What to do in Aviemore and Around
With the alarmingly cold burst of Siberian weather that has found its way to Scotland, early optimism towards spring has been postponed. Moping around the city is certainly not the answer to such changes in expectation and when it comes to embracing wintery Scotland, The Cairngorms has no equal. A favourite for skiers, winter hikers, wildlife spotters and landscape photographers amongst others, I’m currently exploring the best things to do near Aviemore. The go-to base for exploring the best of the Cairngorms National Park, I’m branching out a little to take on culture, the outdoors, history and more in this brilliant part of the world.
The Cairngorms National Park – Britain’s largest – is famous for its dramatic and intimidating Munros that loom large over vast stretches of the Central Highlands. Five of the highest six summits in the UK can be found here. Their arctic character and largely barren appearance make them something of a challenge and are generally recommended more for the experienced climbers out there. I had hoped to tick off a couple of them this year but, admittedly, have bottled it thus far. I do the next best thing this time and take the funicular railway up the mighty Cairngorm Mountain to join the skiers and snowboarders up top. Taking you nearly to the peak’s summit in just ten minutes, the vastness of the views over the National Park’s collection of lochs and Scots pine forestations is fabulous. Although winter sports are your main reason to head here – with over 20 miles of piste calling out to you – the funicular does operate year-round.
Having had my lugs given a thorough bruising in the bitterly cold wind chill, I head back down in search of easier exercise. Low level walking is probably a more appealing challenge for most and you’ll not be short of options here either. My favourite thus far is easily a stroll around the Rothiemurchas Estate (try saying that in your broadest Scottish accent). Spreading itself generously to the south of Aviemore, the heart is the stunning Loch an Eilein. Park up and take the 4 mile (approx. 2 hour) circular walk around the Loch, looking out for red squirrels and birds of prey along the way. Being me, the rugged and evocative ruins of the loch’s very own abandoned and inaccessible island castle were particularly alluring. What a human can’t see, a drone will take care of and I sent my flying travel companion up and over for a closer look. A largely frozen lake, surrounded by snow-topped peaks and centering around an ancient ruin equates to something of a Scotland overdose and the saltire was nearly out as I felt the impulse to start belting out ‘Flower of Scotland’ and traumatising all the visitors. I resisted. Just.
The Cairngorms is also one of the best outdoor sports hubs in Europe and any number of activities can be taken on. This year I’ll be digging deeper into some of these – and I’ll be starting with Craggan Outdoors. Based within a 15 minute drive of Aviemore, their range of activities include mountain biking, disc golf, kayaking and gorge walking. More to come on that in the months ahead.
History and Culture
The Highland Folk Museum has long been something of a fascination for me. Thrust onto my blogger’s radar due largely to its starring role in Outlander, it is an incredibly authentic look at Highland life through the centuries. A smattering of buildings allow for a window of time-travel as classrooms, farms, workshops and more come to evocative life in your mind’s eye. The star of the show though is the open-air Highland township where thatched roofs, peaty fires and costumed staff whisk you back to Jacobite times as discontented political rumblings and clan camaraderie reigned supreme.
Nearby Ruthven Barracks is one of those ruins that has been the scourge of drivers for decades. Enticingly placed aside the motorway, there’s always some poor sod who can’t pile up to the window and inspect it properly as everyone else ooohs and aaahs at its moody mystique. I do therefore advise allowing an extra half hour for a stop and a nosey. Do it for the driver. Built by the Government forces as a base when combating the Jacobites in the early 18th Century, it was also a refuse for the defeated Jacobite survivors after Culloden. Its prominent yet lonely setting undoubtedly makes it one of our more visually appealing relics.
Braemar Castle, a good bit to the south of Aviemore now, is another of those classic Highland fortresses that I have, up until now, not been able to speak of in my blogging work. I pay a quick visit for a poke around. Deep within Royal Deeside (very posh), the Castle is just outside the village of Braemar and goes back to 1628. Although closed at this time of year, it’s opulence and slight eeriness is clear immediately. A fascinating building, it does have that slight Disney feel going on with its turrets and L-plan design but there’s a solid toughness to it as well. Given that it’s bloody Baltic here more often than not that’s maybe not surprising.
Being so tantalisingly close to Speyside, whisky country is calling. The sweet, delicately spiced notes of the water of life in these parts never fails to bring on a bout of dehydration and nearby distilleries abound. Tomintoul, Tomatin and Glenlivet are all nearby but on this occasion I stop in at one of my favourites – Dalwhinnie. Falling just outside the Speyside catchment area (you can hardly tell), its 15-year-old has long been a go-to pal on the whisky shelf to help take on life’s challenges. Their tasting tours are glorious and when you star pairing drams with chocolate, you’re in risky territory. Thank God there’s a limit on Contactless transactions.
These parts are also very much on track when it comes to beer and the Cairngorm Brewery is throwing out brilliant ales these days. The craft beer revolution has seen expectations and standards shoot through the roof when it comes to an acceptable pint and this place is holding its own. Cheeky branding and delicate flavours make for an impressive end result and expect lots of tell-tale clinking sounds emanating from your car boot on the drive home.
And I do love a good bridge…..
Architecture is probably not what springs to mind first when thinking of The Cairngorms but the famous stone bridge in the heart of Carrbridge (a few miles north of Aviemore) is amongst the most photogenic man-made spots in Scotland. Built in 1717 over the River Dulnain, you’ll be well advised to drive slowly through the town as you’ll see it quite suddenly by the roadside and will want to get out immediately. Even if you only pass by for ten minutes, your camera will thank you.
Where to Stay
Aviemore always pulls in visitors and is easily the most developed area in the north/west Cairngorms. You’ll find plenty of supermarkets, accommodation and facilities here. But I personally prefer something a little more rustic and the outlying towns and villages have more appeal. On this occasion, I was fortunate enough to be invited to review the new Strathspey Lodge in Duthil, just outside of Carrbridge. Trips like these are at their best when done with others and this is an absolutely perfect base for large groups who are happy self-catering and eager to have all of the home comforts you could wish for.
The warm sense of happiness at walking into accommodation that is simply on a different level to almost everywhere out there was the perfect tonic to a day on the hoof. The Lodge is immaculate, shiny new, tasteful in the extreme and I was immediately at ease. Accommodation reviews are things I do rarely but I knew I was going to get on great with this place and so it proved. With 4 bedrooms, a terrace with scenic mountain views, a luxurious living area, well equipped kitchen, games room, kids playing room and more it’s a place built with families or groups of friends in mind. Or lonely travel bloggers in need of some luxury after days roughing it on the road and atop snowy mountains. My day ended the best way – with dram in hand and wood fire roaring.
Winter’s not so bad after all.
Disclaimer: While I was invited to stay at the Strathspey Lodge as a guest, my endorsement of it as a brilliant place to stay is based purely on my personal experience. It was pretty damn good.
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