Powder to the people

As ski season opens, Robert Upe sizes up the new offerings at major Australasian snowfields.

Australian and New Zealand snowfields are bracing for winter, with the Aussie resorts opening on the Queen's Birthday weekend on June 8 and the Kiwi fields progressively from June 8 to 27.

Some of the Australian resorts are already claiming strong bookings, but they will have their work cut out for them because the Australian dollar is buying about 25 per cent more in New Zealand dollars.

Here's our rundown on what's new, where to ski and some of the early-season deals.


WHAT'S NEW At Thredbo, the Friday Flat beginners' area is 30 per cent bigger, including a new area for first-timers and the new "Giddy Up" ski run.

Perisher has pushed ahead with more snowmaking, adding to the $22 million spent in the past seven years. The focus for this winter has been at Blue Cow's Excelerator ski run with a new energy-saving snowmaking system worth $1.2 million.

One of Mount Buller's oldest buildings - the YHA hostel in the Village Square - has made way for a new midrange hotel development called Buller Central that will include accommodation, apartments and a restaurant/bar.

Little Buller Spur, Chamois, Skyline and Baldy have had $400,000 in snowmaking improvements, including new snowguns.

The Wombat Chairlift has had a 30 per cent boost in capacity with a new drive and has also been fitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) gates.

RFID is all the rage at Hotham and Falls Creek, too, with the twin resorts introducing electronic credit-card style passes for all skiers after trialling them for season-pass holders last year.

The gates have been fitted at several key access lifts at Hotham and Falls Creek, while mobile scanning will be used at the other lifts. The RFID embrace at Hotham and Falls Creek means that all major resorts in Victoria and NSW now use the technology, which employs a credit-card style pass rather than a paper ticket.

On the movie front, Warren Miller's latest ski film, Flow State, will screen in Australia from May 22 to June 25. warrenmiller.com.au.

WHERE TO SKI Going Mild If your main aim is to find comfortable skiing terrain that doesn't intimidate, then Perisher and Falls Creek are good choices.

Falls Creek's home trails, especially Wombat's Ramble, which has top-to-toe snowmaking, are fine for beginners while intermediates can step up to Drover's Dream and Towers.

Perisher's Happy Valley and Pretty Valley, Blue Cow's Pleasant Valley and Smiggin Holes are also perfect for cruising.

WHERE TO SKI Going Wild The wildest place of all in the Australian snowfields may be Mount Buller's Kooroora Hotel at 2am, but in terms of gobsmacking skiing try the resort's Fanny's Finish: it's steep and narrow and requires quick turns. It is near the even-more-formidable summit chutes and for experts only.

Across at Mount Hotham, the long and unforgiving Mary's Slide in the resort's "extreme zone" starts off wide enough but funnels into Swindlers Creek where you ski over a bridge for a long traverse out. If you lose an edge, you'll end up backstroking. Not many skiers out there; it feels isolated.

For more "frontier-style" skiing try Thredbo's Dead Horse Gap - you need to know the way, take a guide or a knowledgeable local. This is out of resort and requires a pick-up at the other end but has great views, and riding from above the tree line all the way down through the picturesque twisted snowgums to the valley floor.


WHAT'S NEW Treble Cone has announced an "Ultimate Ski Day" that starts with breakfast in Wanaka (the closest town to the snowfield), a helicopter to Treble Cone, gear rental, lift pass for a day's skiing, lunch and then private jet boat back to Wanaka for $NZ721 ($590) an adult and $NZ671 a child.

The resort has also opened a kids' trail in the Home Basin with fun features such as rollers, and will provide free children's helmets with equipment hired on mountain this season.

Get into top gear for some snow and ice driving in a new Audi or BMW on a test track at the Snow Farm. snowdriving.co.nz.

This cross-country area is near Wanaka and opposite Cardrona ski field and also has snowmobile tours with overnight backcountry options. oversnowtours.co.nz. (There's dog sledding as well).

Meanwhile, the Australian owners of the Cardrona ski resort have put it up for sale but they say it will be business as usual.

WHERE TO SKI Going Mild After you negotiate Cardrona's dirt road with steep drop-offs, things get relatively cruisy at the resort identified by its iconic bell tower.

Take the McDougall's quad chairlift for an easy and panoramic descent down Skyline or drop into Gravity Zone, a fun course consisting of whoop-de-dos, sweepers, rollers, berms and jumps.

Don't be put off by the somewhat hardcore-sounding nature of the terrain, because this is a course that can be handled by most intermediates with a sense of adventure. Your skis don't even have to leave the ground.

One place where there's no intimidation at all is the small budget field of Roundhill near Lake Tekapo.

You wouldn't want to go all the way from Australia to Roundhill just for this one field, but it's a worthy inclusion on an itinerary of a few resorts or even visiting Lake Tekapo itself, which is a small picturesque town with exceptional guided stargazing and hot pools. There's also comfortable family accommodation provided at Peppers Bluewater Resort.

Mount Cook is also within striking distance of Lake Tekapo. If you take the easy road towards it on a sunny day, it is one of the most spectacular drives imaginable as New Zealand's biggest mountain looms. Stop for lunch or a coffee at the base and then head back.

WHERE TO SKI Going Wild Treble Cone's Motatapu Chutes and Saddle Basin hold the title for some of New Zealand's hairiest resort terrain, but Southern Lakes Heli Ski trumps it all this winter with access to new expert-only areas in Mount Aspiring National Park near Wanaka.

This is where the annual World Heli Challenge is staged and features open bowls and steep chutes.

Skiers and boarders can choose their own lines, subject to snow stability, with packages from $1100. heliskinz.com.

Also check out invincible.co.nz for an "out-there" experience.

Australian deals

Ropers two-bedroom apartment for up to six people at Falls Creek is $3700 between June 22-29. Includes gear and clothing. ropersapartments.com.

Mount Buller has a three-night family package for the price of two nights. Includes midweek lodge accommodation, three-day adult lift ticket, three-day child lift ticket, three-day gear hire from $556 an adult and $374 a child. Available in June and September. mtbuller.com.au.

Thredbo's learn-to-ride weeks on June 27-21 and September 16-20 include a daily two-hour lesson, a lift pass and ski or snowboard and boot rental. Adults $494, children $276. thredbo.com.au.

Meanwhile, Thredbo has four free skiing weekends for children under 14: June 15-16, July 20-21, August 24-25 and September 14-15.

The Perisher Valley Hotel has standard family rooms, including breakfast, from $149 a night per adult and $109 a child midweek only between June 10-20. perisher.com.au.

New Zealand deals

Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Mount Hutt have a $NZ135 ($110) starter pack that includes two lessons, beginner lift pass and rental gear. nzski.com.

Hilton Queenstown from $1045 a person twin share for seven nights, three-day ski pass and seven-day car rental during September. Book and pay by May 31. skimax.com.au.

Breckenridge Lodge, Methven, from $749 an adult for seven nights, daily continental breakfast, three-day ski pass for Mount Hutt, seven-day car rental. Book and pay by May 31. skimax.com.au.

Five nights in six-dorm Base Backpackers at Wanaka, three-day OnePassNZ (valid at eight resorts) from $NZ399 a person. cardrona.com.