CARDRONA the humble ski field with the Olympic reputation
If you visited Cardrona fifteen years ago, you would have laughed if I told you it produces the majority of New Zealand’s Winter Olympians. Back then, the odd local referred to it as ‘flat white’, as it was known as the ideal place to take the kids skiing or to take your first steps on snow.
While Cardrona holds strong to the values it was raised upon, it has evolved over the years into a resort that attracts a unique melting pot of snow enthusiasts. From its ‘bread and butter’ beginners and families to some of the world’s best elite snow sport athletes, Cardrona attracts skiers and snowboarders from each end of the ‘ability scale’ and the many in-between.
Having not visited Cardrona in a number of years, a small crew of us ‘late 20's ex-ski bums' decided to stay in the picturesque and peaceful ski town of Wanaka for our weekend trip. I've done most of my skiing out of Queenstown including the last time I visited Cardrona (it's an easy one hour drive from the adventure capital) but most Kiwis who visit the ski area seem to stay in Wanaka which is a mere 35 minute drive away…and it's not hard to see why. With its spectacular lake and mountain views, relaxed atmosphere and amazing cafes/restaurants, our group collectively agreed that we had chosen the right spot. While Wanaka usually plays ‘little brother' to the internationally recognized Queenstown, it has had its own supreme accolades including being named in the National Geographic's ‘Top 25 Ski Towns in The World'. Such accolades have surprisingly been kept lowkey as the locals don't like to brag! After a relaxing night consisting of a few wines by the lake as we watched the sun go down, we awoke to one of the crew handing around warm coffees; a passive-aggressive way to say ‘get out of bed and get your skis in the car'. Being ex-ski bums we all prefer to use our own kit however there is an abundance of ski stores in Wanaka offering rental gear or you can hire everything you need up the mountain. The car ride up starts with a mellow cruise through the Cardrona Valley.
We were welcomed by two smiling mascots at the bottom of the Cardrona access road. I couldn't pass such a friendly welcome without smiling and waving back... I wasn't sure if our coffee was too strong or if everyone was just fizzing to get on snow, but our legs couldn't stop twitching. After a quick climb up the access road, timed perfectly to watch the sun come up, we reached the colourful base area. On the walk from the carpark to the base area, the melting pot of Cardrona was quickly revealed. Mothers piling more layers onto their kids, fathers unclipping roof racks, groups of mid 20 – late 30-year-old snowboarders laughing with excitement, young ‘grommies' (under 15 year olds) whipping snowballs at each other and sponsored athletes stretching as they discussed the day's objectives…it was all happening. As the diverse array of guests made their way to the base area, it became clear that the resort has a knack of attracting all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities. After purchasing our lift passes, we put on our boots and enjoyed another coffee while taking in the stunning morning views from the Mezz Café.
Knowing we may split up while skiing we made a plan to meet for lunch. Choosing between an Asian Noodle Bar, Pizzeria, burgers and wraps or modern cafe dining proved tricky but we finally agreed on pizza as a quick recharge to get us back on the slopes swiftly. After a few runs down the large main basin (one of three at Cardrona) I quickly realised how much the resort had evolved since my last visit. Cardrona now has seven lifts (including two quad express chairlifts) which is definitely on the generous side compared to most of the ski areas in the South Island. After exploring the expansive Captain's Basin, we stopped for lunch at Captain's Café for pizza as planned. Our quick stop soon became a lengthy affair since the café deck provided some perfect photo opportunities looking across the Cardrona Valley.
Back in the main basin, the ride up the McDougall's chairlift painted a picture which emphasized the ski area's fascinating con- trasts. On one side instructors helped first timers to make their way down the wide beginner slopes while a couple of hundred metres above them freestyle athletes were hucking and flipping their bodies high out of the Olympic sized halfpipe. Switching our view across to the other side of the chairlift
we watched as intermediate skiers linked turns down pristinely groomed slopes while more high flying tricksters launched themselves off jumps in the various other terrain parks. The melting pot had come alive and was demonstrating its diversity in true form as we enjoyed our last runs of the day. While Cardrona has stayed true to its roots as NZ's ‘family friendly' ski area, it can now add an Olympic element to its reputation. Ten of the fifteen New Zealand Winter Olympic athletes who competed in the Sochi Games regularly trained at Cardrona, but it's not just the local athletes using these world-class facilities. Cardrona, all the way down in little old New Zealand, graced the pages of the New York Times leading up to the last Olympics as the American freestyle team used the resort for valuable training and competition time. Twenty-one of the freestyle athletes who trained at Cardrona in 2013 went on to win medals at the Winter Olympics, which meant that ‘normal' skiers (like me) had a chance to share a chair with some of the world's best. Cardrona has come a long way since its days as the ‘flat white'. While still down-to-earth and friendly, it has an Olympic association which adds to the long list of reasons why visiting the resort is a must. We ended our ski weekend with very fond memories of Cardrona, and we're already planning the next trip!
Taylor Seaton at Cardrona