Simon Louisson discovers the spectacular beauty and hidden attractions offered by the Mackenzie Country.
When you tell people you are going to ski Mt Cook's Tasman glacier, the almost universal response is: "It's something I've always wanted to do."
So when I was offered the chance to do just that it took me about a nano-second to decide.
Sadly, the day the big event was scheduled, the weather was unkind. But, disappointing as it was, I nevertheless had my eyes opened to how much things have changed in this part of the world.
While the scenery remains as spectacular as ever, what has changed is the number and variety of small eco-tourism ventures that have opened.
When people think winter holidays, they tend to think Queenstown-Wanaka or Mount Ruapehu. But this region — the Mackenzie Country — has many of Queenstown's attractions without the hype and bustle.
Our starting point was the boutique George Hotel opposite Christchurch's Hagley Park. If you want to pamper yourself, this is the place to do it.
Owned by a Japanese family, The George wants its guests and others to dine in. Pescatore restaurant's food, especially the fish, was rated highly by the five well-travelled Australian journalists in our group.
Our first venture in the Big Country was horse riding at Peel Forest, three hours' drive south of Christchurch (take the inland scenic route).
Set in the foothills, Peel Forest Lodge is one of many high class boutique lodges now available, ideal for families or a romantic getaway, where attention to detail and genuine southern country friendliness enhance the scenery.
Horse trekking is not really my thing but I could see the attraction during our hour of clopping through the forest and paddocks.
Three-day treks alongside the Rangitata River and up into Little Mt Peel are on offer as are guided hunting-fishing trips.
More to my taste was a bush walk where the guide, artist Austin Deans, educated us on the flora and region's history.
The sprightly 92-year-old calls Peel Forest "an oasis at the end of the Canterbury Plains".
Tourists often ask him if locals have planted tape recordings of the bird song, such is the cacophony.
That afternoon we visited Four Peaks Station — via the colourfully named Sheepdip Road — to sample a high country farm hike.
Opened last year by station owners Jo and Steve McAtamney, it's a three-day, three-night 40km walk where you stay in done-up, but authentic musterers' huts. While the hot shower installed in the dunny is better than most musterers have, the outside kitchen and little bunks are not too far from the real thing.
Jo McAtamney says it's a great chance to experience the scale of one of New Zealand's working high country sheep-and-cattle stations. If you don't want your experience to be too authentic, you can have your pack carried and even ride along the slightly scary tracks in a 4x4 on the "pack run". It runs from November to April.
We also visited the nearby township of Geraldine, one of the more picturesque in the South Island, where we took in a movie at the quaint, but slightly dilapidated, Geraldine Cinema.
My digs that night were in Kavanagh House in nearby Winchester. The former doctor's residence was another upmarket boutique hotel, very comfortable, if a little over the top.
Next day, we headed into the Mackenzie Country proper, with the dramatic change in scenery as we traversed Burke's Pass.
Although there are big distances to travel, the roads are fast and the expansive scenery - rolling tussock country backed by the snowy Alps - captivating.
There are numerous small ski fields in this area, either club or family owned. Most run on tight budgets and the facilities are not flash. This year, things are even tighter for some because the snow never really arrived.
We skipped Mount Dobson but it was all go at Tekapo's Roundhill. Like all South Island fields, the road up is as rugged as a Canterbury prop, but the views are glorious. We were there on a picture-perfect day — views across the lake to Mount Cook and the Alps.
It's essentially a one-lift field (plus a poma lift for learners). The skiing is gentle and a week might be too long there. But it's a really pleasant field with super-friendly operators, excellent instruction and unsurpassed views. I even forsook 40 years of skiing to try snowboarding.
The US ski team bases itself in Tekapo for part of its off season — so the skiing isn't that undemanding — but 85 per cent of the visitors are families.
We were hosted at The Residence, a condominium-style apartment with all the trimmings including an outdoor spa to relax the muscles.
Tekapo has few pretensions to being a Queenstown, but we had excellent pizzas at the lively Pepe's pizzeria.
For the real night life, you can visit the Mt John observatory and do some star gazing.
A fun night, or day, can be had at Winter Park, the spa and ice-rink facility run by Karl Burtscher. Burtscher is sinking $5 million into the rink (finished) and three large outdoor heated pools set among pine trees beside Lake Tekapo.
We had the somewhat romantic experience of skating outdoors as the snow flakes drifted on us.
Next day we visited Ohau, past the normally turquoise Lake Pukaki (not quite at its best due to low cloud).
Mike and Louise Neilson have run the Ohau skifield and the Lake Ohau Lodge, which offers a full range of accommodation, for 22 years. The 10km drive up is something else — chains a must the day we went. Due to the clouds, we had to imagine most of the views, although for a couple of nervy Australians among us, that was perhaps a good thing.
I can't say too much about Ohau skifield as it was a whiteout — except I'd like to come back. Like Tekapo, it was friendly, uncrowded and seemed like fun.
English tourist Anne Martin said it was a lot different to her previous skiing experiences in Europe. "It's a bit raw," she noted, but added she still enjoyed it.
Next day, we drove to Mt Cook's famous Hermitage hotel, the last few kilometres in ankle-deep snow — a dazzling sight, but a bad omen for skiing the glacier.
And so it proved. The weather was against us and we had to settle for a walk on the ice of a glacier lake and some fine hospitality.
The Tasman glacier remains "something I've always wanted to do". Next time, perhaps the weather gods will smile more kindly on me.
Where to stay:
• The George, Christchurch.
• Godley Hotel, Tekapo.
• Mackenzie Country Inn, Twizel.
• The Hermitage, Mt Cook.
• Go horse riding at Peel Forest Lodge
• Hit the snow at Round Hill Skifield
• Go hiking at Four Peaks Station
• Check out Ohau Ski Field and Lodge
• Do a spot of night sky watching
• Take off with Aoraki Mount Cook Ski Planes
• Ski the Tasman Glacier.
• Go skating on the ice rink at Winter Park.
Simon Louisson was was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.