It should speak volumes that the best run I've had all day – and this, at the early stages of a New Zealand ski holiday – is a chauffeured lift from cutesy Brennan Wines to the swank of Chard Farm Vineyard, deep-etched between calico-coloured hills and snowcapped escarpments, beside the world's first bungy jump.
That's not to denigrate the ski resorts in this part of New Zealand – on the contrary. I rode First Tracks with 50 or so skiers at Coronet Peak in the morning and the mountain was covered in 15 centimetres of fresh snow. It's just that coming here on a ski holiday should make Australians rethink the traditional concept of a "ski holiday" (think: wake early, high-tail it to ski resort, park as close to chairlifts as you can, ski, eat, drive home; and repeat ...)
I've skied New Zealand every season for the past 16, and if nothing else, I've discovered skiing, or snowboarding, at a major ski resort, should be just a part of what constitutes a good New Zealand ski holiday. The major ski resorts around here are all adequate – and boy, do they offer the kinds of vistas that keep Instagram and Facebook in business – but unlike our own ski resorts, it's entirely possible to have a great ski holiday here without spending all your time at them.
And no stage of the ski season reflects this more than spring. Most Australian skiers visit in July and August, hoping for more consistent snow. So they miss the quieter times altogether – the longer, warmer days of September and October which offer visitors much more away from the mountains.
And that's precisely why I'm here on a wine tour that begins at mid-afternoon in September. I've ridden at a ski resort all morning, but the afternoon offers a whole new perspective on the region. I'm driven through a landscape that is as lunar as it is Canada (the Maori name for Queenstown is Tahuna, probably meaning sandbank) on a road that snakes its way high above the Kawarau River whose water is the colour of native pounamu (or greenstone).
And now in spring, the hawthorn hedge by the roadway is turning crimson-red and the hulking willows planted 150 years ago by homesick settlers are budding green and yellow. It's warm enough that when I arrive at Brennan Wine I sit at a table in the sun in just a T-shirt, sampling the pinot noirs that make this region world famous. Further up the road – at Chard Farm – the path in goes beside the first road into Queenstown, built for stage coaches in the late 19th century.
In winter, the road is sometimes impassable, but here in spring nothing can stop us. The 80 or so wineries in the region are some of the world's most picturesque, set amongt the wine world's most challenging topography. In late spring, when the light won't dim till 9pm (in July, the sun sets at 5pm), you can dine at some wineries looking out over their vines.
It snows overnight so I head north-east of Queenstown over the Crown Range towards Wanaka. Just south of the town, I drive up towards Cardrona Alpine Resort along a dirt road cut into the side of a mountain. One hundred metres before the resort's car park, I find the region's best kept skiing secret, Soho Basin.
"I got buddies, heli-ski guides, who've lived here their whole lives who don't know about this place," operations manager Mark Dewberry says. Soho Basin is 264 hectares of private ski area that's today the sole domain of 12 skiers using the country's only cat skiing operation. Although it opened three years ago, barely a single skier knows about this place even though Soho Basin can offer the best skiing (and the most luxuriously catered) experience in the southern hemisphere.
I'm shown down mountains, sluicing my way through completely untracked snow … I won't cross a single track today. I'm permitted to go where I want (you try doing that heli-skiing), so I ride through bowls that look all the way to Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu. At the top of Soho Basin, we pause at the peak of Mount Cardrona and I see Mount Cook on the horizon, New Zealand's highest mountain. We ski down to a hut in a valley surrounded on all sides by mountains and eat a three-course lunch prepared by one of Queenstown's best winery restaurants, Amisfield Estate. I linger, beside a smoking wood-fire, until my cheeks are as red from the pinot noirs that Amisfield produces as they are from the spring sunshine.
It's this kind of surprise in the mountains that will always set New Zealand apart from Australia's alpine regions. There are many options for skiers beyond the major resorts here (unlike Australia); all it requires is the desire to seek them out.
Just north of here, Wanaka is fast becoming New Zealand's hippest spring skiing destination. There are food trucks and some of New Zealand's most celebrated new restaurants set beside a glacier-fed lake that covers an entire valley. There's a buzz about town that wasn't here even five years ago, but there's none of the frenzy of Queenstown at peak season. Should you drive another 30 kilometres north, following the lake's edge, you'll experience the country's most unheralded (and yet most respected) ski resort, Treble Cone.
When it has snowed overnight, there is no better ski resort anywhere in the Antipodes. Expert riders congregate here for Treble Cone's steep in-bound chutes; yet beginners are just as happy staring out over Lake Wanaka from its gentler slopes, watching the world's only alpine parrot, the kea, try to share their lunch. It puzzles me how few Australians venture here – we'll drive seven hours from Sydney to Thredbo or Perisher, and yet a 90-minute drive from Queenstown (or stay in Wanaka and it's only a 30-minute journey) puts us off?
I return to Queenstown and sleep in a suite built out over Lake Wakatipu. From here, I can watch the Remarkables (the mountain range that defines Queenstown) change colours with the sunset – orange to mauve, and everything in-between. In the spring I like that I have time to linger over breakfast here, knowing the crowds of peak season are long gone. And with the long twilights of spring, I have time for golf after skiing. Golf is the second most popular sport for international visitors behind skiing in New Zealand.
Six of the country's highest rated courses are within a 20-minute drive of Queenstown (while a new championship course is being constructed just outside Wanaka). Nowhere on earth do golf courses run across such stomach-churning topography, and at Jacks Point – constructed in the shadow of the Remarkables I just skied, metres from Lake Wakatipu – there are tee-offs high enough above fairways and greens that slope like a ski run. Leave it to Queenstown, of course, to assimilate the genteel sport of golf with the death-defying, white-knuckle ethos that rules this town; I discover playing golf here might be best done with a helmet.
And still there's so much more to do. Queenstown is the adrenalin capital of the world, and Wanaka is only just behind. I'm so caught up in the thrills and the spills, and the sun-soaked mountain vistas you get around each corner here that if my snowboard wasn't in my car, I'd likely forget what it was I was here for.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN SPRING
1. MOUNTAIN BIKING
Take helicopters to mountain tops to descend trails to isolated pubs; try NZ's first gondola-assisted lift to access world-class downhill trails, or just cruise hundreds of kilometres of cycleways. See queenstownnz.co.nz
2. ADRENALINE ADVENTURES
Jet boating and bungy jumping were invented here, but that's just the beginning of what can scare you – it would take a traveller a month to get through every adrenaline adventure available. See queenstownnz.co.nz
Queenstown and Wanaka are close to some of the planet's greatest multi-day walks, such as the Routeburn and Milford tracks. Or try shorter hikes, such as to the summit of Ben Lomond which towers over the town. See queenstownnz.co.nz
4. FOOD TRUCKS IN WANAKA
Check out the funkiest food trucks in the Antipodes near the lake in Wanaka; vendors work with local farmers to offer everything from wood-fired pizza to French crepes and spicy Mexican burritos.
Nothing beats apres drinks in the spring sunshine, and the options around Queenstown and Wanaka are as plentiful as any ski region on earth. There are more than 50 bars in Queenstown alone, many with sun-filled beer-gardens and rooftops looking over Lake Wakaitpu. See queenstownnz.co.nz, lakewanaka.co.nz
Air New Zealand flies directly to Queenstown daily through winter. See airnz.com.au
Matakauri Lodge offers total exclusivity in a private forest setting above Lake Wakatipu. a few minutes from Queenstown, see matakaurilodge.com. For funky digs close to town, see sherwoodqueenstown.nz. Rent your own luxury home in Wanaka, see releasenz.com
A full day's cat skiing with three-course lunch costs $NZ685, see sohobasin.com. For information on Coronet Peak and the Remarkables, see nzski.com. For information on Treble Cone, see treblecone.com.
Queenstown Wine Trail will drive you to Central Otago's prettiest wineries, see centralwinetrail.co.nz. To decide which golf course best suits you, see queenstownnz.co.nz/things-to-do/golf.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism NZ and Air NZ