The large ski area tucked into the side of an immense mountain certainly doesn't look like the latest development in the Rockies-Alpine mold, and a sign next to one precipitous run emphasizes it:
"Warning: Reindeer," it advises.
Despite this Nordic note, however, the bustling downhill center is not Scandinavian. Perched on a rocky, treeless mountainside with lifts venturing -- disappearing, usually -- into the clouds, the Cairngorm ski area is Scottish.
Unbeknown to most Americans and even some Europeans, Scotland has a skiing industry that is growing by leaps and pounds.
Not only are Scotland's five downhill areas set amid spectacular scenery and friendly natives, they also offer some of the cheapest skiing in the world -- all-day tickets at Cairngorm start at 9 pounds (about $18.50).
Before hopping on the next plane to Glasgow, however, be warned that Scottish skiing is not necessarily for everyone.
The centers (resorts is not the word) are not for those who need every creature comfort. Scotland's slopes probably are best viewed as an excellent side trip for skiers going to Britain in the winter for business or tourism.
There are five ski areas in northern Scotland, each with its own personality and attractions:
Cairngorm, 30 miles south of Inverness in the central Highlands, is the largest and best known center, with the main areas joined by 12 tows and 5 chairlifts. The Cairngorms offer some of the highest peaks in Britain, with six peaks of more than 4,000 feet. Cairngorm is also the center most easily reached from England and via public transport, as it's near the British Rail station of Aviemore, on the main Inverness-Edinburgh line. It's a good area for night life too: Aviemore is a well-developed tourist center.
Aonach Mor, four miles from Fort William in the western Highlands, is the newest and most modern area, having opened last year with Britain's first cable car for skiers. Its location high on Scotland's west coast meant it had the best snow last year.
Glencoe, a few miles south of Aonach Mor, in the region of Strathclyde, is the grande dame of Scottish skiing, but new lift facilities have ended an uphill trek to upper slopes that was legendary even among the Scots. Glencoe is near the famous and starkly beautiful glen of the same name, where the Campbells killed the Macdonalds.
Glenshee, about 30 miles northwest of Dundee in the Grampian Mountains of the central Highlands, takes in both sides of a valley, offering a wide variety of conditions. Near Braemar, the royal family's Highlands retreat, it's best for those interested in settling into a cozy hotel.
The Lecht, in northeastern Scotland not far from the Cairngorms, is Scotland's smallest center but is best for beginners and families.
Wherever you ski in Scotland, you'll find that much more physical activity is required here: Runs and facilities are not as conveniently laid out as they are at other, more established resorts.
One reason is limited financial resources; another is planning restraints on development. Cairngorm, for instance, is in a magnificent national nature reserve, and buildings and other facilities are kept to a minimum. Overnight facilities are in the valley, most in the village of Aviemore.
Nor is Scotland's mountain climate for the faint of heart. It's not nearly as cold as in New England or the Rockies, but it's damp, and high winds and even gales are a fact of life.
The day I arrived at Cairngorm the winds at the summit, one of Britain's highest at 4,084 feet, hit 96 mph. It wasn't blowing that hard on the lower slopes, but the winds there easily surpassed 60 mph, by my estimation. The chairlifts simply sat unused and the hardy Scots relied solely on tows -- most Scottish areas have a preponderance of them, for this reason.
As I approached the slopes, with some trepidation, I passed a file of mountain climbers about to ascend in another direction. "You're not going up there on skis, are you?" the leader asked.
I was. And while I unfortunately didn't see any reindeer (a tourist-attracting experiment and nod to Scotland's links and proximity to Scandinavia), I did have a good bout of skiing over several days.
While the weather and conditions can be challenging in Scotland, the welcome is warm. There's little of the intimidation that the less-than-expert skier feels at more established U.S. and European resorts. Partly because skiing is relatively new here -- the first Scottish center opened in the early 1960s -- the areas are well attuned to beginning and occasional skiers.
I find ski tows a bit hard to master, particularly in gale-force winds, and I fell several times, but the workers and other skiers were forgiving. The attendant patiently helped me with my technique -- and gave me a cheery hello three days later when the wind let up and he was manning a chairlift.
On one trip up, I shared a tow with an outgoing Glaswegian who enthusiastically pointed out the sights. At one point I turned around to look, caught his ski tip and sent him tumbling into the snow. He merely waved from his recumbent position and cheerfully told me to stay on.
Once up and skiing, I found a wide variety of slopes and conditions, from plentiful powder to ice studded with the tips of boulders.
The snow is on the thin side, particularly early in the season and with the relatively mild past two winters. (There is little snow making.) A lot of snow simply blows away despite a system of snow fences.
Cairngorm has huge, steep faces where top events are held, and most slopes are in the medium-to-advanced difficulty range. Unfortunately, while the steepest slopes tend to be nice and wide, the more gradual ones are much narrower. The vertical drop is 1,500 feet.
The copious wind had amazing effects as I made my way downhill. Each time I got ready to cut back across the slope, the wind would give me a push like a mini rocket blast. Once, after I fell in one direction and managed to right myself, a gust unceremoniously dumped me in the snow on the other side.
Hazards are strewed about in the style of a top Scottish golf course. It is a rocky, geologically active landscape, and the absence of trees means that little soil builds up. Restrictions on development mean operators can't simply bulldoze away inconvenient outcroppings.
The main access to a major slope at Cairngorm is across a timber footbridge barely eight feet wide and with no railings. With high crosswinds it seemed an accident would be likely, but there was no trouble while I was there.
Another run crosses the path of a tow, but the potential collisions never developed.
Scottish skiers simply are expected to use lots of common sense, and anyone who doesn't is liable to find himself in trouble, if not in the hospital.
If Scottish skiing extracts more mental and physical effort from the skier, it also can be said to have more personality.
At the end of a day's skiing, after far fewer runs than I might manage at an American resort, I nonetheless felt I'd gotten more than my money's worth.
Perched in a cafe, fortified with Scottish specialties like fish and chips, Scotch broth and shortbread -- not to mention ale or stronger stuff -- I found it blissful to sit and look over the vast, glacier-carved valley.
Several days of weather seemed to take place in an hour or two as clouds and mini storm systems shot by, interspersed with startlingly bright shafts of sunlight.
And then, despite any punishment the weather may have dished out, it would seem to be a very good idea to return to the slopes in the morning. Chad Neighbor, formerly a Washington writer, now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
WAYS AND MEANS
GETTING THERE: Scotland is well linked to London and the rest of England by rail and air. British Airways flies round trip to Edinburgh from Dulles via London for $875 and to Glasgow for $524, with restrictions. TWA flies round trip to Edinburgh for $741 and to Glasgow for $829, with restrictions.
All of the ski centers can be reached by train and bus from Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. You can purchase a Scottish Highlands and Islands Travel pass for one week of train travel and discounts on bus fares for $56 (fares may rise for 1991); contact Scots-American Travel Advisors, 26 Rugen Dr., Harrington Park, N.J. 07640, 201-768-5505.Cairngorm, in the central Highlands 30 miles south of Inverness, is near the British Rail station of Aviemore, on the main Inverness lowlands line. A good bus service links people without cars to the slopes. The area also can be reached by direct flight from London to Inverness via Dan-Air, and then a rented car. Cairngorm is about 500 miles from London; travelers who plan to drive from southern England should allow two days to reach the slopes.
Aonach Mor is just four miles from the bustling Western Highlands town of Fort William, and a three-hour train ride on British Rail from Glasgow. Aonach Mor is also convenient to Glasgow (100 miles) and Inverness (65 miles) by car.
Glencoe, about 20 miles south of Fort William, is near the famous and starkly beautiful glen of the same name, where the Campbells killed the Macdonalds. Because it is near the competing Aonach Mor, last year it was open Thursdays through Mondays only.
Glenshee, in the Central Highlands, is about 30 miles northwest by car from the eastern coastal town of Dundee and about 100 miles from Edinburgh. You can also take a train from Edinburgh or Glasgow to Perth, a 1- to 1 1/2-hour ride, and from there take a 45-minute bus ride to the slopes.The Lecht, northeast of the Cairngorms and near the town of Tomintoul, is Scotland's smallest center but is best for beginners and families. It's accessible by bus or car from Aviemore (about 30 miles) or Aberdeen (about 50 miles). This is another area where a small hotel or bed and breakfast inn is the best base.
WHEN TO GO: The Scottish ski season tends to run from about Christmas through the beginning of May, but the last two seasons have been much shorter. The best bet is to aim for the first six weeks of the high season, which runs from the first full week in February through the third week of April. We made our reservations in Cairngorm for the week before the high season two weeks in advance, and plenty of rooms seemed to be available in Aviemore when we arrived.
WHERE TO STAY: Five-day midweek packages are particularly good bargains that also allow you to avoid the weekend crowds. At Cairngorm, accommodation is available from $130 per person in a traditional guest house in low season to $600 for a top hotel in high season. Local tourist offices will book rooms for the same evening. The skiing part of the five-day package, including equipment, lift tickets and lessons, is $155 during the low season, $185 during high season.
Hotel reservations at Cairngorm are available through the Aviemore and Spey Valley Tourist Centre, Main Road, Aviemore, PH22 1PP, telephone 011-44-479-810363.WHERE TO EAT: Scottish ski areas are well provided with restaurants and cafes and most hotels have their own restaurants. In Aviemore, we found those on the village's main street more interesting than those in the ski complex.
INFORMATION: A comprehensive brochure on Scottish skiing, "Ski Scotland," is available from the Scottish Tourist Board, 23 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 3EU, Scotland. Enclose several prepaid international reply coupons, available from the Post Office. The U.S. office of the Scottish Tourist Board doesn't stock the brochure, but may otherwise be of help: 40 W. 57th St., Suite 320, New York, N.Y. 10019, 212-581-4700. Last-minute reservations also can be made through the Highlands and Islands Development Board's "Hi-Line," a toll-free fax in the United States, at 800-654-0494, or by calling Scotland, 011-44-349-65000.Several ski conditions lines operate in Britain; check daily newspapers for telephone numbers.