Beautiful, Yet Remarkably Mediocre

This blog entry about the events of Monday, July 22, 2013 was originally posted on August 03, 2013.

PART 12 (DAY 26-30): “Where should I go?” I asked the guy at the Snowbiz One Stop snow gear rental shop in Queenstown, world-renowned adventure sports hub on the South Island of New Zealand. I had rented it all: snow pants, goggles, gloves, boots, and snowboard — even a jacket. They don’t call it “One Stop” for nothing.

“You should go to Remarks,” he suggested. He asked a co-worker nearby — a fellow ski bum with a job at a gear store — who confirmed that I should indeed go to the Remarkables, nearby mountain range and home to one of two local ski areas.

“What about Coronet Peak?” I asked them. I’d heard that one to be the more popular skiiable mountain of the immediate area.

“Coronet’s shit,” they told me. Not that it wasn’t a formidable place for snow sports, but the recent rain on that mountain had washed away all the recent powder and left over a crust of ice — shitty conditions for snowboarding.

And so, I paid for my rental and lift ticket to the Remarkables for the following morning.

“Cheers.”

NEW ZEALAND HAS BEEN ON THE WORLDWIDE TOURISM RADAR for such a long time; it’s naturally beautiful and relatively cheap (once you’re there), and everyone speaks English. In fact, it’s been hot for so many years that I’ve sort of avoided it in all my time of traveling because I considered it to be “too easy.” When I went to Australia for the first time over ten years ago, I thought it was great, but I came back home feeling a little ripped off. I mean, I like traveling to be a little challenged and immersed in a foreign culture, and Australia — as amazing its Outback and Great Barrier Reef were — the overall experience was very easy and American to me, albeit in the accent of Crocodile Dundee. Sure, that’s to be expected from a country that was also a former colony of the British empire, but when you factor in the airfare to get to such a place from New York, it doesn’t exactly have a big value for a journey outside the comfort zone — for me anyway.

For years, I’ve felt this way about New Zealand; it’s on the other side of the world from where I’m based in the American northeast, and I never saw the huge value in going there, as beautiful as it might be. Besides, John McClain and others I’d met on the W trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park had convinced me that New Zealand was comparable to the scenery of Patagonia where we’d all trekked through, and at least Patagonia had a language barrier to make it feel like I was somewhere else.

With that said, I had no real motivation for going to New Zealand on my own dime — but with the luck of Life’s dice, I was already in Brisbane as a layover from my Papua New Guinea assignment, and I had just enough frequent flyer miles to do a free side trip to the Land of the Kiwis. Sure, what the hell — why not? Ultimately, I was welcomed by a series of rainbows as I flew in.

With only a little over a week to kill before my flight back to Brisbane and then the States, I took the advice of Aussie friend Uri (Paris), to just based myself in Queenstown in the southern part of NZ’s South Island, the small resort town surrounded by mountains on the shore of beautiful Lake Wakatipu, that packed a big punch. By punch, I mean that Queenstown is as energetic as a small city, being a mecca of bars, restaurants, and above all, adventure sports — sort of like Cape Town — a place where the Lonely Planet says, “No one’s ever visited Queenstown and said, ‘I’m bored.’”

Walking around the downtown district of Queenstown, which you can see all of in forty minutes or less since it’s only about half a mile in total area, you can’t avoid seeing all the tour offices, where you can sign up for bungee jumping, jetboat rides, canyon swings, off-road adventures, horseback riding, paragliding, Lord of the Rings tours, Maori culture shows, scenic gondola rides, lake cruises, bike rides, etc. — all of which are available to do year round, even in the June-September winter season when it’s a bit chilly. For me, I’d already done things like jetboating, bungee jumping, skydiving, and handgliding in other parts of the world, and decided that since all of those things could get pricey if you add them all up — and the fact that it was winter — I’d concentrate on things that were winter specific, i.e. snowboarding.

“You almost have a jacket like mine,” said the woman picking up passengers with the 9:30 a.m. bus to go from The Station in town to the Remarkables ski area. “You wanna work there?”

“Well, what are the perks?” I joked. My rental jacket was merely one of the staff jackets for the three ski areas operated by the same company: Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and Mt. Hutt (further up north on South Island). All I needed was a name tag.

I sat on the bus, which traveled 45 minutes to get to the parking lot of the Remarkables ski area. Thirty of those minutes were spent going back and forth the switchbacks up the mountain; Queenstown is only at an elevation of about 1,200 ft. ASL (not alpine enough), so to get to the snow, you basically just drive up the elevation of one of the Remarkable mountains until you get above the snow line.

“Have you been up yet?” I asked the young Australian man from Byron Bay sitting next to me. He and his parents, also on the bus, were on ski holiday for a week.

“[Yesterday,]” he answered. “[It was decent. A bit icy. But] I’m from Australia. This is better than anything out there.”

True, while Australia does have small mountains to ski and snowboard, it’s nothing compared to making the trip out to neighboring New Zealand to get a better experience. I told him it was the same in the New York City area; while there are several decent (albeit icy) mountains within 90 minutes of the Big Apple, to get a real experience, you have to go out west to Colorado or Whistler in Canada. I told him how earlier in 2013, I went to Breckenridge, CO with Jack (Spain, Oktoberfest), where we met up with my Colorado friends Nicole, Neeraj, and Mark — New Yorkers-turned-Colorado “snow snobs” — who only went skiing/riding with us in their unseasonable, less-than-stellar winter conditions as a courtesy for us visitors. “We don’t go out in this,” they’d say on a day which Jack and I (and anyone from the American coasts) would think was an awesome snow day.

“Anything’s better than New York,” I told the Aussie.

“Anything’s better than Australia,” he replied.

I was on my own for most of the day, snowboarding at the Remarkables ski area, which was fine because the “Double Diamonds” playlist of techno action music blasting in my earbuds from my iPod nano wristwatch, kept me company. Plus, I could go on the faster singles lines at all the lift loading areas, which was great because I made conversations with a few of the chairmates on each ride up — most of them Australian.

“It’s icy, but hey, anything to get a run in,” one told me.

I agreed. “This is already better than anything in New York,” I said after we’d discussed our ski situations in our respective homes. Ironically, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” came on — their tribute to the Big Apple. I begged to differ.

However, the more I rode the Remarkables ski area, I was having second thoughts about that opinion — even if there was a cute little tunnel you could ride/ski through. If you’ve noticed, it’s officially called the “Remarkables ski area” — not “ski resort” or “snow resort” because it’s barely that big, nor are the facilities that great. Like New York City’s snow areas, most of what I was riding through at the Remarks was man-made blown snow, icy and groomed, which was a result of their unseasonable mild temperatures and lack of real powder. There were only three chairlifts there, and their lodge was barely a facility, even by New Jersey standards — New Jersey standards! — with just a small cafeteria, not nearly enough seats and tables for the capacity of the place — and not even a functioning bar to hang out. (The only “bar” was the “snow bar” on the top of one of the lifts, which was completely makeshift and closed for après ski anyway.)

Sure there was a decent terrain park, but if you’re just a guy who just likes to ride like me, there weren’t many trails to ride, with lots of them having solid ice patches — I’d heard Coronet Peak was worse. In the end of trying it all, there was only one decent run in the entire ski area (given the conditions at the time), from the top of Shadow Basin (picture above). I rode this over and over until it started to get repetitive. Fun nonetheless — but repetitive. I could have mixed it up with trails from one of the other lifts, but they were crowded — and all for those runs weren’t as long or exciting.

I’d heard that for a slightly better experience, I should go to Cardrona, which was big and functional enough to be labeled a “resort,” about 45 minutes north of Queenstown. Someone said it had “wider terrain; something for everyone.”

“How big is it?” I asked an old Aussie lady on a chairlift ride.

“Oh, it’s about twice the size of this place.”

Twice the size? I thought to myself. That’s still nothing like Whistler or anywhere in Colorado. I soon realized that after you snowboard some of North America’s best ski resorts, you become a snow snob yourself.

And then, during on one chairlift ride up, I noticed an ad attached to the safety bar in front of me — for one of the heli-ski companies in town.

I knew that if my M.O. for my short time in New Zealand was to do the “winter sports thing,” there was only one way I could go: up.


FUN FACT:

When you’re overseas, having your credit card blocked because someone hacked it back home is more than an inconvenience. For two nights in Queenstown, I was on the phone with my bank and Visa, trying to figure out how they could send a replacement card in a timely manner, but apparently there’s no overnight delivery to Middle Earth. (I got by on cash.)





Next entry: Middle Man in Middle Earth

Previous entry: Race on the Brisbane River




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  • NEXT UP: Waiting for weather amongst a bunch of kids on gap year. Also, scenes from Middle Earth.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/03  at  08:37 AM


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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

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