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Mt Hutt Ski Area has early snow

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The crisp blast of southerly air has put a lift in the step of every keen skier and snowboarder. From beginners to powderhounds, a bumper snow year would be welcome after patchy precipitation last winter – the lightest snow year in a decade.

With dustings on all mountains in the past week, the early signs are good, and many of the country's 25 ski-field are preparing to open from the end of this month. And with more than a million ski visits to cater for, they shouldn't be short of business.

Though last year visitors dipped slightly, the 2006 season saw 1.4 million visitors to the snow.

Many of them head to the 10 commercial ski-fields, but 15 club-run fields, helicopter-access areas such as Mt Potts in Canterbury and Invincible Snowfields above Glenorchy near Queenstown, are attracting backcountry enthusiasts.

Ski touring and mountaineering is rising in popularity for skiers seeking untracked snow away from ski-lifts and people, and heliskiing in areas such as Mt Cook's Tasman Glacier and the Harris Mountains near Wanaka are reporting healthy bookings.

So what's happening for snow season 08?

The sunny, cute 'n' clubby feel of ski-fields such as Rainbow, above Lake Rotoiti just an hour from Nelson, and Mt Lyford near Kaikoura, are increasingly appealing to the family market with accommodation on the fields or nearby and continued development of lifts, groomed terrain and cafes.

Mt Hutt in Canterbury is high enough to catch early snow and keep it - just as well in a season like last year's when some Canterbury fields missed out entirely. With three chairlifts, a base village with restaurants and creche, and full terrain park, Mt Hutt will cater to a healthy mix of Cantabrians, Australians and Japanese.

The jewel of the Wakatipu basin at Queenstown, Coronet Peak is putting a green edge on its pure white offering. Though extra power will be pumped into an extra contingent of snowmaking guns, the ski area is urging mountain users to be aware of the damage their four- wheel-drive cars can cause as they power up the mountain. Along with expanded parking space at the foot of the six-kilometre access road, Coronet has set up "hitching posts" on the outskirts of Queenstown so skiers can catch a ride with anyone with a spare seat. Solo drivers will be discouraged and, after 8.30am, will be directed to a low-altitude carpark.

Mountain manager Hamish McCrostie says the area's 203 snowguns will guarantee deep coverage of the entire ski area from opening day on June 7.

Over the valley at the Remarkables, sunshine (it faces north), great base facilities and access to alpine wilderness will attract family and tour groups keen on value for their money.

The Cardrona valley has the family-favourite alpine field on one side, and two of the most interesting areas on the other: Snow Park is a playground for aerialists, jumpers, tricksters and youth culture, with big music and barbecues most days. Next door, the kick-and- glide brigade thrill to the quiet pleasure of lightweight cross-country skiing on groomed trails at Snow Farm.

Wanaka's Treble Cone is 550 hectares of the most spectacular steep and scenic terrain, but has plenty for beginners and intermediates with long runs and a stylish base restaurant, kids' area and outdoor fireplace.

New Zealand now has some of the world's most expensive skiing. With Treble Cone busting through the $100-a-day pass barrier, New Zealand is playing in the same league as St Moritz, Chamonix, Aspen and Vail. Whether it offers similar value on service levels, reliability of snow cover and facilities is debatable. But on terrain, it certainly does.

The ski-fields say most people save by buying multiple-day passes or packages with ski hire, lessons, accommodation and travel.