Heli-skiing at New Zealand’s Minaret Station

New Zealand is renowned for exceptional snow experiences, but the very best could well be one you’ve never heard of, as Craig Tansley discovers.

Jon had seen it all. Or so he thought. A retired, self-made IT multi-millionaire from Denver, he spends a big chunk of each northern winter heli-skiing in Greenland, British Columbia or Alaska. And yet, here in the humble high alpine confines of a family farm on New Zealand’s South Island, he’s reached new heights: “I’m not too sure it gets better than this.”

I see Jon’s dilemma. We’re surrounded on three sides by our very own private heli-ski terrain, spread out across thousands of hectares of the Southern Alps. Huge mountains slope right down to where we’re sitting. And it’s all ours – just ours.

We’ve spent all day picking out the best runs across untracked bootdeep snow. And when we finish each run, we don’t have to wait for any other skiers. Instead our personal helicopter pilot is waiting for us, to take us back to the top to do it all over again. We catch the last rays of sunshine on a crisp winter’s afternoon, sipping a glass of Burgundy, picking at crayfish from the country’s west coast prepared by our private chef. While Huka Lodge, New Zealand’s highest-rated lodge, garners much of the world’s attention, Minaret Station’s Alpine Lodge flies mostly under the radar. And yet, the experience here is so uniquely New Zealand it even comes complete with sheep. Importantly, it also comes with all the luxurious trimmings of the world’s best ski lodges, and more.

We’ve flown by helicopter (the four Wallis brothers who own Minaret Station also own their own alpine helicopter company) from Wanaka’s tiny airport, just above the emerald-green waters of Lake Wanaka and vast plains of native tussock grass and schist rock. It’s a rugged journey in, but as we approach our chalets, I see huge valleys of pretty beech forest and a waterfall cascading between the trees. The Wallis brothers own all of this and they’ve flown me right inside their private universe – a 22,000-hectare high country farm where thousands of sheep, deer and cattle feed. “This is just our life, where we live,” Matt Wallis says as we fly above the farm that his brother Jonathan looks after.  “We wanted to show people a part of the South Island no-one else gets to see.”

Dining with a view

The helicopter heads upwards above the forest and waterfall, to a huge valley dissected by a slow-moving river. Below the rise of snowy triangular mountains, four chalets sit in a valley no-one else will ever see. No-one else can get in, and without this chopper, no-one’s getting out. There are many activities for guests to try, and a range of helicopter tours, including a journey to the west coast to catch your own crayfish. But I’m most excited that the Wallises offer untracked heli-skiing in the slopes around the lodge. These runs range in difficulty from drastically sloping, tight chutes for experts to family-friendly gently sloping descents down wide-open bowls. Where most heli-ski companies operate on government-owned land and often share runs with other companies, the Wallises own their runs. After a three-course breakfast and a soak in the hot tub outside my chalet to get my muscles ready for the effort ahead, a helicopter lands on the tussock outside the lodge ready to take me skiing.

When I’m finished for the day, I take my boots off by the open fire in the lodge and look back up at the day’s runs. “We did 28 runs in a day once,” Matt tells me; the impressive effort triples mine. Later a chef cooks up local produce from the Wallis’s farm, and guests eat beside a roaring log fire in the woolskin-carpeted den. Though, for all the luxuries on offer, Matt says nothing seems to appeal as much to travellers as the chance to see how life is on a high country farm.

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