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Get on the straight and narrow in Austria's Alps

Your partner loves downhill, you fancy trying cross-country. So find a location where both are possible, says Elizabeth Heathcote

There are two types of people in the world, those who've got the skiing bug and those who haven't. People who love skiing will for ever hanker after the thrill of the slopes and the feel of salopettes, even if they went only once with the school 20 years ago. People who don't – well, don't.

I belong to the latter group. I enjoy gentle pursuits, like hiking and Jacuzzis. Skiing for me has always been about poseurs and life-threatening danger. But what do you do if your beloved thinks differently, and wants you to come, too?

The answer is to find a location that offers high-quality downhill skiing for Sir (in our case), and, for Madam, cross-country skiing. This will both entertain her in the crisp winter air and allow her to eat as much as she likes while toning her up and getting her fit, without risk to limb or soul and with a sauna at the end of the day.

Leutasch, a chocolate-box Austrian village, is one of the world's premier cross-country skiing centres. The Nordic skiing event in the Winter Olympics has been held here twice and it has 250km of prepared trails. Leutasch is also a short bus ride from Seefeld, a pretty Alpine downhill skiing venue with two mountains.

Nev, my partner, signs up for an improver's course, so he's not skiing in isolation. I, meanwhile, hook up with my fellow cross-country beginner, Julie from Yorkshire, and we are fitted with boots, poles and skis by our rep and trainer for the week, Steve, a very nice ex-Army "ski bum".

I can't wait to get started. Cross-country skiing, I have been told, is the walker's choice. You don't need expensive designer gear – thermals, tracky bottoms, a fleece and waterproofs are ideal. It is perfect for the mature skier who prefers to amble through sunny meadows rather than career down mountainsides.

It's not as easy as it looks. The boots are much lighter than for downhill – comfortable and flexible, they double up as walking boots. The skis, though, are longer and thinner and hard to balance on. We stand in a meadow (well, I stand; Julie repeatedly falls over), while Steve explains that there are two forms of cross-country skiers. Skaters (the most expert), who sort of skate on their skis. Traditionalists (us), who chunter along parallel narrow tracks that are dug into the snow and renewed each morning.

There are four basic actions to master. Poling (poles in, push off and zoom – for downhill); the push and glide (opposite ski and pole forward in turn, and you sort of run on your skis, with little kicks back as you go – for flat and gentle slopes); herringbone (skis in a V, poles dug in behind, scamper forward – for steep uphills); and the snowplough (skis in a reverse V, ankles out – for steep downhill).

We set off across the meadow. It's a gentle downhill and I pole and go – wheeee! Oops, Julie's over (again) but I'm a natural! But then we have to come back up, and when I say up ... the gradient is not discernable to the human eye, but boy, can I feel it. My push and glide is an undignified shuffle as my arms ache, my legs ache, my lungs ache. After an hour of this I am angry, exhausted and when I fall over, I refuse to get up. Julie is gracious as she cruises past.

Cross-country skiing is a much more active sport than downhill. It is said to be one of the most effective all-round, low-impact exercises known to man. And I am in no doubt about that when I wake up. But it is amazing and joyous how one's middle-aged body adapts and energises. Day two, we cruise off up the valley trails and cover 10km. My push and glide is not quite an elegant joy, but it's already less of a shuffle.

As in downhill skiing, routes are graded blue, red and black, and there is a network of them here. On day three, Steve takes us up into the woods. Skiing round meadows is nice enough, but on trails through the pine woods, just us three and the snow and the mountains and the sun, it is heaven. We stick to blue and simple red trails, and the little undulations are pleasurably thrilling. Soon we've done 18km, and barely noticed it.

We take it easy, with lots of water and chat stops. It's strangely intimate, as though we are polar explorers locked in our own private bubble. I sit beside Julie as she drinks the first hot chocolate of her life. Steve tells us stories from his army days. And by late afternoon I am back with Nev, sharing a sauna and swapping tales of our adventures over dinner.

By the end of the week we are off-piste adventurers. We zig-zag up a hillside. We zoom through woods. When the trails get too tough for us we walk instead – there are 100km of winter hiking trails here. We stop at a lodge in the woods for soup and apple strudel, then walk and ski back down to the valley bottom, through silent woods. We follow part of a black trail on foot, with its twists and turns and steep falls and it's inspiring – once I've got that snowplough under control.

I return to Britain aching, filled with oxygen and sunshine, and a physical confidence that I haven't felt in years. I have new muscles in my arms, back and legs – real ones that I can feel. My waist is an inch smaller. I have learned a new skill. And Nev and I are a skiing couple. Well, sort of ...

Compact facts

How to get there

Headwater Holidays (01606 720099; headwater.com ) offers a week's cross-country skiing in Leutasch, Austria, from £1,057 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, half board at the four-star Hotel Xander, instruction, equipment and passes. Some weeks are reserved for "improvers".