Ohau Snow Fields in the heart of the South Island's Mackenzie Country might be considered a mission to get to by many North Islanders, but the 3 -hour drive from Christchurch isn't much more than a trip to Mt Ruapehu's skifields for a weekend.
Add a flight to Christchurch and Ohau can be just four or five hours from home. Plan a departure after work on Friday to indulge in a weekend's skiing and you can be home by late Sunday, and back in the office next morning with stories of a great alpine weekend experience.
We flew to Christchurch, picked up a rental four-wheel- drive and drove down through the majestic Mackenzie Country.
There is barely a sliver of a moon in the night sky, and it's a mild 2 degrees outside when we arrive at Lake Ohau Lodge in time for a welcome dinner.
The lodge and skifield are familiar territory to most South Islanders, but are often bypassed for larger fields closer to Queenstown and Wanaka.
Lodge and skifield owners Mike and Louise Neilson have run the show for the past 22 years, keeping the family atmosphere and community feeling intact since the original owners, the Wigley family, developed the lodge and later the skifield in the early 50s.
The lodge and skifield are consistently judged among the best in the business.
About 20,000 people stay at the lodge each year, many of them return visitors from Australia and Europe.
Families on ski holidays, weddings and bus tours are welcomed throughout the year, and the lodge also hosts Irish and Scottish theme weekends, which have become legendary.
The skifield might be among the smallest of the dozen southern fields, but it punches above its weight - rating in the Top 10 Up and Coming skifields in the world last year.
The 72-bed lodge recently came top in an online survey for best service for the fifth consecutive year. The business prides itself on its green philosophy - all glass is crushed and recycled on site, food scraps are eaten by the pigs, preventing rats from feeding on the waste, and a nearby stream feeds a small 20-kilowatt turbine to provide hot water for guests' showers and wall-radiator heaters in the rooms.
The lodge has accommodation from budget to luxury rooms, with ensuites, all overlooking Lake Ohau and out to Mt Cook in the far distance.
It is a simple formula that has worked for 60 years - a luxury tourist lodge managed with old traditions.
Louise says the key is guests being welcomed into the lodge like family, or old friends.
"We like to treat the guests as friends staying in our house, and not in a hotel, where they could be locked away in their rooms watching television."
In fact, there is no television in any of the rooms, only a large screen in the lounge with Sky if, for some reason, you tire of the view of Mt Cook or Lake Ohau.
The staff are efficient and friendly. "We like to employ people with a bit of character," says Louise.
Natalie, the waitress with her hair dyed pink, and Jock, the couple's son and maitre d', espouse the message to relax and enjoy the comforts. Meal times can be like a large family reunion without the arguments. Arrive for dinner and you can expect to be seated next to complete strangers.
The next day it is likely you will meet your dinner companions again on the skifield and be able to continue where you left off the night before.
The conversation may well be about snow cover: after a near-record the previous month the skifield had had it's healthy base washed out by rain when we visited.
Luckily, technology, in the form of snow-making guns, takes care of variable weather patterns on the skifields.
Ohau's ski season is now a month longer, running from June to September, after $2.3 million was invested in an Italian snow-making system in 2008.
The system is gravity fed by an 11,300-cubic-metre water reservoir to cut peak power costs.
The system - 23 large wand-like poles dotted over the skifield - gives good cover on the main Boulevard run, but little off-trail, for the 100-odd skiers and snowboarders taking advantage of the clear weather.
Skifield manager Craig Ovenden oversees the operation at the touch of a finger on his laptop, adjusting the technology to make whatever type of snow he wants.
Unfortunately, the crucial factor - sub-zero temperatures - is proving elusive since the field was swamped with natural snow a month ago.
Up to 400 skiers a day can use the double chairlift, poma or beginners' magic carpet at Ohau during the busy school holidays, but during our weekend, only about 150 skiers have ventured up the winding 15-kilometre metal road.
It's good skiing on trails and good for skiers, with no long waits in the lift queues or buying a coffee in the cafe, but nervous times for Mike and Louise, who are not alone, with skifields throughout the country feeling the pinch. As luck would have it, the next storm arrived just a few days after we left.
In the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes and the European recession, fewer tourists are visiting the South Island, Mike says.
The new Alps2Ocean Cycle Trail from the Hermitage at Mt Cook to the coast at Oamaru will draw more people to the area in summer. The lodge will be an overnight stopover for cyclists on the third day of the 312km trail, built as part of the national Nga Haerenga cycleway.
When you are surrounded by magnificent mountain scenery and a multitude of activities, however, there is plenty of scope for fun.
The writer was hosted by Lake Ohau Lodge.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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