Not everyone wants to throw themselves down a mountain at breakneck speed. Ewan McDonald finds other ways to enjoy our winter wonderlands.
I don't like heights, so the idea of zipping into a Day-glo suit and throwing myself off the top - or even the side - of a mountain has never appealed. Way I see it, if you're really keen on breaking bones, there are several more imaginative ways than falling off a pair of fibreglass fenceposts.
Fortunately there are plenty of other opportunities to experience the glories of our mountains in winter — even in ski-obsessed centres like Ruapehu, Queenstown, Wānaka and Mt Hutt or, most dramatic and beautiful, the Glacier Country. For some cold-as-ice fun, you don't need to go outside the city limits.
Ski-phobics admire Ruapehu's three snowcapped peaks from Taupō, the Desert Road or the Northern Explorer train. You'll have a better view from Sky Waka, New Zealand's longest gondola, which travels 1.8km up the mountain from Whakapapa village, passing frozen waterfalls and through mountain mist to emerge at the country's highest cafe and restaurant, Knoll Ridge Chalet. For afters, adjourn for high tea at the Ruapehu Lounge in the elegant heritage Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
If you want to raise a sweat, take an Adrift Tongariro guided hike across the Tongariro Crossing, through the Unesco Dual World Heritage Site. Winter takes the 19km trek to another level with those famous emerald lakes often surrounded by snow. No experience needed, crampons and ice-axes supplied.
Soft shoe shuffle
We know the Government wants to help Tāhuna (aka Queenstown, aka SnowVegas) reduce its economic addiction to tourism, but it's going to be hard to shake off that white-powder habit overnight. However, there are plenty of other ways than skiing to enjoy the place.
Try snow-shoeing, gliding across the snow, usually at a more sedate pace, on high-tech, slimline versions of the old tennis racquet-style footwear seen in old movies. It's an all-ages, pretty much an all-fitness-levels, fully guided outing, no experience necessary.
Several operators offer opportunities from an hour or two's stroll to all-day or even longer stays.
At Snow Farm on the Pisa Range, you can walk to one of their high-country huts, and spend the night; with Aspiring Guides, you can helicopter to a mountain hut for an overnighter then spend the day exploring the hills. Basecamp Adventures offer fully guided trips for folk from 7-up in the Pisa and Remarkable ranges.
Pushing the boundaries, there are more adventurous experiences in the Mackenzie region and Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Alpine Recreation's hikes in the Two Thumb Range are for those with some tramping experience, and the more challenging trek to Ball Ridge requires snow-shoeing experience. On the Southern Alps Guiding fly-walk excursion, you'll land on the upper Tasman Glacier for a 3-to-4-hour explore, requiring a low to moderate level of fitness.
Back in Queenstown, pretty much anything you can do on water, a hill or off-road elsewhere has been adapted into an adrenalin activity. Some are guaranteed to release more of the fight-or-flight hormone than others.
Previous motorcycle experience is recommended for snow-biking, hooning around the mountains on supercharged bikes fitted with tracks and skis, from Cromwell-based Snowmoto.
Families will likely prefer snow-tubing, gliding down a specially built trail in an inner tube, also at Snow Farm, though the country's biggest and best venue is the 150m Tekapo Springs track in the Mackenzie Region. It's an option at one of the urban ice blocks we're going to visit later on, Snowplanet in Silverdale, Auckland.
The high-end jaunt? Helicopter to the Garvie Plateau, 2000m up in the ranges behind the Remarkables, and make tracks in the virgin snow on a snowmobile with Queenstown Snowmobiles.
Carving a name for itself as a winter sports destination is Naseby, a tiny town off the highway in the Maniatoto region between Queenstown and Dunedin, with one of Kiwi tourism's wittier slogans: "2000ft above worry level".
Going two better than the dog-sledders, they've got the Southern Hemisphere's only ice luge and indoor curling rink. Lugers (not the guns) have hit 70k down the 400m track (open mid-June to late August, weather permitting).
If you've seen the Winter Olympics you'll know curling is kind of like bowls played on ice with polished stones weighing almost 20kg and a couple of team members using brooms to clear the way. If that sounds like fun, it's another reason to get the family above agitation level. You can also try your wrist at Tekapo Springs, Alexandra, Dunedin, Avondale, Queenstown and Gore.
Enter the darkness
As if it wasn't enough to host Aoraki Mt Cook and its national park, Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki, Ruataniwha and Ohau, 60 glaciers and four skifields, Aoraki Mackenzie is the world's largest Dark Sky Reserve. If lying on your back and counting incredibly brilliant stars that may include the Aurora Australis isn't the antithesis of hurtling down a mountain on two shards of carbon-fibre, I don't know what it is. Stargazing tours are available.
The 27km-long, 4km-wide, 600mm-thick Tasman Glacier is our longest. Sadly it is in what glacierologists call "a period of accelerated retreat", which means it's melting and calving — icebergs are tearing away from the glacier.
To see it while it's … um, hot, take a scenic flight over the neighbouring glaciers and mountains, touch down on the snow and feel the silence when the engines are turned off.
Or take one of the short walks from Blue Lakes Shelter, a 4WD tour crossing rugged terrain, or a heli-hike deep into the glacier with a professional guide. Book a flight and cruise on the terminal lake, backdropped by the mountains, to see, touch and taste the newly formed icebergs, from boat or kayak.
Geographically aware readers will have noted that Te Waipounamu is getting a disproportionate share of space in this article, but let's be fair: 1) it's the largest of our islands and 2) it's got way more snow and ice than the other 599 or so.
Now we'll head for one of its more remote regions, which — like so many things in Aotearoa — paradoxically features something remarkably accessible. Glacier Country, on the South Island's West Coast, boasts two of the world's most accessible glaciers.
Te Moeka o Tuawe Fox Glacier is the glacier and nearby village, tucked into the Alps' forested foothills, base-camp for glacier hikes and scenic flights. Or bush walks, glow-worm spotting, beachcombing or serious adrenaline pumping.
The glacier face is just 5km from the village, and nearby is Lake Matheson, famous for its reflections of Aoraki Mt Cook and Rarakiroa Mt Tasman. At Gillespies Beach, up to 1500 seals congregate below Waikowhai Bluff during winter.
And then there's Kā Roimata o Hine Franz Josef Glacier, which unfolds from the heights of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana Southern Alps into the rainforest close to sea level, just 6km from the centre of Hukatere Franz Josef village. Ten minutes' drive north is Lake Mapourika; fishing, birdwatching, kayaking. There may be bunnies, but not of the ski species.
Big City Snow
So much for the great outdoors. If you prefer your winter leisure pursuits without the need for too much in the way of winter leisure suits or merino underwear, and hanging out closer to the hot toddy, let's wrap up with some places for winter disporting activities that don't require too much wrapping up.
Snowplanet, 45 minutes' drive north of Auckland's CBD, is our only indoor snow park, with 8000sq m of freshly made H2snow year-round. You can ski and snowboard down the 200m slope, with special areas for beginners and pros, and there's a family-friendly zone with snow-tubing tracks, tobogganing and play space.
Auckland has two Paradice ice-skating rinks, at Avondale and Botany. Queenstown's Ice Arena, set in the lakeside gardens, promises skating, ice bumper cars and hockey. Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Gore also have indoor rinks.
Chilled fingers crossed that the weather plays along, Alexandra in Central Otago and Tekapo Springs have outdoor rinks.
So if you're not a skier, there's no reason to be off-piste, much less the opposite. And remember, there's no rule that says you actually have to ski to attend the apres-ski events.