Staggering views, sandy beaches, snow-capped peaks – and only a short drive away. It has to be the Cairngorms
THE crescent of sandy beach at Loch Morlich is bathed in wintry sunshine, a stiff breeze whips off the water into the sheltering trees, and soaring above it all are the peaks of the Cairngorm mountains, capped with snow.
This is world-class scenery a little over 100 miles from the biggest cities in Scotland. It is a dry, sunny day, and yet the number of people on the beach is barely in double figures. True, we're all wearing at least three layers of clothing, but getting here took one form of transport, less than three hours door-to-door, and there were no security checks.
Better still, we're spending the pounds sterling that were already in our pockets, and a lot less of them than would disappear on almost any foreign jaunt. And that is no bad thing as the economic gloom deepens daily.
For anyone who doesn't know the area, the Cairngorms National Park covers almost 4,000 square kilometres of mountains, forests, lochs, streams, wildlife – and 16,000 people. Visitors, from the most hardened mountaineers to the tiniest kids, can have the time of their lives if (and it's a very important 'if') they come prepared for the weather.
A trek around Loch an Eilean, a few miles from Coylumbridge, illustrates the point. Part of the Rothiemurchus Estate, this is one of the most beautiful and accessible walks in Scotland: a clear, well-maintained path through three miles of ancient pine forest, offering ever-varying views of the water, mountains and a ruined island castle.
During our 90-minute stroll, the intrepid Laing clan was treated to a variety of weather some parts of the world would wait years to experience. Heavy rain on arrival dwindled to fine drizzle before giving way to bright sunshine. And then it snowed, sleety at first before turning to fat flakes that settled thinly on the ground.
A few hours later, we were on the mountain road leading half way up Cairn Gorm itself. Below, Loch Morlich was now a tiny circle of blue, almost lost in the forest. Above, a vicious wind blasted snow around the peak.
If you're really energetic you can walk to the Ptarmigan restaurant, the highest in Britain at just 400 metres below the summit. We wanted to try out the funicular railway, despite the endless controversy about its alleged environmental impact on the mountain. If you can cast such nagging doubts aside (and plenty of people did that day), it's well worth the ride.
The restaurant itself is a massive improvement on the damp and dingy place some readers will remember from the late 1970s. Now, light pours in and the food and drink is perfectly decent.
The views are stunning: on days when visibility is good it's possible to glimpse Ben Nevis and even Caithness from the outdoor viewing platform.
The outdoors is – and always will be – the real point of visiting the Cairngorms. But the attractiveness of the area has undoubtedly been boosted by huge improvements in indoor facilities in the past decade or so.
We stayed at the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort, which features a terrific indoor pool – complete with flumes and a wave machine for the kids, and sauna and steam room for the adults. There is also a team of trained beauticians offering a variety of treatments to relax or invigorate. At the time of our stay, the resort had given over an entire conference room to a huge variety of soft play equipment.
It hardly needs to be pointed out to parents that this provides plenty of options on days that are just too miserable to venture out.
The resort has four hotels, to suit all budgets, as well as designer shopping, a golf course and restaurants. Aspects, the resort's fine-dining establishment, is a gem. The decor, staff and atmosphere together strike a perfect balance between formality and friendliness. Meanwhile, the food – particularly the fish dishes – is excellent.
Of course, there are nights when you won't want to fret about picking up the right piece of cutlery or can't rely on even remotely civilised behaviour from the kids, in which case the pizzas and pasta on offer at Giovanni's are a safe bet – but remember to book early.
We stayed in one of the resort's 18 luxury woodland lodges. Each property has three spacious twin or double en-suite rooms (with underfloor heating), a large lounge area with leather seats, dining area, fitted kitchen – and a log fire to keep the worst of the weather out.
Top five santa sites
Why wait for Santa to visit your home when you can visit his? (Esprit, www.santaslapland.com)
DOBBIES GARDEN CENTRES
Join Santa for breakfast or supper at your local Dobbies in the run-up to Christmas. (www.dobbies.com)
Head to this New York flagship store for fun in Santaland. (www.opodo.co.uk)
Santa goes green at this eco-friendly grotto at the National Park Gateway Centre in Balloch. (0845 345 4978)
Have a magical time with Mickey, Donald and all their pals in Paris. (www.disneymagicalchristmas.com)
FACT FILE: AVIEMORE
THE Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort (0844 879 9152, www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk) is offering pre-Christmas Santa Weekends, including a trip to Santa's Magical Forest and Workshop at the resort.
Twixmas packages, bridging the gap between Christmas and New Year, are also on offer, and there will be a Hogmanay Family Extravaganza Party and pantomime – Robinson Crusoe – running from now until January 3.
Prices for Christmas breaks start from 210 per adult for a three-night dinner, bed and breakfast package, going up to 1,200 per lodge on a three-night, room-only basis. Twixmas breaks start from 39 per adult per night for bed and breakfast. New Year prices start from 200 per adult for a two-night stay, including dinner, bed and breakfast and entertainment.