Doug Sherring delights in the perfect snow of Queenstown's Remarkables.
Queenstown has just been hit by its biggest snow storm in living memory. Locals are describing the snow conditions as the best ever. I quickly plan to leave the Auckland rain for the fresh dry powder snow of The Remarkables skifield.
It takes two attempts before the weather that brought that snow clears enough for planes to land. But it's worth the wait - the flight into Queenstown is simply breathtaking, and I can see the snow I've come to experience. White mountains glisten in the morning sun, set against a deep blue sky.
Queenstown comes into view. It's covered in a blanket of snow, as though lifted from a children's fairy tale book.
Expectation builds. I can't wait to get up the mountain. I drop my bags at The Hilton and jump on the mountain bus.
Conditions on the piste are perfect. There is freshly groomed, packed powder snow on all the main runs. The sun is shining, winds are light and the sky is still perfect blue.
Itching with impatience, at last I'm on my way to the chairlift for the first run of the day.
"How's it going mate? Perfect day for it," chirps the cheery lifty. I can't argue. What the lift lacks in speed it makes up for in company. Remarks (as the locals call the field) is renowned as the friendly mountain. Most of the visitors are on holiday, adding to the festive feel of the place. Sharing the lift with complete strangers and whiling away the time chatting is one of the joys of coming here.
As I disembark the lift I'm a little tentative. It's been a whole year since I last boarded and I'm bound to be a little rusty. But as I glide down the mountain, linking my turns, it all comes back. This is going to be an epic day.
The Remarkables is blessed with being north-facing, giving the mountain a sunny aspect. There are runs for every level, from the wide, gentle, beginner area complete with a "magic carpet" ride to top of the slope, to the intermediate/advanced area of Shadow Basin. If you're feeling particularly adventurous it's well worth freeing yourself from your bindings at the top of the Shadow Basin chairlift and making the short hike to the viewing area above Lake Wakatipu. Just throw your board or skis over your shoulder and start climbing. The walk takes about 15 minutes at a steady pace. If the walk doesn't take your breath away, the views certainly will. On one side you can take in a panorama of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown and the surrounding high country; on the other the skifields of Cardona and Treble Cone. Even Aoraki Mount Cook is visible on a clear day. Then simply jump into your bindings and make your way down to the groomed runs of Shadow Basin.
Once you've worked up an appetite, chill out at the fully licensed cafe/bar complete with an al fresco area overlooking the beginners' slope. Sip your mulled wine while you watch the kids having the time of their lives. Live music is a regular feature at lunch time.
Non-skiers should check out The Ozone Tubing park. Simply jump in an inner tube and whizz down the slope. It's a great way to enjoy the snow with youngsters - it requires no skill, just a sense of fun.
After a long day on the slopes I'm longing for a soak in a hot tub, and there's nowhere better to do it than at The Queenstown Hilton, set by the tranquil waters of Lake Wakatipu. Unwind as you sit on your balcony watching the reflections of the surrounding mountains in the lake. Each elegant room has a lake view and a cosy fireplace. The hotel has a selection of bars and restaurants, all offering the high standard you would expect from this global brand.
Although the hotel is not in Queenstown central, it is well serviced by a free shuttle bus and in the afternoon/evening you can take the water taxi from the hotel jetty for a mere $5 - what a way to travel, very James Bond.
Before you head out the next day, try the expansive breakfast in The Wakatipu Grill, where the chef will cook your choice of fresh produce in front of you.
The restaurant also features an outdoor fire pit - perfect for gathering around at the end of the day with friends and a fine wine while you breathe in the atmosphere of this spectacular mountain environment.
If you fancy giving your legs a rest after a big day on the slopes, but would like to keep the adrenaline pumping, try Ziptrek Ecotours. Ziptrek, consisting of a series of flying foxes, is at the top of The Skyline Gondola in Queenstown central. Your guides will take you from an area near the top of the gondola to the bottom of the gondola, suspended on a harness, fixed to a zip line. At the start of each new zip line is a staging area where your hosts give an informal talk regarding matters eco.
My guides David Mahoney and Nick Shelton were great fun, offering hesitant tourists words of encouragement as they try to work up the courage to launch themselves down the line at great speed. You can try the leap of faith, jumping backwards, arms outstretched, or you can travel upside down accompanied by the cheers of your fellow travellers as you scream your way down the zip line to the safety of the next platform - exhilarating.
There are two tours available. The Moa which is a four-line tour and lasts two hours. Children as young as 6 can experience it - those under 30kg can travel tandem with an adult. The eco chats are interspersed with comedic anecdotes by Irish Guide David Mahoney, who it seems has not just kissed the blarney stone but swallowed it. One such anecdote goes like this: "This is The New Zealand gecko." Mahoney points to a picture of a gecko. "These are rare and endangered reptiles and are threatened for a variety of reasons including smugglers. You may of heard of a German tourist who recently tried to smuggle 25 animals in his underpants. Half of them died and the other half needed counselling."
I took the Kea tour which is a six-line tour including a beautiful walk through native beech forest full of birdlife. The tour affords amazing vistas across Queenstown and The Remarkables, culminating in a flying fox that descends 30 storeys and reaches speeds of 70 kph. Testimonials from happy customers include the phrases "exciting and enlightening", "do yourself a favour, just do it", and "fun, fun, fun". When it comes to Queenstown in general, I couldn't agree more.
Queen of spring
More than 100 special "Spring Loaded" offers give visitors to Queenstown sharp deals on a range of accommodation, activities and dining.
The deals highlight the region's range of attractions, including world-class golf courses, scenic trails to explore on foot or bike, vineyards, bars and restaurants offering award-winning Central Otago wines and cuisine, luxurious spas, plus shops and galleries. Thrills include skydiving, bungy jumping, jet boating, ziplining and paragliding.
Packages also promote Queenstown as the gateway to the historic goldmining village of Arrowtown, Glenorchy's epic Lord of the Rings scenery, and Milford and Doubtful Sounds.
Queenstown's spring calendar includes the Classic All Blacks versus French Classics match on September 18, and the Taste Queenstown food, wine and art festival on October 8-9 and 15-16.
Click here for deals, tickets, accommodation and flights.