Europe has beautiful alpine villages with cobblestone streets, quaint mountain huts to enjoy goulash lunches and classic mountain scenery. North America has long groomed runs without crowds and extreme challenges, as well as a high service and accommodation standard unmatched elsewhere in the ski world. Plus, the build-your-own burgers are good. New Zealand, of course, has heli-skiing. So what does Australia offer? With the snow season opening this weekend, Ski 09's experts spill the beans on the best of Australian snow, with the things they love about skiing and snowboarding Down Under.
1 Ski-in, ski-out accommodation is a feature available at most Australian snowfields but not widely in New Zealand, Europe or North America. Some of the best ski-in, ski-out options include the Perisher Valley Hotel, Thredbo's Ski In Ski Out Chalets on the side of Crackenback, Mount Buller's Arlberg Hotel, Hotham Heights Chalets and Falls Creek's Summit Ridge Alpine Lodge.
2 Snowgums are unique to Australian snowfields and apart from being beautiful to look at, they are delightful to ski between. Try it somewhere simple such as Merritts at Thredbo or Mount Buller's Cattleman's Trail and if you're lucky you might see a fossicking wombat.
3 In fine weather and with a good snow cover, ski to Dead Horse Gap, Thredbo. This is a spectacular adventure that remains accessible to mid-level skiers. It starts at Australia's highest lifted point, runs along the spectacular Ramshead Range and then weaves through the snowgums to Dead Horse Gap and the headwaters of the Thredbo River. Stage a car at Dead Horse with a picnic lunch in the boot and you have the ingredients of an exceptional day in the mountains.
4 Get away from the crowds and into some of the extreme terrain at Mount Hotham, which has probably some of Australia's toughest slopes. For starters, try Mary's Slide, which finishes with a dash across a bridge and then a long and fast exit as you traverse along a narrow path next to a creek.
5 Chairlifts are great for their efficiency and for opening terrain by getting skiers and boarders up in the air but there are still many fans of surface lifts and Falls Creek's International Poma is one of the best.
It drags riders through the snowgums and up the Frying Pan Spur and gives access to the mountain's best terrain the Maze on one side and the Village Bowl on the other.
6 While on the subject of surface lifts, Perisher's Olympic T-bar would have to be Australia's quirkiest a T-bar that turns a dog-leg; hard to think of another anywhere in the world that does this. Apart from the unique ride, it gives some precious vertical and there's a dramatic steep drop if you decide to ski straight off the top for a fast blast.
7 Charlotte Pass named for Charlotte Adams, the 21-year-old who climbed Mount Kosciuszko in 1881 is Australia's highest and only truly car-free resort. Access is on over-snow transport from Perisher, 10 kilometres away. All accommodation at Charlotte is ski in, ski out.
8 Mount Baw Baw dropped lift ticket prices last year from $71 to $49 for adults and has maintained the price cut this winter with Monday-to-Friday day prices of $29 for children, $39 for students and $49 for adults. Weekend prices are $10 more.
9 Best for families and first-timers, Selwyn Snowfields' lift tickets are the cheapest in NSW. An adult pass during value season is $50 ($35 for child) and goes up to $70 ($45) a day at peak. All through the season, if you are older than 65 it's $25 and $10 a day for those under seven.
10 Cattleman's Rail Jam, in the heart of Mount Buller, attracts the best snowboarders in the country during July. They take turns to slide and air down the 13 stairs in the village square, spurred by large excited crowds and DJs. Huge cash and prizes are awarded before the season's biggest party begins at the Kooroora Hotel. It's the one day of the year when snowboarding really takes over Mount Buller.
11 Kooroora Hotel is the late-night venue at Mount Buller and is open until 3am daily. The last song each morning is That's Amore.
12 In an era when the lifts don't break down so much, when the lifties are actually polite to you in short, when things run so smoothly you think you're in a five-star city hotel it's nice to trip over something a little rough around the edges and entirely politically incorrect. The ski bums come out of their caves (men and women in equal numbers) and beat a path to the door of wherever Mount Hotham DJ Eddy is playing these days it's the General Store. He spins the discs with uncanny energy and a monologue that would floor them at the comedy festival. Eddy wears his favourite fluoro gear, is originally from Mount Baw Baw and drives a 1970s XJ6 Jag, because it pulls the chicks.
13 You know what you're in for when the sign by the door advises that you can't make chicken salad from chicken s--t. Former Melbourne restaurateur Jimmy Camerino returns each winter to run Mount Buller's Tyrol and enjoy the views from the deck. Well he might, with a panorama over Mount Cobbler towards Mount Buffalo; perfect for some pasta and wine. The small kitchen means meals are made to order if you're in a hurry, you probably should look for lunch somewhere else.
14 Kofflers is the isolated cafe near Mount Buller's summit and gets jam-packed whether it's sunny or there's a storm blowing. There are great views on clear days from the outside seating; in a storm huddle inside for hot chocolate, apricot mogul cake or spaghetti bolognese.
15 The founders of Zirky's at Mount Hotham the Zirknitzer family and its host, the entertaining Peter Zirknitzer have left but something of their spirit remains in one of Australia's best apres-ski venues. It can still rock with that fantastic glow and energy generated by a big day out on the terrain.
16 It's easy to dismiss lift-company owners as tall poppies but Rino and Diana Grollo have gone above and beyond in their contribution to Mount Buller. Their connection to the mountain dates to the 1960s but their financial stake didn't come until the 1990s, when they bought the Abom Restaurant, then took over the lift company and associated interests. They back their passion by reinvesting in the mountain's lifts and snowmaking and beyond that by enriching its cultural fabric through projects such as the Chapel and backing events such as the long-running Abom Mogul Challenge, which turns 21 this year.
17 For challenging high-speed cruising, head to Guthega at Perisher and runs such as the Screw, Mother-in-law and Schnaxl.
18 The buzz of Thredbo village at night is hard to beat, especially over tapas at Bernti's or dining out at Credo and Terrace.
19 Australia has great on-snow villages and among the best to snowboard is Falls Creek. The village is a maze of snowy roads and lodges that creates an urban snowboard park. Ride it during the day or at night using the street lights to guide you.
20 Wildbrumby Schnapps distillery, halfway between Thredbo and Jindabyne, is the perfect distraction from the pains and strains of a day on the mountain. Butterscotch, Devil's Tongue, mango, peach and raspberry are just some of the schnapps varieties on offer.
21 The master of schnapps at Mount Buller is Hans Grimus. The Austrian holds court at Pension Grimus, the upmarket accommodation and restaurant just off the main Bourke Street ski run. Grimus often entertains with tales of the mountain and moves from table to table to chat and share schnapps. Late nights of revelry, sometimes with Grimus playing accordion, kick on at Pension Grimus's small cocktail bar.
22 So much of what is great about being in the snow in Australia is the gift of Europeans, many of them post-WWII migrants and refugees. Tommy Tomasi grew up in the Italian mountains, survived being imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, and migrated to Australia, landing in Fremantle but bolting for the Snowy Scheme when he discovered there was actually snow in Australia. With the late Danny Collman, Tomasi founded the Thredbo Ski Patrol in 1958 and, now in his 80s, he still skis from the first lift to the last. His love of the sport and the mountain is infectious.
23 Skiing in Australia was founded in the 1950s by family groups who built the first resort accommodation. Today the warm, welcoming culture of these private club lodges still permeates the local snow culture but they are increasingly under threat from modern apartment developments.
24 Spend a day riding the T-bars and enjoying the Antons and Sponars runs, named after Thredbo founders Tony Sponar and Charles Anton.
25 Torah Bright, the Cooma-born-and-raised snowboarder, quickly scaled the world's professional ranks in her teenage years and is now recognised as one of the best competitive female snowboarders in history. In February, the 22-year-old will seek gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
26 The new style of snow sports competitions skier cross and snowboard cross, in which four competitors bump and charge their way down a banked slalom course make for great excitement. They'll feature at the Vancouver Olympics and Australia has a strong contingent look for skiers Jenny Owens, Katya Crema and Scott Kneller and snowboarders Alex "Chumpy" Pullin and Damon Hayler.
27 The Kangaroos Hoppet is the Australia leg of the Worldloppet cross-country race series and has become a freeheel festival for Mount Beauty, the Kiewa Valley and its host resort, Falls Creek. It's a 42-kilometre race but there are shorter events. Run each year on the last Saturday of August, it attracts thousands of spectators and competitors.
28 There are 140 kilometres of cross-country ski trails emanating from Perisher, including an easily accessible loop opposite Front Valley.
29 Falls Creek's sheltered Nordic Bowl is an ideal learning ground for beginner cross-country skiers and also the starting point for kilometres of trails, many of which leading to cattlemen's huts. Hire and lessons can be arranged at Windy Corner, near the Bowl.
30 The coastal town of Merimbula is 180kilometres from Jindabyne, making it possible to snowboard and surf on the same day. You'll need to make an early start, have a good wetsuit and a few energy drinks to keep you going. The storms that bring snow to the mountains in NSW usually bring good surf, too. Go for a skateboard at the Jindabyne skate park to round out the trifecta.
31 Stylewars at Falls Creek is the only TTR World Snowboard Tour stop in Australia. It's more than a big-air spectacle that attracts the world's top professional riders; the week-long celebration also features a mini music festival and a night-time rail jam event for spectators. Attracting acts such as Bliss n Eso, Scribe, Airborne, Katalyst and the Presets, Stylewars unites snowboarding and Australia's love of music.
32 Only in Australia can you watch an echidna from the chairlift, see emus on the way to the mountain and snowboard or ski past a wombat walking on the slopes.
33 Falls Creek's Maze provides a great mix of terrain for skiers wide open in the alpine terrain for starters, then snaking through the snowgums.
34 The Bistro at Thredbo has an iconic bar and balcony perfect as an after-snow retreat. Pull up a pew, a big basket of hot chips and a cold beer to round out a great day of action on the slopes.
35 Ski patrollers are as important on the snow as lifesavers are on the beach. In addition to their role in safety and they are highly trained for this they are important custodians of mountain culture.
36 The organisers of the Interschools event at Mount Buller claim it as the world's largest multi-discipline snow sports event and, having grown from eight competitors in 1957 to about 3500 last season, their claim has substance. In a sport that worries about status and victory, it's nice to find an event with an emphasis on participation and personal accomplishment.
37 Staying in Australia's alpine towns is more affordable than staying in the snow and if you prefer not to drive up the mountain road each day, most towns have daily shuttle services. In NSW, check out Jindabyne and in Victoria some of the bigger towns include Bright (good for skiing at Mount Buffalo, Mount Hotham and Falls Creek), Mount Beauty (Falls Creek), Mansfield (Mount Buller), Omeo and Harrietville (Mount Hotham).
38 Cold and spartan ski lodges are a thing of the past, with high-end accommodation in the snow whether hotels or apartments available at all major resorts. If the budget allows, try a room at the Thredbo Alpine Hotel or a suite at Mount Buller's Pension Grimus.
39 A day trip to the snow is feasible in Victoria. Head to Mount Donna Buang to throw snowballs, Lake Mountain for cross-country skiing and snowplay and Mount Baw Baw and Mount Buller for skiing.
40 Here's a nod to technological achievement: the opening of the Holden Express Chairlift last season allowed the removal of two others on Buller's busy Bourke Street-Baldy strip. Taking six passengers at a time, it is stunningly efficient.
41 Astra is a classy lodge at Falls Creek with an equally classy vodka bar that stocks more than 80 varieties, some with gold flecks.
42 Happy Harvey Hour at the Falls Creek Hotel is an institution on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3.30pm. There's a knees-up atmosphere as jugs of Harvey Wallbanger (a mix of vodka, Galliano and orange juice) go on sale.
43 Lake Crackenback Resort is pure indulgence and 4?-star private luxury nestled at the very edge of the Kosciuszko National Park. It offers day-spa treatments to soothe the bumps and bruises of the mountain.
44 Day spas where you can get a decent pampering and massage are a part of every big Australian resort now but one of our favourites is the Japanese-style Onsen Retreat and Spa at Dinner Plain.
45 Dinner Plain is a pretty village in the snow, 12 kilometres from Mount Hotham and a good accommodation choice if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of a resort but still be in the snow. One ski lift services a beginners' area, some great cafes and restaurants. Renting a house is particularly recommended; it's great for families.
46 Flying to Mount Hotham is an option from Sydney with QantasLink. The airport is 20 kilometres from the resort.
47 Where would we be without snowmaking? The technology has advanced so much that snowmaking is now a season-saver in dry years and provides critical coverage in high-wear areas. It also has a green edge; recycled water makes a contribution to snowmaking water supply and, in any case, about 98 per cent of water used for snowmaking returns to the catchment in the spring thaw.
48 Wider, shorter skis have had a phenomenal impact on learning to deal with, and ultimately enjoy, the variable snow conditions in Australia. Snow-grooming equipment and techniques have also had a big impact.
49 Thredbo's Saturday-night flare run is a sight to behold as ski instructors wend their way down the mountain.
50 The Warren Miller film screenings that take place around Australia each year have become a precursor to the season proper. Miller has been producing snow adventure films for the past 59 years and they have been screened in Australia annually for the past 25, periodically before then. More than 50,000 in Australia were expected to see this year's film, Children Of Winter. See warrenmiller.com.au.