SNOW GO ZONE
Iarrived in New Zealand 15 years ago - a last-minute decision to jump on a plane from Sydney for a week-long freeskiing competition. After seven days in Wanaka, we were hooked. The next year we came back for a season. And never left. We’ve spent the last decade and a half getting to know New Zealand, and by now our favourite ski fields are just like old mates…
Its 1am and it’s been snowing for the last six hours. There’s a foot of light, dry powder everywhere and in the distance is the faint hum of a tractor motor in fourth gear. A line of skiers is being pulled past fuzzy floodlights and into the darkness above.
From the wooden deck of the hut, you can’t hear the motor. It is drowned out by the thumping of house music and the stomp of people trying to dance in ski boots.
Suddenly, the sky clears almost in synchronisation with the moon rising over the ridge. The bowl of fresh snow is bathed in light and a handful of redfaced revellers abandon the dance floor to seek the newly lit freshies. Suddenly there are whoops of delight bouncing out of the darkness.
Skiing at night is like skinny-dipping - the joy of fresh snow is compounded by the sense of forbidden pleasure. Stoically presiding over it all is Hayley Green. The Broken River snow safety officer is sitting quietly on the deck of Palmer Lodge with a cup of coffee in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other.
The fresh air and hot mulled wine has made this scene downright surreal. We keep waiting for someone to tell us we have to stop skiing, stop dancingto turn the lights out and go to bed. This is a ski hill, after all, and not a wild teenage house party.
But it feels more like the latter. Especially when enthusiastic skiers
start building and sliding handrails onto the deck and even skiing onto the dance floor. Or earlier, when the sunny day encouraged someone to bring the pool table and bean bags out onto the deck.
We wonder what limit there is to this madness and ask Hayley:
“How long are you going to run the lifts?” He smiles, shrugs and answers, “Until no one wants to ski anymore.” Uh-Huh. “And how long will the DJs be playing?”
“Until no one wants to dance anymore.”
You can’t argue with the logic so we don’t. We just ski away with grins like teenagers on a late night toilet-papering mission. In the morning the sunrise will reveal all our deeds. The mountain will be littered with our tracks – carelessly strung up and down the mountain.
New Zealand’s Craigieburn Range is on the eastern edge of the South Island’s defining mountainous spine, the Southern Alps. In the 1950s, a club of eager mountaineers set up a ski field in the heart of this range. You had to walk 90 minutes to the lodges and another 20 minutes to the base of the field’s one rope tow.
It was a place where men could be men and women – well, they had to
stay home. The Craigieburn Ski Club had a men-only policy, which soon prompted the establishment of Broken River Ski Club just two basins south. It was the “family” option.
Craigieburn’s no-women rule didn’t last long (New Zealand was, after all, the first country to give women the right to vote, in 1983) but the original spirit of club skiing remains along with the rope tows. Gear freaks and fashion victims are rare. Not everyone is ripping it up in vintage equipment but no one is likely to care if you are. Because the clubs were set up for mountaineers who loved to ski, the founders didn’t mind earning their turns.
If you’re into ski touring to get fresh tracks, you may not have to venture beyond the boundaries for a couple of days after each snowfall. There is a great freedom in being in the company of more powder than you can ski in a day. The urgency disappears and you find yourself lingering on the sunny balcony of the day lodge for another cup of coffee – or to watch the local entertainment in the form of the kea, the world’s largest – and most mischievous – alpine parrot. Kea are so intelligent, they even outsmarted recent university-designed intelligence tests set up in the Southern Alps. They love to get their breaks into everything – especially ski gloves, boot liners and roof racks. Backpacks and candy bars left on the deck are open slather. When absentminded guests are about, personal battles of wit and on-snow agility ensue.
If the chutes and bowls of Craigieburn and Broken River aren’t enough, there is a limitless amount of touring available from the clubs – the most popular being a route which
links the two fields. Separated by only one bowl, the clubs joined forces several years ago by allowing skiers to use their passes interchangeably. Now they market themselves as New Zealand’s largest off-piste ski area.
Skiing in New Zealand is a self0styles adventure with something for everyone. You can lush it up in five-star accommodation or roll up your sleeves to help peel spuds at the clubbies.
I arrived in New Zealand 15 years ago – a last minute decision to jump on a plane from Sydney with my thenboyfriend, now husband for a week-long freeskiing competition. After seven days in Wanaka, we were hooked. The next year we came back for a season. And never left. We’ve spent the last decade and a half getting to know New Zealand, and by now our favourite ski
fields are just like old mates – lovable, imperfect and, most importantly, there when you need them.
The characters I love the most are the “clubbies.”
“Clubbies is the term for New Zealand’s own special brand of clubrun ski areas. Founded by hardy pioneers as early as the 1930’s, ski clubs have minimal facilities and little or no grooming. They are non-profit and survive through the volunteer efforts of their members. Many fields are accessed by walking tracks and the lifts are often rope tows that require skiers to wear harnesses with metal “nutcrackers.” Clubbies are open to the public but overnight guests are usually asked to help with food prep or dishes – and this backpacker-style approach is reflected in the affordable price. Each ski club has its own distinctive personality and is guaranteed to be populated with interested characters. We love club skiing because it’s a friendly social experience with crowdfree off-piste skiing.
Club-style skiing won’t be for everyone, but luckily there are still plenty of choices for the five-star fans. In the North Island, the grand Chateau Tongariro at the foot of Whakapapa Ski Area gives access to the country’s largest ski area as well as famous trout fishing and thermal resorts. Further south, the country town of Methven sits at the base of Mt Hutt in Canterbury, and the ever-growing resort town of Wanaka is home to three large, commercial ski fields in the Central Otago region.
The most cosmopolitan of New Zealand ski designations is Queenstown. The town sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is gemmed by spectacular southern peaks. The mountains are home to two commercial resorts while the town is packed full of pumping bars, excellent restaurants and impeccable accommodation.
Whether you book in for a sold week or two, or decide to road trip around the country, there’s always plenty of off-snow adventure in New Zealand. The little island nation is rife with outdoor activities – from soaking in thermal pools to get-boating, bungee jumping, fishing and mountain biking.
Mt Taranaki was the location double for Mt Fuji in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, but all the similarities end there. Taranaki is a sparsely populated region of New Zealand, famous for surf breaks and its violent volcanic history. Manganui is Taranaki’s only ski area, and getting there is an adventure in itself. The beautiful 20-minute walk from the car park takes you across an avalanche gully, which is sometimes scattered with avalanche debris. The little club field has three rope tows and a t-bar. You can ski right into the warm, bright Manganui has a great mix of family-friendly and expert terrain – all within reach of Taranaki’s famous Surf Highway and some of the best breaks in New Zealand. They don’t call it Taradise for nothing.
New Zealand’s two largest and most developed ski fields sit on the slopes of an active volcano, Mt Ruapehu. The High-altitude plateau of the central north island is rich with geothermal activity – mud pools, geysers and hot springs. Using some local knowledge, we found a hot river in Taupo for an evening dip. The lakes are famous trout fishing destinations and the region is rich with Maori history. Mt Ruapehu is particularly good in spring, when the snow is often less wind affected and the longer days make for softer snow conditions.
Whakapapa Is one hour and 15 minutes from the Taupo. It has all the amenities of an international ski area, including 14 lifts, 30 groomed trails,
plenty of off-piste terrain as well as ski school, ski hire, restaurants and cafes. Compared to its neighbouring field at Turoa, Whakapapa has more terrain for the hard-core – cliffs and chutes – and being a bit shadier, it’s a better choice for dry powder. We always love a stop at the Chateau Tongariro, tucked into lush subtropical forest at the base of Whakapapa. Sipping cocktails in the velvet-clad piano bar has a sort of Euro-charm that’s rare in the New World.
At 2,322m, Turoa is the highest ski area in New Zealand. Its 500ha of skiable area includes a four-kilometre run and three terrain parks as well as snowfilled bowls and steep chutes. We took a 90- minute walk to the crater of the volcano – an unforgettable experience. Turoa is serviced by Ohakune, a thriving little ski town marked by a giant carrot sculpture. Ohakune is the place to eat, drink, sleep and party. For the best of the latter don’t miss the Mountain Mardi Gras in June.
South Island RAINBOW
The spectacular Southern Alps are the backbone of the South Island. At the northern tip of this snow-peaked spine is Rainbow Ski Area and the Nelson Lakes National Park. Rainbow sits above St Arnaud, a village of traditional forest branches (holiday homes) on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. We’ve had some great holidays at Rainbow, with seven or eight families hiring or sharing baches around the village. The field itself is a club field with a t-bar, platter, terrain park and one short rope tow. The ski area is family-friendly, has great views down to the sandy beaches of Golden Bay or the famous Marlborough wine region.
CANTERBURY Mt Lyford
Mt Lyford sits between the thermal resort of Hanmer Springs and the coastal paradise of Kaikoura. Once a high country station, Mt Lyford was developed into an alpine village and ski area by local farmers in the 1980’s. Log chalets were built on oneacre sections and the ski field had developed over the years to include a t-bar, two platters and a rope tow as well as a restaurant and tubing area. It’s a family friendly hill with good touring views to the sea. Mt Lyford often gets large dumps in the early season from coastal sou-westers. Hire a log chalet or stay in the log lodge at the base.
Surfing, whale watching and dolphin swimming is only 30 minutes away in Kaikoura, while Hanmer Springs Thermal resort is 30 minutes in the other direction.
Christchurch is New Zealand’s second largest city. In February 2011, the city was struck by a massive earthquake – 184 people died and thousands of homes were damaged beyond repair. We’ve endured more than 1000 aftershocks. The city has proved its resilience, though, and new bars, restaurants and shops are springing up around the city.
The lonely Planet recently called Christchurch one of New Zealand’s most interesting cities. Our shaken city boasts eight ski areas within reach of a ski trip. On down days we go surfing, walking and mountain biking. Christchurch is also home to New Zealand’s only ski manufacturer, Kingswood Skis. Visit the factory by appointment to get a pair of handcrafted, custom-made skis.
Hanmer Springs Ski Area is a club field near the thermal resort of Hanmer Springs. The ski area can get great snow and on a powder day, you might just have it all to yourself. Ask the locals about a hidden run on the backside that traverses back to the tows. There is on-field accommodation and wacky dress-up events including the Bacardi Cup. With nearby jet-boating, bungee jumping, trout fishing and golf, Hanmer Springs could be considered a poor man’s Queenstown, but the real draw for this region is the largest thermal resort – we never say no to a good hot soak at the end of a day’ skiing.
There are big plans afoot for Christchurch’ newest ski filed. A $500 million development has been approved for Pointers, to include new chairlifts and New Zealand’s first gondola from the main highway. Eventually the development will include a 3400-bed alpine village with hot pools and hiking and mountain biking trails for summer. For now, Porters remains a small-ish commercial field with great family skiing as well as famous off-piste runs like the steep Buff Face and the long thigh-burning Big Mama.
From Christchurch, Mt Cheeseman is the next ski filed along the alpine Highway 73. Cheeseman is a family-focused club filed with a few groomed runs and t-bars but for those who look a bit further, there is easy access to the backcountry and we always try to grab a few end-of-day runs down the access road and through to the beech forest Cheeseman has an on field Café and accommodation part way down the road at Forest Lodge.
Sheltered from the wind, the Broken River gets great snow and plenty of it. We like the joke about its “snow guns” – when the northwest wind pumps dry windblown snow over the ridge and onto the main bowl. Broken River is a classic clubbie, complete with rope tows and a decent walk in. An inclinator gets you most of the way up the mountain but
we find “Stairway to Heaven” still keeps the crowds at bay. The accommodation at Broken Rive is amongst the beech forest a sun-soaked balcony complete with barbeque. The locals are friendly and the beer is cheap.
Craigieburn is known as “the big one” and is renowned for its steep chutes and bowls. Extreme skiing pioneer Glen Plake is a lifetime member. Craigieburn gets loads of snow from the northwest and we find it’s a good option for foggy days with those famous chutes providing some definition. Middle basin is one of our favourite runs – long with a consistent pitch followed by a short walk back to the tows. Craigieburn also has a bar available on the mountain.
Mt Hutt is Canterbury’s premier commercial ski field. Sitting an hour and a half south-west of Christchurch, the field receives reliable snow falls (but has snow making just in case). From large groomed runs to chutes and terrain parks, Mt Hutt has it all, with the backdrop of amazing views across the Canterbury plains to the sea. Nearby Methven is also a base for heli-skiing operations, and comes alive in winter.
Helipark revolutionised heli-accessed skiing when it opened a few years ago. THE $325 Helipark Access Pass includes your first run on a 660ha of backcountry terrain. After that, you’re charged $75 per run. You pick your own lines and decide how many runs you do. Mt Potts Lodge has accommodation available and is also the base for Mt Potts Heliski, which flies into the Two Thumb range to access some of the best terrain in the country.
Temple Basin is the only ski field that sits in the middle of the main range. With views of glaciers and hanging ice falls from the lodge, it’s a real alpine experience. The club filed is accessed by a 50-minute walk through the Arthur’s Pass National Park. A free goods lift carried gear up the mountain. It’s all worth it to wake up at the top of the world, with amazing terrain at your doorstep. The lodge sleeps 120 people and serves great food. Temple Basin gets huge dumps from the northwest. We have been asked to help dig out the lodge or tows at the start of the powder day.
Mt Olympus is known as the playground of the Gods and is a wide open, south facing bowl 2 and a half hours from Christchurch. Nearly an hour on a shingle road that twists up and around the Ryton Valley always makes us feel pretty far from reality. So do the club’s fancy dress box, hot tub and tradition of partying into the wee hours. The brand new sleeping quarters are quiet, though, and the hut Is a true skiin, ski-out experience, which is handy for night skiing. We also love that the ticket office/bar serves cocktails and proper flat whites. There are always a few good
characters soaking up the sun in the Beer Garden outside the hut. When the sun gets too low, we just pack up and ski over to Rum Rock to catch the sunset. Traditions like these have given Mt Olympus the tagline: “a drinking club with a skiing problem”
Mackenzie District Fox Peak
Fox Peak is a true club field at the highest point of the Two Thumbs range, near the town of Fairlie. The wide-open faces are free of crowds and weekend accommodation is available on the club’s cost 40-bed lodge.
A few years ago, we noticed that Tekapo’s Roundhill went from one of the shortest ski hills in the country to one of the longest overnight. This was due to the addition of the Heritage Express Rope Tow in 2010. The 1440m long tow gives access to the Two Thumb range’s chutes, gullies and high-alpine snow. Roundhill also has a terrain park and a café/bar. It’s a great family ski area with a large beginner zone. Tekapo sits on an ice- blue glaciated lake in the dramatic landscape of the Mackenzie region. The area is known for its excellent fishing, boating, hot pools, ice-skating and stargazing at the nearby Mt John Observatory.
We love Ohau for its friendly atmosphere, good lodge, wacky events and spectacular views over the lake. It’s a small filed with just one chairlift, a platter and a snow mat, but there are groomed runs s well as some good off-piste terrain and access to the backcountry. Ohau is uncrowned so we find it a good choice for powder days. The Lodge is lakeside and in 15 minutes you can be carving the fresh powder on this amazing boutique field.
A weekend at Awakino is a classic kiwi adventure.
This tiny club field outside of Oamaru is only open in good seasons and only on weekends. Awakino doesn’t even appear on most lists of New Zealand ski areas so we always arrive to a warm welcome and plenty of room to move.
South-west of Fairlie is Mt Dobson, a family owned ski area with triple-chair and all day sun. Mt Dobson has the highest alpine car park in the country, which leads to rolling terrain and a natural half-pipe. This field can be skiable when many of the other fields are closed or have high winds – a gem not far from a number of other attractions and adventures.
Southern Lakes District Cardrona
An hour from Queenstown and 35 minutes from Wanaka, Cardrona is a family-friendly place with four kids’ centres and two childcare centres. Cardrona is known for its great beginner and intermediate terrain as well as having the most extensive terrain park facilities in New Zealand.
With 550 hectares spread across three large basins, Treble Cone is the largest ski area in the South Island. We never tire of the spectacular views across Lake Wanaka and into the Southern Alps. The mountain has a vertical rise of 705m and a 4km groomed run.
Treble Cone is known for snow quality – dry powder and plenty of it. The great snow and infamous terrain of natural pipes and chutes means there are always plenty of Wanaka-based “Cone Heads” snaking up the mountain on a powder day.
Tourism Wanaka has recently declared the region “The World’s First Protected Lifestyle Reserve” and published a charter designed to preserve and share the Wanaka way of life, an outdoor-orientated life in a spectacular mountain setting. When we first visited Wanaka in the mid-90’s, it was a laid-back hippy town. Over the last 15 years, it’s transformed into a more resortstyle destination, but there are still a few vestiges, like Cinema Paradiso, where you can watch a film from a sofa or an old Morris Minor.
Snowpark is a freestyle mecca – a dedicated park resort. On their high-country farmland, the Lee family has built a standard halfpipe, a quarterpipe, large kickers, 40+ rails, hits, jumps and more. There’s even a beginner park. With 33 automatic snowguns, Snowpark can operate on snowmaking alone. There is a luxury or backpacker accommodation on the mountain as well as a great restaurant and thumping bar.
Over the years, Queenstown has welcomed pioneers and farmers, gold seekers and adventurers thrill seekers and now holidaymakers. Bungee jumping was invented here by AJ Hacket. The bungee operators, along with jet-boating and skiing, have earned Queenstown the title “adventure capital” of New Zealand. But we like Queenstown for its cosmopolitan feel. They’ve packed a lot of amazing bars and restaurants and shops into this little walkable mountain village. Queenstown has an international airport which makes it an easy destination from the East Coast of Australia. Arrive in the morning and be on your skis or board by lunchtime.