Join the Tatra pack: Skiers can expect low costs and high excitement in Slovakia
Saturday 27 February 2010
Jamming the revolving doors of Slovakia's newest five-star hotel is not the best way to make an impression as you attempt to stride towards reception, but at least it ensures the staff remember you. And if, like me, you're foolish enough to try to get through a set of revolving doors with a pair of skis over your shoulder what else can you expect?
I was making a clumsy arrival at the beautifully refurbished Habsburg Empire-era Hotel Grand Kempinski in Slovakia's High Tatra mountains, fresh from three days skiing in Jasná, the country's biggest ski resort 60km away in the Low Tatras.
In this case, "biggest" does not mean huge; Jasná boasts just 35km of marked pistes. The resort is neatly divided into two distinct ski areas on the north- and south-facing slopes of the 2,024m Chopok Peak. The northern slopes have an excellent range of pistes for beginners through to intermediates; the sunny south side, meanwhile, is steeper and appeals to more experienced skiers.
There's 1,000m of vertical, so unless you're a Winter Olympian your quads are guaranteed to be burning by the time you've skied top to bottom, and there are also five impressive freeride zones. All consist of wide, open "Alpine" areas which plummet down to tree runs that will challenge anyone with a pair of wide skis and a go-for-it attitude. Indeed, so good is the freeriding here that Jasná is a venue for the Freeride World Tour in March.
It's all remarkably good value, too. I ate most meals at the Pizza Von Roll mountain restaurant, which has been built around the top mechanism of a disused ski lift. Here excellent pizza and fine Slovakian beer cost just less than €10. What's more, the restaurant's décor (porthole-style windows, wood burner and contemporary furnishings) and friendly service knocked spots off the pricey, surly mealtime experience that is often a characteristic of mountain eateries in the Alps.
Slovakia is becoming an increasingly popular choice with British skiers, thanks to service such as this, as well as passable skiing for all abilities. There's also easy access for visitors: the two-hour flight from the UK to Poprad and between 30 and 60 minutes transfer time make it just as convenient as the Alps.
In Jasná I enjoyed four-star ski-in/ski-out accommodation at the Hotel Družba, which is built in traditional Alpine style on the lower slopes of the blue Biela Put piste. I also tried the more contemporary Hotel Grand beside the resort's new eight-person gondola, which accesses great beginner terrain.
From the summit of Mount Chopok I enjoyed superb views north to the spiky summits of the High Tatras before I left for the 60-minute drive to those same mountains and my snarl-up at the Grand Kempinski.
For a century, winter sports have been an integral part of life in the southern foothills of the High Tatras, with world championship skiing events held here as early as the 1930s. The base area is overlooked by an imposing ski jump from which I watched young men with hearts and spines of steel practising the closest thing there is to non-powered flight.
More challenging skiing can be found at the High Tatras' main resort, Tatranská Lomnica. This is tucked beneath the impressively pointy bulk of 2,634m Lomnicky Peak, Slovakia's second-highest mountain, first climbed in 1793 by an adventurous Englishman called Robert Townson.
You get to Tatranská Lomnica by a curious electric mountain railway which runs from Strbské Pleso – the small resort that is an eclectic mix of ornate fin de siècle hotels, brutalist Communist-era holiday accommodation and minimalist 21st-century development.
I headed for Tatranská Lomnica with Terezka Rothová of Mountain Paradise, a UK-based company which specialises in Slovakian mountain holidays.
At first sight the skiing at Tatranská Lomnica seems to be restricted to little more than wide, cruisy blue runs above the main gondola, but as you get higher a decent sized powder-filled bowl appears; this is definitely not beginner terrain.
On the other hand, Terezka said this is a resort that novices will enjoy: "There are rarely any lift queues, the slopes are wide and gentle and we have good instructors who rarely have more than six students so our guests tend to improve pretty quickly when they ski here. They're also good with their 'manchester-making' machines here." (Slovakia used to purchase its corduroy cloth from east Lancashire, to the extent that the cloth became known as "manchester". Now instead of producing "corduroy", as in the Alps, here piste bashers groom the snow into parallel lines of "manchester".)
By the end of a sunny day exploring Tatranská Lomnica, "groomed" was not how I was feeling. Happily, I returned to the Kempinski in Strbské Pleso (with my skis safely held at a revolving door-friendly angle) knowing that the biggest dilemma I would be presented with would be the choice of deep hot bath, sauna or steam room.
The skiing at Strbské Pleso itself is limited in comparison to Jasná, with just a few kilometres of generally easy pistes which are ideal for learning on. However, more experienced skiers can still enjoy a day here because it allows you to immerse yourself in Slovakia's Alpine culture and heritage. You can join the locals on one of the area's cross-country ski trails, go snowshoeing through woodland or simply enjoy an après-ski massage for as little as €10 when you've had enough of the limited number of pistes. Or you can take the ski lift to the summit of Lomnicky Peak from Tatranská Lomnica – for a view of the entire length of the High Tatras (Europe's smallest mountain range) and panoramas of southern Poland and the Low Tatras. (Unfortunately you won't be skiing from the top of craggy Lomnicky Peak unless you earn your living as a professional freerider.)
Another popular option, particularly with families, is a day out at Aquacity in nearby Poprad. Built on the site of natural hot springs the centre has a variety of swimming pools as well as spa facilities, and is easily accessed by the electric mountain railway which runs down to the city in about half-an-hour. And Poprad's traffic-free centre, with its good selection of bars and restaurants, is worth wandering around after you've soaked in the springs.
If you don't require endless cruisy blue and red runs on which to clock up the miles and want to experience a relatively unknown ski culture without breaking the bank, Slovakia is worth checking out – and even hard core skiers will get plenty out of a week in Jasná. Just take care with those revolving doors.
Travel essentials: Slovakia
* Mountain Paradise (0161 408 8988; mountainparadise.co.uk ) offers a week at the Grand Hotel Kempinski for £995 per person, including flights, transfers and a six-day ski pass for Strbské Pleso. A week at Hotel Druzba in Jasná costs from £375, including flights, transfers and six-day ski pass.
* Poprad is served by Danubewings ( danubewings.com ) from Luton.
* Strbské Pleso tourist information: 00 421 52 449 2455
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