By NICK SQUIRES
With its frozen duck ponds, Swiss-influenced chalets and cosy bars, Thredbo is as close as you are likely to get to a European-style ski resort in Australia.
Neighbouring Perisher Blue may be bigger and Charlotte Pass in Victoria may be higher, but to many ski bunnies and powderhounds, Thredbo is simply the place to be.
The village, which nestles at the end of a long, deep valley, is all slate roofs and chunky stone walls, with lodges, hotels and around 20 bars and restaurants packed tightly around a paved, traffic-free square. St Moritz it ain't - but it has a lot more atmosphere than many other Southern Hemisphere resorts.
"It's like a little piece of Europe," boasts a local. "It's got great nightlife, fantastic facilities for children and the dining is as good as any you would get in any big city.
"People used to view Thredbo as the most expensive and prestigious resort, but price-wise it's now just as competitive."
The ski-fields opposite the village offer probably the best skiing and snowboarding in Australia, framed against an impressive backdrop of twisted snow gums, massive rock outcrops and forested ridges.
This is classic Snowy Mountains high country, lying at the heart of the vast Kosciusko National Park, the largest protected area in New South Wales.
Mt Kosciuszko, which at 2228m is the highest peak in mainland Australia, lies just over the ridgeline, looming over the entire Thredbo area. It's accessible by a 7km walkway which traverses peat bogs and alpine heath.
It was given its distinctly un-Australian name in 1840 by the Polish-born explorer Count Strzelecki, who named the peak for its similarity to the tomb of the Polish patriot Kosciuszko.
In truth it is only slightly higher than the surrounding peaks of the Main Range, and looks more like a big hill than a mountain.
Even so, there is a certain sense of achievement in standing on the roof of Australia; last time I climbed to the top, a fellow hiker was inspired enough to whip down his trousers and bare his bottom to a mate's camera. Cheeky.
With their rounded ridges and high plateaux, the Snowies may not, at first, seem particularly impressive to New Zealand eyes, particularly compared to the sawtooth peaks of the Southern Alps.
But when the gum trees are dusted with snow and flocks of rainbow lorikeets skitter noisily down the valley, the area takes on a beauty all its own.
This year's ski season began in early June and is now well under way, with reliable snowfalls expected until next month. After that, the snow machines kick in until the end of the season in October.
Thredbo boasts 480ha of piste, 235 snow-making machines and 14 lifts, with skiing and snowboarding suitable for beginners and pros alike.
Hardcore skiers will find more vertical runs and black diamond runs than in any other Aussie resort, including the ominously named Michael's Mistake, Cannonball and Funnel Web.
Thredbo also has the country's longest continuous snow trail - the Crackenback Supertrail, which stretches 5.9km from Australia's highest lifted point (Karels, at 2037m) all the way down to the village.
For beginners and children there is a learning area at Friday Flat, a 10-minute walk from the village. The 12-degree gradient ensures a soft landing and there is a slow-speed quad chair lift (called Easy Does It) which is easy to get on and off.
Snowboarders are well catered for, with well-groomed trails and challenging off-piste runs. An area for boarders, Terrain Parks, features tabletops, rails, berms and rollers.
For those who just can't get enough time on the snow, night skiing and snowboarding is available every Thursday and Saturday night from 6.30pm until 9.30pm.
Don't fancy skiing? Well there's plenty to keep the family happy. Children and adults alike will enjoy the Thredbo Bobsled, a 700m track opposite the village, on the other side of the Thredbo River.
If the weather closes in, head for the Thredbo Leisure Centre for a workout in the gym, a few laps of the heated indoor pool, or a soak in a spa bath.
There is also a climbing wall, squash courts and fitness classes.
The mountains can also be explored on snowshoes, which may give tired thigh muscles a rest. Contact the Back Country Centre at the top of Kosciuszko Express chairlift.
When to go:
The ski season is June to October.
Pay around $500 for a return flight to Sydney. From there it's a five- or six-hour drive to Thredbo via Cooma and Jindabyne. Thredbo has parking space for 2500 cars. Alternatively, fly to Canberra (a three-hour drive from Thredbo) or Snowy Mountains Airport at Cooma (an hour's drive from Thredbo). Once in Thredbo, there is a free shuttle bus service. Contact your travel agent for details.
You can check out the latest conditions at www.thredbo.com.au
Where to stay:
Accommodation ranges from basic but comfortable motels to self-contained apartments, luxurious hotels and some of the swankiest chalets and lodges in Australia.
Thredbo Alpine Hotel. Just a few paces away from the Kosciuszko Express chairlift, the hotel has recently undergone a $1.5 million refurbishment.
Berntis Mountain Inn. Close to the village centre, with a lively bar and an open log fire.
For better -alue options consider the lakeside town of Jindabyne, 30km down the valley. Try the Lake Jindabyne Hotel, Jindabyne Apartments and the motel-style Nettin Chalet.
For more information on accommodation in Thredbo and Jindabyne, go to www.thredbo.com.au
By NICK SQUIRES