When you are a ski beginner and keen not to have many onlookers as you master the fundamentals, there’s a case for avoiding the crowds in busy, trendy haunts such as Whistler, Val d’Isere or Chamonix.
Well, that’s how it seemed to this new kid on the block, so when somebody suggested the calm and the tranquillity of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia for my first faltering steps on the slopes, it sounded like a great idea.
From the miles of ski slopes, with something to suit all levels of expertise, to the fairytale mountain peaks glistening in the blue sky, Slovakia feels like Europe’s best-kept skiing secret.
As the families now booking ski holidays in Eastern Europe will tell you, another big attraction is fantastic value for money. A filling main meal in a mountain cafe (say goulash with dumplings, onions and tomatoes) will cost about four euros, with a one-euro beer to wash it down.
Come to think of it, you could probably live quite comfortably in Slovakia this winter for the cost of a single restaurant meal in Switzerland.
So off I flew to Krakow, skirting around the historic Polish city that will be swamped by football fans when the European Championships arrive next summer, and taking a leisurely two-hour drive south, mainly by motorway, to reach the ski resorts.
Greeted with mulled wine and lots of cheery smiles at the plush Grand Hotel Kempinski in Strbské Pleso, in the heart of the mountains, I looked forward to happily spending the next few days enjoying the comforts it had to offer.
But ski enthusiasts must stick to a pretty tight schedule, so next morning, after a tasty breakfast, I was fitted for ski boots and soon trying valiantly to walk upstairs in them. Not so easy.
The slopes are just a short walk away from the hotel and in no time I mastered one of the more basic moves, the “snow plough”. It’s essentially a technique to prevent you from crashing, so at least I knew I would be able to stop, if not actually go very far.
Our small group of newcomers were shown the basics away from the nursery slope, so the sight of toddlers expertly manoeuvring around poles didn’t worry us in the slightest.
Eric, the instructor, was enthusiastic and beyond patient as we tried to launch ourselves down an incline no bigger than a molehill, but soon took us to the nursery slopes to compete with those all-too-competent schoolkids.
The first morning’s lessons seemed to fly by, with my confidence growing and temperature slowly rising as I got into the swing of things.
But I was glad that a lunch of warming goulash was just a cable car ride away. From the top of the mountain, the sight of the villages down below was simply staggering.
Those with more of a natural flair for skiing than me (let’s just say I saw the snow at much closer quarters than I had ever intended) can take a six-seater chairlift to the higher runs. There are a total of seven kilometres of downhill runs here, with a good supply of snow right through the season until April.
Adventurous types go cross-country skiing or night skiing, with snowboarders also tearing up the powder. There is also plenty for children to do as there’s a fun park, snow tubing and snow scooters – all great fun.
After two days of relaxed skiing, we went on a trip to Lomnicky Stit in Tatranska Lomnica, a train journey away from Strbské Pleso.
It has Slovakia’s longest piste, at 7.5 kilometres, and at 2635 metres up is truly a sight to behold. My advice is to wrap up warm and watch out for bears, which apparently roam the area.
The village at the bottom of the mountain has a fantastic cafe, popular with locals, which serves traditional Slovakian food at bargain prices.
After our day’s outing, we headed back to the Tatra Mountains to unwind and I decided my muscles deserved a trip to the spa.
With its view of sun-kissed white mountain tips, I could happily have stayed in there for a whole week, chilling out on a super-comfy lounger.
Hardcore spa lovers will enjoy the ice fountain, where you can liberally rub your body with rocks, but I much preferred the warm rain aromatherapy shower and the steam room, followed by a massage to soothe the bumps and bruises sustained during the day. Who can blame me for falling asleep?
The food at the hotel was another delight during my stay, especially as we were allowed into the hotel kitchens one evening to help make apple strudel and gnocchi-like dumplings mixed with curd cheese and crispy bacon.
Warm, comforting carbohydrates – and perhaps a glass or two of schnapps – were just what was needed to ward off the cold. And while the nightlife in the town is not hugely varied, it’s a pretty little centre with lively bars.
A visit to Slovakia is a treat for all the senses. You feel healthier just breathing in the air and with such fantastic skiing, food and relaxation on offer, I have a feeling it won’t remain a secret for very much longer.