Skiing in Australia: Thredbo, Perisher, Falls Creek, Hotham, Mt Buller for beginners and experts

Get into the snow spirit of things this winter. Picture: Perisher
Get into the snow spirit of things this winter. Picture: Perisher

"Is there snow in Australia?"

If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked that (particularly in the US), I'd give this gig away and become a full-time ski bum.

"Can you ski in Australia, or do you have to go to New Zealand?"

There's another question that could make me rich. Yes, you can. No, you don't.

We have bigger ski resorts than New Zealand (our largest ski resort, Perisher Alpine Resort, is over twice the size of their biggest, Whakapapa). In fact, Australia has more area covered in snow than Switzerland.

While our mountains aren't exactly on the scale of the European Alps, Australia's skiing kudos should receive more worldwide attention. After all: where else on earth can you ski between gum trees with kangaroos passing by?

And because the Australian ski fields were primarily set up by homesick Austrians (many of whom worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in the 1950s and '60s), Australia's ski fields combine the old-world charm of the best European ski resorts, with the rustic new-world feel of Australia.

There are five major ski resorts in Australia: and every single of them offers beginner skiers a long list of bona fide reasons to visit.

Where you choose to go comes down to what kind of ski holiday you prefer, and how far you're prepared to travel.

Thredbo Alpine Resort (about 500 kilometres south-west of Sydney) is considered Australia's best all-round ski destination. It's set around a chic European-style ski village that's brimming with après-ski bars and restaurants and non-ski activities (so skiers have the best variety of options when they're done with the slopes). But while the village offers a non-stop party atmosphere - and plenty of family options, too - it's not at the expense of the skiing.

Thredbo has the longest vertical drop of any Australian ski resort, with Australia's longest ski run (the Supertrail). Beginners are well catered for at Friday Flat, but once you've got your turns worked out, there's over 50 runs to choose from, most of which are graded intermediate.

There's many accommodation options (though be warned: none are particularly cheap) at Thredbo right beside the slopes and village - making it convenient for beginner skiers who won't have to walk far in cumbersome ski boots. All bars, restaurants and cafes are situated just beside the chairlifts.

New South Wales' other major ski field, Perisher Alpine Resort, is the Southern Hemisphere's largest ski resort - it's the closest we have to the mega-resorts of Europe and the US.

There are four resort areas inter-connected by chairlifts. It's more than double the size of nearby Thredbo - with 47 chairlifts and 1245 hectares of skiable terrain. Beginners are well catered for here - areas of the resort, including Smiggin Holes and Blue Cow, have wide, gently sloping terrain ideal for total novices.

And it's easy to get to - while there's limited accommodation options within the resort, you can ride the only alpine railway in Australia (the Skitube), 20 kilometres outside the town of Jindabyne on the road to Thredbo. You won't need chains for your car either as the station is below the snow line.

For an added bonus, on the way back to Jindy, stop in at the Wildbrumby distillery and celebrate your success on the slopes with a schnapps. Jindabyne is the largest ski town in the Snowy Mountains, and home to a stack of budget, family-friendly hotels, motels and lodges.

The hot chocolate at Perisher's Snow Gums is delicious. Picture: Destination NSW

The hot chocolate at Perisher's Snow Gums is delicious. Picture: Destination NSW

The slopes at Perisher aren't as steep as the other Australian ski resorts, so it's great for beginners to intermediates (67 per cent of the mountain is graded intermediate terrain). And if you feel confident after your lessons, Perisher has seven terrain parks, including a super half-pipe (whose walls are almost seven metres high). But be warned, it gets crowded at Perisher... especially during school holidays.

If you're looking for the quintessential ski resort village - like the ones you've seen in the movies - Falls Creek Alpine Resort (in Victoria's north-east, 385 kilometres from Melbourne) is your destination.

Walk or ski on trails cut through an alpine village where no vehicles can venture (except the snowcats which take you from the outside car park to your on-snow accommodation).

At Falls Creek you can walk right across the snow to an impressive collection of bars and restaurants and right out to the ski slopes, and because a lot of the resort is relatively flat, it suits beginners.

About 20 per cent of the mountain is designated beginner terrain, and the area around Wombats Ramble has to be some of Australia's prettiest beginner slopes.

Though there's a lively night scene for couples and singles, the mountain is very popular with families, offering ski school programs for kids aged three and up, regular children's ski events and activities.

Mount Hotham

Mount Hotham

Though you can almost see it from Falls Creek, Hotham Alpine Resort is a two-hour drive away along roads that wind through some of the most stunning alpine scenery you'll find in Australia. Hotham, 375 kilometres from Melbourne, is the best resort in Australia for expert skiers. It's where you should come on fresh snow mornings - the backcountry here is world-renowned and very easy to access.

Hotham is the only resort in Australia whose slopes are below its resort, so all you need to do is strap into your skis or snowboard outside your lodge and ride down - but this is something beginners would be best to avoid.

Hotham has separate beginner terrain at the summit of the resort that's above all other runs, providing a haven from the experts on their way to the backcountry.

Hotham also has plenty of off-piste activities: take a snowmobile into the wilderness and sleep overnight in an igloo village, or bathe in a Japanese-style onsen at alpine village Dinner Plain, which was built two decades ago. Hotham and Dinner Plain have some of the most impressive dining options of anywhere in the Australasian alpine region.

For convenience, however, nothing comes close to Mt Buller Alpine Resort. It's located just three hours' drive from Melbourne's CBD, so close in fact that its beginner area - Bourke Street - is named after Melbourne's most famous inner-city roadway (in school holidays, be warned, it can get just as crowded).

Mt Buller also has the largest village of all the Australian ski fields, with more of the conveniences of a city than any other resort. Though that's hardly where its appeal ends.

Mt Buller has to be one of the most picturesque villages of the Antipodes - Austrian immigrants created this resort in the early '60s and pioneers such as the late Hans Grimus put their very own Tyrolean marks on the place.

Enjoy a late-night schnapps at Grimus' iconic lodge and bar/restaurant, Pension Grimus (the most famous Austrian restaurant outside Austria!), or join the locals for coffee with a heck of a view at Koflers Hutte.

Though Mt Buller is the kind of ski resort beginners might quite easily bypass learning to ski in favour of après-ski bars and day spas, you'll find some of Australia's best ski instructors here (many hail from Europe) and there are programs for every kind of skier (aged from three years old).

The slopes and snow conditions in Australia aren't on the same level as what you would find in North America or Japan since we receive less snow, and our mountains aren't as steep, or high.

But there something quintessentially Australian about learning to ski where ski patrollers occasionally stop skiers to escort a wombat across the run you're on, and kangaroos and emus graze along the side of the road on your drive to the slopes.

When: The resorts usually open in June and stay open to early October depending on snow falls.

Drive: The NSW ski fields are a six-hour drive from Sydney; or a 2.5-hour from Canberra. Hotham and Falls Creek are a 4.5-hour drive from Melbourne; Mt Buller is three hours.

Fly/drive: For the NSW ski fields, fly Rex to Cooma, then take a transfer. From outside NSW, you'll need to fly into Canberra. For Hotham and Falls Creek, fly to Albury with Rex, QantasLink or Virgin and it's a two-hour drive.

Bus: Buses service all resorts. See each ski resorts website for all options.

First-timers' guide to success on the slopes

There's a lot to organise for a trip to the snow. Best once you've decided on a resort, get down to the nitty-gritty of lodgings, lessons, gear and, the big one, skis or snowboard?

How to choose a ski lodge

There are two main factors to consider. Number one, is convenience. Staying right beside the slopes will cost a little more - but the joy of ski-in/ski-out can't be understated. There are plenty of lodge options, particularly in Hotham, Thredbo, Mt Buller and Falls Creek (try the Falls Creek Hotel, pictured left).

Number two: How much skiing or snowboarding are you likely to do? If you're keen to do nothing but ski, off-piste pursuits aren't so important. But if you're keen to explore beyond the slopes, consider a lodge which places you in the thick of the action. Generally speaking, Thredbo Village has the most off-piste activities.

Where to learn

Every ski resort in Australia offers a variety of lesson options - from private one-on-one lessons to larger group lessons. Instructors cater for every kind of skier or snowboarder - from complete novices to advanced. Lessons can be arranged as part of your lift pass package to bring down costs - especially if you book in advance.

The gear

You can hire new-season skis or snowboards at all the resort, saving you the trouble of transporting them there by car or air. You can also hire ski boots and snowboard boots, and a helmet. Jackets and pants are also available for hire. You'll need to bring your own gloves and goggles (these can't be rented, though they can be bought at the snow). While some people prefer sunglasses, they're no good when it snows.

Ski or snowboard?

It's your choice. In recent times, the popularity of snowboarding has brought an influx of riders to Australia's mountains (surfers tend to prefer the idea of riding sideways down the mountain). Skiing takes longer to master but snowboarding has a higher learning curve. Snowboarders can learn to ride basic slopes in a day.