Australia and New Zealand both have ski areas that are an advance on Alpine glaciers in terms of extent and variety of terrain, and of length of the skiing day. In terms of vertical drop, most of Australia's areas are modest; some of New Zealand's are more serious. None is world class - no one would cross the world to ski Mount Hutt or Thredbo in the way that an Aussie might to ski Zermatt. But they are areas that any keen skier might like to incorporate in a trip to see those long-lost relatives in Invercargill or Wagga Wagga.
Of course, your visit to those relatives in Wagga Wagga will have to be a wintery affair, which is not normally the idea when making such trips. Still, chacun a son gout. Most of the resorts open in June and close in October except for Mount Hutt and Whakapapa, both in New Zealand.
Skiing is curiously split between the country's two main islands. Most of the 'resorts' are on the largely mountainous South Island - in small ski areas within driving distance of the major east coast towns of Christchurch and Dunedin. South Island also offers excellent helicopter skiing, notably around Queenstown, Wanaka and Methven, and including the epic Tasman glacier on the flanks of 3,764m Mount Cook. But the single biggest lift system is on North Island, at Whakapapa.
Whakapapa (unfortunately pronounced Fukapapa) is plumb in the middle of the island, and therefore within reach of both Auckland and Wellington. With 13 ski-lifts, including a detachable quad (plus numerous beginners' tows), it is an area on an almost European scale; the longest run is 4km, the total vertical a quite respectable 675m. The skiing is mixed, with off-piste terrain for the experts.
Although most skiers are day-visitors there is accommodation only four miles away at Whakapapa village; the main accommodation is in a very welcoming, upmarket place, reminiscent of a British railway hotel. On the mountain there are cafeterias and a licensed restaurant. Whakapapa claims a long season, staying open until November. Snow-making allows the beginners' slopes to open before the rest of the mountain, which needs good snow cover.
South Island's major 'resort' is Mount Hutt. Its lift system is roughly half the size of Whakapapa's, but the skiing is highly regarded. The main area is an open (and closure-prone) bowl with a total lift-served vertical of 650m - though in practice most of the skiing takes place over a vertical of about 500m. Off to the side are extensive and challenging off-piste areas, and affordable helicopter lifts are available at the base to take you farther afield. The access road is unsurfaced and tricky: a four-wheel-drive vehicle is desirable, and the mountain is sensibly alcohol-free.
Mount Hutt is a ski area, nothing more. You can stay a few miles from the bottom of the mountain in the little country town of Methven, but the South Island capital of Christchurch is only an hour or so away. The resort generally opens in May, making it the first place in the southern hemisphere to head for if withdrawal symptoms are severe.
Queenstown, in a wonderful setting on Lake Wakatipu, is about the nearest thing in New Zealand to an Alpine resort. It is a lively but very commercialised little town with lots of non-skiing activities and (they say) 80 restaurants, but the skiing takes place some miles out of town at two modest-sized areas which manage to pack in a variety of short runs.
Coronet Peak (430m vertical, longest run 1.8km, five lifts plus rope tows) is well equipped, with a big snow-making installation and even a night-skiing piste. The Remarkables (320m vertical, longest run 1.7km, three lifts plus rope tows) owes its name to the range in which it is located, rather than the nature of its runs, which are rather bland.
You can also use Queenstown as a base for skiing Cardrona, 40 miles away, but it is more usual to ski it from Wanaka (which also has a beautiful lakeside setting but is the antithesis of Queenstown - tiny and unspoilt) or from the hotel at the base of the area. It consists of three little bowls, each served by a quad or double chairlift and offering a fair mix of skiing; longest run 2km, maximum vertical 390m.
Slightly closer to Wanaka is Treble Cone, which rivals Whakapapa for the 'biggest vertical in New Zealand' award, with 660m. In terms of lifts, it seems much less impressive - one chair and three drags. But these four lifts serve as much skiing (and, in particular, as much difficult skiing) as in any area in the country.
There are several other ski areas dotted along the mountainous spine of South Island, each with two to four lifts plus a couple of rope tows. Ohau, for example, claims the longest T-bar in the southern hemisphere. Wine buffs may wish to note that Marlborough is in the extreme north-east of the island, more than six hours' drive from Christchurch. The newly developed little ski area of Mount Lyford is about half-way between the two, with easy and expert ski terrain served by a modest lift installation and a resident helicopter. There are great sea views, and a whale-watching centre nearby.
The best skiing is concentrated in the populous south-east corner, between Sydney and Melbourne (which, we should remember, are more than 500 miles apart).
The biggest and best resorts are in New South Wales, in the national park centred on Australia's highest mountain, Mount Kosciusko (2,230m). Thredbo is the best-known, and is recognisable as a resort in European terms, with a smart and lively village close to the slopes. Its well-designed network of 15 lifts includes some fast chairs, its trails some of Australia's most challenging, with a vertical drop that is impressive by Australian standards and enough to allow the construction of a giant slalom course. But the linked resorts of Perisher Valley and Smiggin Holes offer much more skiing - best for intermediates and novices respectively. All these resorts are about six hours' drive from Sydney.
In the neighbouring state of Victoria there are several small resorts, and one larger one, within three or four hours' drive of Melbourne. Mount Buller is an isolated peak with lifts all around it, a proper resort village near the summit and as much skiing as any resort in the southern hemisphere.
Slightly farther from Melbourne is Mount Hotham, another resort that employs this arrangement of high-level (and therefore attractively snow-surrounded) accommodation.
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