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Alpine resorts with après ski charm, some of the world's best terrain parks, a huge range of family snow options, both on and off the piste, and affordable (or fancy) accommodation in ski hotels, lodges and apartments. No, we're not talking about European or North American ski resorts but their Australian counterpart.
While many local skiers fly off to ski fields north of the equator, snow storms come through our own Australian Alps dumping metres of snow on an area larger in size than all the Swiss Alps. Last season, two of the biggest snow storms in the past 20 years hit Australia's ski resorts, providing some of the best snow cover in a decade. There can be powder snow on offer here at home and plenty of it.
But, even with a seemingly easy ski holiday close to home, without all of those international flights, there are still plenty of questions that need answering, especially for people fresh to a snow holiday. Here, then, are the essential snow getaway questions answered by two experienced snow travellers for season 2018.
Jim (Professor Ski) Darby started skiing in lace-up boots before he was tall enough to reach the rope tow (yes, a long time ago). He stuck at it and has worked in the mountains as a ski lift operator, instructor and patroller. As a ski writer, he's skied all Australia's areas and many in New Zealand, North America, Europe and Japan. He also enjoys ski touring and recently gave that a try in Antarctica.
Craig (Doctor Board) Tansley, a long-time surfer, has taken his snowboard everywhere from Slovakia to Alaska, having fallen for the sport at Thredbo way back in the winter of 1999. Craig has lived in a ski resort in Utah and has done five consecutive winters in Japan. He now enjoys the après ski as much as the slopes. In the Australian winter, you'll find him at Hotham, Thredbo or Mt Buller.
Q: WHAT'S THE BEST TIME DURING THE AUSTRALIAN SEASON TO TAKE A SNOW HOLIDAY?
DR BOARD SAYS A rule of thumb is this: if you don't have children, avoid the July school holidays. Prices for accommodation and lift tickets are the highest you'll pay all season, and lift queues can run for a hundred metres. If you'd prefer deserted slopes at a cheaper price, consider a trip to the snow before the July school holidays (which start June 30 in Victoria, and July 7 in NSW), or go in spring. Most resorts call this Value Season, and lift tickets and accommodation costs can be as much as 50 per cent of those you'll pay during July school holidays. What's more, the slopes are less crowded, and in some seasons the most snow actually falls during September, when you'll also often get to ski or board in a shirt. The downside is that coverage on the slopes can be patchy during poor snow years, with temperatures occasionally too high for snowmaking; and some attractions during peak season, such as free kat skiing or First Tracks at Hotham, won't be available.
Q: HANG ON. ISN'T NEW ZEALAND CHEAPER THAN AUSTRALIA AND IS THE SNOW BETTER?
PROFESSOR SKI SAYS It isn't that simple. Yes, New Zealand can be cheaper but it depends on the way you do it – two or three young couples sharing a campervan and using that for access and accommodation can be really cheap... if that's their thing. You can also camp just down the road from Thredbo in the National Park's Ngarigo camping area. It's free, but it's a bit cool on a winter morning.
The point is, you have to decide the level of holiday you're looking for and break the costs down from there. New Zealand lift and lesson costs are slightly cheaper, but once you factor in flights (and possibly the need to pay for extra baggage) and transport, it evens out.
As for snow quality, this isn't guaranteed in either country. There are winters when skiers and boarders in Australia watch, forlorn and dejected, as intense low pressure systems slip south and dump snow on New Zealand. Then there are seasons like 2017, when in August and September there were consecutive systems that hit Australia but were too far north for New Zealand's benefit.
The other advantage Australia has is trees. If you're out in bad weather, which is often when the snow quality is best, you still have perspective. In New Zealand, the skiing is above the tree line, so when the cloud is down, visibility is highly limited.
Q: NEW SOUTH WALES VERSUS VICTORIA: WHAT'S THE BEST AUSTRALIAN STATE FOR SKIING AND WHY?
DR BOARD SAYS If you live in Sydney, don't think you have to stick to NSW ski resorts. Likewise, if you live in Melbourne, NSW ski resorts aren't so far away. Sydney skiers can fly to Melbourne and drive just three hours to Mt Buller (which is still easier than the seven hour drive to Perisher Blue or Thredbo). Mt Buller's steep terrain is the most under-rated of all Australian ski resorts, while its on-mountain accommodation and entertainment options are as good as any. Sydney skiers can also charter a plane with AustAir (leaving Friday and returning Monday morning for $1290 pp) landing at the Hotham airport, just 25 minutes from the slopes. There's also a high-end mountain village, Dinner Plain, between the airport and Hotham, which has some of Australia's most challenging terrain. Melbourne skiers can fly to Canberra in an hour and drive two-and-a-half hours to Thredbo to experience the convenience of its ski-in, ski-out alpine village, or the same distance to Perisher Blue: Australia's largest ski resort. Flights are also available to Albury from Sydney or Melbourne (about an hour in the air) with shuttle bus connections to Falls Creek for $36.
Q: WHERE DO WE GO FOR OUR FIRST FAMILY HOLIDAY IN THE SNOW IN AUSTRALIA?
PROFESSOR SKI SAYS Logistics are important here – there's a lot of gear to cart around for a snow holiday and that is compounded with the extra equipment you might need for a young family. So think about ease of access, and the most easily-accessed village of all is Thredbo. There, you can drive to the door of most accommodation and the kids' centre, Thredboland, is also located just above the road. It offers child care from six months and ski programs from age three, using the Friday Flat slopes right outside the door.
Perisher also has a well-equipped kids' centre, but also worth considering at that area is the smaller hub, Smiggin Holes, with some family-friendly terrain right out the front where concerned parents can watch their kids on the slopes, much as they might watch them swimming between the flags at the surf beach.
In Victoria, Hotham's main access road can be intimidating, but ironically, once you're past that, its kids' centre at the Big D is very easy to get to. At Falls Creek, the facilities are good, but you need to ride a lift to get to them, while at Buller, the numbers speak for themselves – they have facilities to care for kids from three-months and to teach them to ski from three years and their kids' centre is one of the largest licensed childcare facilities in the entire state of Victoria.
If you're on a budget, consider smaller areas like Baw Baw in Victoria or Selwyn Snow Resort in New South Wales – they both have capable snow sports schools and equipment rental and offer a way to build up the skills in a young family before taking on the bigger slopes and bigger costs of the larger resorts.
Q: I WANT TO SKI BUT MY PARTNER IS NOT INTERESTED. WHERE DO WE GO?
PROFESSOR SKI SAYS Rule number one: you are not the priority, your enjoyment is assured on the mountain, but only if the other half is happy. So work out what they want from the holiday and work your way forward from there.
For urban pleasures in a mountain environment, get on the plane to New Zealand and get yourselves to Queenstown or Wanaka where the assortment of shops, bars and restaurants is big enough and broad enough to keep them interested for days. On top of that you have cinemas, some quirky museums and galleries, lake cruises and nearby attractions like wineries.
In Australia, the best destination will be the best village and that brings it to Thredbo in New South Wales, where the village is usually below the snowline and there are a variety of non-ski activities, their very engaging, self-guided art and architecture trails.
Two villages near the snow resorts also have merit: Dinner Plain, about 20 minutes down the road from Hotham and Lake Crackenback, 20-minutes by road to Thredbo or a few minutes from the Skitube base to access Perisher and Blue Cow. Both have homes among the snow gums and spas, bars, restaurants and walking trails on site.
Q: I LOVE THE APRÈS-SKI CULTURE IN EUROPE. CAN YOU REALLY GET A TASTE OF THAT IN AUSTRALIA?
DR BOARD SAYS While you'll find a luxurious après environment at Dinner Plain, near Hotham and while Falls Creek's car-free village might be the prettiest in the Antipodes, if you're chasing a European après ski feel, there are two resorts you must visit: Thredbo and Mt Buller. These were both heavily influenced by Austrian and other European immigrants in their first two decades, the 1950s and '60s and you can feel it everywhere – from the names of the streets and ski runs, to the Tyrolean-style bars and restaurants where schnapps rule the roost. The best Austrian après at Buller is at Pension Grimus and at Thredbo, the choices are vast, with over 30 restaurants and bars, the best of them being the Black Bear Inn with a formidable 80 varieties of schnapps. Thredbo also has Australia's only outdoor poolside après venue, the Mumm Bar, with deeply cushioned seats around firepits.
Q: DO I STAY AT A HOTEL, SKI CLUB LODGE OR APARTMENT?
PROFESSOR SKI SAYS Back in the day, ski clubs and their lodges were all the go; they were the backbone of the ski resorts and in many ways got them off the ground. Along with them came a small number of commercial lodges, often hosted by Europeans who brought a taste of mountain hospitality from their country of origin. That really built the character of the Australian mountain resorts, but then along came the property developers who let the apartment genie out of the bottle and diluted that "one-in, all-in" experience.
Clubs are still going strong and in the interests of keeping their beds full and costs down, many offer accommodation to non-members (look at resort websites and they'll usually take you there); it's worth it for the experience, can be good value and is a good option for singles or couples looking for some social life.
Even if they changed the mountain experience, self-catering apartments are perfect for families or larger groups. There are still some good commercial lodges going around and a couple that stand out and still deliver the dinner, bed and breakfast experience are The Man from Snowy River at Perisher (themanfromsnowyriver.com.au) and, around the other side of the mountain, the Guthega Inn (guthega.com).
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE QUALITY OF THE SNOW IN AUSTRALIA? CAN YOU REALLY FIND POWDER HERE?
DR BOARD SAYS There's powder snow to be found all across Australian ski resorts; but to find the best snow all season it helps to be flexible. Keep your eye on each resort's online snow forecast, and be ready to go when a big storm is predicted. Be prepared to be the first out on the mountain, fresh snow gets tracked quickly in Australia: if you sleep in, you'll miss it. Some resorts in Australia, like Perisher Blue, offer a First Tracks pass (for $34, or free for Epic Australia pass holders), where a limited number of skiers have early access to the slopes. Others like Hotham open slopes early through peak season (Wednesdays to Sundays) at no extra cost. Hotham also offers free kat skiing during peak season where an eight-seater snow kat gives access to some of the best powder on the mountain, leaving from the top of the Spargos run, beyond the Orchard chairlift every 15 minutes. Hotham offers some of the best powder snow terrain in Australia, while Thredbo's south-facing slopes are perfectly positioned to hold snow from the season's biggest storms which usually come from the north-west. Either resort is top pick on a powder day.
I'VE NEVER SKIED OR BEEN SNOWBOARDING, WHICH SHOULD I CHOOSE?
YOU SHOULD GO SKIING
PROFESSOR SKI SAYS Why is this even a question? Why be a slave to gravity? You can access all areas on your skis and you won't spend half your snow life hop-hop-hopping about on a board to get over a ridge for the downhill ride. You can ski straight off the lifts, unless you're waiting for your boarding buddies to sort out their bindings and freeze their bums off in the process.
True, snowboarding got the youth vote a decade or so ago because it appeared cooler and edgier, but ski manufacturers responded, applying snowboard technology to produce wider, more versatile skis. With that, the pendulum has swung back. Skiing is back in town and more young people seem to be taking to it than snowboarding.
An Austrian snow sports school director once said to me, "It takes 10 seasons to become an expert skier; it takes one season to become an expert snowboarder." So, if you're in a hurry, then go buy a board, but if you want some flexibility in your snow sports, then go skiing – you can traverse the mountain with ease, skate from one place to another, even tour into the back country one step after the other. Fatter skis mean it's much easier to enjoy skiing in virtually any kind of snow type and they're also pretty handy in the half-pipe.
But then, the same Austrian – a former ski racer for his country – told me his son was riding a snowboard. "How are you with that?" I asked.
"I'm fine with that," he said. "He's enjoying the mountain and he isn't inside playing computer games.
"Besides, I think riding a snowboard in powder snow must be as close to flying as you get without leaving the earth."
He might have something there.
YOU SHOULD GO SNOWBOARDING
DR BOARD SAYS If you've ever surfed – or skated – there's no contest, you have to snowboard. Although the principles of movement are different (you'll turn your board with the weight on your front foot when snowboarding, whereas you pivot off your back foot when surfing or skating) the sensation is the same – snowboarding feels just like you're surfing or skating across entire mountain ranges (but because your feet are strapped in, you're able to do much bigger turns). What's more, the softer the powder snow, the more that snowboarding feels like surfing.
Snowboarding is much easier to learn than skiing – if you have basic balance, and you're fit (snowboarding requires good core strength), you can learn to snowboard in a weekend – skiing takes much longer to perfect. Skier's have a joke that's known over the world: "What's the difference between a beginner snowboarder and a snowboard instructor?" "Two days". But there's some truth to it (even I admit): an athletic person with balance really can learn to snowboard in a few hours… and you try that skiing.
There's also a lot less pressure on your ankles and knees when you're snowboarding – because you ride side-on to the mountain there's less chance of major knee and ankle injuries; instead snowboarders are more susceptible to wrist injuries which are easily avoided with wrist guards. All those nasty leg injuries you see around ski resorts? Yep, they're all skiers.
When the snow gets deeper, snowboarding really comes into its own. Beginner-to-intermediate skiers often struggle in Japan with its legendary deep powder because riding deep snow requires careful technique adjustments, whereas every snowboarder knows: just lean back. No snowboarder ever said "I hate powder", but not every skier is a fan. And that's just plain weird.
FIVE SURE STEPS FOR A GREAT SNOW HOLIDAY
Like farmers, resort operators are in the hands of the weather, but also like farmers, they'll use all the resources they can to grow a good crop. The game-changer has been snowmaking which is simply the mechanics of introducing water to the atmosphere when the temperature and humidity will allow it to fall as snow. Rain can ruin that party, so look for a snow guarantee when you book your ski holiday – this will mean a certain amount of terrain is open or you get your money back.
If you're starting out, hire your hardware, like skis or boards and boots. The first piece of equipment to buy should be boots – get them right and it'll all flow from there (conversely, get them wrong and you'll struggle). You'll need your own goggles and gloves from the outset, but if you shop wisely all the other layers can have other uses; get a good waterproof and windproof shell jacket and pants and use woollen layers underneath.
Snow grooming has made the going a lot easier on the mountain, so you can leave the office and take a run almost straight away, without the strength in your legs to get through heavy or difficult snow. That said, the fitter you are, the faster you'll get up to speed, the more you'll enjoy your time on snow and the less likely you'll be to get injured. Look for specific snow sports programs at gyms and with physiotherapists.
The culture of instructing is as old as snow sports and the instructors working in Australia's snowfields are recognised as among the best in the world. Lessons for beginners are very well-priced when package with a lift ticket (they want to get you addicted), but skiing or snowboarding at any standard is easily-taught, with lessons to get you to another level or iron out any bad habits.
To the inexperienced, mountain driving might seem formidable, but with the right attitude and set-up, mountain drives can be the most enjoyable and scenic around. You don't need a four-wheel drive; on a two-wheel drive vehicle, diamond-pattern snow chains give you all the grip you need. If you're still reluctant, there are shuttle services to almost all areas so you can park below the snowline and have someone else do the driving.
UNDERSTANDING THE LINGO
OOPS, SORRY MATE
Having run into you, the words a snowboarder uses to make an introduction.
Refers to someone on skis, for example, "watch out for that idiot two-planker coming at you" ("planker" has an unfortunate rhyme).
A skier or snowboarder who forgets there's a whole mountain to ride and spends their entire time in the terrain park.
A bad fall where someone's equipment (goggles, beanies, gloves) are scattered across the mountain.
Refers to a really good turn, or jump, or anything generally that turned heads.
No snowboarder says "powder", it's far too long; when referring to fresh powder snowboarders must shorten it to pow.
Old-school term – the mark you make when you fall. Before slope grooming, etiquette demanded you smooth over your sitzmarks.
The chunks of ice that are impossible to ski or board through and can stop you in your tracks.
A jump to clear an obstacle, usually with the help of ski poles planted well ahead for propulsion.
A term skiers might use to describe a snowboard.