Christchurch is a perfectly placed city to live in if you are a lover of sailing and skiing! The harbour is 20 minutes drive from the central city, and the mountains are just over an hour away.
The two hobbies work so well together as well! We sail from September to June, and then the ski season starts from July through to early October – usually…
We are not blessed with metres of snow each year as some Northern Hemisphere asking destinations, however the Southern Alps of the South Island usually catch enough snow to give us lots of fun throughout the winter months, and some of the ski fields top up with man made snow which helps extend the season.
In the Northern Hemisphere, many ski resorts are built right on the mountain. In New Zealand however, you generally need to drive up to the snow each day unless you stay in one of the club lodges. The drive up to the snow is an adventure in itself! If you have not used snow chains before – it is best to learn how to do it before you need them. My friend Emma and I have first hand experience of how difficult it can be. We spent about half an hour in the snow and mud trying to fit the chains before admitting defeat and flagging down a passing local to help. We had to tell the kids to not tell anyone that she was the CEO of a popular rental car company, and should really know how to do it. Some ski fields rent out snow chains, others don’t. So if you have your own car you are best to buy some or if you are in a rental car you can hire them with the car.
If you have been told your car needs snow chains, chances are you are going to be dealing with a snowy, icy road. This combined with the steep narrow unsealed surface, with steep cliffs on one side and sheer drops on the other, makes the trip not for the faint hearted! Remember that the roads are two way, and when you are coming down, use a low gear and try not to use the brakes!
Or you can take a bus…
There are a few main ski areas in the South Island:
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. There is an airport there so you can fly from Australia, Christchurch or the North Island. Otherwise it is a six hour drive from Christchurch but there are lots of cool ski fields along the way. There are two ski fields here, lots of different accommodation options, great restaurants and bars, shopping, and heaps of other activities, like bungy jumping and jet boating if there is no skiing. It is super touristy and both the ski fields are large commercial operations. Coronet Peak is an easy drive up a wide sealed road, but its lower altitude means that the snow can be a bit slushy if the weather warms up.
The Remarkables are higher and has a more challenging access road but is also a great ski field.
Wanaka is just over an hours drive away over the Crown Range. Along the way is the Snow Farm which is a cross country ski field which I haven’t been to, and also Cardrona. Cardrona is my favourite large commercial ski field. It has three basins, and so everyone can spread out. There is also Treble Cone in Wanaka which is lots of fun on a good day, but the last time I was there it was cloudy and icy and not so much fun!
Wanaka town is a bit more relaxed and less touristy than Queenstown. There are still lots of accommodation options in the little township, and a selection of bars and restaurants to choose from.
The McKenzie Country
Heading North from Wanaka, about two hours drive away is Ohau. There is a gorgeous lodge at the bottom of the mountain which does dinner bed and breakfast, and a handful of holiday houses, but no shops or restaurants, so bring your own supplies. The access road takes about 20 minutes from the bottom to the top. There is a little shop and cafe on the mountain, and a double chair lift. There is also a pomma and a magic carpet for the learners. There is heaps of great terrain here when there is plenty of snow. But sadly this year we haven’t had much yet. Still, Ohau has got snow making facilities, so we had lots of fun on the main trail.
An hour North again, you get to Mount Cook. Here you can heli ski on the Tasman Glacier, which is just spectacular! Mount Cook Village is an expensive place to stay, but about 45 minutes drive away is either Twizel to the South or Tekapo to the North. Both cute towns with more accommodation options to choose from.
Roundhill Ski Field is close to Tekapo. The access road is an easy 40 minute drive, and not very steep. It is a lovely field, and you can park right next to the beginners slope, which means you can have a picnic lunch on the snow. There are a couple of T bar tows and also the longest rope tow which takes you right to the top of a very long steep slope.
To use the rope tow, you need a harness and a ‘nut cracker’. The use of a nutcracker requires a bit of practice… Firstly get yourself a glove protector – which is like a large leather fingerless mitten which slips over your glove. A very thick rope is flying along at high speed, so you grab hold and hang on until you are moving at the same speed as the rope, you then attempt to flip the nutcracker underneath the rope and try to grab the top bit and hold it down with your spare hand. This nutcracker is then grabbing hold of the rope and you just need to hold it shut and sit back in your harness to get pulled up. Unfortunately the flipping on to the rope bit can be a bit tricky, especially all the while you are hurtling at high speed towards the pulley wheels which guide the rope up the mountain. These wheels feel like they are about to slice your fingers off as you go past, and your fingers are very close! It is extremely tempting to pull away from the wheel, and in turn pull the rope off all together! This causes lots of problems for the people coming up behind you, especially if the pulley is holding the rope down, and the person behind you is a small child… anyway it is challenging and character building using a nutcracker. Give it a go!
My favourite bit about Roundhill is the Von Brown hut which is a little bar in a hut at the top of the mountain with the most spectacular view over the lake. Just stunning!
Mt Dobson is about 30 minutes drive North of Tekapo. The access road takes another 30 odd minutes and has got some very steep drop offs! However it is a cool ski field but has quite basic facilities – the cafe, toilets and ski hire are in converted shipping containers. But the field itself is great. It has a chair lift, some T bars and learner facilities. Great skiing terrain.
We usually rent a farm house in Fairlie and fill it up with people and ski Roundhill on the Saturday and Dobson on the Sunday. It is a great weekend away.
Just north of Fairlie is Fox Peak – a club field. I haven’t been there yet. It is on the list!
From here it is about two and a half hours back to Christchurch, or if you stay on the inland road, you will get to Mt Hutt.
Canterbury Ski Fields
Mt Hutt is a commercial ski field about an hour and a half from Christchurch. There is a triple chair lift, a six chair and a quad. There is a big learners area with a magic carpet. On a busy day the car park fills up and you need to park in a lower car park and catch a bus to the top. Mt Hutt is a great ski field, but it gets really busy.
You can either stay back in Christchurch, or the little town of Methven is close to the base of the mountain.
Further along is Mt Olympus – a club field. But I haven’t been there yet.
Porters is the closest ski field to Christchurch and has three T bars and a learners area. They have big plans to open up the Crystal basin next door and have a resort at the base. It will be great if this happens!
Further West towards Arthurs Pass is a little log cabin village called Castle Hill and about 5 minutes beyond that is the access road to Mt Cheeseman. This is a cool club field with a lodge up the mountain where you can stay – they cook dinner and breakfast and the accommodation is in bunk rooms. You can bring your own alcohol, but you have to help out with jobs – so washing the dishes or mopping the floors etc. It is a cool atmosphere and lots of fun.
Down the road a bit further is Cragieburn and Broken River ski fields. I haven’t been to Cragieburn, but I believe it is possible to ski between the two fields. Broken River has a funicular railway which takes you from the car park to the lodge. Then it is a walk up some stairs to the rope tow to get to the ski field and day lodge – bring your nutcracker and harness! It is a great spot. The lodge is lovely and again meals are included or you can do self catering.
Just past Arthurs Pass – about two and a half hours drive from Christchurch is Temple Basin. My friend Emma and I took her kids here for a ski week over the school holidays. You park at the bottom and the website says it is a 45 minute walk to the field. Your gear can go on the goods lift. The walk took us about an hour and a half! It was really difficult in the knee deep snow. There is a lodge where you can stay on the mountain – which looks great. There are nut cracker rope tows to get you up the mountain and they even have night skiing under bright lights.
Back towards the East Coast and about two hours north of Christchurch is Mount Lyford. There is a little log cabin village and we rent a house every year and fill it up with families. The ski field is great, but for the last three years the weather has been terrible and we haven’t skied! About half an hour away is Hanmer Springs with hot pools, restaurants and golf courses, and about an hour to the East is the seaside town of Kaikoura – with diving and whale watching. So there is plenty to do if the weather is not good for skiing.
They also have a tennis court at Mt Lyford that freezes over and you can ice skate on it. Very rustic and great fun!
Hanmer has its own club field – Amuri, which we have yet to get to, and further north towards Nelson is Rainbow ski area which I haven’t been to yet either.
So there is plenty to discover and lots of snow to go around. Whether you prefer the luxuries and terrain of the larger commercial fields, or the relaxed atmosphere of the club fields there is plenty to suit the beginner, advanced and more adventurous skiers out there!