The ski season in New Zealand lasts from late June into September, and takes place in 'ski fields' to which you drive from nearby towns. The "ski fields" are smaller than major ski areas in Europe or North America, but they are less crowded and have good heliskiing and ski touring.
Whakapapa and Turoa (North Island)
Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand’s North Island, is actually a volcano not a mountain, so occasionally skiers turn up to find the snow covered in ash. And as far as weather goes, expect the unexpected: all conditions are possible, often in the same day. There is piste skiing on both its north-facing flanks at Whakapapa and on its south-face at Turoa. Whakapapa is the larger area (it’s the largest single ski field in New Zealand) but Turoa has the larger vertical (an impressive 700m), and because of its orientation, usually has the best snow. Off-piste skiers can ski between the two areas if they are prepared to hike up in places (guide recommended). Whakapapa skiers can stay near the lifts in Whakapapa village or on the outskirts of the national park. Turoa skiers tend to stay in Ohakune where there is a good choice of accommodation. Whakapapa’s official stats are 8 ski lifts, 44km of slopes and 670m vertical (1630m – 2300m). Turoa’s are 7 lifts , 20km of runs and 699m vertical (1623m – 2322m)
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Queenstown and Wanaka (South Island)
Queenstown and Wanaka are two lakeside towns in the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. Neither of them has ski lifts but there are four ski fields within day-trip range of both of them. Wanaka is prettier but much quieter. Queenstown is definitely more commercialised, but it has great night life, ranging from sophisticated dining to cheap and cheerful bars aimed at gap-year students. It’s also an all year round holiday destination with plenty of other activities going on even in the dead of winter, so if you have ever wondered what white water rafting, bungee jumping, sky-diving or jet-boating are like in near freezing conditions, this is the place to find out. Queenstown and Wanaka are also major heliskiing centres. You have to be flexible on where you go because New Zealand weather is highly unpredictable, but it’s a good bet that somewhere there will be glorious untouched powder, and the best guides will find it.
The nearest ski field to Queenstown is Coronet Peak which is about 15 to 20 minutes’ drive (it’s about 75 minutes from Wanaka). There is skiing for all standards, from nursery slopes and green runs for beginners to the experts-only Back Bowls, although whether these will be enjoyable depends on snow conditions, which are highly variable. The main runs are reinforced with artificial snowmaking, however. In total there are 4 ski lifts, about 40km of slopes and a vertical of 420m (1229 m – 1649 m).
Queenstown‘s next closest ski field is The Remarkables (about 30 mins from Queenstown or 90 mins from Wanaka). The name is not a misnomer – the mountain scenery is spectacular, and the slopes are higher and get more snow than Coronet Peak. There are runs for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers, and for those who want to explore further, there is good ski touring. The official stats – 4 ski lifts, 10km of slopes and 333m vertical (1610m – 1943m) – considerably understates what strong skiers can access because they can hike up from the top lift and ski down below the base-station on black runs, returning in a truck.
Cardrona is about 45 mins drive from Queenstown, but only 20 mins from Wanaka. The ski area also has some limited accommodation near the ski field and this has helped Cardrona position itself itself as a family-friendly holiday resort. It has 5 lifts, about 40km of slopes and 600m vertical (1260 m – 1860 m). It also has four terrain parks making it the best New Zealand resort for boarders and freestylers.
Treble Cone is 90 minutes drive from Queenstown, but only 25 minutes’ from Wanaka, and is often regarded as New Zealand’s best ski field for advanced skiers and boarders (Mt Hutt – see below – is its chief rival). Its lift served vertical (700m or 2300 feet) is larger than many North American resorts, and its annual snowfall (about 5.5m) is better than many Alpine resorts. Keen skiers can also hike up to the summit ridge at 2088m to get more vertical. There are sunny North facing slopes and snowy South-facing ones but no trees. There is also an experts-only zone called Motatapu which is full of ungroomed black diamond runs. Again the official stats – 3 lifts, 22km of slopes, 720m vertical (1260m to 1980m) – understates the skiing that is available to good skiers.
Methven and Christchurch (South Island)
Mount Hutt is about half way down the South Island, in the Canterbury region and about 90 minutes’ drive from Christchurch. You can stay much closer to the skiing at Methven which has daily shuttles to the Mt Hutt ski field. Although there are blue and green runs for weaker skiers, the emphasis is on black and double black diamond runs, especially on the steep South face, for good skiers. There are also considerable Heliski operations at the ski field and in Methven. The official stats are 4 lifts, 40kms of runs and 683m vertical (1403m to 2086m) but these understate the skiing possibilities for advanced skiers. There are also several smaller ski fields just about wiithin driving range of Methven and Christchurch such as Broken River, Craigieburn and Porters Ski Area (all about 90 minutes away). Roundhill-Tekapo and Fox Peak are about 2 hours away from Methven and even further from Christchurch.