Cairngorm, Scotland

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Scotland: Ski, Ride Year-Round In These High Lands -

Scotland has year-round skiing thanks to a combination of five conventional ski areas, an indoor snow centre, and a dozen artificial surfaced dryland slopes.

The five conventional ski areas are all in the north of the country in the Grampian mountains, known worldwide as the Highlands. There are two on the west coast. Glencoe is south of Fort William and Nevis Range is just a little to the East of the town. You'll find three on the east coast. Cairngorm is above Aviemore, the Lecht, a bit further to the south, and Glenshee, close to the Queen’s summer residence of Balmoral.

Scotland ski areas have a long history that peaked in the 1960s and 70s when up to a million people visited the slopes each winter. Many Brits learnt to ski in Scotland and Britain’s ski racers also began their careers here.

The advent of relatively inexpensive and easy travel to the Alps in recent decades, however, has led to an exodus to Europe. The fortunes of Scotland’s ski areas have suffered. There has been limited investment in new lifts at the smaller centers and there have been frequent changes in ownership, mostly due to inadequate income.

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as the areas have re-invented themselves as major summer destinations, attracting hikers and mountain bikers to provide necessary economic viability. Cairngorm has a £15 million Funicular railway and Nevis Range, a modern gondola, both of which do more summer business than winter in the modern era, but are still a boon to skiers and boarders once the snow falls.

One other problem for Scotland ski areas are the unpredictable weather conditions which can bring snow any time between September and June, but warm temperatures right through the winter. the Lecht and Cairngorm were able to open for Hallowe’en but for the 2008-09 season, but there was very little skiing until April the two previous years.

This makes planning difficult for skiers and ski areas alike. Gale force winds can blow in off the Atlantic too, making wind chill a problem. Then, when the weather does turn good for skiing and riding, the slopes can get very crowded at weekends as everyone rushes to make the most of it. So it’s best to arrive early or visit midweek when conditions are good.

Scotland's best-known ski area is Cairngorm, 10 miles east of the lively village of Aviemore. There have been dramatic improvements here in recent years and a vast array of non-ski activities are now available to counter the traditional problems already discussed. Cairngorm can be reached by train from most parts of the UK, including an overnight sleeper train from London, or by flying to Inverness. You can also drive or take a coach up the A9 main road from the south.

Nevis Range, also known as Aonach Mor, 30 years old, is Scotland's newest and most modern ski area, located next to Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. It opened in 1989. Lifts include the UK's only quad chair and six-person gondola, the latter giving it a continental feel, although spectacular views over the West Coast are very Scottish. The nearest town is Fort William where much of the accommodation and après ski facilities are based. Fort William can also be reached by train, again including an overnight sleeper option from the south. Some choose drive up from Glasgow.

Glencoe, Scotland's original ski centre, began life as a weekend haunt for dedicated enthusiasts. Still regarded by many as the country's best, with a world-class vertical, it is located in an awesome location at the South end of a spectacular valley. The centre is complete with optional high-value packages including ski-hire and instruction (based on-slope) and lift pass. A wide variety of accommodation is available locally. Glencoe is a popular day trip destination for Glaswegians.

Composed of largely parallel roadside drag lifts and a chairlift imported from French resort Le Grand Bornand, the Lecht has also invested in snowmaking technology in recent seasons, paying dividends in snow cover through unpredictable Scottish winter weather. It also offers a range of alternatives to skiing and boarding and opened a new £1m base lodge with all facilities. The nearest hotel is in Corgarff. The Lecht is reached by road from Inverness or Aberdeen in about 75 minutes in good weather.

Glenshee Ski Centre, Scotland's version of the "Three Valleys," flanks each side of Britain's highest road pass and offers more lifts and marked piste kilometres then any other UK ski centre. The centre is close to Braemar where the annual 'Gathering' is staged, and, as again, the Queen's summer residence of Balmoral is nearby. Glenshee is another popular day trip for people living in Edinburgh.

There are a dozen artificial surface ski slopes across the country, and in 2006, the first indoor snow centre opened in Glasgow. The artificial surface slopes include Europe's largest in Edinburgh. The Midlothian ski slope has been the starting point for many of Britain's champion skiers. Snowboarders are also welcome and there is equipment available to rent.

The Xscape indoor snow centre at Braehead, near Glasgow, has also proved very popular and has become a training base for the Scottish ski team.

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