By Gordon Davidson

UNTIL VERY recently, my abiding memory of Aviemore was of its rather angular, concrete ‘Centre’, abruptly dropped into a Speyside village in the 1960s by tourism chiefs looking to accommodate and entertain winter sports enthusiasts in self-consciously modern buildings intended to evoke Alpine lodges, but coming closer to creating a location to which a James Bond villain might happily retreat for the final explosive 20 minutes of the film.

When that tourist-targeting development originally opened in 1966, Aviemore abruptly become a very cool place to be, its outré modernity drawing in hordes of young southerners, keen to be seen around its ski-lift, ice-rink, cinema, swimming pool, sauna and numerous apres-ski bars. It was, without irony, marketed as the Chamonix of the Cairngorms.

But by the early 1970s, with the availability of cheaper travel to Europe’s genuinely Alpine ski resorts distracting the fickle suburban nouveau riche, and the very basis of the Aviemore Centre’s existence sullied by the downfall of its architect John Poulson, who was jailed on corruption charges after his bribery of the commissioning public official was exposed, there was definitely a feeling that Aviemore had passed its peak.

Having blotted out the memory of some rather grey family holidays spent there as a primary school kid, it was really only a few years ago that this rather unique wee place, stuck up there on its high plateau, first crept back onto my radar, when musical friends of mine from Edinburgh, labouring under the band name of ‘Bombskare’, raved to me about Mambo’s, a cafe bar on Aviemore’s main Grampian Rd that runs the length of the village.

During the day, Mambo’s serves up a range of hot food – including a very well-regarded venison burger – but at night it comes alive as a cocktail bar and musical venue, which, my Edinburgh friends assured me, was “always jumpin’, like”.

At the time, I disregarded their enthusiasm, but all the same, a seed of curiosity had been sown. Could Aviemore actually be ‘cool’ again?

Well, it turns out, the answer to that is ‘yes’.

When Country Lifestyle Scotland visited the Macdonald Aviemore Resort at the start of the autumn, it was apparent that a lot of Mr Poulson’s 1960s concrete had long ago been removed from the old ‘Aviemore Centre’ footprint, and the few angular bits that had been retained – in particular the striking white tower of the Strathspey Hotel – had, like a well-tended rock garden, been seamed around with fresh greenery, making the place an altogether prettier and more welcoming proposition, blending it into the surrounding Cairngorms landscape.

The Resort now comprises three hotels, aside from the old Strathspey – there’s the Macdonald Aviemore, the Macdonald Highlands and the Macdonald Morlich – which are scattered around a large campus, alongside a central resort building which incorporates a well-equipped leisure centre, with oodles of stuff for adults and kids, a huge cinema that doubles up as a conference venue, and the smart new Spey Valley Shopping arcade.

Dotted about the Macdonald Resort are restaurants and cafes of varying degrees of formality, although the overall atmosphere is very firmly family orientated.

Aware that the experience on offer would therefore be best enjoyed with a family, I had brought mine along, and the day had begun well, with a smooth cruise up the A9 leaving both wife and daughter in relaxed mood.

Once the Highland stretch of the A9 is joined at Perth, there is really only one obstacle to reaching Aviemore in 90 minutes, and that is House of Bruar.

Essentially, the best comfort stop anywhere on Scotland’s road network, Bruar’s most recent retail additions and catering extensions are all now well bedded in, giving it a more complete look. But we just stopped long enough to use the loos, squeeze down a nice china cup of tea, and ogle possibly the widest selection of preserves anywhere on the planet, before slipping back out onto the road north.

Shortly after, on arrival in Aviemore, it struck us that that specific vibe of ‘Highland luxury for all’ so successfully popularised by House of Bruar has become the benchmark for a Scottish tourist sector once internationally notorious for the staleness of its scones and surliness of its service.

Many years of Holyrood ministers optimistically intoning ‘land of food and drink’ has paid off, and where once there might have stood shabby pubs and chip shops, Aviemore now displays a colourful parade of delicatessens, individualist coffee shops and upmarket family-run restaurants.

(I’m not saying there are no pubs and chip shops – God forbid that we should live in a world without those – but as with all treats, ‘fewer and better quality’ is a good philosophy to follow).

Driving into the Resort campus itself, we parked in one of the ample tree-lined spaces, and trooped up to the main reception that serves as the nexus for all three hotels, to a bright greeting from the girl behind the counter, who had us on our way to our room within minutes.

We had asked for family accommodation, and were consequently assigned to the Macdonald Aviemore, where many of the rooms had been reconfigured to have a bunk room separated from the main space by a partial wall. While not quite an entirely private space, my teenaged daughter was satisfied with both the arrangement and the dedicated teen telly that came with it.

Already horizontal, I was most impressed with the main section’s humongous bed, and the room’s bright aspect, with a window looking due west towards the hills, while my wife was quietly delighted that Macdonald had not succumbed to the modern scourge of toiletries in wall mounted dispensers, but had stayed true to her preferred selection of shampoo and body wash miniatures.

And we were all most tickled by the custom-made ski cupboard just inside the room’s door, which although of absolutely no use to a family with no skiing ability or intentions, was also the exact perfect size for a lanky teen to hide in.

After some very agreeable lounging about, we headed off for dinner, at the Resort’s most upmarket eaterie, Aspects, so-called because in daylight, it has tremendous views of the surrounding countryside. Ensconced in a cosy booth, we were fussed over by the young staff, who brought a smile to the usually po-faced business of silver service.

Having forsaken House of Bruar’s epic pork pie selection, my appetite was healthy. I started with the scallops and pork belly, which was lovely, but not perhaps the best selection for a hungry man. It is, I passionately believe, every diner’s right to expect that plural ‘scallops’ on a menu should presage a dish exceeding the bare qualifying minimum of two scallops. Three is the standard, four is a treat. Just sayin’.

Fortunately, in a complicated quid pro quo involving her getting a double dessert, my wife had ordered the beef tataki so I could have a taste of that too. Aspects promises nothing but grass-fed Scotch beef matured for a minimum of 21 days, so that was predictably lovely.

For my main, I’d decided to endanger my ongoing employment as a farming journalist by ordering the Tempura Tofu, which arrived crispy and moreish, while my wife had the pan roasted chicken supreme, with asparagus, oyster mushrooms and mash.

But it was my daughter who picked the winner - her pan seared Stone Bass, served with spinach, and a mussel and saffron broth, was beautiful, helped along by a side dish of chunky chips with which to soak up that creamy broth.

After agreeable afters of, respectively, a cheese board, lemon posset and apple crumble, we rolled out of Aspects quite sated, and headed off across the campus to the Resort cinema to digest for several hours as Angelina Jolie once again donned her Maleficent horns.

The Speyside cinema is of a scale that no longer exists in the cities, where such spaces are subdivided into multi-screen venues. Aviemore’s auditorium is properly epic, and doubtless makes for a fine place to see any kind of show, projected or live.

We enjoyed a good night’s sleep, made all the better for the Macdonald Aviemore neither overheating its rooms nor over-restricting its windows, then headed down for a championship buffet breakfast, where we saw most clearly illustrated the issue facing parents embarking on a holiday with their kids – sheer excess energy.

Swinging off the light fittings they were, batting bread rolls at each other with baton loaves… and that is why Aviemore is such a solid family destination.

The place is surrounded by hills, forests and lochs, themselves penetrated and ringed by a multitude of paths for walking, cycling, segwaying and, of course, skiing, if you’re the type that believes a hotel ski cupboard should contain actual skis.

It is, in short, a tremendous place to burn off some energy, right in the heart of stunning countryside, where encounters with iconic wildlife are just around the next corner, or over the next rise, and when feet get sore or bladders full, there are good clean facilities to retreat to, and your next home-baked scone is never too far away.

Accordingly, Aviemore’s main shopping drag is a veritable temple dedicated to the worship of the comfy walking boot and the insulated jacket.

If the streets of Scotland’s cities are sometimes awash with people in sportswear who will never do sports, the streets of Aviemore can hold their head up high in the knowledge that all that bright, layered mountain clothing has been sold to people who are already quite high above sea level, and who may well tromp through snow before their day is out.

Urban Scotland’s family pastimes are very different from what they were in the 1960s. Walking a nature trail, exploring a forest, or bagging a Munro are no longer solely the jurisdiction of a small band of enthusiasts – it is mainstream entertainment, and we are all the better for it.

As the base for several days of rambling, followed by quality eating, sound sleep, and repeat, Aviemore ticks all the boxes, and may yet have its best days ahead of it, snow or no snow.

Determined to get a bit of that outdoor joy into our souls, whilst also clearing some of the rich butter coursing through our veins since dinner, breakfast and lunch, we took a right turn on the south-bound main street and headed to the Rothiemurchus Estate, where there was an elevated obstacle course which had prompted a rare flash of enthusiasm out of teen-daughter.

The estate, with a history stretching back to the 13th century, has a plethora of activities on offer, some of which, to country folk, might seem like a busman’s holiday – “So I pay YOU for the privilege of feeding your cows? HOW much for ride in a Land-rover up a bumpy dirt track? – but there’s no denying it’s a scenic piece of ground, and getting a guided tour from people who clearly care about it is a pleasure.

However, our primary target was TreeZone, in essence a raised walkway through a fine old hardwood forest, substantially jazzed up by the addition of platform-to-platform swings, zip wires, and other stuff-at-height that I can’t properly do justice to with words, but simply dare you to go do yourself.

Of course, the whole thing is facilitated by a sturdy and secure safety line, clipped onto an equally belt-and-braces harness fitted to one’s person before a single step is taken into the treetops. But avoiding injury and possible death isn’t the motivator here – it’s avoiding ‘hanging like a numpty in front of the youngsters’ that will drive you onwards.

Suffice to say, daughter, despite her unsuitable shoes, finished the lengthy and increasingly giddy course a good 20 minutes ahead of her parents, and while I never slipped up so much as to actually need rescued from an ignominious dangle, the sheer effort of avoiding such a fate left my shoulders sore for a few days, and my hands as calloused as a trapeze artist. Which was all tremendous fun.

The discovery, once back on terra firma and ravenous from exertion, that Rothiemurchus estate had its own delicatessen, led to yet more high-quality consumption.

But I’ve always had a weak spot for a good handmade Scotch Egg, coupled with a bottle of rare Highland porter, consumed back on that large hotel bed, as we considered what to do with the afternoon.

One of Aviemore’s strengths is its transport connections – as well as its proximity to the A9, it is on the main trainline to Inverness, which makes it very accessible from the south.

Despite being such a crucial transport hub, Aviemore’s train station is in the fine old tradition of village train stations, stone-built and sat right on the main road, between shops and cafes.

Adding to this marvellous split personality is its second line, which sits a platform width beyond the modern track, and about 100 years into the past.

Brought back into use in 1978 after restoration by a dedicated group of volunteers, the Strathspey Railway is a ten mile section of the original Highland Railway Line, with its own steam train and old style carriages, offering passengers all the sights, smells and sounds of the steam era.

To older visitors, it’ll perhaps recall Murder on the Orient Express, or less ominously, The Railway Children, but to anyone under 30, the first thought will be of the Hogwarts Express.

My wife’s main interest in it, however, was as an atmospheric setting for a fine afternoon tea, served on a three-tier platter, with tea out of china cups, as the Highland countryside rolled past outside, punctuated with puffs of vapour from the stately old engine. There’s nothing quite like a scone with butter and jam, eaten to the click-clack soundtrack of vintage running gear.

Our wee sample of what present-day Aviemore has to offer was more than enough for me to remove the location from the mental blacklist I had unfairly consigned it to since the 1970s, and resolve to return soon, with both family and better footwear, to explore more of its rugged scenery and restaurants.

It might be best to book soon. It turns out that the James Bond crew was in town during the summer, filming scenes in the Cairngorms for his 25th movie, which will once again thrust this epic location into the international limelight, and bring the tourists flocking to see the bits that he didn’t blow up in those crucial final twenty minutes.