Taking a peak

Not fond of the summer heat? The northern hemisphere is brimming with superb ski resorts, magnificent slopes and great prices, writes Susannah Petty.

North of the equator it's an entirely different story. Skip over to the US, Canada, central or eastern Europe this northern winter with skis or board in hand and you'll be spoilt for choice.

By far the majority of resorts can afford to boast excellent and consistent snow plus a wide range of runs. They all have stunning scenery, are within easy reach of a major capital city, and many have child-friendly facilities.

Where the resorts differ from each other is in their broader offerings. The bulk of resorts are built upon far more than the simple prospect of scooting down a hill.

Whether it be shopping, partying, family holidaying, extreme skiing or just cultural oddity that you're after, the northern snow resorts can deliver a much more rounded holiday than you might expect. And you have a good five months from now to sample the range.

The only trick is knowing where to start the search.

Big white,Canada
Powder hounds will rave to you about Big White's fluffy stuff.

Intermediates love the meticulously groomed gentle slopes. But it's with young families that Big White strikes one of its strongest chords. Team the renowned Canadian friendliness with a smartly run children's program and you have what the resort boasts is one of the top five rated kids' centres in the skiing world. Not only can you happily deposit your small charge for the day and be confident of a smile upon return, but the resort also offers a range of activities for the family unit - sleigh rides, movie nights, bingo, a massive tubing park, kids' snowmobile track and bonfire nights big enough to test the mettle of the most determined marshmallow toaster. And if tiny fingers and toes tire of snow the town of Kelowna - dubbed last year as a Canadian cultural capital - is just a 40-minute drive down the mountain.

There's one more sweetener: price. Fly this northern winter from select spots in the US and you can hook into Big White's "Kids Fly, Ski and Stay Free" program.

A six-day adult ski pass costs $336.


La Grave, France
Expert skiers and boarders only read on. The epitome of fear for the average snow-sport participant, La Grave is one of the must-do destinations for those who know their edges from their sidewalls. Set in the Hautes Alps region on the Italian boarder, the resort is relatively easy to find by car but tough to conquer on skis. Tellingly, there is only one marked run and just two key lifts; hop off at the top and you're immediately in unpatrolled territory. Other facts to raise the pulse: grooming doesn't exist; avalanche peeps are as essential as your thermals; the longest uninterrupted vertical drop is 2150 metres; La Meije mountain (which delivers most of the runs) was the last major European peak to be conquered by mountaineers. Should you find yourself base-bound while friends explore the heights, the 12th-century town itself is a charming discovery and will keep your camera snapping. Still, the total pool of bars and restaurants is tiny and really only dynamic enough to keep the exhausted skier/boarder sated.

A six-day adult ski pass costs $252.

St Anton, Austria
As an aside it's worth mentioning that St Anton, in Tirol Austria, is commonly ranked among the world's top 10 technical skiing destinations. Its mountain is huge, its terrain diverse, and intermediates-to-experts will find plenty of opportunity for stretching the limits. Yet what St Anton is perhaps more famous for is its apres ski - and here we're talking number one international contention. Developed practically around the dawn of skiing itself, the resort has had plenty of time to expand its services and you'll find everything from world-class hotels to family-run pensiones, ultra-hip bars, tea houses, Asian restaurants and more traditional Austrian-style beer houses than you can poke a wobbly finger at. Some of the favourites include The Krazy Kangaruh (wild and multinational), The Sennhutte (table dancing to accordions) and The Mooserwirt (likely Austria's single greatest mover of beer), and that's just for on-piste activity. In the town itself you can stagger from a shot of Turbo Rum Death at Scotty's to a quiet late night drink at Stanton, with a dip into the disco at Bar Cuba en route. Even if you stay for a week you can be virtually guaranteed there'll be more fresh tracks to carve both on the slopes and off.

A six-day adult ski pass costs $302.

Livigno, Italy
Ah, Italy. Just because you're headed for the hills don't make the mistake of leaving little room for shopping. Livigno is a rare breed among winter resorts: not only is the skiing considered cheap by European standards but the prices in the town centre draw even non-skiers to the fold. Due partly to its isolated position at 1800 metres (the top of most Australian ski resorts) Livigno's valley floor was, long ago, considered too tough to police and designated a tax-free zone. Although now more accessible by modern carriage the town still lies a few hours' drive from the airport at Milan. But for dedicated shoppers the bargains are worth it. Set in one long line, the shops run to 12 kilometres in total and offer deals on everything from fashion to electronics, alcohol and cosmetics. A top-shelf litre of Vodka will set you back only $10, leaving plenty of room for a decadent Italian lunch and perhaps a skip over to the hot springs at Bormio (15 minutes by car), once frequented by Leonardo da Vinci. And if all this doesn't grab you there's also ice climbing, ice driving, bowling and paragliding to keep you entertained. Or simply do as the Italians do: sit back, strip down and soak up the sun.

A six-day adult ski pass costs $260.

Taos, United States
Tucked into the southern foot of the Rockies a few hours' drive from the skiing mecca of Colorado, Taos, New Mexico, is an easy resort to miss.

And that's just the way its devotees want to keep it. This is a destination favoured for its mix of extreme and intermediate slopes, its ancient Native American flavour and the fact that only 4800 people are permitted on the mountain at once. Oh, and no snowboarders allowed. Taos is a skiers-only mountain, which makes things a little more relaxed for first-timers.

The town of Taos, less than half-an-hour's drive from the slopes, is also extremely peaceful thanks largely to the influence of the native Pueblos who still inhabit a local reserve. This alone is worth the journey to Taos as the community has held the same site for the past 1000 years and the area has World Heritage status. Another drawcard is the fact that the town was founded by Spaniards in 1590 - the same people behind the construction of the local San Francisco De Asis, one of the most photographed churches in the world. Leave some energy also to inspect the offerings of the Taos artists. Their Spanish-style jewellery in particular will far
outweigh the purchase of yet another keepsake beanie.

A six-day adult ski pass costs $344.

Dolomites, Italy
Legend has it that the Dolomite mountains on Italy's Austrian border were once black. Their unique white hue was added only after a prince married a moon princess and had the moon's light spun into a web to cover the rocks. Scientists, on the other hand, maintain that the light-coloured range is an old coral reef, once covered by more than 3000 metres of water.

Whichever story you back there is no denying that the Dolomites is one of the world's most visually captivating and skiable alpine regions. The Sella Ronda massif is the most popular destination, mainly for the fact that it holds just about the largest grouping of resorts you're ever likely to find, linked by the ever-helpful Italians under a single Dolomiti Superski Pass.

The pass covers you for 450 lifts serving 1220 kilometres of slopes and 12 resorts including Cortina (Italy's toast to skiing, landscape and culinary excellence), Val di Fassa (dare we say some of the most stunning scenery in Europe) and Arabba (a heli-skiing wonderland). Set aside a day if you're up to the 25-kilometre circuit. But remember, lifts shut at five and Italian apres ski waits for no one.

A six-day adult superski pass costs $257.

Lake Tahoe, United States
Think Elvis on snow and you have Lake Tahoe. Few places but America could boast a ski area where you can scoot down the slopes in the day, get hitched in the afternoon and gamble through the night till your legs or wallet give way. While Aspen, Colorado, still hauls in America's biggest skier crowd, Tahoe in northern California is undoubtedly one of the country's more fascinating alpine regions. Fifteen resorts rim the massive Lake Tahoe itself which, at a depth of about 500 metres, could cover the entire state of California. Heavenly is by far the largest operation and, with a foot in both California and Nevada, the best scenic jaw-dropper. What the mountain lacks for experts in extreme terrain it makes up for with generous corduroy runs that snake across the state line and drop away to dramatic sights of an arid floor on one side and water on the other. The spread of casinos and high fashion retail ( $A32,000 for a fur coat) at the base of the slopes make the night life equally glitzy. Further around the lake is Reno, the spot into which the high-flyers jet.

A six-day adult ski pass at Heavenly costs $405.

Polana Brasov, Romania
Few places can offer such a unique and inexpensive skiing holiday as the former communist stronghold of Romania. Poiana Brasov in Transylvania's Carpathian Mountains, near the home of Dracula, is the most known of Romania's resorts and the most developed. Don't be lulled, however, into visions of a typical European ski resort - Poiana Brasov is still basic to the point that lift queues often become wrestling matches and ski patrol takes more interest in coffee sampling than rescues. Most of the runs favour beginners, although what there is of the steep stuff will test the skills of advanced skiers/boarders. If the pulse is still slumbering try the tobogganing, best described as an eastern European equivalent to Spain's bull runs. Suffice to say bring a helmet. A short bus ride from the resort is Brasov, a charming medieval town where you'll get a truer sense of Romania's shy but resilient culture. Food, alcohol and clothing are all super cheap ($10 for a three-course meal and $1 for a 500ml bottle of Stella Artois beer) and local hospitality is warm, if still a little shell-shocked. It's worth taking the trip to the nearby Dracula's castle. Dracula's namesake, Vlad the Impaler, is long gone but the spooky rooms and freezing temperatures (sometimes as low as minus 22 degrees) will leave you shaking.

A six-day adult ski pass costs about $95.

Niseko, Japan
More than most other ski areas in the world, snow is Niseko's speciality. Perched on the western edge of Japan's north island Hokkaido, Niseko catches the full brunt of the remnant Siberian desert storms. Add moisture from the Sea of Japan and you have some of the best chairlift-serviced powder on the planet. Even better, because of its tucked away position and multiple resorts (including Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annapuri), the Niseko mountains attract relatively few crowds. And because it's the Japanese way, most of the locals who do ski/snowboard in the region tend to be helpful, considerate and polite, and that includes the snowboarders.

While Hirafu, the largest of the resorts, is mostly known for its free riding terrain, beginner and intermediate skiers will be equally happy with the wide, groomed slopes that seem to run forever. A multiple lift ticket will get you access to each of the resorts, including the smaller Niseko Hanazono now headed up by Colin Hackworth, former chief of Australia's Mount Hotham and Falls Creek resorts. If you can save the pennies over Christmas it's worth swinging a trip in February to take in the Snow Festival at nearby Sapporo. A big plus is it's just two hours behind our east-coast time zone and a 10-hour flight away.

A six-day adult multipass costs $1568.