by Janice Hopper

Aviemore, and the countryside surrounding it, has always attracted Scots seeking adventure, rural experiences, outdoor living and skiing. But from Summer 2019 Aviemore will have new visitors rolling into town as the much-awaited Caledonian Sleeper Trains come on track, heralding a fresh era of rail travel.

For those who haven’t experienced a night aboard the ‘Sleeper’, the overnight trains offered two bunkbeds and a small sink in every cabin, alongside shared toilet facilities. Whilst it was fantastic to reach your destination as you slept, it couldn’t quite be described as luxurious or private! The new stock will bring modern comfort to overnight travel, featuring suites complete with double beds, and private shower and toilet facilities. Such indulgent accommodation will potentially open Aviemore up to guests who wish to experience the region in restful style.

For those who can relate this, and seek out the unique, the enriching and the luxurious in the great outdoors, here’s a guide to the riches of Aviemore.

What to do

When it comes to attractions Aviemore itself is set within the largest national park in the UK, the Cairngorms National Park. This stunning setting is second to none, featuring nineteen ‘Areas of Conservation’, twelve ‘Special Protection Areas’ and 46 ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’. The park is also home to four of the five highest mountains in the UK; Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain. The mountain closest to the town of Aveimore is Cairn Gorm: at 4,081 feet it’s the sixth highest mountain in the UK, offering a range of hiking, guided walks and skiing.

In fact, Aviemore and the surrounding area is home to a range of UK firsts and boasts. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has a Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig, which welcomed the first polar bear cub born in the UK for 25 years. This very special bear, named Hamish, attracts visitors from across Britain and beyond. He lives with his mother Victoria (the UK’s only female polar bear), whilst his father Arktos shares an enclosure with another adult male called Walker.

The park offers a self-drive safari as well as areas where guests explore on foot. But for additional comfort and information, book a Land Rover Tour of the main reserve, to see European Bison, Red Deer, Przewalski’s Horses and Vicuna, for as little as £1 per person. Photography tours are also available.

Those who wish to continue with the rail theme can head back in time at the Strathspey Railway. The journey aboard a vintage steam engine, from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and Broomhill, is scenic and historic. But, for added indulgence, the stewards offer a range of dining experiences. Light Lunch is available on the 12.30pm service – a soup and sandwich platter with pots of tea or coffee. Afternoon Tea can be booked with traditional tiers of cakes, sandwiches and scones, or consider a three course Sunday lunch. As day turns to night, the maroon and cream paintwork of Strathspey’s 1950’s dining train provides a stylish backdrop for evening meals. The Officers’ Saloon offers private dining, and creates bespoke menus for special events. And for a signature Scottish experience, it’s possible to organise whisky tasting in a unique setting.

Quality doesn’t have to mean relaxation or indulgence, exhilaration can play a part too. For those on a family break head to Landmark Forest Adventure Park for a rewarding day out that entertains adults, youngsters and even teenagers. Key rides include the Wild Water Coaster and the Runaway Timber Train, but there are gentler, more skilful activities, such as the challenging rope trails. Little ones, aged 2-5, look adorable tackling the Wee Monkey Trail, older children and adults get harnessed up for the Tarzan Trail (which feels higher than it looks) and the most audacious can attempt the high wire challenge course ‘RopeWorkz’. Next, get exotic in the serene Butterfly House, follow the Red Squirrel Nature Trail to see bushy-tailed creatures feeding and playing, climb to the top of the Fire Tower for views over the countryside, and get utterly disorientated within the Lost Labyrinth. Finally, disappear into Bamboozeleum for mind-bending illusions and baffling confusion. In terms of quality combined with fun, Landmark is one of the best excursions in the area.

One final unique offering in Aviemore is the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, the UK’s only free range reindeer herd. It’s an extremely festive day out in December, but fascinating all year round. The herd of 150 animals graze on the Cairngorm Mountains and on the Glenlivet Estate, but visit the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore for a Paddock Visit to see the animals up close, ask the keepers questions and learn more about the reindeer’s distinctive antlers, rutting season and diet. Or take part in a Hill Trek - led by experienced reindeer herders, visitors get out into the Cairngorms and witness these iconic animals in their Scottish habitat. With the opportunity to photograph, hand feed and stroke the reindeer, these memorable treks take approximately one and a half hours, and run daily at 11am till December.

Food and drink

Set in such rich countryside, finding quality produce in and around Aviemore isn’t hard if you know where to look. Drop by Balliefurth Farm Shop in Nethy Bridge or the nearby Rothiemurchus Estate, which sells its own Highland Beef, Forest Venison, Rainbow Trout and honey. Its Druie Café dishes up light lunches, as well as excellent cakes. After dining take a hike around Loch an Eilein to walk off any excess!

For a central Aviemore pitstop, the Mountain Café is highly recommended. It has excellent breakfast menus for all the family: adults indulge in French Toast or Granola rich with seeds and fruit, and the children’s menu features stacks of pancakes and healthy bowls of porridge.

Where to stay

After active days out in the countryside, returning to quality, individual accommodation enhances every rural escape.

  • For larger groups looking for sumptuous self-catering, consider the Big Husky Lodge. This Alpine Ski Lodge comprises of eight bedrooms, as well as an outdoor hot tub, and an indoor spa suite.
  • For excellent facilities in the centre of Aviemore it’s got to be the Macdonald Aviemore Resort. Three hotels and eighteen Woodland Lodges are available, and the resort offers a swimming pool (featuring a flume and wave machine), a cinema, Spey Valley Shopping and a varied mix of restaurants. With a Children’s Activity Centre boasting three storeys of soft play it’s ideal for families who desire entertainment on tap.
  • For romantic escapes flit to Muckrach House. This converted Victorian shooting lodge is now a restful haven.

Aviemore is one of a few destinations where quality and fun come together seamlessly. It offers unique experiences that appeal across the generations, tempting visitors with attractions, sights and sounds that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK. Holidays in the great outdoors have never felt so good.

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