Alpine beauty offers snow in winter and biking and walking tracks in summer, writes Elisabeth Easther.
For fans of all things snowy, Cardrona Alpine Resort is a cool favourite, arguably the country's most popular skifield. With an average annual snowfall of 2.9m and 345ha of terrain, there's something to satisfy everyone, from beginners to fans of black-diamond runs. There are also epic terrain parks and halfpipes, with season passes for the
snow-obsessed and really helpful packages for first-timers.
Just 18 minutes drive from Wanaka to the access road — traffic willing — it's a breeze to get to. You don't even need to pack a lunchbox because the resort is bursting with eating and drinking establishments — eight at last count — offering everything from noodles to juices and fine dining. If you're feeling indulgent, take a break at Vista Bar at the top of McDougall's Chondola where beanbags, majestic views and Mumm Champagne are on the menu.
Cardrona is more than just a winter playground and in summer it draws mountain bikers, walkers and nature buffs. The home of New Zealand's highest mountain-bike park, there are close to 25km of trails, from beginners' flow tracks to more serious stuff for world-class riders. Accessible via skilifts, mountain biking is all go from December to April.
If you prefer to travel on two feet, the walking is spectacular — mountains, lakes, sweeping views and the full palette of Central Otago colours. People who are feeling frisky can do the uphills themselves, or if you're having a lazy day, grab a lift, then stroll a while. Captain's Circuit (about 90 minutes) and Skyline Delight (about 45 minutes) are pleasant ways to while away a day. A trifle more exhilarating, and loved by kids little and big, tubing and mountain carting are sure to charge your batteries, and there are money-saving deals to be found.
There are also dog-sled tours, horse-riding expeditions, scenic flights and the Bra Fence in support of breast cancer.
When the sun goes down and the heavens are switched on, you'll be treated to one of Earth's most dazzling shows — The Night Sky. There's virtually no light pollution round these parts and, because it's far enough south, you might even see the legendary Southern Lights, aka Aurora Australis.
Most people can gaze skyward and spot the pot, (Orion's Belt) or the Southern Cross, but to fully appreciate the enormity of the universe and make sense of the night sky, at certain times of the year there are star gazing tours. First admire the cosmos with the naked eye and then get a closer look through a portable telescope while your guide shares all manner of astronomical facts — fingers crossed for clear skies.
Remember too, whenever you visit a mountain environment, whether it's summer or winter, conditions can change quickly and with little warning, so always take warm clothes, sunscreen, rain protection and a decent amount of food and drink in case things don't quite go to plan.
Talking of food and drink, a visit to Cardrona Distillery is fascinating. With a small museum and tasting tours ($25pp), learn how the team makes a range of artisan spirits using the crispest alpine water.
Whether you've been skiing all day or tearing up the hills on your mountain bike, all that fresh mountain air tends to make a person sleepy. Lodging options include the historic Cardrona Hotel. Pretty as a postcard, it hunkers down on the Crown Range Rd between Queenstown and Wanaka. The rooms are superb, ditto the bar and restaurant. Or just a one-minute walk to the lifts, Cardrona's Alpine Apartments offer modern studios to four-bedroom arrangements that can sleep up to 12. Then there are the ubiquitous rentals — Airbnb, Bookabach and Holiday Houses — all vying for your holiday buck.
Inspiring, exciting, and yes, at times as exhausting as it is exhilarating, Cardrona is a bone fide alpine beauty.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Queenstown with one-way Seat fares from $83.
Cardrona is an hour's drive from Queenstown airport.
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