Posted by: rasayers
The Great British Ski Experience
In the February Valentine’s Week, I decided that rather than going skiing in France again, why not try out what the UK has to offer.
I encountered everything from gridlock on the M25, challenging ski conditions and trying to get one of the limited ski passes, to 4 star hotels, fantastic countryside and meeting some interesting people all trying to work out how to get a piece of snowsport action.
Getting to Scotland
We could have driven, got the train, or flown to Scotland from London. We decided to fly, as it would be a quick, leisurely way to travel. The week started well by us getting on the road with plenty of time to get to Gatwick. For some unknown reason, the M25 was gridlocked due to the weight of traffic at 7am in the half term. Thoughts raced through my head of what to do if we missed our flight. There would be no refund or transfer to the next flight. We would have to buy new tickets on the next available flight, and who knew when that would be. Fortunately we managed to get parked and into the terminal with minutes to spare. Grabbing the first uniformed person, I asked for the Easyjet check in desk. Friendly Easyjet staff whisked us straight to the desk and thanks to pre-printing the online boarding passes we were on our way through security in no time. “Don’t stop to talk to anyone” was the advice given. Thanks to learning from previous experiences with airport security (remove belts and absolutely everything from your pockets and stick it all in your coat to go through the X-Ray scanner), we whizzed through security and arrived at the boarding gate as boarding started. Phew!
There was the usual crowd at the boarding gate, all trying to be at the front of the queue. Easyjet do not allocate seats unless you pay extra for Speedy Boarding (which means you can go on first and sit in an allocated seat). Us cheapskates don’t want to spend our hard earned cash doing that, so it is down to trying to be at the front of the queue without being seen to be rude by pushing in. This can be a problem if you have kids, as there is the risk of not being able to sit with them. However, some parents may like that notion. This could be the reason for an altercation between a lady with a pram and other travellers reluctant to give up their hard fought places in the boarding queue. EasyJet do have a policy of letting on parents with children under 5 first (after the Speedy Boarding lot), but if you don’t move when called, you are going to have to get past everyone else who then gets up to try and board. Everyone tends to grab seats at the front of the plane, so if you head to the back, you can usually get to sit together with your travelling companions.
Arriving in Inverness (which is closer to Aviemore than Edinburgh in case you were thinking of just flying to the first airport you get to in Scotland), we got the hire car from Europcar (with a discount when booking at the same time as the flights with Easyjet). You need to show your dirving licence, and if you have a photocard one, you also need to show the paper part that shows any driving endorsements. If you forget the paper bit, they phone up the DVLA and check. If you forget your licence, you can’t hire the car. Also, when renting, hire car companies want a security deposit from your credit card. I was told that if it was a debit card, the security deposit of a few hundred quid would be taken , and refunded on return of the vehicle. If using a credit card, they would not take the money from the card. Europcar took the deposit from my credit card, which then stuffed my hotel payment later. Embarrassing or what. I was also told that the car I was renting had no damage on it, but I checked it before driving off and made sure the attendant agreed to the existence of the multiple scuffs on the bodywork and signed the damage sheet. That could have led to me paying the big insurance excess if the car hire company blamed me for the damage.
Anyway, we found our way to Aviemore ok. There was no snow about, which made driving easy. When it snows in Scotland, it can be a bit of a problem. Talking to one of the locals, they said that the councils used to keep all routes clear, but in the last few years they had sold off the snow clearing vehicles, so roads often were closed. Good job for me that there was no snow on them then eh.
Accommodation in Aviemore
We stayed at the Macdonald Resort. There are three hotels on the site, and we pampered ourselves in the four star Highlands Hotel. By four star, this means that you get room service, nice décor and a view of the car park wall. You also stay dry in the rain as you can stay inside when walking to the restaurant and leisure complex. The resort has a great swimming pool with a flume and fantastic wave machine. The resort also has a cinema (Muppets – the film that was on, not the staff), a big shop, an Italian restaurant and coffee shops.
Eating in Aviemore
Aviemore is a great little town. It has a Tesco, and all the usual amenities you wold hope to find in a town. The train station is also on the high street. There are a few different places to eat. The chip shop, bars, hotels, and the golf club. The food was ok, but the service was not exactly speedy. We ate at various places during the week, but the best one we tried was La Taverna at the South end of the high street. Excellent service. All you can eat buffet with great Italian food. If you like your pizza, pasta and salad with big deserts, this is the place for you. You will need to book though.
The skiing on the Cairngorm Mountains
Getting to the Cairngorms
Cairngorm Mountain is a 15 minute drive from Aviemore. There is apparently a bus service that runs from the Aviemore train stationto the mountain, however local ski hire shop owners do not rate the reliability of the bus service.
There are several ski equipment hire shops in Aviemore. There is even one at the bottom of the mountain where you get the funicular railway from. All shops seem to provide good gear, and are very helpful in making sure you have the right gear.
The ski hire shop I used said that they could reserve ski passes as well. When I turned up, I found that this was not the case as the owners of the mountain had just that week stopped letting any ski hire shops from issuing ski passes. The ski hire shop did not bother to tell us this. This prevented us getting on the mountain that day. They did however agree to rearrange the days of our ski hire, but it was down to us to make sure that we could get the limited availability ski passes. Buyer beware!
Anyone can walk on the mountain, but if you want to use the funicular railway or ski tows, you will need to buy a ski pass for the day. Yes that’s right, they are only available on a daily basis when the weather conditions are unpredictable. This is the first challenge you will face. When I was there, due to the limited amount of snow, only 500 to 1000 passes were being sold each day, depending on how windy it was. If it was too windy, the Ptarmigan ski area was closed, and only 500 passes would be available.
Since you could only buy snowsports passes for the day, you had to make sure that you were in the queue first thing in the morning. After working this out, I was up at 730 to get in the queue for 8am, then back to the hotel for a slap up breakfast before hitting the slopes. Good job too, as the passes had usually all been sold by 930. All you could hear in the hotel were conversations of guests who had not been able to get passes.
The skiing experience on the Cairngorms
The skiing experience included fog, strong winds that blew you back up the slopes, rain, rocks and unmarked pistes. You had to navigate using the piste map and the numbers on the side of the ski tows. It also included the opportunity to ski on snow in the UK, rainbows over lochs, and meeting some interesting people.
Skiing facilities on the Cairngorm mountain has not been done in the same way as in the rest of Europe. In France, the ski areas work with the natural environment. In Aviemore, the broken paling fences and scarred landscape from skiing seems at odds with the landscape. Lower down at the picnic area, piles of broken picnic tables and chairs litter the place giving an uncared for look. It seems like the people running the mountain are just in it for the money without caring about doing what’s best for the snowsports enthusiasts or the environment. However, Scotland does have challenging weather. The huts for the ski tow operators have to be anchored down with steel cables to prevent them from being blown away in the gales.
The mountain rescue teams were fantastic at Cairngorm. There were several accidents and the rescue teams worked quickly to get people down using the funicular railway.
- We got to ski on snow!
- No piste markings and fog made finding your way a bit of a challenge
- Poor snow and unpredictable weather took away some of the pleasure.
- Snow conditions not reliable.
- If there is snow, it is great for the convenience once you have worked out how to get on the mountain. Great if you live in the Midlands or further North.
- I would rather put up with the extra travelling and go abroad though, as there are bigger ski areas that are better looked after and more reliable snow conditions.
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