TRAVEL REVIEW: More to do in Aviemore than ski...
FREE-WHEELING through the pine forest on our bikes, catching glimpses of the shimmering loch alongside and all the while basking in glorious sunshine, it is hard to comprehend it is mid-February.
We had ventured to Aviemore with the original intention of introducing the kids to skiing, a couple of days hitting the slopes of Cairngorm to see if they - hopefully, please, please, please - catch the bug.
But it is almost 18 degrees. Yes, 18 degrees. It turns out we experience the hottest February in Scotland since records began.
As much as we are slightly miffed at not getting chance to head down piste, we are also, at the same time, slightly elated at having such remarkable weather to enjoy.
You can’t argue really, can you?
We had been here last summer and didn’t seem to get close to such temperatures and one of this spectacular region’s many positives is that it truly does offer so much to do regardless of weather conditions.
So, instead of skis, we’ve grabbed the bikes and set off in pursuit of a different type of adventure.
Just outside of Aviemore, where we are staying at the four-star Macdonald Spey Valley Resort, is the wonderful Rothiemurchus, a highland estate that, with its ancient forests and lochs, boasts stunning scenery.
Given there's quad bike hire, Highland pony trekking, canoeing and kayaking, clay shooting and so much more you could quite easily while away a few days just here alone.
We opt to explore on our own, heading off on one of the three different marked routes, a three-mile trek around the tranquil Loch an Eilein whose focal point is an impressive ruined island castle.
There are so many off-shoots through the forest, though, heading up around Loch Gamhna for instance, and around every bend is another wonderful view.
It is hard to keep your eyes on the path and stay on the bike with everything unfolding before you.
There is so much nature to embrace, too, if that’s your thing but we didn’t even have to leave our resort centre to experience that.
Spey Valley Resort is, usurprisingly, situated on the banks of the River Spey and the view from our lodge balcony conservatory, across one of its two golf courses, is of a stunning mountain backdrop.
We saunter over the fairway to the riverbank and meet, by chance, Jim Cornfoot, who runs nature trails for kids staying in the resort.
He is not on one as we speak, merely, walking his dog, but kindly offers to take our four-year-old son Henry and six-year-old daughter Maisie on an impromptu adventure.
Soon they are looking at otter paw prints on the riverside, listening out for woodpeckers and different types of birds, learning all about what lives and roams in the close vicinity.
Mention of otters swimming and it is a swift reminder to get swimming ourselves; the resort has fine leisure facilities which are perfect for the little ones.
Indeed, after heading in every morning for four days, Henry can suddenly officially swim without his armbands; intensive training pays off.
It also works up an appetite. The Scottish Steakhouse restaurant at the resort is well worth a visit especially as hungry kids eat free.
Steak, of course, is the order of the day for me and, having seen the usual sirloin, rump and rib eye options, I’m intrigued by the ‘butchers cut’ offering springing out of the menu.
Apparently, it is “200g prized by butchers who would keep this cut for themselves rather than offer it for sale.”
All I will say is I wholeheartedly see why. Delicious.
Our lodge is spacious, well-appointed, spread over two floors and - to the kids’ great amusement - has downstairs upstairs and vice versa. It does mean you can make the most of those stunning vistas.
Despite the warm weather, there are still options to try skiing; the Lecht Ski centre, about a 40 minute drive from Aviemore, has some artificial snow on its nursery slopes.
However, we decide against making that the kids’ first experience and, instead, visit the Highland Wildlife Park on our final day.
There is chance to drive around the Main Reserve in your car getting up close to herds of European bison, elk and the rare Przewalski’s horse before walking through the rest of the park.
In there, you can see animals that were once common in Scotland, including wolves that can be seen excitedly chasing each other around Wolf Wood, but also those from further afield that are now worryingly endangered.
Watch polar bears being fed or diving in their lake, Amur tigers prowling around and mischievous Japanaese macaque showing their acrobatic skills as they dart around trees and bridges.
There was no arctic conditions for that skiing but learning about the arctic fox is a nice way to end the trip.
On the way home, to keep the animal theme running a little longer, we stop off at the Beatrix Potter Exhibition and Garden at Birnam Arts and Conference Centre.
You may wonder why there is even such a thing south of the Cairngorms National Park when Potter is so commonly associated with the Lake District.
Well, it turns out, she enjoyed long family holidays in this part of Scotland and it was here where she gathered plenty of inspiration for those famous Peter Rabbit tales.
It is lovely interactive experience; sit in a Victorian classroom, take part in a Peter Rabbit puppet show, go through Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s wash-day routine or simply marvel at some of Potter’s original writings and drawings from her time spent in and around Birnam and Dunkeld.
Factfile: Dave Craven and family stayed at Macdonald Spey Valley Resort.
Springtime breaks in UK Macdonald resorts start from £50 per night, per family between April 10 until May 6.
Find out more at: https://resorts.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/offers/spring-summer