I went to Scotland last month to write a piece about skiing for The Independent. I was dubious. This was the UK. Surely there was no way the snow - and the skiing - would be even remotely comparable to the Alps. Would the weather play ball? And what would the journey up there be like?
Here are five reasons why I was pleasantly surprised:
1. It's easy to get there
One Friday night after work, I simply boarded the Caledonian Sleeper train at London Euston. Bye bye flight check ins and long transfers that are part and parcel of a trip to the Alps. After a whisky nightcap in the lounge car with ‘Huggy’ and David, two guys who have been commuting on the sleeper for 15 years between them, I bedded down in my berth. It was snug - a narrow bunk bed and just enough space to squeeze my suitcase in - but it was all I needed. The next morning, just before 8am, I was woken up with a cup of tea and a half-hour warning ahead of my stop, Aviemore, a 20-minute drive from Cairngorm Mountain. Travelling through the night meant I was on the slopes by 9am on Saturday morning after a decent night’s kip. The return journey is on a Sunday night, and arrives back in London before 8am the following day. So you really can pack a skiing weekend into two days - and be back at your desk on Monday morning.
2. The conditions
Weather in Scotland can be unpredictable - the wind can whip up, reducing visibility at the top of the mountain and, if it’s strong enough, forcing lifts to close. But if you pick your days, skiing here is as good as the Alps. The first day of my weekend was blessed with sunshine and blue skies. After a night’s snowfall, on the second day I was treated to powder and silky soft snow coating the resort’s 18.5 miles of pistes. The temperature dropped to -7C, but I kept cosy in Patagonia gear, and warmed up with a hot chocolate at the Ptarmigan, the UK’s highest restaurant.
3. New changes mean now's the time to go
It’s an exciting time to visit Cairngorm Mountain. The resort was recently taken over by Natural Retreats, who have committed to a five-year, £6.2m investment. This includes a new restaurant at base station, The Storehouse, with wholesome, locally-sourced dishes that don’t break the bank. But it’s not just the leisure market who will benefit from the investment. For adrenaline junkies, a new freestyle area with rails and jumps is being built with the help of Team GB snowboarder and Cairngorm local, Jamie Trinder. There are also plans to open a training facility to help develop top athletes.
4. Other activities on offer
For non-skiing days, Aviemore offers a wealth of other indoor and outdoor activities, including dog sledding, whisky tours, kayaking on Loch Morlich, hiking, mountain biking, spa treatments, sailing and clay pigeon shooting. You can't imagine cramming in that much in Continental resorts. A brand new climbing wall has recently opened at Glenmore Lodge, while The Winking Owl pub has also benefited from a redevelopment and is a good place to refuel. For après-ski drinks, the Skiing Doo is a cosy basement bar with wooden booths and ceilings covered in skiing paraphernalia.
5. Home sweet home
The same language, the same currency - Skiing in Scotland is skiing at home. And there’s something deliciously sweet about carving up snowy pistes and knowing that you haven’t schlepped all the way to the Alps, but are right on your doorstep.