High and mighty: Skiing in Wanaka and Queenstown
This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110
Boasting extreme adrenalin and exhilarating scenery, Queenstown and Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island compete for their attention when it comes to skiing, snowboarding and thrill-a-minute adventures.
Should you be a fan of tree-skiing, there’s something we should break to you now… there are no trees at any ski resort in New Zealand. Tree-skiing aficionados may despair but not for long as you can see for miles and miles. And there’s no ski region on Earth (apart from Switzerland) that offers unlimited views from the top of ski resorts.
The Queenstown and Wanaka ski region may be spectacular but it’s not for the feint of heart. There are four resorts within the region; only one of them doesn’t require a drive up a winding mountain track that cuts its way diagonally across the tallest mountains in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Relax, you’ll soon get used to it. And for those who prefer bitumen, Coronet Peak is only a 25-minute drive from Queenstown, and the road is perfectly paved.
The hardest decision for a skier is whether to base yourself in Queenstown or Wanaka. They’re only an hour’s drive from each other. Queenstown has the added attraction of being the adventure capital of the world. In addition, both towns offer a raft of regional bars, cafes and restaurants. Both towns are built around enormous alpine lakes, surrounded by snowy mountain ranges: just taking a walk in either town is a bonafide tourist attraction in itself.
The sheer numbers visiting the ski town of Queenstown have added to Wanaka’s off-the-beaten-path appeal. Should you be seeking a more relaxed atmosphere, Wanaka’s your town. There are quality eateries and wineries right on the edge of Lake Wanaka. In fact, this was the only town in the Southern Hemisphere to make National Geographic’s World’s Best Ski Towns list.
It’s home to two of the Antipodes’ most under-rated ski resorts – Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort. Treble Cone is the South Island’s largest ski area, though it receives far less of the plaudits showered on the ski resorts near Queenstown. It’s a 45-minute drive from Wanaka and is home to the South Island’s most challenging ski terrain, with in-bound chutes and bowls to test even expert skiers. In fact, only 10 per cent of the resort is designated for beginners. In addition, the views across the Southern Alps and Lake Wanaka are unbeatable.
You’ll find Cardrona Alpine Resort between Queenstown and Wanaka, so you can stay in either town. It’s ideal for beginners, though there are plenty of thrills for experts – making it a good all-rounder for families, and couples of varying ski ability. It also has some of the only on-mountain accommodation you’ll find in NewZealand, though it’s worth considering taking a 20-minute drive down the mountain to the tiny town of Cardrona. You can stay at one of the country’s oldest and most iconic hotels, The Cardrona Hotel, built during the Gold Rush era of the 1860s – the après ski setting here is legendary.
Most Australian skiers won’t go beyond Queenstown, however, there are two popular ski resorts on either side of the town. Coronet Peak is closer (and the road in is easier), and you should see the view. Located on top of a mountain range north-east of Queenstown, Coronet Peak’s ski run looks out across a sprawling glacial valley to Queenstown and The Remarkables. It’s actually the easiest resort to get to in New Zealand, which is worth considering. Despite its popularity, its lift lines aren’t long most days, and there’s a buzzing atmosphere throughout winter. You can also try night skiing on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, where skiers get to view the bright lights of Queenstown.
Queenstown is located in the middle of Coronet Peak and The Remarkables ski area. While the drive into The Remarkables is a lot more challenging, no trip to Queenstown is complete without visiting – just for the drive alone. Imagine a sun-drenched ski resort nestled within one of the world’s most photographed mountain ranges, reachable only by a zig-zagging road winding its way along the edge of a kilometre-high drop down to Queenstown.
If you’re game, take a short hike from the top of the chairlifts and you’ll stand on top of rocky escarpments which drop directly into Lake Wakatipu – with mountain climbers for company.
Off the slopes, skiers have many options around Queenstown and Wanaka. Queenstown’s not just the adventure capital of the world; it’s also New Zealand’s best golfing destination, with five of the country’s best championship courses located within 30 minutes of each other (and they’re open year-round). In addition, don’t miss the South Island’s pinot noir region with wineries easily accessed from both towns.
Should you wish to go beyond ski resorts, this is one of the world’s premier heli-skiing regions. It offers a diversity of skiable terrain from steep, tight chutes to wide gentle-sloping mountain flanks, which means that every type of skier can give it a go.
Treble Cone – treblecone.com
Cardrona – cardrona.com
Coronet Peak – coronetpeak.co.nz
The Remarkables – theremarkables.co.nz
Where to stay:
Kamana Lakehouse – Newly-opened, this property is the highest situated hotel in Queenstown.
The Rees Queenstown – A five-star hotel that offers spectacular views across Lake Wakatipu to the alpine panorama of the Remarkables.
Matakauri Lodge – Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, it has suites that look across The Remarkables and the lake.
Blanket Bay – Stay where Brad Pitt and Bill Gates have stayed at this luxury lodge – a 45-minute drive from Queenstown.
Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet – Sip bubbles from a Jacuzzi looking down on Lake Wanaka, or take a helicopter to the lodge’s mountain chalet.
Cardrona Hotel – This boutique heritage hotel is located close to the Cardrona ski area. There’s a lively bar and restaurant on site.
Eichardt’s Private Hotel – These luxurious suites and apartments date back to 1866 and are located right in the middle of Queenstown.