It's never been easier to travel to Scotland's beautiful Highland region. Breathtaking natural vistas, delicious cuisines and outdoor-based activities combine to offer the perfect destination for a family staycation.
We travelled to the Cairngorms National Park this summer as part of a large family group. Ages ranged from 4 to 78 so there were a lot of personalities and preferences to satisfy! However, we're happy to report that the Highlands more than lived up to expectations.
The joy of the bright, fresh outdoors
Our stay could not exactly be called a sunshine break but we did get more than our fair share of bright, fresh outdoor time (more than we would normally get in London tbh). And what a tonic it was. In fact, there are so many activities to enjoy and places to visit that we just couldn't get around them all. Our next trip is already in the planning!
We've included some highlights below. If you're interested in a similar trip we recommend you try the Visit Cairngorms website - this organisation has all the info on the area and we found the team incredibly helpful.
It's really easy to get to!
We stayed near Aviemore, which you can reach by rail, road and air (flying to Inverness). There are bus and train services from London, including a sleeper service from King's Cross. Gluttons for punishment that we are, we drove with our 2 and 4 year olds so that we could check in with friends and family en route and on the way back.
We have to say, the driving was actually quite enjoyable. Our (very lively) children were furnished with activities, snacks, books and technology to keep them occupied, and happily it worked. Often times, they would nap or check out the scenery - one of the benefits of the drive was that we managed to enjoy some of the most awesome views we've seen in a good while.
Accommodation - deer may be included
Accommodation ranges from luxury hotels, through chalets, lodges and b&bs - we think there is something for every budget and group size.
Our group of 14 stayed in a former military lodge. Whilst it was more basic than other local options, we found it served our needs more than adequately. The kids were overjoyed with it - and with the bunk beds, happily running and jumping around with their cousins. The lodge was in the midst of woodland, and several times we had the happy fortune to observe deer crashing through the trees - simply breathtaking.
If you like something a bit more tried and tested, there is also the MacDonald Aviemore resort and the nearby Hilton Coylumbridge, both of which offer spa facilities and children's soft play.
A taste of Scotland
The award-winning Loch Leven's Larder (lochlevenslarder.com) was our first stop after leaving the Forth Bridge behind us. This family run farm, restaurant and shop sits against the beautiful backdrop of - you guessed it - Loch Leven, offering seasonal and local menus, a fantastic gift range and walking trails where you can work up or burn off your appetite. There's also a smokehouse where you can purchase traditional smoked products.
We thoroughly recommend LLL for a pitstop to blow away the in-car cobwebs. Stretch your legs with a saunter towards the loch - BUT don't kid yourself that you can make it all the way around in a short stop-off - the distances are deceptive!
Food is a bit of a specialist subject in our family, and the eateries that we tried all showed us a great time. Service was genuinely lovely, with friendly staff that seemed to care about our experience. Not saying anything about London, but, you know...
The Boat Hotel & Bistro (boathotel.co.uk) in the village of Boat of Garten deserves a special mention. When 14 of us turned up just after lunchtime in their nearly full bar/bistro, they found a room to accommodate us all and looked after us so well it felt like our own private party. The menu offered something for everyone and we received coffees on the house at the end. The kids were offered fresh warm shortbread too, which made certain grown ups look on in envy. Mentioning no names, cough DH.
Another pub/restaurant we tried was the Winking Owl (thewinkingowl.co) in Aviemore. Now owned by the Cairngorm Brewery, it's had a revamp and shake-up of its menu in order to regain its crown as the best restaurant in the town. Once again service was lovely and chatty and the food was tasty gastropub fare. We went through three courses, and put it this way, we all rolled away happy.
Also memorable about the Winking Owl was Ally, a patron who engaged us in scarily knowledgable chat about the Stock, Aitken and Waterman years. If you ever get to meet him say hello from us (you'll just know...he needs no introduction and we get the impression he's a regular)!
Foodie events are a regular occurrence in the area, from the sublime to the unusual. The Food and Fiddle Fortnight (2nd-18th October) and Spurtle World Porridge Making Championships (10th October) are just two examples of this.
Ski, fish, climb & scream...
....but not necessarily in that order. As we've said above, you will never be stuck for something to do. Making a choice will be the toughest job. There are wildlife parks, watersports, cuisine, distilleries, bike and walking trails, indoor spa facilities and much much more.
Aviemore is a ski resort at certain times of year. But even when there is no snow, there are dry ski slopes for those that would like to give it a try. The children in our group had a go at Loch Insh Watersports Centre, where ski and snowboard hire is available. Our 4 year old turned out to be such a
dangermouse natural, we have unrealistic high hopes for a future sporting career. There are lots of other activities available at Loch Insh - look here, and their Boathouse Restaurant serves up great waterside views and lovely food.
Cairngorm Mountain funicular railway (cairngormmountain.com) is worth a visit at any time of year. Built to serve the snowsports operation, it provides a thrilling journey to the Top Station where there is the Ptarmigan restaurant, exhibition, panoramic views from over 3,500ft - and! the British isles' highest post box. So have your postcards and stamps ready!
If you're feeling fit and up for the challenge you can walk up the mountain - make sure you are prepared for the weather and terrain though, unlike our uncle Philip. You can also book a guided walk or a guided mountain bike descent from the top.
We ate at the Storehouse restaurant, at the base of the funicular. It's a bright, airy space and we could easily imagine the convivial buzz during ski season. A special shout goes out to the traditional smoked platter featuring cheeses, fish and more, as well as to the Cairngorm Gold for ale-drinkers (it got the DH seal of approval).
From one railway to another! We rode on the Strathspey steam railway (strathspeyrailway.co.uk), a beautiful, traditional steam train that operates on a 10 mile preserved railway from Aviemore to Broomhill. It's part of the former Inverness and Perth Junction railway and offers a wonderful experience for steam enthusiasts and everyone else. Here's a little tidbit - the coal comes from Russia. You learn something new and all that.
The train serves snacks and often hosts afternoon tea and fine dining amongst other events. Sometimes Peppa Pig stops by! We were pretty stuffed from lunch at The Boat (which the train stops at) but we did manage a scone with jam - would have been a shame not to.
The steam railway is a really relaxed activity that is good for all ages - for the kids it's a little like a ride on Thomas the Tank Engine! At some stops you have a chance to take photos -in particular at the station that doubles up as 'Glenbogle', the fictional estate from the BBC's Monarch of the Glen. There. You wondered why we'd put that word up there, didn't you?
Wildlife and adventure
Hang on in there - we have a few more to mention before we sign off! The Highland Wildlife Park (highlandwildlifepark.org.uk) is a fab family excursion. There's a main reserve which you drive around in your own car and then a walk around area to explore.
We really loved the main enclosure, which gives you the chance to see some animals really close up, against a stunning background of hills and greenery. The polar bears having a bit of a play and wrestle in their enclosure was awesome too - the crowd was transfixed. You can buy food there or take your own and relax in the picnic area if you prefer.
Rothiemurcus (rothiemurchus-activities.co.uk) is another must-visit. This estate offers over 30 activities, from horseriding through quadbiking, clayshooting and the Treezone adventure playground nestled up to 40ft off the ground in the pine trees. Rothiemurcus also has well stocked fishing facilities. The kids loved the feed-a-fish experience. Some of our adults tried trout fishing in the novice area - and failed miserably despite successes from the groups all around them. Can't fault their commitment though smile.
The Landmark Forest Adventure Park (landmarkpark.co.uk) comes HIGHLY recommended. It's a family theme park but with a very different feel, nestled as it is in and amongst a real forest setting. The site is relatively compact and yet happily fits in a day's worth or more of activities (you can buy multi-day tickets to make the most of it).
The park features a wild water coaster, a runaway timber train, ancient forest, tarzan tree trail and much more. A special mention from us for the (deliberately) smelly Lost Labyrinth, which kept us all occupied for ages, and the Bamboozeleum, an interactive exhibition of sorts packed with the weird and wonderful.
Restaurants get a little busy at peak times but if you plan to eat just before or after the rush you'll be fine. We found the Forest Adventure Park fabulous family fun and we would definitely return to it.
Of course we went to see Nessie!
Did you think we'd forgotten? Absolutely not. We took a boat trip out onto the loch and up to Urquhart Castle, the large ruin dating back to 1509, that overlooks it. There's a visitor centre, shop and cafe at the Castle, so it makes it the perfect add on to a tour of the loch. One thing we should mention is to check which side of the loch your chosen boat tour leaves from - it could make quite a difference to your drive!
The views from the Loch and its surrounds, as well as from the castle, are stunning. Tickets are a bit pricey but for us it was one of those things that had to be done! Nessie sightings are not included in the price, unfortunately. But the kids did their best - and, SUCCESS! That's what we told them, anyway .
From one castle to another, this time further south. Braemer Castle (braemercastle.co.uk) is a lovely building situated just 9 miles from Balmoral Castle. Run by community volunteers, it's surprisingly teeny from the outside, and then like a tardis when you start exploring inside. The castle has had many inhabitants including Earls, Jacobites, the British Army, and from 1948, a former fashion editor of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue who put her own flamboyant stamp on its rooms.
There's a quick tour that offers an interesting insight into Scottish history and the castle's role in it. We thought it was worth doing; and the kids were kept interested by the quirkiness of the rooms and the activity sheet that has them trying to identify certain objects as you go around.
Year round activity
So that's it! We sampled as many activities as we could, but there were many more that we couldn't fit in. Not particularly an outdoor family, we enjoyed getting out and about in the Cairngorms. For us, it was a refreshing change. Despite keeping busy, we felt as though we'd had a really good break.
Whilst our visit was in the summer, Aviemore and its surrounds are year round destinations for outdoor activities, music festivals, cuisine and more. You can check out visitcairngorms.com/whatsonlist to browse what's coming up.
Might see you there!
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