Ski resorts guide: big guns come out to play

Flip Byrnes previews the best 'cold spots' in our alpine resorts.

In a good year, it's hard to beat local fields. However, like a tricky partner, they can be unpredictable, fickle and unfaithful - one year dumping lovely, frosty flakes; the next you're simply dumped, forlornly chasing snow-melt puddles in the car park while other people say: "You should have been here yesterday."

However, when they do deliver the goods, as they did on some epic powder days last year, you remember why you fell in love and want to come back for more. No matter how you like your powder - steep and deep, as a canvas for your ski boots on the way home from a nightclub or framed by a picture window with a roaring log fire - the local fields have a place where you'll score your perfect hit.

NSW - Perisher

If you go to Perisher Blue this year, you won't find it. The resort itself will be there, all 1245 hectares of it, large enough to swallow all the Victorian resorts without burping. But Perisher has always had a problem. Great personality, terrible name. When Perisher, Blue Cow, Guthega and Smiggins Holes amalgamated into the Mac-daddy resort of Perisher Blue, it was a mouthful, a bit like the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. So like Madonna, Britney or J.Lo, it's going for a one-moniker, back-to-basics, all-round name - Perisher.

Why you'd go: Perisher is at the end of a three-year, $19 million snow-making project. They'll need someone to arm and aim the 271 snow guns, enough to invade Thredbo. Anyone else who fancies a choice of seven peaks and 49 lifts should go, too.

What's new: New name, new guns, new magic carpet, new groomers, Thursday fireworks - Perisher has it going on.

What to avoid: The killer inter-resort traverses for snowboarders. Study the map and go hard on the flats.

Who you'll find: The Australian snowboard team and baggy-panted yo-bro-pros in the terrain parks. Weekend warriors in borrowed ski gear.

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Best bar: Base 1720 in the Perisher Manor for cocktails; Brunelli's for coffee.

Best bite: Curry'd Away (takeaway), Aldo's and Crackenback Cottage on the way to Jindabyne.

Best secret: North Perisher T-Bar on a powder day and the Burning Log at Guthega Pub on any day.

Thredbo

If size matters, then you'll like Thredbo's vertical as much as Perisher's diversity. It's 672 metres, almost twice as much as other resorts, which shall remain nameless (OK, Falls Creek, at 380m), with a thigh-burning 5.9-kilometre Karels T-Bar to Friday Flat in peak season.

Thredbo is the place for a full-body workout - punishing the quads by day and the calves by night as they struggle to moon walk in ski boots at the Keller. A cosy village atmosphere, a cosmopolitan dining scene and familiar Sydney faces make this one a winner.

Why you'd go: To get some northern hemisphere-style vertical. To see, be seen and check the scene.

What's new: Thredbo Sports has spent $400,000 on new rental threads and planks. Snowgoose and New Kirk Lodge have been overhauled and if you're after a mountain pied-a-terre, you should move fast; in the calendar year to December 2008, about $25 million in property changed hands. As the snow gun wars continue, Thredbo has extended its arsenal, which now covers 70 hectares, the largest in the southern hemisphere.

The frustration: Waiting for peak season for the mountain to realise its full potential.

Best bar: Bernti's Bar with Tapas.

Best bite: Merritts Mountain House - the bistro or private dining room. Off-mountain - Bernti's.

Who you'll find: According to data from the 2001 Census, a lot of wealthy single men are in Thredbo in August. Go hunt if you can keep up.

Best secret: Riding Golf Course Bowl on a powder day and World Cup dropping into Little Beauty - you can still get fresh-groomed after lunch.

Charlotte Pass

There is nowhere quite like it. Nestled against Mount Kosciusko at 1750 metres, this is where to go if you want to get lost. Arriving is an adventure, taking a 45-minute snow cat to the snow-bound village with no roads, 12 lodges and the stunning 1938-era Kosciusko Chalet Hotel.

Why you'd go: With only 607 beds, you're on a first-name basis with the entire valley. Families love the five lifts and 50 hectares - the children are always in sight. At the extreme end, Charlotte Pass is an ideal jumping-off pad for thrilling back-country adventure.

What's new: Kids' play park and a terrain park.

Weakness: There is limited terrain but if you are with children or want to dive into the Australian Alps, it's ideal.

Best bar: One of the two in the Kosciusko Chalet; the Cellar Bar or the Charlotte Adams Cocktail Bar.

Best bite: The Kosciusko Chalet Hotel Restaurant features local produce, or if at a lodge, hop in the kitchen and help peel spuds.

Best secret: The back-country tours around Mt Stillwell, the $90 day trip from Perisher, including oversnow transport, lift pass and hot lunch.

Victoria - Mount Buller

If you like to travel, ditch New Zealand and South American ski fields and hop on a cheap flight to the Victorian fields. Not only will you have a change of pace and face, this is the year to help put our Victorian mates back on top after a horror summer of fires and loss.

Mt Buller is three hours from Melbourne - you could go there on a whim. Lunch in Toorak. Dinner in Buller. It's part of the city, on ice for five months a year. The terrain parks are some of the best in Australia and are the training grounds of X-Games Slopestyle gold medallist Anna Segal.

Why you'd go: To play by night and day and to catch the weirdest snow event (the 90 snowballs-a-side Japanese snowball battle, the Australian Yukigassen Championships, September 12).

What's new: The Banff Mountain Film Festival comes to town on June 27; $1 million has been spent on lift upgrades and Buller Ski Lifts is the first Australian company to get international certification for environmental management.

Weakness: It can be crowded on the weekends.

Best bar: Apres in the chalet at the Heineken Ice Bar or sing That's Amore as the Kooroora Hotel closes at 3am.

Best bite: Schnitzel in Hotel Pension Grimus or Abom pizza.

Who you'll find: Fashionable Melburnians in next year's gear. Freeskiers in one of the three terrain parks.

Best secret: Stashes of fresh snow between the trees in the Wombat Bowl.

Mount Hotham

At 1750 metres, Mt Hotham will leave you breathless. It's not Aconcagua but being perched on a hilltop rather than in a valley means you start each day sliding down a mountain instead of riding a lift and you get to watch your mates in a far-off powder glade.

Why you'd go: The view, the scenery, the town and, for off-piste seekers, there's always a steep adventure to be found within a short hike. They don't call it the "powder capital" for nothing.

What's new: Snow fell for about an hour from 7am on March 5, when the temperature fell below zero. It augurs well for the season.

Weakness: While 80 per cent of the 320-hectare terrain is marked intermediate and advanced, intermediates can be left high (there are great beginners' slopes on top but not intermediate) or dry (after they have sweated bullets looking at the steep terrain elsewhere, such as Mary's Slide and The Chute).

Best bar: Swindlers; Dinner Plain - Cilantro.

Best bite: The White Room for something special; The General for casual.

Who you'll find: Andrea Binning, world extreme-ski champion, Melbourne powder hounds and Sydneysiders who fly.

Best secret: Untracked powder on Golden Point several days after a storm.

Falls Creek

The quiet achiever. Less crowded, with a European-style village, ski-in, ski-out accommodation and friendly staff all make this resort an under-the-radar winner.

Why you'd go: To be charmed. Falls Creek is a snow-bound winter wonderland of winding lanes shrouded by snow-laiden snowgums. Plus there's the heli-link to Mt Hotham.

Weakness: The best terrain is north facing and the lower slopes can have trouble holding snow in warm seasons; short runs on the south side.

Best bar: Astra, be pickled in more than 90 varieties of vodka. Any bar after the Oakley Stylewars event.

Best bite: The Japanese-Australian menu at Silverski, or BLT and coffee at Huski.

Who you'll find: The locals from the stunning satellite town of Mt Beauty, who like to keep Falls their hidden treasure.

Best secret: Mt McKay cat skiing offers long, steep runs on almost all aspects and Dark Side can have pristine powder until late in the day. Plus, of course, the heli-link to Mt Hotham.

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