If you love getting active in the great oudoors, you'll be spoilt for choice in Slovakia's Tatra Mountains. Hike, bike, climb, ski and raft to your heart's content - then chill out in a grand hotel
The Tatra mountains in Slovakia have to be one of my favourite places. Here, in a truly spectacular setting, you can ski, hike, climb, bike, raft and enjoy a wide selection of ‘funtools’ (no, it’s not the Slovakian franchise for Ann Summers! All will be explained...). Your age, adrenaline quotient or level of fitness is irrelevant - if you enjoy the outdoors, you’ll love the Tatras. There’s so much to do in a relatively compact area that it’s almost impossible to get bored, whatever the weather.
The High Tatras mark the border between Slovakia and Poland, and although the main ridge is only some 26.5km in length, the highest peak reaches 2,655 metres, with 10 others pushing past the 2,500-metre mark. I travelled to the region in early summer and began my exploration in Stary Smokovec. A small, quiet tourist town, it’s a good base for hikes into the high mountains and, in winter, a lively, if somewhat limited, ski resort. The nearest international airport is Poprad, which connects to Stary via the Tatra Electric Railway; journey time is just under 30 minutes.
I took the funicular to the small ski resort of Hrebienok, directly above Stary. There isn’t a great deal here but then with only four lifts and four pistes, you’re not going to see too much development. There are, however, some very pleasant walks. Follow the track to Rainer’s Chalet and back via the Studenovodske waterfalls. It’s relatively easy going on a good track, and a gentle introduction to the region. Young children will enjoy the summer tubing run near the top of the funicular - it’s great fun and a pretty wild ride whatever your age.
The Grand Hotel Stary Smokovec dominates the town and offers the kind of relaxed luxury that I imagine most grand hotels offered in the 1920s and 30s. It certainly lives up to its name; the bedrooms, public rooms and restaurants are all huge, and although it retains an old-fashioned feel, it is clearly well maintained. Best of all, it’s not stuffy - wear what you want when you want and just chill.
Fun and games
Lomnica is the largest of theTatry resort towns, and from here you can take the cable car to the mountain lake at Skalnate Pleso. Walk the easy path around the lake or travel on by cable car to the summit of the mighty Lomnicky Peak. At 2,633 metres, this is the third highest mountain in the High Tatras. There is a restaurant and observatory on the summit, linked by walkways in the sky. On a good day, the views are simply stunning. For the ultimate romantic break, spend a night dining and star-gazing in the private apartment located right on the summit.
OK! Now I know you’ve had a bit of an issue with concentration since I mentioned funtools, so let me explain. Funtools is a generic name used locally for a variety of karts, scooters and mountain boards (a kind of all-terrain skateboard). Make your choice from the hire shop at Štart (the stopover station on the cableway down from Skalnaté Pleso), strap on some head and joint protection, then set off for some serious fun down a twisting, narrow three-kilometre track. Most of the track is tarmac - and shared by the occasional service vehicle, so keep a lookout. If your nerve holds, you can hit some pretty decent speeds, but the last section is off-road. Be sure to take the transition slowly or you’ll need all that body armour and then some. My Stanley Rider kart was steered by simple foot pressure, with hand-levers operating the brakes. The steering was very direct and didn’t leave much room for error but once mastered provided more of a rush than I was expecting.
The Grand Hotel Praha in Lomnica had a similar feel to its Stary counterpart. It’s a huge 100-year-old hotel with good views, a reputation for excellent cuisine and a fairy-tale appearance. If you picked up a few bumps and bruises on the funtools, then the Grand Wellness centre is the perfect place to ease them away.
When you want a break from the mountains, head to the Pieniny National Park. The Dunajec river marks the border between Slovakia and Poland, and a rafting trip through the Dunajec River Gorge makes for a great day out. The scenery is awesome and the rapids not too scary, even for a non-swimmer like me.
In contrast to the High Tatras, the Low Tatras are less developed and form a largely wilderness area right at the heart of Europe. The highest peak (Dumbier) is 2,042 metres but Chopok, at 2,024 metres, attracts the most tourists, largely because you can take the cable car to within a few hundred feet of the summit.
There is a restaurant at the top station where you can watch the paragliders. Or, if you’re feeling energetic, you can make the trek to the top. It’s a pretty straightforward hike but remember, at well over 6,000 feet, the weather can change in an instant, so make sure you are properly kitted out.
Mountain bike enthusiasts should make the short walk from the restaurant to Rovna Hola. Here, you can hire a bike and take one of the challenging downhill trails to Jasna. The bikes are top quality machines with full suspension and disc brakes but remember, the brakes are based on the continental system, which is opposite to the UK. I tried to lock the back wheel to help me around a loose hairpin and almost went over the handlebars.
Situated on the lower slopes of Chopok, Jasna is the largest winter sports resort in Slovakia, but the area is also famous for its caves. The magnificent Cave of Liberty in the Demanovska valley is the perfect wet day activity. The tour takes around one and three quarter hours and is totally spellbinding. There is a good walkway through a series of large underground chambers, where you can see attractively coloured stalactites, stalagmites, waterfalls and various rock formations. The largest chamber has a height of 65 metres and a total length of 112 metres.
I stayed at the Hotel Grand – had to, really. Although more modern than the other two, this was another excellent hotel built in a grand style, with all the usual facilities including wellness centre and spa. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotels in the region. These were all large hotels but they were maintained to a high standard, the service was excellent, and the facilities equalled or exceeded those found elsewhere in Europe.
Slovakia really is a great place for the great outdoors, and I can’t wait to go back.
There are regular flights from Luton to Poprad, and UK tour operator Inghams features the High Tatras in its Lakes and Mountains programme.