Frontline: Gisborne - Captain Cook hated it, but it has a special place in sun Special sun will shine on place Captain Cook rejected

ON A fine morning, dawn in Gisborne is a spectacular sight. The sun rises out of the Pacific Ocean like a ball of fire, casting its early rays across the water and lighting up the skies over the easternmost city on the planet.

If there is a God, She will surely heed Gisborne's prayers and decree clear weather for daybreak on 1 January, when the eyes of the world will fleetingly focus on this city on New Zealand's North Island, the first to greet the new millennium. Amid all the bickering by South Pacific nations about which of them will witness the first sunrise of 2000, New Zealand basks in the knowledge that geography has gifted it two places with widely accepted claims: the Chatham Islands, its eastern outpost in the Pacific, which will be the first inhabited landmass to see the dawn, and Gisborne, on the mainland.

Although some might quibble with the definition of Gisborne as a city, which in New Zealand means anywhere with more than 30,000 residents, it is difficult to begrudge it a few moments of fame. For it is not just a charming, laid-back beach community that, thanks to its physical isolation, is well off most tourist itineraries. This is where New Zealand's history began. It was at Kaiti Beach in Gisborne, according to legend, that the first Maoris landed after an epic voyage across the south-western Pacific in a massive waka, or canoe. Centuries later, Captain James Cook, the explorer, arrived in a sailing ship, in October 1769. Cook was unimpressed and departed after christening that stretch of coast Poverty Bay.

Gisborne remains one of the most richly diverse areas of New Zealand; half its 48,000 residents are of Maori descent, and the two communities - Maori and Pakeha (European) - function as equals in public life. Accordingly, the dawn ceremony on New Year's Day - the centrepiece of which is to be a concert by the city's famous daughter, the opera singer, Kiri Te Kanawa - will draw heavily on both traditions.

When the first rays of sunshine strike the ocean at 5.46am between Tuamotu Island and Tuahine Point, a headland at the western end of Poverty Bay, a flotilla of Polynesian waka will sail into shore, bringing blessings from around the South Pacific. The ceremony on Midway Beach, the site with the best view of the sunrise, will also feature a Maori pageant telling the story of New Zealand and the lowering into the ocean of a stone sculpture of Tangaroa, god of the sea.

There will be separate festivities on Mount Hikurangi, a mountain 80 miles north of the city that is sacred to Maoris and will be the first place on the New Zealand mainland to see the new day - seven minutes earlier than Gisborne.

Planning for the events has involved painstaking collaboration between Gisborne's communities, but tensions are never far from the surface - a pattern that was set, according to Kathryn Akuhata-Brown, a journalist, when Captain Cook's men shot dead four Maoris during their first two days ashore. "The memory of that incident has not gone away, and it still plays a huge part in communal relations," Ms Akuhata-Brown said.

Tracey Tangihaere, chief executive officer of Te Runanga O Turanganui A Kiwa, the local tribal authority, says that while the millennium has no particular significance for Maoris, a lunar people, they have decided to use it as an occasion to reflect on the past and the future, "to show the world that we have struggled and survived".

For other residents, it is an opportunity to put their city on the map as a travel destination. Although poor ticket sales forced the city to cancel its plans for a concert featuring David Bowie and Split Enz, tens of thousands of visitors are expected. With only 3,000 hotel beds available, accommodation is at a premium and some American tourists are rumoured to have paid pounds 650 a day for beachfront homes.

Phil Parker, who produces a Beaujolais-style wine called First Light, says: "We are the front porch of the world. We may be off the beaten track, but we have the best view."