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Ski New Zealand - so much fun you'll just want to do it again and again

Mt Ruapehu family skiingBoth the North and South Islands of New Zealand offer fantastic skiing and snowboarding.  They have world class ski schools for kids and big kids too!!  The Southern Alps of New Zealand are bigger than the Swiss, French and Austrian Alps combined. They rise to over 2000 metres (6562 feet) in a spine across the back of the South Island. The North Island boasts the stunning active volcano Mt Ruapehu.

There are dozens of different ski areas and each has its own distinctive flavour.  One thing that's helpful to know before heading to New Zealand for a winter holiday is that while some snowy areas specialise in welcoming families, others are better suited to the more adventurous skier - but that's all part of the choices on offer.

Queenstown - sitting pretty on Lake Wakatipu, is the place most commonly associated with winter holidays in New Zealand. It's a purpose-built tourist town next to a beautiful lake and at the foot of the mountains. It's filled with restaurants, nightclubs and cafes and it positively vibrates with adventure, activity and enthusiasm.  A pedestrian mall links souvenir shops with ski stores and high fashion boutiques. And it is possible to get a decent espresso coffee here.

When Queenstown isn't focussing on winter activities, it's the capital of adventure tourism. The dreaded bungy jump was born here. So when you're not skiing, there are a myriad other activities to keep you occupied - among them, jet boating, motor-biking, wine tasting, horse riding or the Nevis high-wire bungy.

The two ski fields closest to Queenstown are Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. About a 20-minute drive uphill, Coronet Peak probably has the most European feel of the lot. There's a bar, licensed restaurant and live music on the outdoor stage most of the time. You'll even see the occasional fur-coat-wearing socialite.

While not particularly wide open - this is more a series of gullies - the place is well equipped for beginners. And usually pretty full; if social skiing is your thing, this is the perfect place.

Also worth trying at Coronet is the night skiing: join hundreds of people sliding through the freezing night, under huge lights constructed on one of the main runs, with a hot gluhwein to follow.

The Remarkables have slightly more difficult terrain for guests to deal with. This mountain is the hard man's' option in Queenstown, providing some of the best and most challenging skiing in New Zealand.

Wanaka - About an hour's drive from Queenstown is the peaceful hamlet of Wanaka. This town, also nestled next to a beautiful lake, has been described as the New Zealander's Queenstown' because it's not quite as commercial. But it's also a lot quieter and not quite so cosmopolitan. Nonetheless there are a few nice restaurants and a couple of bars there. And one must not forget the best carrot cake ever made, at the lakeside Wanaka cafe

There are two nearby ski fields. Cardrona is an excellent family field. With its giant-toy clock tower, several restaurants and special facilities for the kids, it's a great day on the hill for all the family and as the slopes tend towards wide open, they're perfect for learners or intermediate skiers.

After discovering that only 10 percent of snowboard learners made it to the top of the learner's tow, the management have installed magic carpets. These are like the moving walkways you see in airports and mean no more tangling with the T-bar for beginners.

Cardrona is also known as the home of New Zealand snowboarding mainly because it has always taken special care to cater for those on one plank. The New Zealand national snowboard championships are held there and there are four half pipes and a terrain park for boarders to utilise.

Wanaka's other nearby field is Treble Cone. This place has the kind of view you fall in love with. As you're skiing the face of the mountain you're presented with a bright aquamarine lake complete with tiny snow covered islands and, in the distance, blue sky and more mountains.

The terrain here is mostly more difficult, a bit like the Remarkables. But, perhaps because of this, Treble Cone is hardly ever crowded and offers a more challenging experience, what you might call a real mountain encounter.

For the biggest concentration of established ski fields, variety of terrain, activities and a guaranteed snowfall, the Queenstown-Wanaka area cannot be beaten. You'll find what you want somewhere in these two towns or in-between.

Mount Hutt and the Club Fields
There are more options further afield. Mount Hutt is further north and nearest the city of Christchurch. Because of its location, it usually gets the longest snow season. Mount Hutt gets the first snow and is first to open every winter, making it popular with the locals. Methven is the Mount Hutt locals' town - it's not as activity-filled as Queenstown, nor as sleepy as Wanaka.

All around Mount Hutt and Christchurch and all the way down to Queenstown are the club fields. These are so called because they are usually private patches of mountain managed and run by private ski clubs. But anyone is welcome.

Over the past few years some of these smaller fields such as Ohau and Temple Basin have really improved their facilities, but on the whole this is more likely to be a choice for the more adventurous.

Snow conditions and terrain vary greatly but there are some great secret spots to be explored.

For instance Craigieburn, with a vertical drop of 500 metres, has somewhat of a cult status internationally. Extreme ski legend Glen Plake says it's one of his favourites. Rainbow offers amazing views of Lake Rotoiti and the 50-minute walk from the car park to Temple Basin guarantees uncrowded slopes and challenges for even the most jaded skier. Mount Potts has had snowboarding legend Terje Haakonsen singing its praises. If you are interested in getting off-the-beaten-track, it's well worth researching the club fields beforehand to ensure you get to where you want.

The Back Country
If all that's not adventurous enough for you, then it's worth noting this current trend in snow sports: going back country. There comes a time in every skier or snow boarder's career when they want to leave the crowds behind. They want to hike, climb, camp and snowshoe their way into the wilderness to find their very own ungroomed and isolated bit of snow. They want to make their tracks off-piste.

As Nigel Kerr, marketing manager of Cardrona and long-time Wanaka local says: If you've gone skiing on a commercial field in the New Zealand mountains, well, that's just the first rung of a long ladder. There is a hell of a lot more to the Southern Alps.'

Such ticketless travel - going back country or alpine touring - is becoming increasingly popular.

Initially the easiest way to get a taste of the back country is with a guide. Happily New Zealand tour operators are taking advantage of this desire. The number of ways of getting away from the piste and into the unknown seems to be growing every season.

Getting there by helicopter is a popular option. This can consist of anything from one ride and one run down a spectacular, untouched slope to a luxury champagne lunch on your day of uncrowded bliss. (Note that the human-triggered avalanche risk can be high with back country skiing - consult local guides if going alone and always take emergency locator equipment.)

Another innovation is snow-cat skiing. This is being offered in Canterbury at Mount Potts, one of the highest ski fields in New Zealand. Snow- cat is short for snow-caterpillar and these strange sounding beasts are actually tractors, similar to the ones you see on building sites, except they are designed to travel over snow, up steep gradients and are often used with special attachments for grooming the piste. At Mount Potts, a specially adapted snow-cat is used like a glorified chair lift, taking clients to the top of a slope and then picking them up again at the bottom. Up to 14 guests get an area the size of Mount Hutt all to themselves. Guests can pay per day or they have the option of staying at Mount Potts' cosy lodge with gourmet dinners for a week.

The North Island
In the middle of the North Island lies the Mt Ruapehu family skiingvolcanic plateau that makes up the Ruapehu National Park. Crazy-coloured sunsets and ominous cloud formations that roll in over miles of flat, black volcanic desert and purple and gold scrub make for some of the most surreal and amazing scenery in the country. Film location scouts were impressed enough to make the area the scenes for the dramatic Battle of Mordor in kiwi film director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.

Rearing above this harsh environment is the very impressive Mount Ruapehu, a live volcano that's high enough and (generally) inactive enough to receive a fair dusting of snow each winter.

There are two ski fields on either side of this mountain - Turoa and Whakapapa. Both boast similar terrain and facilities. There's a good mix for all abilities, from the almost-flat field that is Happy Valley for beginners to the trickier gullies accessed by the highest T-bars. The more intrepid have even been known to hike up to the active crater lake right on top of the mountain.

Catering to each ski field are two small villages on either side of the mountain and both provide a wide range of pubs, clubs, restaurants and accommodation. On the Whakapapa side, it's the National Park Village where you will find the Park Ranger's headquarters with lots of information about the area. This side also boasts the rather glamorous Tongariro Chateau, an historic hotel complete with ballroom and indoor swimming pool.

The thermal Turangi area has natural spa hot pools, excellent for a long soak, while on the Turoa side is the town of Ohakune, a fun-loving, slightly livelier village (more shops and bars!) that earns its living growing carrots in the summer. The biggest carrot being dangled for most in the area, however, is the chance to get on the mountain in winter.   

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