So, you’re planning a winter escape to Wanaka? First things first, I’m insanely jealous – please take me with you. New Zealand is a beautiful place to visit any time of the year, but I have to say, Wanaka really takes the cake when it comes to picture-perfect destinations. Not just that, the locals are lovely, making it an even more enjoyable place to be. Which is why we decided to take our very own snow trip to Wanaka, travelling as a small group. Needless to say, we had an AMAZING time and loved every second of it. To help you plan your very best snow adventure, here’s our guide to skiing and snowboarding Wanaka.
But first, Watch this…
Best time to visit New Zealand for skiing and snowboarding
The general rule for visiting New Zeland and catching great snow is to visit from July to September. If you’re looking to beat the crowds you may want to plan your visit from around mid-June to early July. If the conditions are good and the snowfields open you may just find yourself having snowfields to yourself (just about), but the obvious risk here is there isn’t enough snow.
School holidays kick off from early July so you’ll lots of fantastic kids programs on offer at the snowfields (woohoo!) as they open and celebrate the start of the season. The only setback during this time is that you’ll be sharing the snow with lots of other people, so prepare for things to be busy. If you’re after the full winter experience, August is your best time to visit. This is the heart of winter when things are really cold and there’s plenty of fresh powder to go around. Again, it’s a super busy time so expect lots of visitors and peak prices for accommodation.
If you’re keen to avoid the crowds, consider visiting in September or even as late as October, when a number of visitors start to thin out, the days get longer and the weather is a bit warmer as spring begins to round the corner.
Best places to ski and snowboard in Wanaka
Cardrona was definitely another highlight for me. By the time we got to Cardrona I had a few lessons under my belt and was ready to start tackling beginner slopes and Cardrona had the perfect slope for me – it felt great to graduate into being a semi-legit skier and mix it with the adults. Not to mention, the views from the top of the runs are just stunning, allowing you to see all the way over to Queenstown. I also loved the Chondola, which offers a less-stressful option to the chairlift (perfect for beginners or little ones) – it’s an enclosed, gondola-style lift that takes you up to the start of a friendly, green run, with no hassle.
You’ll find Cardrona 35 minutes from Wanaka, 60 minutes from Queenstown and 45 minutes from Arrowtown. The 385 hectares of terrain cover everyone from beginner through to expert and, as a beginner, I found it a really fun spot (note: they have tubing!). There are 3 conveyor lifts, a platter lift servicing the two half pipes and Big Air Jump, 3 four-seater lifts, 8 seater Chondola cabins and a 6 seater chair lift too. Of course, they offer a great kids club and lessons for anyone learning to ski (big and small!). They also have quite a few great dining options at Cardrona, including a champagne and coffee bar perched perfectly at the top of the mountain (yasss!) as well as a noodle bar, cafes, lounges and a pizzeria. Cardrona offers a range of packages for visitors, including some great first timer packages, lift, lesson and rental packages as well as a range of winter specials.
The boys absolutely loved Treble Cone as it offered some amazing terrain for those with a bit of experience. Again, the views from Treble Cone are just stunning, right up there with the amazing views from Cardrona and Coronet Peak. If you’re a beginner it’s a big transition to move from the learner’s hill to the easiest run on the mountain. It took me 1 1/2 hours of very hard work, under the watchful eye of my lovely instructor, Lorna, to make it down the run. But here’s the thing, because it was so hard I felt really confident when I hit the beginner runs at Mt Hutt and Cardrona. When I told people at the other fields that I’d made it down TC as my first ever run, they all said, “Wow, okay, if you can do that, you’ll find this really easy.” It was a great way to kind of rip the band-aid off quickly if that makes sense.
Treble Cone is the largest ski field in New Zealand’s South Island at 550 hectares (wow!) and really well suited to those with a bit of experience under their belts keen to shred hard as it’s comprised of 45% intermediate, 45% advanced and 10% beginner terrain. But, like I said, it can still work for beginners who are keen to get stuck in! There’s a great beginner package on offer which includes beginner lift access, a group lesson, ski or snowboard hire and a scenic chairlift ride. Intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders will love the 700m of vertical which includes the 4km High Street run while Raffles Run provides the very best views of Wanaka, 25 minutes drive away.
Where to stay in Wanaka
We stayed at The Moorings on our most recent visit to Wanaka and absolutely, freakin loved it! Located right on the Lake, we were treated to million-dollar views out our window which made us feel like we were making the most of every moment, even if we were inside relaxing. I loved the location of The Moorings, situated on a part of the Lake I hadn’t stayed at before. The central location made it very easy for us to set out on foot, visit the supermarket and local restaurants, wander along the shore in the afternoon and explore the local area.
Our studio apartment was the perfect size for the two of us and, travelling as a small group, we got a second studio apartment too. Having the two apartment next to each other gave us enough space to spread out and not feel too on top of each other but kept us close enough that we could get organised easily, eat together and still spend time hanging out without overdoing it.
The room included a great-size kitchenette which, while compact, including everything we needed to whip up our breakfast each morning and, have a bite to eat in the evening, once or twice. I especially loved the coffee plunger, which meant I didn’t have to settle for a really crappy coffee – I could get stuck into a proper coffee while eating my eggs. The bathroom was a great size too with under-floor heating to keep your feet nice and warm during winter. The room itself was nice and spacious, especially considering The Moorings offer it as a studio – it was much more spacious and homely than I thought it would be. The bed was lovely and comfortable, with a separate area for lounging and watching movies as well as a desk and chair for catching up on work. The Moorings was the perfect base for us, it offered incredibly comfortable accommodations that included everything we needed for our stay and I would most definitely look to stay here again!
Most importantly – the owners are absolutely lovely and made us feel so welcome! Any question we had they were more than happy to help us with and they were even so kind as to give the three of us a lift up to the local brewery so we could all have a few drinks without worrying about being over the limit. Also, you guys, they have an adorable dog named Kiera who loves to go for walks with guests – what more could you possibly ask for?!
What to pack
Packing can be tough and a New Zealand snow trip is no exception, here are my tips on a few things you definitely need to pack:
- You’ll definitely need some nice, warm gloves that are waterproof
- A waterproof ski jacket and pants are absolutely essential
- I recommend a neck warmer, particularly one you can pull up over your lips and nose
- A good pair of ski goggles are great to block out the sun, wind and snow (if the blowers are on)
- Warm socks are essential (think really warm, woolly ones!)
- A comfy pair of waterproof shoes to wear to and from the ski fields
- Jumpers and fleece make for great layers underneath your ski jacket
- Sunscreen is another essential, be sure to slather it on before you go and reapply during the day
- It’s also a great idea to carry a good lip balm on you to help avoid chapped lips
- I didn’t tend to wear a beanie on the slopes as I was usually wearing a helmet
- You’ll also want to pop on some long johns or thermal underwear as your base layer, to help keep warm
- Don’t worry about ski or boarding gear if you don’t have it, each of the fields offers great quality gear rental.
How to get to Wanaka
Each time we’ve visited Wanaka we’ve found it most affordable for us to fly into Christchurch, hire a car and road trip down. The drive is pretty easy, taking a little over 5 hours to do. If your flight arrives in the morning it’s definitely possible to do the whole drive in one day, breaking it up with rest stops as you go. That said, there’s no need for you to rush things and do it all at once if you don’t want to. We broke our drive up by spending two nights at Lake Tekapo, which was lovely! If you find yourself flying into Queenstown, the drive to Wanaka is really quick, only taking an hour to get there – just be sure to schedule in a little time to stop in at the Cardrona Hotel for a Cardrona Ale and, if you’re hungry, lunch. If you’re visiting in winter, make sure you check the road closures, carry snow chains if needed and watch a video on how to fit snow chains.
How to get around New Zealand (safely) in winter
If you haven’t driven in New Zealand winter before or drive in snowy/icy conditions, here are a few things you need know:
- I strongly recommend hiring a car if you’re visiting New Zealand. There is so much to see and do, not having a car is really limiting, so if you can afford to do it, please do! It’ll really maximise how much you get to see and do as well as the great places you’ll get to visit.
- You’re going to need to carry snow chains, so be sure to watch this video on how to fit snow chains
- Don’t leave glass bottles or anything important in your car overnight, like cameras or laptops, as conditions get very cold and your water bottle will freeze and explode while your valuables could also freeze and be damaged
- You should buy a windscreen scraper, which you can pick up pretty cheap ($5) so you can scrape the ice off your windscreen in the morning, making it safer for you
- You need to be aware that black ice is real and it is dangerous. What is it? It’s a thin layer of glazed ice on a surface, like a road, and it’s pretty much transparent which makes it difficult to spot. I recommend you do some reading on how to drive to black ice conditions before you go, like this helpful WikiHow guide here which also comes with some great images.
- There are a large number of single-lane bridges in New Zealand, so don’t just go barreling up to any old bridge in your Yaris, expecting there to be enough room for you. There’s a sign in front of every bridge with a big black arrow and a small red arrow on it. Big black arrow has right of way, the little red arrow must wait. You can read more about how to cross a one-lane bridge in New Zealand here.
- You don’t really need to hire a GPS as it’s pretty easy to find your way around. That said, I would recommend getting a cheap sim card and loading enough credit on there to get some data and local calls, so you can use google maps if you need and call for help if you have trouble in bad weather conditions on the road.
Must-know tips for visiting New Zealand’s South Island
If this is your first time New Zealand’s South Island there are a couple of things you need to know before you set off:
- Unlike Australia, you won’t find a never-ending roster of deadly predators lurking around the place. NZ is free from snakes, sharks, spiders and all those other deadly creatures that call Australia home.
- Kiwis love their burgers! You’ll find plenty of great burger shops dotted all over the South Island, including Devil Burger, Red Star, Burger Fuel and the eternally famous Fergburger. Be sure to try as many burgers as possible – it’s kind of your duty, right?!
- You can buy alcohol at supermarkets in New Zealand but will need your passport with you as ID (a driver’s license won’t cut it)
- The border control/customs team in New Zealand are super strict so be sure to clean any dirt off your shoes and don’t try to bring in any wooden or food items
- Kiwis are environmentally conscious, so keep your eye out for recycling bins and sustainable practices implemented around the place
- When driving from place to place make sure you factor in extra time to stop and photograph because you’ll likely spot some gorgeous spots along the way
Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs. Find out more about us here.