The distant Tatras Mountains get closer and closer as we drive through windy, snowy roads, our excitement growing.
Just two hours from Krakow, the towering mountains form the natural border between the south of Poland and north of Slovakia, and are where we will be enjoying the last days of the winter ski season in Zakopane.
Still fairly untouched territory to Brits – who you’re more likely to find flocking to the saturated Alps – this is part of the charm of Zakopane, a mountain town of 27,000 nestled in the foothills of the Tatras.
The town retains its own identity, with horse drawn sleds driven by traditionally dressed horsemen passing you by as you walk down bustling streets of wooden chalets and eateries serving traditional and reasonably priced Polish cuisine.
This charm was emulated at Stardust Eco Chalet, the delightfully quaint and rustic carbon neutral accommodation myself and my two friends were to call home for three nights.
Beginning life ten years ago in Bankso by Maks Raychell, the chalet company started as way for him and his friends to simply ski as much as they possibly could. They wanted to create chalets for riders, by riders, where visitors could enjoy good food and company, safe in the knowledge that their trip was sustainable and not costing the earth.
While a trip to the Alps can set you back a pretty penny, our visit to Zakopane was surprisingly reasonable. Not just the accommodation, but food, drinks and ski passes themselves were a fraction of what you could expect to pay in France, Austria or Switzerland. But, when it came to the main event – the skiing – could the Tatras truly rival the Alps?
Maks and his partner Rosie personally drove us to two separate skiing locations around Zakopane for us to sample what was on offer.
On the first day, a short, fifteen minute journey took us to Bialy Dunajec, where we caught the ski lift up into the slopes – mainly green, blue and red to start us off gently.
We had incredible views of the Tatras mountains, and with plenty of watering holes and eateries to choose from, we enjoyed a hearty lunch looking out at the vast snowiness of the Slovakian border beyond. It was the perfect way to ease us all back into finding our ski and snowboarding legs, something we thanked Maks for when he picked us up.
The second day was a little more advanced – we were heading up into the Tatras themselves. And this time – we could have easily been in the Alps.
Just a five minute journey from Stardust, we caught the gondola from Kasprowy Wierch which took us high above the conifers and gullies of the valleys below, Zakopane and southern Poland stretching out behind us.
The peaks rose like towering arrows, and when we reached the top, the views were truly breathtaking.
These slopes were tougher than where we’d visited the day before, but the views and trails were longer and more rewarding. Again, plentiful pit stops for lunch peppered the pistes, and we enjoyed traditional sausage soups, Zakopane trout and stews to recharge our batteries before meandering down the slopes back to the base of the mountain.
The late afternoon light was dancing through the trees as we skiied down leisurely through the wooded forests of the National Park, with signs for Carpathian brown bears keeping us from straying off-piste. The final leg of the journey was a pleasant green run, which our legs were thankful for after a series of blacks and reds to get us there.
It was an incredible couple of days of skiing, but the magic of Zakopane didn’t end there. Maks also arranged some other wintry excursions to enjoy once the sun had gone down.
A trip into the forests at the base of the Tatras on a horse drawn sled was a true highlight, the bells of the sleighs echoing around the snowy gullies with the moon rising over head. We were given a traditional flaming torch as the light faded, and we truly felt we were experiencing a unique and ancient culture. The ride was completed at a bonfire with live music, and sausages to be roasted over the open flames on spikes. It was magical.
So too, was our visit to the Goracy Potok outdoor geothermal pools on our final evening. With pools ranging from 34-40 degrees, it was the perfect way to soothe our aching muscles from the slopes and enjoy a mulled wine or Tyskie in blissful relaxation.
And, as we sipped our drinks in the warm water, and looked up at the full moon overhead, we all agreed in unison, we would definitely be back.
Zakopane has an amazing array of restaurants and night life. Don’t miss the traditional pork knuckle, Polish dumplings or hot beer and raspberry.
Return flights from Glasgow to Krakow from just £40 via Ryanair. Stardust Eco Chalet Bed and Breakfast, from £3509 for seven nights based on 12 sharing.
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