Skiing in the sun with big-mountain views, dining on cheese fondue and finishing the day in a luxurious hotel room with a beautiful bathtub. It might sound like the stuff of Alpine dreams, but you can keep your wooden chalets and scenic Swiss valleys – I can’t afford them anyway. I’m getting all of this on a ski-and-city break in Glasgow. Well. Sort of.
The skiing part of the holiday is actually happening at Glencoe Mountain Resort in the Scottish Highlands. I won’t be attempting to clip in and ski past Greggs on Buchanan Street in the city centre. Scotland’s largest city is snow-free at the moment, with the exception of the year-round snowdome at XSite Braehead, a 15-minute drive down the M8. It’s here that Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports are making the dream of a car-free ski weekend in Glasgow a possibility.
The shop has just launched a new mountain shuttle bus to ferry snowsports enthusiasts from Braehead to the ski resorts of Glencoe or Glenshee every weekend, taking the hassle out of driving up yourself, while cutting carbon emissions by pooling a ride.
The bus departs at 7am (hire is available from 6am) and arrives in time for the first lift. You’re then free to ski the day away, before getting the bus back after the lifts shut around 4.30pm. All going to plan, you’ll be back in Glasgow for 7pm for your après ski, whether that means fondue and fine dining or a bottle of Buckie and a munchie box (a smorgasbord of the tastiest, unhealthiest food in the world, from pizza and chips to doner meat and pakoras, available from any good Glaswegian takeaway).
“A lot of our customers have told us they’ve given up their cars,” Alex McAlindon, manager of Ellis Brigham at Braehead, tells me. “They’re working from home now, so they don’t need their vehicles, or they’re making a moral, environmental choice. The resorts always struggle to fit cars in, too. One coach can take 30 cars out of the car parks.”
I choose from a superb selection of the latest rental demo gear, settling on a set of Salomon S/Force skis. The bus fills with a mix of veteran skiers, newbies and a few hikers catching a ride. The early start means a sleepy atmosphere on the scenic journey – including sunrise over Loch Lomond – but a couple of hours later, me and my fancy skis are rolling into Glencoe via “the Skyfall road” (which featured in the Bond movie).
Scottish skiing gets a bit of flack for the unpredictable weather, but if the wind doesn’t blow you away, the views certainly will.
The mighty Buachaille Etive Mòr stands on one side of Glencoe. It’s a proper mountain – the kind of rugged, triangular beast a four-year-old child would draw. On the other side of the valley is the West Highland Way, winding past the Kingshouse Hotel and on to the Devil’s Staircase path and Fort William.
Glencoe Mountain Resort opened in the 1950s on the northern slopes of Meall a’ Bhuiridh and is Scotland’s oldest lift-served ski area.
The access lift transports us from the base station to the plateau over beautiful cascading waterfalls. There’s not a lot of snow at base level, but we ascend into the white stuff, and when the plateau comes into sight, it’s covered.
The resort has seen substantial upgrading since it was taken over by current managing director Andy Meldrum in 2009, but the elements can still play havoc. He tells me the lifts were hit by lightning last week, forcing them to rely on generators for a couple of days. And a new base cafe is being built to replace the one that burned down on Christmas Day in 2019.
“You just accept that sometimes things don’t go your way,” says Meldrum. “Staff and customers are so supportive, though. The skiing can be as good as anywhere in Europe. It can be pretty miserable too, but you do get stunning conditions.”
The views over Rannoch Moor from the top prove Meldrum’s point. To the west are challenging routes, including Flypaper, the steepest in-boundary run in the UK, while to the east are some of the most scenic blue runs on the continent: wide, exposed slopes backdropped by the Buachaille.
The clouds clear as I sip a hot chocolate at the Plateau Cafe, and though there is the odd 35mph gust of wind, blowing snow sideways into my face, it’s a glorious afternoon. Still, Meldrum says the best is yet to come at Glencoe: “We tend to have storms in January and February, then the weather settles. We normally ski right through to the end of April or beginning of May.”
As with all good things, the end of the day comes too soon. On the bus journey home skiers sleep or chat through their day on the hill.
After dropping off our gear, my partner and I jump in a taxi and head out for some après. This is where the city-and-ski idea comes into its own. Glasgow is like Mayrhofen but with less oompah music and a lot more people. There are plenty of spas and saunas if you want the full alpine treatment, but perhaps more appealing is the nightlife, which is among the best in the UK. The vibrant east end is home to the Barrowlands, the centre to the wonderful King Tut’s music venue and legendary Sub Club.
We head to Brel, a Belgian restaurant set among the fairy lights of Ashton Lane in the glitzy west end. An excessive portion of melted cheese and beer by the tankard seems an apt choice.
Then it’s back to the boutique Alamo Guest House to stay in a restored Victorian townhouse on the edge of Kelvingrove Park and the famous Art Gallery and Museum. As it falls into darkness outside, I run a bubble bath and finish my night bathing in that most restorative of substances – Scottish tap water.
Scottish skiing might be unpredictable, but when it’s good, it’s great. Add in a weekend in Glasgow, and it’s an absolute winner.
Accommodation at the Alamo Guest House was provided by Visit Scotland (doubles from £76 B&B). The Mountain Shuttle (£25 return + booking fee) was provided and operated by Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports and will run to Glencoe every Saturday and Glenshee every Sunday until the end of the season (usually until late April/early May). Lift passes for Glenshee should be bought in advance. Lift passes for Glencoe can be purchased on the bus. Ski or snowboard rental for the day costs £25 (bring own boots or hire in resort). For more info and snow conditions see Visit Scotland