Hiking in the Slovak High Tatras

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Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec

Full disclosure: I’m not a skier. This makes visiting areas popular among enthusiasts of this sport kind of awkward since I’m just an outside observer. What is more, all the skiing-relevant aspects of a place like the specifics of the slopes, depth of snow coverage, quality of lifts, or – crucially – the price tag – are entirely oblivious to me. I’m fully content with simpler pleasures: hiking and food. Starý Smokovec in Slovakia’s High Tatra (Vysoké Tatry) Mountains is such a place. We visited last winter and stayed in cozy and hospitable Pension Tatrasport Zampa.

Starý Smokovec was founded in 1793 and the early settlement grew around the local mineral water springs. Now it is a popular tourist destination adored by skiers and hikers alike, conveniently located on the Tatra Electric Railway line that connects it to the city of Poprad and fellow resort towns Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso.

The town is anchored by the majestic Grand Hotel built in 1904. It is a quiet place otherwise but then again most visitors don’t spend much time in Smokovec itself but rather hit the slopes. Just behind the hotel there is a funicular that goes up to the Hrebienok ski center perched on the southern slope of the Slavkovsky peak at 1,285 meters above sea level.

Hrebienok

Hrebienok panorama from Pension Tatrasport Zampa

The view from up above is spectacular and stretches for miles:

Hrebienok

View from Hrebienok

Hrebienok’s ski slopes and hiking trails invite to explore – and you already know my choice. A marked “green” trail leads from the upper station of the funicular to a series of beautiful waterfalls (Studenovodské vodopády), one of the oldest tourist destinations in the Tatras made popular by spa visitors from Starý Smokovec. A relatively easy path may be a bit treacherously slippery in winter, but it’s worth it! The waterfalls look spectacular, half-frozen and buried underneath the snow. And there is nothing better to reward a weary hiker than a cup of delicious varene vino, or spiced hot wine, in a tiny refuge of Rainerova Chata – historic Rainer’s Hut first built by Ján Juraj Rainer in 1863. Renovated in 1998, it’s been serving mountain adventure seekers since.

Hrebienok trail

On the trail

Studenovodské vodopády

Waterfalls

Studenovodské vodopády

More waterfalls…

Hrebienok trail

Blue winter horizon

Miś Uszatek

…and an unexpected blast from the past – Miś Uszatek – beloved character from a Polish cartoon I used to watch as a kid, listed along the trail with other famous fairy tale bears!

Rainerova Chata

Well-deserved respite at Rainerova Chata

Only about half an hour train ride west from Starý Smokovec is another great hiking destination: Štrbské Pleso, a large glacial mountain lake. In the summer I would have consider climbing the popular nearby peaks Kriváň and Rysy. But in winter we stuck to exploring the lake itself – the first body of water I’ve ever crisscrossed on its entirely frozen surface. It seems to be favorite pastime for tourists and locals alike – including parents with strollers out for a walk! And there is nothing better than wrapping up the day sampling local specialties at the rustic lakeside Koliba Patria restaurant…

Štrbské Pleso

Family fun on solidly frozen Štrbské Pleso

Štrbské Pleso

The lake frozen as far as eye can see…

Štrbské Pleso

Skiers on a nearby slope

halusky

Slovak specialty: bryndzové halušky, potato dumplings with bryndza sheep cheese and bacon

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