Nowhere wears white like Wanaka!
I have dreamed of heli-skiing in the epic mountains of Lake Wanaka for years. Bright blue skies, soaring white slopes, a cobalt lake rippling in brilliant sunshine and drifts of dancing snow teased into pirouettes by departing helicopters. A world of pristine extremes and audacious joy. Being dropped to a precipitous peak in the middle of a landscape straight out of The Hobbit, and scribing the mountainside with my own personal signature - what more could a girl ask for?
It is only fair to tell you that I am not the world’s greatest skier. I can hold my own, and – so I’ve been told – am more brave than skilled! And yet, the idea of heli-skiing is one of those special experiences, those ‘once in a lifetime, if you’re really lucky’ I couldn’t
stop thinking about.
Last season I took on the back country for the first time – on Nordic skis. Fun? A resounding yes! Hard work? Absolutely. Worth it? You bet your sweet self! Prior to that I’ve had two seasons on the slopes of Cardrona just thirty minutes from Wanaka, putting myself through lessons, humiliation, and finally jubilation at mastering a smooth turn. Inspiring confidence and giving me that edge I needed to graduate to more challenging runs, Cardrona was the ideal ski area to learn at. I then graduated to Treble Cone – recently voted at the World Ski Awards as the Best Ski Area in New Zealand. Treble Cone separated the girl in me from the daredevil. Steeps and runs that just never end and the most prolific snowfall in the country! Claiming the longest thigh-busting 4km run with a vertical of 700meters, Treble Cone prepped me for heli-skiing better than an injection of pure adrenaline!
So, of course, I felt completely prepared for the thrills and spills of leaping from a hovering helicopter into perfect powder and carving a path of magic down an unadulterated slope. Er, yeah, and then I woke up…
Fortunately there are options. I love options. In Wanaka there are so many! I could have chosen to blast the budget and really treat myself to four days in Minaret Station, heliskiing with Alpine Helicopters in the privacy of my own personal mountain. Sounds like bliss. Of course, once you add your own glamorous tent complete with possum fur throws, pure merino wool carpets and a private Jacuzzi, well, that simply adds up to Utopia.
I can also opt to invite the family, take the man, or better yet, go girls-only and stay at one of the awesome apartments in Wanaka. Selfcontained, ranging from luxuriously lush to meticulously pragmatic, Wanaka has an apartment to suit everyone – and every one boasts a stunning location! Whether you want to walk to town, be surrounded by vast country or be a blissful blend of both, Wanaka provides apartment living in an extraordinary environment.
Or I could choose any one of the multitude of gorgeous, sumptuous, and most importantly, welcoming, lodges scattered in exclusive pockets of beauty around Wanaka and its breathtaking surrounds. Every single lodge has its own charms and a host or two with a fascinating story to share. Inevitably, it is the people I am drawn to, their stories, their passions and their kindness. And in Wanaka, the people make the place – which is saying something when you consider the place happens to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, has been voted one of National Geographic’s top 25 Ski Towns in the world – the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. I love a good lodge, especially when travelling on my own. It takes mere minutes for me to discover unknown and unrelated family just waiting to welcome me home. And the insider knowledge and
advice on where to eat, what to do and who to ski with, is priceless – and free! And believe me, the ‘what to do’ is more important than you can imagine! Yes, skiing, that’s a given. Of course I’m going heli-skiing. But there’s something very special about a Wanaka winter.
This is something that really needs to be explained properly. Winter in Wanaka defaults to blue skies and sunshine. You will need sunglasses and sunscreen. Yes, the snow is outstanding and an entire day on the slopes will rock your socks off – but get down from the mountain, shrug off the layers and relax in an après environment of al fresco dining, street musicians and laughter till late.
You can jet boat into Mount Aspiring National Park, a World Heritage Area, and revel in pristine, otherwise inaccessible landscapes in winter in Wanaka.
You can spend the day on a fabulous wine tour in winter in Wanaka.
You can take a flight over glaciers, snowy peaks and wild oceans and native forest in winter in Wanaka.
You can ski in the morning, helicopter to the West Coast beaches in the afternoon and catch a crayfish for an al fresco dinner in winter in Wanaka!
You can even (sometimes) wear shorts downtown in winter in Wanaka! I’m not kidding! It’s happened!
But I digress! I’m so enamoured of the place, I find myself extolling Wanaka’s virtues long after my companions have either fallen asleep, or shoved my own rockedoff socks into my mouth. Heli-skiing! The ultimate winter experience! There is no other winter adventure quite as remarkably empowering, invigorating and utterly awe-inspiring. Or adrenaline inducing. I’m quite sure my camera feels rather abused after my gleefully snap-happy first day. I’m also certain that if a camera could talk mine would be muttering, ‘stop the giggling – you sound positively unhinged.’
We were dropped, me delicately (read falling gracelessly into the powdery snow under the thwumping blades of my illustrious ride) onto our drop off peak. Needless to say, my camera was mortified. After shuffling out of the way of the blades and other skiers far superior in their exit to me, we donned skis, goggles and figurative Superman capes, and began our descent. I was in heaven. I carved it up. I felt lighter than the feathery snow falling onto my goggles, listening to nothing but my own excited giggling and my skis whispering hearty encouragement as they sliced the virgin snow like a hot knife through whipped cream.
Daydreams of grandeur and glory ran through my head as I made my way down the seemingly endless slope of untracked powder. It was a day of utter bliss, complete
satisfaction and immeasurable pride as I nailed the last slope of the day. Fortunately, the heli-ski guides know the exact experience you want and where to find it. I needed an introduction to heli-skiing that would challenge, but not scare me. That would inspire me and make me crave more. Job done!
On our way home in the peach and violet twilight, our pilot gave us the ultimate treat to end our day. We flew over a glinting sapphire lake – practically impossible to reach by land and so beautifully deep blue in the gentle dusk it looked like the heart-shaped gem from Titanic. What a bonus!
And what a spectacular end to an impossibly perfect, utterly Wanaka day.