Where does urban cool meet peak perfomance? Sally Brookes goes in search of the high life

Beijing, China

From having no ski areas in 2000, the Chinese capital had 13 resorts at the last count and opened a stylish indoor snow centre this summer to provide year-round snow. The sleek 10-storey Qiaobo Snow World has been built by Beijing's Tsinghua University to a futuristic design.

If you don't have time to try them all, Nanshan is favoured by those who complain that Beijing's other ski slopes are too short. It has one of China's first half pipes and two chairlifts. Snow World is the nearest to downtown Beijing and has runs ending before the Emperor Chongzhen who awaits eternity in a tomb set amid groves of ancient cypresses.

Better get there quick, though, as experts have called for all of the city's ski areas to be closed. Beijing has limited natural snowfall and snowmaking is using up scarce resources, while parts of the city are on water rationing. The snowmaking uses as much water as a town of 42,000 people.

Queenstown, New Zealand

This South Island settlement has developed from an overnight stop for coach tours, to the southern hemisphere's, if not the world's, main outdoor action sports centre.

The pride of the town's ski season is the Queenstown Winter Festival which kicks off in June and attracts around 30,000 visitors.

Queenstown (00 64 3 441 0700; www.queenstown-nz.co.nz) has three ski areas on its doorstep, several more a little further afield. Coronet Peak is closest - you can look down on the city lights when night skiing there. Other options are up and coming Cardrona and The Remarkables.

Bariloche, Argentina

Yet to be discovered by most European and even North American skiers, Bariloche (00 54 944 60119; www.bariloche.com) is South America's only ski town.

The classic ingredients are all here - several ski areas nearby, a good range of shops and restaurants and a history of being cut off now and then by too much snow.

The two ski areas are Cerro Bayo and larger Cerro Catedral, which boasts the continent's only six-seat chairlift among its repertoire of 30. It's South America's biggest ski centre and was Argentina's first.

Cerro Bayo is worthy of particular note to trainspotter skiers as it participates in the only cross-border lift pass outside Europe, with Antillanca 50 miles away in Chile.

Innsbruck, Austria

This bustling university city of over 100,000 inhabitants, has a long, illustrious history. The city (00 43 512 59850; www.innsbruck.info) is located in a narrow valley beneath rugged mountain peaks.

This combines with its old-world atmosphere, splendid museums, galleries and historic buildings (many containing great bars, shops and restaurants), to produce a wonderfully atmospheric sports-plus-culture destination.

Host to two modern Winter Olympics, in 1964 and 1976, the organisational skills are perpetuated today in the form of a very efficient infrastructure for winter sports fans. Stay in a central four-star hotel at bargain winter prices and a free bus service will transport you to one of eight ski areas around the city that participate in the Glacier Pass.

The name derives from the inclusion of the glacier lifts on the Stubai, open all year for guaranteed skiing.

Banff, Canada

The success of Banff as a world-leading ski destination was laid out over a century ago when Swiss mountain guides led climbers on first ascents of the surrounding peaks and established the first hotels.

Banff (001 403 762 8421; www.BanffLakeLouise.com) offers three ski areas, independently owned, so there's healthy competition. Mount Norquay is the nearest to town and offers flexible skiing by the hour if you just need a quick fix. For a full day there's much more terrain at Sunshine and Lake Louise, one of the world's most beautiful ski areas.

The town has a reputation for offering good value and having genuinely friendly inhabitants. The snow on the surrounding mountains is famed for its quality and abundance which help the resorts open from early November to late May every year.