Winter in New Zealand

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Winter in New Zealand
While most travelers visit New Zealand in summer, a winter trip affords stunning ski trails and off-piste adventures galore. Base yourself in Queenstown, and get ready for heli-skiing, night riding, glacier climbs, and snowy festivals.
By Guy Needham, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Miles Holden/Tourism New Zealand
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    South Island Skiing
    If you’re short on time and big on runs, head straight to the South Island for skiing. The Remarkables range near Queenstown is well known for black diamond runs and backcountry bliss. The Coronet Peak ski field is only 20 minutes from Queenstown and has high-speed lifts that take riders to serious snow action. Cadrona resort in Wanaka has a relaxed ambience and excellent terrain parks for all levels. Mount Hutt in Canterbury is the most family-friendly ski area; children under 10 get to ski for free. If you’re limited to the North Island, the best option is Whakapapa.
    Photo courtesy of Miles Holden/Tourism New Zealand
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    Untracked Powder
    Lesser-known ski fields are often run by clubs and have the benefit of thinner crowds and the chance for skiers and boarders to glide and carve where others haven’t. Rainbow Ski Area near Nelson on the South Island is great for boarders and offers lessons from novice to expert. Further south, Porters Ski Area outside Christchurch features such runs as the appropriately named Big Mama that cater to intermediate and advanced riders. In the North Island, try the Manganui Ski Area on Mount Taranaki for cheap no-frills skiing (meaning no gear rentals on-site). And on the eastern side of Mount Ruapehu, there’s the friendly club-run Tukino ski field, which is often open even when the rest of the mountain is shrouded in clouds.
    Photo courtesy of Mt. Ruapehu Ski/Tourism New Zealand
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    The Journey to the Slopes
    If you want bragging rights at the bar, try heli-skiing. It’s not only an exhilarating way to reach the tops of mountains, but also opens the door to endless backcountry runs. Share the cost with four or five friends, and you’ll be set for a scenic and secluded day. A number of operators run heli-skiing trips from Queenstown, Wanaka, Canterbury, and Mount Ruapehu. If you hire a car and drive to the slopes, don't forget to rent chains as some ski resorts limit access without them (unless you have four-wheel drive). Also make sure to order roof racks in advance. Check how far the car rental kiosk is from the airport (the cheaper it is, the further you’ll walk), and don’t forget to be prepared with snacks and water in case of a snow storm.
    Photo courtesy of Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters/Tourism New Zealand
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    The Coziest Winter Lodges
    Unlike Europe and the United States, New Zealand's ski resorts offer limited on-site accommodation. But all the major resort towns—most notably Queenstown, Wanaka, and around Mount Ruapehu—have options that range from five-star hotels and self-catering apartments to bunked hostels. If you’ve saved up a few New Zealand dollars, spoil yourself at the Chateau Tongariro at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. A previous winner of New Zealand's leading ski resort award, the Chateau features roaring fireplaces and grand chandeliers. On the South Island, top marks go to Queenstown’s Hotel St. Moritz, Peppers Beacon Queenstown and Sherwood.
    Photo courtesy of Rob Suisted/Tourism New Zealand
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    Ski after Dark
    Once considered a novelty, night skiing is now popular at such resorts as Coronet Peak near Queenstown in the South Island. Lit by floodlights, you can board or ski on Friday and Saturday nights from sunset until 9:00 p.m. while watching the lights twinkle across town below. Coronet Peak's bars and restaurants stay open late, and some offer live entertainment. You can also night ski at New Zealand's premier cross-country ski area, Snow Farm. Around 20 miles from Wanaka, Snow Farm features its “Full Moon Fondue” experience, during which guests cross-country ski or snowshoe with a guide and then head to the bar for fondue. In Queenstown, a top spot for an after dark beer following after dark skiing is Smiths Craft Beer House.
    Photo courtesy of Miles Holden/Tourism New Zealand
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    Ski and Snowboarding Lessons
    New Zealand is a great place for beginners to learn to ski or snowboard. Every major resort has green (easy) runs and professionally certified ski instructors. Ski and snowboarding lessons are available for groups and individuals, and you can book them for one or multiple days. Gear can usually be hired on the mountain, and tow ropes and t-bar lifts are prevalent for assistance on the slopes. The best time for lessons is on weekdays when the resorts are less crowded. Children’s lessons are available everywhere, and kids packages often include lessons, a ski pass, and equipment rentals.
    Photo courtesy of Martyn Williams/Tourism New Zealand
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    Icy Pursuits
    New Zealand’s best-known glaciers—Fox and Franz Josef—lie in Westland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage area on the South Island. These two ice slabs formed over millions of years and are now only a 20-minute drive apart, moving ever so slowly toward the sea. Guided walks are available on both glaciers and include pick axes, winter overalls, and safety gear. More adventurous travelers can heli-hike to remote reaches of either glacier. Ice of a less permanent nature stars in Oturehua, Central Otago. Every year, a frozen lake near Naseby plays host to a curling tournament, during which competitors slide heavy granite stones across the ice while their breath nearly freezes in the air. 
    Photo by Matt Long
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    Apr├Ęs-Ski Action
    Whether you're after a mulled wine at the bar or a soak in the tub, the après-ski culture in New Zealand is alive and growing. Every major ski area has a café and bar, and dancing to the beats of live DJs is a local requirement. If you’re winding down on the deck, don’t be surprised if a nosy kea (the world’s only alpine parrot) walks up and starts pecking at you. If post-slope pampering is at the top of your list, start at your resort. Queenstown offers many spas where you can soak with a view or revive your ski muscles with an athletic massage. Dining in and around Queenstown is also a pleasure, and eating highlights include Rata, Sherwood and Amisfield.
    Photo by Simon Belcher/age fotostock
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    Winter Festivities
    Kiwis love a good party, and Queenstown boasts its fair share of winter festivals and other snowy events. The biggest one is the Queenstown Winter Festival, which occurs every year over the last week of June. Festivities include parties, DJs, fireworks, street parades, and all sorts of on-the-mountain antics. Also held in June, the Mount Ruapehu Mountain Mardi Gras in the North Island town of Ohakune is a huge party with more than a little electronic dance music. On your way from the Cardrona ski resort to Queenstown, the Cardrona Hotel is an iconic venue for a custom event, or a pint.
    Photo by Victor Huang
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    Snowboarding Pipes and Parks
    New Zealand is a snowboarder’s paradise; dedicated terrain parks and wild natural features can be found all over the country. A frequent winner of best terrain park, the Remarkables ski area outside Queenstown is well known for the Stash, a terrain park built by Burton team riders and inspired by the contours of the mountain. Free-riders will love Coronet Peak, which offers New Zealand's longest hours of operation. Treble Cone near Wanaka is the largest ski field in the South Island and is renowned for its great powder, natural Super Pipe, and quality snow banks. But if you’re really serious, opt for Cardrona resort, where the Parks Snowboard Squad coaches athletes and builds extreme skills.
    Photo by Ben-Heys/age fotostock