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Land of the long white shroud
Land of the long white shroud

Australian travellers have long beaten a path to the top quality ski resorts perched high along New Zealand's mountainous spine.

Airfares to NZ compare favourably with those to the Eastern States and a good exchange rate means Australian passengers get a lot of bang for their buck.

The country's Southern Alps spear through the South Island and contain most of NZ's better known skifields in the area around the adventure capital Queenstown and nearby Wanaka. These towns have become bases for skiers in a country where ski-in, ski-out resorts are not the tradition.

And they are far from ghost towns in the summer when travellers arrive to enjoy water sports, bungee jumping, mountain biking and fishing in an area that has become so popular that Air New Zealand, Qantas and Jetstar operate services from Sydney and Melbourne direct to Queenstown.

There's a lot to love about Coronet Peak. Not only is it one of the closest resorts to Queenstown - skiers can stay by Lake Wakatipu and head for the hills every day - but it also has a varied terrain and snow as late as mid-October.

Unsurprisingly, Coronet Peak was NZ's first commercial skifield, starting with a single tow rope in 1947 but in recent years NZSki Limited (which also owns Mt Hutt and The Remarkables Ski Area) has spent millions of dollars improving facilities which now include high speed quad and six-seater chairlifts.

The skifield hosts international events and is an oft-used training ground with 80 per cent of its runs designed for intermediate or expert skiers.

These runs traverse challenging rolling terrain between a series of interconnected bowls, the longest slope being the 2.4km intermediate M1.

But novices are well looked after too, with a recently expanded beginner's area with twin conveyor lifts and dedicated snowmaking facilities which are part of the largest system in NZ.

The core of the resort can be covered after three days of snowmaking and with the First Tracks program allowing a limited number of skiers on to the slopes at 8am, there is a daily opportunity to enjoy unspoilt snow.

Coronet Peak is also one of the few skifields in NZ to offer night skiing with the M1, Shirtfront, Big Easy and a Magic Carpet fully lit.

Off-piste (off groomed runs) skiing is extensive at Coronet Peak but the area is above the tree-line making it easy to lose your bearings in fog. Snowboarders will enjoy a terrain park with box and bench jumps.

Because of its proximity to Queenstown, there is no accommodation at Coronet Peak but the base building, constructed in 2008, houses two cafes, a brasserie and a European restaurant at Heidi's Hut which serves pizza, pasta and mulled wine. There's also a heated deck and a Snowsports School.

The Remarkables mountain range runs north to south along the dogleg of Wakatipu and, nestled at an altitude of more than 1500m, the skifields have stunning views of icy peaks, green pastureland and the glacial lake below.

An even mix of runs, many recently widened, cross three bowls. Advanced courses such as Emerald Buttress and Gallipoli Chutes plunge into the Sugar Bowl and the 1.5km Homeward Run which sweeps wide and deep down the ridge is known as one of the best in-bound back-country slopes.

There are a number of terrain parks, a 150m Superpipe and a snowtube park and the Remarkables is widely recognised as a good skifield for young families and beginners with a wide, gently sloping learner's area served by three "magic carpet" conveyor lifts.

There is also a well-reputed ski school, equipment hire, and a newly renovated cafe and bar.

Wanaka is less commercialised than Queenstown although it still has good night life and diverse restaurants and is the mainstay for some of NZ's leading skifields. Many of those who arrive in town each winter will then head south to enjoy the snow at Cardrona Alpine Resort where three-quarters of the runs are in the family-friendly, beginner and intermediate categories with an extensive range of children's programs.

Two magic carpets and a platter lift serve the beginner's zones, all of which are close to base. Cardrona allows novices to learn on gradual slopes dedicated to beginners and then, as they become more skilful, at the ridge-hugging Westons Trail.

The black diamond Irish Pipes, Powder Keg and Secret Chute ensure there is plenty to test expert skiers while, for snowboarders, there are two halfpipes, four terrain parks and a high performance training centre.

Snowfall rarely breaks records but the resort has a snowmaking system to help cover the main trails. And Cardona is one of the few NZ resorts with accommodation. There are 15 one to four-bedroom apartments within a few minutes of the ski lifts and there are five eateries on the mountain.

There's usually fantastic natural snowfall at Treble Cone, a skifield with a reputation as one of NZ's finest, offering challenging intermediate and expert runs and serving as a training base for a number of top international ski teams.

Terrain is steep and challenging with the longest run, Tim's Table, stretching 4.3km and there are stunning views of Lake Wanaka and the many peaks in Mt Aspiring National Park. Four lifts, including a six-seater express, whisk skiers up the mountain with the longest serviced descent promising a drop of 700m.

Advanced riders can take a guided tour out to the thrilling Motatapu Chutes and the skifield is renowned for exhilarating downhill runs and great off-piste powder skiing. But although Treble Cone is less family-oriented, long groomed trails for beginners and snowboarders and a magic carpet and the Nice and Easy Platter lift have been installed during the past few years.

There's also a Snow Sports school and half-day to three-day Learn to Ski and Board packages, a range of children's programs and a new Fun Park. Treble Cone has equipment hire and a cafe and bar but there is no on-mountain accommodation.

For those who prefer long-distance skiing there is Snow Farm, NZ's only cross-country park which has 55km of trails in the Pisa Range outside Wanaka. There are wide, flat trails for first-timers and long steep and deep tracks for the more experienced.

Many of the trails begin at the lodge where there are ensuite and communal rooms and there are also back-country, ski-in, ski-out huts available for rent. Lessons and equipment hire are also available.

The nearby Snow Park is packed with features for freestylers of all levels of aptitude with sled and tube runs, jumps, half pipes, boxes and jibs and, for experts, an air bag jump.

Budding jumpers can take lessons or join training camps. Some areas are floodlit for nightriding and Snow Park has equipment hire, a restaurant and cafe, and accommodation from apartments to bunkrooms.

An hour from Christchurch, the skifields at Mt Hutt are said to be the largest in the South Island and among the earliest to open each season. Runs cater for all levels of experience from wide well-maintained slopes to double black diamond chutes.

Another fantastic view awaits, this time of the Canterbury Plains, Aoraki Mt Cook and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.

It is heavily angled towards intermediate skiers but infrastructure has improved markedly at Mt Hutt in recent years with the installation of a new high-speed six-seater lift that can reach the top of the mountain in less than five minutes, a 140m conveyor lift, and the addition of a 1.2km beginner's run.

Freestylers are also catered for with a 10,000sqm park with kickers, rails and tabletops and there's the Dirty Dog terrain park for beginners. Base facilities include a Snowsports School, equipment rental and a licensed brasserie.

North Island ski areas are less well known but Whakapapa on the volcanic Mt Ruapehu is NZ's biggest skifield while its twin Turoa has Australasia's highest lift (2322m).

Whakapapa has a vast beginner's area known as Happy Valley with a cafe and school as well as 30 groomed trails for intermediates and 24 black and black diamond runs and the back-country Pinnacles for the pros.

At Turoa, novices will find a beginner's zone served by a 120m magic carpet and tobogganing area. There are wide smooth runs for intermediates and the volcanic landscape is pitted with chutes and bowls. Some 25 black and black diamond runs and lift-accessed back country will test experts. Both skifields have cafes and a good mix of accommodation from holiday parks to lodges and apartments.

  • PRICES AND SPECIALS *

·All skifields issue passes allowing use of facilities throughout the ski season. Ski passes usually cost $700+ and aren't cost effective for WA travellers seeking a week in the snow. Season passes are cheaper earlier in the year. See individual skifield websites for details.

·Air New Zealand has daily direct flights to Auckland, with connections to Christchurch and Queenstown. Flights from Perth to Queenstown are from $640, one way, per person, and from Perth to Christchurch from $560 one way, per person, both for travel between July 23 and September 30. Visit airnewzealand.com.au.

·Coronet Peak: The skifields are less than half an hour from Queenstown. Regular shuttle busses cover the route at fares of $NZ12 per person. Along with Mt Hutt and The Remarkables, Coronet Peak is owned by NZSki Limited and the company offers combined lift passes and a cashless mypass system which can be reused in future seasons. See nzski.com.

·The Remarkables: The Remarkables is scheduled to open for skiing from mid-June to mid-October. A shuttle bus covers the 45 minute drive between Queenstown Snow Centre and The Remarkables and costs $NZ5 return. See nzski.com.

·Mt Hutt: The ski season is scheduled from June 9 to October 7. Some accommodation providers and restaurants at the nearby town of Methven are involved in the Methven Kids 4 Free deal in 2012. Children aged 10 and under who are accompanied by a paying adult can dine free from the children's menu at participating restaurants and stay for free when sharing a room with adults at eligible hotels. They will also receive free airport transfers between Christchurch and Methven and free transport on the ski bus between Methven and Mt Hutt. On the slopes, each child 10 and under gets a free day lift pass at Mt Hutt Ski Area. See kids4free.co.nz and nzski.com. Until February 4, Value Tours has a seven-night package for a family of two adults and two children aged under 10 which includes accommodation in a two-bedroom apartment at Mount Hutt Motel, five-day lift passes, skibus transfers and return airport transfers. The package costs from $2281, is valid for travel from June 20 to October 4 and includes the Kids 4 Free deal. See valuetours.com.au.

·Cardrona Alpine Resort: The resort is scheduled to open from June 24 to October 7. A number of companies offer transport between Cardrona and Wanaka (20km) and Queenstown (60km). See cardrona.com.

·Treble Cone: The season is set to run from June 28 to September 30. The resort is 35 minutes from Wanaka and 90 minutes from Queenstown. There are bus services available from both towns and scenic flights from Queenstown. Go to treblecone.com.

·Snow Farm and Snow Park: The pair share an interconnecting road and are about 35km from Wanaka and 55km for Queenstown. See snowfarmnz.com and snowparknz.com.

·Travellers can buy the new OnePassNZ, a cashless card that can be used at a host of skifields including Treble Cone, Cardrona Alpine Resort, Snow Park, Snow Farm, Ohau Skifields, Roundhill Ski Area, Mt Dobson Ski Area and Porters Ski Area. Details are being finalised.

·Mt Ruapehu: The twin skifields of Whakapapa and Turoa are just over four hours from both Auckland and Wellington. The Ruapehu Ski Pass is valid at both Whakapapa and Turoa. The season typically opens in late June or early July. See mtruapehu.com.