With four ski resorts tucked in the majestic mountain ranges surrounding Queenstown, winter offers a veritable snow buffet for all – whether on skis or a snowboard, writes Helen Hayes.
It was love at first sight for me on my first trip to Queenstown. In fact, it was more like love at first flight, with my plane’s route over this South Island gem one of the most picturesque I have ever experienced. Once on solid ground, looking up from the airport to the magnificent and well-named Remarkables mountain range, Cupid’s arrow strikes again, and I surrender to what will be an ongoing love affair with this part of New Zealand, delivering infrequent (but oh-so-memorable) trysts.
I didn’t expect to love Queenstown. As a skier, I thought there was nothing better than a destination with ski-in, ski-out offerings. I could step out of my luxury lodge, hotel or apartment straight into skis and down a corduroy run that would take me to a gondola or a chairlift and whisk me up, up and away into a heavenly snowy playground. Queenstown doesn’t have this option – apart from 15 apartments at Cardrona Alpine Resort – which I saw as a negative. How wrong I was.
Benefits of staying in Queenstown
This trifle of having no on-mountain accommodation or village hub pales into insignificance thanks to the many upsides Queenstown delivers wintersports enthusiasts.
For one, you get to drink in the sheer beauty that this lakeside town offers when you come back from a day of skiing or snowboarding. Being able to look at the reflection of The Remarkables in the mirror-like Lake Wakatipu at different times of the day is beautiful. Strolling through the lanes and down the Queenstown Mall in the gorgeous town centre, watching boats coming and going from the wharf, is always enjoyable. Having your pick of an incredible array of bars and restaurants and not being restricted to a single hotel restaurant (or being forced to cook dinner yourself in a remote on-snow lodge) is a blast.
Then there’s the selection of high-end accommodation you get to choose from. You can opt for lodgings overlooking the lake, choose to be in the heart of Queenstown, or aim for a luxurious apartment or residence with every mod con available.
Access to four alpine resorts
No matter where you choose to stay, when you awake you can decide which of the four resorts you want to experience when you go skiing in Queenstown.
It is liberating to not be tied to one resort – if the visibility is bad at one, you can simply opt to go to another. Easy. For many snow lovers, experiencing four resorts instead of one is a huge draw. Each of the resorts surrounding Queenstown is unique in its offerings, and all are well worth a visit.
Another upside is that you don’t even have to drive, thanks to shuttles between the town centre and most of the resorts. If you’re feeling exclusive, there are also multiple companies that provide limousine transfers between your accommodation and the snow.
Coronet Peak is the closest to Queenstown. It is an easy 20-minute drive to Coronet Peak. Everything is easy here thanks to an effortless and seamless progression for lift tickets (if you haven’t already done all that online), rental gear, and places you can buy new goggles, gloves or a Coronet buff.
As for the terrain: Coronet caters to all levels, with 280 hectares of glorious runs. Opened back in 1947, Coornet was the first commercial ski resort in New Zealand. Back in the day, a sled pulled by a dog was ‘the chairlift’. Today, there are several high-speed chairlifts whizzing up the mountain. Non-skiers and sightseers are not forgotten, with beautiful new gondola cabins added to the Coronet Express to ensure everyone can enjoy stunning views over the Wakatipu Basin.
Coronet continues to glow after the sun goes down with its famous night skiing. On Wednesdays, Fridays and select Saturdays throughout July and August, the resort becomes a fun evening out with great skiing for those who have energy left in their legs – or dinner and an après drink for those who don’t.
Another bonus for Coronet Peak is that the stunning Onsen Hot Pools complex is located on the way back to Queenstown. After a day on the slopes, there’s nothing better than a steaming soak. Each tub featuring a retractable ceiling that opens to reveal the region’s spectacular scenery.
The Remarkables resort sits on the opposite side of the basin to Coronet Peak, atop its namesake Remarkables mountain range. It is a 40-minute drive from Queenstown and the views on the way up are breathtaking.
The ‘Remarks’, as it’s fondly known by locals, is popular for its terrain parks including its famous Burton Stash park. The park is one of only six in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. But if you’re not into riding rails and getting some ‘big air’, The Remarks also delivers fun beginner and intermediate terrain, as well as challenging black runs in its 385 hectares.
In recent years, the resort has been dedicated to upgrading its guest experience. They have a new base building, additional car parking, fresh lifts and extra terrain. One thing that that hasn’t changed, however, is the absolutely phenomenal view from the ridgeline at the top of the Shadow Basin chairlift. It is worth the ascent to look over the Wakatipu valley, taking in the lake and Queenstown tucked in a corner on the northern shore. There is a sightseeing pass for non-skiers, so no-one misses out on this jaw-dropping experience.
For another remarkable offering, look no further than the Ice Bar of the top of the Curvey Basin chair. Here you can raise a toast to this magical place with a glass of mulled wine or a beer. Cheers!
Cardrona Alpine Resort
Cardrona is an hour’s drive from Queenstown over the beautiful Crown Range and 35 minutes from Wanaka. No matter if you are an absolute beginner, a black-run junkie or – like me – a corduroy (groomed-run) princess.
Cardrona also appeals to freestyle riders thanks to its two half pipes, a big air jump and a gravity cross course. Small wonder it has spawned a number of Olympians and X Games athletes including Jossi Wells and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott.
Cardrona has 400 hectares in which to frolic. The brand-new Willows Basin is on the Soho Basin side of the mountain. It offers 65 hectares of terrain, easily accessed via the Willows chairlift.
The beauty of Cardrona for me is the friendliness of the people who work here. Not to mention tucking into lunch at The Mezz (the on-mountain restaurant), heading over to Captain’s Basin to do laps of my favourite runs, and the view from the Vista Bar at the top of the McDougall’s Express Chondola. Pull up a beanbag, grab a glass of Mumm champagne and admire the views over Cardrona and the Wakatipu Basin.
Soho Basin snowcat experience
While Cardrona skiers can enjoy a slice of Soho Basin, there is another way to experience it. Go on an unforgettable luxury snow adventure unlike any other in New Zealand. Soho Basin is a private alpine cat experience. It gives groups of up to 24 intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders access to pristine, untouched snow.
You also get to enjoy absolutely incredible food and wine provided by applauded regional restaurant Amisfield, where your experience begins. Enjoy breakfast at this world-class establishment; when it is time for lunch, don’t expect the usual quick slice of pizza and hot chocolate. Amisfield’s chef will prepare you a three-course gourmet meal to enjoy in the serenity of the Southern Alps. After more runs from the cat in the afternoon, the day concludes with an après ski barbecue.
Treble Cone is now a sister resort to Cardrona, which means you can ski both resorts on one pass. TC is 90 minutes from Queenstown and around 35 minutes from Wanaka. With 550 hectares to ride and slide on, it’s the largest ski resort in the South Island.
Advanced and expert riders head for the open powder faces and natural half pipes in the Saddle Basin. Then for the challenging terrain in the Motatapu Chutes. You won’t find me there – I’ll be doing laps of the brilliant intermediate runs in the Saddle Basin and, later in the day, zipping all over the Home Basin.
There is a decent beginner area down by the base. There you can also have a good meal, but my favourite place to refuel is the Allpress at Altitude Bar. You can get a coffee and meal while soaking up incredible panoramas over Lake Wanaka and beyond.
Heliskiing in Queenstown
The Helicopter Line provides helicopters for heli-skiing through Harris Mountains Heli Ski. The Squirrel choppers have the highest level certification through the Civil Aviation Authority for heli-skiing. They will whisk you up into the snowy peaks around Queenstown and Wanaka, for a day you will never forget.
Take your pick of a three-run package – great for first time intermediate heli-skiers or boarders – the relaxed-pace four-run day, the seven-run package for experienced and fit skiers and boarders, and the Max Vert 10-run package, which is fast-paced for those who simply want to go and keep on going like the Energizer Bunny.
If you are having a wonderful time and want to add runs to your package, you can do that, too. You have to make the most of your opportunities, right? After all, it is not every day you have a helicopter to drop you off onto perfect slopes lined with untouched and often powdery snow