In search of white magic

Want to chase the snow year-round? Jim Darby lists his pick of the world's best ski resorts.

Whistler

British Columbia, Canada

Just ask Sydney: when it comes to profile, it doesn't hurt to be an Olympics host. Whistler was already on the map as one of North America's most popular snow destinations but its position as the official alpine skiing venue for the 2010 Vancouver winter games raised its status.

Originally a resort of two separate mountains - Whistler and Blackcomb - they were joined in a corporate sense in 1998 and physically by one of the world's most spectacular ski lifts, the Peak 2 Peak gondola in late 2008.

There's a permanent population of about 10,000 and while this more than doubles when the snow's on the ground, with 3000-plus hectares of skiable terrain, 37 lifts and a 1600-metre vertical rise, the area can cope.

If the scale is at first bewildering, free mountain tours are available each morning on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, where local hosts help with orientation.

The appeal of the area to younger skiers and boarders has driven the development of terrain parks - there are seven in all, with half-pipes for experts, mini-pipes for up-and-comers and a range of rails, jumps, banks and boxes.

The village linking the two mountains at their base has been well conceived, with a pedestrian heart ideal for promenading and shopping and easy access to cafes and nightlife. Closest airport: Vancouver, 125 kilometres/two hours.

See whistlerblackcomb.com.

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Sun Peaks

British Columbia, Canada

This area started life as a ski hill for the locals and over the past decade or so it has been transformed into a smart destination mountain resort but the character remains intact.

That's in part thanks to locals such as Nancy Greene, who won gold and silver medals at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics along with the overall 1967 and 1968 World Cup titles. She calls Sun Peaks home and hosts free tours on the mountain twice a day for most days in winter.

Greene and her partner, Al Raine, built and operate the Cahilty Lodge at Sun Peaks and have seen the area grow from what Greene calls "a weekend getaway to an all-season destination ... it will grow slowly over the next 15 to 20 years, maybe even longer". "There's no big rush to develop - everything is balanced so that as we add more beds, we increase lift capacity," she says.

From its small but well-appointed village base, Sun Peaks has three mountains to ride. From the peak of each three are easy (green) and more difficult (blue) runs to choose from for the downhill ride, a unique quality in a ski resort. Runs vary from long and winding groomed trails to more adventurous glades and tree skiing.

There is plenty of scope for more-accomplished skiers and boarders, with black runs off the steeper faces, through the trees and even through the bump fields for those with the legs. For a morning fuel stop, it's hard to go past the Sunburst mountain restaurant for coffee and buns.

Closest airport: Kamloops, 55 kilometres/45 minutes. See sunpeaksresort.com.

Park City

Utah, US

Utah seems to attract a particular type of dry powder snow, building as it does over the desert, then kicking up and dumping over the mountain ranges. With resorts such as Park City well under an hour from Salt Lake City's international airport, getting there is a cinch.

Park City has a rich mix of groomed trails - some particularly steep but many long, winding and gentle. It's a strength of the resort and underpins its appeal to families and people who are more in cruise than attack mode.

But for that latter group, there's some challenging off-piste terrain to hop into when that Utah powder comes along, in areas such as the Jupiter Bowl - a semi-back-country area with some highly engaging chutes.

Off the mountain, the Park City township, which also hosts the annual Sundance Film Festival, has diverse shopping, restaurants, cafes, bars and accommodation styles.

Park City itself is a seriously large ski area but if you want to sample others, the region's international pass covers Park City, Deer Valley and the Canyons and connects them with a complimentary shuttle service.

Closest airport: Salt Lake City, 60 kilometres/35 minutes. See parkcitymountain.com.

Kitzbuhel

Tyrol, Austria

Surrounded by the mountains of the Tyrol region, Kitzbuhel can trace its status as a town back to the 1200s. There are still buildings standing from the 1300s. In relative terms, the North American destination resorts were built five minutes ago.

Mining - initially for copper - was the spark for settlement here. Now they mine the tourist trade in summer and winter and for the most part do it well, with that deep cultural heritage to fall back on.

This is the site of the annual Hahnenkamm World Cup ski races in late January, where, among alpine ski racers, a win in the high-speed downhill race is probably only matched in status by Olympic gold.

But don't let that event colour all the terrain as black or double black - Kitzbuhel has a vast terrain network, with groomed runs at every ability level, stunning alpine views, some adventurous tree-skiing options and an up-to-date lift system to cover it all. And as you'd expect in one of Europe's better destinations, the on-mountain dining is very good.

Most of the better accommodation is in hotels and there are some high-quality ones (for example, the Zur Tenne) in the heart of the old town. Apartment options are limited.

This is also a convenient destination if some of the party don't ski or board or don't want to be on snow all the time, with Salzburg (80 kilometres north-east) and Innsbruck (90 kilometres south-west) easily accessed by rail from Kitzbuhel.

Closest airport: Munich, 120 kilometres/two hours. See kitzbuehel.com.

St Anton

Arlberg, Austria

Altitude and aspect make the Arlberg a reliable destination for snow cover and the area has more skiing or boarding than you could ride in a season, let alone a holiday, and you can ride it all for about $55 a day, depending on the exchange rate. The area is a collection of villages such as the sophisticated Lech and Zurs, the more homely Steuben and St Christoph and party-central, St Anton.

The groomed and prepared runs of St Anton are good but so are the opportunities for adventure. One of the best-value options anywhere for guided off-piste skiing comes from St Anton's Powder Club - a program that includes safety gear, guiding and instruction for about $140 a day or $350 for six days.

Off the snow, St Anton is famous for its apres-ski, an activity that bubbles along from early afternoon and boils into a kind of Mexican wave of beer and boasting as the sun sinks.

If you want a diversion from that, St Anton has an excellent, large swimming and sauna centre and an appealing, character-filled village for eating, shopping or even just wandering around.

Closest airport: Zurich, about 3½ hours by train. See stantonamarlberg.com.

Niseko

Hokkaido, Japan

The attraction here is snow quality - dry, abundant and enduring powder that is sometimes boot deep, sometimes waist deep and beyond.

Proximity to Australia is another positive. For this reason, Niseko has become popular among Aussies who don't want to fly the extra distance to ski North America and Europe. But if you're put off by skiing alongside so many fellow countrymen and prefer to immerse yourself in another culture during your snow travels, there are still plenty of opportunities to do so if you wander off the beaten track.

Indeed, the Japanese approach to mountain sports and hospitality is something to behold. Try getting a delicious hot lunch for about $8 anywhere else in the skiing world. Try getting a bow from a lift operator.

Niseko's main village, Hirafu, has an ever-growing accommodation mix - hotels, apartments and lodges with varying levels of luxury. Surrounding centres such as Hanazono, Annupuri and Moiwa add to the diversity and for cheap eats and snow gear, Kuchan is a highlight.

Closest airport: Sapporo, New Chitose Airport, about 3½ hours from Niseko.

See niseko.ne.jp.

Jim Darby is the editor of theSKImag.

Blog: Snow It All

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