Travel review: The Dolomites

The Alta Badia region in Italy's Dolomites. PIC: PA
The Alta Badia region in Italy's Dolomites. PIC: PA
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It may not look as thrilling as downhill, but cross-country skiing is growing in popularity. Abi Jackson gives it a go.

How serene it looks? How gentle? How – dare I say it – ‘easy’ compared to ‘proper’ skiing? That’s what I thought. I was wrong.

Serene and gentle, yes – once you’ve mastered it. But it certainly isn’t easy.

In fact, an hour into my first lesson with the charismatic Giorgio, at cross-country ski school Alta Badia in Italy’s Dolomites region, my quads are burning and I’m out of breath.

If you’re not familiar with it, cross-country – also known as Nordic – skiing basically means using skis to cross snowy terrain. While downhill skiing is all about whizzing down mountains, cross-country traditionally provided a way of travelling over snow-covered landscapes faster than trudging on foot.

It has flourished as a sport in its own right and is becoming increasingly popular as a leisure activity. Downhill and snowboarding may lead by quite a margin in terms of participation, but it’s cross-country that’s snowballing, growing at a greater rate than downhill.

It tends to attract a more mature crowd, and some of its plus points are obvious: you don’t have to faff around with all those queues and lifts, it can be considerably cheaper (if you don’t need a lift pass, for instance) and it’s arguably safer, given that you’re removing gravity from the equation, there’s less speed and it’s far less crowded.

At the start of the lesson, Giorgio also proudly declares that cross-country skiing is one of the best full-body workouts going. Super-lean, and glowing with vitality, he is a superb advert for his claim.

Gravity does most of the work in downhill skiing. That doesn’t apply in cross-country. Instead, you’re using your own momentum and body movements to push, pull and glide along the narrow tracks compressed into the snow. Balance and core strength therefore play a big part, along with a good sense of co-ordination –and it is incredibly physical.

Giorgio breaks down the technique into single movements, and we practise them on the ski school’s circular track.

It might be flat but there are still a few tumbles. By the end of day one, however, we’re already putting the movements together and – albeit in a slow, unsteady and clunky beginner’s manner – almost doing it properly (It might be hard work but it can be much quicker to learn).

I’m utterly knackered though.

Thankfully, luxury awaits back at Hotel Rosa Alpina, in the centre of San Cassiano, a peaceful and picturesque village a few miles away from the ski school.

Owned and run by the same family for three generations, it promises ‘local hospitality with an elegant, refined Alpine atmosphere’.

Its individually designed suites are unquestionably five-star, with food and wine lists to match, but it’s relaxed and homely too.

As far as ski resorts go, San Cassiano isn’t a buzzing party town, but if sophistication and gourmet dining are what you’re after, this is definitely worth adding to that wish list.

After chilling in the hotel spa, we dress and head for dinner at St. Hubertus, the two Michelin-star gourmet restaurant attached to Rosa Alpina, which, under head chef Norbert Niederkofler, has flourished.

Alta Badia boasts 30km of cross-country routes across twinkling open meadows and snake through gently undulating forest paths.

At one point, an experienced local glides past. Swift and smooth, she looks almost balletic.

She is gone in a flash and is one of just five other snow-skaters we encounter all afternoon. This is a big part of the appeal; cross-country skiing is so dreamily peaceful.

I leave with a new-found respect for those cross-country bunnies, and – I hope – just a hint of Giorgio’s rosy glow in my cheeks.

GETTING THERE

Abi Jackson was a guest of Rosa Alpina (+39 0471 849 500; rosalpina.it) which offers doubles from €430 (two sharing), with breakfast.

Lessons at the cross-country ski school Alta Badia (scuolafondo.it) start from €42 for one person per hour. Every additional person is charged €10.