New Zealand Dreamin’

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—The moment I’d been cautioned about ever since I boarded Air New Zealand for the “real Middle-earth” finally came to pass this morning at breakfast. As forecast, it didn’t come while I was politely reassuring my hosts that they had it good, although they certainly do. It occurred when I was alone in my own thoughts, looking out over Lake Karapiro, a long stretch of (at the time) glassy water reflecting the sky and lush foliage that lines its shores. I thought, “I could live here, and be really, really happy.”

Granted, I was vulnerable. Having been led on a two-hour paddle to a pair of waterfalls reached via inlets through harmless junglelike bush (the only real hazards were gross, slithery eels somewhere below and my kayak-steering abilities), I found myself tucking into a hearty brunch, much to my surprise, beneath one of Rob Waddell’s sculls. The Rob Waddell! His boat! Right above me! Not three years ago, Waddell was the best single-sculler in the world. (He won gold at the Sydney Games.) Now he’s a grinder for the Kiwi America’s Cup sailing team.

Lake Karapiro is the base for New Zealand’s national rowing team, and Richard Clark, the co-owner, with his wife, of the splendid Boat Shed Café where I was scarfing up my eggs and homemade bread, next volunteered that one of the Evers-Swindell twins used to work part-time for him. Carolina and Georgina Evers-Swindell won the world championship in the double scull this year, defending their 2002 title. That’s when I thought it. “I could live here, and be really, really happy …”

Blame it on the Swindell twins, perhaps, or that Clark and his family have transformed their dairy farm into a gorgeous “lifestyle block”—a kayak base with ropes courses and facilities for conferences, where everyone eats organic foods. Or chalk it up to my relief for a break from the Lord of the Rings fanatics. Still, if you ask around New Zealand, you’ll find my reaction to the land of the long white cloud, or Aotearoa, as New Zealand was originally known, is actually quite typical for Yanks. Real-estate promoters pitch New Zealand as what California used to be. Middle-earth is the new American dream.

Really, “N-Zed” only gets more attractive on reflection, especially if you’re already, say, a center-left resident of San Francisco, Seattle, or Portland, Ore. New Zealand offers a government opposed to nukes and pre-emptive invasions but committed to civil liberties. The country’s indigenous people, the Maori, have a vibrant, living culture and are well-represented in Parliament. Nearly all Kiwis value a “clean, green” outdoorsy lifestyle.

Naturally, the idea of a bunch of Yanks coming down to Americanize Aotearoa leaves some cold. One nursing student I met—she was eager for my view of the two U.S. authors she’d read this year, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore—explained, “The problem with America is … I mean, the problem with Australia is … I mean the problem with Auckland is …” She wasn’t opposed to Americans, she clarified, but those wishing to live in New Zealand—well, they should be the ones doing the adapting.

There’s already been a backlash (or two, or three) to real-estate prospecting here. No question, the stronger U.S. dollar makes New Zealand relatively easy pickings for well-heeled Americans, and no one wants Kiwis to be priced out of their own islands. When a local newspaper recapped an article from the Los Angeles Times about the land-ownership conflict (headline: “Californians Are Leading a Wave of Immigration to New Zealand, but Some Are Encountering a Kiwi Variation of NIMBY—Not In My Blue Yonder”), the paper had to use three pages to print letters to the editor.

Most of the froth, however, is over a few high-profile golf resorts and not the 200 or so movie people who came over for Lord of the Rings and then decided to stay. (Although, who knows, maybe these newcomers—many in computer graphics, software, and high-tech infrastructure—will become the trilogy’s longest legacy here.) In any case, there’s no cause for panic. New Zealand limits immigrants to 45,000 a year, and the government is selective about who gets in, as one journalist in the Lord of the Rings press pool made plain.

She’d had her “I could live here, and be really, really happy” moment the last time she visited, and while she was reporting on the premiere of The Return of the King and the consequent tourism boom, she was also job-hunting. New Zealand immigration, she told me, works on a points system. Applicants need 29 points to gain residency. Speaking English and holding an advanced degree can get you to 10 points; professional experience upward of 10 more. Being between 25 and 29 is easy money, too: 10 points. (If you’re over 56, forget it, bub; New Zealand taxpayers aren’t paying for your Viagra prescription.) A “relevant job offer” scores five to eight points. The American journalist? She’d arrived in Wellington with 28.