I’ve spent a lifetime driving up and down the A9, a road which cuts through the heart of mainland Scotland, and yet I never fail to be blown away by the scenery.  Who could though?  In the 250 kilometres that separate Edinburgh from the Northern coast, you pass through everything that makes the Scottish landscape so recognisable and loved worldwide, from barren clifftops to rolling glens.  For me though, the best part comes in the middle, around the county of Badenoch and Strathspey.  It’s here that things get dramatic.  The Cairngorm mountains, craggy and dusted with snow, tower above.  Forests stretch as far as the eye can see.  Rivers tumble over rocks, pooling in vast, blue lochs, kissed by mist and sun.

At the epicentre of the Cairngorms National Park lies the town of Aviemore, known by many as the gateway to Scotland’s active outdoors scene.  Popular with families, travellers and those looking for alternative weekend getaways, the town is the perfect place to base yourself when exploring the Highlands, and offers just about every activity under the sun, so whether you’re looking for unspoiled hiking trails or to sail down the River Spey in a rubber tube, there’s sure to be something to keep you busy.  Here’s my list of must-do’s if you’re in the area…

Get up close and personal with the local wildlife

The Cairngorms National Park is home to one of Scotland’s most diverse ecosystems, and there are plenty of woodland critters to look out for in and around Aviemore, from ospreys and pine martins to red squirrels and roe deer.  Follow the Wildcat trail from Newtonmore, take part in a guided angling experience with Scotia Fishing, or visit the local Reindeer Centre to put in a good word with Santa’s furry pals.  Families will also love the Highland Wildlife Park in nearby Kingussie, which is home to endangered species from mountainous regions across the world.

Hit the slopes

If there’s one thing more famous than Aviemore’s scenery, it’s the skiing.  Throughout the Winter, the reliably snowy town is a Mecca for Winter sports enthusiasts, and even offers Scotland’s only funicular railway to the top of Mount Cairngorm (which is well worth the trip, even just for the views!).  The area caters for all abilities, so whether you’re an experienced skiier/snowboarder or a complete beginner, you’re sure to find something that suits your needs.  Check out Ski Scotland‘s website for more information on getting started.

Take to the water

With several lochs on its doorstep and the mighty River Spey shaping its landscape, Aviemore is the perfect place to take part in watersports.  If it’s sunny, head to the beautiful Loch Morlich, right in the heart of the Glenmore Forest Park; encased by purple mountains and dense woodland, and with a long stretch of golden sand, it’s hard to imagine a more scenic spot to spend the day.  The loch boasts its own watersports centre, where you can hire kayaks and canoes – if you manage to tear yourself from the beach, that is!  A twenty minute drive will take you to nearby Loch Insh, the perfect place to try your hand at sailing or windsurfing, or if you’re after something to get the adrenaline flowing, check out G2 Outdoor, who offer great white-water rafting experiences down the River Findhorn. Prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace?  Then why not spend an afternoon river tubing with Full-on Adventures?  Picture the Lazy River, on an actual river…


Explore the Rothiemurchus Estate

One of the largest wooded estates in Britain, Rothiemurchus has been owned and cared for by the Grant family for generations.  It’s open to the public throughout the year, which is just as well, as it offers some of the most stunning scenery in the area.  There are endless activities on offer, from clay pidgeon shooting and archery to mountain biking and pony trekking, and you could easily spend a week trying to get through them all!  Visitors are welcome to explore the forest at their own leisure, but if you fancy an alternative way of getting around, the estate also offers landrover safaris and even Segway tours!  If you’re short on time though and only do one thing, make sure you visit Loch an Eilein; tucked away amidst ancient pines, with misty hills casting shadows across the water and the ruins of a mysterious castle at its heart, this freshwater loch may be one of the country’s smallest, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful.

Indulge yourself with some top quality Scottish cuisine

With a constant influx of travellers to cater for, Aviemore is teaming with great places to eat.  For breakfast, head to the hugely popular Mountain Café.  You may have to queue for a while to get in to the upstairs restaraunt, but believe me it’s worth it!  With views out over the surrounding mountain ranges, hearty Scottish grub on offer and coffees made the right way (believe me, I like my coffees done right!), it’s the perfect place to fuel yourself up for a day spent exploring the mountains.  Later, check out the Cairngorm Hotel or Papa Rock Restaraunt, which claims to serve the best burgers in Scotland.  If it’s something sweet you’re after then you won’t be short on cafes to choose from; for a truly unique experience, head to the Inshriach Nursery, where an old potting shed has been converted into a cafe, and you can sit watching the birds and squirrels come and go as you tuck into homemade cakes.

Get your hiking boots on!

Walkers are absolutely spoiled for choice in Aviemore, with trails to suit just about every age and ability.  For gentle, peaceful strolls, there’s the Craigellachie Nature Reserve to explore or the Sculpture Trail at nearby Lower Glen Feshie, where you can check out the amazing chainsaw carvings by local artist Frank Bruce.  For more challenging climbs, head into the hills with a climb to Coire an Lochain, or even up the Cairn Gorm mountain itself – just be sure to take proper climbing gear, check in at the visitor centre first and keep up to date with the weather conditions before setting off!  Serious walkers might also want to consider walking the Speyside Way, a 60km path which connects Aviemore to Morayshire on the North East coast; it takes about five to six days to walk, but there are plenty of beautiful places to stop en route and companies which can help transport luggage.  Check out the walk’s website here for more information.  Prefer to stay closer to town? Take the Ryvoan and Lochan Uaine circuit and uncover the secret beauty of the mysterious green lochan…

Step back in time with a visit to the Highland Folk Museum

A short drive from Aviemore, in the picturesque village of Newtonmore, sits the Highland Folk Museum.  This open-air exhibition spans a mile and tells the story of how Highlanders have lived and worked over the last 300 years.  The experience is completely interactive, with live actors and recreated townships to explore, and is full of interesting buildings and artefacts, as well as a working 1960s farmyard, complete with Highland cows!  You can even take part in a lesson at the Knockbain primary school…just remember to mind your manners – you don’t want to find your knuckles on the receiving end of the headmaster’s belt!

Get the adrenaline flowing

Fancy trying your hand at some extreme sports? Well, they don’t call it ‘Active Aviemore’ for nothin’…Thrill seekers won’t be short on things to do in the area, but knowing where to begin can be as much of a challenge as any of the activities themselves.  If you fancy learning more about mountaineering, then check out the brilliant Glenmore Lodge centre, who offer courses in rock climbing, scrambling, mountaineering, walking and navigation.  If mountain biking’s your thing, then there’s a guided descent down the Cairngorm mountain itself – at over 1500ft high, that’s a lot of trail to cover!  If you’re good with heights, then try the Treezone Aerial Adventure Course, which wills see you ziplining through the treetops in no time…or, if you fancy taking things below ground, book yourself onto a canyoning and gorge walking experience with G2.


Have a bevvy (or two!)

For a small town, Aviemore has a surprisingly good night life, supported by both the local community and the visiting stag and hen parties. Most of the pubs in town have a traditional Scottish feel, but if it’s cheesy tunes and cheap drinks you’re after, then head to the Vault, Aviemore’s ‘premier’ nightclub…For the best night in town, head to the Old Bridge Inn, a pretty little pub nestled into the banks of the River Spey, a pub renowned for its cozy atmosphere and live music….there’s even an outdoor piano, if you feel like having a drunken late night singalong!


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