Cross-country route to ski heaven

Forget the queues for lifts: strike out on your own, says Tina Stallard

The conversion was complete in less than a week. No more downhill: I am giving up lift queues, bulky kit, expensive ski passes and noisy crowds. Cross-country means no more checking my watch for the last cable car, no more impatient skiers hissing to overtake, no more despair about technique. Instead, the delight of exploring a silent forest or following a track through open meadows to a nearby village, the gentle rhythm of gliding on fresh snow.

First impressions were less promising. The Massif Central greeted us with la burle, the cruel north wind feared in this part of France. Dry snow whipped our cheeks and roared past our ears, cold pinched through layers of clothing. Our first steps on skis were taken in the shelter of the woods.

Ankles wobbled in the lightweight boots and heels slid sideways on the skis, secured only at the toe, but the initial unsteadiness quickly disappeared, and we were soon shuffling along, with our skis in the tramlines. Travelling on the flat was easy, and uphill was no problem as the scales on the base of the ski gripped the snow, but going downhill was terrifying. My skis seemed to be locked in the tracks as I accelerated out of control. Only by lifting the skis out of the tramlines is it possible to start braking, but the theory was quite overtaken by pure panic.

After many mouthfuls of snow, and patient guidance from our instructor, I developed a fairly effective snowplough, which allowed me to study other people's techniques.

Roger, a bar owner from Beaujolais, showed the most originality. He stayed in the tracks, crouching lower as he picked up speed. With his bottom dragging in the snow, he rocked from side to side, apparently hoping this would slow him. But the act of crouching served to increase his speed. The rocking movement became so extreme he eventually caught an elbow in the snow and catapulted off the track. We found him in a snowdrift, looking both relieved and shocked.

Roger's wife, Pierrette, was more cautious: after studying each slope we came to, she began to remove her skis and said she would walk down. Persuaded to ski, she set off with a concession to the snowplough, then as the speed took over, abandoned the pretence, waving her arms wildly before tumbling at our feet with screams of laughter.

As we sprawled across the tracks, we were overtaken by the experts. Shimmering in Lycra suits, they glided past with effortless, rhythmic skating steps, pushing out first on one leg, then the other. Each step is an act of faith, as the entire weight of the body is carried forward on one ski. As the momentum slows, the other ski takes over just in time. The grace of their swaying movement enchanted me and I was determined to learn the pas de patineur, or skating step, before the end of the week.

When la burle had died down, we crept out of the woods to the open slopes. The rounded mountains of the Massif Central stretched away from us, and in the distance the light sparkled on the jagged peaks of the Alps, with Mont Blanc shining above them. The Alps are mere babes in comparison with the slopes we stood on: volcanoes which erupted some 10 million years ago. Time has smoothed their contours, and the summits curve gently before running through pine forests down into the valleys.

We were staying in the tiny village of Les Estables, not far from Le Puy. Apart from a couple of hotels set up for cross-country skiing and summer walking, most of the small stone houses belong to farmers. Our hotel, La Decouverte, was refreshingly informal: we helped ourselves to drinks at the bar and signed for them, and meals were eaten at a long table - guests and hotel staff together. The communal meals forced us to resurrect rusty French, and with liberal quantities of Franglais, it served us well. Conversation was lively and we traded the inevitable Irish jokes for the French equivalent, jokes about the long-suffering Belgians.

Apres-ski was limited to three rather gloomy bars in the village, but we were happy to end the day with a swim or a sauna, then a doze with a novel. There were other possibilities, such as a ride in a sledge pulled by husky dogs bred at a nearby farm, or exploring the area on snowbikes. These trips were fun, but the best moments were on the slopes after the first bruises had disappeared and I tried out a few tentative skating steps. Next year perhaps I shall consider a Lycra suit.

A week at La Decouverte in the peak month, February, costs about pounds 400, which includes all meals, cross-country skis and boots, and tuition. Phone the sister hotel, also called La Decouverte, at St Bonnet: 00 33 471 59 94 42. Alternatively, Waymark Holidays (01753 516477) specialises in cross- country skiing. A week at Les Estables, including flights, full board, ski equipment and tuition, costs from pounds 535.

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