Justine Tyerman experiences wild beauty and challenging skiing at exclusive, private ski resort Soho Basin in the Southern Alps of New Zealand
“Do you like mulled wine?” asks Thomas with a delightful Welsh lilt in his voice. “We make it with red wine, rum and cinnamon,” he says with a beaming smile. “I do,” I reply, trying not to sound too enthusiastic as I relish my current circumstances: It’s a crisp, late winter day, but I’m cosy thanks to my position in the sunshine by the outdoor fire at the little day lodge at Soho Basin. A private alpine resort on a magnificent mountain range between Wanaka and Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island, Soho Basin’s exquisite backcountry wilderness delivers a unique and exhilarating skiing experience that’s hard to match, but right now it’s inviting ultimate luxuriation and relaxation.
With a tummy-warming mug of steaming-hot gluhwein that smells as good as it tastes in-hand, I’m feeling utterly content… And that’s before indulging in ‘Soho S’mores’. I toast a couple of marshmallows on the open fire, dip them in hot chocolate sauce and then squish them between layers of biscuit and they are – as their name suggests – simply irresistible. I do, indeed want more.
My skiing and snowboarding companions have leapt in the bright red Pisten Bully snowcats and are trundling back up the mountain for run number 12 or 14 but I’m happy to sit this one out and rest my leg muscles. Despite weeks of rigorous pre-season training, my muscles are protesting – skiing deep powder after years of groomed pistes shows up a definite need for even more lunges.
There are no chairlifts at the exclusive, private Soho Basin resort. All transport is by powerful snowcats fitted with comfortable, air-conditioned 12-seater cabins with crates for skis and snowboards at the rear.
Without chairlifts, groomers and crowds of skiers and snowboarders, the slopes above the lodge are as perfectly smooth as a freshly-iced cake, and the fresh snow glistens like diamonds in the sun. Once the snowcats have disappeared, there is total silence… apart from the squawk of an occasional kea, New Zealand’s comical alpine parrot.
It is a dramatic contrast to yesterday’s adventure at Cardrona Alpine Resort, just over the ridge on the other side of the same mountain. Cardrona was in serious party mode with the Winter Games in full swing and thousands of people watching some of the world’s best in action.
There are only 22 of us lucky enough to be enjoying Soho – 20 guests accompanied by our guide Mark and ski-patroller Brenda – and the maximum number the resort takes is 24. Spread out across 264 hectares with 500 vertical metres, we barely leave a mark on the vast white landscape. Each run is unique, exploring yet another facet of the southern faces of Mt Cardrona, a beautiful expanse of wide open, pristine slopes and basins with long-lasting snow.
But the day is not just about skiing and snowboarding. Lunch is an elaborate five-course feast served with great panache outside on the decking at a long table set with starched white napkins, fine china and crystal glasses.
Courses include local charcuterie and cheeses, homemade chutneys, candied walnuts, pinot pickled blueberries, spruce mustard and beer bread wafers followed by tasty celeriac soup with mushrooms, parmesan, truffles and croutons served with homemade and garlic sourdough bread. The main course features succulent barbecued ribeye with whipped potato, golden beets, purple carrots and parsnips, while dessert, for those who had not already overindulged, is rosé and white chocolate macarons. I manage a couple…
To accompany the meal, a tempting array of Central Otago Amisfield brut, pinot gris, dry riesling and sauvignon blanc sits chilling in a bucket of snow, with pinot noir breathing near the fire and craft beer and juices ensuring all tastes are catered for.
Rested and recharged, the group is keen to get back up the mountain after lunch. The snowcats take us ever higher and steeper, finishing late afternoon at the summit of Mt Cardrona, 1936-metres, Soho’s highest point. The panorama of the Southern Alps and Wakatipu Basin literally takes my breath away . . . as does the run down. Miraculously, I find a stretch of ‘corduroy’ which enables me to take refuge on a groomed piste when I run out of steam.
As the shadows lengthens, the snowcats transports an elated but weary group of skiers and snowboarders back to HQ where we sprawl out on bean bags and enjoy a chilled beer as the sun sets on a perfect day in the mountains.
Guide Mark fills us in on plans for the future of Soho which includes a long-planned merger with next door neighbour Cardrona to create New Zealand’s largest alpine resort.
Once the development is complete, Soho Basin will add an additional 500 hectares of high-altitude terrain, effectively more than doubling the size of Cardrona to over 900 hectares of skiable area. Access to Soho will be from the top of Cardrona’s Chondola, a chairlift and gondola combo, which opened in 2017.
Until the merger in about three to five years’ time, Soho will continue as normal, and after the new resort becomes a reality, the terrain is so vast, the snowcats will still operate on a different part of the mountain.