A weekend at Mt Ruapehu

BIG CHILL: Happy Valley beginners ski area, Whakapapa
BIG CHILL: Happy Valley beginners ski area, Whakapapa

Friday, 10am: Ever since he could form a sentence my son has made an annual plea to go to the snow. Poor, deprived child. Five long years he waited. This year we took pity. Our family's virgin voyage to colder climes. "So, like, where are we, like, going?" he, like, asked. "Like Alaska or something?" "Ah, like, no," we replied. "That would be like, uh, Mt Ruapehu." To his three-year-old sister, whose idea of dressing for the cold is donning a long-sleeved T-shirt, we promised a castle. And as we pulled up to the Chateau Tongariro, its yellow and brick and blue facade barely visible through the whiteout, I thought: Actually if you were small and not particularly well-travelled, this could well be some ancient castle in some foreign land.

11am: Townies without chains, we catch a lift to Whakapapa with Dave from Roam Snow Shuttle. My husband advises our children not to sample any yellow snow, and genial Dave advises me if we visit Turoa tomorrow we must sample a chocolate eclair from the dairy next to the petrol station.

11.30am: I had forgotten just how long it takes to get kitted out to brave sub-zero temperatures and hadn't accounted for how much longer and more torturous this process is when small children are involved. I had been steeling myself for a meltdown from the seven-year-old when he discovered the rental gear in his size came in the shape of a onesie, and let out a sigh of relief when Mike from Mt Ruapehu Rentals says they should have a jacket and pants in his size. I had not, however, foreseen the three-year- old's tantrum. Attempting to pre- empt this very thing we had been prepping her for weeks of the need to wear thermals or freeze to death. We had neglected to tell her, though, that this was only the beginning of the layers required. As I tried to wrestle her into her onesie, she kicked me in the shin and screamed in my ear and I wondered just what we had gotten ourselves into.

12.30pm: Once everyone is bribed and threatened into their gear, we realise it is lunchtime. Scarred from previous chairlift mishaps, my heart is in my mouth as we board our first chairlift to the new Knoll Ridge Cafe, but all four of us clamber safely, albeit clumsily, aboard. With its vast expanses of wood and glass jutting off the mountainside you could almost be in the Swiss Alps on the set of a James Bond movie - if you can ignore the large family groups stuffing hot chips down their gobs, that is.

1.30pm: Desperate to get out among it, my son goes ahead to wait out front, but when we finally make it outside he is nowhere to be seen. Not high, not low, and 30 minutes of searching later, panic rising, we are about to put out a missing person search when he reappears. I rant. I rave.

2pm: Dangling over an icy valley on our descent, visibility decreasing with every breath, I restore my inner equilibrium. Only to lose it again when we get to Happy Valley and discover we have missed the last lesson for the day. Although my husband and I both skied and snowboarded pre- children, it's easily been 10 years since either of us ventured on to the snow. My son, determined to snowboard despite being advised against it, is not disappointed to miss out on a lesson. With the confidence of the naive, come tomorrow he believes he'll be turning pro. Father and son depart, and over the next half hour I catch glimpses of my husband holding his head in his hands as my son refuses to listen to any instruction. For my part, I am trying to teach my three-year- old daughter to ski, but she cries when I show her how to clip her boots in, bellows when I tell her she is too small for poles, and bawls when I position her in a snowplough. In the end we ditch the skis for a sled, but four goes pulling her back up the slope after four scarily bumpy and speedy rides down it, and one angry collision, I'm ready to pack it in.

4pm: We return to our accommodation grumpy and dissatisfied and I quietly congratulate myself on opting for the luxury digs over the self- catering. When you are cold and tired, a little comfort goes a long way. The Chateau Tongariro is surprisingly well-suited to young families. Child-friendly movies screen in the theatrette daily at 3pm and 6pm. The subterranean pool is endlessly fascinating (Note: for those seeking a rejuvenating soak it could be hotter). And there is a games room, with ping pong, pinball and foosball.

5.30pm: We had thought to venture further afield but the ease of a family buffet is too tempting, and so we exit our room and seconds later are seated at our table. The increasingly carnivorous seven-year-old finds his heaven in a roast pork carvery, the likes of which is never served in our vegetarian house, and the lactose-obsessed three-year-old finds hers in a bottomless bowl of chantilly cream.

Saturday, 3.30am: The king bed isn't feeling quite so generous with the unwelcome addition of two extras.

7am: Grouchy from a lack of quality sleep, we make a valiant effort to buoy ourselves up by over-indulging in the breakfast buffet. The pancake machine is a big hit.

9.30am: Turoa is miles clearer than Whakapapa the day before and we are hopeful. However, there is a howling wind and only the Alpine Meadow is open. Never mind, our son has made the decision to try skis and a lesson and our daughter is booked into the Turoa Yeti Kids' Centre.

12pm: My husband and I quietly go a little crazy going up and down the beginner slope, but when we all reunite for lunch, our son is full of tales of Jackson, the "dude" who's been teaching him, and our daughter is full of tales of how many times she stopped by herself on her skis (three!) and was blown off the magic carpet (once!). Then miraculously the wind eases off, the first chairlift opens, and we get in a couple of perfect runs. And my husband and I finally discover a sporting pursuit to share and I remember why this is so addictive.

3.30pm: We find The Chocolate Eclair Shop and while they are like nothing any self-respecting French patissier would put their name to, they are huge and fresh and cream-laden.

5.30pm: After swearing another hot chip will never again cross my lips, I find room for several crinkle cut ones at the Tussock Tavern. Again, it's a great place for kids - some are even riding their bikes around the bar. The fireplace is roaring and we are all happy.

Sunday, 7am: We awaken to the news the mountain is closed on both sides. Ah well, the kids burn off some energy at Vertigo Climbing in Ohakune, and we make tracks for Auckland, relieved that Saturday's success has rubbed out Friday's failures.


Where to stay: Chateau Tongariro, State Highway 48, Mt Ruapehu, chateau.co.nz

Where to eat: Knoll Ridge Cafe, Mt Ruapehu, mtruapehu.com Chateau Tongariro, State Highway 48, Mt Ruapehu, chateau.co.nz The Chocolate Eclair Shop, 78 Clyde St, Ohakune Tussock Tavern, Whakapapa Village, Tongariro National Park

What to do: Roam Snow Shuttle, ph 0800 762 612 For ski rental, chairlift passes and lesson packages go to mtruapehu.com Vertigo Climbing, Ohakune shopping centre, Goldfinch St, slr.co.nz

Megan Nicol Reed visited Mt Ruapehu with assistance from Chateau Tongariro Hotel and Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, mtruapehu.com.

Sunday Star Times