Air time: skiing on Cairngorm / RUARI MACDONALD/CAIRNGORM MOUNTAIN

Head for the Highlands, says Ellie Ross

From the top of a perfectly-groomed piste, I watched as the distant peaks turned from rose to dusty pink in the early morning sun. Blanketed in freshly fallen snow, the slope unfurled beneath me, inviting me to cut the first tracks through its unblemished surface. Far below lay the majestic, still waters of Loch Morlich, encircled by thick green forest, the mountains reflected on its surface.

Pushing forward on my skis, I sliced through the smooth snow, feeling the crisp air nip my cheeks as I swept downhill. Swishing to a halt at the bottom, I sprayed a satisfying arc of powder into the air before gliding over to the lift for another run.

And all this in the Scottish Highlands. With just two days to spare, I didn't want to waste precious piste time checking in for a flight then taking a lengthy transfer. Cairngorm offered a weekend's skiing that was both accessible and – this winter – full of snow.

I'd taken the Caledonian Sleeper train from London on a Friday night. After being woken up with a cup of tea in my berth, I arrived, just before 8am, in Aviemore, a 20-minute drive from the resort. By 9am, I was kitted out and taking the first funicular up the mountain from the bottom of the ski station.

I crammed in with children from the local ski club, and a man from Cumbria, who had driven up that morning. "I'm not doing my usual trip to France this year," he told me. "I've never been here before but saw there was snow this weekend."

Four minutes later, we were next to Britain's highest restaurant, the Ptarmigan, with its gorgeous views and restorative hot chocolate. At an altitude of 3,600ft, Cairngorm is the most snow-sure of Scotland's five resorts. Its 18.5 miles of pistes cater for all abilities with a network of 11 drag lifts.

First developed in the 1960s, Cairngorm was taken over in June by Natural Retreats, the company that started on a family farm in the Yorkshire Dales. It now operates sustainable accommodation and leisure facilities from South Cornwall to John O'Groats, as well as in Lanzarote and the US, and has committed to a five-year, £6.2m investment plan at Cairngorm.

Its first venture is The Storehouse, a new restaurant by the base station that accommodates 150 people, replacing the Day Lodge, which could only cope with 30. Diners can ski to the door and fill up on fresh, locally sourced dishes, such as a £14.25 platter of salmon and mussels.

Back at the top of the mountain, I was as keen to work up an appetite as I was to get my bearings, so I spent my first afternoon with Jim Cornfoot, Cairngorm land manager and senior ski patroller. Snapping on our skis, we slid over to a flat section of perfect corduroy.

"The mountain plateaus at the top so we have a big beginner area up here," Jim explained, as a toddler, trailed by an instructor, sailed past. "This sets us apart from other resorts, where people have to learn lower down, on slushier slopes." We moved on to a spot that will soon become a freestyle area with rails and jumps, designed by Team GB snowboarder and Cairngorm local Jamie Trinder. Natural Retreats wants to attract top athletes, as well as the leisure market; Cairngorm is the only place in Britain with a half pipe cutter, and there are plans to open a training facility.

A skier from the age of three, Jim has been working in these hills for 23 years and knows the contours like the back of his glove.

"You can just make out the top of Ben Nevis," he said, pointing his ski pole at a white peak on the horizon. He also picked out the dark patch of Aviemore, Inverness's wind turbines, and Aberlour, famed for its whisky. "That blue line ahead is the North Sea."

We pushed on, snaking down the White Lady red run. It was hard to believe that three days earlier this slope had no snow covering. In the past five years Scotland's ski resorts have had more snow than ever.

"Conditions change quickly and wind is the biggest factor. But if you check the weather and pick your days, our skiing is as good as the Alps," Jim assured me.

The next day I discovered just what he meant when the breeze picked up to 45mph. I felt I was skiing into an abyss, until halfway down when I dipped below cloud level and could see endless, silky snow.

For non-skiing days, Aviemore offers mountain biking, hiking, dog-sledding, canoeing, whisky tours, clay pigeon shooting and spa treatments – you can't imagine packing in that much in Continental resorts.

On Sunday evening, there was just enough time to visit The Winking Owl pub. A plate of spicy haggis pakora went down well with a pint of locally-brewed Trade Winds. As I boarded my return train, snow began to fall, dusting the platform with fresh flakes.

By 9am on Monday, I was at work again. Had it all been a dream? As I climbed the escalator, my aching legs assured me it hadn't.

Getting there

Caledonian Sleeper Train (sleeper.scot).

Skiing there

Cairngorm Mountain Resort (01479 861 261; cairngormmountain.org). One-day passes £34.50.

Macdonald Aviemore Resort (0844 879 9152; macdonaldhotels.co.uk) B&B from £76.

naturalretreats.com

ski-scotland.com

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