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 with adventure, activity and
When Queenstown isn’t focusing on winter activities, it’s the capital of adventure tourism. The
famous bungy jump was born here and, aside from skiing and snowboarding, there is a myriad
of activities to occupy visitors such as jet boats, fine Central Otago food and wines, horse riding,
hiking, and white-water rafting.
Queenstown’s closest skifields are Coronet Peak and The Remarkables.
Coronet Peak, a short 15-minute drive from the centre of town, 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. This field features a
fantastic network of progressive terrain parks with wide, gentle slopes for beginners of all ages and
big mountain steeps for the experts. It has some of the best black diamond runs in the country.
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, although there are still plenty of great restaurants and bars.
Wanaka’s two nearby skifields are at Cardrona and Treble Cone, and Snow Park offers cross
country skiing options.
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 New Zealand national snowboard championships, offering half pipes and a
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.
Ohau Skifileds are part of the Ohau Range in the Main Divide, and are therefore well endowed
with reliable snowfall and fine weather. The views from the access road of New Zealand’s
highest mountain, Aoriaki Mt Cook, and the Lake Ohau below are spectacular and the mountain
caters for people of all abilities. Being smaller, it’s friendly and it’s all about people. “Having
skied down to the chair lift from the car park their liftie will advise you where the best runs are and they will be checking on your next run to see if they were right.”
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.
Further north, near Christchurch, 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. Methven’s legendary Blue Pub is a great place to eat after a hard day’s skiing.
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, near Nelson.
- 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. Concierge NZ can organise
good, reliable guides if getting off-piste is your thing.
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
Snow-cat (snow caterpillar) skiing is an innovation offered at Mount Potts, one of the New
Zealand’s highest skifields. 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.
In the North Island, 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 Sir Peter Jackson chose to set the scene for the dramatic battle
of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. For more information on hiking this beautiful region, read our
description of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in last month’s newsletter.
Three active volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – rise high above this harsh
environment. Snow dusted in winter, Mount Ruapehu is the location for the skifields of Turoa
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 at the
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, a historic hotel complete with ballroom and indoor swimming pool.
- Ohakune – on the Turoa side – is a lively village of shops, cafés and bars with a good apres-ski scene.
- The thermal Turangi area has natural spa hot pools, excellent for a long after-ski soak.
Published: May 4, 2016