A family adventure in Southern splendour
Jaimee Clapham and partner take the kids down south, making the most of childminders to ease the stress of travelling with little ones – and to escape up the mountain, kid-free!
When we planned our whirlwind three-day family holiday to the South Island, my partner Jae and I embraced the idea of taking a grandparent along and invited Nana Chris, knowing that we would all benefit from her saint-like patience and the extra pair of hands. We chose to travel mid-August in the hopes that we would be closer to the beginnings of spring weather, but the mountains would still be proudly standing with snow on their rigid shoulders. It had been a late start to the ski season, so our timing was perfect – snow had been falling the week prior to our departure. However, leading up to the trip, the weather looked ominous. The forecasts for negative temperatures, rain and heavy snow would frustrate a safe landing in Queenstown, so we crossed our fingers and wished for the best. Thankfully, Mother Nature manifested our positive affirmations for a break in the weather.
Our holiday got off to a memorable start before we had even left the warmth of the departure lounge. Whilst fuelling up with some of the buffet delights in the Koru Lounge, my six-and-a-half-year-old daughter Dylan started jiggling with glee. Mouth full of muffin, she urgently pointed to a woman casually helping herself to the tomato soup, which was as vividly red as the blazer she was wearing. I was super impressed that our daughter was the first to recognise her!
“Excuse me, Jacinda, my daughter is a huge fan,” I blurted out, as I gently nudged Dylan in front of me to take the attention off of myself, and the fact I had just addressed the Prime Minister of New Zealand by only her first name! Is that even okay? Hair pulled back neatly and bearing that big, beautiful smile that has recently healed hearts, she courteously crouched down to Dylan’s level and asked her where we were heading. Baby Neve babbled in the background with her dad (a fellow Gisborne-ite like Jae and myself) while her mum, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern (I’m making up for my previous lack of etiquette!) graciously accommodated the attention of other travellers. Not one to miss an opportunity that would make Dylan’s journalist grandfather proud, I was daring enough to ask if Jacinda would be so kind as to have her photo taken with Dylan – after she had finished her soup, of course.
A GRAND APPROACH
The descent into Queenstown would have to be one of the most beautiful in the world. In fact, in 2015 it was voted number one for ‘the world’s most stunning airport approaches’. It’s since been bumped to number five … but that’s still pretty remarkable!
Upon disembarking from the plane, we were greeted by, well, The Remarkables, the massive mountain range that rises sharply from the plains with absolute awe-inspiring grandness. As we stepped outside the airport to wait for our rental car, Elsa blessed the sky with her magical touch. Fresh, delicate snowflakes began to fall.
A LUGE AMOUNT OF FUN
We went straight from the airport to the first activity on our itinerary, which was conquering the luge at Skyline Queenstown. By this stage the snow was falling quite heavily and we weren’t wearing the right gear to front this kind of weather. We enjoyed the scenic gondola ride up the mountain and then feasted on the best hot chips I think I’ve ever eaten, while waiting for Elsa’s magic to ease. When the snow subsided we took the chairlift further up the mountain to the top of the 800m course. Dylan rode with Jae and our just-turned-three-year-old son Jude rode with me, urging me to “Go weally, weally fast, Mum!”. The way a luge cart works means staying in control is really safe and easy and I wasn’t at all nervous about picking up a bit of speed going tandem with a toddler. It was so much fun and the kids loved it! My exposed fingertips, not so much.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
As the afternoon light grew dim and the air more crisp, it was time for us to make the hour-long journey over the Crown Range to Wanaka, where we had chosen to stay. As a party of five, it made sense to book ourselves a whole house, as opposed to staying at a hotel. A few weeks out from the trip, I had done a quick search on bookabach.co.nz and was spoilt for choice for family-friendly properties in the Queenstown and Wanaka regions. We decided to stay in Wanaka because we wanted the quicker route up Cardrona Mountain, plus I had never been there before. I found an awesome newly-built property that had all the things we needed: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, bunk beds for the kids (why do kids get so excited about sleeping in bunks!?), and a heatpump as well as a gorgeous modern gas fireplace for us to all snuggle up by at the end of each day. The property had a few other unexpected awesome features too, like underfloor heating in the bathrooms (a God-send when we awoke to zero-degree temperatures one morning!), two big boxes of kids’ toys (because other people’s toys are always better), and the lovely property manager who greeted us on arrival with homemade cookies and the house pre-warmed. Thanks, Angela!
A ‘HORSEOME’ ADVENTURE
The second day got off to a slow start. I awoke surprised that the kids hadn’t woken us up at 6am like most holidays (when their excitement typically wins over the previous late night). But the mornings are so much darker down south! I heard giggles coming from the bunkroom at 7:45am, and as much as a sleep-in whilst on holiday is a rare gift to be treasured, I knew we all needed to get up and get cracking. However, when I pulled open the blinds, I got my gift: the most beautiful sunrise was hitting the mountains surrounding our property and making their peaks glow like embers.
As we’d passed through Cardrona the evening before, Dylan had spotted a sign for horse trekking. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but when I realised we hadn’t actually risen early enough to make the most of a day up the mountain, we changed our plans and Dylan and I saddled up while Jae and Nana Chris kept Jude entertained at the awesome Dinosaur Park on the Wanaka lakefront. Trekking guide and owner Debs Thompson was such a good sort, and was prepared even for someone like me, with my two different cameras plus a camera phone! My baby was in safe hands (my two thousand dollar Canon, that is), strapped into an SLR case and secured to my western-style saddle. Debs’ beautiful Appaloosa horses were so chilled out and well-behaved that for half of the two-hour trek, I could let go of the reins to dig out my cameras and take photos from horseback. The rugged high-country landscape, brushed with splotches of crimson hawthorn and rosehip and topped off with a heavy dusting of snow, was absolutely breathtaking, and it dwarfed Dylan – in her oversized oilskin on the back of a big horse – even more. I decided this part of New Zealand is quite possibly my favourite place on earth.
My heart bursting with the fairytale memory my daughter and I had just created, we trotted back to the stables, fed the horses their well-earned barley and molasses, and removed the chill from our bones by standing in front of the roaring fire in Debs’ quintessential barn house. It occurred to me that, although the kids had plenty of outerwear, coming from the mild Auckland winter they lacked the proper undergarments for this crisper climate. We headed back to Wanaka Lakefront and popped in to Perriam Boutique to grab them some much-needed thermal clothing. Perriam is a locally owned, New-Zealand-made fashion brand that creates quality, on-trend merino clothing for women and little ones. The kids walked out looking cool and cosy, each in a new outfit which they wore for the rest of the trip – feeling much more comfortable wearing the warm lighter layers than they did being dressed up like the Michelin Man! And my fingertips were now feeling rather jealous of my head, which sported a new soft possum-merino beanie.
THE COOLEST CHILD CARE
Day three was the day we’d been looking forward to the most: ‘big snowy mountain day’, as Jude had been calling it. I had already booked the kids into the Cardrona Alpine Resort’s childcare facilities, so that Jae and I could enjoy some child-free snowboarding freedom! ‘Skidom’, I think the term is. It also gave Nana Chris some child-wrangling respite.
Jude, being under five, went into Ski Kindy with a morning ski lesson and meals included. Dylan went into the Kids’ Club at the Den and did both the morning and afternoon lessons, clocking up a total of four hours on skis. She progressed so well for a first-timer that after her hot lunch, she was able to head further up the mountain with her instructor and practise turns! See ya later, magic carpet!
Jae and I secured four carefree hours snowboarding together. At no point did my mind ever wonder how the kids were getting on: I had quickly spied on the morning lessons and they were clearly well-organised. Kids were all kitted out in their snow gears, and they were all getting a good amount of one-on-one attention when it came their turn to “make a slice of pizza” with their skis as they cautiously made their way down the learner slope. The instructors and caregivers were so lovely and fun, and when I asked Jude what his favourite part of Ski Kindy was, he replied, “Ummm, Charlie” – the baby-faced carer who Jude apparently followed around ‘helping’ for most of the day. Bless.
A PERFECT ENDING
We finished the day in historic style, stopping to fill our bellies at the iconic Cardrona Hotel. Jae, of course, ordered a pint of Speights – when in Rome and all – while Chris and I couldn’t overlook a hot mulled wine. The atmosphere and magical surroundings of this place are so incredible – you really feel like you’re on holiday.
We sat outside, savouring our last southern sunset with our well-deserved beverages, eagerly awaiting an entrée of Frickles (deep fried dill pickles with a dill sour cream dip) while the kids ran tirelessly around the beautiful courtyard and played on an old tractor, pretending they were ‘country folk’. It was the perfect time and place for us to sit back, relax and reflect on our amazing adventure-filled days…underneath the auburn glow of the monumental mountains that are already calling me back.
For further information:
Accomodation: Kirimoko Retreat, Wanaka; bookabach.co.nz.
Luge: Skyline Queenstown; skyline.co.nz.
Cardona Ski Kindy & Kids’ Club at the Den: Cardrona Alpine Resort; cardrona.com.
Horse Trek: Backcountry Saddle Expeditions; backcountrysaddles.co.nz.
Merino clothing: Perriam; perriam.co.nz.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jaimee Clapham & Jae Mills