From baby polar bears to climbing wild Cairngorms: Exploring Scotland’s Highlands

Hamish, the five month old polar bear cub at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig under the ever watchful eye of his mother Viktoria. (Sandy McCook)
Hamish, the five month old polar bear cub at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig under the ever watchful eye of his mother Viktoria. (Sandy McCook)

BEAR. It was one of the most talked about births of 2017 and triggered huge excitement.

No, not the oddly-named firstborn of Cheryl Cole and Liam Payne, but an actual bear – the first polar bear cub to be born in the UK in 25 years – which was given the much more sensible moniker of Hamish.

Since the announcement of his birth in December, everyone has been desperate to see the inquisitive snow-white ball of fluff.

We were no different, and during our recent trip to Aviemore we made sure to take the short drive to nearby Kingussie to visit Hamish at the Highland Wildlife Park.

The polar bear enclosure was, of course, most people’s favoured destination and the fairly long walk out to it only ratcheted up the sense of anticipation.

We knew we were close when we heard the collective “awww”.

And awww, right enough, because there he was, playfully splashing around in the water with his mum, Victoria, and refusing to give her a minute’s peace.

While the viewing platform is a distance away from mum and cub, it didn’t stop droves of visitors standing for prolonged periods, waiting to catch a glimpse of what Hamish was going to do next.

But it’s not just about the polar bears.

We spent hours investigating the rest of the park, home to more than 200 animals, as well as taking a drive through the main reserve for a much closer look.

After a day out in the clean air of the Cairngorms, we were more than ready for a relaxing evening at the MacDonald Aviemore Resort, where we were spending a two-night stay.

A bothy in the Cairngorms. (University of Dundee)

Located in the heart of the Highland town, the sprawling resort has four separate hotel buildings – as well as a number of lodges – within its grounds, so there is plenty of choice. Geared towards young families, but not exclusively so, there is lots to do.

The Aviemore Activity Centre, for example, contains a three-storey soft play area that you’ll struggle to drag the kids away from, as well as an impressive leisure pool and multiple rooms full of role-play, arts and crafts and games consoles.

There is plenty for the grown-ups too, whether it be beauty treatments, cinema, a stunning golf course or the Spey Valley shopping complex.

And then there are the many restaurants, which includes a burger joint, steakhouse, an Italian and fine dining establishment, Aspects.

The latter was our choice for the first night’s meal, and we were blown away by the standard of food.

It was absolutely delicious, even better than the glorious views out over the Cairngorms from our table.

Unfortunately, dinner in Giovanni’s the following evening wasn’t quite up to those high standards.

Part of our starter didn’t arrive, we’re still waiting for our dessert and the main courses didn’t quite hit the mark.

You also don’t expect to see mounds of dirty linen still dotted along the corridor at dinner time in a four-star resort, or to visit the hotel bar at 10.45pm on a Friday only to be told it was shut already (To be fair, the barman did say he could re-open it, but it would have required him going over to another part of the complex, so we didn’t want to put him to any bother).

Giovannis in Aviemore

Those small matters aside, we had a pleasant stay.

The resort is ideally located, the room was perfectly nice and there are plenty of activities for all ages, no matter the weather.

There are a wealth of activities on the resort’s doorstep, too.

Countless outdoor pursuits, the ski slope with its funicular railway, the free-ranging reindeer herd and the steam railway are just a few of the attractions at hand.

It’s also a great base for exploring further afield.

We took a drive to Dufftown, dubbed the world’s whisky capital thanks to its six active distilleries.

Not all of them are open to the public, but one of the most popular that does accept visitors is the picture postcard pretty Glenfiddich.

If that distillery is quaint and traditional, then the new visitor centre for Macallan, dubbed Teletubby Land by one of the Dufftown locals due its grass roof and the way the building contours into the hills, rendering it virtually invisible from a distance, is the peak of modernity.

Even if you have no interest in whisky, it’s worth the short drive from Dufftown just to see the architecture and lay-out.

With such a wealth of choice, and to check on the progress of little Hamish, we’ll be back in the heart of the Cairngorms soon enough – and the MacDonald Aviemore Resort is the ideal base.