The ruins of Ruthven Barracks in the Cairngorm Mountains of the Scottish Highlands

    Spend the weekend in the Highlands

    19 December 2019

    As we dream of gawping at waterfalls half a world away, it’s easy to forget that Britain itself is full of treasures – from our more than 100 Blue Flag beaches to our 32 world heritage sites. 

    Save the planet, and some pennies in the process, by ditching the aeroplane to explore the British Isles by train. 

    Spectator Life hopped aboard the Caledonian Sleeper for a weekend in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Follow our rundown of what not to miss if you only have 48 hours. 

    Friday night 

    Board the sleeper train at Euston at around 9pm and by the time you’ve ticked your breakfast selections and unpacked your bags the London smog has already disappeared, gobbled up by dense countryside.

    The cabins – there are both doubles and twins – are cosily sized. But there’s a sink and ensuite, so no need to go shuffling down the corridor to the toilet at 2am.

    Caledonian Sleeper

    Saturday morning 

    Wake to mountains and pine trees slipping past the window and a gentle knock at the door bringing coffee and a pre-dawn breakfast. 

    As the train pulls into Aviemore at around 7am, fumble your way from the darkened platform into town. There’s just enough time to check in and drop off bags at the Cairngorm Guest House or one of the other family-run b&bs before heading off on a first adventure. 

    Nestled within the Cairngorms National Park at the foot of five of Britain’s six largest mountains, many visitors head to Aviemore for the skiing. But the town has another claim to fame: it is home to Britain’s last free roaming reindeer herd.

    A 10-minute bus ride on the number 31 from the town centre takes you to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, from which there has been a guided hike up the hillside to see the reindeer at 11am every day since the 1960s – blizzards excepting. 

    After around 20 minutes of walking the herd appears out of the mist – velvet noses buffeting against the bags they know to be full of feed. After making some firm friends, it’s time for a scenic hike back down through gushing valleys, icicle-fringed trees and thickets of rusty orange ferns. 

    Saturday afternoon 

    After a bite to eat and some thawing off from the snow in one of the cafés by the Reindeer Centre, set out for a second – more leisurely – walk around nearby Loch Morlich. Here sweet-smelling pines run down to sandy beaches and white-capped mountains are reflected in the pearly, still surface. 

    Save for a local dog walker or two, you can easily spend hours with the loch’s shores completely to yourself. Once you’ve had your fill of skimming stones, jump back on bus into Aviemore. 

    All that walking means you don’t have to feel guilty when tucking in to a hearty slab of Scottish haddock, smothered in batter and doused in beer from the Cairngorm Brewery at The Winking Owl. The pub is owned and managed by the brewery, so make sure to try one of their drafts before heading back, approximately one minute down the road, to bed. 

    Sunday morning 

    Start the day with a delicious fuel up from the Cairngorm Guest House – although be warned: deciding between creamy porridge with Scottish raspberry jam or the traditional fry-up is tough. Then head out onto the road in the direction of Loch an Eilein, stopping for picnic supplies on the way.  

    An hour of tramping past smaller lochs and through thick forests – with a chance of spotting some of the Cairngorms’ resident eagles, water voles and red squirrels – and you arrive at the loch. 

    A flat three mile trail around its fringes gives you the perfect panorama of the misty peaks and an intriguing little ruined castle sitting on an island in the middle of the water. A dry (ish) log halfway round makes for the perfect picnic spot to breathe in the silence. 

    Sunday afternoon 

    On the way back into town stop off at The Old Bridge Inn, with its tempting combination of blazing log fires and the salty smell of double-cooked chips. 

    A few hours of good beer and board games among the welcoming dark-wood interior and it’s time to collect bags and head back to the station. Before you know it you’re whizzing back towards the border and work the next morning, the quiet and slow pace of those 48 hours becoming a fond but fading memory.