The founders of New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, entertained visions of a seething metropolis, an Athens of the south. Then they looked up from the drawing board... By Marcus Tanner

It is not difficult meeting people in New Zealand. "Do you want to talk to the Prime Minister?" an MP's assistant asked me. "You can just walk right in the Parliament Building and go ahead. All you need is a sticker." She added: "You'll find them all wandering about. If anyone wanted to take a pot shot, it wouldn't be very difficult."

It is not difficult meeting people in New Zealand. "Do you want to talk to the Prime Minister?" an MP's assistant asked me. "You can just walk right in the Parliament Building and go ahead. All you need is a sticker." She added: "You'll find them all wandering about. If anyone wanted to take a pot shot, it wouldn't be very difficult."

As it happened, I just wanted to meet a mere MP, Georgina Beyer, a high-profile Maori transsexual whom I had seen interviewed by Ruby Wax in Britain. But I was assured I could have called the premier, Helen Clark, if I had felt like it. "All the journalists in Wellington have her cell phone number," my new friend assured me. I wondered where that left the spin doctors.

Wellington is not the smallest of world capitals, but it feels like the most accessible and intimate. The cathedral is small, the parliament is small and the red-light district is so small that I walked past it before I noticed I had been through it. This wasn't difficult, as it only covers half a block and as far as I could tell only included about three establishments and a dear little café, where the sex workers meet for their chats at night.

Numbers are part of this equation. The city has only 300,000 inhabitants. But it is also a matter of attitude. The city has no pretensions to grandeur and never did. It was "the empire's cornershop capital", as some residents of Auckland sneered when their city was passed over as capital in 1865.

In fact, Wellington wanted to be bigger than it is, but geography got in the way. The first settlers chose the site because of the grand sweep of the bay. It was only later that they realised their new city would be hemmed in by a ring of asphyxiating mountains. It gives the city a cosy feeling ­ the buildings almost tumble down the hill in a rush towards the harbour ­ but it kept it pot-plant small.

A couple of volcanic eruptions doomed the original designs for a colonial metropolis, intended to go by the pompous title of "Britannia". The quakes in 1848 and 1855 shattered dreams of building imperial boulevards and tall buildings. Wellington (not, fortunately, Britannia) emerged a chastened place, where the residents put their faith in one-story wooden buildings that could withstand tremors. It is why Wellington ­ apart from trams ­ bears such a close resemblance to that other city on a fault line, San Francisco.

Wellington was always classless. The emigrant handbooks put out by the government tried to put off what they called "soft-handed clerks" trying their luck. This was to be a city for workers, not pen-pushers or thinkers. It explains why Wellington still has a rough-edged, no-frills flavour, and why it never sprouted a literary café society. The harbour front today is lined with coffee shops and delis, and the coffee and cake are very good.

But they are a recent phenomenon, a product of New Zealand's thoroughly modern obsession with food. The visitor searches in vain for echoes of old Europe, the vanished world of cigarette smoke curling up to the ceiling, rustling newspapers and writers' quarrels. Memories of the city's most famous literary export, Katherine Mansfield, are lovingly preserved along with the house she once lived in on Tinakori Road. But it's worth remembering that Mansfield took the boat to London whenever she could.

Mansfield's generation looked to the old country as the ultimate template. They doggedly constructed a new Britain in a Jurassic Park landscape of volcanoes, geysers and lush ferns. Desperate to make their new country look as much like the old one as possible, they released flocks of their favourite English songbirds in the gardens of their sedate, English-style villas. The flocks of sparrows, goldfinches flitting round Wellington's parks are all descendants of these original releases.

Today, Wellington no longer looks for inspiration to Britain but to Maori traditions, as well as to the country's native wildlife, with its striking flightless birds. For a city of this size, Wellington is flush with clothes designers and shops selling artful and imaginative utensils crafted out of metal, wood, ceramics and glass.

The soul of the city is best explored round the harbour area. The ocean has always been the key to the city's prosperity and identity, and the names of the emigrant ships that brought the first settlers to Wellington live on in the streets that ring the wharves.

Tory St, which I fancifully imagined had been named after Peel or Disraeli, in fact recalls the first ship sent by the New Zealand Colonisation Company, which docked in the harbour on 20 September 1839. Cuba St, once Wellington's greatest shopping thoroughfare and now ­ after years of neglect ­ a thriving warren of boutiques,dress shops and cafés, is named after the Tory's successor ship, which arrived on 2 January 1840. The boats that followed the Cuba in the spring of 1840 bequeathed their names to Roxburgh St, Aurora Terrace and Oriental Parade, the road ringing the main harbour that now houses some of the city's most popular eateries.

The harbour no longer echoes to the hooting and chugging of workaday passenger liners from England, disgorging hordes of pale-skinned emigrants in search of a new life. It is a cleaner, quieter place by day than it used to be, and a much noisier place by night, now that night clubs, vodka bars and cocktail bars open till 4am have moved into the old warehouses and lofts around the wharf.

The grimy whalers have gone too. They have ceded their place to pleasure boats that take tourists to watch whales "blow" beyond the bay, ice-cream coloured cruise ships and the bobbing yachts and pleasure craft of the rich.

Wellington's seafaring tradition lives on in the near-devotion of this incredibly healthy nation to water sports, and on a fine day the bay is full of people sailing, diving, jet biking and kayaking. And of course, it lives on in the cooking. Old time New Zealand was famous ­ perhaps notorious ­ for resting content with British-style "fush'n'chups", as it was pronounced, as well as the country's famous lamb. But the last decades have seen a revolution in the nation's kitchens. The descendants of those dour, hard-working Protestant settlers have developed a very un-puritan and un-Protestant obsession with taste, aroma and flavour. Old folk recall when Wellington had only a handful of proper fish restaurants. Now the streets round the harbour are full of them, steaming, frying and grilling terakihi and other native white fish on aromatic beds of garlic mash and rice and serving it all up with cool goblets of white wine from the vineyards of Martinborough and Hawke's Bay.

The rise of "fusion cooking", blending European, Maori and Asian dishes, mirrors the drive to find a new national identity for New Zealand that looks less to the colonial past and more to native Maori culture. The culinary makeover took place as people began talking up New Zealand's role in the Pacific Rim, and as they built the Te Papa Tongarewa museum on Wellington harbour, a new kind of museum devoted to exploring the story of the Maori people and the more recent Polynesian emigrants.

Wellington is still searching for a final identity. Like the dishes served up in so many restaurants, European and Asian ingredients are stacked on top of one another in layers. It is hard to know which flavour ought to emerge supreme, but in the confusion there lies some of the charm.

There are no direct flights to Wellington from the UK. The closest you can get is to Auckland on Air New Zealand; other connections are available on Qantas. The lowest fares are available from discount agents, for travel between now and the end of June. You could get a return flight for around £650

Tourism New Zealand, New Zealand House, 80 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TQ (09069 101010, charged at £1 per minute); personal callers get general information including directories, maps, regional information and free access to tourist websites