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".

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices