Every Australian ski resort has its own identity: Thredbo is Sydney-by-the-snow, Mount Buller is Melbourne-by-the snow, Perisher is the family resort, and Falls Creek makes a virtue of its ski-in, ski-out location and picturesque village setting. Mount Hotham, meanwhile, is definitely the rugged resort.
Visitors to the only mountain village in the southern hemisphere located on top of the mountain enjoy panoramic views of snow-capped alps before they drop down onto the valley runs.
Known as the "powder capital" of Australia, Hotham earns its hardcore reputation from its challenging terrain. It boasts the highest proportion of black runs in the country, with names like Hackers Horror, Leap of Faith and Wall of Death, and only a few beginner options (albeit on wide, gentle slopes).
When we told friends and family we were heading to Hotham to ski, their response was invariably "why"? Why go to Hotham, the hardcore mountain, when our children had only skied once before?
THE VICTORIAN ALPS
These alps feel more intimate somehow, compared with NSW, and the scenery is quite spectacular. The villages in the foothills, including Bright and Yackandandah, are gorgeous tin their own right and worth a stop on the way through.
Our family has mixed skiing ability and experience. Our kids, aged five, nine and 11, had their first proper taste of the sport last year, when they all did a week of ski school at Thredbo. They were immediately hooked. We were curious to see whether the older two could make the leap from beginner to intermediate at Hotham, and if the youngest could get down a mountain unaided, or if the more advanced terrain would stop all three children in their (snow) tracks.
As for me, I had some skiing ghosts from Hotham trips past to lay to rest (more of that later).
BEYOND THE BOOTCAMP
I've always treated ski holidays as quasi-winter bootcamps – waking in darkness to shower and eat a quick bowl of muesli while dawn slowly creeps over the mountains, then gearing up to hit the slopes for the first lifts.
Each day tends to follow the same pattern – a group lesson in the morning, break for a hearty lunch to refuel, and then free ski in the afternoon practising what I've just learnt while exploring the terrain.
These annual ski bootcamps are great fun and fantastic family bonding, but they are physically exhausting. While my mind is refreshed and my spirits exhilarated by the holiday's end, my body is often more wrecked than before I went away; this trip, we decided to look beyond the trail map.
Despite its hardcore reputation, Hotham is actually one of the best places to explore the alpine lifestyle. By slowing the pace, we spent more time appreciating the snow-covered gums, alpine vistas and magical gentle snow falls. We learned about the area's history on a skidoo tour, soothed our tired bodies at the onsen, and enjoyed coming home to the stylish calm of our West Elm apartment with its mid-century James Bond aesthetic and spectacular mountain views.
There is a food option for all tastes and budgets – from the good-time General Store pub (kids pro-tip – order the spiders), to the fine dining of Jack Frost (and its superb crab ravioli) and the perfectly-positioned Zirky's, with picture windows looking across the runs. Situated next to the popular Heavenly Valley chairlift, Snake Gully Hut is a great mid-ski session spot for a coffee, while Chill Cafe at Hotham Central is good for a quick lunch.
The village has a lovely relaxed vibe and its hospitality is excellent – every staff member we encountered, whether in the rental shop, at check-in, in the restaurants or on the free snow bus that loops the ridgeline every 10 minutes, was super-friendly, and keen to help.
Hotham is a relatively small resort, but there are more options down the road at Dinner Plain. It's a great alternative to Hotham for newbie skiers, with a beginner slope and snow play area (unlike NSW, tobogganing is still allowed inside resorts in Victoria), while for lunch, you can't go past a Yankee burger and fries by the open fire at the Hotel High Plains. A lot of the people who work at Hotham live at Dinner Plain (accommodation is cheaper and you can rent houses rather than apartments).
In keeping with our more relaxed approach, we didn't sign up to a block of lessons. Instead, we eased into our holiday, spending a couple of half days skiing as a family, getting our Hotham bearings and reawakening our ski muscle memory.
This was a good warm-up, but it quickly became clear that I am definitely not a teacher and the kids definitely needed one! Our youngest, especially, needed an instructor's patience and expertise to help him start skiing independently.
We booked the kids in for two full days at Hotham ski school at the Big D, which is very good value. Kids five and under get free lift passes, while a full day of ski school for a child aged three to 14 costs about the same as a day of child care in Sydney, and includes food and lessons. The under-sixes also get a great indoor play area with Lego, toys, movies and more, for when they need to thaw out.
Turns out Hotham's slopes were no obstacle for our brood – after their two days of instruction the nine- and 11-year-old were deemed intermediate skiers, while the baby was snow-ploughing confidently down green runs in the wake of his teacher and telling me how much he loved "Hoth-lam".
LAYING GHOSTS TO REST
My children had done much better than I did when I arrived at Hotham a complete novice in the early noughties. An instructor spent four days trying to coax me down the beginner Summit run, with little success. (I blame my debilitating fear and the treacherously icy slope, not his teaching skills.) Many years – and many ski trips and lessons – later, I returned to Hotham a completely different skier.
The proof came in my first group lesson ($71 for 2½ hours), when the instructors separated us by ability (after watching us ski) and put me in the same Intermediate class as my husband who has always been a much better skier. It was a bit of an ego bruise for him, but it was short-lived; the next day he was skiing double blacks, while I was still very much the intermediate.
But I was a confident Hotham intermediate and it meant that on our last day, while the five-year-old had another day of ski school, and my husband went hurtling down black runs, the older two came skiing with me – our abilities and enthusiasm evenly matched.
In our own ways, we all managed to conquer Hotham. More importantly, we'd finally hit that ski-trip sweet spot of equal parts challenge, adventure and relaxation.
Hotham is a 4½-hour drive from Melbourne or an eight-hour drive from Sydney.
West Elm apartment at Sambuca has snow-capped mountain views and is a five-minute walk from Hotham Central. See mthotham.com.au
FIVE MORE THINGS AT HOTHAM
ALPINE NATURE EXPERIENCE
Snowshoe through snowgums to a hidden eco-village. Enjoy mulled wine by an open fire before learning to cook an authentic French fondue as part of a three-course dinner in the central tipi. $109 an adult, $65 a child (six-12 years old). See alpinenatureexperience.com.au
ONSEN RETREAT & SPA
Relax at Australia's first indoor/outdoor alpine spa at Dinner Plain. Unwind in the outdoor onsen and indulge in a luxe treatment. The volcanic hot stone massage is highly recommended. Alpine onsen bathing $45 an adult, $20 a child (three-16 years old). Hot stone massage $249 for 90 minutes. See hepburnataltitude.com.au/onsen-spa/
Ride to the summit in the heated cabin of a snowgrooming Kat. Watch the sun set across the Alpine National Park while enjoying gourmet nibbles and Brown Brothers prosecco at 1861 metres. $60 an adult, $25 for under-18s. To book, phone 03 5759 4470
GO WITH THE DOGS
Be whisked away into a winter wonderland of backcountry on a sled pulled by a team of husky dogs. Explore Mount Hotham with plenty of time to pat and play with the dogs. $300 for two for a 30-minute ride. See howlinghuskys.com.au/mthotham
Visit the beautiful timber-panelled One Tree Sports boutique at Hotham Central for quality, stylish snow clothing and accessories, an expert boot-fitting service and try-before-you-buy skis.The range at Zirky's Sports next door is also worth checking out. See mthotham.com.au
Cosima Marriner travelled with the assistance of Visit Victoria see visitvictoria.com/regions