Laid-back Australia has sucked us in, and now we're stuck. Ignoring the road signs, we've driven straight through a snowstorm to the entrance of Falls Creek resort, where a stern police officer says he doesn't care where we're from (Salt Lake City) or how much experience we have driving in the snow (lots): no tire chains, no admission. Halfway into a 10-day ski tour, just steps from our warm lodge and morning freshies, our first instinct is to make a fuss, but in Australia, not taking anything too seriously is always the right move.
Though Australia is famous for its searing outback and surfing beaches, a day's drive through wine country southeast of Sydney brings you to an unpretentious skiers' oasis. Australia's 11 ski resorts, scattered across the world's oldest mountain ranges, get hammered from June to October by storms racing in from Antarctica. The result is frontier-style skiing, where being willing to "have a go" may be the most important attribute you bring from home. If you're looking for big steeps and deep powder this summer, head to Chile or Argentina. But if you're after an adventurous family-friendly vacation offering more than just snow, head down under.
Just past the city of Jindabyne, catch the Skitube cog train for a five-mile ride through the Ramshead Range, popping out at the sprawling resorts known collectively as Perisher Blue. The Southern Hemisphere's largest ski hub has 56 lifts connecting four resorts and 3,100 acres of terrain. One-third of all Aussie skiers come here, drawn to rough terrain: Boulders and trees are left where they are, yet helmets are rarely in sight.
From Perisher, we head a few valleys over to Thredbo resort ("windy valley" in the local Aboriginal dialect). Our plan: hit Mt. Kosciusko's 7,316-foot summit. But with an Antarctic blast whipping up a whiteout, we shift gears. After stuffing in a farmer's tucker of fat slabs of bacon, eggs, sausage, baked beans, toast and coffee, we hunt untracked lines along the 2.25-mile Crackenback Supertrail, offering the continent's longest vertical drop (2,200 feet) and access to powder stashes hidden in the Snowy Gum forests.
Heading southeast, the road drops into the lush fields of the Victoria region. Stop at the Tom Groggin picnic area-where today dozens of kangaroos graze like a herd of hopping cows. Keep heading south and you'll hit seaside Melbourne, considered one of the world's most livable cities.
We, instead, head farther inland, on the Great Alpine Road, through dense eucalyptus forests (their sap gives the mountains a hazy blue tint) until reaching Falls Creek, just beyond the snow line on the flanks of Mt. Beauty. The only way through this car-free village is either on foot or aboard the free snowcat taxis that lumber through quiet streets. There's great skiing here; under the Summit Quad is the appropriately named Exhibition run, the longest mogul field on the continent. Want more mountain? For $35, you can hop a snowcat for the ungroomed double black-diamonds of Mt. McKay, or board a helicopter for a six-minute flight to Mt. Hotham resort-your pass works there, too.
Don't worry about your skiing ability. Ever since Alisa Camplain wowed the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics with her gold medal in aerials, Australian resorts have been welcoming crowds of beginners eager to swap surf for snow with lift passes that include free lessons. And $50 rents not only ski gear, but an outfit as well-right down to the goggles.
But it's day's end that's the real attraction at Falls Creek, Australia's only ski-in/ski-out village and a place dedicated to the Australian national pastime of making friends. Ski in under the Halley's Comet lift and start the night off at Milchà« Café, then walk over to sample the wine list and scenery at the Attunga Lodge's "Windows on the World" restaurant. Lose the kids? They're off playing "snow sniper" laser tag, one of many organized activities.
Falls Creek, however, will havee to wait, at least until we can produce tire chains and get past the snow police. No worries, mate: a new acquaintance, flashing Aussie ingenuity, arranges for someone coming up from the valley to pack a spare set of chains. Once rigged to the constable's satisfaction, we head up the snowy streets. Spurning my gratitude, our new friend focuses on the real task at hand: "Now, how 'bout a pint?" -Tom Price
Once you get past the airfare, Australia is a bargain. At Falls Creek, a family of four can get five nights at Attunga Lodge, breakfasts and lift tickets for $1,300. Contact: perisherblue.com.au, thredbo.com.au, fallscreek.com.au
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/