Peak season for winter travel
(K.Jackson, Susan Edmunds – The New Zealand Herald, 25/07/11) – Winter and snow combine to make a ski trip a holiday you’ll never forget. We visit Mt Ruapehu and Coronet Peak to find out what’s on offer this year.
Any parent with a child and a computer has probably heard of the online game Club Penguin. This season Mt Ruapehu has tapped into the icy characters’ popularity and struck an agreement with Disney to build themed events such as the Club Penguin Mini X Games. Games include Skier X and Boarder X competitions and the Little Big Air Day, at Whakapapa’s Happy Valley next Tuesday and Wednesday .
Mt Ruapehu’s marketing co-ordinator, Lacey Dandy, says the games will give young skiers and snowboarders a chance to show what they can do, in front of judges and a crowd of parents and supporters. But she says the aim of the event is mostly to get kids aged 5-12 hooked on participating. It’s more about showing off their tricks than vying for a title. “It’s about having fun and rewarding their attempts,” she says. Prizes available include a Nintendo DS and Billabong products. “It’ll be fun for parents as well, to come along and cheer their kids on.”
For less experienced young skiers, who might prefer to be taken under a penguin’s wing than leap into competition, the Club Penguin Discover Snow School ($78) is a good way to get a first taste of snow sports. Every child who takes part or hires a sled gets a Club Penguin coin card, with 2500 coins to use on their online account.
If you are at the mountain for more than a couple of days, you can enrol your kids in one of the five-day school holiday programmes. Lessons every day for a week with the same instructor, either for two hours or four hours a day ($250 or $350), are a good way to build confidence. Courses are designed for beginners up to intermediate and advanced skiers aged six to 16, and snowboarders 8 to 16. The littlest members of your family can be entertained at the Turoa Yeti Kids’ Centre, open Thursday to Monday and giving kids aged 2 to 5 the chance to play in the snow or learn about skiing.
For more mature skiers, the free Mountain Hosts tours will show you more of the mountain than you would normally see. “You get to see lots of secret hidden spots,” says Dandy. Tours depart daily, although they are weather dependent, from Whakapapa at 10.30am and 1.30pm and Turoa at 11am and 2pm.
If you really want to get off the beaten track, try one of the back-country guided trips. They take experienced skiers on some of the mountain’s untracked slopes. An average trip includes about 1000 vertical metres of skiing, some hiking and a gourmet lunch. At $495 for the first person and $100 for others taking part (up to a maximum of four), the most popular route, the Tukino/Summit plateau traverse, takes in three snowfields, with lunch served overlooking Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake. The tour then goes down the eastern side of the mountain, which provides up to 1200m of uninterrupted skiing. Other tours cover lift-accessed back country and the crater lake.
There is no terrain park available at Whakapapa this year but Turoa offers the Medium Terrain Park for intermediate to advanced park riders to perfect their tricks, and the XL Park, which features big kickers for advanced park riders.
Dandy says she would recommend the one-day Discover Ultimate Package as the best way for new skiers to get acquainted with the mountain. It is $108 per adult and $78 for youths and includes lift passes, gear hire, a lesson and a sight-seeing chairlift ride. If you just want to get straight into skiing or boarding, an adult pass is $181 for a weekend.
Despite early fears that there might not be enough snow, Dandy says: “Mother Nature delivered.” Turoa has a base of 160cm and Whakapapa about 135cm. In the second week of the month, people working on the mountain noticed that there had been more snow already than there was in the whole of July last year. She says school holidays are always noticeably busier than other times of the year but the mountain is never overcrowded. “There’s plenty of space for everyone.”
* Visit mtruapehu.com or phone: Turoa +64 6 385 8456, Whakapapa +64 7 892 4000
I’m catching my breath on the edge of Coronet Peak’s sweeping Big Easy beginner ski slope when an Air New Zealand plane cruises past – below me.
It’s enough to knock you off your skis, but indicates rather spectacularly one of the things that makes Coronet so special – the unbeatable panoramic views, that on a crisp, clear day like this one seem to take in the whole of Central Otago.
There are other distractions up here today too – like watching the world’s top downhill ski racers fly headlong down Coronet’s Rocky Gully on practice runs. It’s perhaps a little ironic that the best views of them training are to be had from the Big Easy’s gentle slopes. Aside from the breathtaking views the only real hazard for beginners is being so impressed by the speed, skill and athleticism of the world’s best skiers racing on the next slope over that you forget your own more limited skills and faceplant into a snow bank – or possibly another beginner.
Having done just that I disentangle myself from an equally distracted stranger and vow to concentrate not on the skiing superstar but rather the task at hand – getting my groove back after a couple of seasons away from the slopes.
The Big Easy is a fantastic place to do this because though it’s generally busy, it’s big enough that you can usually carve your own path without having to worry about the other beginners and their often unpredictable routes. And you can choose between two or three different routes within the run from the top of the lift, some more steep and tricky than others. It’s a huge advantage over other mountains’ beginner slopes, which often give little choice but to run the same crowded 50m of snow over and over.
There is also a small novice run below the Big Easy for complete beginners and a good range of difficulty levels within the intermediate runs, so if you’re just graduating off the beginner area you’ll find something that will stretch you enough to make you better without scaring the bejesus out of you.
But there is a reason the Northern Hemisphere’s top level professionals spend their off-season carving up the trails at Coronet every year – it’s not just beginners who are well catered for here.
With 480ha of skiable area, a more-than 480m vertical drop, and with trails split almost equally between beginner, intermediate and advanced/expert areas there’s enough mountain for the whole family to amuse themselves on, meeting for a restorative hot drink on the sun deck, or inside the fully licensed restaurant if the weather is behaving less kindly. And when the ski stars are in town Heidi’s Hut cafe at the base of Rocky Gully is a popular spot to both meet and watch them in action.
The vast base building, opened in 2008, is arguably the best of its kind in New Zealand and among the best in the world. The ski rental area is a super-efficient production line, manned by amiable staff adept at kitting you out with perfectly fitting boots and skis or snowboards. You totter in at one end in your socks and come out the other boots on and skis or board in hand, ready to go. At the end of the day you simply retrace your steps, shedding and returning gear as you go.
It sounds simple enough but facilities like this make a day skiing for the casual snowbunny, or a family of snow bunnies, infinitely more user friendly and enjoyable. You can spend as much time as possible emulating, or at least watching, those world class ski stars, who know a good thing when they’ve found it.
- Kerri Jackson was a guest of NZ Ski and Air New Zealand
When to see the best:
Catch some of New Zealand’s and the world’s top skiers training and competing at Coronet Peak this season:
Winter Classic -July 26, 29 and August 2, 9, 30
NZ National Youth Series – August 6-7
NZ Masters – August 12-13
Japanese FIS Southern Cup Race- August 17-20
NZ Winter Games – August 13-28
NZ National Alpine Championships – September 2-3
QUEST Banked Slalom – September 10
* After a late start, Coronet Peak now has an 80cm base, supplemented by extensive snow-making equipment.
* Coronet Peak runs a ski school with private or group lessons, the Kea children’s ski school ($105 a day for lessons and lunch) and Skiwiland childcare.
* The day starts with First Tracks from 8am and on Fridays and Saturdays finishes with night skiing until 9pm.
* Coronet Peak is operated by NZ Ski which also operates the Remarkables and Mt Hutt. Buy a NZSKi MyPass and simply reload it with passes and gear rental for all three skifields when you need to. The pass keeps track of how many vertical metres you’ve skied (just check online) and is read automatically at the lifts. Phone: 03 450 1970.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Queenstown from Auckland and Christchurch. Ph 0800 737 000.
Where to stay: The Heritage Queenstown is just out of central Queenstown on the road to Glenorchy. The hotel has an outdoor pool as well as a hot tub and sauna; and the cosy MacKenzie Bar is a good spot to unwind.