By: Anna Selby
There’s a vast lake covered in snow, jingling horse drawn sleighs and traditional wooden chalets but this isn’t Austria or Switzerland. It’s Slovakia. The High Tatra, to be precise.
Now you may never have considered this as a ski, spa or any other kind of destination (indeed, you may never have even heard of it), but it has a lot of pluses. For one thing, Wizz Air have introduced new direct flights to Poprad – the highest airport in central Europe with the shortest transfer times imaginable (15-30mins depending on exactly where you’re staying). And tour company, Mountain Paradise, offers packages that are very competitive, so much so that a long weekend – you get three full days’ skiing – makes sense too.
So this month’s spa story is a ski story too. And the two sit very well together – a sauna and a massage can do wonders for sore muscles, after all. You don’t have to be a brilliant skier here either. It’s a very family and beginner-friendly place, with a good ski school. The skiing in Strbske Pleso (our closest resort) is red and blue runs with 2500metres of descent starting with wide open pistes and narrowing through the trees with sweeping turns. The views are dramatic – sharps peaks, plunging cliffs and a wide valley below.
At Tatranska Lomnica (20 minutes away – Mountain Paradise take you there) you find a bigger choice of pistes, and there’s a black run so a bit more of a challenge. Skiing from the top of the mountain to the bottom where the lifts start is about 5000 metres. And speaking of lifts, the queues (even at a half-term weekend) don’t last long at all, just a few minutes. The views here are even more dramatic because the mountain is higher and you can take a cable car right to the rocky summit of Lomnicky Stit at 2634metres. Both resorts have great food on the mountain and, unlike the vast majority of Alpine ski resorts, it’s also great value. So a generous bowl of spag bol or goulash cooked on an outside brazier with gluwein or the richest of hot chocolates will set you back less than 7 euros.
We weren’t going for budget in the hotel, though. The Grand Kempinski lives up to its name. It’s the only 5* in the region and is actually 120 years old, though not as a hotel – like so many mountain properties, in its former life it was a sanatorium. (It speaks volumes for the health benefits of mountain air.)
Prepare yourself for superluxe at the Kempinski’s Zion Spa. Everything here is marble and there are chandeliers above the pool which is surrounded by massive, creamy white day beds with blankets and cushions, and framed with the kind of canopies you’d normally expect above a throne. There is an entire wall of floor to ceiling windows with one of the best spa views on the planet – a series of snowy peaks the other side of the lake. Outside, children are pulled around the lake in toboggans, cross country skiers do the circuit and people and dogs enjoy the sun and the snow. Inside, waiters come to take your order for a fresh vegetable juice or a glass of bubbly (the local sekt at €10 a glass or a bottle of Louis Roederer for €398). A spa with a bar.
There are other unusual elements. This is the only place I’ve ever been told off for wearing clothes. At least I think that was what was happening as I emerged from the sauna and a young man approached me, remonstrated and finally (realising I understood nothing) pointed to a sign that showed a cozzie and some budgie smugglers with a diagonal line through them. Swimwear not permitted. Instead, you can wear nothing at all or you can drape yourself in a vast sheet. I draped. Maybe it’s an English thing.
The compulsory nudity is only the case in the wellness area – this is adults only and separate from the pool which is family friendly. The actual wellness centre features various hot and cold treatments – steam and sauna, Kniepp water walk, bowls of ice and a plunge pool of approximately the same temperature and a caldarium, tepid, to cool you down. There are various kinds of showers – icy to tropical that hit you from every direction and heated marble beds to lie on. Doing the circuit several times (with relaxation in between to cool down) is very therapeutic but, of course, you can’t go back out into the pool in between unless you like struggling into a wet cossie or have brought several dry ones.
My first massage with was Marian, who (this place is full of surprises) turned out to be a man. It was an aromatherapy massage and probably one of the best I’d had. While it was deep, strong and firm, it was also surprisingly gentle. Marian certainly found plenty of knots in my back and got rid of them, but it was never even uncomfortable, let alone painful. There were other things that were unusual, too – for instance, the manipulation of my shoulder in the gentlest way possible – one hand on the shoulder, the other altering very slightly the position of my hand and forearm. I could hear (and feel) little pops and releases. Again, utterly discomfort free. The bed was heated and that was in itself relaxing and the lights were very dim, too. This all helped but I think it is also the fact that all massages in this part of the world are regarded not as something to make you feel pleasantly relaxed but therapeutic on a more profound level. Masseurs are trained in a different way – more akin to physios in their understanding of the body. Suffice it to say, I’d had lower back pain for weeks and by the end it had vanished. Marian knew his stuff.
All that snow outside is beautiful and crunching through it in the evening to a local restaurant is great (go for the goulash). If you want more varied skiing, you can easily get across to the Low Tatra – far more developed and many more runs. The High Tatra is not just for winter, though. Mountain Paradise have hiking in the spring and summer, yoga, golf and photography weeks. One of the specialities is the wildlife – they’ve got wolves, lynx and golden eagles here. They also have bears and have built special hides so you can spend the day watching them once they’ve emerged from their winter hibernation.
Another day and another massage. This one was called the Ultimate Aromamassage which sounded similar to yesterday’s and so did the therapist – Maria (this time it was a woman). Maria explained it would be deep but not strongly muscular – instead it would be uplifting, especially with the rose oil I’d chosen, soothing and restorative. A lot of the focus was on my back (a good 30 minutes’ worth), slow and rhythmic to start with then deeper in to the shoulders and neck. Then there was acupressure on my hands and feet and then a lovely face and scalp massage with acupressure points all the way – brow, temples, jaw line, around the eyes, even my ears. It’s amazing where you can store tension.