Macdonald Lochanhully Resort, Aviemore

THERE is something of the stolen fruit in being able to get away from it all at this time of the year, in the calm before the Christmas storm.

But while many may seize the opportunity to head for warmer climes, there remains much to do for those wishing to stay closer to home. And the outdoor haven in and around Aviemore, in the heart of the stunning Cairngorms National Park, offers much for those who enjoy their breaks on the active side, even when temperatures hover icily around freezing.

Our base for exploring the area was the Macdondald Lochanhully Resort, a tidy collection of Scandinavian log cabins scattered around a small private loch (Lochan) just outside Carrbridge, a short drive north of Aviemore. Less well-known than its sister venue, the sprawling Macdonald Aviemore Resort a few miles down the road, it offers a peaceful and cosy retreat from the rigours of the great outdoors.

There are opportunities to be active on site, from swimming and tennis to walks around its picturesque grounds, guarded noisily by its patrol of friendly ducks (the avian equivalent of Neighbourhood Watch). And there is a welcoming and competitively-priced restaurant, which takes care of most culinary tastes.

For those of a more adventurous bent, though, Lochanhully is also within striking distance of Aviemore and just about every outdoor pursuit imaginable.

Aviemore has an ability to stretch the tourism season beyond the busy summer months and the skiing season. We visited in mid-November and had no shortage of options to choose from, albeit some attractions had understandably scaled back their operations given the time of year.

First on our agenda was a trip to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Kingussie. It is home to more than 200 animals, some native to the wilds of Scotland and others endangered species from more remote parts of the world.

These include its troop of ultra-cute Japanese Macaques or Snow Monkeys, who like nothing more than chopped up Swede for morning snack – and putting on a little bit of a show in the process.

The vast park combines a walking area, where within a short radius you can visit wolves, polar bears, red pandas and an Amur Tiger, with a much bigger reserve that can be explored by car or guided tour. From the safety of the minibus, our guide Lorraine provided just the right balance of fact and humour as we trundled gently past bison, deer, elk and vicuna, whom we discovered are named after South American footballers. These include Maradona, who didn’t look like he’d especially welcome anyone entering his particular field of play, even other vicuna.

There is a lot to see, and at least three hours is needed to its justice. We were on a fairly tight schedule, and after a pleasant lunch in the homely café, we were back on the road for a short drive back in the direction of Aviemore.

Our next destination was Rothiemurchus Estate, 18,000 acres of rivers, rolling hills, forests and lochs - and home to the Hairy Coo Safari.

Ranger Craig, who spends the winter season teaching skiing in France, was our friendly and informative guide as we explored the vast and varied grounds by Land Rover, taking us through the history of Rothiemurchus (owned by the Grant family since the 16th century) and the diverse functions it employs today. A chief attraction, as the tour title suggests, was the estate’s wonderful herd of cows, which includes 150 Highland cattle and between 150 and 200 cross-breeds.

Driving up to a high point, offering panoramic views of the Cairngorms, Craig pulled up the Land Rover and up ambled a small pack of the magnificent beasts, eager to lap up their afternoon treat (a livestock feed which included by-product from the whisky distilling process).

After feeding time, it was back in the jeep again for further discovery of the estate, skirting the stunning Loch an Eilein (the loch of the island) en route to the next feeding post. This time to a herd of magnificent red deer, who came charging over the hill after hearing the low rumble of the vehicle’s engine.

While we left it to Craig to feed the cows, there was no need to be as cautious with the deer (all female with the exception of two stags, still in rutting season), who gently lapped up their food from our hands, which felt like a real honour.

To be so close to such graceful animals, in such dramatic surroundings, is an experience my daughter, nine, will not quickly forget.

Tired and elated, we returned to Lochanhully for a restorative pre-dinner swim. After a restful evening we were up bright and early for our next thrilling activity. To say I was nervous about zip sliding would be to under-estimate the anxiety I felt as we headed to the nearby Alvie Estate (not that I was letting on to my 12 year old son, who was joining me in the madcap enterprise).

However our trusty instructor, Andy, at Zip Trek Park, could not have been more reassuring. Before long the boy and I were gleefully zipping along 14 wires high over rivers, rocks and ravines – the last wire a jaw-dropping 550-metre stretch that ended our 2km descent down through the forest.

It was an exhilarating and memorable way to bring a fun-packed weekend of adventure to a close.

Prices for the Winter Warmer stay at Macdonald Lochanhully Resort start at £74 per night, minimum stay two nights. A 20% discount applied from 1/12/19 until 19/12/19 and from 02/01/20 until 31/03/20, subject to availability.