This article first appeared in the October 2017 edition of Snow Enthusiast Magazine
“There’s nothing like a Bothy breakfast”, says our guide Lee on the first morning before we depart for the slopes of Glenshee, close to the town of Braemar, nestled at the edge of the Cairngorm National Park. The Bothy is a café and restaurant attached to the newly opened Braemar Cabins, our family-of-three home for four nights and our base for exploring the ski slopes close by.
Lee was right – a full Scottish breakfast is certainly an excellent way to start the day and it just somehow feels like the right thing to do. We’d travelled by rail the day before to Edinburgh and then whizzed up by rental car, but a late arrival made for three hungry skiers the morning after – and we were keen to get up on the slopes as recent snowfall had blanketed the mountains above the town.
It was also sunny. Well, at least there was ‘sunshine’ clearly visible through some lightly broken cloud. This is not unusual for Scotland, but let’s be clear – the weather patterns here are vastly different to those in the Alps and conditions can change in minutes. “Be prepared for anything up there today”, we were told. Typically in the Scottish mountains during winter it can be sunny, wet and windy and extremely cold, although it can snow heavily – and then warm up again straight afterwards. But you can also be lucky, in my experience following one season many years ago as a ski instructor in Aviemore, and then four years as an Edinburgh resident with winter weekends spent heading to the hills, you can be lucky a lot of the time – and it looked like now was one of those lucky times.
It takes about ten minutes to drive up to Glenshee from the town of Braemar. Straddled both sides of the A93, the ski area is Scotland’s largest and boasts 22 lifts and 36 runs that challenge all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Anyone who has spent winter holidays in the Alps but never experienced skiing in Scotland will find the contrast extreme in the beginning – the treeless landscape is stark and a little bleak, the ski centre like a lone outpost stuck high on a mountain pass – there’s no picture postcard wooden chalets and pine forests here. But the contrast isn’t important and the trick is not to make the comparison but instead to look at what’s right in front of you – a stunning, ancient mountain landscape that has a unique and rare beauty and a special light that even during the winter, shines like a crystal clear lake. Skiing in Scotland is never going to be the same as skiing in the Alps, but it is a very special experience and one that any ski or snowboard enthusiast from the UK should at least once, make a pilgrimage for.
Fortunately my seven year old daughter Amelie, sees neither the comparison with the Alps, nor the apparent starkness of the landscape, but instead is raring to get up onto the slopes. We head up the ‘Sunnyside’ chairlift and descend an unnamed green run across towards Coire Fione, where the skiing becomes more challenging. One of the drag lifts decides to break down on the way over there and we have to walk – bit of a pain, but I spot one of the lift engineers on a skidoo and ask if he’d take the seven year old on the back (don’t tell mummy), and he happily obliges. As they zoom into the distance I wonder when I will next see her, but within five minutes I’d managed to short hike up and then we ascend another long drag (Cairnlochan) up to the top of Meall Odhar (922m) and from here the views across to the Cairngorms are breath-taking. There’s a choice of several challenging red runs that are quite narrow and steep in places, but also a gentle blue that runs the length of a long ridge and we take this option – well groomed and wide, we work our way back down for a spot of lunch in the Base Café (there was a competition to rename it early this year – Glentea looked like a popular choice), which is one of three ‘on-mountain’ eateries that are typically British in fare but none the less, decent and reasonably priced.
After lunch (lasagne, chips, salad, Scotch Pie – they are so bad but so good) we explore the other side of the area known as Cairnwell after the 933m peak of the same name and the start of one of Scotland’s most famous black runs. We avoid that and instead head to the gentle green slopes of Carn Aosda – the snow isn’t as good on this side of the area though, suffering from melting and the fact it’s less sheltered from the high-winds that had previously hit the area a few days before. You get used to the snow fencing that is typical of all Scottish ski centres, but they are an essential tool for keeping the snow on the ground, rather than being picked up and taken to Aberdeen on the westerlies.
We spend two days skiing at Glenshee and a day exploring the area – Balmoral Castle is ten minutes’ drive from Braemar as well as a host of other attractions including the odd whisky distillery. Braemar is a pretty, traditional Highland town that bustles in the summer, but is a little quieter in the winter – the Bothy, we discover, also does a mean cake and coffee and the cabins have kitchen facilities to cook in or there’s a scattering of eateries, all within walking distance.
After that full Scottish breakfast, Scotch Pie for lunch and après ski cake along with a day out on in the mountains – crashing out in the quiet and comfortable Braemar Cabins is where everyone was heading, at least until the lifts open again tomorrow.
Rob and his family stayed at Braemar Cabins, located in the centre of the traditional highland town of Braemar – a stone’s throw from Braemar Mountain Sports and the popular Bothy Coffee Shop. The comfortable beds, fresh linen and modern furniture, make the cabins an ideal place to relax after a day’s skiing in nearby Glenshee.
Pricing: 4 person cabin in low season costs £475 up to £695 in high season for a week. Long weekend stays are available in low and mid-season from £168 to £345 per cabin.
Glenshee Ski Centre
The Glenshee Ski Centre is located on the A96 between Blairgowrie and Braemar. Lift tickets cost £30 per day for adults and £20 for children and senior citizens (5 day £120/£80). Other concessions are available.
Equipment hire is available on site – skis/snowboard, boots and poles cost £22 per day for adults and £11 for children (5 day £82/£41). Clothing and helmets are also available for rental.
Group lessons with Glenshee Ski and Snowboard School cost £30 per person for two hours.
Private lessons with Freshtracks Ski School, Glenshee, cost £50 per person for one hour or £90 for up to four people for one hour: www.freshtracksglenshee.co.uk