Master Nordic skiing in the Italian Dolomites

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Anna Hart
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Contributing Travel Editor Anna Hart finds her snow-legs at the luxurious alpine hideaway of Rosa Alpina

For many years, ski holidays have hovered tantalisingly out of my reach. As a teenager I devoured Audrey Hepburn and vintage Bond movies, seduced by the wintry romance and old-school glamour of alpine resorts like Gstaad, St Moritz and Courchevel, dreaming of clinking cocktail glasses with a dashing lover after a day on the slopes. And as the sort of traveller who gets fidgety after 15 minutes on a sunlounger, the allure of a trip combining scenery, adrenalin, exertion and liberal quantities of cheese and booze was strong. The only thing holding me back from learning to ski, each winter, was my right leg. My right leg is a wimp. And rightly so: I’ve smashed her up twice. Both times on a bike, both times abroad and in dramatic fashion, and both times landed me back at my parents house in Belfast in a wheelchair for months at a time.

While I am very proud of my titanium-pinned and surgically-scarred leg’s everyday pluck, I just can’t talk her into activities that involve repeatedly whacking a hard surface - an inevitability for a new skier. So every winter, I would scroll forlornly through Facebook and Instagram feeds, as rosy-cheeked and fluoro-clad friends swished down the slopes, wishing that I had learned to ski when I was eight years old and invincible. 

Even without a chickenshit leg like mine, it takes guts to learn to ski as an adult. “I can think of better ways to spend £500 and a week’s holiday than falling on my arse in the cold whilst being rubbish at something,” huffed one friend as she booked another trip to Thailand. “I’m worried about breaking my arm on a small child,” shuddered another.

But in recent ski seasons there has been growing buzz amongst travel editors and savvy snow-junkies about cross-country (or Nordic) skiing, and my ears pricked up. For decades dismissed as the boring cousin of downhill skiing, today more resorts are offering cross-country trails, celebrities are striding stylishly through the snow clad in Moncler and Canada Goose, and sports professionals and ski instructors are touting it as a physically challenging yet low-impact alternative to downhill. A more thorough cardio workout than downhill, which lets gravity do some of the work, this relatively affordable and accessible sport also offers an alternative to jam-packed resorts, pricey lift tickets and crowded slopes; a very different experience to crowding into slush-covered lifts and dodging fellow downhill skiers like Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street. Agog at the thought of finally kick-and-gliding my way into a white, wintry wilderness, before joining the gluehwein-glugging masses and retiring to a romantic cabin like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I book myself into my first ever ski school, Scuola Fondo in the Italian Dolomites. 

There is an undeniable sense of drama about the looming, rosy-hued Dolomites, designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 2009, with jagged peaks, plunging ravines, and Europe’s largest high-altitude plateau. And travel editor friends had enthused about San Cassiano in Alta Badia, a picturesque village within the highly-rated Dolomiti Superski network, offering 25km of pristine cross-country trails through the fields and forests in the foothills of the Conturines, Lavarella and Settsass mountain range. But I have an ulterior motive: if I’m kicked out of ski school for chronic crapness, I want to drown my sorrows in style. And with 23 Michelin-starred restaurants (only San Sebastien has a denser constellation of stars) and some of Italy’s best wine producers, South Tyrol is on every food obsessive’s travel bucket list. Chief among the region’s starry restaurants is St Hubertus, helmed by Norbert Niederkofler, a charismatic local chef widely credited with kickstarting the culinary explosion in the region, by melding traditional Italian techniques with hearty Austrian influences. Norbert’s beetroot ravioli is the stuff of legend, and other favourites on the tasting menu include marinated lamb rib with tarragon mayonnaise and hazelnut souffle.

By booking into Rosa Alpina, the chic, family-run 52-room lodge that houses St Hubertus, I won’t be bored if I turn out to have two left skis. Although when I see my luxurious contemporary-chalet-style room - all blonde wood, charcoal-hued soft furnishings and a wood-burning fireplace that lives up to all my Bond fantasies - the thought of flunking ski-school and spending the next five days watching Netflix and ordering room service seems perfectly appealing. 

But school’s not out just yet, and Hugo and Ursula, the charming owners of Rosa Alpina, pack me off to Scuola Fondo. My instructor, Giorgio Gabrieli, founded the cross country ski club with his friends Buno and Egon 20 years ago, a hut where a handful of cross-country enthusiasts hung out. Alta Badia’s altitude, wide valleys and cool temperatures make for prime cross country skiing conditions (today a snow cannon offers back-up) and with the help of the tourist association they steadily created a network of scenic trails. Today Alta Badia attracts world-class skiers from around the world, and the Italian cross-country team train here. Inspired, I opt for the classic (or langlaufen) technique, which Giorgio tells me is a little trickier to master, but safer on your joints long-term than the ‘skating’ technique.

My daily two-hour lessons fly by, and while I can't say its easy, it’s certainly not risky, painful or frustrating to the same degree as mastering downhill. By day four (amounting to 8-10 hours tuition) I’m confidently swishing my way through the trails solo, exhilarated by mountain air and the thrill of discovering a brand new love. Because yes, it turns out that I - and my right leg - love cross-country skiing. I arrived at Rosa Alpina scared, and I’m leaving a skier. This is surely something worth celebrating - and I know just the restaurant…

Save Your Pennies: Nordic Skiing In Scotland

Inspired to get your skis on this season? You don’t need to travel further than Aberdeenshire

SKI: There's usually snow in the high forest of Clashindarroch of Aberdeenshire throughout the winter months, and whilst Scottish snow can’t quite compete with alpine powder, Clashindarroch Forest is a great bet for newbie Nordic skiers on a budget. There’s a huge variety of interlinked trails, most groomed during the ski season, and from December to January the Huntly Nordic & Outdoor Centre in Aberdeenshire offers great value nordic ski day courses (10am-4pm) for just £66, and weekend workshops from £121, including all equipment.

SIP: Nearby Dufftown is the central point on the whisky trail around the glens of Speyside, and the biggest exporter of whisky in Britain with numerous distilleries around town, large and small. Glenfiddich is the big-name and well worth a visit for a restorative dram after a day on the snow.

SLEEP: The Castle Hotel, formerly home to the Dukes of Gordon during the 18th century, offers luxurious doubles from £125.

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Anna Hart