JACKIE BRANKIN and family head north for an audience with Father


SANTA Claus Land is a Highland holiday retreat for Father Christmas in

Aviemore. Our family day out there was a mixed bag of pleasure and pain

-- main grump being, did they have to re-create the sub-zero

temperatures of Santa's home in Greenland?

We realise the outside temperatures are not within the management's

control but they could include more heat in the indoor play areas and

refreshment zones, both of which were more than a touch on the cool


Billed as offering the ''largest indoor soft play area in Europe''

only the hardiest child could stand more than 15 minutes running about

in their socks (shoes are left at the door). Santa, might I suggest

slippers? The ten-pin bowling brigade provide changes of footwear in

their halls to protect the bowling lanes. At Aviemore, swopping shoes

for slippers could lower the chances of frostbite.

That aside, the play area is bigger and better than most, with lots of

space to run, bounce, chase and roll about.

There is plenty for kids to do in Santa land so the #3 admission

charge for children is acceptable. For adults, however, there is litle

to do except smile indulgently at their offspring -- which makes another

#3-a-head for grown-ups a bitter little pill. A goodwill marketing ploy

might be one adult free with every child under 12 -- an idea of mine

they are free to take up.

Some kind of effort would be welcomed -- after all, they have a

captive audience.

The fact of the matter is that ski-ing and other outdoor trips to the

Cairngorms are often blown out (literally) by the unpredictable weather,

particularly on the slopes.

Once grounded families are faced with bored kids, the pressure is on

to take action, but must it cost an arm and a leg?

Money matters apart, a fun play area and ''death slide'' (quite safe

at just two feet off the ground -- our five-year-old loved it) are

avaiable, as is a ''dinosaur safari ride''. The ride looks scary but is

not and our daughter wanted to go on it again and again.

She also enjoyed the model cars and crazy golf but the high point of

the trip was the visit to Santa's Highland home. We visited the log

cabin and literally walked in on Father Christmas himself.

Forget all the in-store Santas you've seen with their cotton wool

beards and ill-fitting costumes, this IS Santa. His beard is real, his

eyes twinkle, he's even got exactly the right amount of wrinkles you'd

imagine he should have and I would challenge even the most cycnical

adult not to be impressed.

He sat our daughter on his knee and she thanked him for the presents

she received last year. So smitten was she, her usual eye for the main

chance failed her, and she forgot to put in an early order for this


Back outside, the more adventurous among the kids can opt for a

kiddies' four-wheel drive option, available for an extra few pounds.

Lunch or a snack is available in the Gingerbread House which is

beautifully furnished and offers, stranger than fiction, Santa Meals in

a happybox. At #2.50 for a burger, chips, drink and gingerbread man --

it is good value in anyone's terms.

The pet farm could do with a few more ''cute'' additions to make it

truly memorable and the gift shop which you can visit on your way out is

a bit tatty. Perhaps the organisers could take a leaf out of the

Christmas shops in Disney World.

They manage to stock and sell Christmas tree ornaments and baubles all

year round, sometimes in temperatures of 90 degrees simply because they

make it so Chrismassy and inviting.

This rather tacky and half-hearted shop leaves much to be desired, as

does the service of the staff who were on duty during our visit. After

all it is supposed to be Santa Claus Land and a smile, no matter how

forced, would help.

Still, Santa's new found home from home is a welcome addition to

Aviemore's attractions. The town has been criticised in the past for

failing to cater for and make the most of the large number of tourists

who visit every year.

There is really no excuse for not getting it right. All it needs is a

bit more effort and concentration on what people really want -- Oh, and

those slippers please, Santa.