We’re heading north for our family ski adventure this year. It’s February half-term week, and as trips to the Alps are nearly all booked up and prices are high, we’ve decided to give Scottish skiing a go. Before our daughter Amelie (now seven years old) was born, we spent five years living in Edinburgh and enjoyed the luxury of picking and choosing our weekends in the Cairngorms.
But now we’re taking our chances. We jump on the train to Edinburgh and hire a car for five days (you need a car here, but taking the train up makes it feel more like a holiday). We’re heading for Glenshee, Britain’s largest snowsports area, straddling both sides of the A93, boasting 22 lifts and 36 runs. By the time we arrive it’s getting dark and snowing heavily (hurray!) and we tentatively make our way down to the town of Braemar, a few miles from the ski station, where we’ve booked accommodation in the newly opened Braemar Cabins.
Trying to compare a ski holiday in the mountains of Scotland with the Alps or North American Rockies is like comparing a city break to New York with one to York, in Yorkshire. They’re both cities — and there’s no reason why you won’t have as much fun in either — but they’re entirely different things and you need to mentally prepare yourself for this before diving into a Scottish ski holiday experience.
What’s immediately apparent, though, is that Amelie doesn’t make the comparison: we wake up, she sees a mountain with snow and jumps for joy at the prospect of the day’s skiing ahead. To our slight surprise, the sun is also shining and, after a fresh snowfall in the night, we’re assured over a wonderful breakfast in The Bothy (it’s worth going to Braemar just for this) that we’ve timed our trip to coincide with the best conditions of the season.
The beauty of the Scottish Highlands doesn’t go unnoticed on the 10-minute drive up to the ski centre car park; dark heather-filled slopes, with strands of snow cascading like white-fingered gloves reaching for the valley below, give the landscape with a Middle-earth-like colour palette.We opt out of ski school lessons this time round and ski together as a family, although the reputation of the instructors here is excellent and it’s an ideal place for kids to learn their first turns on the snow. Amelie is used to the Alps (lucky her) but doesn’t comment on the difference between Alpine runs and Scotland’s snow-fenced pistes. The fences stop the snow from being blown off, and actually the pistes have some considerable brown patches across them. However, they turn out to be a bonus: Amelie uses them as slalom obstacles and even tries to jump over the smaller ones.
At one point we came across a broken-down button lift, leaving us with no other option than to hike back up the hill. Some of the staff were hard at work trying to fix the lift, and fortunately one of them was heading back to the top of the hill on a Ski-Doo and agreed to give Amelie a ride. Not me though; I had to walk. But I don’t think she’ll ever forgot that ride — and this small act sums up the feeling of community spirit on the hill. It really feels like a small club and everyone’s part of it.
We managed three days skiing that week, combined with some relaxation time in the cabin, a few walks in the woods and a visit to the mountain rescue centre in Braemar — where else can you combine 4×4 rescue vehicles, fire engines with snow tracks and dogs? Perfect for kids. There’s an excellent indoor swimming pool complex at the Hilton Craigendarroch Hotel in Ballater, about a 25-minute drive past Balmoral Castle, for any bad weather days.
Skiing in the Highlands isn’t for everyone, but it’s an option for kids learning to ski as well as an experience, almost a pilgrimage, for British families who’re after a winter sports family holiday every year. Somehow, skiing in the UK feels special and it’s worth risking the chance of rain, hail, high winds and lack of snow — honestly, it is!
How to do it:
Rob and his family stayed at Braemar Cabins, in the centre of the traditional Highland town of Braemar — a stone’s throw from Braemar Mountain Sports. A cabin for four for a week starts from £475, while a long weekend starts from £168.
The Glenshee Ski Centre is located on the A96 between Blairgowrie and Braemar. Lift tickets cost £30 a day for adults and £20 for children and senior citizens (five-day passes £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 (five-day hire £82/£41). Clothing and helmets are also available for rental. Group lessons with Glenshee Ski & Board School are £30 per person for two hours.
Private lessons with FreshTracks Ski and Snowboarding School, Glenshee, are £50 per person for one hour or £90 for up to four people for one hour.