Words and pics Janet Coulson
The sun is shining, the van is packed, the holiday soundtrack compiled by my friend and fellow adventurer Renee is pumping through the sound system, and we are ready to begin our road trip north for a weekend of riding in the Highlands.
I have been wanting to get another VW camper van since I sold the one I owned in my early twenties, in which my partner and I regularly headed off on cycling trips, from weekends away in Wales to week-long holidays in the Lake District. The clincher was after I moved to Scotland a couple of years ago, when I spent a very wet and muddy 24 hours at a cycling event with seasoned snapper Andy McCandlish and his VW T5. Without this little safe haven of warmth and comfort, our team would’ve bailed out way before the end of the 10-hour event we were competing in. Sold.
So finally, here I am again, behind the wheel of a VW camper — a more modern T4 version of the romantic, old-school bay window I used to own, but all the warmer and more convenient for it — feeling that old familiar tingle of excitement as we set off, free to roam wherever our fancy takes us, bikes on the back and food in the fridge — yes, the fridge! Didn’t have one of those in the old bay! Destination Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park.
Arriving late afternoon in Aviemore — a small town known for its outdoor activities, including skiing in the winter months — we nip into a local hostelry to find out the lay of the land. A wee dram and a chat with some local chaps, and we decide to park up in a quiet spot down by the River Spey where they reckon we will be undisturbed for the night. It’s a lovely spot, and as evening approaches, we decide to begin our weekend away in style with a splendid meal at the Old Bridge Inn. Great food, a roaring fire and the opportunity to introduce Renee to the delights of the Speyside Malts. An admission that she didn’t really like whisky sets me on a mission to prove that was because she had not yet tasted a good one!
The next morning, after a couple of big bowls of porridge with honey in the van, we drive a few minutes up the Coylumbridge road to Inverdruie in the Rothiemurchus Estate and park up at Mike’s Bikes, where we purchase a map of the local trails. It is more of a rough plan than a map, and as the way-marking out on the trail itself is far from clear at times, we take a number of wrong turns throughout the course of the day.
This begins with finding the beginning of the trail itself. Even after a couple of detours up side roads, I’m still not convinced the way we went was right initially, as we head up the road towards the ski station. There is in fact a separate cycle path running along beside the road, but we only pick it up once it swaps to the other side and we spot a sign. The tanker driver who had pulled in for a break watches us pass him no less than three times — he must think we’ve gone potty.
Once we catch the trail, however, things begin to look up. We wind our way through the woods on a gently rolling path, twisting and turning to reveal glimpses of the mountains ahead and to our left. The Rothiemurchus Forest covers an area of about 30 square kilometres and is believed to contain more than 10 million trees. According to the Rothiemurchus website, this is one of the largest surviving areas of ancient woodland in Europe, and some of its Scots Pines are more than 300 years old. I don’t know much about trees, but I’d say the particularly ancient-looking one we saw must’ve been getting on for that. It gave me the uneasy impression it might start moving and speaking in Entish at any moment.
Basking on the beach
A sudden downpour times rather well with us dropping down to the road and spotting the Glenmore Shop with its little cafe. Twenty minutes later, with a warming cup of hot chocolate inside us, we set out once again, this time into brilliant sunshine. Riding through a little car park, we come out of the trees to a sandy expanse of beach and are taken aback to discover the beautiful Loch Morlich glistening in the sunshine with the Cairngorm mountains behind. I had seen the loch on the map, of course, but I had no idea it would be so spectacular. We wander down to the shore line and watch the ducks paddling around in the shallows. This would be the perfect spot for a picnic and even a spot of sunbathing if the weather was a little warmer. Or, if you fancied something a little more active, you could try your hand at sailing, windsurfing or kayaking, courtesy of Loch Morlich Watersports. And if you are particularly hardy, this is apparently an excellent place to do some wild swimming. Brrr!
Not having our swimming gear handy — nothing to do with the fact this is Scotland, not the Mediterranean — we decide to continue our ride along the side of the loch. It is possible to ride either way around the loch, depending on what you have planned.
The map loses us again here briefly, but having discovered a large gate set in a metal fence that despite first appearances is not locked, on the other side of it we find a sign that tells us we are indeed headed in the right direction after all.
The sun is now shining warmly on our backs as we head south-west along the same well-maintained sandy paths as before. This really is an ideal ride for all the family, with the paths well-maintained, and plenty of options for making your route longer or shorter as you wish. The forest occasionally opens out into heather and gorse-covered clearings, once again offering views of the mountains surrounding us. It really is a beautiful place.
We take a right and the path drops down among the trees once more, until we reach the river and cross over a narrow metal bridge to eventually, via another slight detour, reach the smaller and rather romantic Loch an Eilein (meaning ‘loch of the island’) with its mysterious 13th century castle hidden among the trees on the islet that gives the loch its name. On returning home, my neighbour Jessie told me she has fond memories of having picnics there as a child.
And indeed others must too, as it was named Britain’s Best Picnic Spot in 2010.
From here we turn north-west and cruise along a smooth tarmac road until we reach the B970 where we turn right towards Rothiemurchus once more, and the car park at Mike’s Bikes where my trusty van is waiting for us.
The temperature has turned quite nippy again by now, and we are glad of our spacious mobile changing room, and the fact we can brew up two hot cups of tea while we’re packing up!
That evening, we sit in the van, drinking red wine out of plastic cups and cooking up a tasty but simple pasta meal on our little stove, feeling a strange sense of luxury. The peace and stillness of our surroundings, and the simplicity of our temporary lifestyle is a world away from the usual frantic pace of both our lives.
There are so many great places to ride in Scotland, and my new camper van makes them all the more accessible and exciting as a result. Renee and I resolve there and then that we must do this again, and for longer next time.
But in the meantime, this weekend is not over yet. We still have a whole day of riding possibilities ahead of us tomorrow. Where shall we go? What shall we do? We get out the map, top up our glasses and begin making plans for the next day.
Pubs and grub
The Old Bridge Inn, Dalfaber Road, Aviemore, PH22 1PU, for top-notch food and a roaring fire. 01479 811137.
Mountain Cafe Aviemore, 111 Grampian Road, Aviemore, PH22 1RH, for cakes, coffee and the best breakfasts ever. 01479 812473.
Glenmore Mountain Shop and cafe, Glenmore, Aviemore, PH22 1QU, for a warming cuppa and bite to eat on the ride. And you can hire a bike here too. 01479 861253.
The Doo Below, Grampian Road, Aviemore, PH22 1RJ, is a friendly cafe bar in the centre of Aviemore.
Mike’s Bikes has two sites: the main shop is at 5a Myrtlefield Shopping Centre, Aviemore, 01479 81047.
There’s a rental accessories shop on the Rothiemurchus Estate, Inverdruie, 01479 810284.
Leave the car park at Mike’s Bikes, Inverdruie, turning right onto the B970.
Pick up cycle path running beside the road and follow all the way to Glenmore. At Glenmore Shop, turn right, back down the B970 to take shorter route (alternatively here you can also go around the loch the other way), then left to cross small bridge and through a metal gate. Follow the path left and around to right, and continue straight on past left fork and left turn. At next fork bear right and continue straight on at crossroads to reach the river.
Follow, with river on left, to reach Cairngorm Club Footbridge and cross river. Follow main path past the small Lochan Deo, following signs for Loch An Eilein. Bear right as path joins from left. At T-junction turn left to go round the loch or right for shorter route. At Loch An Eilein Gate, continue onto tarmac road to reach T-junction and turn right onto B970 to reach Inverdruie again.