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A small country in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand has recently been attracting major attention.

Its extraordinary scenery-glaciers and rain forests, beaches and mountain ranges, volcanoes and geysers, tranquil lakes and fjords, meadows and plains, thunderous waterfalls and serpentine rivers-provide the backdrop for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ringsmovie trilogy.

For those who prefer more flesh-and-blood fantasies, it may help to know that Academy-Award-winning actor Russell Crowe is a native of Wellington, the capital city.

"New Zealand is Middle Earth. It has every geological formation and geographical landscape you can imagine... and some you can't." Elijah Wood, "Frodo Baggins"

The country consists of two main islands and several smaller ones a thousand miles from the coast of Australia.

In size, it's comparable to Great Britain. Yet with a population of only 3.8 million, it's one of the world's least-crowded countries. That makes it alluring to those seeking peace and relaxation -- as well as couples who adore thrills and adventures.

More than a third of the land has been set aside in national parks, reserves, and heritage sites that preserve the country's ecological treasures. New Zealand has 13 national parks with relatively untouched landscapes that are home to ancient forests, rare birds, and creatures that have survived since prehistoric times.

New Zealand's most famous bird and national symbol, the kiwi, has been described as the most "unbirdlike" bird in the world, with its nostrils at the end of its beak and loose hair-like feathers and whiskers. You'll also hear New Zealanders referred to as Kiwis. New Zealand is home to the world's only flightless parrot, the rare kakapo, and the world's only alpine parrot, the kea, as well.

Horseback riding trips are a popular way to see New Zealand's scenery and get close to nature. Tour operators lead guided treks on beaches, farms, forests, and high country.