Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 15 May 2010 12:01 UK

Why New Zealand is a lifestyle superpower

People bathing in the thermal pools at Polynesian Spas in Rotorua, New Zealand
Taking in New Zealand's scenery from the thermal spas in Rotorua

Nick Bryant reflects on New Zealand's mix of controlled fury, subtle charm and social harmony, and asks why the rest of the world can't be more like it.

What can you tell about a country from the people you encounter at its point of entry?

Alas, in this age of globalised uniformity, the truth is, probably not that much.

Most of the immigration and customs officials that you come across in those sunlight-starved arrivals halls aren't very sunny themselves, as they mechanically stamp your passport or grudgingly wave you through.

The All Blacks performing the haka
If anywhere on the planet there's a more eloquent expression of controlled fury then I would dearly love to see it

But late the other night, I came across that rarest of bureaucratic beings - a middle-aged customs official with a sense of humour, a welcoming smile, blond dreadlocks which hung lazily over his shoulders, and a gloriously free spirit which he was delighted to share with a planeload of new arrivals from Australia.

He and his colleagues looked particularly kindly on us - a camera crew with almost as many bags as Imelda Marcos has shoes, which had arrived without one key item - the requisite paperwork to get us through customs.

"This need not be a major problem," they said with their Kiwi twangs, as we were welcomed into New Zealand, a land of geniality in a far-flung corner of the world.

Controlled fury

I confess that I have long been an admirer, even before I discovered that you could watch rugby union here morning, noon and night.

Whereas most countries these days have 24-hour rolling news channels, with thumping music and explosive footage, New Zealand has round-the-clock rolling mauls, with thumping tackles and explosive footballers.

With a channel devoted solely to rugby, it also means that you never have to wait long before getting to view what is surely sports superlative pre-match ritual - the Maori war cry known as the haka.

New Zealand's fabulous food and wine - and the sharp freshness of the air - make it one of the great lifestyle superpowers of the world

This, of course, is where the national team, the fabled All Blacks, face down the opposition with puffed out chests, sharp slaps of their thighs, lizard-like tongues and fuming eyes that look like they're about to burst, like ping pong balls, from their sockets.

If anywhere on the planet there's a more eloquent expression of controlled fury then I would dearly love to see it.

But for now, I'm quite happy to be fed a steady diet of haka at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wherever you flick to on New Zealand television, it's hard to avoid a rugby star dressed in black - and rarely does a commercial break go by without one of the big-name stars trying to sell you something.

It takes a brave consumer, after all, to say no.

Sadly, the All Blacks have never managed to translate the dramatic range of their hakas to the more humdrum task of flogging white consumer durables, and most of them have the acting abilities of stage-struck waxworks.

Lifestyle superpower

Of course, I would not want you to think that my fondness for New Zealand merely flows from my love of rugby.

No, there's the fabulous food and wine, some of the most flavoursome coffee that you will find anywhere in the southern hemisphere - if not the world - and the sharp freshness of the air, all of which make it one of the great lifestyle superpowers of the world.

The world premier of The Return of the King in Welllington
The Lord of the Rings turned Wellington into a world centre for film-making

There's also a funky arts scene, and a deep-held love of literature - the Kiwis are very bookish.

And such has been the global success of its film industry - with global mega-hits like the Lord of the Rings trilogy - that Wellington is now known as Wellywood.

They're even planning to erect giant capital letters high on a hill above the airport to spell out that success.

The irony is that the New Zealand film industry, under the tutelage of its most successful director, Sir Peter Jackson, is renowned for virtual reality.

This in a country where the real reality is so hard to beat.

Quaint fastidiousness

For all its attractions, there are times when it does feel like you are time-travelling in New Zealand.

Parts of it do feel like the land that the last four decades forgot. But its old-fashionedness can also be part of its subtle charm.

Take its televised coverage of Test cricket, where the commentators convene during the tea interval at a picnic table on the boundary. With quaint fastidiousness, they enjoy a pot of tea.

Davies Park, near Queenstown, New Zealand
The stunning surroundings of Davies Park cricket ground near Queenstown

In other ways, though, New Zealand can be edgy and forward-thinking.

It was the first country to grant women the vote, and the first nation to see females occupy every high office of state.

It's just about to launch the world's most comprehensive emissions trading scheme to curb greenhouse gases, and some of its most senior civil servants are so with it, they look like they should be running organic supermarkets rather than the country.

Best of all, perhaps, is how non-indigenous New Zealanders live in such harmony with their indigenous compatriots.

Maori is taught in schools, a Maori chieftain adorns the country's coat of arms, and the indigenous heritage is a shared national heritage.

I hope to return soon to explore the fiords and mountains of the South Island, perhaps even its ski fields, and sample some of the world's finest Pinot Noir in the vineyards of Otago.

Next year it hosts the Rugby World Cup, but for now I will leave this country with my usual parting thought: "Why can't the rest of the world be more like New Zealand?"

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