New Zealand's ski season takes flight in May

It's a gray day, a surprisingly cold, autumnm day to someone used to May falling on the other side of the calendar. New Zealand is south of the equator; the seasons here are turned around.

So on a late May day Queenstown is beginning to prepare for the ski season. Shops are giving prominent display to cold-weather gear -- down parkas and vests , firm-soled boots. And hotels, with which Queenstown abounds, are being refurbished.

Queenstown might well be a Swiss village. It nestles into the surrounding hills -- the Remarkables and Walter and Cecil Peaks -- like a cat settles into a sun-warmed cushion. Its houses and hotels tend to be chalet in style, steep-roofed and trimmed in gingerbread. They perch on the hillsides here just as their European counterparts do in the northern Alps.

Queenstown is in the southern Alps, mountains that are higher than those in Switzerland, from which they take their name. There are 17 of them above 10,000 feet, 33 top the 9,000-foot mark. On this low-ceilinged morning they are already turning white with winter.

Winter here -- at least as far as skiers are concerned -- begins about mid-June and runs through November. Skiing gets under way in earnest on New Zealand's South Island, where Queenstown is situated, the first of July. Just seven miles from this city is probably the country's best ski area -- Coronet Peak. In fact, Coronet Peak has been rated one of the top 25 areas in the world.

It has wide-open fields and gullies which allow skiers access to the whole mountain, not just one hill or basin. The peak rises 5,413 feet, but it is far enough inland to be protected from the effects of coastal weather. So skiing here is always comfortable.

There is a good road from Queenstown to Coronet Park, and during the season the ski area is served by regular bus service. Facilities include two chairlifts, three Pomas, and three Mighty Mite learners' lifts, with a total uphill capacity of 4,500 skiers per hour. That means short lift lines.

Skiing is one of the things that's putting New Zealand on the world tourism map. The Australians, of course, have been longtime visitors to the country's ski areas, and in recent years the Japanese have been arriving in large numbers. About 20 percent of the skiers on New Zealand's slopes in any given year are Americans. A variety of ski-tour packages are offered which make transportation and accommodations reasonable for just about everyone. For details, write the New Zealand Travel Commission, Suite 530, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020.

"There's no way we can match the ski developments in the US -- but we can offer something different," says Gavin Wills, general manager of the Alpine Guides. "You can ski on our glaciers while enjoying our Alpine scenery . . . and you can do it when there is warm weather -- and no skiing -- in your country."

Mr. Wills's company is headquartered at another of New Zealand's South Island ski areas, Mt. Cook. His guides work with skiers who want to add the kind of adventure to their skiing not readily available elsewhere in the world -- that provided by helicopters and ski planes and extensive glacial terrain.

There are no ski lifts at Mt. Cook. Skiers have to go up in the planes or whirlybirds.

"You have to be a reasonably good powder skier," Mr. Wills says, "although we do get a variance from deep powder to firm corn snow as winter progresses and as you come down the glacier."

The glacier he is talking about is Tasman, although the five-passenger Cessnas drop off skiers in the same spot for the shorter, steeper Murchison Glacier.

(The helicopters ferry skiers to about 20 runs in the Ben Ohau Range, bordering Mt. Cook National Park.)

What happens is this: You fly to a landing point (the plane is equipped with skis that roll down over the wheels and allow it to land right on the snow). Then it's a 15-minute walk to the head of the glacier -- about 8,000 feet. "Skiers can walk another half mile or so, say to about 8,500 feet, for a good long run," Mr. Wills says. "It's all downhill from there!"

The runs can be as long as 15 miles (depending on the amount of snow at any given time). And skiers can expect to make two runs a day. For the planes it costs $50 per person for the two runs (to the top of the glacier, a rerun, then a pickup at the end of the day). The guide, which you must have, costs about $ 10. It's not a cheap way to go skiing, but it's most spectacular, according to Mr. Wills.

Heliskiing costs about $90 per person per day (includes helicopter charges, guide fees, lunch, and use of avalanche transceivers).

Weather conditions are particularly important to skiers at Mt. Cook -- neither the helicopters nor the planes can operate in high winds or storm conditions. And avalanches can be a problem. Skiers are always equipped with transceivers, actually radio "beepers," so they can be found readily should they be buried under snow.

Mt. Cook has a complex of assorted lodging facilities centered on the Hermitage.

The Hermitage sits in the shadow of Mt. Cook, at 12,349 feet New Zealand's tallest mountain. On mornings I first saw it, it wore a sash of clouds around its middle. More clouds obscured its peaks, forming and re-forming, working the mountain's craggy silhoutte like a sculptor works clay.

Mt. Ruapehu, midway between Auckland, the country's largest city, and Wellington, its capital, is on New Zealand's North Island. At altitudes from 5, 200 to 7,300 feet, its Whakapapa ski field has four chairlifts, three Pomas, three T-bars, and a variety of rope tows able to handle 11,000 skiers per hour.

The best of many types of accommodations in the area is at the recently renovated Chateau Tongariro. The bedrooms offer Queen Anne-style furnishings; the public rooms, chandeliers and plush carpets. On weekends and holidays, there is public transportation to the ski field, and a lively apres-ski atmosphere pervades the hotel by night. A double will cost about $40, and advance bookings are essential.

There are other New Zealand ski areas. To name a couple: Mt. Hutt, 65 miles from Christchurch, the South Island's principal city, is another mecca for powder-hounds. Facilities include two dual T-bars, a 990-foot-long platter lift , and two learners' lifts. At over 7,000 feet, it's higher than most other New Zealand ski fields, with a wide, southerly-facing basin down to 4,500 feet.

Fair-weather skiers, though, should head for sunny Tekapo, also on the South Island, in the Two Thumbs Range. You can easily get a suntan while skiing one of the best beginner and intermediate fields in the country. There are double chair and platter lifts and a new learners' lift.

Skiing in New Zealand, you'll find, is a bargain. All-day lift tickets average $6; ski school classes start at $2 an hour. Prices for equipment rental run from a low of $5 to the high, at Mt. Cook, of about $8.

All of these are in easy walking distance from the Hermitage, which offers luxury vacation living for about $42 per day, double occupancy.

An excerpt from the first pamphlet to advertise the Hermitage hangs on the wall outside the hotel's gift shop. It says, "Without even stirring from this spot some of the Grandest Alpine Scenery in New Zealand can be witnessed."

In 1897, when that was written, you could merely sit and look at it. In 1980 , you can ski right in it.

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