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Down under, Thredbo resort is the tops

Email|Print| Text size + By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2004

THREDBO, Australia -- The light here is different: A silvery-gold sheen seems to blanket the landscape as we make the 2-hour drive from Canberra, the country's capital, to the ski resort of Thredbo.

Perhaps it's the Southern Hemisphere's winter light casting its peculiar glow on the world, or the fact that we've just come from steamy North American summer, but as my partner and I make the rapid ascent from urban surrounds to snow-smattered forest, we have the feeling that this ski weekend is going to be different. There's also nothing like kangaroo-spotting and driving on the left side of the road -- while jet-lagged -- to throw you for a loop.

Set in the aptly named Snowy Mountains of pristine Kosciuszko National Park (only in Australia would you find a ski resort in beautiful, protected parkland), Thredbo has the longest runs in Australia (3.7 miles) and the most vertical terrain (2,205 feet).

In 1955, after an extensive location search by a Czech named Tony Sponar, the resort was founded in the Thredbo Valley. Things have come a long way since the first rope tow: Thredbo may not have bragging rights to the most epic elevation on earth, but it does have a 1,186-acre snowfield with 14 lifts, multiple terrain parks, and a lively, Australian-flavored apres-ski scene. Among the mountain's quirkier characteristics are a 700-meter bobsled course and numerous wombat-crossing signs (another ski resort first for us).

Thredbo's skier-to-snowboarder ratio is about 7 to 3, and because most Australians don't get to see much snow on a regular basis, gas stations on the road up to the mountain do a brisk side business renting ski equipment and tire chains.

Like East Coast resorts in the United States, the terrain is hard and fast -- conditions tend toward packed, groomed powder, with ample snowmaking -- but it has an open-bowl feel up top that's reminiscent of Western US mountains. When it snows, you can skim over virgin snowfields and pick your own line back down to the lifts. We are lucky enough to arrive on an evening when fresh snow is in the forecast, and after getting a few pointers from the staff at the Thredbo Snow Sports rental shop, we have inside information on where to find the untouched stuff. First thing in the morning, we take the high-speed Kosciuszko four-person lift and two T-bars to the 6,683-foot summit. We're among the first few to drop into Golf Course Bowl, a wide-open area ridged with rocky spines (making for interesting terrain and thrilling bumps) that funnels down through challenging glades and valleys to a narrow exit run, ultimately popping us out at the main Valley Terminal base area.

Even as the day progresses, there are lots of untracked areas to be explored. Marked runs at the resort are surrounded by gladed, out-of-bounds areas (as always, they're officially unpatrolled and closed to the public, but we discover some excellent powder stashes in and around the trees). You don't have to be a double-black-diamond bomber to enjoy the mountain; there's a custom-built area dedicated to beginners at Friday Flat, complete with low-speed quad chair, and 67 percent of the trails are graded intermediate. The resort also has a children's snow program and club called Thredboland, which offers ski and snowboard workshops and lessons.

So many options beckon -- which line to pick next? We're having so much fun that it's a surprise to find lunchtime has arrived. The next question -- where to have a quick meal and warm up, without going off-mountain -- has a logical answer. About three-quarters of the way up Kosciuszko Express, a wooden cabin with a slanted roof comes into view. It looks half-buried under snow, and initially I think the hut is out of commission for the season. After another pass on the lift, however, we see movement, and it seems to be the perfect spot for a casual lunch.

Needless to say, after we shake off our gear and duck down through the doors, the simple luxury of Kareela Hutte takes us by surprise: white tablecloths, a full bar and table service, dishes cooked to order. Two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and a soup of the day later, we're lounging on the outside deck, where an older Australian couple is already enjoying a cheese board and what appears to be two glasses of peppermint schnapps.

Australians certainly know how to party, and Thredbo has a reputation for an energetic apres-ski scene. Depending on how much energy you have after a day on the slopes, there's live music at the Schuss Bar and an impressive number of good restaurants in the village. For top views, hop on the gondola for dinner at Eagles Nest Restaurant (at 6,332 feet, it is Australia's highest restaurant).

With its own hopping fireplace lounge bar, the recently refurbished Thredbo Alpine Hotel is a 65-room lodge that can't be beat for location, smack in the middle of Village Square and across a footbridge from Kosciuszko chairlift. It also has a swimming pool, spa facilities, and impressive panoramas of the mountain.

Each morning at the hotel's Cascades restaurant, a complimentary buffet breakfast is served for guests, including all the fixings of a traditional English breakfast (eggs, bacon, tomatoes, fried potatoes), as well as oatmeal and a variety of cereals, pastries, juices, and toast. Like just about everywhere else in the hotel, you can watch the mountain scene as it unfolds through the windows; the sunrise fills the dining room with a natural rosy light, reflected off the alpine peaks. The restaurant also hosts an intimate yet casual dinner scene by night.

To pamper your snow-beaten body, make a spa appointment at the Denman Mountain Inn, use the sauna at the Thredbo Alpine Hotel, opt for a more active, aquatic full-body massage: or take a swim at the Thredbo Leisure Centre, where the beautiful Olympic-sized indoor pool is heated to just the right temperature for soothing tired muscles. Even if you aren't out at first light and tearing down the slopes, massages and spa treatments aren't a bad way to pass the wild winter days at Australia's top ski destination.

Bonnie Tsui is a freelance writer based in New York.

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