Some travellers are justifiably thrilled by the Niagara Falls or by close encounters with wildlife in an African safari. It's the dramatic beauty, they say — plus the sweaty palms. But we Kiwis can get both vistas and excitement much more cheaply, simply by visiting one or other of our 23 skifields.
Here are five of my favourite snowy scenic spectacles...
1. The Pinnacles on the Whakapapa side of Ruapehu. Best seen from the Valley T-Bar run, they are uncompromising towers of snow, rock and ice.
2. The endless snow-covered peaks of the Harris and Richardson Mountain Ranges seen from the Queenstown Trail Return on Cardrona, near Lake Wanaka. Accessed from the top of Captain's Express Quad, they're like a gigantic McCahon landscape.
The view of
Lake Ohau and the Ben Ohau Range
from the top of the
, 42kms and around 30 minutes from Twizel or Omarama in the heart of the South Island. When the sun's out, the lake gleams like a giant sapphire. When it's cloudy, the lake is mysterious and forbidding, encouraging thoughts of mulled wine in the Ohau Lodge, 20 minutes away at the bottom of the access road.
4. The sights from the top of Porters Ski Area near Christchurch. Walk a few metres up a ridge from the highest T-Bar and you overlook Lake Coleridge nestling underneath the rolling Taylor and Rolleston Ranges. It makes me grateful to be living here.
5. The view from the top of Ruapehu's Turoa skifield, sister to Whakapapa, and situated on the western side. Travel up the High Noon Express Chair or the Jumbo T-Bar and you seem to be gazing over half the world. And on a clear day you can see all the way down the North Island to snow-covered Mt Taranaki.
Now for the sweaty palms: you can only access these areas by driving up the ski roads. It's easy-peasy in Europe or North America. Motoring to Colorado fields such as Copper Mountain or Vail is a simple matter of hooking into the Interstate 70 from Denver then turning off the highway into accommodation and the ski-pass office once the desired field comes into view. And places like Switzerland's Gstaad in the Bernese Oberland, or Italy's Arabba in the Dolomites are accessed by sealed roads running into the heart of the village for walk-in/walk-out skiing.
But not here. We have sealed roads to Turoa and Whakapapa and to Queenstown's Coronet Peak — but all the rest are shingle. That means icy in the morning and slushy in the afternoon. And their hairpin bends and throat-tightening exposures give me the heebie-jeebies.
Many are also long. The access road to The Remarkables is 14km, for example. Three-quarters of the way up, Lake Hayes to the northwest looks like a fish-pond and the houses of Arrowtown resemble scrabble tiles.
The road to Fairlie's Dobson field is a lengthy affair at 15km, rising to a lofty 1725m, the highest carpark in New Zealand. And it can get damn slippery.
At such times, I recall verse from English poet Christina Rossetti:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Her death was reputedly in 1894, but I reckon the date's out by well over the century. Christina probably penned the verse while she was shivering in the front passenger seat of a Japanese import halfway up the 12km access road to Cardrona. And she'd be blocking her ears to her hubby's anguished musings on whether the chains went on the front wheels or the back.
Which is why I'm prompt at fitting chains when the signs tell me to. The higher up you go, the harder it is. When my hands are frozen loaves of bread because I've delayed the chain-fitting business, then I can burst into poetry, too — mostly in short, sharp free verse.
I carry in the boot an old bush shirt and a piece of PVC. That's so the chain-fitting procedure won't sully my flash ski outfit.
And when I'm driving, I never admire the view or engage much in conversation. I keep my gaze ahead and my sweaty palms on the wheel.
Piloting a Ford wagon down the Mt Hutt road, I went down in normal auto, with chains. When I braked gently on the fifth or sixth bend, the car slid on black ice and the left bumper crumpled against a snow bank. I made a mental note to thank the grader driver for ensuring the camber sloped away from the numbing precipice. And henceforth to always engage a low gear when negotiating curly corners.
But there is a calmer way: take a ride in the local skifield's indestructible mountain goat. It'll be driven by a guy called Trev, probably garbed in a knee-length yellow Swanndri, and the interior will seem like a cattle truck on its way to the works. So it won't be poetic, but you'll get to the snow and back without sweaty palms.