we're not all Earnhardt fans," Jackie laughs.)
Do it yourself
Shelby is on U.S. 74 West about halfway between Asheville and Charlotte. To arrange an inexpensive tour loaded with anecdotes about the filming, call Jackie Sibley two weeks before your visit at 1-866-305-9973. Drop into the Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille – a favourite hangout for the film crew – on South Lafayette Street for the Girl on Fire or District 12 pizzas, the Peeta Pita, or the simple but delicious roasted tomato soup. Keep an eye out for District 12-Approved stickers that indicate such Hunger Games menu items as Katniss's plum stew, made with local lamb, at Smoke on the Square.
The scene: Training
Before the Games begin, tributes receive four days of training in such survival skills as building shelters and fire, and using weapons. We take an archery lesson with Tammy Hopkins, a former park ranger who is helping form the upcoming Hunger Games fan tours in the very small but bustling town of Brevard. Shooting a bow and arrow is all about patience and control; Caiden loves it so much an archery set is now at the top of his birthday list. We practise rope climbing and get a survival lesson at the U.S. National Whitewater Center outside Charlotte, and we master ziplining in Asheville. Rope climbing is all about confidence, and I can easily see why businesses book the centre for team-building excursions.
We do an easy course six metres up in the trees, and wish we had time to make like Rue (who seems to fly, in the book at least, through the trees) and take the Canopy Tour, which includes silent ziplining and rope and balance exercises from one wood platform to another in heavy forest.
Our survival course, with Joy Shuck (who learned from a U.S. Air Force global survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructor), is loaded with hands-on tips on starting a fire (How is it I didn't know about a brace before?), finding food (Why settle for bugs? Bring granola bars!), building shelter, signalling and more. Ziplining is a huge highlight of our trip, in no small part because the instructors at Asheville Zipline Canopy Adventures take such care to teach us how to brake and go faster, and about the foliage around us. This time, I come home free of nasty bruises from the gear!
Do it yourself
Hunger Game Fan Tours offers day-long and full weekend experiences from $79 (U.S.). For dates, go to hungergamesfantours.com. Find more about the U.S.
National Whitewater Center at usnwc.org. You'll want to spend at least a full day. (For survival lessons, you'll have to book your child into a camp – trust me, you'll be tempted!) Call Wildwater Reservations at 1-800-451-9972 for ziplining, or go to ashevilleziplinecanopyadventures.com.
The scene: The Games
Surprisingly, some of the Games scenes were shot using man-made trees and a man-made cave in giant sets in an empty tobacco factory in Charlotte. That's off limits. But DuPont State Forest, in Transylvania County, certainly isn't. We joined Hopkins and forest supervisor David Brown to see the exact spot Peeta lay camouflaged, a trail Rue ran along, and the pool of water Katniss jumped into while escaping the fire.
We also saw the site of the fight scene between Cato and Peeta. Don't remember it? That's because despite having to truck in water to create the swamp (that had dried up after originally being scouted for the shot), the scene was cut from the movie. As was a carefully rigged shot of Katniss running across the top of a waterfall (planks were laid, actress Jennifer Lawrence was secured with wires). Remember the fire scene? It was filmed on site, with DuPont forest firefighting crew standing by, using about 100 fake trees made with hollow tubes filled with propane (the fireballs were computer generated images). What the director and crew forgot to factor, Tammy tells us, is the wildlife reaction to fire: flee. And flee they did, snakes and all, directly toward the film crew. (Chaos ensued as Hollywood city slickers react.) Remember the sleeping-in-trees scenes? The crew took a branch from one tree, attached it to another tree back on the set, and decorated it with silk leaves. Now you know why so many scenes were filmed so close up. Though snake wranglers didn't clear the area before our tour, as they did during filming, we didn't see any snakes. We didn't hear any mockingjays, either.
Do it yourself
Join the Hunger Games tour, or try (probably not very successfully, as water levels and the forest canopy are ever-changing) to pick out locations on your own. Transylvania County is chock full of waterfalls ( visitwaterfalls.com; 1-800-648-4523). A must: Test your courage at Sliding Rock, an 18-metre 60-foot natural rock slide that ends in a plunge pool in Pisgah National Forest, just outside Brevard. Best. Waterslide. Ever. (For video, go to tgam.ca/travel.)
The scene: The Cornucopia
As it's wont to do in the Blue Ridge region of North Carolina, the skies suddenly open and we find ourselves driving in the middle of a deluge. We regret having to skip the Craggy Pinnacle hike in Craggy Gardens to see the North Fork Reservoir where the critical cornucopia scenes were filmed. When you visit, may the odds be ever in your favour.
Do it yourself
Craggy Gardens is just north of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. blueridgeparkway.org
The scene: The Capitol
The Capitol of Panem is another world completely foreign to Katniss, who comes from a poverty-stricken coal-mining district. She's bewildered by the lavish textures and technological capabilities, particularly by a window that transforms into various scenes with the click of a remote. We have our Capitol moment at the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte when Caiden discovers the remote in the washroom turns on a television in the mirror. Later, exquisite treats from Bar Cocoa, in-house, heighten the magic. We don't run into the delightful Games host Caesar Flickerman, but we do see the stage and theatre his scenes were filmed in when we make it to the Knight Theater.
Do it yourself
Back home, we rush out to see the movie once again, to relive the trip on the screen. And it strikes me that all the simplistic jokes about The Hunger Games teaching children to kill children totally miss the point. Just before a frightening scene, my son grabs my hand and holds on tight: "I know what's going to happen," he says, "but it scares me whenever someone dies." The Hunger Games isn't about kids killing kids. It's about kids working together not just to survive, but to inspire hope for change.
That night, I finally start reading Catching Fire. My son can't wait to talk about it.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Put the various excursions on a circuit, going first from Charlotte to Hildebran, then Asheville, Brevard and Transylvania County, on to Shelby, and looping back to Charlotte.
Where to stay
Asheville: The stars stayed in the penthouse suites at Hotel Indigo. You'll love the quirky artistic detail in the rooms – and the giant shower. hotelindigo.com
Brevard: For a personal experience, book in at the Red House Inn. Or you can make like the mountain bikers and land at the Hampton Inn just before Pisgah National Forest. It's clean, the duvets are a step above what you may expect and it's good value for your dollar. brevardbedandbreakfast.com; brevard.hamptoninn.com
Charlotte: The Ritz-Carlton is a Capitol-worthy splurge at the end of your trip. ritzcarlton.com