Ultimate northern hemisphere snow guide
I’m keeping this simple. Real simple folks. I gave myself the task of giving you a 1,000 word rundown of the northern hemisphere snow season that’s full of the things you need to know and all the links but light on the marketing fluff. And without sounding like a total tool, I’ve been to about 90 per cent of the places I’ve listed so I am not cutting and pasting this either.
It will be a fascinating year industry-wise. Will the Vail Resorts pass deal counter the renewed strength of the Greenback? Is Canada set for a surge given it still remains close to parity with the Pacific Peso? How much snow will the predicted big El Nino bring to North America? And will people desert Niseko after an unnamed blogger recently slagged the place off …
Pros: Excellent infrastructure and customer service at the big resorts, good park and pipe options for snowboarders and freestylers and Perisher season pass usage at a number of resorts.
Cons: Sinking Australian dollar, generic feel/experience at some resorts.
Resort rundown: While 40 US states actually have ski resorts, Australians will mostly head to Colorado and Utah, and a few to California.In the Rockies, it doesn’t get much bigger, better and fancier than the four-mountain collective of Aspen, with Vail offering the main luxury alternate. There’s a bevy of lower-key Colorado alternatives, such as Telluride, Steamboat and Copper, which will invariably be better for those on a budget. Utah is renowned for its powder in places such as Snowbird, Alta and the ritzier Deer Valley, with the loosening of liquor licensing laws in recent years broadening the area’s apres appeal. Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and Heavenly head the Cali resorts. Reports of a big upcoming snow season offering sweet relief after five pretty ordinary years.
Season pick: Park City, Utah. The merger with Canyons creates the biggest resort in the US. Powder, great terrain, easy access from Salt Lake City and free riding on the Perisher Epic Pass make it worth serious consideration.
Left field: Kirkwood, California. Also on the Epic Pass, but a world away from traditional resorts. Kirkwood is something of an untamed beast high in the Sierras.
Pros: Australian dollar still gets more than 90 cents, good facilities, relative ease of access to Whistler.
Cons: Whistler is big, busy and subject to coastal weather whims, while the Alberta resorts can get extremely cold.
Resort rundown: As in the US, most Aussies will stick to two areas – British Columbia and Alberta. The former has perhaps the best-known and frequently top-rated resort in the world in Whistler-Blackcomb, a two-mountain behemoth with every type of riding and facility imaginable. From there, you drift into the BC interior with great family areas, such as Big White and Sun Peaks. The likes of Revelstoke and Kicking Horse are more for the serious set. The spectacular Lake Louise and Sunshine head up the places to go in Alberta. “Canada is still a pretty big one for us,” says Lauren Whicker, marketing manager of Skimax. “With the dollar, there’s definitely increased interest. Whistler is always strong, but the smaller BC resorts are picking up too.”
Season pick: Fernie. Great all-rounder in the interior of BC that is one of the best resorts in the country for mixed abilities. Drier snow than the coast, but still plenty of it with nine-plus metres a year.
Left field: Whitewater, BC. Small mountain (by Canadian standards), but big snow and generally superb conditions. Serviced by the fun and funky town of Nelson and worth doing as part of a trip to the iconic Red Mountain, which is under two hours away.
Pros: Style, substance and a myriad possibilities across a range of countries.
Cons: Marked variations in weather/conditions, hard going for a short trip from Australia, dollar losing ground to the euro.
Resort rundown: Where to begin? France and Austria are the core destinations and most people will find enough choices between them. In France, Chamonix and Val d’Isere capture a curious mix of the hardcore and well-heeled, while Tignes is cruisier, if less aesthetically appealing. Les Trois Vallees offers a series of interconnected resorts and is effectively the largest ski area in the world under one ticket (Val Thorens is a great early/marginal season choice here, given its altitude). In Austria, Innsbruck may just be the best ski city in the world, with ready access to nine areas. The legendary Kitzbuhel is about 100 kilometres away and is packed with intermediate terrain. For long cruisers (and lunches), think the Dolomites in Italy. Don’t completely overlook Switzerland and Norway, but expect to pay for it.
Season pick: St Anton, Austria. Offering 340km of pisted terrain, 97 lifts and a world of choice in terms of partying and eating options. Beautiful and historical, it’s very hard to go past.
Left field: Jasna, Slovakia. Cheap, cheerful yet still impressive in size and scope. Jasna has pumped plenty of money into its facilities in recent years to make it one of the best options in eastern Europe.
Pros: Closest resorts to Australia, timezone friendly, powder snow, good deals at smaller ski areas, cultural experience.
Cons: Better terrain elsewhere, lack of English outside major resorts, expensive and busy at Niseko.
Resort rundown: The land of the rising sun has become the country of the Aussie ski bum over the past two decades and is thought to now capture the biggest percentage of our travelling market during the northern hemisphere season. Niseko on Hokkaido is the main drawcard and is hard to top for facilities and snow. On Honshu, Shiga Kogen and Hakuba have the best terrain in the country, though the accommodation is spread out. Dale Goulding, co-owner of one of Australia’s original snow companies in Japan, Deep Powder Tours, says there are plenty of bargain options besides Niseko. “Furano and Tomamu (both on Hokkaido) are still as cheap as chips,” says Goulding. “Myoko is cheap, so is Madarao (both on Honshu).”
Cheap here can mean $100 a night, including accommodation, lift pass and breakfast.
Season pick: Nozawa Onsen (Honshu). Fabulous traditional village, great riding and facilities, and reliable snow make this the smart choice in Japan. The multitude of onsens (hot baths) and ability to take a day trip to visit the snow monkeys are the icing on the cake.
Left field: Myoko Kogen. Like Nozawa, another resort near the 1998 Winter Olympics city of Nagano. An amalgamation of ski areas that get plenty of snow and not so many “gaijin” (foreigners).