The real New Zealand winter wonderlands are a world away from Queenstown and Wanaka.
The Australians that gather in their tens of thousands round Queenstown each snow season might well think skiing in New Zealand is all about riding the town’s major ski resorts: the Remarkables and Coronet Peak. But in reality, skiing Queenstown barely scratches the surface of what’s available across the Tasman.
Most Australian skiers haven’t even heard of the ski resorts I’m venturing to an hour or so drive out of Christchurch in New Zealand’s less heralded Canterbury region, but it’s these resorts that make New Zealand such a unique winter destination.
Simply driving between the Canterbury ski fields ought to be a bona fide tourist attraction in itself. I’m making my way past paddocks of sheep hunkering down against the elements, through swollen rivers as green as emeralds on dirt roads, narrowly avoiding startled sheep farmers in rusty 4WDs on blind corners, above a landscape of limestone rocks balancing on top of one another (they call this place the Stonehenge of New Zealand).
Huge mountains jut out at unearthly angles; on the main divide they reach up higher than 3,000 metres. And round here it’s not unusual to get over two metres of snow in two days – can you even imagine that? (Alaska, eat your heart out.)
And while hordes of Aussies clamber each year to Queenstown and Wanaka, only a few carloads even make it to Canterbury’s club fields (a club field is a small ski area, usually owned and operated by a ski club, common in New Zealand).
“It’s crazy there’s no Aussies here,” our guide Scotty points out at the wilderness around us. “Cause this is why you should come across the ditch. Australia already has ski resorts, but have you even seen places like these?”
He has a point: there’s nothing remotely like Canterbury’s club fields anywhere else on this planet.
There is a wide selection of ski fields to choose from just west of Christchurch – but do these names even mean a thing to any of you? Craigieburn, Broken River, Mt Cheeseman, Porters and Mt Olympus.
How they’ve managed to stay such a secret is testament to just how much New Zealand offers Australian winter travellers. But for any of us hoping to understand the quintessential Kiwi winter experience, this is the perfect place to come to investigate.
Some of these club fields are not for the faint of heart, but therein lies their attraction – you can tailor the kind of winter experience you want. For families seeking some of the country’s only ski-in, ski-out accommodation far from the crowds (and at much cheaper prices) family-friendly resorts like Cheeseman beckon.
Porters, a 100-kilometre drive west of Christchurch, is a fantastic option too; you can follow a paved road here and there’s a four-seater chairlift, T-bars and even a carpet lift for beginners, all set amongst some of New Zealand’s most stunning alpine countryside. There are plenty of gentle slopes for beginners and intermediates at both Porters and Cheeseman.
For those seeking extra thrills, Canterbury’s club fields offer up some of the earth’s most challenging backcountry. But don’t come expecting too many creature comforts. Club fields like Craigieburn, Mt Olympus and Broken River are like a living, breathing monument to the efforts New Zealanders have gone to in order to ski down their huge home mountains.
There are no chairlifts at these club fields – skiers instead must hold onto ‘nut-cracker’ rope tows, riding them to the tops of mountains. But the extra effort is worth it: from here, you’ll have access to the best backcountry terrain in New Zealand – and even on powder days you won’t battle a crowd.
And yet, Canterbury’s club fields mark just the beginning of the unique New Zealand winter experience for those willing to chance their way off the well-beaten path.
For the best road trip imaginable, after skiing Canterbury, take the road south towards Queenstown and visit some of the South Island’s most underrated family-run ski resorts along the way.
It’s a long road, but each corner offers up some stunning alpine scenery. The best place to see it all is within the country’s most lessr-known ski resort, Ohau.
Take the turn-off from the highway to Wanaka to an old lodge built just metres from pristine Lake Ohau. Here you’ll dine at communal tables – the emphasis is on the homely side of hospitality.
A short drive away, the ski resort is home to just one chairlift but it also hosts the prettiest (and some of the most challenging) backcountry in New Zealand – easily accessible via short hikes from the top of the lift.
You’re a part of Mackenzie Country here – roughly half way between Christchurch and Queenstown, where mountains are owned by mums and dads, and some of them have been in families for generations. They’ve resisted big business, because they’d rather run things their way.
Near Lake Tekapo, a brother-sister team own and run family-favourite Roundhill, where you’ll only find T-bars and rope tows (but the terrain is so good the mountain hosts some of the world’s best ski teams each winter). You’ll also find Mt Dobson around here – at the end of a stunning road across a sheer mountain pass – where the owner, a former sheep farmer, has sprung for a triple chair (rare in these parts).
Queenstown and Wanaka offer the southern hemisphere’s most sophisticated snow attractions, but for anyone seeking a dyed-in-the-wool winter experience into the very heart of New Zealand, there’s no better place to venture than Canterbury and Mackenzie Country.
Words: Craig Tansley