Downhill Skiing and snowboarding, Scotland and northern England
Although skiing or snowboarding at indoor snow domes such as Hemel Hempstead’s Snow Centre (from £29 an hour adults, £24 juniors, group lessons from £42 an hour), or the country’s dozens of dry ski slopes is a lot of fun, they can’t really compare with sliding down proper snowy mountains in the great outdoors.
The five main ski resorts of Scotland’s Highland and Aberdeenshire region – Cairngorm Mountain, Glenshee, Glencoe, Nevis Range and The Lecht – usually open in December, with the best snow from January until resorts close in April. If you can, go last minute when there’s snow incoming, ideally midweek when the slopes are quieter. Register for snow alerts in advance and check resorts’ own websites or Facebook pages for conditions updates.
A quick lowdown: Nevis Range (day tickets £37.50 adults, £24.50 junior), Scotland’s highest resort, has arguably the widest variety of terrain, with 35 runs, 12 lifts and an off-piste area of “Back Corries” – steep chutes – for experts.
Glenshee (adult day pass £32, junior £21) has the biggest ski area, with 36 runs totalling 25 miles across three valleys, and 21 lifts. It also promotes the surrounding area for ski touring, offering a ski touring ticket (£12) for those climbing up under their own steam, as well as standard lift passes.
Scotland’s sixth-highest peak, Cairngorm Mountain (adults £35 a day, child £22), near Aviemore, offers this too, with 11 lifts accessing 31 runs, and three snow parks with jumps.
Glencoe Mountain Resort (£27-35 per day adult, £20-22 junior), with 20 runs and nine lifts, claims to have the longest and steepest pistes, and has “microlodge” wooden cabin accommodation (from £65 sleeping four) at the resort base.
The smallest of the five, The Lecht Ski Centre (adult day ticket £32, children/juniors £16-21 per day) in the eastern Cairngorms, has 20 runs and 13 lifts on a rolling hillside.
All the resorts have artificial snow-making, ski schools, equipment hire shops and extra activities such as ringos and tobogganing. As they roughly form a ring of about 300 miles by road between Perth and Inverness, you could opt for a road trip between them all.
A smaller area in the south of Scotland, Lowther Hills, has two tow ropes accessing a nursery ski slope and an intermediate area. It’s community-owned and run by volunteers, with no hire shop and obligatory annual membership to access the slopes (£45 per adult, £75 family pass, under 18s £25).
In England, a drag-lift is set up in the North Pennines at Yad Moss (day ticket £20, juniors £10, annual pass £55 adults, £10 juniors) when there’s snow (check website for updates). There’s no hire shop or lessons, so it’s not for beginners, but it’s more than two miles of fun, and an absence of rocks on the landscape allows skiing on relatively thin snow cover.
The Lake District Ski Club (£20 per day, £50 annual membership) sets up a button lift on Raise, the peak next to Helvellyn, to access nine spectacular ungroomed runs; while Weardale Ski Club (£20 adult day ticket, £48 season ticket) in County Durham has two button tows accessing off-piste terrain and about six runs, for intermediates only. In Northumberland, volunteer-run Ski Allenheads (annual membership only, £35 adults, £20 junior, £70 family) has several tow lifts, a cabin, and is beginner friendly, offering short runs.
Buy the annual pass for Yad Moss and you can ski at the others at a reduced cost.
Dog-sledding, Gloucestershire and Kincardineshire
Key to establishing life and society in the Arctic Circle 4,000 years ago, dog-sledding has become the focus of countless holidays to Scandinavia and North America, and a popular extra activity on Alpine ski trips. Trying it in Gloucestershire involves something of a paradigm shift, but there’s nothing like the thrill of driving a team of huskies at speed, even if it’s beside the River Avon rather than across the icy tundra. Taster sessions with Arctic Quest in Tewkesbury (£99pp for two and a half hours, for group of four) offer “the full mushing experience”, on snow when possible or with wheels when not, and include drinks and snacks by a campfire for extra Scandi vibes. A traditional wooden Herder’s Hut, based on a Sami home, is available too, from £120 a night, sleeping two.
In Scotland, Huskyhaven, near Stonehaven in Kincardineshire, takes guests on a run with the pack on a three-wheeled cart along trails. Choose from half-day, full-day, evening rides and a seven-mile “Aurora experience” with Wattie McDonald, who twice completed Alaska’s tough, 938-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (from £45pp).
Ice-climbing, Highlands and Snowdonia
Using ice axes and crampons to ascend walls of ice is a portal to a beautiful, dangerous frozen world – those who master the sport scale frozen waterfalls and glaciers. Indoor ice walls provide introductory sessions and safety advice.
Ice-Factor at the National Ice Climbing Centre near Ben Nevis is home to the world’s biggest indoor ice-climbing walls, offering beginners’ lessons (£30 adults, £25 juniors), or non-instructed (£9.50 adults, £5.75 juniors).
Outdoor ice climbing courses are run in winter by Climb365, whose two-day introductory course in Scotland’s West Highlands costs from £275-350 for a group of one to four people per instructor, starting from Fort William. Similarly, Snowdonia Adventures has outdoor courses (from £250pp per day).
Reindeer safari, Cairngorms, Scotland
They’re honestly not just for Christmas, insist the owners of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, a 150-strong, free-ranging gang of Rudolph wannabes that live on the flanks of the Cairngorms. Guided hill trips (daily, adults £18.50, kids £13.50, pre-book) lead visitors on a short mountain hike to meet the majestic beasts, or you can visit a smaller group in a paddock (adults £3.50, kids £2.50).
Torch-lit ascent, Cumbria
A common apres ski fixture is the torch-lit descent – skiing down pitch black mountain paths with flaming torches in a group, usually fuelled by a tot or two of grappa or schnapps along the way. A similarly atmospheric after-dark adventure on home turf is a guided head-torch walk up into the Howgill Fells to the summit of Winder (473m) with BEExpeditions (17 December, £50pp including pickup from Manchester, or £30 if you meet at the start point in Sedbergh).
Sleigh rides, Windsor and London
Can a horse-drawn carriage ride through the British drizzle ever equal a proper Snow Queen-style sleigh ride through the snow? Windsor Great Park’s Ascot Carriages (£75 per carriage for 30 minutes for four people give it a good go in the festive season, when between 4 December and 3 January carriages are festooned with gold and white berries and garlands, and the part-shire horses wear antlers.
Fancier still, in London’s Richmond Park, two white Royal Parks shire horses pull a smart Park Brake carriage for a 75-minute experience (royalparks.org.uk, £450 for six) including sloe gin and mince pies in Holly Lodge and a behind-the-scenes visit to the stables.
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned sledge down your local hill on a knackered tray or bin bag, but to dial up the gnarliness you have to try a Cresta-style toboggan run. Three sister UK snow centres send tiny sit-on cars hurtling along a 500-575m metal track. Llandudno Snowsports Centre (two rides £8pp) and Chatham, Kent (five rides £14pp) have “sno-tubing” on outdoor dry ski slopes too, while the venue at Swadlincote, Derbyshire (five rides £15) also features a 70m “drop slide”.
Avalanche and winter mountaineering courses, Snowdonia and Inverness-shire
What to wear, what to carry, how to respond to the sort of grim weather forecasts that keep most folk tucked up indoors … these are topics covered on a two-day Welsh Winter Skills mountaineering course at Plas Y Brenin National Outdoor Centre in Snowdonia (£360pp for two nights’ accommodation, meals and kit, December-February). Small groups develop skills that open up more enjoyment of the winter countryside, such as using crampons and navigating in poor visibility.
Alternatively, Much Better Adventures has two-night weekend group trips to climb Ben Nevis while learning survival skills (December-April, from £415pp including two nights’ B&B in Fort William).
The National Outdoor Training Centre for Scotland, at Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore, has a quiver of courses to train adventurers in the skills needed to tackle mountains under cover of snow. As well as winter mountaineering, rock-climbing and navigation courses, there’s an “introduction to avalanche planning and decision making” (next course 2 March 2022, £90pp, or £115 including one night’s accommodation), which would benefit off-piste skiers and snowboarders as well as hillwalkers and mountaineers.
Cross-country skiing, various locations
Serious cross-country skiers train through summer on roller skis. Try beginners’ and improvers’ sessions in Hyde Park, London and Dorney Lake in Windsor with Rollerski (£35 for 90-minute session including equipment). It also offers five-week courses in Hyde Park and east London’s Victoria Park (£140pp), plus one-day sessions (£96pp) in Ascot, Berkshire, Betteshanger Park near Deal in Kent, or Redbridge, Essex.
In Aberdeenshire, the Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre rents cross-country skis for use on a special matting track (adults £10, juniors £5.50 for hour rental and track), or on country paths when it snows (£12 for a half-day per adult, juniors £9), as well as roller-skis for a designated trail.
Japanese onsen, Ceredigion
One of the best things about a skiing or snowboarding trip to Japan – apart from the karaoke, sushi breakfasts and waist-deep powder – is being able to visit an onsen, the traditional hot-spring baths that are heaven after a day on the mountain. Glamping and self-catering site Fforest, by the River Teifi near Cardigan, has replicated the experience at its four onsen domes, cedar-clad pods with wooden floors, futon beds and an outdoor bathhouse with sunken concrete tub for stargazing (from £260 for two nights, sleeping four).
Ice-skating, London, Kent, Newcastle upon Tyne
After the mass cancellation of Christmas fairs last winter, the usual cinnamon-scented shenanigans around pop-up outdoor ice rinks and mulled wine stalls resumes in many – though not all – locations for 2021. Choose London’s Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink (13 November-9 January, from £11.50-14 per child, £16 per adult); in Kent, the rink at Calverley Grounds in Tunbridge Wells (19 November-3 January, adults from £13-21, under 16s from £8-14), with Bavarian curling at night (from £50-73 for six people); or Winter Wonderland at Newcastle upon Tyne Racecourse (1 December-2 January, ice skating £9.50 per adult, £7.50 per child). There are dozens more.