David Henderson reports on affordable skiing, fantastic scenery . . . and familiar food
Save over Pounds 200. That might be an attractive marketing slogan for group skiing in Scotland. But with mid-term and Easter ski trips to the Alps costing anything between Pounds 400 and Pounds 600, and out of reach for many pupils, a trip north to the Highlands is likely to be within the range of more families.
The town of Fort William and nearby Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 1,344m, have long been a winter magnet for climbers and walkers. Now the Nevis Range skiing area, based on the neighbouring Aonach Mor mountain, reaching to 1,221m, is proving an equally popular pull.
This season the building of the Great Glen chairlift, which doubles the skiing area, will open up more reliable and sheltered runs for beginners and easier access to more advanced routes.
The skiing is developing annually at Aonach Mor, now in its sixth operating year, and next season, 1996-97, will see a further expansion into Coire Dubh, which will extend the range for intermediate and advanced skiers. There are 35 runs in total, 7 easy, 12 intermediate, 11 difficult and 5 very difficult. The longest run is 2km.
It's not Kitzbuehel or Val d'Is re but there is affordable skiing, fantastic scenery overlooking the lochs and glens, and a true mountain experience. Food is not a problem for British youngsters and the English language is understood, if not always spoken.
Aonach Mor generally improves as the season progresses, with skiing through until May. Some time around the Easter break is therefore a good time to hit the slopes after the build-up of snow in the early part of the year. Ian Sykes, Nevis Range managing director, admits the vagaries of the Scottish weather can play havoc with the season, but recalls that conditions improved last year in March and April. "I cannot remember a season with so little ice and so many days of wind-packed powdery snow," he says.
If you want a change, you can also drive down to the slopes at Glencoe, south of Fort William, where there is a long-established, if a little more basic ski area.
Skiing at Aonach Mor could not be easier from the ground station, a few miles out of Fort William. Scotland's only gondola system whisks you up to the base of the skiing and from there it is on and up some of the 10 lifts, including two chairlifts, three T-bars and four button tows. The Snowgoose restaurant at the top station provides a comfortable retreat. It does special school lunches for Pounds 2.20, based on the ever-popular burgerssausagesfish fingers and chips, plus a drink.
This season, Nevis Range is offering special school packages for off-peak weeks. A three-day midweek package with four hours' daily ski tuition will cost Pounds 77. It includes lift pass and ski hire and a guarantee of no more than 10 in a group, headed by an instructor qualified to British Association of Ski Instructors' standards and employed by Nevis Range Ski School, the only ski school allowed on the hill.
A five-day package on the same basis will cost Pounds 109. The price falls to Pounds 95 if it includes only two hours' ski tuition. The free place ratio is 1:10. Snowboards can also be hired at the base station.
New for this year is a Nevis Range bus, running between Fort William and the ski car park. It is operating at peak periods in the morning and late afternoon and covers the length of the town.
There is no shortage of accommodation in this tourist honeypot. The Alexandra Hotel, for example, which next season will be part of an extended leisure complex, can offer midweek school packages for under-16s for either three or five days at around Pounds 17 a day for dinner, bed and breakfast.
Coach travel may be the normal way of reaching the north-west of Scotland, but rail is also a possibility with connections from Glasgow to Fort William, including a sleeper service from London. Group discounts should be available.
If the weather at Nevis Range does close in, there is no shortage of outdoor and indoor alternatives. Anything from mountain biking and walking to swimming and bowling is possible in and around Fort William, which has its fair share of visitor centres.
Skiing: Nevis Range, Torlundy, Fort William PH33 6SW. Tel: 01397 705825. Fax: 01397 705854. Accommodation and tourist information: Fort William and Lochaber Tourism, Cameron Centre, Fort William PH33 6AJ. Tel: 01397 703781. Fax: 01397 705184