Why would you schlep to Lapland, when you have a Highland winter wonderland on your UK doorstep? That’s the question on many a visitor’s lips after a Christmas break in the Cairngorms.
Besides, everyone knows that Santa and his reindeer have a second home here, which is why there are so many magical opportunities to meet him in the valley during the festive season. With snow already in the hills in early November, this year looks set to be a great (dare we venture ‘white’?) Christmas too.
Here are our pick of the best places to meet Santa and his reindeer:
Kids are enchanted by this experience, where they can marvel at the “Elf house” complete with miniature toys and beds, before getting stuck into crafty Christmas activities and quizzes. They can poke around Santa’s own bedroom and the gentle, jolly man himself will be on site every weekend in December bearing gifts, on the run up to Christmas between midday and 3pm.
But the real gem is the hillside trip to meet the reindeer on Cairngorm Mountain. These set off daily at 11am (but places are limited and offered on a first come, first served basis, so get there in good time). After a five-minute idyllic drive up, adventurers embark on a 20-minute guided walk to the herd, where they can hand-feed the reindeer. You’ll be amazed how friendly the animals are, as they nozzle into you, full of character and mischief.
The trip lasts about an hour and a half. Winter woollies are highly recommended, as is a steaming hot chocolate with marshmallows at the café afterwards.
Run / Ramble with Santa
Both Aviemore and Braemar host these events, the most merry in the Cairngorm calendar (Braemar on the 10th and Aviemore on the 16th December), where you can meet not one Santa, but hundreds (250 runners competed in Aviemore last year).
At sign up, you’ll receive the essential kit to transform you into a convincing Mr Claus on the day: a bobble hat, red trousers and top and the all-important flowing white beard.
There’s something magical and exhilarating about being surrounded by so many smiling Santas, which is why everywhere you go you’ll hear the chorus of “ho ho ho” from kids, grannies and parents alike.
While Braemar is a ramble, at Aviemore you can indulge your competitive streak, with all rewarded at the finish with an impressive medal and goodie bag.
What better way to embrace the Christmas spirit? To top it off, they’re both in aid of good charitable causes; Aviemore’s for Disability Snowsport UK and Braemar’s for local groups.
The Macdonald Aviemore Resort
Macdonald offers special “Santa Weekends” throughout December excluding Christmas, designed to eke the magic out a bit longer and create lasting memories. On arrival on the Friday night, families are invited to welcome Santa at his “grand arrival” which consists of a seasonal buffet dinner, followed by a show full of festive frolics.
Then over the course of the weekend, guests can book a visit to meet Santa in person. In excited anticipation, children are led through the woodland forest path to Santa’s grotto in the glen. There they can sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what’s on their wishlist before leaving with a present.
These Santa visits are very popular and offered first to hotel guests in advance. However, there are a limited number of tickets available on standby to non-residents 24 hours before.
Hotel guests have another opportunity to meet Santa and bid him goodbye as he boards his sleigh on Christmas Day back to Lapland. After a traditional highland breakfast (that Santa himself will be having after his busy night) guests can come and wave to him and his reindeer, who will be at the Resort packing up. He’ll also be popping into the Hilton Coylumbridge on Christmas Day, too, before he returns to Mrs Claus.
If it’s community, camaraderie and Christmas cheer you’re after, then you can’t beat a Highland street parade, which feels more like a party because of the famously friendly reception you’ll get from the locals.
One of the most legendary parades is the Aviemore Christmas Parade on Christmas Eve. This free event starts at around 6pm at the primary school/health centre car park and makes its way along the main Aviemore strip to finish in a fanfare at the Cairngorm Hotel.
There’s nothing that will get you in the mood more than sipping mulled wine and taking it all in, as the array of festive floats goes by, with special guests Santa and his reindeer taking up the rear. Fireworks and piping mark the finale outside the Cairngorm Hotel, where the party can continue for those who have the stamina.
It’s going to be a busy night for Santa and his reindeer because they will also be parading through the streets of Newtonmore and Kingussie on Christmas Eve. The day before, too, Santa, his reindeer and a pipe band will be marching through the streets of Grantown by torchlight to the Square for 8pm for carol singing and mince pies.
Visitors flock from far and wide to see Santa in this most regal of venues, which seems particularly fitting for the King of Christmas. His grotto is found in one of the oldest parts of the castle, which adds to the wonder, as does the walk there via the secret garden where Santa’s helpers greet you at the gate to show you the way. Visitors especially enjoy leaving a note to Santa hanging on his “wish tree” on their way out, all of which they can do in the two weekends leading up to Christmas.
But it’s not only the atmospheric Victorian look, which the castle is dressed in at this time of year, that makes this experience such a memorable one, it’s also because when Santa comes here he has a tendency to pick up and puff his beloved bagpipes, which is quite a spectacle.
As an animal lover, there’s no way Santa would visit the Highlands without dropping in at one of his favourite hangouts, the Wildlife Park in Kincraig. He’ll be making some surprise appearances on the weekends of 2-3rd, 9-10th, 16-17th December, accompanied by Walker the polar bear mascot. Even better, there’s no additional charge to see him, the experience is included in the standard entry fee.
Another aspect of a Cairngorms Christmas which makes it so bewitching is the enthusiasm with which all the village communities embrace the festivities. Most villages will run their own events, such as craft fairs, fireworks and parades. You’ll also see Santa and his reindeer at some of these events, too.
Watch out for a sweetie-laden Santa visiting Ballater’s Church Green on Christmas Eve. He’ll also be picking up some last-minute presents at Kingussie’s shopping day on 3rd December (you might even spot him at the light switch on and ceilidh in the village later on).
Also look out for our Hogmanay in the Cairngorms blog with a few suggestions to get you in the mood for the most memorable of celebrations.
The Visit Cairngorms team would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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