We don’t really know where we call home anymore - as we travel the world chasing experiences, but I think if we were forced to have a home address it would be Queenstown in the southern region of the South Island of New Zealand. Home of adrenalin activities, great biking, a beautiful big lake, exceptional wine and food, late night partying and epic epic skiing!!!
Skiing in the South Island offers some of the most diverse options in the world from small club ski fields in and around the Canterbury region to the big commercial ski fields in Queenstown and Wanaka. In the south of the South from Queenstown and Wanaka alone at least five great fields can be accessed and a short hop further north to Tekapo makes two more.
What’s the difference to skiing in New Zealand to elsewhere in the world?
The most notable difference to skiing in New Zealand compared to Europe and North America is the lack of connectivity between resorts and that there is no ski-in ski-out accommodation (apart from a few hotel rooms on Cardrona). The ski areas are small, usually comprising of only a handful of lifts. However, they are unique and ‘Kiwi’ in their own way, which therefore makes your experience also unique and Kiwi – and quite frankly that’s a pretty awesome thing. The small size means that most pistes can be conquered pretty much in one day for an intermediate skier. However, with off-piste skiing being actively encouraged there is always plenty of slopes that you will miss without the use of a local guide.
The ski areas
Arguably Cardrona and Coronet Peak vie for the title of New Zealand’s premium ski resort. Although in the North Island the fields of Ruapehu (Turoa and Whakapapa might argue quite differently)
Coronet Peak is relatively low, starting at only 1,100 meters above sea level, but it is easily gained from downtown Queenstown. Only a 20 minute drive from any hotel to carpark. In terms of feel (not size) Coronet Peak has that Aspen/St Moritz ritzy feel about it. A real quality base building and abundance of staff to greet you, carry skis, organise lessons and hire gear - makes things so easy for any family. But don’t be fooled by the glitz, glamour and low altitude - as well as loads and loads of beginner and intermediate areas Coronet Peak has a lot of serious terrain for the advanced intermediate skiers and above. This is where a guide can really come into play taking you off-piste and into some fabulous runs. In our opinion Coronet Peak has one of the best fall-lines in the world - if only it was another 1,000 meters higher.
Need a break? Maybe the best part of Coronet Peak is Heidi’s Hut - an Austrian style small cafe serving al a carte Pizza, local Pinot Noir and maybe a small grappa afterwards with a coffee to get you going.
Cardrona is the other “big” ski field. Situated almost halfway between Queenstown and Wanaka in the Cardrona Valley the slopes are much less steep than Coronet Peak but the reception no less impressive. Cardrona has the warranted reputation for it’s friendly smiling staff. The ski field is primarily made up of wide open cruising runs absolutely perfect for beginners, families and intermediates. One of our favourites is from the top of the White Star chairlift all the way to the bottom of the Valley View - a 15 minute pearler. Cardrona is not short of advanced runs particularly in the chutes - but generally there is not the length or variety of these compared to Coronet Peak or Treble Cone further to the West, and they can be difficult to suss without a guide.
The one thing that Cardrona has over Coronet Peak is the massive, and we mean massive, terrain park. Jumps 30+ feet in the air and rails as long as train tracks, plus a dress code to match - strictly underwear showing!
Finally, Cardrona has the best-apres ski option in the whole South Island - Cardrona Pub! The historic hotel in the Cardrona valley has roaring fires and a garden bar to boot. The challenge is who draws the dedicated driver straw (probably your guide) and do we have to leave!
To the west of Cardrona and on the other side of Wanaka is Treble Cone, the highest ski field in the Southern Lakes area. When the snow conditions are good (read powder days) this field is perhaps the favourite of every local in the region. Loads of variety exist in the saddle and lots of off-piste too. There is lots of options for beginners and intermediates too, although the main run returning to the base building and carpark can be a bit of a nightmare by late morning for non-confident skiers.
On the Queenstown side virtually opposite the valley from Coronet Peak the other option is The Remarkables. A jagged range with the ski field nestled into a basin with a flash new base building and restaurant area. The Remarkables has three distinct ski areas each with it’s own appeal. The main facing Curvy Basin area is a favourite with families as it provides excellent intermediate terrain plus a few short off-piste runs out toward Lake Alta. To the left the Sugar Chair area is equiped with a large terrain park made up of some pretty serious jumps, plus the Burton Stash park. Low snow seasons have made the Stash not as popular as it should be unfortunately. On the other side of the resort the Shadow Chair offers great skiing for intermediate and advanced skiers - particularly those willing to hike for a few minutes to reach the chutes. Having a guide on hand to point you in the right direction and find the untracked snow on “The Remarks” is a big plus - runs like the toilet bowl, Elevator or the huge Homeward Bound take a bit of navigating. Perhaps the downsides of the Remarks is that the Sugar and Shadow Chairs are pretty antiquated and take an eternity to ascend.
Further afield (a 2 hour drive North from Queenstown or Wanaka) comes our favourite however - Ohau (said Oh How, as in Oh how we love to ski). Ohau is a tiny ski field: 1 chairlift; 1 rope tow; and a drag lift - the latter two for learners. But what it lacks in lifts it makes up in spades with access to superb off-piste skiing, and wonderfully friendly staff. The restaurant/cafe/mountain hut - shack - holds only 30 or 40 people and serves beautiful homemade pies, soups and to die for carrot cake. Most days the resort is quiet with only a few dozen skiers and boarders making getting perfect tracks a breeze. A short hike to the summit with your guide is often worth it to get fresh tracks even a few days after a snowfall.
And the best bit about skiing Ohau is a beer and world-famous (in Ohau) Nachos at the end of the day in the lodge below the resort. The downside? The road up is gnarly to say the least and you will be thankful for having a guide drive you rather than tackling it yourself in your rental car.
Finally in the Southern region and definitely not to be ignored are the two small fields of Roundhill and Mount Dobson accessed from the township of Tekapo. Both are family run and are rarely crowded. Both have fabulous skiing for families and intermediate skiers - although Roundhill boasts a crazy 1.4km “nutcracker” rope tow accessing some incredible off piste trails when the snow allows. And the best bit about skiing the Tekapo ski fields - an apres ski soak in the Tekapo hot pools as the sun sets over the lake.
There you have it, what’s left? How about a days heli-skiing or backcountry cat skiing, or cross-country skiing at Snow Park or a ski touring mission into the Doolins. The southern region of the South Island has so much variety and so many ski options for every level of skier or the whole family. So grab a guide for a day or many and rip it up!