Put off by chairlift queues? Join the club, says Ben Taylor.
When you move from Canterbury to Wanaka, the one thing you don't expect to miss is the skiing. After all, you are moving to a ski town with two of the most exciting big resorts in New Zealand. They have high-speed lifts, fancy groomers, massive freestyle features and lots of people.
As big and exciting as they are there's still a type of skiing with a different, more relaxed, less restricted feel that is almost unique to New Zealand and concentrated in Canterbury. Club fields, here we come.
My two oldest kids had grown up on fancy ski lifts and could get around most places on their local hills. I wanted to show them real skiing.
We packed our bags and headed off after school one day driving against the flow of school holiday traffic to a place known as the playground of the gods, Mt Olympus.
We arrived in the pitch black after driving up a winding gravel and snowbound road to a small hut at the bottom of the hill, called — with uncanny descriptive precision — the Bottom Hut. The kids were pretty excited to jump into the triple bunks for the night with a half dozen university students as roommates.
I always think it's a sign you're in a good place when you wake up and see your breath. Given the ambient room temperature we had a quick breakfast looking out at the sun striking the top of the peaks around the valley.
The road to the field proper is single lane, defined by up to 3m high snowbanks with nowhere to turn around, so you must radio the mountain staff on the hut radio to check no one is on the way out. With chains on our 4WD we crawled up to the bottom of the lifts.
One quality of Canterbury's club fields is that lifts are generally rope tows requiring some skill and strength — and in some cases courage — to negotiate. They also put lots of people off, which is one reason these hills, despite the quality of the skiing, are so devoid of crowds.
Although not the easiest lifts to ride, they are cheap to install and can run almost as fast as a high-speed chairlift. Traditionally run on tractor engines, they used to be sped up by jumping in the seat and changing gear. Disappointingly, now it's just a matter of turning up the dial.
The main hut for our stay was perched halfway up the field, with crags on one side, cliffs below and a grand view of the main ski basin from most windows. It's very comfortable and warm with all the facilities that are available in many European alpine huts.
Breakfasts and dinners are usually available at most of the fields and at Olympus our Argentinian chef and his crew made sure we were very well fed all weekend.
A hot tub, with snow stacked around the sides for keeping beer cold, and stars arcing across the night sky created an otherworldly finish to a day on the slopes. A coffee machine and a full bar rounded out the necessities. Despite its remoteness it's very civilised.
The party scene is legendary at these club fields as the nights are long and the revellers captive. After dinner, the bar started cranking and within an hour the place had transformed. A big sound system, three huge chests of dress-up clothes, a smoke machine and disco laser lights made strangers into new friends. Although I met lots of people that night it was a struggle to recognise many at the breakfast table the next morning sans costumes.
So what about the skiing? The kids were too young for the rope tows on their own but had a great time building jumps on the easier learner slope as well as a few parent-assisted rides on the main slopes. They even convinced the staff to flick on the floodlights so they could do more riding after dinner, with us watching from the warmth of the lounge. Epic, according to my seven-year-old.
For the adults, skiing was on offer so we followed the sun around as it warmed and softened different parts of the mountain throughout the day, getting lots of vertical with fast lifts and no queues.
One afternoon, we climbed up a gully to the summit ridge surrounding the valley to enjoy amazing views of the main divide across the deserted landscape of the Canterbury foothills in the foreground. The descent on corn snow, as smooth as butter, was sublime. We were the only people on that slope that day despite it being one of the busiest days of the year.
All the Canterbury club fields have their special charms: Craigieburn with its huge, steep terrain; Broken River is a snow trap with a great sunny lunch deck; Cheeseman is super-friendly for kids. But the quality they all have in common, that I believe makes them such great places to spend time, is they are always uncrowded.
The lack of people makes time slow down as there is not the fervour and competition for lines that come with the masses.
You can have an epic day, but relax at the same time, taking time over lunch or enjoying the views.
It feels like you are part of a club with great privileges but, luckily, anyone can join.
Hitting the slopes: For a multi-field pass and information on all the hills, go to chillout.co.nz.
Further information: See christchurchnz.com.