In the third part of our fortnightly guide to skiing, Juliet Clough explores the wide range of winter resorts in the wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands, where ease of access is matched by value for money, and there are a few seriously challenging runs for experienced skiers
SCOTTISH SKI resorts have had a rather thin time during the balmy winters of the past few years. Last season was one of the worst in memory. By late October, snow in The Cairngorms was already lying as far down as 2,500ft. In a good year, skiing continues until the third week in April.

Skiing in Scotland is cheap and easily accessible. It is also a bit of a toss-up: glum days of blizzard and zero visibility balanced against days of blue skies and knee-deep powder, intervals when those who persevere are rewarded with conditions as good as any.

Snowboarding and off-piste possibilities mushroom, resorts remain small and unpretentious, a description whose subtext ski snobs may read as "crowded and uninspiring". But for the dedicated, Scottish skiing offers serious challenges. The scheduling in Scotland of international events such as last year's melted-off Europa Cup Finals, are evidence that skiing here has finally come of age.

And there are cost reductions for juniors and senior citizens on most of the prices quoted.

CAIRNGORM

Tucked into two central Highland valleys, this is the most popular resort, with 17 lifts (some decidedly antiquated), a snowboard fun-park and good cross-country and off-piste options. An all-round centre with almost 30 runs divided equally among beginners, intermediates and experts, plus one difficult black run. A hoped-for expansion into the surrounding wilderness is proving controversial due to environmental concerns. Uplift capacity is 12,043 per hour, but Cairngorm can get crowded at weekends. Best for shops and nightlife.

How to get there

A9 trunk road to Aviemore (10 miles west). Overnight sleeper train from London to Aviemore, or day train with GNER, links with five daily bus services to slopes. Regular flights to Inverness, 40 minutes' drive from the resort, with EasyJet, Air UK, BA.

Cost

Day ticket, pounds 20; beginner, pounds 10; five-day pounds 80. Instruction: half-day from pounds 15; two days pounds 24. Ski hire from pounds 13 per day; snowboards from pounds 16; clothing hire from pounds 12 per day. Lift-pass, tuition and equipment hire package: two days, pounds 65 adult, then pounds 25 per additional day, from Cairngorm Snowsports School (tel: 01479 861261).

Where to stay

Wide range of hotels, guest-houses, b&b, hostels and self-catering accommodation in Aviemore and surrounding villages. Two-night weekend break prices from around pounds 35. Stakis Hotels in Aviemore and Coylumbridge from pounds 35 to pounds 65 per person per night, b&b (tel: 01479 811811). Aviemore TIC (tel: 01479 810363).

Information

Cairngorm Ski Area, Aviemore Inverness-shire PH22 1RB (tel: 01479 861261; e-mail: http://www.aviemore.co.uk.). Ski Hotline (tel: 0891 654655 - calls at 50p per minute).

GLENSHEE

Scotland's "Trois Vallees" - the largest of the resorts. A spectacular location between Blairgowrie and Braemar takes in four Munros, giving access to 40km of marked pistes and off-piste skiing but gets crowded at weekends. Excellent for intermediate and advanced skiers - its formidable Tiger run is the steepest in Europe. a creche, snowboard fun-park and first-aid centre. Snow Fun Week: 1-5 March.

How to get there

A93, about 90 minutes from Edinburgh by road; train to Perth or Dundee; frequent flights to Aberdeen (69 miles), Edinburgh (84 miles) and Glasgow (101 miles).

Cost

Day lift-pass pounds 18; five-day lift-pass pounds 72; five-day package (pass, tuition and hire) pounds 95. Alpine-ski hire pounds 13 per day, pounds 50 per week; snowboard, pounds 17 per day, pounds 84 per week. Combined Glenshee/Glencoe Ski season ticket gives unlimited access, price pounds 250.

Where to stay

Wide choice of small, friendly places in Braemar (nine miles) and Blairgowrie (25 miles). B&b from pounds 16 per person per night. Nearest hotel: The Spittal of Glenshee (six miles); weekend package: pounds 68 per person (tel: 01250 885215). Braemar TIC (tel: 01339 741600).

Information

Glenshee Ski Centre, Cairnwell, by Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5XU (tel: 013397 41320). Ski Hotline (tel: 0891 654656).

NEVIS RANGE

The newest and, at 4,000ft, the highest skiing in Scotland took off in 1989 on the slopes of Aonach Mor, near Fort William. Other resorts are starting to take their cue from Nevis Range's user-friendly approach. A gondola carries visitors to the nursery area; views of Ben Nevis take the breath away. The "Braveheart" chairlift, new in the 1996/97 season, has almost doubled the available area, providing exhilarating wilderness skiing. Nevis Range plays host to several top events including, in April, the Federation Internationale de Ski Scottish Championships. The area has a good record for late-season skiing, into May.

How to get there

Aonach Mor is seven miles north of Fort William, which is 76 miles south- west of Inverness. ScotRail serves Fort William from Glasgow, a distance of 10 miles). Nearest airports: Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh (138 miles). Bus service from Fort William.

Cost

Day lift-pass costs pounds 18.50; five-day pass pounds 75. Ski schools charge pounds 16 per day; clothing hire is pounds 10 per day, and equipment costs pounds 13 per day. Two-day package (lift-pass, hire and four hours of skiing instruction): beginners pounds 62, advanced pounds 80; five-day package: beginners pounds 136, advanced pounds 150.

Where to stay

There is plenty of tourist accommodation in in and around Fort William. Basic b&b from pounds 14, weekend breaks from pounds 26.50. Alexandra Hotel and Milton Hotel and Leisure Club: b&b from pounds 32.50 (tel: 01397 701177). Fort William TIC (tel: 01397 703781).

Information

Nevis Range, Torlundy, Fort William, Inverness-shire PH33 6SW (tel: 01397 705825). Ski Hotline (tel: 0891 654660).

GLENCOE

The site of the first permanent ski tow in Scotland, erected in 1956, Glencoe remains the toughest proposition of them all, a real skiers' resort, the one with fewest frills and most hairs on its chest. But, out of the five resorts, Glencoe has the plateau area best suited to beginners and the fierce Fly Paper run is arguably Scotland's most challenging run, comparable to a good European black; Etive Glades is of championship standard. Recent refurbishments include a beginners' lift. Improvements to the Plateau Cafe are eagerly awaited.

How to get there

Glencoe lies 70 miles north of Glasgow and 26 miles south of Fort William, on the main A82. The nearest railway stations are Bridge of Orchy (12 miles) or Fort William. Flights to Glasgow or Inverness (108 miles). There is a bus service to Glencoe from Glasgow.

Cost

Day lift-pass pounds 17; five-day pounds 68; four hours ski school pounds 18; five-day packages including passes, hire and instruction, from pounds 80; ski hire pounds 13; five-day boarding package pounds 155. A combined Glencoe and Nevis Range midweek ticket is pounds 68.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Glencoe (five miles), Ballachulish (seven miles) or Onich (19 miles) from pounds 15 for b&b. Kingshouse Hotel, Glencoe from pounds 26 b&b (tel: 01855 851259). The Isles of Glencoe Hotel and Leisure Centre or the Ballachulish Hotel, both in Ballachulish, from pounds 33 for two nights b&b accommodation (tel: 01855 821582). Fort William TIC (tel: 01397 703781).

Information

Glencoe Ski Centre, Kingshouse, Glencoe, Argyll PA39 4HZ (tel: 01855 851226). Ski Hotline (tel: 0891 654658).

THE LECHT

Pocket-sized, roadside resort on the notorious Cockbridge to Tomintoul road, the one that is always the first to get snow-blocked. As it is basically one big, sheltered nursery slope, The Lecht is especially suitable for beginners; you can watch the kids without having to stir from the cafe or the car park. Good piste grooming and a snowboard fun-park make this a pleasantly undemanding centre for family days out.

How to get there

Fifty-seven miles west of Aberdeen and 50 miles east of Inverness, on the A939. There are frequent flights and trains to both cities.

Cost

Day lift-pass pounds 12; five-day pass pounds 44.50. Private instruction pounds 18 per hour; class lesson pounds 15 for two hours; Alpine-ski hire pounds 11 per day. Weekender two-day package (lift-pass, two-hour tuition each day and equipment hire) pounds 60; five-day Super Pack pounds 100.

Where to stay

B&bs in the area start at around pounds 16. Nearest hotels: Allargue Arms, Corgarff, Gordon Hotel and Glen Avon, both in Tomintoul; details from Tomintoul TIC (tel: 01807 580285). Braemar TIC (tel: 013397 41600).

Information

Lecht Ski Company Ltd, Corgarff, Strathdon, Grampian AB36 8YP (tel: 01975 651440). Ski Hotline (tel: 09001 654657 - calls cost 50p per minute).

FACT FILE

on the slopes in scotland

Getting there

By rail: GNER runs a frequent daily service to Edinburgh and Glasgow, eg: a return from London starts at pounds 19; and London to Aberdeen, Perth, Aviemore, Dundee and Inverness costs from pounds 23 return (tel: 0345 225225).

ScotRail do an overnight service, London to Inverness and Aberdeen, from pounds 62 return, plus pounds 29 each way for sleeping berth. Glasgow to Fort William, pounds 30.60 return (tel: 0345 550033).

Virgin Cross Country Apex fares: London to Glasgow from pounds 30; Plymouth to Aberdeen from pounds 89 return; Birmingham to Edinburgh from pounds 25, Bournemouth to Glasgow, from pounds 43 (tel: 0345 222333).

All rail enquiries: tel: 0345 484950. Be sure to check on company policy on carrying skis; a charge may be applicable for use of guard's van.

By air: All fares plus pounds 10 tax and subject to availability. Ski equipment travels as part of standard luggage allowance but check on booking that the plane is of a size to carry it.

EasyJet: Luton to Edinburgh from pounds 15 (Nov/Dec), Edinburgh and Glasgow from pounds 19 (to end March); Aberdeen and Inverness from pounds 29: all fares single (tel: 01582 445566).

Ryanair: Stansted to Prestwick from pounds 58 return plus one-third off ongoing rail tickets to anywhere in Scotland (tel: 0541 569569).

British Airways: Gatwick to Inverness from pounds 79 return; Heathrow and Gatwick to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow from pounds 59 return (tel: 0345 222111).

KLM UK: London City to Edinburgh and Glasgow; Stansted to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, from pounds 59 (tel: 0990 074074).

British Midland: Heathrow to Edinburgh and Glasgow from pounds 59 return; East Midlands to Glasgow and Edinburgh from pounds 109 and to Aberdeen from pounds 111 return (tel: 0345 554554).

By coach: Express coach services travel from most English cities to Scotland. Prices from pounds 27 London-Glasgow: Scottish Citylink (tel: 0990 505050); National Express (tel: 0990 808080).

Package holidays

Several companies offer coach travel plus cut-rate packages for all resorts, eg: from pounds 115.50 for five days self-catering chalet. Try Scottish Ski Holidays (tel: 01250 874574) and Scottish Ski Tours (tel: 01479 821333).

Further information

Full run-down on all resorts, including accommodation, from Scottish Snowsports and Winter Activities brochure, by post from the Scottish Tourist Board, Freepost, Dunoon, Argyll PA23 7UZ; or tel: 08705 511511. Snow reports on page 420 Ceefax and page 204 Teletext.

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