For our latest travel adventure, Peter and I decided to have 5 nights in the beautiful Cairngorms, to get back in touch with the wilderness of the UK and to enjoy a cheaper trip away. We’ve decided to take the big jump of buying a flat together this year, but we didn’t want that to stop us from enjoying some time away, so when we were invited to our friends’ wedding in Penrith, we thought we’d go the whole hog and head further up north to Aviemore.
Where We Stayed
Aviemore sits within the Cairngorm National Park, within the Scottish Highlands and is a much loved tourist spot for walking, skiing and a whole handful of other exciting activities. Peter and I both wanted a fairly cheap trip, so we thought what better way to keep the pennies down than to stay in the Aviemore Youth Hostel which sits on the outskirts of the very pretty Craigellachie National Nature Reserve. I managed to book a private twin bed room, 4 months in advance and chose to pay the free cancellation rate, so in total for the both of us, it came to £260 for 5-nights (£130pp). I decided to go for the private room rather than the dorms just to keep that holiday feeling, rather than feel like we were skimping on luxuries!
Our stay in the hostel was perfect – with the right mix of ‘back to basics’ and creature comforts. It has to be said that the room was simple but to give it credit, it was still comfortable. The hostel boasts a spacious lounge with a pool table, free wifi, option of a continental breakfast, and a little shop at the reception desk. For our stay, the hostel varied from having just a handful of guests, to pretty much full occupancy, but for either it was nice…you just had to pick your time for the kitchen when it was busy. What makes the hostel extra special is that it is set on the edge of the National Nature Reserve, meaning that all you hear is beautiful bird song and the sound of stillness. I’ll also never forget making our breakfasts in the morning, looking out the kitchen window to see a gorgeous little red squirrel scampering up the trees.
For our stay, I cooked our breakfasts which (rather boringly… but also quite deliciously) comprised scrambled eggs with fresh spinach leaves mixed in and two pieces of smoked bacon, followed with a bowl of porridge. We also cooked a couple of dinners which doubled up as our next day’s lunch – again, I kept it pretty simple and made an easy curry, similar to this one but with chicken mixed in for some added protein.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all Aviemore has to offer is skiing and walking, but when you delve a little deeper and do a wee bit of research, you can uncover some real gems. We absolutely loved our jam-packed 4 days and hope that they can inspire you and your Highland adventure.
Day 1 – An Unexpected 2 Hour Drive and 7 Hour Walk
For our first day, we decided to do the ‘Sgor Mor circular’, from the Linn of Dee which is a 13 mile, 7 hour walk, starting just beyond the village of Braemar. Little did we know that we’d have to drive 2 hours to start the walk! Poor planning on our part. Still, we had the most fantastic walk, with pretty good weather and excellent visibility of the surrounding mountains. Due to the amount of snow still on the mountains and our inexperience of winter mountaineering, we decided to stick to lower routes and chose this walk which reaches the not so dizzy heights of 800 metres, well clear of snow. Our highlight from this beautiful walk was spotting a group of deer, who watched us for what felt like a couple of minutes before running into the distance, away from us. We also came across the very comical Red Grouse, who you only notice until they fly away making a rather hilarious noise!
We decided to eat out after this walk as we didn’t get back to the car until 7pm and it would be another 2 hours until we’d get back to the hostel, by which time I think both of us would have been asleep! So, we drove to Ballater for a pub dinner in the Alexandra Hotel. I had a much needed, hearty beef lasagna and Peter enjoyed a chicken breast filled with black pudding and wrapped in pancetta.
Day 2 – Reindeer and Tree Climbing
After a late night and with some achey limbs, we decided to treat ourselves to an easier day and visited Britain’s only free-ranging Reindeer Herd. Before our trip, we’d read and heard a lot of good things about the reindeer centre, which is situated in the midst of Glenmore forest, and so we just had to see them for ourselves. We paid £14 each for the Hill Trip to see the herd, which includes a guided 20 minute or so fairly gentle walk up a hill to where the reindeer usually hang out… although it could be a little longer if they’re playing hide and seek!
The highlight of this activity is that it throws you into the middle of the herd! You can feed, touch and stroke the wonderfully gentle creatures whilst hearing some really interesting facts about them from the Guides. Did you know that if a reindeer broke one of its antlers, the pain is apparently equivalent to us braking an arm – ouch! We spent a glorious, if a little blustery hour or so with the reindeer before heading off the hill for a picnic on the sandy beach by Loch Morlich.
For the afternoon, we’d booked two tickets (£27pp) for TreeZone which was 5 minutes down the road in Rothiemurchus. So after a little wander around the Nature Reserve surrounding the hostel, we tested our head for heights and balance on the hour long ‘obstacle’ course in the trees. We arrived for a 4pm slot and were the only ones on the course for the entire time, which meant that we had the trees all to ourselves. If you love Go Ape, you’ll like this, although it’s not as long or as big.. but it’s still great to be in the trees listening to all the birds with a view of the mountains. Peter and I both loved doing this together, although I must admit.. to start with, I did feel a little jittery!!
Day 3 – A Barefooted Stream Crossing
After choosing our route the night before whilst having dinner, we decided to wake up nice and early and left the hostel at 8.30 to start our second walk at 9am. We chose another circular walk, starting at Loch an Eilein, which weaved its way in and out of beautiful pine forests and which followed a similar route to this one, Braeriach, circuit from Whitewell. We didn’t stick to this linked route due to the snow coverage and so chose a lower hill to summit!
My personal highlight of this walk was crossing a little stream barefooted. At the time, as soon as I plunged my naked foot into the clear water, the icy cold feeling hit my toes and climbed up my calf, I couldn’t wait to reach the other side but had to choose my next five steps wisely to ensure I didn’t slip. Luckily the sun was out so our tootsies warmed up nice and quickly. Looking back on this, I loved the bracing nature of having to navigate the stream to be able to get back on to our path.
We decided to eat out after our walk and so after a couple of Cairngorm Ales in Ben Macduis Inn, we walked across to the local Italian, La Taverna. Peter had been to the Italian before on a previous trip, and although it filled a rather hungry hole, I don’t think either of us would go back again in a hurry… there was nothing wrong with the food, but perhaps after our holiday to Italy, our pasta expectations are higher!! That being said, it was perfect for £14 each, doing the ‘all you can eat’ option.
Day 4 – Our last full day
We were both sad when our last full day came round, but we knew that we couldn’t mope around and instead decided to have a half day’s walk round Loch Morlich. You can really vary this walk as their are a variety of paths which weave their way in and out of the surrounding forest, with beautiful glimpses of the loch below and mountains above. We had a leisurely walk and enjoyed lunch by the water in a secluded spot to ourselves.
After a little cup of tea back at the hostel, we drove 15minutes down the road to Leault Farm to watch a sheepdog demonstration by shepherd, Neil Ross and his excitable pack of Border Collies. We spent about an hour and a half at the farm, watching the collies herd a group of sheep, a sheep being sheared and then (finally!!) meeting four adorable 18-day old Collie puppies.
This activity was £6 each and be warned, although the farm sign might say that a 4pm demonstration isn’t on, always go up the driveway as it’s likely that it will be on… they’ve just forgotten to change the sign!
To celebrate a truly wonderful Cairngorm holiday, we had our final dinner in Ben Maduis Inn, with the highlight being their Haggis starter – if I could recreate it at home, I would!
So, how much was it?
Well, if you ignore the cost associated with the food we bought for cooking in the hostel (i.e. breakfasts, a couple of dinners and our lunches), because this expense is something that we would normally have at home on a daily basis; we averaged about £60 per person per day for 5 nights (a total of £300 per person). This included accommodation, activities, dinners out and fuel for the entire trip. So, considering this cost includes both our travel (fuel from and to Oxford) and our accommodation, I think that’s pretty good going. We might have skimped on where we stayed, but we didn’t skimp on the day-to-day activities, making sure that we lived and breathed nature, the Highlands and the outdoor life before we had to head back down South.
Would I go back?
This was the first holiday where I’ve felt totally relaxed and chilled, let alone being in complete awe of mother nature and the wilderness. I couldn’t believe how remote some of the little villages and places on the mountains were – it truly was amazing. I’d love another holiday in the Cairngorms, where I’d hope to fill it with some water based activities too!