We're leaning against the wooden fence marking the tracks in the snow at the cross-country winter wonderland of Wanaka's Snow Farm.

It has 55km of beautifully groomed snow trails and, without the clang of chairlifts, is peaceful.

We watch the Russian national cross-country team practise on a track below us. One man, Alexei Sotsgov, performs impressive turns and shouts orders in a thick accent.

They're wearing the tightest gear, similar to 1970s tracksuits and headbands, just like the rest of the cross-country skiers we pass. Clothing for cross-country skiing seems to be all about a snug-fit and layers, and we feel a little out of place in our brightly coloured, baggy ski gear.


We notice some of the names of the trails are also a bit different from those at downhill slopes. Take the Whoop-ity Doo Trail: it sounds like something Hugh Grant would say in Notting Hill.

Instead of big boots, we wear boots that look like ice skates without blades. Instead of the whole boot being attaching to a ski, just the toe is fixed to it.

"80 per cent of skiing is looking good," says our instructor, who has travelled from the US during its off-season, like a lot of the skiers. "If you look good, then you're skiing right."

Even though I look like Bambi learning to walk, it doesn't take me long to be striding without fear of going too fast on steep slopes, and I don't have to worry about being run over by a novice in a rooster hat.

Cross-country skiing is said to have originated in Scandinavia thousands of years ago as a method of transportation. It's now touted as the best aerobic workout available, burning around 700 calories an hour.

Classic cross-country skiing, which we're doing, is about gliding. We focus on shuffling, as if in socks over a polished floor, rather than the smooth skating movement used in cross-country ski skating.

We make our way along two machine-made grooves in the snow. We pass a few dads out with their daughters, and even people taking their dogs for a ski. It reminds me of going for a walk or a run in a park, albeit on skis in the snow, where you can go as leisurely or as hard-out as you like.

We stick to the paths, but once you're ready, there's also off-trail skiing and I have my eye on making it to one of Snow Farm's cosy back-country huts for ski-in, ski-out accommodation and a look at Roaring Meg.

If you're new to snow sports, cross-country skiing is much easier to learn than downhill skiing. It's an affordable option to get you out in the snow, in beautiful surroundings, and is a great form of fitness.

It's a more reflective pursuit than the thrill-seeking downhill version, and seems to attract an older crowd. It's nice being part of the landscape while moving through it with minimal impact.

Just take your own iPod or ear muffs so you can enjoy the trail without middle-of-the-road music, and leave your baggy snow gear at the door.

Trail mix
Snow Farm is 35km from Wanaka's main centre. Packages including a lesson, equipment hire and a trail pass are available. You can also try snow shoeing, sledding, tubing and dog sledding. Accommodation is available at back-country huts. Contact (03) 443 7542.

Danielle Wright was hosted by Lake Wanaka Tourism, with a hire car from Avis.