The bustling streets of Queenstown are once more alive, now that the mountains are dusted with snow and the ski fields have reopened. Keen skiers and boarders flock to the slopes with big grins on their faces and a tingle on the end of their frosted noses. It’s no shock that this vibrant town sees an influx of giddy tourists every winter, but how do you begin to navigate this rich man’s sport? Here’s a look into my first experience with a ski season, some helpful pricing tips and other handy information for those looking to take part. You can also check out my post for other Queenstown based activities to try out.
Before delving straight into the world of snow, it’s worth remembering that these winter activities are amongst the most expensive. ‘NZSki’ is the South Island’s dominating company, which oversees 3 major ski fields. These include ‘Coronet Peak’ and ‘The Remarkables’, which are based in Queenstown, and ‘Mt Hutt’, which is situated in Canterbury. For the hefty price of $999 NZD, customers will get access to all 3 of the mountains and various other benefits (see below image).
Unfortunately, due to the new COVID-19 restrictions, the current 2020 ski pass has a few limitations. The Remarkables has been open full time for the school holiday period but will soon be reducing its hours to weekends only. As a result, Queenstown locals will only have unrestricted access to Coronet Peak and this lack of choice could pose a problem to irregular shift workers. With Mt Hutt also being a 5.5 hour drive away, a long journey to regularly take, the choice can be further constrained. Especially considering its formidable nickname “Mt Shut”, due to its unpredictable weather. I’d hazard a confident guess that if travellers have the option, 2021 will be a better year to plan a skiing trip to New Zealand.
An enticing package for beginners to look into is the ‘Intro to Snow’ pass. This costs $649 NZD and offers 4 full days of group based lessons with free access to rentals and supervised ski lift usage. The programme is designed to help teach the art of skiing or snowboarding and my suggestion would be to aim for weekday lessons to get a less crowded encounter. For those wishing to progress to a full season 3 peak pass, you will need to pay an added $150 NZD, once your lessons have been completed and signed off by the instructor. Overall, this is a saving of $200 NZD when compared with the original pass price, so even for any uneasy former skiers wishing to refresh their memory, this could also be a worthwhile and cost effective option.
Other convenient ways of saving are the ‘Super Early Bird’ and ‘Early Bird’ passes. The super early option must be acquired 8 months prior to the start of the season for the price of $699 NZD or, the regular early bird option will cost $799. The latter will save you $200 NZD (quick maths) and has the bonus flexibility of only having to be purchased up until 1 month prior to the season commencing. Both of these passes would be beneficial to travellers who wish to remain local for the entire season or have planned their trip to New Zealand far in advance. Lastly, for fleeting visits, day passes may also be bought starting from $116 NZD, with a 10% saving if purchasing online. For more detailed pricing information, this can be found here.
It is vital to keep in mind that the golden rule and unfortunate motto of NZSki is that all passes are ‘non refundable and non transferrable.’ This phrase has stirred a few emotions lately in Queenstown and is a hot topic of debate for current 2020 pass holders. These enthusiasts are currently experiencing the limited opening times of their beloved mountains due to Miss Corona’s long running, devastating reign and they have been left feeling rather short changed.
My personal experience with NZSki began when I applied for a position on their website in January 2019, with the job starting in May 2019. For anyone looking to apply, they must do this directly through the website and only one position can be applied for, so make sure you are confident with your final choice! Working on the mountain certainly had its perks. A free ski pass and unlimited group lessons were advantageous as I had never tried skiing before and I came away at the end of the season confidently whizzing down blue runs and (admittedly) stumbling over box jumps. However, the benefit of having a free pass is diminished by lower wages when compared to other hospitality roles within Queenstown and this may be a factor for potential visa applicants to consider. Not to mention the staff bus, which took us up the mountain every morning, always seemed to blow freezing cold air con despite the below zero temperatures. It’s like they wanted to make sure the staff were wide awake and ready to report for duty, much to my despair.
The buses are always a sour subject amongst workers as well as visitors. Bus passes can be purchased in blocks or alternatively, each return trip will cost the eye watering price of $27. These run from central Queenstown every 30 minutes, starting from 8am with the last bus departing for The Remarkables at 11:30am and for Coronet Peak at 12pm. It’s worth noting that the hectic school holiday period runs across 6 weeks throughout June and July for Australian and Kiwi students. Due to the limited number of buses, teamed with queues of departing cars, everyone struggles to return down from the mountain at a reasonable time. Staff are also the last priority when it comes to transport. This saw occasions where us workers had to linger around in the lobby for hours until we finally managed to get a lift. Not before the bus had the misfortune of its snow chains breaking mid way, causing yet more delays and a collective sigh from the entire on-board crew! That’s winter weather for you.
For workers, you will have access to some useful benefits such as 50% off the use of rental gear on each mountain. You can also get a 20% discount on canteen food and drinks, and 20% off items within the retail shop. Although, it would be a cheaper option to visit one of the many rental shops in Queenstown and purchase ‘ex-rental’ gear. You can have access to low priced skis, boards, helmets, boots and more. There are numerous items to consider, so the slightly scratched products are definitely worth cutting costs for. Alternatively, the website ‘Send my Bag’ can help ship your own ski gear straight to/ from your door and for a far less costly price than NZ Post.
Now where would this post be without the mention of Apres-Ski?! Each ski field is equipped with an ice bar serving cold beers and snacks or you can visit the on-site restaurant. Alternatively, when the mountains close at 5pm, most people will flock to the many bars littered amongst the streets of Queenstown after a hard day of “shredding the pow” (I cringe at just the mention of this phrase). For NZSki workers, you’ll often find yourself nipping for a few cheeky drinks after your shift and the beauty of your staff pass means you can flash this in most bars and receive a variety of drink deals. Equally, other tourism workers in town can also exploit cheaper drink prices as Queenstown tends to look after its own!
Focusing mainly on the South Island, other ski fields in the vicinity include Cardrona (1 hour from Queenstown), Treble Cone (1.5 hours) and Ohau (2.25 hours). Even on the way to other destinations, such as Christchurch, drivers will notice signs scattered around for various mini ski slopes. Cardrona also has its own shop in Queenstown where you can purchase day passes and bus tickets for the reasonable price of $185 collectively (heavily discounted if you have your NZSki staff pass!) These ski fields are a fabulous chance to experience other slopes and push your limits, with their runs tending to stretch across a larger landscape.
To briefly summarise each local mountain, Coronet Peak is a shorter, 30 minute journey from Queenstown and its beginner, green slope; ‘Big Easy’ is a calming starter for newbie skiers/ boarders. Personally, I found Coronet’s runs to be more interesting once I had progressed further and it offers a unique variety of intermediate runs. My personal favourite was ‘Greengates’. Another bonus that Coronet Peak offers to its customers, is the fantastic ‘Night Ski’. 3 nights a week visitors can take some twilight laps down their favourite slopes, finished off by a cosy around the fire pit, some alcoholic beverages and an awkward, frozen-toed shuffle to live music. However, my heart remains with The Remarkables. I may be slightly biased as this is where I was based for work, however, I felt that this was a better mountain to learn on, plus I was able to enjoy sneaky ride breaks in-between shifts. Additionally, the transition from green to blue slopes is less drastic than at Coronet Peak and easier to tackle for nervous beginners. Below is the colour scale on how to determine the levels of each ski run in New Zealand .
Being my first interaction with any type of ski adventure, my encounter was certainly an exciting one. For those interested in applying, the opportunity to work amongst like-minded travellers makes it easier to bond and sharing several messy nights out is a bonus. The social side of the job is second to none and makes the experience that much more special. However, the school holidays will definitely test your stress levels as every corner of the mountain is buzzing with 80’s style ski jumpsuits and children wailing down your ear holes. The job is perfect for people looking to adapt a new skill or long term devotees wishing to return to the snow. On the other hand, looking at this with an honest perspective, worker’s hours may decrease once the hectic holidays are over. This would be great for allowing more time to ski but could lead to a struggle for those with high rent and heating bills, and trust me, these are common in Queenstown!
For those looking to visit for a holiday, the country is visually stunning and the ability to ski is a welcomed benefit. However, the snow itself is pretty poor in comparison to the likes of The Alps or Rockies and the runs are a lot shorter. Personally, I took no notice of the conditions, as being new to this hobby meant any surroundings would have made me appreciative. I’d say that the ski scene in New Zealand should be taken with a pinch of salt for fanatics and an open mind for beginners.
If you wish to look further into available jobs or more information on ski pass purchases, please see the NZSki website.