Back in 1979, New Zealand cartoonist and satirist Tom Scott, writing in NZ Listener magazine, had this to say about New Zealand: "Terrible tragedy in the South Seas. Three million people trapped alive."
The big news in 2003 was that we hit the four million population mark, and more than half of that increase was due to immigration. Given that we have around 44 million sheep, one New Zealander still equates to a whole lot of fresh lamb. Look beyond the farm gate, though, and you'll find we've caught up with the rest of the world. We may bob about at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, but it would be unfair to consider the country a backwater.
New Zealand has notched up a record year in tourism, welcoming more than two million visitors a year for the first time, despite international upheavals like terrorist attacks and SARS. Visitors contributed more than NZ$5 billion to the country's economy, making tourism one of New Zealand's biggest overseas income earners. And we're better equipped for tourists. Efficient visitor centers abound, and accommodations range from budget to exclusive. You can shop 7 days a week, whoop it up at clubs and bars 24 hours a day, or savor a glass of internationally recognized New Zealand wine in an inexpensive cafe. You can get real coffee in as many variations as you can imagine, and New Zealand's fresh, innovative cuisine will leave you breathless and begging for more.
Even provincial New Zealand has pulled up its socks without losing its heart. Small-town pride is beaming, and farmers are turning their hands to boutique tour operations and gorgeous restored B&Bs to supplement farm incomes, changing the whole nature of many backwater rural districts. Yet you'll still find, at its core, the very Kiwi hospitality that has made this country famous.
You may have heard that New Zealanders are born wearing wet suits and carrying paddles, such is their appetite for the outdoors and adventure. No part of the country is more than 128km (79 miles) from the sea, and a coastline spread with splendid beaches dishes up thousands of beautiful coastal walks and chances to surf and soak in the sun.
New Zealand is also a winter magnet for international skiers and is the white-knuckle capital of the world. This is where you can push it to the limits, pit yourself against your fears and limitations, take risk by the throat, and go for it -- leaping off bridges into surging river gorges attached to a giant rubber band, or taking a stab at luging, zorbing, sky diving, paragliding, kayaking, white-water rafting, and jet-boating. There's no lack of invention when it comes to adrenaline-pumping activities in this country.
But you don't have to be an extreme athlete to enjoy New Zealand. There are just as many ways to be laid-back and indulgent -- tour wineries that have stampeded their way to the top of world ratings in record time; take in the wealth of Polynesian and Maori culture that forms the backbone of an increasingly multicultural society; or check out the strong historic and architectural reminders of a colonial past. There are lush gardens, art galleries, museums, and plenty of one-off reminders that New Zealand is like no other place.
I was born in New Zealand and despite frequent trips overseas, I can't shake off the inherent sense of belonging here. This writing presents "my" New Zealand. After many months traveling thousands of miles, testing mattresses, comparing prices, leaping off cliff tops (well, almost), speeding up rivers, and eating and drinking in far too many restaurants, I am more convinced than ever that New Zealand is one of the quirkiest, quaintest, craziest places on earth. It's one of the most favored destinations of the new millennium, and before you've even left here, you'll want to come back. Dip in and you'll see why.