After waking up in Melbourne, Scott Spits enters his own Winter Wonderland in New Zealand by early afternoon.
Imagine this: you wake up in your own bed but you're hitting the downhill slopes of a ski resort – in another country - by early afternoon.
The prospect of taking an international flight to reach your white powder destination on the same day may seem unlikely, but it's can be a reality – and without spending hours in the car slowly winding your way into the mountains.
It's possible to take an early flight from an eastern capital and be lining up at the lifts above Queenstown, New Zealand, by mid-afternoon.
Taking in the magnificent vistas during the final minutes my descent to Queenstown is enhancing for the soul. The endless snow-capped peaks viewed from up high took me (my previous trips to Queenstown had been overland). I soon realise I'm about to enter a cliché - a Winter Wonderland.
New Zealand's Southern Alps are an alluring sight and have been for generations. It's no wonder then that numerous film producers have chosen locations around the South Island to make their movies, most notably The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, directed by New Zealand's own Peter Jackson.
New Zealand v Australia
Making comparisons with Australian resorts is naturally fraught with danger - there are pros and cons about your skiing options on either side of the Tasman.
But it's important to highlight the key difference between the two countries - there's little on-mountain accommodation at New Zealand's South Island resorts, so you have to get by with staying in the nearby towns and cities.
That may sound inconvenient but, in reality, the resorts are only a short drive away and staying off the mountain opens up your options for nocturnal activities, from fine dining, bar hopping or even a spot of shopping.
And if your choice for accommodation happens to be in Queenstown, consider yourself lucky. Nestled on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown has lost little of its small-town charm despite a slowly growing population.
Named by gold prospectors as a 'town fit for a queen', Queenstown sees its population swell during the busy winter months and also at the peak of summer.
The Coronet Peak ski resort is so close to Queenstown you feel you could ski all the way down from one of the mountain's runs to Shotover St in the heart of the town. With the resort's car park just a short 25-minute drive on a fully-sealed road, it makes for a relaxing start to the day (or afternoon) of skiing. The day after my arrival in Queenstown I enjoyed a hearty breakfast in my hotel before arriving on the mountain for my downhill skiing lesson – with a full day well and truly ahead of me.
The mountain, New Zealand's first commercial ski resort, started operations in 1947. It now boasts several options for access to the upper echelons of the mountain, including one high-speed six-seater chairlift, two express quad chairs and one T-bar, along with three surface conveyor belts, for those skiers still finding their feet, and a tow-rope for true beginners. The conveyor belt was especially helpful for me, just to feel comfortable on snow again after a decent absence.
Coronet Peak is also usually one of the last ski fields in the Southern Hemisphere to lose its snow each year. The resort offers night skiing on some Friday and Saturday nights during the busy winter period.
For those visitors to the South Island seeking a quieter locale, there are countless options surrounding Queenstown to consider, including neighboring Wanaka (nestled at the southern end of Lake Wanaka).
Queenstown may be Wanaka's big brother but the beauty of the region is shared in the family. Wanaka is within close reach of several ski resorts, including Cadrona and Snow Park, giving visitors plenty of choice. And for those skiers who lean towards cross-country action, Snow Farm is also close by. Featuring extensive cross-country trails, Snow Farm is a world-famous destination, particularly as an off-season training destination for Europe's best skiers in the discipline.
The drive alone between Queenstown and Wanaka can be a beautiful experience. The best option is the stunning and iconic Crown Range Road which offers spectacular views of the surrounding alps and ranges as you climb to a height of more than 1100 metres.
On the road out of Queenstown, the turnoff to the Crown Range is just past Lake Hayes and the historic road quickly winds in zig-zag fashion to its peak. It is New Zealand's highest sealed road and you'll be drawn numerous times to stop and enjoy in the views. The road is a longer option to Wanaka than via Cromwell, but it's well worth the extra time.
I drove the road under darkness, giving the experience a new outlook, especially since there was a full moon. Taking a minute to get out of my car and breathe in the mountain air, it was eerily silent but soothing.
The Crown Range Road takes you to the historic Cadrona Hotel, close to the turn-off for the ski resort. Built in 1870 during the gold rush, the building gives you a wonderful glimpse into the region's gold mining history. It's in a perfect, rustic location and after a full day's skiing (either downhill, cross-country, or both), a nourishing meal and a cleansing ale is just the tonic.
Also within close reach of Queenstown is the gold rush town of Arrowtown, just 20 minutes away. A treasure in its own right, the cobbled main street takes you back decades in a matter of minutes and is only one aspect of its old-town appeal.
With its meandering creeks and streams and the historic Chinese Village from the gold rush days, there are many reasons to visit, whether they are to enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants or to spend an afternoon digesting the region's history.
The discovery of gold in the adjoining Arrow River in 1962 brought miners and prospectors from around the world. They built the tree-lined avenues and small stone and timber cottages, features that remain today.
Arrowtown is a nice example that demonstrates that, beyond the snow activity on the peaks, the alps really are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to New Zealand's South Island.
Whether it's fine food, extensive world-class walking trails, beautiful scenery, adventure sports or a combination of the above that first draws visitors to the island, it's a fair bet they'll be back again. I know I certainly will.
Queenstown is serviced by four major airlines. Air New Zealand and Qantas fly direct from Sydney all year but extend this service with departures from Brisbane and Melbourne during the busy winter months. Pacific Blue also flies direct from Sydney to Queenstown all year round. You can also take connections from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch
For more info, visit http://www.nzski.com
Ten non-skiing activities on the South Island
1. Go to extremes
There's a plethora of 'extreme' or 'adventure' sports to choose from on the South Island. And if you're seeking a quick adrenalin shot, Queenstown is your first and final destination. You can't go past jet-boating, a 'must-do' activity whilst in New Zealand. Three jet boat operators have rights to use the Shotover River, a short 10-minute drive from Queenstown. Only one of those operators is licensed to operate in the canyons section of the river. The canyons consist primarily of steep rock walls, carved from thousands of years of fast-flowing water emanating from the Southern Alps. Get ready for a heart-stopping ride. www.shotoverjet.com Rates: Adult (16+years) $NZ129; Child (5 – 15 years) $NZ69
2. Unwind in a hot tub
There's something particularly alluring about a day on the slopes followed by a session in the hot-tub. The South Island is well serviced by several alpine springs, some close to Queenstown, others within reach of Christchurch and some others in between. Tekapo Springs on Lake Tekapo is a good all-round choice, located about halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown. Along with several pools, they also have an ice-rink with ice-skating available in the winter months and roller-skating and inline skating at other times. You can also try your hand at snow-tubing, just in case you haven't satisfied your adrenalin appetite elsewhere. Or you may simply just prefer a massage and relaxing session in the hot pools. www.tekaposprings.co.nz Rates (winter): Skate & Soak: Adults $NZ34, Child (3 – 12 years) $NZ22, Family (2 adults & 3 children) $NZ108
3. Walk the walk
The locals refer to the activity as tramping, but you would be more familiar with the experience known as hiking. There are literally countless options for walking trips on the South Island, from casual 1-2 hour sessions to some serious week-long hikes in rugged terrain. The world-famous Milford Track is located in Fiordland National Park, to the west of Queenstown. Spanning more than 50 kilometres and regarded as one of the great walks of the world, the track is heavily regulated so get organised and plan everything in advance if you have your heart set on finishing the walk during your trip to New Zealand. www.milfordtrack.net www.tramper.co.nz Rates: NZ$90 per person for three nights accommodation. A NZ$200 package is available, including transportation. Family discounts available.
4. Take a dive
Bungy-jumping. Just the very mention of the activity can cause your heart to jump. New Zealand is the home of modern bungy jumping with Queenstown unsurprisingly the epicentre of the action. Commercial operations began in 1988 over the Kawarau River, when AJ Hackett opened the jump site off the Kawarau Bridge. The launch of modern bungy helped kick-start adventure tourism in the region and set Queenstown on its way to the title of the adventure capital of the world. There's a number of choices to consider for your bungy experience, from the original 43-metre leap over the Kawarau, using a 'runway' on The Ledge or a nervous leap from 134 metres above the Nevis River, giving you more than eight seconds of free falling time. Gulp. www.bungy.co.nz Rates: $NZ180-$260, depending on which jump you choose. 3 jumps for $NZ399, 4-pack $NZ545, all seven options $NZ725
5. Take on the rapids
If jet-boating is an all-too-brief adventure experience or simply too much for your nervous system, white-water rafting is a great back-up choice. Rafting takes a little more planning as there's single-day or multi-day options at a number of brilliant locations across the South Island. If you want to stay close to Queenstown, however, the Upper Shotover offers a half-day trip on the class two river, meaning there are no violent rapids. Try a step up to class four or five whitewater and your rafting experience won't be quite as gentle! www.nz-rafting.com www.queenstownrafting.co.nz/shotover/ Rates: NZ$195 per person (trip approx. 4.5 hours)
6. Tee off
Six golf courses are within teeing off distance of the heart of Queenstown (or more accurately, within 25 minutes drive). From immaculate resorts to backcountry fairways with spectacular mountains as a backdrop, your needs as either a seasoned golfer or a newbie to the fairways are covered adequately. One brilliant choice is Millbrook, a scenic course set in a natural ampitheatre located close to the historic gold mining town of Arrowtown. With eye-catching photo opportunities on every hole, this 27-hole championship course is considered one of the top 10 courses in New Zealand. www.newzealand.com/au/golf www.millbrook.co.nz/resort.golf/ Rates (winter - low season): from $NZ45
7. Get sounded out
Where do you start when describing Milford Sound? Just get online and start viewing the photos for an idea of what people are raving about. This is a world-class attraction located with Fiordland National Park. Understandably, it has World Heritage status and it is regarded by some as New Zealand's single best attraction. Mitre Peak is one of the reasons for the area's iconic status. Close to the shore of Milford Sound, the peak rises to nearly 1700 metres, proving a stunning backdrop for photographers. Simply not to be missed. www.newzealand.com/au/milford-sound/ www.milford-sound.co.nz/ www.fiordland.org.nz/
8. Dog gone
This activity is a bit obscure and perhaps one for those visitors seeking something off the well-beaten track. Dog-sledding. Yes, that's right. When you see the sled dogs in action, you may need to pinch yourself to realise you're still in New Zealand. The cross-country ski resort of Snow Farm, boasting kilometres of trails, has ideal terrain for the remarkable animals. One company offers a couple of tour options to ride with the dogs but, believe it or not, their tours - including one highlighted by an overnight trip - are already sold out for 2012. www.snowfarmnz.com www.quietrunning.co.nz Rates: Basic Beginners $225pp, Overnighter $NZ695pp (2012 season already fully booked)
9. Wine time's a fine time
When on the road, you've just got to savour the local cuisine and wine, right? The Otaga region, encompassing a significant south-eastern corner of New Zealand's South Island, is famous for its pinot noir red wine. Central Otago is one of those few places in the world where the variety flourishes and winemakers produce internationally acclaimed wines. So, grab a map, perhaps plan for a full day's touring and drop in on the numerous vineyards in the region. www.otagowine.com www.winesofnz.com
10. Party down
Partying. Backpackers and other folk hankering for a good time are drawn to Queenstown due to its partying reputation. Many stay a while and earn an income. It's considered the ultimate adventure destination and many young visitors understandably combine their time filling the numerous seasonal job opportunities on offer with a vigorous social life. There are great restaurants and several funky bars in the town. One particular attraction is the Minus 5 bar where everything is made of ice! From the walls, to the seats, to the glass you sip from. You may need to spend a day or two in the (slightly) quieter surrounds of Wanaka just to recover. www.minus5queenstown.co.nz Rates: Adult entry $NZ32 (includes one vodka cocktail or two non-alcoholic cocktails) Family pass (2 adults and 2 children): $NZ85 (includes two vodka cocktails and two juice mocktails)
The writer travelled as a guest of NZSki.