Kate Cox strikes it lucky weather-wise (for a change), enjoying superb conditions for a women-only ski program at Mount Hotham.
Chest-deep powder. All lifts open. Fairytale season. They're hyperbolic descriptions not normally associated with Australian ski resorts, nor with my snow holiday luck in general; I always seem to pick the worst week of the season, wherever the country. Yet here we are, atop Mount Hotham, with piles of beautiful fluffy snow all around.
Unlike the largely horrible Aussie season last year, this one is off to a brilliant start. Mount Hotham has broken the opening-season record - from no snow cover to all 13 lifts open in just one week. And what a difference in atmosphere. A guy I meet on the chairlift works at one of the ski stores, and says not only is he selling more (for obvious reasons), but people are so happy they are buying the best gear.
I'm here to sample the resort's women's program - a three to five-day female-only ski course designed by women for women.
Specialty women's travel is a growing area - there are even female-only archaeological digs and safaris, alongside the more-established shopping trips, surf and yoga tours, health escapes and more. And women's weeks - featuring tailored courses, rates and even guests - are increasingly popular on skifields in Australia and the world.
For me, after many years of more generic ski lessons, the specialised coaching (from women instructors) is a revelation. Not only do women think and learn differently, our bodies are not built the same as men. There's a great campaign now doing the rounds, questioning the use of the term "like a girl" to describe an action that's weak or silly. I was reminded of this talking to instructor Heidi Ettlinger. "All of the tips you might generically use for men and women may not be true, as women are not small men," she says.
Our centre of gravity is lower and further back, so we ski differently (we're more likely to sit back on the skis and we need more force to get the same response as men when turning), but that doesn't mean not as well.
The instructors check out our gear (generally designed for men) and advise on technique, on dry land and snow, with some coaches filming runs.
Lessons range from overcoming your fear, to how to wax your skis, to tips for ageing athletes ("It's a downhill sliding sport!" says Heidi. "Gravity is on your side!")
Although this program is designed for intermediate skiers and above, insights are implemented across the ski school - Heidi tells me that the most common first-time skier is a female aged between 36 and 42. The program has been running for six years, and it is more friendly and supportive than any "normal" classes I've experienced.
What this means is there are more ski-pals to partake in apres-ski. Hotham doesn't have the same groovy village vibe of nearby Falls Creek - which featured funky pop-up bars and spontaneous saxophonist laneway activity when I visited last year. But it's improving, especially for foodies over a weekend, we experienced some wonderful food.
My pick, The White Room, has an innovative modern-Australian/European fine-dining menu - a mix of moreish tasting plates and mains such as slow-roasted lamb shoulder and wombok slaw.
In nearby Dinner Plain, Sola Copa Tapas and Wine Bar is a cool and cosy fusion restaurant with small bar with its own mixologist - make sure you order the espresso martinis.
The degustation - a mix of South American and Mediterranean - is excellent value, delicious, fun and varied, and didn't stop until we called time. (One wonders how long they would have let us push on; lucky the super-friendly owner, Laurel, offers a free transfer back to Hotham, as we could barely walk.) Nearby is Tsubo, which has a great reputation for mouth-watering modern Japanese - and there's something special about sake in the snow.
It's fair to say men still vastly outnumbered women everywhere we went, from the chairlifts to the bars. But it's fantastic to see a resort making an effort to attract and empower females - and I'm thrilled to gain so many new skills in such a short time.
The writer visited Mount Hotham with the assistance of Hotham Ski Lifts.
SISTERS ON THE SLOPE
The Chicks with Stix (August 17) competition is coming to Hotham for a Throwdown event. This is an entry level event to give female skiers and snowboarders a taste of what it is like to compete in a freeride competition. See chickswithstix.com.au; mthotham.com.au.
A few of the hotels have small spas but your best option is to go to one of the big ones for a truly beautiful massage, facial or customised treatment. The Onsen Retreat and Spa in Dinner Plain has a Japanese-inspired outdoor onsen and an indoor heated pool, plus fitness classes. White Spa is right in Hotham Central and is a completely tranquil escape from the hustle bustle of the slopes (and the cold).
Ride in a comfortable, heated, purpose built cabin on the back of a snow grooming machine (Kassbohrer) to the summit of Mount Hotham. Way up there - 1861 metres above sea level - it's a phenomenal view, and with all that white, the sunset is tear-jerking. Nibbles, wine and beer add to this perfect bonding experience (but it's often cancelled in all this snow). The cost is $55 ($20 for under-18s).
For a truly rock star experience, take the six-minute helicopter ride from Hotham to Falls Creek for a ski. Flights depart in the morning and return four hours later. The cost is $170 an adult return (lift ticket not included, $140 a child return).
The General Store is family-friendly and a good place to meet the locals and have a boogie; you're also likely to bump into them at Swindlers where there is regular live music and cheap food deals. To get away from the crowds, try the Last Run Bar and for sophisticated cocktails, head to the White Room.
Mount Hotham is a seven-hour drive from Sydney (just a couple of extra hours from the NSW resorts). There are plenty of daily one-hour QantasLink, Rex and Virgin flights from Sydney to Albury; from there, it's a two-hour drive/shuttle to Mount Hotham.
Schnapps Apartments, which, like the central Zirky's Apartments, is run by Hotham Holidays, has spectacular views and is a five-minute walk from the main chair lifts. A glamorous option is Arlberg Mt Hotham Snow Resort, which has a pool and spa. There's also the family-friendly, European-style village vibe of Dinner Plain, a 10-minute drive from Mount Hotham (with regular transfers available). Packages bundle accommodation, ski hire, lessons and lift passes ($60 child, $116 adult for one day, deals available). Phone 1800468426, see mthotham.com.au.
SEE + DO
Hotham Women's Ski Week, for intermediate or above, runs from July 28 to August 1. It costs $799 for five days and $499 for three days (lift ticket additional). That includes six hours a day of instruction, fitness and Pilates, a welcome breakfast and lunch, and a massage.
mthotham.com.au; hothamholidays.com.au; visitvictoria.com.