Feature As the ski season begins in New Zealand, we head to the slopes above Lake Wanaka to join the stars of the slalom.
Homespun high life
As we clang across the cattle grid, dozens of startled sheep sprint away over the paddock. Ahead of us the unmade road begins to wind steeply from the valley floor, becoming ever narrower. Marina, my daughter, has gone quiet; I'm just glad I learned to drive on twisty gravel roads. Fifteen minutes of hairpin bends and "drive slowly" signs later we slide gently to a stop on the ice-covered car park at Treble Cone, lining up next to the mud-spattered 4x4s of road-savvy locals who had zipped past us on the way up.
Opening our doors we're greeted by the rasping cry of keas - the indigenous brown-and-red mountain parrots - circling a few metres above our heads. They are famous for chewing chrome and rubber trimmings off parked cars and I wonder if our rental has a covering clause in the insurance. Welcome to skiing, New Zealand-style. There's an element of the wilds about it, even here near Lake Wanaka which is home to four ski fields. Treble Cone is one of the country's best, beloved of those who are known, in local parlance, as "real" skiers. As opposed to the muck about skiers, family skiers, cross-country skiers and various other sub-species we had been introduced to the previous evening at Racer's Edge ski shop, where we rented our equipment. Never has that process been more entertaining.
As they zipped about organising boots and skis to a backing track of rock music, the extraordinarily energetic and cheerful staff riffed about the ski fields: Cardrona ... yeah ? sunny ? cruisy ? neat place to just muck about, y'know? Plenty of families. SnowPark ... great super-pipe ? you do freestyle? Nah, me neither. And we've got Snow Farm for the cross-country ?but you don't do that. Treble Cone ?whoa! man ? awesome chutes over the back ? Saddle Basin ? you're intermediate?... some great blue runs for you, too ... yeah, our blue is like Europe's red ? you gotta do Saddle Basin ?
And then: "You haven't got an icebreaker? Oh, you have to! Trust me. You'll thank me - and if you don't, come back and tell us." Well, I had heard that it can get pretty bitter here when there's a southerly blowing (at this southern end of the Southern Alps, there's only ocean until Antarctica). But an icebreaker? Then the penny dropped. Icebreaker with a capital "I": a highly favoured brand of merino wool body-shell. There's hardly a skier (or hiker or serious sailor) in New Zealand that doesn't own at least a couple of "merinos". And in this part of the world, a cool brand of merino earns you a whole lot more cred than a Chanel ski suit.
Indeed, the garment could be a metaphor for skiing in New Zealand - even more so for Wanaka than its famous neighbour, Queenstown. Understated. Laid back. Sporty. Slightly edgy. An insider's secret that the rest of the world hasn't cottoned on to yet. And different from Europe and North America, but in ways that you can't always quite define. The views are one of the easy differences to spot. From both Treble Cone and Cardrona, which are at opposite ends of Wanaka's long valley, it's the classic combo of snow-capped peaks, valleys, lakes - but the colour scheme is unfamiliar: below the snowline a band of black-green beech forest gives way to swathes of sand-coloured tussock, and a patchwork of green and gold farms that encircle lakes the colour of dark sapphires.
And it's down near the lake that you begin and end your day; not, as in Europe and North America, up by the lifts in a (preferably) ski in-ski out chalet. The end is an energetic and friendly après-ski scene, or a quiet dinner at one of the village's several good restaurants (Missy's Kitchen and Relishes Cafe most notably). Either way, this is a relatively early-to-bed town. Energy is for spending on mountains, not in nightclubs.
And the beginning? Our first morning started with silvery light flooding through the five metre-high windows of our "apartment" which was actually, a sleek, ultra-modern house. Barely 20m away, across a frosty and deserted street, the millpond surface of the lake carried an upside-down picture of reflected mountains - a strip of meringue-white glowing in the early sun. So that was Treble Cone Range. Oddly, perhaps, it looked all the more enticing from this distance.
Up on the slopes there was that satisfying squeak of dry, almost-powder snow under our boots as we walked to the lift. No queue. Heaven. (There was to be only one queue of more than 25 people - for a four-man chair - in our whole time in Wanaka.) A few runs and we had found our legs. Time to go over to Saddle Basin. Or not. As we reached the top of the lift a razor-sharp southerly wind sliced into our faces. Instant agreement: there was plenty of skiing on this side of the mountain, in Home Basin.
From the top of the main lift, at 2,100m, we cruised the 3.5 km of Easy Rider (the name says it all, although its "green" rating would have been blue in Europe), did a couple of runs down Main Street, from where we had a great view of skiers on the ungroomed steeps of Matukituki Basin, far out to our left, then took on Big Skite. The piste runs right under the main chair. Its name is a classic Kiwi joke, "skite" being slang for show-off: New Zealanders don't really approve of show-offs so if you fall here, in full view of the lift, the joke's on you. The runs were all a great mix of steeper and easier slopes, powdery corduroy at the top and just a few icy patches on the steepest of the lower sections. In scope and geography, it is quite similar to Courmayeur in Italy. And the boys at Racer's Edge were right: blue mostly does mean red, so there was more than enough to test our first-day legs.
Back at the Base Station cafe we found ourselves sitting elbow-to-elbow with two very tall, very athletic young men in tight red racing suits. Then we spotted the emblem sewn on to their sleeves: the Austrian national team. The rock stars of ski racing. This is where they come to train during the northern summer. The Norwegians were here, too, we were told. So, the insider's secret has reached some people who can probably tell a good place to ski from a bad one.
It has reached Sweden, too, we discovered the next day when, with the southerly blowing even harder, we headed for Cardrona on the more sheltered side of Wanaka. Pausing halfway down our first run, Marina pointed towards the side of the piste. "Wow, she's good!" she exclaimed, as a streak of blue lycra flashed past. The Swedish women's grand slalom number two. It's not everywhere that you can watch that level of skill from a couple of metres away. And share a chairlift and a chat with a world-class athlete.
Swedish race training aside, Cardrona does feel more laid-back than Treble Cone. Its vibe is also more hip, with its halfpipe, jumps and rails attracting a lot of boarders. But its two wide open main basins, which are bathed in sun all day, are not just for namby-pamby skiers. While there's less on offer for advanced skiers (at least officially: on the way back down the mountain road in the afternoon we saw a group of off-pisters in the middle of nowhere) there's plenty of variety and challenge for intermediates - and a lot more scope for beginners.
Back in the ever-so-short lift queue we found ourselves next to the Swedish racing star. It was special to share the chair with a top athlete, who chatted happily about travelling, good food and New Zealand accents on the way up. That's how easy-going it is here. Skiing in New Zealand just seems simpler, somehow. Not that it's unsophisticated or lacking in luxury; it's just a different, more subtle kind of sophistication.
Take Lakeshore Springs, where we stayed for our first two nights. "An apartment, newly built, rather nicely done", said Southern Crossings, the Auckland-based tailor-made travel company that made our arrangements. What we found was 200 square metres of drop-dead glamorous three-level house with every comfort you could name (hot tub, ski drying room, gorgeous kitchen, Bang & Olufsen sound system) and an architecture award for good measure. But it still felt like a kick-your-shoes-off holiday pad.
Then, to taste a different side of Wanaka, we moved to Riverrun, a jewel of a lodge set on a 200-hectare sheep farm just outside the town. Here, we woke up to a view of silent frost-white lawns stretching towards broad fields that disappeared into the mist rising from the river. Indoors, it was fluffy duvets, five-star bathrooms, crackling log fires and polished kauri wood panelling. Riverrun's owners, John Pawson and his wife, Meg Taylor, had successful business careers abroad before marrying and returning here to live the dream. And while you are here you sample it, too - as house guests, rather than hotel guests. Their passion is infectious, their entertaining style as unpretentious as can be: John, with his diffident charm, padding around the living room in his woollen socks, dispensing pre-dinner drinks and bonhomie; Meg, smiling and solicitous, with a great eye for detail and a genius for cooking. Heading out to ski in the morning we stopped by the woolshed, where sheep-shearing is in full swing, and John explained the subtleties of wool classing and talked of his passion for these mountains.
Different again is Whare Kea Lodge. While exuding the class and quality you would expect of its Relais & Châteaux membership, its version of luxury is extremely understated and laid-back. We couldn't stay since it was booked by a private party: its owner, Martin Myer, an Australian businessman, was there for his annual "boys week" of heli-skiing with a group of friends and family members. With introductions made by Southern Crossings, we were invited to visit for pre-dinner drinks, which became: "Why don't you join us for lunch up at the chalet tomorrow?"
Any invitation that involves helicopters, pristine back-country snow, a private cabin on a high ridge facing the peak of Mt Aspiring, and a gourmet picnic lunch, gets a yes from me. I've always had a hankering to heli-ski - if only I was a good enough skier. "You are," insisted one of the guides, as we sat in the sun on the balcony of the cabin, watching keas play in the snow and the rest of the ski party carve tracks down a 1,000m slope of perfect, untouched powder in the distance. Definitely not that good. But maybe good enough? We shall see.
Since Sandra Lane's stay at Riverrun, John Pawson - an experienced mountaineer - died in a fall while climbing Mt Aspiring. Meg Taylor continues to operate Riverrun