SLOPE OFF TO SCOTLAND
We live in modern times. The English are making champagne, the Welsh are making whiskey, Germans are successfully exporting comedy, and skiing in Scotland is on the up.
Now I know what you're picturing on that last one, you old cynic. You drive to a mountain hut where a ginger-haired man in a kilt gives you a funny look when you ask to try the runs, rolls his eyes and attaches you to a Highland Cow which drags you to the top of the slopes. At the top, another man in a kilt looks you up and down, hacks a branch off the nearest tree and carves two skis from it. He attaches your feet with some dried Otter tongue, and pushes you towards a near vertical slope muttering about Sassenachs clogging up the mountain.
Having spent an exhilarating weekend in one of Scotland's five mountain resorts, I can assure you nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, there's a compelling case to be made for not making the long journey to the Alps or the Pyrenees, and spending your tourist pounds in the UK.
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Now, I must tell you that everyone told us we were lucky with the weather. Every night of our long weekend skiing at Cairngorm Mountain, above Aviemore, fresh snow fell on to slopes already thick with it.
Add to that the fact that the resort has invested heavily in snow-making machines, and equipment to sculpt the pistes to perfection while skiers sleep, and you can see why, when we emerged from the funicular railway at the top station, the powder was as good as any I've experienced abroad.
In fact the past few winters have largely been excellent for the Scottish skiing industry. The snow has been good, and the resorts – very basic when they were first opened – have spent big on ski schools, expanded their runs and made sure that even if the unpredictable weather deals them a bad hand, there's plenty for visitors to enjoy.
But poor conditions weren't a problem for us. As our instructor Gerry gave us a refresher lesson in his gentle West Coast lilt, we glided across the runs accompanied by that comforting hiss that only comes from skis meeting fresh snow. We were making our Scottish ski debut on a non-school holiday Friday, and at points it felt like we had the place to ourselves, alternating between the green and blue slopes that make up Cairngorm's 30km of pisted slopes, including a hair-raising run called the Gun Barrel.
The view was spectacular. Turning to look west at the end of the highest lift while the experts turned left to try the red and black runs on the higher slopes, we could see for miles. On a clear day you can see Ben Nevis.
Cairngorm Mountain boasts the highest restaurant in the UK – the Ptarmigan – and Scotland's only funicular railway. The latter whisks snowboarders and skiers to the top station in a matter of minutes, and you can also buy passes to take it to the top station and hike the peak from there.
It's the most popular of the five Scottish ski resorts, the others being the Nevis Range, Glencoe, The Lecht and Glenshee.
The ski areas are dotted across the country, and that's important. Should the Cairngorm range or Glenshee not have good snow, the chances are the West Coast resorts may.
The native skiers know to keep a close eye on the forecast and the regularly updated resort websites to know where to head and, our second day being a Saturday with great conditions, the main car park and overflow area were rammed with hundreds of cars and the shuttle buses were working overtime. But despite the large numbers of boarders and skiers, once you got on to the slopes it still didn't feel too busy – a testament to the layout and choice of runs.
Another thing I noticed in comparison to previous Alpine trips was the lack of snobbery. Nobody looked you up and down to see if you had the latest Gucci salopettes on, and there was a remarkable and obvious tolerance of some less than elegant attempts to negotiate the trickier corners. There was a refreshing down-to-earth feel to the banter in the lift queues and in the cafés. I did see one man take that too far and try and head for the slopes wearing jeans, but the patient staff talked him into hiring the right clothes.
There's also plenty to do apart from skiing, as regular visitors to Scotland will know. At the end of each day, driving back to the charming six-bedroom Moorfield House hotel in the village of Boat of Garten, enticing signs drew our attention.
One advertised a reindeer herd viewing area, another the chance to be pulled along by sled dogs.
The stunning beauty of the area, encapsulated by the gentle shores of Loch Morlich, where the Cairngorms were reflected in water so still we were afraid to skim stones on it, helped ease away any aches and pains from tumbles on the slopes.
Haste Ye Back say the Scots to friendly visitors. We certainly will.
For more information visit: Skiing in Scotland www.ski-scotland.com; Cairngorm Mountain www.cairngormmountain.com; Moorfield House Hotel www.moorfieldhouse.com.
Steve Mellen flew to Inverness with Easyjet. There are currently four flights a week from Bristol on that route, Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday. Visit www.easyjet.com.
For information on holidays in Scotland in general visit www.visitscotland.com/natural.