On Mount Hotham, Jim Darby discovers slopes with an edge and life after dark.
Most mountain villages are nestled in natural bowls or grow along valley walls; it's a quirk of history that finds Mount Hotham's village running like a ribbon along a mountain ridge (the access route in the early days led to the location). There are upsides, such as the spectacular views and easy access to the runs, but the downside is exposure when the weather sets in. The up generally outweighs the down, though, and this, backed by the area's stunning terrain and generally reliable snow cover, played a big part in the huge growth spurt Hotham experienced from the late 1990s through to the later years of the past decade. Road diversions were planned, multimillion-dollar apartments designed and sometimes built. The benefits for resort visitors include upgraded lifts, more restaurants, bars and shops, and a broader range of accommodation and activities.
If you measured the value you get from your lift ticket by the hour, then this mountain has plenty to boast. From Wednesday to Sunday, weather and snow cover permitting, the Heavenly Valley chairlift opens at 7.30am. If there's fresh snow, you get first tracks; if the groomers have been out overnight, you get fresh corduroy to carve. Last ride out here is 4.20pm, so if you had the legs to ski or board the Heavenly Valley area for eight hours and 50 minutes, your $106 day ticket for the lifts would equate to a bit more than $12 an hour. That's cheaper than going to the footy. Having said that, if it's icy, stay in bed for a while.
If you don't have a multiday ticket, the ticket office at Hotham Central opens at 7.30am. To check if the lift is opening early, ask at guest services in Hotham Central the afternoon before or check the snow report at mthotham.com.au.
Even though the early start is reasonably well publicised, a lot of resort visitors still like their morning rest, so it isn't until about 9.30am that the lifts get busy. When they do, it's a good time for a fuel stop; that you can do at the Snake Gully Hut at the base of the Heavenly Valley lift - and it has good coffee and snacks - but a better option is to make your way back to the village to the Z Cafe at Zirky's, which has excellent coffee, terrific fresh muffins and even a big breakfast if you've skied so hard you deserve it.
10am, take a tour
The better you know a mountain, the more you get out of its terrain and the more smartly you can move around it. Hotham runs informal mountain tours through its guest services department. Tours are free, cover mainly intermediate terrain and run on request, usually from 10am. The guest services staff know the mountain inside out and they're the kind of locals whose local knowledge is well worth tapping in to.
Ask at the guest services desk in Hotham central or call them on 5759 4470.
You get an idea of how big this mountain is when you make your way all the way out to the Orchard area with Mount Feathertop looming large in the background, its huge winter cornice hanging in suspense along its ridge. If the view inspires adventure, then keep your speed up from the top of the Orchard chairlift to get across the relatively flat terrain out to the top of Spargo's Run. There, when the snow's right, you'll find a snow grooming machine waiting to drag you up the incline so you can ski or board through the trees and back to the lifts. If you're OK skiing black runs, then give it a try - this is especially good in fresh snow and is best done early, while the air temperature is still low and therefore the snow still dry.
Kat Skiing is free if you have a valid lift ticket. If you have the appropriate mobile phone and want to track the terrain you cover here, download the free Hotham app - you can log vertical and distance, although you'll find it chews through your battery in the cold with the GPS turned on. Other app information includes trail map, conditions and lift status.
If it's a sunny day and the deck's been cleared of snow, then park yourself on a table outside Swindlers in Hotham Central, so-named not for its prices but in a tribute to the area's gold-mining history (in a nutshell, some Chinese labourers were swindled out of payment for their work by some local miners). You can watch the boarders try out their jumping and rail-riding style below as you munch away on pizza or pasta or specials from the blackboard menu. A chips-and-gravy alternative is Hot Doggies, upstairs in the same building, or the Summit Cafe across the road at Snowbird for wraps and hot dishes.
If you want to stay active but want a break from the hurly-burly of downhill skiing or boarding, then hit the cross-country trails. There's a combined network of more than 35 kilometres of trails at Mount Hotham and down the road in Dinner Plain, and one long, 13-kilometre link trail that connects the two villages. It's a serene experience, gliding through the silence and the snow gums but cross-country skiing can also be active and athletic if you want to increase your acceleration and heart rate.
If you'd prefer to swap the powder for some pampering, then the White Spa at Hotham Central or the Onsen Retreat at Dinner Plain have massage, skin care and body treatments. For the cross-country skiing the village bus will drop you at Wire Plain, where you can launch onto the trails, but there's no such thing as a free ride in a mountain resort - your $39.50 daily resort entry fee funds the "free" bus ride to Wire Plain and the grooming of the trails.
If you need to hire cross-country skis, boots and poles, the cost is $53 to $66 a day from Hoy's, behind the Jack Frost supermarket. For a free map of the resort's trails, drop in to the Resort Management Board office (maps are also available from the Dinner Plain Information Centre). For some technique pointers, the Hotham Snowsports School has cross-country-qualified instructors but they teach on a private-lesson basis - it's $130 for a one-hour lesson plus $15 for each extra person, or there's an afternoon special of $285 for three hours for up to six people.
If you didn't go cross-country skiing and stayed out on the mountain, then after your eight hours and 50 minutes of skiing, you've possibly earned a refreshment. Zirky's, our morning coffee stop, started life as a very humble, Austrian-inspired ski lodge and has grown to become a grand complex including apartments, shops, cafe, bistro and bar. Despite the growth and despite the fact its founder, Peter Zirknitzer, has retired from the mountain, it has maintained its atmosphere, especially for apres-ski, and it draws a lively crowd to tell their tales from a day on the mountain.
The General, as it is now known, started life as Hotham's utilitarian, year-round general store and while it still fulfils that role, it has come along a bit - with improvements to its dining and nightlife areas and a new accommodation wing. I'm being slightly lazy in choosing this place for dinner, because it means I don't have to move on for the Monday-night show, but the food choices are good nonetheless, with pasta or risotto dishes from $19 to $23 and steaks about $30; not bad for the mountains. If you're after fine dining, then Zirky's or the White Room are where you should be, or head down to Rundells at Dinner Plain.
Hotham has come a long way in a short time. The restaurants, cafes and activities beyond skiing are evidence of that, as are the nearby airport and progress of the mini-Malvern down the road they call Dinner Plain Village - but it still has a core of skiers and boarders who are drawn more to its terrain than its trinkets. If you want to find them, and it's worth finding them, then get yourself to the General when DJ Eddy spins the discs. The persona is a Jag-driving refugee from Mount Baw Baw, locked in a 1980s time-warp, complete with mirrored sunglasses and skintight suit. The regulars love him and he gives as much energy to his show as they give back on the dance floor.
DJ Eddy plays on Monday nights. For the complete entertainment guide, go to thegeneral.com.au. There is no cover charge/entry fee.