Skiing in a sunburned country

Threadbo – get amongst it!

Ask people who’ve never been what they associate with Australia, and you’ll hear things like deserts, beaches, surf, kangaroos and crocs. Did you know though that you can ski in Australia? I’m talking real snow, mountains, lifts, boozy hot drinks — the works.

If you’re an Aussie local, you may want to skip this post, but if you’re an expat like me, this could blow your mind.

Ski holidays are amongst my favourites. Slicing through (and falling in) fresh powder on a bluebird day, wintry nights snuggled up in front of a roaring fire eating calorie bomb bolognese, sipping mulled wine and getting overly competitive at charades with a big group of friends… what’s not to like?

When we moved to Sydney a few years ago, ski trips were one of the things we’d reconciled ourselves to giving up trading for the beach. We knew there was decent skiing over in NZ but that seemed nowhere as easy as a roadtrip from NYC to Vermont. Shortly after I started working, a colleague mentioned he was leaving early to drive over to Perisher for a ski weekend. Say what?? Now mind you, this was July in Sydney, a time when the Harbour City is supposedly plunged into the depths of winter (but really it feels like a San Francisco summer). How could there be snow a few hours south, when it’s 20C in Sydney?

We missed that year’s Aussie ski season and the one after 😦 But this year, we made it!

Last weekend, we drove down to Thredbo. Nestled in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Thredbo is a 500km drive from Sydney and part of Kosciuszko National Park.

Now before I get into it, I should clarify that we didn’t have particularly high expectations. Pretty much everyone we knew had told us that “the snow was crap”, that there were “hills not mountains” and that “everything was twice as expensive”. I’ve never skied in the Pocanos but my husband grew up on icy East Coast skiing and had braced himself for man made snow, thin cover and short runs. To our delight, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Here are the highlights:

1. The conditions.

Blue skies

For starters, we lucked out with the weather. On an average year, Thredbo gets 196cm snow over a 4-5 month season; the night we arrived, the resort was dumped on with 30cm of fresh snow. Yippee! On top of that, we had blue skies, warm temperatures (barely a few degrees below freezing) and plenty of sunshine. Our second day however, they resorted to making snow and the conditions got a little icy. I can see how a snow dry-spell could wreak havoc.

2. The lifts

Pure magic

The lift situation turned out to be pretty good.  Thredbo doesn’t have a gondola but the high speed quad “Kosciuszko Express” gets you most of the way to the top and it’s only a T Bar or two from there to the bowls. Also, the lines are short and very orderly. Having skied a few times in France, I have a newfound appreciation for Aussie queuing obsessions 😉

3. The Terrain

This came as another pleasant surprise as we were expecting mostly groomers and some steeps. There’s some great tree skiing, lots of rocks and bumps, a terrain park and, if you take Karel’s T Bar to the top of the mountain, you can ski Golf Course Bowl, a gorgeous powdery expanse.

Hiking down a treacherous section of Funnel Web

Our last run of the day, we made our way down Golf Course through Funnel Web. Not for the faint of heart, Funnel Web is a double black that’s narrow and uneven with rocks and roots poking out the entire way. There are lots of trees, some powder and, at times, you have no option but to take your skis off and walk (crawl?) along the face of the mountain. It took more than an hour to get down and there’s no way I’d go back in poorer conditions / with lower visibility.

4. The Village

Thredbo Village is charmingly European — another surprise, although I wasn’t sure what to expect. Kareela, the mountain lunch spot of choice (if you’re happy to splurge) oozes rustic charm and boasts waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional lederhosen and dirndl serving hearty Bavarian fare.

Apple cider and smores at the Alpine Lodge
Apple cider and smores at the Alpine Lodge

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the Aussie ability to drink, and Thredbo is no exception! In the time that I’d enjoyed my gluhwein and Niraj had had a beer, the three blokes next to us had downed a ski’s worth of shots — 15 to be precise, that’s 5 shots each. A few other tables were splitting a bottle of wine or doing shots themselves, and this was at lunch time, in the middle of the mountain, with a long run to the bottom. It’s a sight worth seeing!

5. The Skiers

Fresh powder in the Golf Course Bowl

Finally, I was very impressed with the skiers at Thredbo. For a nation with very little snow, the average Aussie skier seems pretty darn good! I suspect it may have something to do with Aussie ski school, which everyone seems to go through. When I learned to ski, I spent three days in ski school and took a couple of lessons after that, but I suspect that’s because I learned as an adult. A lot of my American friends learned to ski pretty much on their own — at most copying a sibling or a friend. It’s harder to nail that perfect form or go nearly as fast without some sort of professional training. The Aussie standard has definitely made me want to step it up!

Overall, Thredbo gets a big thumbs up. It’s definitely pricier than other ski resorts and I can see why, especially as a family, you’d be better off making the trip to Japan (and getting some of that world class #japow!), but it’s not as terrible as people made it out to be. It’s no Utah or Colarado but heck, it’s just as good (better than?) Vermont! I’m looking forward to going back 🙂

The Great Barrier Reef

Sea cucumber

Last weekend, we took a spontaneous trip up to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef, the “GBR”.  My dear friend Joyce (our first visitor from America!) had spent the preceding week with us as part of her 3 month world tour / planned job hiatus.  We’d had a fantastic time showing her around — the beaches, the (blue) mountains, the zoo, the restaurants — but she was planning on continuing her Australian adventure with a few days in Cairns (a place both she and my husband had a very hard time pronouncing). The friend she was hoping to explore Cairns with cancelled last minute and it seemed a shame to let her visit the GBR alone. So Thursday evening, we booked flights leaving for Cairns early Saturday morning and returning Sunday night.

Cairns and SydneyCairns is a three hour flight from Sydney.  We set our alarms for 430am (a time I would have considered ungodly early until recently — yeah that’s what Sydney will do to you) and were out the door at 510.  The airport was buzzing and the excitement was starting to course through our veins. We were going to see the Great Barrier Reef!  As we split a ham & cheese croissant at Sydney airport, we laughed at the last time we’d taken such a spontaneous trip — nearly 7 years ago when we were living in London.

Sydney is no London when it comes to accessing glamorous European destinations in a weekend, but the airport sure helps make up for it. We didn’t even have to bring ID!  I’ll repeat that because it’s so awesome: all you need for a domestic flight in Australia is your boarding pass. No more “remove your liquids”, “remove your shoes”. We’d checked in online and breezed through to our gate in 10 minutes. The plane spat us out at Cairns airport at 930am and, by 10am, we were walking around the CBD.

Cairns’ central business district consists of a mix of large and small streets with a ton of restaurants, cafés, bars and hostels.  It oozes that beach town vibe but it isn’t packed, at least not at this time of the year, not like Bondi Beach.  From the CBD, it’s a 10 minute walk to the water where a lot of the larger resort style hotels have set up shop.  Joyce was staying at a hostel and in the spirit of keeping it real, we’d decided to hostel it too. Before you conjure up images of 8 people packed in bunk beds with one bathroom, our hostel, Northern Greenhouse turned out to be awesome and we had our own room and (most importantly!) our own bathroom.

We grabbed some breakfast, a walkabout and a much needed power minute nap, we headed to the pier with Joyce to catch our ride to Green Island. Green Island is a coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef with island rainforests and white sand beaches. We’d picked one of the many half day packages offered from Cairns and set sail at 1230. By 1.15pm we were changing into our gear and getting ready to jump into the water.

Green Island
Green Island
Our first look at Green Island
Our first look at Green Island

Hundreds of fish less than 2 metres from the shore! Some of the highlights were the pointy nose blue gar fish, a humongous sea cucumber that had anchored itself to the sea bed, and a giant school of silver fish that encircled us in a continuous and rapidly moving line whenever we came close. I wish we knew the names of everything we saw. We snorkelled in a few different spots and saw some awesome fish but Green Island was a tad crowded in the end. I was surprised to see so many tourists from China, most with large families. Many of the signs and menus had translations in Chinese.

We got back to Cairns by around 430pm and after a shower and a rest, headed over to Fettas for dinner.  I love all kinds of Mediterranean food and had spotted this little gem on our walk in town. We wouldn’t have committed to going there, however, had it not been for Joyce’s success in getting the lowdown on Cairns from a group of local lads.

Fettas was amazing. It was quite possibly the best Greek food I’ve ever had. All three of us got the banquet which meant we’d get to try a little bit of everything and, most importantly, wouldn’t have to make any decisions (big win). The belly dancer and plate breaking (I counted at least six) only added to the fun.

After dinner, we headed over to Gilligan’s, the place we’d gotten the most reccs for as the not-to-be-missed part of a trip to Cairns. I’m not sure how to describe Gilligan’s.  It’s technically part of a hostel but it’s really a gigantic indoor / outdoor club…

Before you judge it though, let me tell you it’s super fun and completely unpretentious. People were gathered along long communal benches and a cover band was playing a mix of 80s rock and top 40s. We kept telling ourselves we’d leave and call it an early night but we ended spending the next few hours dancing to the perfect 80s mix. Interestingly, the dance floor never got too crazy. Is it possible the 80s were lost on this younger crowd? Eek!

The next morning, we awoke bright and early for our ride to the Outer Reefs. We were going to hit up three sites and see the actual GBR. We packed up and went back to Macaron cafe, the lovely French place we’d eaten at the day before and put away some delicious croissants and quiches before heading to the pier.

There were 50 odd people on board, a mix of snorkelers and divers, and the tour was very structured. A fantastic guide gave us an overview of the types of marine life we’d see. We were also fitted with “stinger suits” — lycra suits that were meant to protect us from sunburn and from blue jellyfish, also known as “blueys”. A friend had warned us that on an earlier trip to the GBR, she’d been stung by a bluey on her FACE. Wtf!

The hour it took us to get out to the reef flew by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to jump in the water. The fish were huge and would come right up to the boat for food. We’d been instructed to look out for Nigel, a giant blue parrotfish who’d been domesticated by the boat’s photographer and was always willing to pose for a good shot.

Swimming with Nigel
Swimming with Nigel

The coral was amazing and endless and took on all kinds of forms. Our guide had told us that coral nomenclature was fairly straightforward — e.g. looks like a boulder? It’s called boulder coral. Looks like a brain? It’s called brain coral. And so on.

We had lunch after jumping in at the second site and tea after the third site. We also went on a 30 minute snorkelling tour with the guide who dove down to retrieve and show us various types of sea cucumber. He also led us to a giant sea turtle!  Swimming with that massive creature was just incredible.

Giant sea turtle
Giant sea turtle

We also finally got to see “Nemo”, which had been hard till now because clown fish typically hide in a stinging anemone that they alone are immune to.

Clown Fish
Finding Nemo

After the tour, Joyce and I wandered off for a last bit of snorkelling. On our way back to the boat, I spotted a nurse shark! We chased him for a while and got a few pics, but he eventually out-swam me and disappeared into the deeps.

By the time our boat pulled back in to Cairns, it was 430pm. We were exhausted and my hair was a giant, salty, dried out mess. We got back onto the pier, found the cab we’d booked and headed back to Cairns airport for our 6pm flight to Sydney.  What an amazing weekend!