It’s hard to imagine that such a different world of wilderness and wildlife is just a one hour flight from London.
As soon as you land and taste the clean air and see the huge open skies, tense shoulders drop and you take slower and deeper breaths without even realising- and that’s just on the drive from Inverness Airport !
The scenery gets ever more spectacular as you get closer to the Cairngorms National Park and a sense of childlike excitement grows in anticipation of animal encounters and snow covered mountains.
I could spend a lifetime here and never get bored, but even for a long weekend, the Cairngorms are surprisingly accessible and the experience will stay with you forever.
There are so many reasons to visit the Cairngorms but here are just three to give you a push in the right direction – North!
This has to be the number one reason because this is one of the very best places in the UK to see some of our rare and endangered species. From crested tits to golden eagles, with capercaillies, ptarmigans and osprey too, this is a “must do” trip for bird-lovers. The gentle giggle of the crested tit gives you plenty of warning that he’s nearby and golden eagles soar over the mountains just when you are least expecting. The RSPB reserves offer lovely places to visit and great opportunities for really close encounters and sightings, with specially built hides in key viewing places.
Red squirrels can also be fairly easily seen on the feeders in the RSPB reserves too, best chance is first thing in the morning, but in the winter they are regular visitors throughout the day. Some of the other local mammals need a bit more effort, but there are lots of passionate and expert wildlife guides with local knowledge and expertise that can really help improve your chances of sightings at any time of the year.
Steve Reddick of Highland Wildlife Safaris offers bespoke trips where he tailors the itinerary according to your own wish list. In just 4 hours we were able to have our first ever encounter with mountain hares, watch golden eagles get a bit too close to them for comfort, follow a red squirrel in the bracken, see crested tits and hand feed an array of coal tits, blue tits and chaffinches- with hot tea and shortbread to keep us warm. These were all accessible places that we were easily able to visit again unaccompanied.
Speyside Wildlife offer all kinds of wildlife experiences, we chose their evening pine-martin watch. On any of these trips there are no guarantees of sightings, the anticipations is part of the fun. We were unlucky with heavy snowfall that turned to rain so the pine martins were a no show. But being on the edge of the forest in proper darkness, in a cosy hide, with a glimpse of a hidden night-time world was special enough in itself and we were rewarded with a mouse and 3 badgers just a couple of feet away from us.
If you prefer a more guaranteed sighting of wildlife visit the Highland Wildlife Park where local residents like red squirrels, wild cats and pine martins can be seen alongside polar bears and tigers.
You can almost guarantee that if you make plans to seek out a particular creature, it will turn up when you are least expecting it and least prepared. Make sure binoculars and cameras are in the car or close at hand at all times to capture those priceless moments.
The Cairngorms are truly one of our great wildernesses and a quick and easy way to really appreciate this is on the Cairngorms funicular railway where just trying to stand in the car park can be an experience in itself. You can leave the Glenmore Visitor Centre – great place for red squirrels and good food- in bright sunshine and just 8 miles up the road you can barely stand in the blizzard. On the day we visited this prevented us from looking for the black water voles we’d come to see. But this is the UK’s highest railway after all!
The ten minute train ride takes you to the top of the mountain, on the way look out for ptarmigans and mountain hares sheltering under the railway. At the top is a different world, a white landscape of thick white snow and freezing cold temperatures- needless to say go dressed for the weather. You’re not allowed on to the mountain without a guide but this doesn’t detract from the trip.
The Cairngorms are well-known for skiing at Aviemore but there are lots of other activities to suit every age interest and ability. My absolute favourite is husky sledding. Nothing beats sitting behind a team of howling huskies, tails in the air rushing towards the snow-topped mountains, absolutely nothing will get in their way once they are off, it’s so exhilarating. For walkers there are undemanding, easily accessible footpaths that you could easily do on your own as well as those which are definitely not for the faint hearted. The beautiful Spey provides some of the best fly-fishing in the world and the lochs are perfect for sailing and canoeing- with the chance of seeing an otter if you’re really lucky, but note that unlike the sea dwellers they are nocturnal here. And of course at the end of action-packed days there are plenty of cosy pubs with log fires to sit and sample the very good selection of local whisky, gin and beer. But before you go to bed don’t forget to gaze at the spectacle of one of our darkest skies, full of stars and if you are really lucky the Northern Lights. I promise that the fresh air, exercise and a wee dram will give you the best night’s sleep you’ve probably ever had!