Typically tourists think of visiting New Zealand – which is after all a Pacific island nation, over the summer months, however for those in the know, New Zealand also offers some of the best winter travel experiences anywhere in the world.
Made up of two large islands – North and South, New Zealand’s fairly recent (in geological terms) arrival as the result of seismic upthrust and volcanic activity means the place teems with mountains, glaciers and (mostly extinct) volcanoes.
The South Island is split by the impressive Southern Alps, which form a backbone of mountains almost from one end to the other, including the mighty Aoraki (Mt Cook), which is New Zealand’s tallest peak.
The fact that the first man to climb Mt Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, hailed from NZ and cut his climbing teeth on Mt Cook should be something of an indication of the calibre of these mountains. So of course you can’t go many places in the south without being within an hour or two (at the most) from a great ski field, or impressive off-piste powder runs that can be accessed by helicopter.
The North Island centres around the Volcanic Plateau, which features Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. Ruapehu’s ski area is known as Turoa and the nearest town is Ohakune, while Tongariro’s Whakapapa ski area is usually accessed from Turangi, just 45 minutes south of Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake.
The ski season usually kicks off late May or early June in the South Island and can run right through till spring skiing in October on fields like Mt Hutt in Canterbury, which is known for having the longest season in Australasia.
Against this backdrop of impressive mountains, great quality snow and plenty of opportunities to go off-piste, is a calendar of activities to bring even more buzz to your NZ winter trip.
Being mobile is the best way to make sure you turn up in the right place at the right time, so booking a minivan or 4WD vehicle (with snow chains) to share with your mates is probably the ultimate way to get round the country in the winter months.
Queenstown Winter Festival
Undoubtedly the mother of all NZ winter festivals is the Queenstown Winter Festival, which in 2012 runs from 22 June – 1 July.
This festival definitely has something on the programme for everyone and raises the normal Queenstown party buzz to the max for the duration of the event. If you fancy racing dogs downhill on a ski slope, cross-dressing in the MoreFM Drag Race or partying at the Masquerade Ball – this is the place to be.
If you’re looking for something a little different from the mainstream, Queenstown also hosts Gay Ski Week, which kicks off the last week of August – this year from 25 August – 1 September. Queenstown is known for great wineries, so the week is a perfect mix of wine tastings and partying every night – with plenty of ski and snowboarding action by day.
Winter events in Auckland
If you prefer to land in Auckland and focus on the North Island, people in the know highly recommend the Ohakune Mardi Gras which takes place on June 23 in 2012.
This year’s line-up includes Brilleaux, Babysitters Circus, I am Giant, Mt Eden and General Lee plus brilliant pyrotechnics to light up the night. Make sure you get your tickets early, as this one is known to sell out.
Other Winter Events
For winter activities that don’t involve sliding down slippery slopes, you might want to time your trip downunder to take in Lyttelton’s Festival of Lights. Lyttelton is a port town just over the hill from Christchurch, known for the character of its buildings and inhabitants – the sort of place “local colour” was first coined to describe.
The event is four days of activities that kick off on June 7 and includes a street party, masked parade and fireworks on Friday June 8, along with market stalls and plenty of other activities throughout the weekend. Lyttelton is a community putting itself back together after last year’s earthquakes, so showing your support for their efforts is always much appreciated.
Winter Events in Christchurch
If you are in or around the Garden City (Christchurch) with your family during the NZ school holidays, check out the events that make up the annual Kids Fest. Fun activities are scheduled all around the city and surrounds from June 30 – July 14.
Back to the slopes in August, Winter Games NZ takes place down south, with events ranging between two Wanaka ski fields (Cardrona and the Snow Farm), Queenstown’s Coronet Peak, Canterbury’s Mt Hutt, Naseby’s indoor Curling Rink and Dunedin’s Olympic size ice hockey arena. The dates are August 13 – 28 and events info is available on the website www.wintergamesnz.com
One of the highlights is undoubtedly the Methven Big Air on August 27, which is the final event of the Skullcandy Big Air series and brings together Australasia’s best FMX names, along with great live entertainment and more fireworks.