"What happens now?" I asked. "Now we take a romantic sleigh ride together," replied Alan Garcia.
I'd been in Zakopane for less than two hours and already I was a little nonplussed. I'd fully expected Poland's top ski resort to be a little less modern than its Alpine counterparts. What I hadn't expected was for my journey to the slopes to be Dobbin-powered. As the driver whispered sweet nothings into his horse's ear, I wondered whether this trip to test Poland's premier pistes had been such a bright idea after all.
I needn't have worried. The sleigh that Alan – managing director of an operation called Sunshine World, a specialist in ski packages in Zakopane – had commandeered was an optional throwback targeted squarely at tourists. Visitors can get around more swiftly on public transport or by taxi, and they'll need to: pretty as Zakopane is, with street after street lined with wooden chalets, it's far too big to walk around.
Things took a welcome turn for the modern after I had gingerly dismounted from the sleigh. My pre-trip research had me perversely anticipating my first ride in the 60-year-old cable car to Kasprowy Wierch, the biggest of the half-dozen or so ski areas in and around Zakopane. The downside of using ski infrastructure dating from the Forties: the two-hour queue I might face to board.
However, the cable car had undergone a £14m refit that doubled both its capacity and its speed of travel. Maximum queue times are now around 45 minutes, leaving considerably less time for you to ponder why eight out of 10 people queuing with you aren't skiers but sightseers.
You'll wonder even more once you're up the mountain. Kasprowy Wierch is glorious – a vast, open bowl with fabulous views over Zakopane to the north and across the High Tatras towards Slovenia to the south. Its wide pistes were, at least when I was there, almost deserted despite near-perfect conditions. A carpet of freshly fallen fluff had settled on top of the hardpack of the groomed slopes, making powder skiing a doddle.
The chairlifts (all two of them – Kasprowy Wierch isn't vast by any means) were another pleasant surprise. Until recently, a struggle with a fistful of increasingly soggy paper tickets was part of the boarding ritual in Zakopane. Thankfully, readable cards are now standard and the pre-ride fumble is a thing of the past. However, as up to date as Zakopane's infrastructure is, local business politics are lagging behind. Each lift system has its own charging structure, so you can't use an unfinished pass from one ski area if you head to another the next day.
That's a shame, because skiing a different area each day is one of the things that make a trip to Zakopane so attractive. Each has its own distinctive character – Kasprowy Wierch will test all but expert skiers, while the gentle slopes of Biaka Tatrzañska, Nosal and Symoskowa are perfect for beginners and intermediates. Thanks to powerful floodlights, the latter three remain open until 10pm, so you can sleep in after a big night out and still manage a full day on the slopes.
It may not have hundreds of miles of interlinked pistes, but Zakopane's unthreatening terrain and easily manageable ski areas makes it a good, budget choice. Advanced skiers won't be stretched, though – but that doesn't mean Zakopane has nothing to offer adrenaline junkies.
A couple of mornings later I rose at dawn. I felt bleary-eyed and furry-tongued – until I met the stag weekend party who had also hauled themselves out of bed to spend the morning snowmobiling. These guys had obviously been going for it in no small measure – one of them actually appeared to be perspiring vodka.
After a brief tuition session ("this one's the accelerator, that's the brake"), we were off. As wake-ups go, hurtling over frozen wastes at several dozen miles an hour, splashing through streams, getting some serious air over hill brows and – if you're one unfortunate stag weekender – tipping over sideways and falling face first into a snowdrift is pretty effective. It's cracking fun, too, perfectly perched between risky (snowmobiles can really shift if you want them to) and reassuring (a pair of guides led us all the way and two more brought up the rear).
The stag weekenders had picked a good town for evening entertainment, too. The Krupowki, Zakopane's pedestrianised main drag, is lined with bars offering a wide range of beers as well the obligatory vodka shots for just £1.30 a (generous) measure. There are some good clubs, too, including Prestige, an atmospheric cellar with comfy sofas and a dancefloor just dark enough to tempt patrons into strutting their stuff to Europop anthems.
If you'd rather eat than drink, the Krupowki is also home to plenty of very affordable and surprisingly stylish restaurants. A hearty plate of farfalle puttanesca at Soprano, a classy Italian, set me back £4. Traditional Polish restaurants such as Karczma Siklawa are another great option – particularly if you get a buzz from supping beetroot soup while being serenaded by a folk singer. And, of course, the Scrabble possibilities opened up by the names of dishes such as zur zkojnicki z jajkem lub kielbasa (soup made from sour rye with egg or sausage) are liable to provoke more discussion than a dish costing £2.20 has any right to.
The writer stayed in Zakopane with Sunshine World (020-7581 4736; www.sunshineworld.co.uk) which offers seven nights' half-board in a catered chalet from £495. The trip includes return flights, ski passes, professional coaching, equipment hire, airport transfers.
Apres ski in Krakow
Holidaymakers flying to Zakopane from the UK will most likely pass through Krakow's Balice airport. The city can offer après ski with a difference to anyone willing to stop off for a couple of days on their way home from the slopes. The perfectly preserved square kilometre of the old town, busy in summer, is atmospheric and quiet in winter. It's easy to while away a day exploring its vast market square and maze of cobbled streets or sampling the refined café culture in the nearby Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. There's no off-season for Krakow's renowned nightlife, either – and jazz joints like Boogie and Harris Piano Jazz bar will always reward a visit.
Inghams Short Breaks (020-8780 7710; inghams.co.uk) offers two nights B&B in Krakow at the four-star Hotel Amadeus in Krakow for £295 pp including BA flights from Gatwick. (Pre-bookable transfer from the airport costs £18 one way).