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The northern lights … also available in purple

Last weekend was a good weekend for viewing the aurora.  In fact, the lights showed up both on Friday and Saturday nights when Scotland was enjoying a rare period of high pressure with limited cloud cover.

But the most remarkable thing about last weekend’s showing of the northern lights was that for the first time in my aurora-chasing experience, the lights on Saturday night were only purple with no green aurora visible at all.  And on Friday, the sky at higher altitude was a gorgeous deep purple hue.

Friday saw me camping at Tantallon Camping and Caravan Park at North Berwick, on the east coast just about 30 minutes southeast of Edinburgh.  I was testing out a Jerba campervan (more about this in a later post) who are based no more than two miles from the campsite.  I couldn’t believe my luck when my aurora apps signalled ‘minor storm’ conditions !

I had a clear view north across the Firth of Forth to Fife (say that after a drink or two …).  But while there was lots of light pollution along the coast to contend with it didn’t prevent me from seeing the aurora.  Things got off to a fairly slow start: a nice green auroral arc developed but nothing much happened for a while.  Then, around 10.45pm, the sky noticeably lit up to the naked eye.  Something was definitely happening !  For about ten minutes the aurora kicked into life.  Green and purple shafts reached up from the arc, the sky above was painted a gorgeous deep purple and all the while the stars shone brightly.

By 11pm things quietened down again and the auroral arc gradually faded into the background.  Short but sweet.

 

 

The next night I was camping at Solway View Campsite, near Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland.  I was hoping for a good night of stargazing since the skies had gradually cleared on my journey west during the day and as dusk fell I could see this was going to be a rare, cloudless night.

I set up my camera at a suitable spot to take multiple shots I could put together into a star trail photo.  Not only was there a ‘minor storm’ (Kp5) in terms of the solar conditions but the weekend was the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower so I was hoping to see some nice bright streaks across the sky too.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I watched and waited for a while in the stillness as other campers gradually switched off lights and went to sleep.  A few meteors briefly darted across the sky before burning up and fading in the atmosphere.  But there was no sign of an aurora – at least to the naked eye.

I kept the camera running automatically, taking shots every 20 seconds, then returned after an hour once 100 or so were captured.  For some reason the camera had decided to stop itself so I flicked backwards to review the photos.  I was really surprised to see big patches of purple show up but with no green lights whatsoever, the usual colour of auroral activity through a camera lens.

 

 

I used the Star Trails software to produce a composite picture using those 100 shots, where you have a good sense of the purple aurora showing through the rotating stars in the bottom left corner.  It’s even more visible looking at a single photo where the lights were brightest.  There were a few streaks across the sky that showed up on those photos but given that they tend to be visible on more than one 20 second exposure they’re almost certainly planes or satellites rather than meteors.  (Now, a combined star trail, (purple) aurora and meteor photo really would have been something !)

 

Did you see the northern lights last weekend?  If so, where were you and what did it look like for you?

Scottish mountain and coastal webcams

Webcams provide an easy way to check the weather conditions before you head out.  Here’s my selection of 25 good webcams of mountain and coastal locations across Scotland, plus a link to a long list of traffic cams.

I’ve provided thumbnails of those webcams that refresh every few seconds.  Those without any pictures are more modern cams that provide a live stream, and some of which you can pan around to get a wider view.

The map below (courtesy of www.scotland-landscapes.com) includes many of the webcams I’ve linked to below and serves as a good location guide.

 

 

 

Click on the links below to see the latest views

Ski and Mountain areas
Loch Morlich, Cairngorms National Park

Look for sunbathers in summer and snowcapped hills the rest of the year!

Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area

View from the Scottish Ski Club Hut, looking to the Shieling and lower ski slopes towards the Fiaciall Ridge.

Lairig Ghru, from Aviemore

Looking towards the Cairngorms with Ben Macdui (left, 4295ft)) and Braeriach (right, 4252ft)

Glenshee Ski Area

A great webcam that gives a panorama of the ski area.

Glencoe Ski Area

Various views including this one of Buachaille Etive Mor.

Nevis Range Ski Area, Fort William

Looking down the slopes.

Ben Nevis and Fort William

Ben Nevis (4411ft) towering over Fort William (on a clear day!)

Braemar snow gate webcam

Is the road open from Braemar south towards Glenshee?

Ben More, Crianlarich

Ben More rises to 3852ft, just SE of Crianlarich.

Ben Cruachan & Loch Etive

Ben Cruachan (3694ft) from across Loch Etive.

 

Torridon Youth Hostel
Torridon Hotel
 

Island and Coastal webcams
 
Beinn Sgritheall and Knoydart from Skye

Looking across the Sound of Sleat to Beinn Sgritheall (3196ft) and Knoydart from Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye.

 
Waternish, Skye

Looking west towards Loch Dunvegan, Uist and Harris from near the NW tip of the Isle of Skye.

 
Eiliean Donan Castle

An iconic Scottish landmark near the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Dundonnell

Little Loch Broom, near Ullapool.

Plockton

Good views around the harbour and village of Plockton.

Isle of Coll

Looking out from the Isle of Coll Hotel.

Taymouth, Loch Tay

Looking north across Loch Tay from the Taymouth Marina (with the crannog on the right).

Oban

Good views of Oban harbour.

Orkney

From the pier at Stromness.

Shetland

Cliff Cam 3 looks north from Sumburgh Head. On a clear winter’s night you’ve got a good chance of catching a glimpse of the aurora and in summer you can also experience close-ups from the seabird colonies as they rest on the cliff edge.

Fair Isle

This webcam doesn’t seem to be in operation at present unfortunately.

Arran

View towards Goat Fell (2867ft) from Brodick harbour.

North Berwick

View from the roof of the Scottish Seabird Centre.

 

 

 

 

Traffic cameras

 
Traffic Scotland webcams

 

 

 

Skydiving and skiing … indoors

When time and funds are limited, there are ingenious ways to practice extreme sports.  Back in November 2015 I took my son skydiving and skiing and this week we did the same again.  But we weren’t really risking life and limb since all of this took place indoors. There are apparently 56 places in the world where you can practice indoor skydiving, and we … Read More Skydiving and skiing … indoors

Product review: Firepot expedition meals

When you’re out camping, hiking or kayaking, compromises often have to be made when it comes to meals.  Nutritious, tasty food is normally sacrificed for lightweight ‘packet’ meals that are convenient … but bland and merely functional.  It’s as if the pleasure that comes with cooking and eating cannot co-exist with enjoying the outdoors.

The new range of Firepot healthy expedition meals by Outdoorfood.com makes a clear statement: lightweight, nutritious and tasty food is possible.

 

 

I’ve been testing out the range of new Firepot meals and have been impressed.  First off, they’re preservative-free.  This means that there are no nasty ingredients you don’t recognise; just the kinds of ingredients you’d have in your kitchen cupboard at home.  And many of them are locally-sourced from the butcher and greengrocer near Outdoorfood.com in rural Dorset.

The second way they stand out from the competition is that they’re dehydrated rather than freeze-dried.  Whereas freeze-dried meals typically have their ingredients mixed together separately, Firepot dehydrate their meals once the ingredients have been combined and cooked, locking in the flavour.  Dehydration gives them a shelf-life of two years so there’s little danger of the food going off.

There are currently four meals on offer: orzo pasta bolognese, dal and rice with spinach, chilli con carne and porcini mushroom risotto.  They’ve also just launched a breakfast (posh pork ‘n’ beans) and have more dishes coming over the next few months.

The meals come in two sizes and I found the smaller pack size (weighing 135g) provided an ample and filling portion.  Rehydrated, the meals weigh in at 500g.  And when you’re active, the energy value of the food you consume really matters a lot.  I was impressed to see that their meals provide between 500kcal and a whopping 700kcal of energy in each serving.  For the really active or hungry, the 200g portion size give up to 1000kcal in energy.

 

 

I’ve tested out the meals on a hike with my Duke of Edinburgh group and a cycle ride, as well as enjoying the breakfast pork ‘n’ beans at home.  So how easy were they to cook and how did they taste?

Cooking was a doddle.  Each meal has either a pan or pouch method, using different quantities of boiling water to rehydrate the food.  Fill levels are handily marked on the side of the eye-catching packaging.  Just bring water to the boil, turn off the heat, cover or seal, then go off and do something else for 10 or 15 minutes until the food’s ready to eat.  I liked the simplicity and the fact that the packaging is really easy to re-seal.

 

 

The meals were tasty too.  The porcini mushroom risotto tasted, well … as a homemade risotto should.  The chilli was also flavoursome and the pork ‘n’ beans packed a punch with a nice kick of tabasco in the tomato sauce.  (I’ve yet to taste the dal and the orzo pasta bolognese).

For my own taste I would probably suggest leaving the chilli and pork ‘n’ beans to hydrate for an extra 5 minutes to soften the beans a little more.  And while it’s impossible for the manufacturers to cater for everyone’s individual tastes, I would have preferred to have had a creamier, cheesier risotto and a spicier chilli.  Everyone’s different of course – these are just my own personal preferences.

 

 

I must admit that I am perhaps a pickier customer than most.  For one, I’m biased against packet foods, much preferring to cook my own when I pitch up in my tent at night – and I’m a keen cook at home, too.  (You can find some of my ‘real food’ backpacking recipes here and here).  There’s definitely something very soothing and therapeutic about cooking when you’ve been on the go all day and while it might take a little longer, I enjoy this aspect of camping a lot.

So am I tempted to leave my own ingredients at home and simply pack a range of dehydrated Firepot meals?  For the simple reason that I like my food with strong flavours that I can adjust to my particular liking, on most occasions I think I’ll continue to cook my own food.  That doesn’t mean that these new meals from Firepot aren’t really good – they’re certainly better than similar meals I’ve tried in the past – but it simply reflects my particular liking for camp cooking!  However, where time dictates that a quick, simple and tasty meal is needed – a hearty, tasty breakfast, for example – then I would definitely want to try a Firepot meal again.  All in all, these new meals are a great addition to the meal choices available to outdoors folk.

 

 

Note:  The Firepot meals were given to me for free by Outdoorfood.com in order to write an independent product review.  I have no connection with the company whatsoever.

 

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Hello aurora!

Last night the aurora came back for a brief visit.  The light show was slow to get going but for a brief five minutes the sky lit up and sent purple and green pillars reaching high up towards the stars.

Charged particles from a coronal hole were forecast to reach the Earth yesterday and sure enough, once it got dark (around 9pm now that the clocks have moved to British Summer Time) my camera picked up a weak auroral arc.  I’d headed out to my usual spot, up a hill and less than 15 minutes from my house.  Aurorawatch UK had issued a red alert, the first since October 2016, so I was hopeful for a good light show.

You can read more about what triggered the aurora and where it could be seen on the Aurorawatch UK blog.  I’m pleased to say one of my pictures also features on the blog.

So last night involved quite a bit of standing around waiting.  It was a gorgeously clear, starry night and blowing a cold breeze.  But while aurora chasing does involve a fair amount of waiting it’s certainly not boring … the sky’s forever changing with the aurora coming and going, clouds threaten in the distance and of course, you’re intermittently checking Twitter for other real-time reports.

A couple of trails from passing aircraft caught on film

I was beginning to think that nothing was going to happen but then – all too briefly – the sky lit up.  It was as if a switch had been pulled.  Boom!  The change in intensity was clearly visible to the naked eye – picked up much more clearly by the camera of course – and pillars of light stretched upwards to the stars.

But it didn’t develop.  As quickly as it came the aurora retreated to the arc low on the northern horizon.

She’s a welcome sight but very fickle in these parts.

 

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Blogging is giving

 

I’ve been blogging now for a  little over four years but I feel I need to welcome a whole new set of people who have just started following my blog from all over the world.  So welcome aboard !

A recent post – Above the clouds – was featured as an Editor’s Pick on WordPress Discover this week, “a daily selection of the best content published on WordPress.  It was a complete surprise to have a post selected,  as well as flattering.  It also sent my blog into a spin: over 300 likes and over almost as many new followers in less than a week… and counting.  I’ve struggled to keep up with the number of comments and notifications flashing up on my screen.

The world wide web

This was a great reminder of the internet’s reach.  My own little blog was suddenly exposed to a worldwide audience, with new followers from across Asia, the Americas, Europe and elsewhere.  The power of the web provided a brief flicker of attention numbering in the millions rather than just hundreds or even thousands.  It was a huge boost to my blog’s ‘numbers’.

But blogging is much, much more than simply a numbers game, right?  We didn’t start blogs to be liked or compete against others: we’re faced with enough of those pressures at work, in our careers or in our social lives.

So why do we blog?  Why do I blog?  And what can those who are new to Wild about Scotland expect?

I went back to WordPress Discover for a browse and came across a post from the chef, food blogger and author, David Lebovitz.  In a Q&A he was asked what keeps him motivated to keep blogging after 17 years.  His answer struck a chord:

Nowadays, so many people start blogging and feel like they need to “get” something out of their blogs. But in fact, blogging is giving.  When you write a cookbook, you are sharing recipes. With a blog, beyond recipes and travel tips, you are sharing more of your daily life with readers, and I think they appreciate honesty, rather than being talked to as if you are trying to get something out of them, like traffic or monetization.

I like this sentiment and it really chimes with why I started blogging.  As I said in my very first post back in 2012 Wild about Scotland is a way for me “to share my enthusiasm for exploring Scotland and its wilder places.  I’ll learn as I go.  In addition to the challenge of starting a blog, I’ll find some new outdoor challenges to address and through its posts hopefully can inform – and be informed – about life’s big adventures”.

So what can readers expect from this blog?

For someone who spends any available spare time enjoying Scotland’s outdoors, I recently designed my site around three themes:

Escape: This is about escaping into the hills, along back roads and byways – hiking, biking, paddling, camping and in my campervan.  In each section you can read posts about recent trips, advice and tips, as well as relevant product reviews.

Explore: In this section you can delve more deeply into some particular interests including seeing the northern lights, owing a VW California campervan and cycling the length of the UK from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Experience: This section is aimed at visitors to Scotland and focuses on my series of recommendations for the very best places to visit, eat, stay and experience across Scotland.  From my Top 10 Scottish islands to visit to the best beachside campsites, there’s something for everyone who loves Scotland’s outdoors.

Most of the 250+ posts on my blog are shared in a way that others can access and hopefully be inspired.  But much of it’s also just for me.  This might sound selfish but my blog also serves as my “to do” list.  There are lots of trips highlighted here that I haven’t done yet, so I regularly return to particular articles when I’m thinking about somewhere new to go.  When I’m going off backpacking I simply dig out my kit list and select some recipes that I fancy trying.

Having a “to do” list also keeps me inspired and active.  This year, for example, I’ve taken up sea kayaking in a more serious way.  So, expect quite a few more posts this year on paddling escapes around Scotland’s lochs, bays and islands.

But blogging definitely has to be a two-way thing.  You get inspired by finding great new blogs, and getting supportive comments and feedback (as I have this week) is a fantastic way of keeping you motivated and thinking about the next few posts coming up.

So if you’ve had a browse around my blog and you have an idea for a topic I could cover, why not drop me a message?  I’d love to find out what you’d like me to share.  It would be great to hear from you …

 

 

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Taking the plunge

 

 

 

There’s nothing to beat the adrenaline-fuelled rush of a new achievement or completing an activity that involves a degree of perceived risk.  That’s how I feel anyway.  I have a head for heights and think nothing of flying in a small plane, scrambling along an airy knife-edged ridge or even jumping off a bridge with a piece of elastic strapped to my ankles.

Unfortunately my niece Eilidh doesn’t quite see it that way.  She valiantly climbed ridiculously steep scree slopes up Beinn Sgritheall, my final munro, when she was clearly not enjoying looking down at the steep drop right down to sea level.  So when we both decided to bungee jump off the Garry Bridge at Killiecrankie in 2014 I was impressed.  Despite being knee-shakingly scared she did it.

However, she got her own back by buying me a voucher for my birthday to go bungee jumping again, just by myself.  This is what she wrote: “Since you enjoyed bungee jumping in the light I figured you should try it in the dark too!  This time I definitely don’t want to join you!”  My birthday treat was a black-out bungee at Europe’s only night-time bungee jump.  Families are so nice.

Killiecrankie is the site of a famous battle between warring Scottish clans during the first Jacobite uprising in 1689.  The River Garry has cut a steep gorge down through the rock and so it’s a tricky spot to escape from your enemies.  Today though the National Trust Visitor Centre also shares its site with Highland Fling Bungee, who take advantage of the 40 metre drop from the Garry Bridge.  They built a purpose-built platform under the bridge in 2010 and have been providing jumps ever since.

Five of us were booked in last Saturday night.  It was almost a full moon so we had to wait a while until it was truly dark (no point in cheating, after all …).  We climbed up a ladder to access the gantry that spans the bridge and walked along to the platform to get attached to safety harnesses.  Safety is the number one concern.  Every rope is checked and double-checked.  Everyone is carefully weighed (twice) and the correct bungee checked by several people.  No room for error.

 

There’s a real buzz just before a jump.  The music’s pumping and your heart’s racing with anticipation as you wait your turn.

But having done it twice before I stayed pretty relaxed.  I knew – more or less – what to expect.  I rationalised the fear: it’s a safe sport and all the safety checks had been done.  I figured there’s no point in pussy-footing about in just falling off the platform so I just went for it.  I took a big jump and flew – the “jump of the day” – since you’re less likely to get suddenly jolted by jumping outwards.

 

I guess with a night jump you have a heightened sense of awareness.  I couldn’t see anything below (I wasn’t wearing my glasses for starters) so you’re using all your senses as you’re falling … you hear the rush of the water below … the fall seems to last longer in the dark … and it provides precisely the adrenaline rush that you’re after.

So that was the easy bit.

For someone who gets queasy on any kind of boat I just didn’t enjoy bouncing up and down with my head the wrong way up one little bit.  It took the best part of two minutes for someone to grab hold of me, attach a rope to my waist harness and winch me back up to the bridge again.  By that time all my blood had flowed to my head I’m afraid the sea-sickness didn’t leave me for the rest of the night.  So it was an early night for me!

 

The next morning I took a wander back down to the bridge to see where we’d been jumping.  It’s a pretty impressive sight.  The mixed woodland along the Linn of Tummel walk has some tall, tall pine trees which tower over the bridge.  The colours were a little washed out on a dull March morning but in Autumn this is one of the most picturesque spots in the country.

 

In the calm of the morning it was a peaceful spot: birds singing, the soft rush of the water in the distance and walls thick with damp moss.  It was quite a contrast with the anticipation and excitement of the night before.

If you ever get a chance to experience the River Garry gorge at Killicrankie – day or night, attached to elastic or not – I’d recommend it.

 

 

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My first sighting of the aurora in 2017

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Chances of an aurora were good on the 1st March when a coronal hole was forecast to emit a fast stream of charged particles towards the Earth.  And sure enough it didn’t disappoint, giving sightings across Scotland and northern England.

This turned out to be the only amber level warning issued by Aurorawatch UK in the first two months of 2017.  And unfortunately this will be the pattern of auroral activity over the next five years or so as I described in a recent post.  During the solar ‘minimum’, auroral activity is much more likely to be sparked by coronal holes – holes in the sun’s atmosphere that allow flares of gases and charged particles to escape – rather than increased solar activity due to sunspots.

I was out last Wednesday evening and so wasn’t able to look for the aurora until late.  But driving north I saw a tell-tale milky-grey band low in the sky and sure enough, a quick photo out of an upstairs window once I got home revealed a nice green arc with faint pillars reaching upwards.  I grabbed a coat and headed out to a good north-facing roadside just near home.

It turned out that I’d missed the best of the aurora earlier in the evening – the lights had been dancing for a short 15 minute period – and so by the time I got out at about 10.45pm the arc gradually faded.  This photo was the best I got, with some pillars just faintly visible.  Had it not been midweek I might have been tempted to stay out longer (for the next ‘wave’ of the lights came back out just after midnight) and so it was just a brief trip for me.

Did you manage to see the lights this week ?

 

 

 

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Where are Scotland’s dark skies?

Can you remember the time you first looked up at the sky and were just amazed at the number of stars ?  I’m not talking about seeing a few dazzling stars on a cloudless night but about a star-studded panorama of the Milky Way that seems to reach right down to ground level.  In a really dark sky we could see as many as 7,000 stars – but this is just a small fraction of the 70 thousand million million million stars in the universe ! Today, we sadly experience this all too infrequently: it’s estimated that 85% of the UK population has never experienced a truly dark sky.

dark-sky-comparison

Awareness of the importance of dark skies is higher than it’s ever been, led by the successful campaigns of the Commission for Dark Skies and the International Dark Sky Association.  Light pollution has increased so much over recent decades such that skyglow, the glare that comes from urban artificial lighting, affects around 80% of the world’s population – and up 99% of people in the US and Europe.  So much light energy is wasted, never reaching the ground, and much of it is far too bright and unnecessary.  (Read more about the misconceptions associated with lighting here).  Light pollution isn’t just a problem for astronomers but it affects the nocturnal habits of wildlife – as well as the generations of people growing up without developing a rich interest and understanding of our place in the universe.

Where can I go to experience dark skies in Scotland ?

To get a sense of the light pollution where you live look at this interactive map or view the NASA Blue Marble Navigator map. Google Earth users can download an overlay also created from the World Atlas of light pollution.

There are now seven UK locations recognised by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and you can identify the best places to go stargazing in the UK on this map:

Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park was designated first, back in 2009, and scored 23.6 on the IDA’s scale of darkness (out of 25), later joined by Coll.  (For comparison, the readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres are around 8 and a photographer’s darkroom is 24).  It’s also worth remembering that just over the border, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park was also awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the IDA in 2013, its highest accolade.  Having visited the Kielder Observatory recently I can vouch for its fantastic experience and facilities (now being extended).

You might want to take a visit to an observatory or attend one of the many events they host throughout the year:

  • This leaflet provides a good overview of where to view the night sky and what stars and constellations to look for in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park.  Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre has good views and facilities but there are panoramic viewing points at other locations within the Park.  A range of public events are also organised.
  • The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is located at Loch Doon, near Dalmellington.  This new observatory is open to the public and includes a 20” Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope in a 5 metre dome and a 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for a more hands-on, open air observing experience.  Advanced booking for evening events is recommended.
  • Coll Dark Sky Island is blissfully remote from artificial light but still only a ferry ride away.  You can even visit for Coll and the Cosmos stargazing weekends, staying at the Coll Bunkhouse.
  • Moffat is the first Dark Sky Town to be designated by the IDA in Europe
  • Kielder Observatory is the best place to visit in Northumberland International Dark Sky Park.  However, there are a number of other Dark Sky Discovery Sites (listed here) with off-road car parking, toilets and nearby refreshments at Walltown, Cawfields and Stonehaugh’s  Stargazing Pavilion.  There’s also an observatory at the Battlesteads Hotel and Restaurant in Wark which organises a regular programme of events
  • The Crown Estate’s Glenlivet Estate in Cairngorms National Park became a Dark Sky Discovery Site in late 2016 and events are also held at The Acorn nearby (the former Cabrach Primary School)

The Milky Way, taken from just north of Moffat

What else do I need to know before I go out stargazing?

It’s well worth checking the phase of the moon before you make any plans since even Dark Sky Parks aren’t dark when there’s a full moon.  The lunar calendar will help you plan your visit at the right time.

If you want to learn a bit more about the night sky why not attend a stargazing event?  There are events held every weekend at observatories but also including star camps and star festivals.

Stargazing tends to involve a lot of time standing or sitting about and so it makes sense to dress up warm.  Wear layers – fleeces, hats, gloves and so on – to regulate your body temperature.  Take a flask to help warm up on colder nights.  And rather than take a normal torch, take one with a red beam (many headtorches have these) which allows your eyes to readjust more quickly than normal white light.

 

 

 

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Skiing in Avoriaz

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With the lack of snow here in Scotland this winter it was great to be able to go skiing at Avoriaz in the French Alps this week to experience some superb conditions.  To be fair, the Alps hasn’t exactly had much snowfall so far this season either; by all accounts the slopes were pretty bare until into January.  But 50cm of new snow fell the week before last which meant for great skiing this week.  And to cap it all, we had cloudless, windless weather on five out of six days.

I took my 12 year old son to Avoriaz, a purpose-built resort at 1800m on the French/Swiss border.  Avoriaz is actually celebrating its 50th birthday this year – and has aged well.  All of the buildings are constructed using similar wood and wooden slate materials which gives a soft uniformity that blends in well with the surrounding cliffs and mountains.  Avoriaz is also car-free, with only the occasional skidoo and horse-drawn sledges to dodge.  Last year we skied in Flaine, also built in the late ’60s but in a modernist, concrete design … which has its own charm but is not nearly as attractive fifty years on.

We saved a lot of cash by booking everything ourselves.  The apartment, booked via a local property agent, was great and occupied a superb location looking down the valley towards Morzine.  The panorama below was taken from our balcony.

 

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Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil ski area, a huge area linking 12 separate villages straddling the French/Swiss border.  With the relatively mild and very sunny conditions we stayed high and still only sampled a fraction of the available runs.  The crisp, dry air gave superb views, here to the aptly-named Dents du Midi (3257m).

 

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The Portes du Soleil boasts something like 70 mountain restaurants.  It makes such a difference to be able to have lunch and snacks out on the hill, and to sunbathe over a lazy lunch in a deck chair.  I couldn’t help comparing the experience with that of Scotland, where the height of culinary tradition amounts to a hastily-eaten pie in a crowded cafeteria complete with steamed-up windows.

 

Another contrast with Scotland was the lack of wind last week.  I guess this is the effect of a continental climate, contrasting markedly with the familiar blowy weather that greeted us off the plane back in the UK.

 

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My son was keen to say that he’d been able to ski over the border into Switzerland (it’s kind of cool to say that !).  The Swiss side was quieter, the buildings and villages more traditional and the scenery even more stunning.

 

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We spent a lot of time on the blue runs near Les Lindarets, skiing in among the trees.  These long runs gave great skiing down towards the traditional wooden chalet restaurants in the valley.

 

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The sun streamed into our apartment every afternoon.  In fact, it was so warm we didn’t have any heating on all week and had to open a door or window to cool it down at the end of every day.  It was great to watch the sunset over the mountains beyond Morzine from our balcony before venturing out around Avoriaz to see the trees and nearby cliffs lit up.

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