Welcome to Central Otago, home of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and Lakes Wakatipu and Wanaka with four major ski areas: The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Treble Cone and Cardrona. Planet Earth has no shortage of ski mountains. But ski mountains surrounded by storied vineyards, sumptuous restaurants, exquisite resorts and the best coffee in the world – that’s rare. Add to that a twinset of cerulean lakes guarded by snowy peaks, slopes from beginner to extreme and some of the world’s finest heli-skiing – it is an unbelievable, world-class ski destination.
Winter Olympian and TV commentator Lisa Densmore says heli-skiing New Zealand is as close to skiing-in-heaven as it gets. “There’s something truly special about having 2,000 vertical feet of untouched powder ahead and a view of biblical proportions to yourself. I’m not religious, but I make a pilgrimage to heli-ski every chance I get.”
She’s not alone. Everett Potter, former travel editor of SKI magazine and publisher of Everett Potter’s Travel Report (everettpotter.com), asks and answers the eternal question, “Why spend a small fortune to go heli-skiing? Because a helicopter can deliver you to virgin snows free of other skiers, lift lines, rules, regulations and subdivisions of trophy homes. You ski 1,500 or 2,000 vertical feet on untrammeled powder, and after you’ve made as many figure eights as you can without your legs turning to jelly, the chopper is waiting for you at the bottom of the run. Repeat eight or nine times in a day. It’s instant gratification taken to ridiculous levels.”
The mountains of Central Otago are sought out by global skiers as offering some of the best heli-skiing opportunities in the world. New Zealand ski history actually starts here. In 1947, Coronet Peak became New Zealand’s first commercial ski area. In 1962, it built the first chairlift and in 1973, the first triple chair was in operation. Treble Cone installed its first rope tow in 1969; with upgrades of a constructed road, toilets and basic building added in 1976. It was joined a year or so later by Cardrona. In 1985, The Remarkables ski area brought lift access to the aptly named Remarkables Range.
Today, Central Otago also features sophisticated cross-country skiing, mushing and occasional snowmobiling. However the biggest development in the ski facilities of the region came when Harris Mountains Heli-Ski began operations. It was then, for the first time, Central Otago skiers could soar above the lifts, above civilisation and far above the madding crowd to the snow-covered peaks of southern splendour.
This is heli-skiing at its finest. Above you is the blue New Zealand sky; while below, the untrammelled line you’re about to take; beneath your skis, deep and untouched powder crying out for first tracks. On the way up and the way home, green pastures, winding rivers, woolly sheep and row upon row of ruler-straight grapevines … all of it filtered through the almost unbelievable clarity of New Zealand air. Objects are farther than they appear. Really.
All this beauty leaves a lasting impression. Canadian-American ski coach Gerry Wingenbach remembers, “On the South Island, with views stretching from the ocean to Mt. Cook, I didn’t want to leave the helicopter. It was so amazing up there above it all. But the runs were endless, and nothing but powder even weeks after the latest storm.”
These days, Harris Heli-Ski has been joined by Heliworks and Over The Top, among others in providing helicopter service to skiers and snowboarders yearning to be free. All offer choices: steep chutes and gentle bowls, moderate runs and thigh-burners, snow-capped ridges and powder basins. And all cater to a range of snow sliders from strong intermediates to all-mountain gods.
How can they tender so many alternatives? Their choppers cover thousands of square kilometres, from the flanks of Mt Cook to the vast ranges above Queenstown and Wanaka. If Location A doesn’t look promising on a particular day, there’s always B, C, D, E, F, etcetera.
The pilots are alpine-experienced; the guides are certified to New Zealand industry standards; and the experience – deep powder, stunning scenery, untracked snow, cheeky keas and the sounds of silence – it all combines for a chance to ski with the angels.
Extreme skiing film star Kristen Ulmer succinctly sums it up: “I’ve heli-skied all over the world and Central Otago remains one of my greatest finds.”
Yet it’s not just the skiing that attracts visitors to the region. The spectacular mountains aren’t called The Remarkables for nothing.
Local vineyards produce some of New Zealand’s most celebrated wines. With challenging topography, they are architectural wonders. Amisfield, for instance, has stone buildings that resemble something right out of the Gold Rush. Gibbston Valley has a traditional farmhouse, working winery and caves tunnelling beneath lavender-scented hillsides. The warm days and cold nights of Central Otago combined with a stony, free-draining base produce some of the most highly awarded pinot noir in the Southern or Northern Hemisphere.
All that heli-skiing will work up an appetite of course and there’s plenty of quality dining options in the region where you can not only replenish your energy, but take in beautiful views. For traditional Japanese, Kobe Cuisine is a standout; Asia-meets-Aotearoa at Saffron in Arrowtown. Farm-fresh produce is matched to their quality wines at the Gibbston Valley Winery Restaurant; and there’s also contemporary-New Zealand Amisfield Winery & Bistro in Queenstown. The Botswana Butchery in Queenstown’s historic precincts is one of the most stylish restaurants in town, with luxury dining among log fires and stunning lake views. For gastropub fare try the historic Cardrona Hotel in Wanaka.