The Caledonian Sleeper glides out of London Euston at 9.15pm, bound for the Scottish Highlands. Tucked up in the lower berth, my five-year-old daughter is asleep within minutes (most unusual) and we wake up some 10 hours later, shortly before pulling into Aviemore, on the doorstep of the Cairngorms – arguably the wildest, most rugged mountain scenery anywhere in the UK.
Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in Britain by a considerable margin (it’s almost double the size of the Lake District National Park) and its biodiversity is extraordinary – this is home to a quarter of the rare and endangered species in the whole of the British Isles, among them osprey, golden eagle, capercaillie, mountain hare and Scottish wildcat. Its great, glacier-scoured plateau is the most extensive area of land over 600m in Britain, with no fewer than five of our six highest mountains, and a reputation for some of the harshest subarctic conditions this side of Scandinavia. In winter, you’ll find the UK’s premier ski slopes here.
Yet the Cairngorms are also a fantastic, magical, year-round destination for kids, with oodles of family-oriented activities around Aviemore – from mountain biking to pony riding to kayaking and sailing, not to mention miles upon miles of hiking trails through unspoiled forest and mountain scenery. And the Strathspey Steam Railway chugs out of Aviemore three times a day during summer, making a two-hour return journey to Boat of Garten.
Bike and kayak kid
Following a visit to the Rothiemurchus Estate to see the deer and Highland cattle, and a pony ride on a good-natured little Shetland, we rent a mountain bike with a tag-along from Mike’s Bikes and set off on the Old Logging Way – a lovely cycle path that winds its way out to Loch Morlich, sometimes meandering through forest, sometimes surrounded by a sea of heather.
Loch Morlich is a beautiful spot, ringed by forest and mountains, and sporting a swathe of sandy beach where Loch Morlich Watersports offers kayaking as well as sailing. I’m not sure how Tamara is going to take to kayaking, but she surprises me completely by saying she loves it and “can we stay for longer?” We paddle along parallel to the shore, the lake big and steely grey but calm, then a short distance up a shallow river before returning across one corner of the lake to the beach.
The Cairngorms are home to the only free-ranging reindeer herd in Britain and, leaving our bike at the Reindeer Centre beside Loch Morlich, we join a small group of visitors and set off to see and feed them on the lower slopes of Cairn Gorm Mountain. “Please don’t touch their antlers, they don’t like it,” warns Imogen of the Reindeer Centre, standing by a bridge over a rushing stream. “You can stroke them and feed them, though – the worst that can happen is they’ll slobber or burp on you,” she adds reassuringly.
The reindeer are wonderful, clustering around Imogen and eyeing the food sacks expectantly, then roving off over the hillside again when the food is finished. Among the adults there’s a small calf, just a few weeks old, who goes by the name Fergus.
After feeding, it’s time to take Fergus down to the Reindeer Centre for the night – he’s not left on the hillside overnight just yet. Imogen puts him on a lead and hands this to Tamara – much to her delight – and we set off downhill as the wind starts blowing harder. Back at the Reindeer Centre, Tamara is clearly reluctant to say goodbye to Fergus. “Maybe he could come back to London with us,” she suggests. “He’d like it on the train, and he could have my bunk.”
On another afternoon, we cycle into the huge area of forest surrounding Boat of Garten, with Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays and his seven-year-old son Gregor. We’re all set for a short bout of orienteering – there’s an abandoned car hidden in the forest somewhere nearby, and it’s the two children’s job to find it, armed with a compass, and a little help from Andy.
We stop beside a forest track, when suddenly Gregor yells: “Ooh, blueberries!” and the two of them charge off into the undergrowth for an impromptu bit of foraging. Later, we cycle further into the forest and collect a big bag of chanterelle mushrooms, which we have for dinner that evening at Fraoch Lodge, pan-fried with cream and utterly delicious.
Trek to the top
On our last day in the Cairngorms, we return our bike and tag-along to Mike’s Bikes, and jump on the Number 31 bus to the ski centre at the foot of Cairn Gorm Mountain – where we cheat somewhat by taking the funicular, and shaving some 450m off our ascent.
It’s an easy walk from the top of the funicular to the 1,245m summit of Cairn Gorm, up broad slab steps then less steeply on a trail that follows a line of giant cairns. I’m quite sure my daughter won’t get tired, because she’s done much longer, steeper walks in the past, and has been excited about doing this one for months. “I’m tired,” she says after a grand total of three minutes, adding rather mournfully, “When can we stop for something to eat?” So we sit on a nice rock for a while and look down towards the funicular station and the expanse of Loch Morlich beyond, the sky blue and scattered with patches of ragged cloud. Although it’s well marked, you’re only allowed to do the summit walk from the top of the funicular with a guide – those wanting to walk up themselves need to follow the longer route from the bottom of the funicular.
After our short break, the remainder of the walk goes much faster, accompanied by a discussion about cairns, and which rocks on the path you should or shouldn’t stand on. The view from beside the enormous summit cairn is vast, taking in Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Braeriach and the Angels’ Peak to the southwest, and even – some 50 miles to the west – a distant Ben Nevis.
Sheltering from the wind in the lee of the summit cairn, blue jacket billowing, Tamara points towards a white smudge between Loch Etchachan and the trail leading to Ben Macdui, clutching a piece of shortbread. “Look over there,” she says, excitedly, “Snow! Can we walk to it?” I reply that we could, but that unfortunately it’s a couple of hours away, and we wouldn’t have enough time. She seems a little disappointed by this – but then, I guess I am too. I’d love to continue.
As we walk back down in a loop towards the funicular, a couple of reindeer saunter up the path towards us, and a mountain hare scampers across the rocks. We stop where a small spring flows out of the mountainside and remain still for a few minutes, listening to the sound of silence – water trickling between the rocks, the occasional light gust of wind or flap of a waterproof jacket. It’s a degree of silence that sadly many children growing up in a city never experience, among the constant drone of traffic.
Settling down on the train on the way back to London, I ask my daughter what she’s enjoyed most on her visit to the Cairngorms. “Ooh, bikes and kayaking, definitely,” she replies without hesitation, adding: “and little Fergie and the pony ride and the sleeper train…” Then, after three long action-packed days of cycling, hiking, kayaking and running around in the forest, she says “Thank you Daddy, I don’t think I need a story tonight.”
And with that, she drifts off to sleep.
• Strathspey Steam Railway www.strathspeyrailway.co.uk
• Rothiemurchus Estate www.rothiemurchus.net
• Mike’s Bikes www.aviemorebikes.co.uk
• Loch Morlich Watersports www.lochmorlich.com
• Cairngorm Reindeer Herd www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk
• Cairngorm Funicular Railway
Stay and eat
Lovely B&B with big comfy rooms and fantastic breakfasts. My favourite place to stay in Aviemore, it’s 10 minutes’ walk from the station. Family rooms from £95.
Aviemore, 01479 810 278,
Andy and Rebecca offer great dinners with ingredients from their garden and oodles of excursions. Family-friendly with a communal self-catering kitchen. Twin room from £100 for two nights’ B&B.
Boat of Garten, 01479 831 331, scotmountainholidays.com
The Winking Owl
The best place to eat out in Aviemore. Courgette fritters with grilled halloumi on giant couscous is delicious. The Wildcat ale should be mandatory for grown-ups. Aviemore, 01479 812368, www.thewinkingowl.co/
Old Bridge Inn
Another great place to eat, with live music, and a bunkhouse next door. Aviemore, 01479 811137, www.oldbridgeinn.co.uk