Much as I love to ski, chasing the snow is a rare treat. The six-hour drive from my home on Sydney’s northern beaches and the fickle nature of Australia’s warm-blooded weather gods are usually enough to make me think twice. A few years ago Tourism NZ erected a cheeky billboard strategically positioned on the long trek to the Snowy Mountains declaring “By Now You Could be Skiing Here!”, with a sparkling shot of smiling skiers having the time of their lives in Queenstown. Not surprisingly, the billboard didn’t go down well with authorities on this side of the Tasman, but with its simple message in mind it came time to explore what kind of ski experience a New Zealand airfare could buy me.
It didn’t take long to discover the first of many – landing at Queenstown Airport. Is there a more stunning airport on Earth? Step off the plane and you’re surrounded by chocolate-box panoramas. I had to resist a powerful urge to post to Insta before I even hit the baggage claim. If the first impression is the staggering beauty, the second is the convenience. I could pick up my car, check into my apartment on the edge of Lake Wakatipu and drive up to the Base at Coronet Peak within the hour. But today I take my time because on Friday and Saturday nights, Coronet Peak becomes the only resort in New Zealand to offer night skiing. The concept led me to imagine a small floodlit run assailed by pumping tunes and besieged by drunken teenagers – fortunately it was nothing of the sort. Over 40 per cent of the runs are floodlit, and coasting along with the moon overhead was an eerily tranquil pastime. While I couldn’t quell the nagging sensation I was doing something vaguely illegal, with all the runs above the tree line there were mercifully few things for me to run into on the powdery sweeps of snow that seemed to merge into one under the bright lights.
The Remarkables – again less than the 30 minutes from Queenstown – are aptly named. While the drive up is a heart-stopping experience (a rock wall on one side, an airy drop on the other), the new six-seater Shadow Basin Chair promptly whips you up to the world-class runs. Before strapping on your skis, however, you’d be well advised to make the bracing 15-minute hike to the summit. The views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu defy my powers of description. And make sure you block out a solid hour for lunch. While most ski resorts specialise in greasy burgers and soggy chicken nuggets, here the selection is so delicious and healthy I opted for the impressive salad buffet over the more winter-appropriate hot pots and pastas.
For a very different ski experience, head north to Mount Hutt. Yes, it’s a six-hour drive, but the sumptuous views of the Alps make the time fly by. Lift passes and accommodation are more affordable at Mt Hutt, while the runs are also far less crowded. Queues for lifts are minimal and the 365 hectares of steep, treeless terrain were perfect for an intermediate skier like myself to push my speeds to challenging new levels (locals call this place the “Capital of Speed”). Even more memorable, though, was the spectacular backdrop when the clouds cleared in the early afternoon. The Alps drop off suddenly and the Canterbury Plains spread out to the distant Pacific Ocean. I could wax lyrical about patchwork quilts and topaz seas but, hell, you’re probably best off seeing it for yourself.
Any trip to Mt Hutt is best bookended by a night’s stay in Methven. The accents are broader here, the skiwear a little less flashy and the atmosphere down to earth – a contrast from the more cosmopolitan streets of Queenstown. Come dinnertime, I was cheerfully told to choose between the blue pub or the brown pub. I smiled kindly, assuming this was some Kiwi anachronism I’d never previously encountered. When I hit the main drag, however, I realised that this is quite literally their names. I opted for the Blue Pub and was rewarded with some fine ales.
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com.au) flies direct to Christchurch from most Australian capital cities, with a short connecting flight to Queenstown.
The Pounamu Apartments (pounamuapartments.co.nz) in Queenstown offer luxury accommodation with stunning views over Lake Wakatipu. In Methven, the Brinkley Resort (brinkleyresort.co.nz) provides quiet, affordable, self-contained apartments with an award-winning restaurant to boot.
The menu at Queenstown’s uber-cool Blue Kanu (bluekanu.co.nz) is an edgy mingling of Polynesian and Asian flavours. Call it Polyn-asian and impress your foodie friends.