The Snow Gods aren’t always benevolent in Australia, but after last year’s COVID-curtailed ski season we were due for a little love. That came this week with a polar vortex ripping through the eastern states to dump a substantial amount of the white stuff on the NSW and Victorian Alps. Talk about perfect timing: while the June long weekend is often known for the party as much as the piste, this season starter is set to be one of the better ones in recent memory. Here’s what you can look forward to this winter on both sides of the border.
New South Wales
It’s like Labor v Liberal, Liam v Noel Gallagher and Souths v Roosters all wrapped up into one. When it comes to snow battlelines there’s a pretty firm divide between Perisher and Thredbo, the two heavyweights of the NSW ski industry. Perisher is a microcosm of what European skiers and snowboarders hold dear: interconnected lifts; a varied array of lodges; and generally reliable snow. Thredbo positions itself as more akin to a classy North American resort with a thriving centralised village, long runs and a bespoke feel.
There’s also a third option in Charlotte Pass, a boutique resort that is small in stature but usually plentiful in snow given its location at 1765 metres above sea level.
Thredbo had its biggest new development for decades last year with the opening of the Merritts Gondola, the only one of its kind in Australia. After the limitations of the 2020 season, it’s sure to get a big workout in a friendlier travelling climate. The gondola delivers punters to the bottom of The Cruiser Chair where the best beginner runs are found. It also offers a sneaky chance for advanced skiers and boarders to hit Boundary Riders where nice powder pockets can often be found on the resort flank. Over at Perisher, the terrain is mostly mellower, and there’s some underrated cruising spots around Pleasant Valley but Olympic (when it eventually opens) or Kamikaze on the Blue Cow side should provide a decent rush.
It’s hard to go past the sumptuously appointed Rockpool Lodge in Thredbo but if you can’t get in or cope with the tariff, the mid-range apartments at The Lantern are well positioned and deliver. At Perisher it’s more of a mish-mash but The Stables and Marritz Hotel are old favourites.
Dollars and sense
The Vail-owned Perisher Epic season pass is on sale until June 15 and unquestionably offers the best value in Australian skiing and snowboarding, currently priced at $1049 and valid for use in the Victorian resorts of Falls Creek and Mt Hotham as well as a range of overseas options (travel-permitted). Thredbo’s season passes have already sold out. Day passes are certainly a bit stiffly priced and fall in the range of $139-$195 at both ski areas with various multi-day and early bird discounts.
The main resort rivalry across the border is a little friendlier with Falls Creek and Mt Hotham both under the same ownership. The good news is, like their northern counterparts, they are very different beasts that invariably appeal to different sets. The cute village and ski-in, ski-out vibe of Falls make it a big hit with families who want convenience and a good choice of on-mountain dining. Hotham is a wilder animal. With much of the facilities set at the top of the hill it can be an interesting ride in if the weather is bad; but the pay-off comes with some of the best terrain and conditions in the country. The third part of this equation is Mt Buller. About three hours’ drive from Melbourne, it attracts its share of day-trippers and weekend warriors but is well set up and a great option midweek.
Hotham should be worked like a bowl instead of a hill; you traverse the rim then work out where the crowds aren’t for the best places to ski or snowboard. Invariably spots like The Drift, Mary’s Slide and The Orchard will be quite tasty for strong riders. Falls is a bit more relaxed and beginners are well served by Drover’s Dream while intermediates can find their mojo on Towers or Ruined Castle. Over at Buller there’s surprisingly good terrain for all comers. Summit Slide is usually well groomed if there’s no fresh snow while there’s even some hike-to chutes with serious fall-line skiing.
Falls has some of the best places to rest your head in the Victorian Alps with the QT, Astra and Huski right at the top of the list. At Hotham, it’s hard to go past the apartments of Mountain Dreaming with wicked views and a handy location. Dinner Plain is a great alternative, 11 kilometres away from Mt Hotham but also in the snow and with much more of
a village vibe. The ultra-convenient and well-appointed Breathtaker at Mt Buller is, well, breathtaking.
Dollars and sense
Again, the Epic Pass is hard to go past here. Day pass rates are generally a tickle friendlier than NSW with adult prices between $102-$174 with multi-day and advance discounts. Mt Buller has priced its base adult weekday passes (peak season) at $149 and $176 for the weekend while its season pass is $1699.
Ski resort showdown: NZ vs Oz
It’s the trans-Tasman conundrum that’s reached much the same level of conclusion as the ownership of Phar Lap, Pavlova and Crowded House. Determining whether New Zealand or Australia provides the best bang for your snow dollar is probably more fraught than a night out with Russell Crowe at a Soho Hotel.
At first glance, it’s easy to put the Kiwis in front. The Southern Alps present a better spine than the All Blacks; a creamy mountain range running down the guts of the South Island with 24 3,000 metre peaks that dwarf anything in Australia. There are 23 resorts including a range of club fields; most neutrals would agree that the terrain is better; lift ticket prices are invariably lower and the dollar exchange is almost always friendlier across the ditch. Throw in the only full-size halfpipe in the southern hemisphere at Cardrona; heli-skiing and the opportunity to have an overseas holiday at the same time and you’ve created a rather irresistible package.
Yet all isn’t completely as it seems in this particular mountain melee. Australia’s resort facilities are hands down better. Typically Kiwi resorts have only a handful of lifts; the likes of Perisher has 47 while the accoutrements of restaurants, bars and general service are far superior on the main island. There is virtually no on-snow accommodation in New Zealand; making that dreamy mountainside week just that – a dream. Snow can vary between the countries but don’t bank on the Kiwis always having an edge here either.
For a large number of Aussies, the trip to the closest ski field is less than five hours’ drive away and a decision can be made to go on a relative whim if the conditions are good. Then there’s the Snow Gums. While some see Australia’s woody alpine treasures as just something to run into more than ride around, they provide an important line of sight that’s missing in NZ’s above-the-treeline resorts. Closures across the ditch are far more prevalent for this very reason.
Ultimately you’ll have to stack up what’s more important to you before making a decision, bearing in mind that if Neil Finn’s right, you’ll probably be taking the weather with you no matter where you go.