Undiscovered Britain: Scotland – Taming the Cairngorms

To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.

Taming the Cairngorms by Robin McKelvie

As adventure playgrounds go, the Cairngorms National Park is a tough one. A daunting prospect for some, over the years I have done my fair share of bashing around its hills and forests on two feet, two wheels and even afloat. But at Rothiemurchus Estate, within one of the best-preserved patches of the ancient Caledonian Forest, in a country ravaged of many of its indigenous trees, there are tamer pursuits on offer beneath the mighty mountain, CairnGorm.

I begin my gently active day in the UK’s largest national park in the saddle of a bike. “I’d recommend doing a big sweep of the forest and checking out Loch nan Eilean on the way,” says John at Mike’s Bikes, as he hands me the map on which he’s helpfully drawn a route. After half an hour following a well-maintained forest track – a cycle ride even a young family could enjoy – the shining water unfurls through swathes of pines, revealing the craggy ruins of a 13th-Century castle cast adrift on an island. It’s easy to see why these shores have been deemed the finest spot in Britain to spread out a rug for a picnic.

I head onwards to Loch Morlich and its watersports centre. You can swim in this vast glacial lake in summer, but the waters can freeze solid in winter (we are more northerly than Moscow here). I plan to stay above water, switching from two wheels to a dinghy. I try to find some wind; a few gusts fluff the sails and spirit the boat away from the beach. Out on the loch, I watch an osprey hunting for its lunch. These graceful piscatorian predators had been lost to the British Isles, but in 1954 a pair showed up in the Cairngorms and the park’s osprey population is now thriving. They are even helping to repopulate areas beyond the park’s borders, in England and as far away as Spain.

Next I go rafting on Scotland’s fastest river, the Spey. My guide, Dave, from Full on Adventure. explains how he’ll take the tempo down a little. “This is a nice gentle stretch where you can just take it easy, enjoy the views and look out for animals,” he says. And so we ease along, discovering wildlife on the banks as we go. I spy a red squirrel, Dave sees a pine marten, but it escapes my gaze. But the best spot is of one of the UK’s largest land mammals, a somewhat startled red deer.

For my final adventure amid the epic trees and heather scrub I pick up the pace with a sleddog ride on dry land. It’s somewhat surreal to hurtle through a Scottish wood pulled by huskies. We rattle along the tight trails, the air filled with the crisp scent of the Scots Pines that line our path. The panting sleddogs are the only sound in an eerily quiet landscape that has little changed in centuries. It’s a thrilling ride, the climax to a day that has revealed a softer side to the Cairngorms.

Rothiemurchus Estate www.rothiemurchus.net

Visit Cairngorms www.visitcairngorms.com

For a selection of hotels in Scotland, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in Scotland.

Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a travel writer, blogger and broadcaster specialising in his native Scotland, and also the author of National Geographic Traveler: Scotland.