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Issue 23 - Proof of life apres-ski

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Proof of life apres-ski

Aviemore was looking tired and outdated. But as Mark Nicholls discovers, the Cairngorms region and the town at the heart of them are being regenerated

Across a short, dark expanse of water, the ruins of a crumbling castle stand out on an island.

It was once a safe retreat, a refuge for women in troubled times, seeking shelter from danger while their menfolk were embroiled in distant conflicts.

Now, as one of the most photographed views in the Aviemore and Cairngorm area, it sits at the heart of the Rothiemurchus estate, which in many ways symbolises the very essence of this region.

This is where the adventure of the great outdoors meets the natural environment, where the historic landscape nurtures flora and fauna yet offers a gigantic playground for a diverse range of pursuits in the stunning Cairngorms National Park.

No wonder the revamped, regenerated and revived region sits collectively under the banner of Aviemore and the Cairngorms: The Natural Adventure. This sums up how the area’s beautiful landscape, traditional culture and varied wildlife work as a backdrop for the range of outdoor activities, tourist attractions and picturesque villages.

Afew miles beyond this scene at Loch an Eilean is Cairngorm Mountain, a ski resort that is enjoying something of a renaissance.

A central focus of this regeneration, perhaps even its catalyst, is the re-birth of the Aviemore Highland Resort under Macdonald Hotels.

Refurbished, in part re-built, this now offers excellent accommodation.

Aviemore had been in the doldrums for some time as the former resort declined and the attraction of the ski mountain waned.

Aviemore and the Cairngorms is far more than a ski region. In fact those seeking non-stop ski-ing would be a little disappointed.

Despite the diverse and challenging runs, it is not a ski resort on the scale of those in the Austrian ski belt, for example.

But where it beats the Alpine resorts hands down is in the way it offers much more to do and within such close range.

The region is a base for fishing, shooting, quadbiking, mountain biking, sailing, canoeing, golf, viewing wildlife, hiking and walking, sightseeing and, of course, relaxing and socialising.

And, crucially, this is an all-year-round destination with most activities readily provided in summer as well as winter.

Astarting point for exploring the region is the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort. There is a range of hotel accommodation and woodland lodges, a retail area, conference facilities, food halls, bars and fine restaurants all within easy walking distance plus a championship golf course and skating rink.

The focal point is the stunning new leisure arena with a 25-metre pool, waves and technogym. The resort is also child-friendly with a delightful entertainment and children’s activity programme covering every day of the week.

There is also a beauty zone where a range of treatments and massages are available.

There’s nothing like a relaxing sauna or a massage to ease aching muscles and bones after a day’s ski-ing on Cairngorm Mountain. The ski area, around 12 miles from Aviemore, can accommodate around 3000 skiers and has a range of runs and lift systems, ski and snowboard schools and beautiful landscape to ski over. A day-long snowsports pass is £25.

The 1.8km Cairngorm Railway takes skiers up to the higher slopes. But is also open to non-skiers who may want to dine at the Ptarmigan Restaurant, the highest restaurant in the United Kingdom at 3,600 feet above sea level or even do a little shopping at the summit.

On those days when the slopes are inaccessible, or lack that vital ingredient of snow, the choice of alternative pursuits is mesmerising.

From the Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre, a short walk out of Aviemore, the family-owned 8,600- acre estate, is a gateway to the Cairngorms.

Nestling between the broad basin of the River Spey and the Cairngorm mountains, it lies at the heart of Cairngorms National Park and is part of a proposed World Heritage Site with unique Caledonian Forest and designated wetlands.

A walk around Loch an Eilean, about three miles, is a delight at any time of the year. But the estate also offers mountain walks, fishing, clay shooting, mountain biking, quad bike treks or shopping for local produce.

It offers the UK’s only Sleddog Centre and opportunities to see at close hand the estate’s red deer herd.

Johnnie Grant, whose family has run the estate for more than 450 years, is acutely aware of the responsibilities that accompany any venture that seeks to dovetail tourism with a natural environment. We talk on a windswept hillside with snow in the air, surrounded by a herd of immaculate red deer.

“What we have,” he explains, “is a huge responsibility for this amazing natural environment which is predominantly forest and high hills.

“Our challenge is to make sure everybody who is here has a world class experience and gets world class service.

“However, we have to do this in a way that helps people enjoy the environment in an exciting way but one that supports the environment rather than damages it.” An example is with the loch where people can learn to fish. As well as an activity, the loch also provides food for the Ospreys, virtually extinct in Scotland in the 19th century but reviving after being reintroduced in the 1950s.

For more bird and wildlife watching, Speyside Wildlife is an organisation that has become specialists in this area.

I joined Sally Dowden from Speyside Wildlife on a cold evening to retreat to a hide to view pine martens, animals from the same family as stoats and weasels that have made the Cairngorm area one of their strongholds.

Up to 12 people can slip into the viewing hide to await their arrival, though on the night in question I was left disappointed as it was one of the rare occasions they didn’t show up.

What we did see, however, was a cautious badger and a slightly nervous roe deer, both oblivious to our presence.

Speyside Wildlife can tailor its walks and tours to meet visitor demand.

Mrs Dowden explained: “For someone who just wants to experience the Cairngorms we try to concentrate on the species that are special to the area, birds such as capercaillie, golden eagle, black grouse, and deer, mountain hare, pine martens and badgers.

“We can design something for everyone.

Our events are meant to be very relaxed expeditions and not promising something we cannot deliver.

“While the idea is to have fun here, we take what we do seriously because we do not want to spoil what is precious to us in the environment.” There are so many other sites to visit in the area too: Strathspey Steam Railway, locations made famous by the British television series Monarch of the Glen, or Loch Insh Watersports Centre with its range of activities based on and around the loch such as sailing canoeing and windsurfing, plus a dry ski slope to help true beginners get started with ski lessons.

Other attractions include the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and the Glenmore Visitor Centre in Aviemore showcasing recreational opportunities in the area.

And when the weather is too bad to venture too far, there is The Fun House at the Hilton Hotel, Coylumbridge, which is great for the under 12s.

Another worthwhile stop is at Speyside Heather, run by David and Betty Lambie.

With 80,000 visitors a year it has an exhibition on the history and development of heather but also sells a whole range of heathers and items produced from the plant. It has a range of uses that include being made into chimney brushes, floor tiles, head dress for grouse camouflage, rope, scrubbers and jewellery.

The garlands woven each year for the royal pavilion at the Braemar gathering are also of heather. It is also used in beer, wine, whisky and tea.

But no visit would be complete without sampling clootie dumpling at the centre’s famous Clootie Dumpling Restaurant. The dumplings can be eaten in 21 different ways either as sweet or savoury.

Aviemore is an area you can explore on foot, by car, or hire cycles from places such as Bothy Bikes and pedal your way around quiet lanes or specially-designated trails that offer a unique insight into this fascinating region.

Despite its terrain, the region is highly accessible via train, bus, taxi or hire car. It is easy to get around and to get to.

There are regular flights into Inverness airport but one of the best links with London is via the overnight sleeper express train. The First Scotrail service with its comfortable berths departs London’s Euston station at 9.15pm and pulls into Aviemore Station, a mere 200 yards from the reception of the Aviemore Highland resort, in time for breakfast.

Eating, drinking and relaxing is all part of the vacation atmosphere of Aviemore and Cairngorm. There are no shortages of marvellous places to dine with one of the best restaurants located within the Aviemore Highland Resort. Try Aspects Restaurant for inspirational cuisine or The Laggan bar, specialising in malt whisky.

With the revitalisation of the Aviemore Highland Resort virtually complete, managing director Sean Sullivan explained: “We see Aviemore and the surrounding area as a natural hub for Highland tourism – one which can take its place as an international tourist destination and centre of excellence for tourism.

“We are confident that the completed development at Aviemore will have enormous benefits for the wider area.

”As you journey around Aviemore and the Cairngorm region, you cannot help but sense a new optimism in the air.

With the Aviemore Highland Resort providing a revived sense of focus to the region and numerous first class attractions within easy reach, this is an all-year-round holiday destination you won’t want to miss out on.

Mark Nicholls and his family stayed at the Macdonald Highland Hotel on the Aviemore Highland Resort where a family of four staying for a week on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis costs around £550 per adult. Children under five stay for free. The resort also has accommodation in the Four Seasons Hotel, The Academy Hotel, the Aviemore Inn and Highland Lodges.

He travelled to Aviemore from London Euston aboard First Scotrail’s Caledonian Sleeper. Fares start from around £99

Aviemore Highland Resort
Tel: +44 (0)1479 815100

Caledonian Sleeper
Tel: +44 (0)8457 550 033

Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre
Tel: +44 (0)1479 812 345

Speyside Wildlife
Tel: +44 (0)1479 812 498

Cairngorms National Park

Speyside Heather
Tel: +44 (0)1479 851 359

Bothy Bikes
Tel: +44 (0)1479 8101 11

Strathspey Steam Railway
Tel: +44 (0)1479 810 725

Loch Insh Watersports Centre
Tel: +44 (0)1540 651 272

Cairngorm Mountain
Tel: +44 (0)1479 861 261

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