Rising like a cloud-topped fortress from the rolling landscape of eastern Slovakia, the High Tatras form the western end of the great Carpathian mountain range, a thousand-mile arc through Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia. But this compact huddle of 11 peaks rising above 2,500m has a distinct character – this is the only part of the Carpathians that is truly alpine.
The High Tatras – four-fifths of which lie on the Slovakian side of the border with Poland – have glacial lakes, snow-capped peaks and pine-filled valleys. The region has become popular with cost-conscious skiers in the winter, but it has long been fashionable as Eastern Europe's destination for those seeking fresh mountain air, clean mineralised water, and good walking in the health-enhancing atmosphere of a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
September in the High Tatra mountains sees that landscape at its best, with rich autumnal colours decorating the mountainsides. This month is also the driest and warmest time to visit; a perfect climate for embarking on the many invigorating walking trails. It's possible to get around much of the area, too: you can see the High Tatras in one panoramic view from the airport city of Poprad, just 20 minutes' drive from the charming town of Stary Smokovec in the foothills. In fact, a little railway will take you all the way from Poprad to each end of the High Tatras in less than an hour, and for just a few euros.
I arrived at the western end of the range by the mountain lake of Strbske Pleso – which means "mountain tarn". This is one of several glacial lakes in the Tatras formed at the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago – it even has a unique species of white fish stranded from that period. More recently, in the 1870s, Jozef Szentivanyi, a local nobleman, built a hunting lodge here, not just to take advantage of the local game but to enjoy the fresh air and the area's outstanding natural beauty.
That lodge today forms one of the three older hotel buildings that have been joined together to create an impressive Kempinski Hotel, the only five-star hotel outside Bratislava. Its magnificent dining room, with its original fireplaces exuding the scent of burning pine wood, is renovated to the exacting standards of a historic building. Here it is possible to enjoy exotic cuisine while overlooking the east Slovakian plain, surrounded in the distance by the peaks of the Low Tatra mountains to the south.
On the other side of the hotel, to the north, lies the lake of Strbske Pleso. The settlement of Strbske Pleso itself is the highest in the High Tatras. At 1,350m above sea level, the air may at first feel thin but this is more than compensated by the low humidity which acts as a breathable balm for the lungs. Like many settlements in the region, Strbske Pleso was originally developed as a "climatic spa" – the dry air acting as a welcome palliative for respiratory illnesses – although many of the more recent buildings lower down the slopes were established in the 1970s to serve the thriving winter-sports scene.
The term "wellness" is widely used in the High Tatras. The region is rich in springs that produce thermal spas for bathing, as well as mineralised waters for drinking. These, together with the mountain landscape, have made the location a famous destination for relaxation and convalescence since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the Czech author Franz Kafka spent a winter and spring here in the 1920s to treat his tuberculosis.
The Kempinski's own spa is a modern, ultra-luxurious version of this regional tradition. After a day's exertion on the mountain trails it is sheer luxury to be showered, steamed and soothed with the various water treatments on offer. Sit in the mosaic-tiled swimming pool and allow tired back muscles and sore feet to be pummelled with powerful water jets while contemplating the serenity of the lake with its surrounding peaks.
The Slovaks take their walking seriously and there are many miles of hiking to be found, from the relatively easy to the positively arduous. The locals do not dawdle – be prepared for the walks to take longer than the guide maps predict. The trails from the hotel are easy to follow, well marked with colour-coded signs, but they can be tough. Most involve some kind of uphill or downhill stretch, and a different set of muscles is needed for each stage of the inclination.
On my second day, I managed the uphill walk to a waterfall called Vodopad Skok, a couple of hours from the hotel. The sound of a chiff-chaff followed me through the lush, forested slopes and the smell of dripping pine resin wafted through the air. Wild orchids decorated the lower slopes and the air was perfumed with the sweet smell of clover meadows.
For serious hill walkers, it is possible to stay overnight in one of about a dozen mountain chalets, or chaty, where basic food and a bed can be found for a reasonable price. It is also possible to start the walks higher up the hillsides by taking one of several ski lifts that operate throughout summer.
One of the cable cars from the village of Tatranska Lomnica, in the east, goes to the second highest peak in the High Tatras, Lomnicky stit (peak), some 2,634m above sea level. You have to be lucky, though, to have a totally cloud-free 50 minutes, the maximum allotted time you can spend up there.
Lower down the slopes, at an altitude more suited to tall pine trees and silver birch, the atmosphere is decidedly Slavic. On one of the trails, I came across plaintive faces carved into the trunks and branches of the trees, guarding the walk like forest divinities. They were, in fact, the handiwork of a local woodcutter who seemed to be using his own face as the model for his carvings.
From the grounds of the Grand Hotel Praha, in Tatranska Lomnica, it is possible to pick up a delightful little walk of a far gentler nature than those further up the mountain slopes. Here, frogs jump amiably across your path and clouds of butterflies flutter endlessly by your side. The buzz of bees is everywhere.
I passed through the grounds of another hotel, eerily still and quiet, where the grass is allowed to grow to seed and the wild plants produce flowers in profusion. Like the rest of eastern Slovakia, there are few trimmed lawns and manicured hedges here. Everything is allowed to do its own thing, to the evident joy of the many birds and insects that manage to thrive in this wild, alpine paradise.
In the village of Tatranska Lomnica itself, where the railway line from Poprad ends, there is an authentically honest Slovakian restaurant called Stara Mama (Grandmother) behind the station. Here, in its dimly lit but cosy atmosphere, you can eat Slovakian specialities such as hunger-quelling dumplings and sheep's cheese wrapped in ham, helpfully lubricated with glasses of tasty, chilled Slovak beer.
The Grand Hotel Praha, an architectural gem dating from the Belle Époque of the early 1900s, offers another version of the Slovakian spa experience. Here, in the hotel's basement, you are warned against wearing swimming costumes in the sauna – a crisp, cotton sheet is issued for modesty's sake by a shaven-headed extra from a Bond movie. Here, the cold douche is, literally, a wooden bucket tipped from a cistern overhead – an unforgettably exhilarating experience.
Down in Propad, there is an ultra-modern spa called AquaCity, a hotel cum water park aimed at families. It is built on a natural underground aquifer with water heated geothermally. The occasional waft of hydrogen sulphide – rotten eggs – acts as a test to the authenticity of its hot springs. AquaCity, built partly with British investment and expertise, has won an award for its sustainable use of energy and water.
Fresh air, pure water and a beautiful landscape: this comparatively undiscovered corner of Eastern Europe is hard to beat.
How to get there
Inghams Travel (020-8780 4454; inghams.co.uk ) offers seven nights at the Grand Hotel Praha from £616 per person, including return flights from Gatwick, half-board, packed lunch, bicycle hire and one-day walker's lift pass. B&B in a double room at the Kempinski High Tatras (00 421 52 3262 222; kempinski-hightatras.com ) costs from €200 (£175) per night, based on two sharing. A double room at AquaCity Resort's (00 421 52 78 51 230; aquacityresort.com ) Mountain View Hotel costs €150 (£130) per night, based on two sharing, including half board and free entry to the water park and spa. Until 20 December, get 50 per cent off a second night's stay and 30 per cent off each subsequent night. Day passes to AquaCity's geothermal waterpark and spa cost about €22 (£19).