SINCE the early 1970s, even before its golden brownness became so automatically associated with the water-of-life, the Spey has been a special stretch of water to me.

Childhood holidays spent with multitudinous cousins may have represented little more than a change of work in more primitive conditions for my mother as she toiled, in musty cottages around Tomintoul and Tamnavulin, to feed an army of primary school-age kids, rain-soaked clothes hanging from every available space while cartons of milk sat in sinks full of cold water in the fridge-less kitchens. Yet even she looks back wistfully at the madness of dealing with the nightly jockeying for the right to occupy sleeping bags on landings atop stairs rather than submit to the unmanly comfort of beds.

Activities were rough and ready too, Santos versus Celtic matches - back when the nicknames Pele and Jinky were rightly uttered in the same breath - proving the most popular as they were contested in adjacent fields; long walks into the hills rather less so; swimming sessions under the Iron Bridge challenging our constitutions; while fishing trips amounted to much the same experience as the swimming.

Loading article content

Then there was the gowf ... an annual pilgrimage to "Royal" Dufftown, as we used to think of it, where the donation to the honesty box - pence rather than pounds back then - was fully rewarded by the entertainment provided by the wall which straddled one of the holes, confounding and enraging our fathers while we worked out the best ricochet options.

Armed with clubs, no two of the same make let alone set, our own encounters were as serious as any engaged in during intervening years when understanding of the sport has become slightly more sophisticated so, while many years have passed since the discovery that there was rather more to Speyside golf than Dufftown, an invitation from Visit Cairngorms was still highly attractive given the range of options available.

Boat of Garten, so long listed as a "hidden gem" that it might as well now be kept in a Hatton Gardens vault, is always a joy to visit, wending its way through mature trees, most memorably at the left to right dog-leg sixth, which is cited as the signature hole and the 12th, with its elevated tee offering supreme views, while accompanied by the occasional toot from the nearby steam train and, if you are really lucky, the odd sighting of the village's most famous residents, the ospreys.

The course that is playing the biggest part in transforming golf's image in the Cairngorms however, as a regular host to European Tour Challenge tournaments, is the relatively recently built Spey Valley, a rangy, testing layout with bright white bunkers that might generate an American feel if the setting was not so iconically Scottish. Its new clubhouse could not be better positioned to take full advantage of stunning views of the still, in late spring, snow-topped Cairngorms, but they are a feature of pretty much every hole, too, offering compensation for the battle with a course that is demandingly long even between holes.

Its emergence fits with the revival of Aviemore, which, after its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, had fallen on pretty tough times, but has considerably upped its game lately. Our base at the Coylumbridge Hilton may still look slightly dated superficially, but the fare on offer is of very high standard, most particularly at a breakfast buffet which, with chef on hand to produce anything not immediately visible, would be exceptional in its freshness and range even without making allowance for the vast numbers being quickly and efficiently catered for.

That speaks to a raising of the culinary game all round as is also obvious at The Winking Owl, a favourite haunt of regular visitors but significantly improved food-wise since being bought over by the Cairngorm Brewery, whose products feature heavily throughout the town.

Pride of place must surely be claimed, however, by The Old Bridge Inn, an even shorter walk from Coylumbridge than Aviemore town centre and the perfect demonstration that a proper pub can offer a fine-dining experience.

Marketeers are, too, making much more of the area's most famous product as a tourist draw nowadays and a visit to a distillery that is capitalising fully on its location by naming itself simply The Spey Distillery, offered evidence that in the land of The Macallan and Glenfiddich there is still scope for newcomers to add to the array of smooth, warming options available.

Well-fed and watered as we were, the focus was the golf, however, and a short trip to Grantown-on-Spey provided another pleasant, part-parkland, part-woodland walk before what was, in the context of my own memories, the most evocative experience of all at the lovely little Abernethy club.

For the holiday golfer this nine-holer is the place to visit. No bookings required, short enough to provide an introduction to the game for youngsters, but packed with character, most notably at the short second, you have to wait for the road to clear of cars before playing. It's not without challenge, either: the mountainous seventh is known by regulars as "the Eiger" and, suffice to say, it claimed another victim on my visit.

It also boasts an unusual feature in the shape of a towering, poppy-laden war memorial which sits between the tee and green at the short eighth which offered the ultimate proof of the power of suggestion as my playing partner, whom I have long called Dangerous Dave because of the risk he poses to himself, fixated upon it from the moment we entered the car park.

By the time we reached that hole there was an inevitability about the outcome as his skied three wood sent his ball homing in on the granite construction as if magnetised, striking it squarely in the middle, just under the Celtic cross and rebounding some 40 yards back towards us.

It might as well have been a wall that was blocking his path but he negotiated it second time on his way to winning the hole and so, to my shame, the match.

Emotionally it was just like being back in Dufftown, losing to my big cousin. Fond memories old and new ... sort of.

Kevin Ferrie was a guest of Visit Cairngorms (visitcairngorms.com)

The Cairngorms Golf Pass, costs £20 and entitles the holder to 30% off a round at each of 12 participating courses: Abernethy, Ballater, Blair Atholl, Boat of Garten, Braemar, Carrbridge, Craggan, Dalmunzie, Grantown-on-Spey, Kingussie, Newtonmore and Spey Valley

Five to play:

Spey Valley (green fees from £35)

Boat of Garten, (from £45)

Grantown on Spey, (from £29)

Abernethy, green fees from £18 (9 hole) / £25 (18 hole)

Dufftown - (from £20 - not part of Cairngorms Golf Pass)

Five Places to Eat:

The Winking Owl, Aviemore

The Old Bridge Inn, Aviemore

Inverdruie Restaurant, Hilton Coylumbridge

Anderson's Restaurant, Boat of Garten

The Potting Shed Tearoom, Inschriach Nursery, Aviemore

Five Things to Do

Cairngorm Brewery Tour

Cairngorm Funicular Railway

Quad Bike Trekking, Rothiemurchus

Glenlivet Mountain Bikes Trails

TreeZone, Rothiemurchus

Five Interesting Facts:

The Cairngorms National Park is Britain's largest national park, more than twice the size of the Lake District and nearly three times that of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

The small, boutique Speyside Distillery started distilling on Christmas Day, 1990 and featured in the BBC series Monarch Of The Glen' as Lagganmore Distillery.

Loch an Eilein, featuring a 13th century castle as its centrepiece, was voted Britain's best picnic spot in 2010

Cairngorms National Park is home to 25% of the UK's endangered species and is the best place to see the Scottish crossbill, the only unique bird to Britain.

The Queen's regular summer residence at Balmoral is within the boundaries of the national park