Everyone knows you don't go to the snow to ski. OK, I don't go to the snow to ski. I'm at Hotham, powder capital of Australia, and I have no intention of swooshing down any slopes. Zilch. But there's more to this ski resort than snow.
Hotham's proximity to Victoria's north-eastern wine region - an area that takes in the Alpine Valleys, the gourmet region of Milawa and Rutherglen - informs not only the off-mountain experience, but also the resort's established and reputable dining scene with an emphasis on local wines and produce. There's more than 20 restaurants and bars in Hotham village and nearby Dinner Plain, as well as annual events such as the Mountain Fresh Festival ('alpine food and wine with attitude') and organised gourmet valley tours. Fine food and wine is alive and kicking in the Victorian Alps.
That's certainly not to take away from the ski experience, which is first-rate. Situated about 350km north-east of Melbourne, Hotham is the most elevated ski resort in the country with the state's highest annual snowfall. It sports 320 hectares of the white stuff, 80 downhill runs and some of the most advanced terrain in the country, with double-black ski runs - that's daredevil, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants action. The mountain is made up of about 20 per cent beginner's terrain and the rest of the area is equally divided among intermediate and advanced levels, serviced by 14 ski lifts. Then there are runs such as the Wall of Death, Hacker's Horror and Leap of Faith, for the (yes, you guessed it) serious ski bunnies.
Getting there is part of Hotham's attraction; it's the only snow resort in Australia with its own airport serviced by Qantas just 20km from the resort, although for this winter season Qantaslink has announced the service will be replaced by a coach service from Albury airport. The journey from Sydney makes it an attractive and viable option for a weekend's skiing. The resort is also accessible by car via the Great Alpine Road, which makes for an extremely picturesque, if steep, drive up through the valley to the summit.
This was our preferred method of arrival, having flown to nearby Albury and traversed Milawa en route to Hotham, sampling the region's food and wine along the way. Hotham-based company Valley Escapes offers tours visiting local wineries, restaurants and artisan food producers in the area. These are located an hour from the mountain, ideal for day-trips, and include a stop-off at the Milawa Cheese Company, renowned for its award-winning specialty cheeses.
Milawa's cheese is handmade at the on-site butter factory, with a tasting room, bakery, gourmet food store and restaurant also on the premises. The latter's winter menu heralds robust dishes such as rolled belly of pork with caramelised apple and Milawa white cheese, or confit of duck leg with a vegetable tartlet. The bulk of the day's offerings are sourced locally, ditto the wines. Make sure you stock up on some brie, blue or goat's milk cheese. The Capra, a hard goat's milk number, is particularly good.
We continue on our way, stopping off at Wood Park Wines, Brown Brothers and Boyntons winery for tastings, a chat with winemakers and a tour of the vineyards. Eventually, we find ourselves creeping up the mountain proper in fading light, as the snow flurries around us, growing thicker by the minute. When we hit Hotham Central - the resort's headquarters and main building housing check-in facilities, retail outlets and ski and equipment hire - darkness has settled in. We have no sense of where we are, no view of the ski fields and the snow falls silently. It's freezing. Time to eat.
One of the mountain's more renowned restaurants is Zirky's, run by respected Melbourne chef and caterer Andrew Blake. The restaurant, bar and bistro is right in the middle of Hotham village and has a Swiss ski chalet feel, though without the usual alpine kitsch. It's a Mod Oz menu with the occasional Asian bent; the food wonderfully executed and entirely appropriate to chilly temperatures.
You could kick off dinner with French onion soup, say, or a playful take on the Colonel's best: a Kentucky fried quail with Vietnamese slaw. A poached fillet of beef with baby root vegetables and red onion jam puts up little resistance to the prodding of a knife and fork and one shouldn't leave without trying Blake's soufflé - passionfruit or strawberry, depending on the season.
We finally check in to our lodgings. There's a slew of accommodation options on the mountain, from modern chalets to self-contained apartments and houses. One of the most well-known chalets on Hotham is Blowhard, so named after one of the local mountains. With 10 levels including a sky bar, spa, cinema, games room, sauna, sun decks and a unique design aesthetic, this is the full luxury alpine experience.
We're staying at the new Outside Edge apartments, resplendent with all the mod cons you could ask for and then some. The four-level apartment houses four bedrooms and multiple living areas, a spacious, modern kitchen and central heating. One of its best assets isn't revealed until the morning: in-your-face views of the summit and surrounding slopes. And snow. Lots of it. Our two private balconies are thigh-high in soft, wonderful powder.
The skiers in our group head off to try their luck on the Wall of Death. I head to the spa; the other major attraction of Hotham. Onsen Retreat and Spa at nearby Dinner Plain is one of the country's first indoor-outdoor style spas in the Japanese tradition. The facilities are beautifully designed and all the usual treatments are available. The 90-minute hot stone therapy is my guilty pleasure of choice; the rhythmic massage, hot oils and stones inducing momentary sleep.
The outdoor onsen, a natural spring bathing pool, is a damned fine way to while away the afternoon. The hot, steamy pool sits beneath snow-laden gums and the air is cold and invigorating. All I need is a sake to complete the scene. Alas, the strongest libation you'll find here is green tea.
For something stiffer, head into Dinner Plain, a unique freehold village built in 1985 that is home to several bars and restaurants. Inspired by early cattleman's huts, the chalets are built of local materials in natural colour schemes so they blend into the environment. Surrounded by national park, ringed with snow gums and adrift with snow, the village is quite the sight.
The Japanese-inspired Tsubo Bar and Restaurant, with its modern fit-out and sunken tables, has a solid pedigree. It's owned by chef Michael Ryan who also runs Range at nearby Myrtleford, which picked up a star in Gourmet Traveller's 2008 Restaurant Guide. Chef Hamish Nugent is behind the burners here and does a fine job dishing up the likes of shiso-cured salmon carpaccio with avocado, dashi jelly and mandarin dressing, or a 12-hour roasted lamb neck with potato purée, miso and yuzu sauce. The former is pretty as a picture, all vibrant colours and flavours, while the latter is just plain sexy melt-in-the-mouth tenderness.
Down the road, the equally funky Cilantro is a great spot for drinking and grazing après-ski style. Open for all-day dining and with the kitchen turning out tapas, it can be all things to all people. Here you can breakfast on fresh kransky with potato rösti and homemade tomato relish, lunch on local chorizo in a smoked chilli and bean sauce or indulge in a King Island porterhouse with béarnaise for dinner.
At night, locals and blow-ins head to Swindlers Bar & Bistro, located back at Hotham Central. The drinks here flow thick and fast and it's a youngish crowd but the vibe's good. For a more authentic mountain-style hoedown, head to the 'Genny', as it's affectionately known by locals. The General is where the action is on Friday and Saturday nights, and the barman proudly assures me the pub holds the record for the most sales of Jägermeister in the country. I'll drink to that.
A new morning heralds the Leap of Death for some and another spa visit for me, this time to The White Spa in Hotham Central. This is a gorgeous, contemporary facility with sweeping views of the ski fields from each of the treatment rooms. The aromatherapy facial is just what I need after exposure to the mountain elements.
The spa is adjacent to the similarly named White Room, one of the first dining establishments to bring a touch of glamour to the mountain. The menu is crowd-pleasing modern Australian with Asian undertones and the bar is a good spot for a nightcap or a cheeky cocktail.
A fresh dump of snow falls overnight and I decide it's finally time to explore some of the snow-based activities. The Hotham Snow Sports Centre offers lessons for all levels of ability, from an extreme novice like myself to skiers looking to perfect their technique.
Of course, there's more than just skiing. Take a grooming tour (these are the big mechanical beasts that 'groom' the snow at the end of the day), scenic helicopter flights over the mountain or a sparkling sunset tour that includes a picnic and bubbles on the summit.
In the end, I did have a ski lesson. I mastered the art of stopping, making my way crab-like up the side of a hill and hopping onto a t-bar ski lift. And as I sped down the gentle incline for the first time, I realised what all the fuss was about. The speed and adrenaline were addictive. I was hooked. Maybe next time I'll come back to ski.