The pure magic of Cardrona
The first snow of the winter creates a kind of mass lunacy in a community like Wanaka in the deep south of New Zealand’s South Island. At the mere mention of those magical words, ‘snow-to-low-levels’, people’s behaviour changes. They gather in groups (socially-distanced this year) to sniff the air and study the cloud formations, making wise prognostications about how much of the precious white stuff will fall, from which direction, what field will get the most, whether it will suit skis or snowboards best, and how early to hit the slopes — before heading home to tune their gear.
Far away in the North Island, I too sense a change in the air and start to study weather forecasts in great detail, wondering when the first snows will arrive. I look longingly at my ski gear and can't wait to pile on layers of merino wool and down, and head south to the place of my birth.
This year, there’s been the added suspense of not knowing if New Zealand’s ski resorts would actually be able to operate due to the Covid-19 restrictions on social distancing and travel.
But the great news is that now the country is at Alert Level 2, most fields are planning to open, including Cardrona Alpine Resorts which owns Cardrona and Treble Cone near Wanaka. By the time the season gets under way in late June, New Zealand will hopefully be at Alert Level 1 which should make life easier for ski field operators.
There’s a high level of excitement at Cardrona this winter because the resort is due to celebrate its 40th anniversary. I’ve skied there almost every year since 1980 and have witnessed the field grow from a rope-tow and a tin shed to an internationally-renowned alpine resort. It’s my favourite winter playground. Everyone’s treated like a VIP at Cardrona — whether you’re a first-time skier or snowboarder, there on a ski holiday with your family, or training for the Olympics. No matter who you are, you’re welcomed with genuine Kiwi hospitality, like one of the family.
The 40th will be a scaled-down version of the grand event they had planned before Covid-19 threw a giant spanner in the works but the milestone will not slip by unmarked. We’ll definitely be there to help them celebrate. Hopefully our Aussie mates will be able to join us too when our bubbles finally merge.
This is also a landmark season for neighbouring resort Treble Cone which was purchased by Cardrona five months ago. The two fields are vastly different, “yin to each other's yang”, as Cardrona general manager Bridget Legnavsky said when the sale was announced in January this year. Trebles’s terrain is steep and challenging while Cardrona’s wide bowls are gentle and cruisy.
In a few years, Soho Basin, a private field which adjoins Cardrona’s southern boundary, will also be added to the mix, effectively more than doubling the skiable terrain, creating New Zealand’s largest alpine resort. I had a fantastic day’s skiing at Soho last year. When development is complete, a network of lifts will unite the two fields but in the meantime, skiers are transported up the mountain by snowcat.
While I wait for the snow to arrive, I’m tuning my skis and dreaming of my last day at Cardrona in 2019, a pristine blue-bird day after a massive spring dump. The day was pure magic, the stuff of legends.
The mountain had a huge smile on its face — the sun was beaming down from a cloudless sky on slopes sparkling with late-season powder snow that squeaked underfoot. It was a week day outside of any holidays so the queues were non-existent and there was no wind, not even a zephyr, which is unusual for Cardrona. My new Dynastar skis, which just happened to match my jacket, were humming. There’s nothing to equal the euphoria of swishing through powder, silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of your skis floating lightly through weightless snow.
The Eagles’ ‘Take it Easy’ was blasting from the PA system at Captain’s Express and the lifties were dancing while dispensing sunblock to skiers and boarders, in between sneaking off for a run or two.
At Captains Café, a fancy-dress lunch was in full-swing. We sat in the sun drinking ice-cold cider, watching the shenanigans. They sure know how to party at Cardy.
Super-relaxed, we skied better than ever in the afternoon, and kept going until the lifts stopped and there were only a handful of people left on the mountain. Our last run of the season, as always, was Queenstown Return — a scenic glide along the cat-track on Cardrona’s southern boundary, with breath-taking panoramas of row-upon-row of the Southern Alps, the entire Wakatipu Basin . . . and the vast untouched slopes of Soho Basin where we’ll be skiing in a few years’ time.
Born a Southerner, I took lungfuls of pure mountain air and eyefuls of alps to sustain me in the tame, green North Island landscape I now call home.
On the way back to Wanaka, we stopped off at the iconic Cardrona Hotel for glühwein beside the roaring outside fire. Wispy snowflakes began to fall from the darkening sky.
"Snow-to-low-levels," the forecast said.
"Let it snow so hard the airport will be closed for days and we’ll have to stay on," I prayed.
No such luck...
If you go:
Everything you need to know is on the Cardrona website.
Pick up a rental vehicle from JUCY at Queenstown Airport.
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