The chair lift at Cardrona. Photo: Supplied
The mountains on the one-hour drive from Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island to Cardrona Alpine Resort look like a snow leopard pelt has been thrown over them, with brown speckles of rocks and trees peeping through the blanket of snow. The haze of white seems to stretch forever, and the road we are driving up in the manner of cautious senior citizens in our impressively large RAV 4 is lined with snow tipped pine trees. We are on our way to ski. By that I mean that my boyfriend, an advanced skier who does things like ski out of a helicopter will take off for the day and I, a knobbly kneed beginner, will have a ski lesson and tackle the magic carpet with huge enthusiasm.
It’s the first weekend of the ski season at Cardona Alpine Resort, the best start in the mountain’s 35 year history I’m told, the snow is fresh, plentiful and crunchy and everybody we encounter looks almost unnervingly happy and wholesome. Indeed there’s something very relaxing and pleasing about Cardrona. It’s well suited to beginners for one thing with a variety of slopes for beginner and intermediate skiers. In the ski and snowboard hiring shop and information areas a cross section of accented folk are eager to help. Dreadlocked winter chasers say things like “right on” when you tell them what size ski boot you are.
My instructor for my two-hour private lesson is Kate who has worked at Cardona for 20 years. She wears her hair in a close crop, has ruddy cheeks and might just be the nicest person I have ever met. Kate, like just about everybody else I meet on the mountain that day, lives for the snow. She followed the winter for nine years before meeting a bloke that was enough for her to want to stay put in nearby Wanaka. I am Kate’s first lesson for the season. "You always remember your first and your last", she says. I am not sure if this comforting to me, but at least, I think, I will be memorable.
Pics or it didn't happen. Here is me demonstrating my wedge for the camera.
The first thing I notice, other than how heavy ski boots are, and how I might have overdone the layers even though my fingers encased in their gloves feel like frozen sausages, is that there are a lot of children whizzing down the beginners slope. They look positively adorable with their Mickey Mouse ear helmets. I find them vastly irritating in their youth and agility, but it is difficult to be actually mad at six year-olds. Probably.
Kate gets me started before I have time to say that actually I’d rather just stay in the cafe and drink hot chocolate, and this is a good thing. We start with just getting used to the skis before she progresses to coaxing me down the beginner slope with my skis angled in an easy to slow down “wedge” (the six year-olds get told it’s a pizza slice.) Amazingly, according to Kate, I have very good balance. Hurrah for me. And soon Kate has me doing slow turns, gradually closing in my wedge and with Kate next to me I near fly down, well at least gradually ease down with confidence, the beginner slope.
“I am a natural skier!” I think to myself in a smug way, “look at me go!” I am high on adrenaline. I am planning my next ski holiday.
Driving up to Cardrona. Photo: Mitchell Brown
Of course such arrogance will only ever serve to give one a comeuppance and mine came directly after lunch in the Mezz cafe on the mountain (one of five restaurants on the mountain, definitely try the lamb). Kate has left me to my own devices and my boyfriend has joined me and convinced me that I’m ready for a green run.
“Duh”, I think, even though I am moderately afraid of the chair lift.
On the way up to the mountain peak we are wedged in between a father and his pint-sized son. “I’m the youngest skier in the world”, he tells his father who agrees, dotingly. I am filled with unflattering resentment, but it does not dim my determination to get down the green run.
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. Photo: Mitchell Brown
The wind has picked up by now. It is whistling and it cuts my cheeks like a razer. My confidence is dwindling some, but my boyfriend remains cheery. “You’ll be fine!” he says.
And I was for the first half. I felt graceful, but fast -ish. I zipped and turned. And then the wind blew up, I lost my wedge and suddenly I was flailing down the mountain before face planting in the most ungraceful manner possible.
There is something very humiliating about not only falling over, but being unable –for the life of you – to get up. I lie in the snow and dramatically throw my arms to each side like an angry frustrated snow angel.
Amisfield Winery. Photo: Mitchell Brown
“I can’t get up! I’m never getting up again” I wail to my boyfriend. He stands there looking at me, he is wearing goggles but I know that his eyes will be both amused, bemused and always, always kind.
He does haul me up though, though as I note with a touch of ungracious displeasure, a quite loud grunt of effort. He tells me that falling over and being to get up is an important part of skiing. He is of course right, and given that falling over (OK and dying) was my biggest fear pre-skiing, it wasn’t actually that bad. We finish the run, my legs are screaming with agony and my arms are shaking with adrenaline. I can’t remember the last time I experienced that much fun and terror all at once. I can see why people get hooked on skiing. Even better than all of that, I’m pretty sure my boyfriend is quite chuffed at me giving skiing a go. And that’s more than enough for me to keep it up.
Apres ski - Queenstown
I might not be a naturally gifted and agile skier, but après ski, now that I can do. And in my mind it’s an important part of a skiing weekend (think about all of the calories that you burn!) Queenstown is a mecca for food and wine lovers, and there are plenty of great accommodation options - from uber luxe to hostels - to rest one’s weary ski body.
Stay – The Spire. This ten room, award-winning boutique hotel in the middle of Queenstown is an absolute delight. Run by sisters Amelia and Lucy Gain it is thoughtful in both design and service. Huddle in the Eames chair by the gas fire in the room, indulge in a bath with all of the lovely Loccitane products or simply dive into the marshmallow-like bed and sleep like a log. The Spire does a great breakfast with everything from black truffle scrambled eggs, boiled eggs and soldiers (yes they’re for grownups too) and a stack of berry compote pancakes that is definitely worth tackling. More details and to book go here.
Eat – There are so many places to choose from in Queenstown. First up, and it really should go without saying, you absolutely have to go to Ferg Burger. The queues are a pretty good indication of the burgers. It’s a Queenstown/post ski institution that started off as a hole-in-the-wall, as most good things do. For something a little more sophisticated the Amisfield Winery, just fifteen minutes drive out of town, does a seasonal menu that focuses on food from the region. Try the four course ‘trust the chef’ option and let them simply feed you. Everything is fresh and moreish, and, perfectly paired with wines from their own vineyards. The Botswana Butchery, an Auckland import, is also worth trying. The menu is meat heavy (the name should be a giveaway really) and the steak is cooked to your liking with a choice of delicious sauces. Worth a splurge is a meal at Masterchef NZ judge and Michelin starred Josh Emett’s Rata. With a focus on slow cooked and local, the food is melt in your mouth good. The deconstructed dessert of Valrhona Ivoire chocolate, honey crumble and rosehip – a delight to all of the senses – is worth it alone.
A Ferg burger.
Drink – Drinking pinot noir in Queenstown is one of life’s great pleasures. The region is blessed with wineries of varying size that specialise in pinot, but also dabble in crisp chardonnays and not too sweet rieslings. Definitely squeeze in a wine tour if you have time. Try a personalised and intimate tour such as the Black ZQN one. They take you where you want to go, or to places you didn’t know you wanted to but turns out you did in a fancy Bentley or Range Rover. Otherwise, plonk down at The Bunker in front of the crackling fire and indulge in a local drop and a chat with the friendly, mostly Irish, bar tenders. On the way back down from the Cardrona Mountain be sure to pop into the historical and utterly picturesque Cardrona Hotel (established in 1863) for a warming pint or hot chocolate.
Getting there: Queenstown is just a three hour flight from Sydney, and Air New Zealand flies there direct. For more details and to book go to www.airnewzealand.com.au
For more information on Queenstown and New Zealand go to www.newzealand.com
Annie Stevens was a guest of Tourism New Zealand