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Low cloud obscures much of my view and I have no way of knowing if there is an out-of-sight cliff drop lurking somewhere. An orange ski patrol sign reminds expert skiers to carry avalanche gear – a transceiver, shovel, and probe. I linger. I am no expert snowboarder, but the slope ahead of me doesn’t look that steep. I glance around. The snow is blue; the light flat and fading fast. A few people ski off the chairlift and quickly disappear in the opposite direction. I watch longingly at a solo boarder boot-packing his way over a crest to double-black-diamond-rated terrain. He means serious business. More serious business than I mean. I turn toward Shadow Basin chairlift, on the backside of The Remarkables ski resort, just outside Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island.

The Remarkables serves up some brilliant ski and snowboard terrain. Holden

I’ve been itching to return to New Zealand to ski for a decade but renovating houses and having babies has put it on the back burner, until the lure to see its jagged mountain peaks proved too strong to resist. The snow in Australia has been lacklustre for what feels like seasons, and I figure that if I’m to cough up thousands of dollars for a ski holiday I may as well revisit some of my favourite hills in NZ. Except here, they’re not hills. They’re jagged and far more intimidating. I look toward the lone snowboarder, but he’s gone.

When the light falls

Hiking into the backcountry, or even the side-country (within or next to the resort), isn’t why I’m over the back of The Remarkables. I’m here to check out a bowl of powder I recall from my first visit 15 years earlier. The bowl sits to my left, beneath an advanced trail skirting its perimeter. Off the trail there are expert runs, likely full of powder, but I can barely make them out. Again, the slopes are masked by low cloud and low light. I think of my two kids and husband back at the base lodge and I am reminded that now, the very start of our two-week snowboarding road trip, isn’t the time to take risks. And so, I accept that the bowl will have to wait until next time and I point my board down the runs beneath the chair. It turns out that navigating my way back to the lodge in poor light is challenging enough. It’s the last run of the day – a mercy solo dash to the bowl before we scoop up the kids and return to The Rees Hotel, a five-star Queenstown property overlooking Lake Wakatipu. 

Green skiing

Part of our reason for staying at The Rees and visiting Queenstown in general is the sustainability focus of both hotel management and the city council. The Rees is Qualmark certified as a Sustainable Tourism Business, and environmental practices range from the simple inclusion of compostable bags for guest amenities to installing double-glazed windows for energy efficiency and the use of grey water on the gardens.

The view from The Rees is incredible, especially when the mountains light up at sunset. The Rees Queenstown

All of this might seem irrelevant if you’re driving a vehicle up a mountain every day and being one of thousands lapping chairlifts in the indulgent pursuit of skiing, but the alternative is staying in accommodation that does none of this. It’s also heartening to hear of Queenstown Lakes District Council’s goal to decarbonise the visitor economy by 2030. It’s a lofty plan that extends to The Remarkables, one of two ski resorts close to Queenstown. The resort aims to also be carbon neutral in six years, and among management’s first steps is trialing a diesel/electric hybrid snow groomer and purchasing carbon credits. 

A short stroll from The Rees takes you to this small jetty on the edge of Lake Wakatipu.

NZSki sister resort Coronet Peak, with its sheer faces and fun gully-like runs, is also taking steps to lessen its impact on the environment. Along with carbon offsetting, there is the planting of native grasses in summer, and a pest trapping program to help protect the kārearea, New Zealand’s only falcon. Coronet was the first commercial ski field in New Zealand, opening in 1947. Although some skiers know it by its cheeky moniker “concrete peak”, we had a blast zipping to the far boundaries of the resort and spying on the kids in snowboard school and ski Kindy. There’s no bowl but there are plenty of fun, challenging runs, as well as cruisers that are wide enough to take little people on.

Glenorchy the great

A good way to reconcile your love of the outdoors with your desire to look after it is to support businesses that walk the talk. That’s how I came to find The Great Glenorchy Alpine Base Camp, in the small lakeside community of Glenorchy, 45 minutes’ drive from Queenstown. It’s a mean feat to pull my family of snow bunnies away from the slopes, but one look at the camp’s mountaineer-style huts and I had to see them for myself.

Perfect name for an awesome accommodation option for those keen to explore the Glenorchy region.

As far as aesthetics go, the owners have nailed the rustic vibe, with our family cabin decked out in timber furniture, tartan woollen blankets, a YETI cooler for DIY supplies, and a fireplace with a stack of pre-cut firewood (and old wax wraps for fire-starters). The kids are in heaven when they spot their bunk bed, while I swoon over the cosy-ness of it all. I count us lucky for having secured a cabin because even though the base camp is new, it’s not designed to be used as a hotel. Rather, the owners have built the camp as a place to stay before and after “wild nature experiences” that include heli-hiking, heli-skiing, mountaineering, and family hiking and picnicking. Had I been aware of such epic but manageable adventures prior to my visit, I would’ve been tempted to book one. Instead, base camp staff encourage us to explore on our own and make the most of the little time we have in Glenorchy. Aside from using sustainable building materials and encouraging social connection between staff and guests, their ethos centre around the importance of getting “into the wild” and embracing slow travel.

A stroll in the woods

Although we’ve only spent a night at the base camp, I trust the advice we’ve been given, and we leave our snowboards zipped away in the back of our hire car and venture into the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Routeburn Valley. The adventure starts with the kind of drive during which you’re not entirely sure if you’re ever going in the right direction. Roads narrow, they cross rivers, undulate along farmland, and travel through thick forest. Eventually we pull up at a car park with an information and toilet block called Routeburn Shelter. There’s a trio of rangers possibly taking a morning tea break, and a couple of other hikers. 

The Routeburn Nature Walk is a brilliant option for the little’uns, with the suspension bridge an early highlight of the walk.

A short skip toward the forest is a suspension bridge above a running river, sparking the imaginations of our children. The morning is cool and we’re not in great hiking gear, but we’ve chosen the Routeburn Nature Walk, a one-hour (return) hike in Mount Aspiring National Park. We let our minds get carried away and make up stories about mossy creatures and mini adventure seekers. We cross paths with the popular Routeburn Track, a 33-kilometre one-way trek that takes two to four days to complete. Often, serious walkers rush by, but we meander along, up and down a path that’s laden with thick, damp leaf litter, and crowded by towering, vibrant trees.

A fairy tale walk in one of the most pristine parts of NZ, the Enchanted Walk lives up to its name.

The Nature Walk reminds of me of the mossy Enchanted Walk at Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain, and the kids thrive. Of course, as often is the case, it takes us almost double the allotted time, and we’re hankering for a feed afterwards. And so, we extend our stay in Glenorchy, and now have time to chat to locals and appreciate the majesty of the mountains, rivers, and forests around us.

Fact file

The 2024 ski season at The Remarkables is from 15 June to 13 October. You’ll always get the best lift-ticket deals by purchasing online, well in advanced of your visit.

For skiing around Queenstown, stay at The Rees Hotel, where there are multi-room suites with wide views of Lake Wakatipu, and the award-winning True South Dining Room.

Make the most of a visit to Glenorchy by booking a nature package with The Great Glenorchy Alpine Base. Head into the valleys and onto mountains with an expert guide, and then return to camp for a sauna, campfire, and incredible camp-oven meal. The Routeburn Nature Walk is suitable for active toddlers under their own steam, as well as a great hike for parents wearing baby carriers, and anyone else seeking a micro adventure. If you go in winter, wear layers that you can remove.

There is plenty more than skiing and hiking in and around Queenstown. Known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, you’ll find bungee jumping, sky diving, jet boating, whitewater rafting and mountain biking.

For more on travel to New Zealand, see here.

The writer travelled with assistance from Destination QueenstownTourism New ZealandThe Rees Hotel and NZSki