South Island winter adventures
New Zealand''s Southern Alps - a series of mountain chains extending the length of the South Island and rising to 2000m (6562 feet) - are more extensive than the Swiss, French and Austrian Alps combined.
Dozens of different ski areas and winter sports resorts are located in this immense and spectacular mountain region. Each area has its own distinctive character - some specialising in family holidays, others definitely better suited to the more adventurous skier.
Queenstown is New Zealand''s best known winter holiday destination. This major tourist town - magnificently sited on Lake Wakatipu at the foot of The Remarkables mountains - is filled with designer stores, restaurants, nightclubs and cafés that vibrate adventure, activity and enthusiasm.
When Queenstown isn''t focusing on winter activities, it''s the capital of adventure tourism. The famous bungy jump was born there and, aside from skiing and snowboarding, there is a myriad of activities to occupy visitors such as jet boats, motorbikes, fine Central Otago wines, horse riding, mountain climbing, hiking, white-water rafting and other bungy-inspired thrills.
Queenstown''s closest skifields are Coronet Peak and The Remarkables:
- Coronet Peak - a 20-minute drive from Queenstown - has a social European feel with a bar, licensed restaurant and live outdoor music. The ski areas on a series of gullies are well equipped for beginners, and usually busy. Coronet Peak also offers night skiing when crowds of skiers glide down the slopes under evening lights, and the hot gluhwein flows.
- The Remarkables ski area presents a more adventurous terrain - the sports enthusiast''s option, providing some of the best and most challenging skiing in New Zealand.
An hour''s drive from Queenstown, the little town of Wanaka sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Sometimes described as ‘the New Zealander''s Queenstown’, Wanaka is less commercial, smaller and quieter though there are still plenty of nice restaurants and bars.
Wanaka''s two nearby skifields are at Cardrona and Treble Cone:
- Cardrona has a family environment with a giant toy clock tower, several restaurants and special facilities for children. The hills have wide open slopes for learners or intermediate skiers, and facilities include ''magic carpet'' moving walkways that are easier than T-bars for beginners. It''s also the home of the NZ national snowboard championships, offering half pipes and a terrain park.
- Treble Cone''s skifields overhang the aquamarine lake with its tiny snow-covered islands and mountain backdrop. The Treble Cone terrain is more difficult than Cardrona, but it''s usually less crowded because of this.
- Snow Park, in the Pisa Range - between Wanaka and Queenstown - is renowned internationally for the challenging terrain that makes it popular with young free-riders. The resort has 55km of ski trails and 310ha of back country skiing terrain.
Mount Hutt and the ''club fields''
Further north near Christchuch, the Mount Hutt ski area enjoys the longest snow season. First to open each winter, it''s popular with locals who gather at the town of Methven when they''re not skiing.
Mount Dobson, in the Mt Cook Mackenzie region, is a family-owned
ski-field that caters for all levels of skiers. The 400ha skiable
terrain ranges from the largest learning slope in southern New Zealand
to challenging off-piste powder runs. Mt Dobson is near the small rural
town of Fairlie, and 40 minutes from Lake Tekapo.
Around Mount Hutt and Christchurch, and all the way down to Queenstown are the smaller ‘club fields’. These private patches of mountain are managed by individual ski clubs but open to the public. Some club skifields, such as Ohau and Temple Basin, have good facilities but generally these ski areas are for more adventurous sports enthusiasts.
Snow conditions and terrain vary greatly, and there are some great spots off-the-beaten track:
- Craigieburn, with a vertical drop of 500 metres, has cult status internationally, and is a favourite of extreme ski legend Glen Plake.
- Rainbow offers amazing views of Lake Rotoiti.
- The 50-minute walk up to Temple Basin guarantees uncrowded slopes and challenges for good skiers.
- Mount Potts has had snowboarding legend Terje Haakonsen singing its praises.
Going ‘back country’ - or off-piste - leaving the crowds behind appeals to skiers or snowboarders prepared to hike, climb, camp and snowshoe their way into the wilderness to find their own ungroomed snow paradise.
The best way to get a taste of the back country is with a guide. Some New Zealand tour operators cater to this market, and options for going off-piste increase each season.
Getting there by helicopter is a popular choice. This can involve anything from one ride and one run down a spectacular, untouched slope to a luxury champagne lunch during a day of uncrowded bliss. (Note that the human-triggered avalanche risk can be high with back country skiing - consult local guides if going alone and always take emergency locator equipment.)
Snow-cat (snow caterpillar) skiing is an innovation offered at Mount Potts, one of the New Zealand''s highest skifields. Snow-cats, often used for grooming the pistes, are tractors designed to travel over snow and up steep gradients. At Mount Potts, where up to 14 guests get an area the size of Mount Hutt all to themselves, a specially adapted snow-cat is used like a chair lift, taking clients to the top of a slope and picking them up again at the bottom.
North Island winter adventures
Tongariro National Park extends across much of the central North Island volcanic plateau - a surreal landscape of colourful sunsets, ever-changing cloud formations and vast black volcanic desert sands inhabited by low scrubby vegetation. It''s here that Kiwi film director chose to set the scene for the dramatic battle of Mordo in Lord of the Rings.
Three active volcanoes - Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - like a giant set of triplets rise high above this harsh environment. Snow dusted in winter, Mount Ruapehu is the location for the skifields of Turoa and Whakapapa.
Both ski areas offer similar terrain and facilities. There''s a good mix for all abilities, from the almost-flat field that is Happy Valley for beginners to the trickier gullies accessed by the highest T-bars. For the more intrepid, there''s the opportunity to hike up to the active crater lake on top of the mountain.
Two small villages - one on each side of the mountain - and a town further away cater to the skifields with pubs, clubs, restaurants and accommodation:
- National Park Village - on the Whakapapa side - has the park headquarters with information about the area and, further up the mountain, glamorous Tongariro Chateau, an historic hotel complete with ballroom and indoor swimming pool.
- The thermal Turangi area has natural spa hot pools, excellent for a long after-ski soak.
- Ohakune - on the Turoa side - is a lively village of shops, cafés and bars that''s also the centre of New Zealand''s carrot-growing region.