It's still dark when I emerge from my hotel room. Outside it's freezing. Slinging my snowboard into the back of the 4WD, I fire up the engine and tear off, with the midnight blue waters of Lake Wakatipu skirting the road to my right.
In the distance, the ragged peaks of The Remarkables mountain range dominate the horizon amid the shifting colour spectrum of daybreak, their summits stabbing at the underbelly of the sky like giant snow-dusted daggers.
A winding mountain road leads me to the ski station at Coronet Peak, 20 minutes later. Strapping into my board, I jump onto an empty chairlift and am soon making my way up a deserted mountain. With the sun making its languid ascent I can see for miles across alpine plains in every direction.
There is no-one else in sight at the top. The snow is still untouched. Kicking off the lip of the mountain, I shred my way through virgin powder down a network of rollercoaster runs, steep drops giving way to views of the southern shore of Lake Wakatipu.
For another hour, the mountain is mine, the crowds don't arrive until the first chairlift officially opens at 8am.
Anyone with a passion for winter sports will appreciate that opportunities such as this are scant at best. But The First Tracks program – affording skiers and boarders the chance to hit the slopes before anyone else – is just one of many initiatives to help Queenstown's ski region truly compete on a global level.
In the last couple of years there has been serious investment. A state of the art base building at The Remarkables ski field was unveiled last winter (2015). The Curvey Basin lift, transporting up to 2800 people an hour, was also installed in 2014. There have been improvements to road access – 10 kilometres of the 13-kilometre access road has now been sealed at The Remarkables – and increased car parking capacity, more snowmaking equipment and revamped restaurants and cafes; a makeover to the tune of $NZ45 million ($43 million).
Having not ridden here for many years, the changes are immediately apparent.
A computer system makes light work of renting gear, I need only enter my details once and the information is stored throughout all other ski stations in the region. Inside the rental shops, the staff seem knowledgeable and happy to help, a far cry from the surly, stoned snowboarder stereotype I've so often encountered.
With the entire logistical process now so seamless I'm able to spend less time getting organised and more time on the slopes. Coronet Peak has 280 hectares of skiable area, eight lifts and versatile, humpy terrain, it's a fun mountain, with mind bending visuals at almost every turn.
Throughout the day I mix it up, slicing my way down the wide open runs of The M1 and Arnold's Way to steeper, more challenging, chutes such as Donkey Serenade and the aptly named Ego Alley.
On Fridays and Saturdays, late starters can ride well into the evening; Coronet Peak is the only spot in New Zealand (bar one indoor slope) to offer night skiing until 9pm and the amount of floodlit terrain to cater for this was doubled in 2014. There are also regular sundown events where those game enough can test their mettle off a giant kicker (an enormous inflatable air bag mitigates crash landings) as well as enjoy DJs, fire braziers and pizzas.
En route back to Queenstown – about 20 minutes' drive – I swing by Arrowtown, a tiny village steeped in gold rush history that dates back to the 1800s. The historical legacy remains. Old miners' cottages serve as boutique art galleries, shops and restaurants. Smoke snakes from chimneys and the wintry smell of log fires hangs in the air.
At the top of the main street, The Fork and Tap, a cosy winter pub, offers dishes such as Wild Fiordland Venison, seafood chowder and rabbit hotpot. It's soulful, hearty food and by the time I've finished a pint of ale by the open fire, I'm as reluctant to get moving as a well fed bulldog after an epic winter walk.
In truth, the necessity to drive between locations is a deterrent for some when considering the Queenstown region as a winter destination; namely those who prefer the convenience of ski-in, ski-out resorts. But it's a trade off.
Aside from the fact that the drives are incredibly scenic, a short time in the car also means you can access different ski fields, each with their own characteristics.
It also affords you the diversity of Queenstown, a place with a genuine history stemming from the gold mining era – not unlike Colorado's Aspen – rather than a hurriedly erected mercenary resort filled with plastic chateaus and luminous-headband-sporting banking executives.
"You're not trapped on the hill as it were; you're not boxed in to such an exclusive product here," says Jono Gillan, an avid mountaineer and ski patroller for The Remarkables.
"Queenstown caters to all user groups, nightlife is competitive, the vast array of restaurants offers real diversity."
Wander the busy streets of the compact town centre and you'll see what he means. Though there are the rowdier bars offering cheap happy hours and whisky chasers, there are some surprisingly sophisticated options too.
At the back of Steamer Wharf on the shores of the lake, I duck into The Atlas Bar, a delightfully laid-back nook serving killer cocktails, 22 types of beer and a mean steak in a space not much larger than a ship's galley. Around the corner at Madam Woo, I'm led up a rickety wooden staircase to a secluded upstairs room with its own bar and fireplace. In an ambience not unlike a 1950s' Shanghai opium den, I sample some of the best Malaysian-style Hawker food I've had outside of Asia.
Come daybreak, I'm back on the slopes, this time at The Remarkables.
At the foot of the mountain, the new base building is a sight to behold, its angular glass panels juxtaposing the surrounding flat concrete base. Outside, three expansive decks offer views over the slopes and Southern Alps, while inside there are slick ski rental and fit out shops, storage facilities (including overnight lockers), a restaurant and seating for up to 644 people.
The terrain here is quite different from Coronet Peak; there's a more alpine feel with steep chutes and great lines for those prepared to do a little hiking.
While sections such as The Lookout and the Alta chutes offer plenty of testing options for expert riders, the new lift investments have ensured there's no dearth of intermediate blue runs for me to tackle.
It's another bluebird day on the slopes but had the weather closed in, it's reassuring to know that I wouldn't necessarily have missed out. When Mother Nature doesn't play ball, skiers and boarders can trade in their Queenstown Superpass lift ticket for another adventure off the mountain; a jet boat ride or bungy jump is a welcome alternative to the "Use it or lose it" mantra so often associated with other ski areas.
As an alternative to hitting the bars in Queenstown, I round off my trip with a visit to Sherwood Hotel, about four kilometres outside of town on a hillside bluff.
What started life in the mid-1980s as one of a chain of mock Tudor motor inns has since undergone an extensive facelift, and not of the Mickey Rourke variety.
Upstairs, the formerly drab, generic rooms have been injected with their own personality, decked out with recycled metal furniture and carefully chosen artworks lending effective explosions of colour.
Downstairs, the bar area is more in line with what you might expect to see in Sydney or Melbourne rather than a ski resort. Strategic lighting casts a moody glow above an expansive circular bar stocked with local wines and high-end spirits. Modish bar tenders shake cocktail mixers, the menu, with an emphasis on seasonal soul food harvested from their own back garden, doesn't disappoint, and the interiors, all wood-tastic, low-lit industrial chic are achingly hip.
It occurs to me Queenstown is more than just a place to come skiing or snowboarding. It's a winter holiday destination with so much variety both on and off the slopes that you're practically guaranteed an adventure. If you can dream it up, chances are, someone here can make it happen.
As internationally renowned Kiwi extreme sports athlete Chuck Berry told me: "Queenstown is a paradise for the travelling snowboarder and skier. All local ski fields have excellent up to date facilities, modern snowmaking, gear rentals, tuning, transport and everything to cater for individuals and families.
"And after a hard day on the snow, it offers superb apres ski with bars, hotels, events and our world famous Winter Festival.
"In a nutshell, Queenstown cranks."
Air New Zealand has frequent direct flights to Queenstown from major Australian cities; see airnewzealand.com.au
The Heritage Hotel Queenstown has outstanding views over the Remarkables Mountain Range and Lake Wakatipu. Deluxe rooms from $NZ270 ($256) in winter, less for longer stays. See heritagehotels.co.nz
NZSki have multi-day deals for the cheapest rates on passes. An adult 4-Day Lift Pass for Coronet Peak and The Remarkables is $NZ360. A four-day Intro to Snow package for beginners starts at $NZ499 and includes lift pass, equipment hire and group lessons. See nzski.com
Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Air New Zealand and NZSki.
FIVE MORE GREAT QUEENSTOWN APRES SKI OPTIONS
ONSEN HOT POOLS
Soothe your aching muscles at Queenstown's only dedicated hot pool complex at the base of Coronet Peak's ski field. The cedar enclosed pool room has staggering views. See onsen.co.nz
THE BALLARAT TRADING COMPANY
Inspired by an 1850s trading emporium, this much loved gastro pub is a welcoming blend of retro fittings and furniture, cosy booths, live music and a selection of some of Central Otago's best wines. See ballarat.co.nz
QUEENSTOWN WINE TRAIL
Tour some of the region's preeminent wineries with an experienced team of staff who'll teach you phrases like, "nutty, yet dexterously balanced", while you sample varietals with one finger in your ear. See queenstownwinetrail.co.nz
GOLDFIELDS MINING CENTRE
Sift for gold on the banks of the Kawarau River while gaining a fascinating insight into the lives of New Zealand's early settlers and miners. See goldfieldsmining.co.nz
Head to a special viewing platform high above the gondola to view the night sky through high-end telescopes where you'll spy anything from the Southern Cross to the Milky Way. See skyline.co.nz