In my well-short-of-Expert skiing career, I've had several fortunate opportunities. One of them was skiing Down Under (not to be confused with the brand DownUnders, which is actually a quite good off-the-shelf ski boot footbed).
It was mid-July 2002, and I just happened to have a business trip to certain quarters of New Zealand, scenic backdrop of Lord of the Rings. Now, as a skiing fanatic, I can tell you that the only thing more exciting than finding out you can see in New Zealand --- at several resorts aside from that --- is that you could be at the beach for a Fourth of July BBQ in 95° weather less than 48 hours before catching falling snowflakes on your tongue.
Aside from the fact that you're on the opposite side of the planet Earth from Westchester County, the prospect of skiing NZ is a pretty eye-opening experience. As soon as I arrived in Queenstown —the southernmost part of the southernmost of two giant islands that make up New Zealand— I saw why they call it the "Extreme Sports Capital of the World." With snowcapped mountains staring at you from right across the bay, this quaint little tourist town is a miasma of ski, snowboard, parapenting, bungee and jet boat retailers. And the extreme athletes who come from across the globe to delight in them.
Here, someone may very well pass over your head --- over downtown Queenstown --- hanging from a huge kite which has been flung the top of a mountain. Parapenting at its best.
My first stop was at one of the closest "ski fields," The Remarkables. The locals call it the "The Remarks" (especially charming in that Kiwi accent which makes it sound like "The Re-Mocks.")
At the Remarks men's room, I remember a lifelong puzzle being solved: Where did they get the Liftie exchange workers that frequent Mount Snow during our winter? Here.. There, thousands of miles away, above the urinal, was an ad for teens to work at —none other than— my home mountain of Mount Snow.
Rightly so. The Remarks are the Mount Snow of Queenstown. Partygoers, a fun and raucous bunch, sit outside to down a pint with wonderful views of the bay.
In the US, we're used to driving to our base lodge... which is actually at the base of the mountain. We drive along Flatland USA, and there's our mountain in the distance, where we know that at the base there's a large and a parking lot waiting for us.
In New Zealand, most of the "base" lodges are either near the summit or mid station... making "base" kind of a silly word.
Either way, the slopes seem to be very crowded and you immediately notice one thing compared to Northeast skiing: the lack of trees. Yes, most of the mountains here are above the tree line, meaning you're skiing the raw snow of the Southern Alps.
And, like you'd see in some western resorts like Squaw Valley, there aren't really any "trails" per se, like we have in the Northeast. It's open territory, sometimes confined with ridges or even cones to signify trails.
And they can be crowded. I did many of my runs on some of the common intermediate trails. Most of it was traffic avoidance, with little time for really open carving. (Apologies to the little Australian boy that I pretty much pummeled one day. He just popped off the snow and said, "Cheers, Mate!" as if he was saying "Cheese...!" And I was looking around for the camera...)
The crowd there is a mix --- decidedly international, coming from Australia, India, South Korea, and Japan. And the ski clothes they wear alone quickly remind you that you're definitely on the other side of the earth. Japanese ski outfits tend to be quite colorful and amusing --- some ranging from the utterly cool to the cartoonish. The South Island natives tend to be pretty ragtag --- duct tape, jeans and old gear. Of course, their skiing makes up for all of the above.
Another mountain I got the opportunity to try was called Coronet Peak, which is the mountain range within a few hours of Queenstown. Getting to the top of the mountain like this one is a hair-raising experience --- no flatland driving through quaint Vermont towns with white churches and candy & jam shops as we do in the Northeast. Oh no— these are hairpin, winding turns up a huge mountain, were sometimes it can take you about a half hour to an hour just to get up to the base area. And these roads aren't paved. None of those protective barriers like we have in the States. You're looking out of your vehicle, on icy or snowy roads, straight down about 700 feet or more at least (I would put it at about 1500 max.) And what I can tell you there's no wiggle room in case you need to swerve either way. James Bond driving at its finest.
Bottom line: Do I compare some of the NZ slopes to ones in the US? No dice. There's nothing that beats the luxury and convenience of the good old American ski resort community. Then again, the Kiwis, the Southeast Asians, and the Aussies that frequent New Zealand's South Island resorts are just there to ski.
We can take a lesson from them.