I WANT BIG MOUNTAIN VIEWS
At 1765 metres, the Hotham ridge-top village is on a snowy perch around about the altitude skiers and boarders on most other Australian mountains would be halfway down their favourite run. It's a quirk of history that put Hotham's village near the top, with ski pioneers settling alongside the access trail that had been followed by miners, cattle thieves and other colourful adventurers in the 19th century. When tourism kicked in and snow sports hit the horizon, the first shelters were built by the road, and they just kept on building them there.
There are numerous advantages in the location, such as spectacular views and straight-to-the-slopes access for much of the accommodation. There's also nothing quite like being sheltered inside while there's a blizzard raging outside. That last virtue can be a vice though – walking around the Hotham village can seem like an exercise in polar endurance and because it comes in so much higher, the access road can be a challenge, particularly when visibility is low and the snow is falling. There are alternatives with shuttle services from Harrietville to let somebody else do the driving, or access from the eastern, or Gippsland, side of the mountain, a longer drive to be sure, but on far less weather-affected roads.
I WANT TO TRY CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING
This is one of the best places for it, with a network of trails tucked in among the snow gums and a free village shuttle service that comes in handy to get to the trailheads. Once you're in the swing of it, cruising along on lightweight cross-country gear is a bit like jogging with reduced gravity. The trails are groomed and free to use and there are networks and loops at Hotham and at Dinner Plain as well as a cruisy, 12-kilometre marked trail connecting the two areas. If you use the Dinner Plain shuttle, there is a charge and a smart card system to get on board (be warned, you can't buy the card on the bus, which can be semi-infuriating for casual users). See visitdinnerplain.com.au
I WANT TO LEARN TO SKI (OR BOARD)
Thanks to a rigid training and assessment program, Australian snow sports instructors rate among the world's best and those that teach at Hotham are no exception. They can work with any breed (cross-country, snowboard, ski, telemark) and any ability level and you get to skip the lift lines. Group lessons are a good value option (starting at $71 for 2½ hours) but for more personal attention, try a private lesson (starting at $150 for an hour, up to $775 for a full day). In a private lesson, the instructor can work on your specific needs: having trouble with your pole plant? They'll fix it. Want hints on reading the terrain and adapting your turns to suit? They're on it. See mthotham.com.au/lessons-hire
I'D LIKE TO EXPLORE THE BACKCOUNTRY
This is one of the fastest-growing snow sports segments; touring with alpine equipment just beyond or even beside the resort boundaries. Hotham has some of the best terrain around for the pursuit and the resort offers guided, all-day backcountry tours at introductory or advanced levels (starting at $249). Gear hire is also available for skiers and snowboarders. This coming spring (the weekend of September 7 and 8) there's a backcountry festival at the resort, with tours and workshops – many of them free – covering all things backcountry. See mthotham.com.au
I WANT TO BEAT THE CROWDS
Then the way to do this is to go against the flow. When snow cover and weather permit, Hotham opens its Heavenly Valley lift early, from 7.30am, Wednesday to Sunday. That means up to three hours of mostly queue-free skiing and when the crowds start building, move further out, to the Gotcha lift and the Orchard area. Take your brunch break at about 11.30am at the Bird, near the bottom of the summit lift, and you'll get a table ahead of the lunch crowds who'll start rolling in after noon. Head back out at 12.30pm and, with the rest of the mountain still at lunch, you should have good lift access until 2pm, when it's time to spread out again. If all lifts are open another option is to make Blue Ribbon part of your itinerary; entertaining terrain and often a quieter queue.
I WANT TO GO TO THE SPA
One thing people who travel for the snow appreciate is the restorative value of a long, hot soak after a day on the mountain. The Onsen Retreat and Spa at Dinner Plain has an outdoor pool heated to 40 degrees for the soaking and a menu of treatments in the spa, such as an after-ski massage to bring your body back from its day of physical punishment. Choose your scent and essential massage oils, have a work-over front and back, spend 10 minutes under the blanket completely zoned-out, then take a herbal tea in the lounge as you work your way back into the world. See hepburnataltitude.com.au
I'D LIKE TO TRY SOME GREAT FOOD
On-mountain, there's a humble hut on the side of Heavenly Valley's Black Snake run that is probably the best-located lunch spot in the Australian skifields. The Joyce Brockhoff Hut has been revived as the Hoff Hut, serving coffee, wine from the Alpine Valleys as well as hot soup, crusty bread and quiches from a local baker. Miss Mary's, downstairs at Hotham Central, has Asian fusion style food – excellent dumplings and fried chicken, along with curries and slow-cooked beef and the cocktails are also very good (see missmarys.com.au). The Bird, the bar and restaurant at the Snowbird Inn, has the best breakfast on the mountain and is a good lunch spot.
I WANT SOME SERIOUS TERRAIN
Welcome to Hotham, in the mix of Australian snow fields, this is the one for you. Big, bold slopes above the treeline descend into spurs that lock like fingers in a monkey grip as the valley tightens. The skiers and boarders who know the mountain well – and there are plenty of them – ride the terrain with the same understanding as surfers at a local break, carving this slope or that spur, this gully or that ridge, according to how the snow has fallen and the direction from which it was delivered. The Extreme Zone beneath the Gotcha and Keogh's lifts has some of Australia's steepest terrain; very rewarding for those who like that particular challenge.
I WANT THE FACTS
Mount Hotham is in north-east Victoria, about 360 kilometres from Melbourne or 700 kilometres from Sydney along the Hume Highway and Great Alpine Road through Harrietville. An alternative is to approach from the eastern or Gippsland side via Omeo. It adds more than an hour to the drive from Melbourne, but is a good option if a winter blizzard looks like closing the approach from Harrietville.
Alpine and sub-alpine with temperatures consistently below freezing in winter. The storms bringing fresh powder snow tend to roll through from mid-July to the end of August. September is actually the best month for snow depth but as spring unfolds, warmer days mean the snow will soften sooner. Summer brings clear days and crisp nights.
Eclectic, ranging from the rustic, timber, tin and stone style of Dinner Plain village and the Hotham Heights chalets to a mix of low-rise, utilitarian club lodges for basic shelter through to ugly eyesores like the Arlberg apartment complex.
Self-catering is the best option and there is vast choice between Hotham and Dinner Plain, from studio apartments right through to five-bedroom chalets. For the best value, club lodges offer beds and facilities to non-members, starting at about $75 a night in peak season. See mthothamaccommodation.com.au
Prices fall midweek and also later in the season, with savings of up to 40 per cent in spring and September is often the best for snow cover. For packages, see hothamholidays.com.au
Jim Darby was a guest of the Mount Hotham Skiing Company