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Reach Out And Touch The Sky
Cairngorm Mountain Railway (Scotland)
Member Name: kenjohn
Cairngorm Mountain Railway (Scotland)
Date: 11/10/03, updated on 13/06/05 (286 review reads)
Advantages: Breathtaking scenery. Excellent value for money.
Disadvantages: Not a lot!
~ ~ I have to admit to a certain stirring of my Scottish blood when I visit the Highlands, as images are conjured up in my head of the “Heilanders” of old, and how the clans used to gather here in the mountain glens to mount attacks on the “Auld Enemy”, the invading English. Mind you, the English are still here in force in the modern-day Highlands, as almost every second business, hotel, or guest house would appear to be English owned. Such is the appeal of the Highlands, that once visited, the desire to return again and again is always strong, to such an extent that many overseas and British visitors often return and settle in the region.
~ ~ On our most recent visit in August of this year (2003) the “mad cabbie” and family stayed in Kingussie, a wee village that nestles in the shadow of the Cairngorm Mountain range.
It was always my intention to take my wife and wee lass to the top of the nearby Cairngorm Mountain, but I was fearful of the journey, as I still remembered a fairly hair-raising trip on the chair lift back in the early 1990’s. I visited the Aviemore region in the winter season (early February) with an Irish friend, and we ascended the mountain late one winter’s afternoon, only for the ski-lift to get stuck about half way up caused by ice forming on the cable. We spent a VERY unpleasant half an hour or so while the staff winched their way slowly towards us, chipping off the ice as they came, in order that we could be rescued.
recalled that my wife is not too keen on chair lifts, as we had used them previously in the Swiss Alps back in the 1980’s, when she had shut her eyes and prayed for the whole journey! (She didn’t enjoy the experience!)
~ ~ So imagine my delight when I discovered that the old chair lift on the Cairngorm Mountain had now been replaced with an ultra-modern and highly efficient funicular railway.
By the way, the Oxford Dictionary definition of “funicular” is “a railway on a steep slope, operated by cable with ascending and descending cars counterbalanced.”
I mention it in passing, as to be honest, I didn’t have an earthly clue what it actually meant myself until I looked it up!
According to the bumph from the Scottish Tourist Board the Cairngorm Railway is the highest and the fastest in the UK. Actually, I didn’t know that there WAS another railway of this type in the UK, although I have gone up in these cars before when visiting old fortress towns in the Tuscany region of Italy, and also in the South of France. (can’t remember the names of the top of my head, but one of them was in Nice)
Anyways, the old “White Lady” chairlift that had served skiers and tourists since 1961 is no more, since the new railway opened for business in December 2001.
~ ~ The new railway wasn’t without its opponents however, who claimed that the building work involved would damage the fragile Artic type environment on Cairngorm Mountain to such an extent that it would never recover. There was also the worry that the influx of new tourists that would result as a consequence of easier access to the mountain would cause even further damage.
The safety aspect was also called into question. The weather on Cairngorm can be calm and benign one minute, and a raging blizzard with sub-zero temperatures the next. The last thing anyone wanted was thousands of inexperienced and ill-equipped tourist
s wandering off onto the mountain in shorts and tee shirts, and quickly being turned into frozen corpses.
A compromise was reached however, by the simple expedient of not allowing users of the new railway access to the Cairngorm plateau, and restricting them to the confines of the new Ptarmigan building and restaurant. So it isn’t possible to go walkabout once you reach the top station, which nestles just 400 feet or so below the summit of the mountain, at an altitude of over 4,000 feet. In order to go hill walking on the mountain you must still use the well-beaten paths from the base station car park at around 1,500 feet, and climb the 2,500+ feet to the summit.
~ ~ Anyway, back to the railway itself.
Building work began in the summer of 1999, using helicopters to transport the materials up the mountain. It cost £14.8 million to complete, with a lot of the actual funding coming from the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Board and the European Regional Development Fund. It eventually opened for business on the 23rd December 2001 exactly 40 years to the day after the old White Lady chair lift first carried passengers, way back in 1961.
As well as the two kilometre railway itself, the top and base stations were totally revamped, and the top station now houses a vastly improved bar and restaurant called the Ptarmigan, (the highest in the UK) and a fascinating exhibition about the mountain and its environment. There’s also a well-stocked gift shop where you can buy souvenirs of your visit.
~ ~ The train itself consists of a long, blue carriage, which is connected to cables that pull it up the mountain (or lower it down) on a single broad rail. The “counterbalanced” funicular system means that while you are going up the second train is coming down, and you pass each other halfway using an ingenious switching system where the rail splits into two for a short section to allow you to pass.
In summer it can carry a
round 60 passengers a trip, but in the winter season it is used primarily to convey skiers to the top of the ski-slopes, so the seating is removed, thus doubling the carrying capacity. During the summer the train takes around 8 minutes to cover the 2 kilometres to the top, but in the winter the engine is cranked up a notch in order to convey impatient skiers up the mountain more quickly, and three minutes are skimmed off the travel time.
The carriage itself is 10.5 metres long and 3.2 metres wide, and seems to consist mostly of glass, with large windows all around to give you the best possible view of the spectacular mountain landscape. (even the roof is glass!)
I stood at the back of the train, and got some absolutely fantastic footage on my camcorder.
There is accommodation for two wheelchairs, and indeed there was a wheelchair passenger on the evening we used it. But you are recommended to give plenty of advance notice during the winter season if you want to use a wheelchair, as the train gets extremely crowded.
The train is a very welcome improvement on the old chairlift, and also has the added advantage of being able to operate in adverse weather conditions and high winds, whereas the poor old chairlift had to shut down if the wind got uo to much more than a gentle breeze.
~ ~ Once you reach the Ptarmigan top station then the fun really begins.
The Ciarngorm Railway run what they call “Ceilidh Nights” and “Sunset Dining” in the new Ptarmigan Restaurant during the summer season in July and August.
The Ceilidh Nights are on a Thursday from 6.00PM to 10.00PM, and the Sunset Dining is on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from 6.00PM to 10.30PM.
For only £19.50 a head (£9.50 for kids under 16) you can sample the delights of traditional highland cuisine in the Ptarmigan Restaurant. This is inclusive of the use of the railway, and when you consider that the normal price of a return ticket is £8.00 for
an adult and £5.00 for a child then it becomes even better value.
There is no pressure put on you to hurry up to the restaurant which is on the top level of the building, and once you arrive you are free to wander around at your leisure and take in the exhibition, shopping, and sights before you eat at your reserved table.
~ ~ A wee bit about the exhibition and other facilities before I go on to tell you about the restaurant itself.
Once you get off the train you enter the building directly into the Mountain Exhibition. This is a very impressive display giving all sorts of information about the mountain, its environment, plants, and the wildlife you might spot, and how the mountain has evolved down through the passing generations.
There are slide shows, video presentations, and displays that hold your attention well. We spent a good half an hour in here before we decided to move on.
From the exhibition, you then enter the “Shop At The Top”. This is very much your traditional gift shop, and caters for the tourist souvenir trade, although as well as all the usual knick-knacks and “junk” gifts, there is a very comprehensive stock of skiing gear and accessories. I bought a rather good print of the mountains that I intend to frame from their large selection, and if reading is your thing, then there is a plethora of books about the Cairngorms and the surrounding region. Possibly the shop is a wee bit more expensive than equivalent prices in nearby Aviemore though. (after all, they DO have a captive audience!)
~ ~ Once you reach the restaurant itself, the enormous viewing terrace, that faces out to the North, East and West immediately grabs your attention.
In fact, “grabs” is probably too mild a word! The vista that faces you simply jumps up and slaps you in the face, literally taking your breath away, such is its natural beauty.
You feel as if you could reach out your hand and touch the sky, a
nd you are surrounded on all sides by the towering mountains and glens. The air is so pure that you can practically taste it. We spent another half an hour or so here simply basking in all the delights that Mother Nature has to offer.
All around the viewing terrace are detailed maps that show you exactly what you are looking at, and for those of you that don’t own a good set of binoculars, there are a two or three mounted sets provided. (40p for 10 minutes, if memory serves me correctly) On a very clear day they say you can see from one side of Scotland to the other, all the way from Aberdeen in the east to the Isle of Skye and the Islands in the west.
On the day we visited, the region was experiencing its hottest spell in living memory, with temperatures in Aviemore and Kingussie reaching record highs of nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit! But here on the mountain the temperature was still cool, with temperatures in the fifties. So you would be well advised to take a warm pullover or jacket up with you whatever time of the year you intend to visit.
~ ~ Then you get to the bar and restaurant itself.
You enter from the viewing terrace into the spacious and lounge bar, where you can also choose to sit and eat your meal if you wish.
I went up to buy my wee lass a Diet Coke, and noticed that it is particularly well stocked with all types of Scotch whisky, from your common and garden proprietary blends, to the tastier (and much more expensive) old malts. So a treat in store for all you drinkers! (But remember you probably have to drive once you get back down the mountain!!) I would have had a field day in here during my drinking days. (heh, heh)
Then it’s up a few steps into the upper level of the large restaurant iself.
You’re greeted immediately by the manager (forgotten his name) who then shows you to your (reserved) table, and introduces you to your waiter or waitress for the evening. (By name, and they all wear name-ta
gs so you don’t forget. A nice, personal touch.)
You’re asked straight away what you want to drink, (tea for herself, Diet Coke for the wee lass, and the obligatory coffee for the mad cabbie) and within minutes are served with a piping hot and very large bowl of Scotch Broth. (or “Highland” Broth as it’s described on the menu) This is so thick and nutritious that it’s almost a meal in itself. But in all honesty, it’s never been one of my favourites, although the wee lass and herself fairly lapped it up. (and the remainder of my portion as well!)
On the Ceilidh Nights there is a set menu, as distinct from an A la-carte menu on the Sunset Dining nights at the weekend. (But you pay over £10 more for this at £29.95 per head)
Most of the food is traditionally Scottish, with venison casserole, haggis and clapshot in onion gravy, mince and tatties, and stovies in abundance. But you don’t have to restrict yourself to one dish, (or even one portion) as you serve yourself at an open buffet set up on a large table, and can have a little of everything on offer. A nice touch was that a chef was on duty at the buffet to assist the tourists in their choice of dish. (and to explain to them what some of the dishes actually were. Heh, heh)
I had loads of the very tasty haggis, and a side portion of Lyonnaise potatoes with black pudding. By the way, don’t ask what haggis is (if you don’t know already) as if I told you you’d never even go near it, far less put it in your mouth!
Sweet was a choice of Raspberry Cranachan (which I had, and very tasty too) or Sticky Toffee Pudding, which my wife and wee lass thought was delicious.
Halfway through the meal, the band arrived and began to set up beside the spacious dancefloor. Called the “Jock Fraser Band” I can’t honestly say I’d ever heard of them before. But they were a good, traditionally Scottish folk band, with drums, accor
dion and guitar, and soon had every foot in the place tapping and the dance floor packed with a medley of good Scottish jigs and reels. (They even threw in a couple of irish ones just to make us feel at home!)
Another nice touch was the way the restaurant manager took to the floor himself to show the inexperienced the right way to dance a “Gay Gordon”. (where else would you get it?)
~ ~ All too soon, the night was over, the hours having disappeared as if by magic, and it was back into the train for the brief journey back down the mountain. This was an experience in itself, with the setting sun, moon and stars all in attendance, and so close that you felt you could reach out and pluck them from the sky.
This trip and meal on the Cairngorm Mountain Railway was memorable in every way, and just one of the many highlights of our ten days in the Highlands.
The very highest recommendation from the mad cabbie, and be sure not to miss it if you ever find yourself in this most beautiful part of Scotland.
Main A9 towards Aviemore, then the B9152. Going into the village from the south, take the first turn right (B970) and then simply drive to the end of the road. (about 10 miles)
Cairngorm Mountain Railway,
Aviemore, Inverness-shire, PH22 1RB
Tel: 01479 861 336
Fax: 01479 861 207
Child (under 16) £5.00
Senior (over 65) £6.50
Student (ID required) £6.50
Family (2 adults, 3 kids) £22.00
Family (1 adult, 2 kids) £16.00
May to October
First train up at 10.00Am last train up at 4.30PM
Last train down at 5.15PM
Trains run approximately every 15 minutes.
Special trains for Ceilidh Nights and Sunset Dining.
November to April
Trains run on demand, and are ver
y busy, so you may have to queue.
Maintenance is carried out during November and early December, so check in advance that facilities are open before visiting.
Copyright KenJ 2003