Why you should consider Scotland instead of the Alps for a ski holiday this winter

·12-min read
Glencoe view
Glencoe view

There are many common misconceptions about skiing in Scotland. “It’s not worth the long journey,” and “There’s no snow” were just some of the comments I received when I floated the idea with friends and family before my maiden voyage across the Anglo-Scottish border. Even Telegraph readers have historically been sceptical about the thought of staying on British soil for a day of snow sports.

But with turmoil in Europe following a fourth wave of Covid cases and the spread of the omicron variant, leading to a ban on ski holidays in France this Christmas and tightened restrictions on arrivals in the UK, ski resorts in the Highlands could be the best risk-free choice British skiers and snowboarders have this winter.

There’s something intriguing about being able to ski without having to cross the Channel or the Atlantic, as I found out on my first visit to Scotland’s resorts two winters ago, attracted by the allure of the unknown, the back-to-basics reputation of the resorts and the idea of being able to support our local British ski industry.

This winter the draw is even greater – a new low-cost rail route between London and Edinburgh has launched. Lumo hopes to rival budget airlines, with fares between the two capital cities tumbling to as little as £20. From Edinburgh, skiers can then access all five major resorts within a three-hour drive. A recent documentary by Team GB snowboarder Billy Morgan has also strengthened the appeal – the bronze medalist summed up its mystic appeal for viewers: “Scotland has its own magic.”

The destinations (Cairngorm, Glenshee, Glencoe, the Lecht and the Nevis Range) are also ploughing ahead with opening plans. Glenshee was in fact able to open early and Susan Smith, interim chief executive at Cairngorm Mountain, confirmed: “We are planning to open for winter snow sports on Friday December 17 2021 and finish on Monday April 18 2022.”

And while Covid passes are governing who can ski elsewhere in the world and masks have become the latest fashion in resorts, Scotland is preparing for a hassle-free winter. “We do not expect any restrictions to our operations this winter. As an outdoor activity, we are very low risk and provide huge benefits to physical and mental health. We are planning for a completely normal season,” said Andy Meldrum, owner of Glencoe.

glencoe
glencoe

According to Trafford Wilson, CEO of Snowsports Scotland, the Scottish ski season is ready to return with a bang – in fact, this winter could prove to be pivotal to the recovery and future of the industry in Scotland. “There’s a golden opportunity to get people thinking about coming to Scotland as concerns remain about travelling abroad. We hope that this opportunity allows more people than ever before to experience snow sports in the UK; and want to come back for more in the years to come,” said Wilson.

“It’s fundamentally important we have a good season,” he added, explaining the Scottish ski industry has lost more than £12million over the past two winters.

Here’s what I learnt on a day’s skiing at Glencoe and what you need to know as winter begins and the call to the slopes sounds. Tempted? Below you’ll find details on where to stay and resorts’ plans for reopening this season.

‘There won’t be any snow’

Let’s begin with the most obvious elephant in the room. Historical snow reports confirm that Scotland is by no means the most reliable destination for the white stuff, and in 2019 the country reported one of the worst ski seasons on record. However, when it does snow in abudance, which it did somewhat frustratingly last winter when resorts were shuttered to non-local visitors, then the depths can rival those in some of the Alps’ biggest winter destinations. Like any ski resort, two factors impact snow cover in Scotland: strong winds and warm temperatures. So it’s important to check the forecast and daily reports before travelling – social media is often the most up to date with local information. If (and when) the snow does stick around it can fall thick and fast – on my visit to Glencoe runs at the top of the mountain were layered in ankle-deep powder and the summit depth was close to two metres.

‘The resorts are tiny’

Glenshee is Scotland’s largest resort with 36 runs, Nevis Range and CairnGorm Mountain both have 32, while Glencoe Mountain has 21 and Lecht, 20. While individually the resort are significantly smaller than anything most British skiers and snowboarders will have experienced in the Alps, combined the areas cover a total 130km – that’s the equivalent of the ski area in Alta Badia in Italy (130km) and more than in Cortina d’Ampezzo (120km), the resort set to co-host the Winter Olympics in 2026. With a car, which is almost essential for getting to any resort in Scotland, it is possible to visit all five in one multi-day trip, with the longest drive between two resorts (Lecht in the east to Glencoe in the west) being roughly 3 hours.

For a day’s skiing, the 20km of pistes at Glencoe Mountain was plenty to keep myself and my partner entertained, especially as the continued snowfall meant each run was topped up with fresh powder throughout the day. Admittedly, skiing in Scotland isn’t for those looking to clock up serious mileage, but for those happy with exploring a varied ski area, with off-piste options, and aren’t afraid to repeat the same runs a few times it comfortably fits the bill. Beginners will also have a ball.

‘The lifts are really old and slow’

Yes, there are T-bar and button lifts in abundance and the chairlifts have seen better days, but head to a lesser-known resort in British Columbia, a local ski hill in the USA or an off-the-beaten track destination in Eastern Europe and you’ll find a similar set up. I quickly realised, as I ascended to the top of Glencoe’s ski area on the Main Basin T-Bar tow, skiing at Scottish resorts isn’t about gadgets, gizmos and glitzy gondolas. It’s about the simplistic pleasure of being in nature, taking in the landscape, sliding down the mountains and the adrenaline that comes with those fresh tracks. It’s skiing in its simplest form – and after two winter’s of disruption, that’s what we’ve all missed most.

‘It’s only for experts’

Thanks to recent investment in snow making facilities, including artificial snow factories that make the white stuff inside giant containers at the side of the pistes, no matter what the temperature outside, the low-altitude beginner slopes at Scottish ski resorts are often the ones that can be kept open the longest. Of Glencoe’s 21 slopes, six are green for beginners and it’s a similar ratio in other resorts. As well as a number of ski instructors out on private lessons, on my visit to Glencoe a number of schools were also in attendance, using the nursery slopes for race training. Watching the youngsters fly down the mountain, clipping the gates as they passed by, it was clear to see why Scotland has been the breeding ground for some of Great Britain’s biggest snow-sport stars, including Graham and Martin Bell, who grew up skiing on Cairngorm mountain.

‘Getting there takes too long’

Unless you live locally, travelling to Scotland is a commitment, but if you plan your journey well and embrace its road-trip nature it can be very rewarding. The A82 road, which heads north out of Glasgow and weaves around Loch Lomond into the Highlands beyond, was quite simply one of the most spectacular drives of my life and well worth the 3am alarm. With the snow-capped mountains getting ever closer, the road meanders peacefully down the shore of the 23-mile loch. Time it well and you can see the sunrise (or set) over the rippling water. Further south, heading up (or down) the M6 motorway you pass through some of England’s most stunning landscapes including the entire length of the Lake District and the Scottish border region. If catching the train from London, the Caledonian Sleeper is a good option. Departing London Euston at 9:15pm (Monday to Friday) and 9:00pm (Sunday) you arrive the next morning in Fort William at 9:57am after a night spent racing across the country. From Fort William you’re just 15 minute’s drive from the Nevis Range ski resort. Or opt for the new eco-friendly Lumo service and hire a car from Edinburgh – accessing Scotland’s resorts has never been easier.

glencoe view
glencoe view

‘The slopes are crowded’

While reports do often surface of long queues and overcrowded car parks on days when Scotland’s ski resorts are blessed with snow, on my mid-week visit I experienced neither of these and was often treated to empty runs. My partner and I found ourselves on Glencoe’s The Wall red run in limited visibility, wondering if we’d gone off course – but then appeared a piste basher. As it passed us we were left with perfectly groomed powder snow to enjoy all by ourselves. Grinning like Cheshire cats, we quickly hurried back down to the lift and did the same lap again, before anyone else discovered our bounty – an experience hard to comeby in the busy Alpine resorts.

‘The weather’s dreadful’

If you’re a fair-weather skier who only ventures out of the chalet if the sun’s shining and the mercury is above freezing then skiing in Scotland might not be for you. Sunshine, wind and snow – I experienced it all during my visit to Glencoe, quickly understanding why so many people had told me that you need to be brave to ski in the Highlands. But in between snow showers, the clear views of the surrounding Rannoch Moor, which stretched for miles into the distance, were worth the tingling feeling of cold on our cheeks. Scotland was home to William Wallace, Braveheart, after all, so be prepared to embody his warrior spirit and you’ll have a bonny day on the slopes.

‘The mountains are flat’

Glencoe is home to some of Scotland’s most challenging slopes, including the Spring Run red piste and Flypaper, the UK’s steepest black run. After a thigh-burning descent of the latter, made more so by the ankle-deep snow, we were glad of the meandering green runs that then led down to the lifts and eventually down to the car park. Across the ski area the terrain was littered with bumps of powder, varying gradients and tricky corridors to navigate. While the beginner areas are fit for their purpose we found the rest of the mountain offered us, intermediate and expert skiers, plenty of challenges to test our skills.

How to book a ski trip to Scotland

Tempted to head north this winter to sample Scotland’s slopes? Here’s where to stay for easy access to each resort. Please note, check government travel advice and cancellation terms and conditions before booking.

Glenshee

The Dalmunzie Estate is home to a selection of self-catered cottages and is just a 15-minute drive from the ski resort. The 6,500 acre estate sits at the gateway to the Cairngorm National Park and as well as having quick access to the slopes, there’s walking trails and a golf course, plus the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel for those keen to be catered for. Cottages range in size and are pet friendly. Dalmunzie Cottage sleeps six, costing £610 for a week’s stay from March 4 2022.

Cairngorm Mountain

Macdonald Hotels’ Aviemore resort has a choice of accommodation a short drive from Cairngorm Mountain Resort. There are three stylish hotels to choose from as well as woodland lodges, which offer a self-catered pet-friendly option. Guests can book ski specific packages, provided by its partner Ski Norwest, including lift passes, equipment hire and lessons. A regular bus service runs from outside the hotel to CairnGorm. Lodge stays start from £199 per night B&B, hotels rooms start from £129 half board.

Glencoe Mountain Resort

The campsite at Glencoe resort has 16 microlodges that are open to guests in the winter. The insulated pods sleep up to four people, while the ‘Plus’ lodges sleep six, and offer basic, yet cosy accommodation, with access to the site’s toilet and shower facilities. Located in the resort’s car park they provide direct access to the slopes, ensuring guests are first on the lifts in the morning. From £65 per night for a standard lodge, ​ or £80 for a ‘Plus’ lodge.

Glencoe pod
Glencoe pod

The Lecht

There’s an abundance of self-catered properties to rent in Scotland – ideal for large families or groups. This traditional farmhouse on AirBnb is 10 minutes from The Lecht ski area, in the heart of Scotland’s largest national park. It sleeps up to eight people, with a large garden and log fire, just a short walk from the centre of the village of Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands. From £350 per night, for a week’s stay arriving January 5 2022.

The Nevis Range

The Glen Nevis VisitScotland accredited youth hostel offers guests hotel-like accommodation in a choice of both private ensuite room and shared dormitories on the outskirts of busy Fort William at the foot of the Nevis Range resort and towering Ben Nevis. The property underwent a £1.2million renovation recently. Twin ensuite rooms are available from £50 per person per night, from February 1 2022.

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