The High Tatras Mountain Resorts − Starý Smokovec: the Funicular to Hrebienok

Mountain resorts are an occasionally unerring type of destination. They represent the most straightforward ways, on paper, of accessing the prime mountain country of any given destination. But the flip side of that is that they can appear austere and inauthentic tourist centres, full of people milling around but not actually knowing how to inject life into their trip (or people content in just milling around: fine if you fit into that category but then this probably isn’t the article for you!).

Starý Smokovec can be like that. Its age-old charm (it was, after all, the original mountain resort here, dating back to the late 19th century) ensures it is the suavest place to stay in these parts. There are some very decent restaurants around too. Yet it as neither as obviously in the mountains as Štrbské Pleso (where it’s more apparent how to at least get up to the namesake lake for a flavour of the surrounding Alpine scenery), and has less to do than Tatranská Lomnica (where a good museum and the cable car ride of the country, up to Slovakia’s second-highest peak, Lomnický štít, await). The bottom line is that if you are just-arrived in Starý Smokovec and want to get up towards the tops of those peaks looming above your guesthouse or hotel window, 19th century architecture and nice places to eat will not divert your attention too long. 

From the Tatras Mountain Railway station (with direct connections from Poprad’s mainline railway station every hour), it’s a couple of blocks’ walk up to the funicular railway station to Hrebienok, via this route. Taking the funicular up to Hrebienok is the sure-fire way to get up and into cracking mountain scenery quickly. It’s one of the few funicular railways in the Slovak mountains (most transport up into the peaks is by cable car or chair lift). The regularity of the Starý Smokovec-Hrebienok connections also means this is a plausible half-day trip (time for a bite to eat in the Hrebienok funicular station restaurant and a stroll around).

For the 8-minute trip up to Hrebienok, you’ll part with 8 Euros one-way or 9 Euros return trip, with daily trains leaving on average half-hourly between 8:30am and 4:30pm (in the summer season between June 1st and October 1st, 7:30am to 7pm). (In February trains only run at weekends and in March just Monday through Friday).

Hrebienok, honoured with a visit from Queen Elizabeth a few years back, is little more than a glorified funicular station, although the restaurant inside serves good food. Here, however, you are at an elevation of 1,285m, and surrounded by gorgeous high-altitude pine forest, with the serious climbs to the peaks at your fingertips. You are ideally poised for any number of hikes, including on Stage Three of the Tatranská Magistrala multi-day hike across the High Tatras (north on an easyish hike to Zamkovského Chata and west on a tougher trek to Popradské Pleso and Štrbské Pleso… an exciting place for hikers to be…

 

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Stará Lesna: Hotel Horizont Hits the High-End Accommodation Scene

The Grand Opening...

To many manic drum rolls, not to mention a spectacular light show, a traditional Eastern Slovak Orthodox blessing and the release of several doves into the High Tatras night, Hotel Horizont, Slovakia’s latest luxury hotel, officially opened last Thursday evening – and under precisely the mountainous backdrop depicted!

It was a noteworthy occasion for several reasons.

Hotel Horizont’s location, in Stará Lesna just below the traditional “big three” mountain resorts in the High Tatras (the Smokovec resorts, Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso for your information), deservedly catapults Stará Lesna up to the status of mountain resort too. The pretty village of pastille-hued houses straddling a single street sits a couple of kilometres below Tatranská Lomnica, the nearest stop on the Tatras Electric Railway (and as well as being connected by road is also linked by a very pleasant woodland walk). It’s a far more undisturbed community than the sometimes hectic touristy villages of Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso) but is positioned at the very beginning of the foothill forests of the mountains, meaning that the landscape to the north, just as with the “big three”, has protected status.

Four-star hotels do not open in the High Tatras (or in Slovakia, for that matter) every day, either. The “big three” each sport one top-end resort – most notably Grandhotel Kempinski on the lakeshore above Štrbské Pleso – and each of these is a veritable grand dame. But the Horizont, despite its significantly more modern appearance, is comparable for quality and unlike the others, it’s an utter individual: and not a part in any way of an international chain.

The Inside Perspective

Colour-wise, the interior is flecked geometric greys, reflecting the grains of the crystalline Slovak stone which themes the decoration in the public areas and the rooms. The reception ushers you through spaciously to a bar with a terrace overlooking the lofty peaks. Off to the right is arguably the hotel highlight: a gorgeous English-style cigar snug bar designed by renowned Humenné wood specialists and constructed entirely with glossy oak. Behind that, the restaurant is already gaining a reputation for its scrumptious hriba polievka (mushroom soup). As reception is on the second floor, it’s easy to miss upon first arrival the beautiful ground floor pool, poolside bar and fitness centre…

A beer with a view…

The rooms (six floors of them all told) are a tad above average size for a four-star joint: the tasteful modern decoration extends here too. None of the rooms have baths, which is perhaps the sole disadvantage but they do have balconies, which even rooms at the “big three’s” biggest hotels often lack. However, with the pool below and – another candidate for Horizont’s pièce de resistance – with the seventh floor rooftop sauna and Jacuzzi with their birds-eye view out towards the soaring summits of Gerlachovský štit and Lomnicky štit, pampering at this place is never more than a stone’s throw distant.

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The cigar lounge…

Why to Stay in a Nutshell

Perhaps, to synopsise why a stay here should be a part of your High Tatras holiday, Hotel Horizont must best be described as tranquil, modern, affordable mountain resort luxury: these six words put it in a category all of its own. Grandhotel Kempinki puts a hefty price tag on its sumptuousness; neither the best digs that the Smokovec resorts or Tatranská Lomnica can offer come close for modernity.

And at the same time, the mountaintops (the highest accessible point in Slovakia for non-professional climbers, no less) are a 25-minute walk and an unforgettable cable car trip away.

The Hike to the to Lomnicky štit Cable Car

To hike to Tatranská Lomnica and the cable car station up to Lomnicky štit, turn left out of the hotel’s main entrance and walk along the dead-end lane passing one other hotel (to your left) and skirt on a trackway to the left of a second hotel. A gravelled path then continues in the same direction of through woodland. Follow the gravelled path to cross the Tatras Electric Railway and after more woodland turn left on the road into Tatranská Lomnica.

Along this road, a pavement-path follows the right-hand edge. The main road eventually turns to the left but proceed on the path through a small park to come out on the left-hand side of Reštauracia Stará Mama. Turn right on the pedestrian precinct to reach Tatranská Lomnica’s Tatras Electric Railway station (where you can take the train to Starý Smokovec or Štrbské Pleso). Cross the railway line to ascend to the main road at the left-hand edge of the village’s gorgeously maintained main park (where, turning left, you will pass a historic ski museum (good fun!), the tourist office and the sky-blue Penzión Encian (on the right). Just after this point, by which you will see the cable car complex above you, turn right on the road up to the cable car – where a new adventure to the second-highest point in Slovakia, Lomnicky štit, begins…

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PRICE: from 110/140 Euros single/double

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High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 (Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata)

Time: Via Red Route to Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours; Via Yellow/Green/Blue Route to Zamkovského Chata: 3.5 Hours; Teryho Chata Out-and-Back From Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours with 30-minute Break for Refreshments at Teryho Chata

Wakey wakey. This is the toughest day of hiking, and not because of the distance. Oh no. This is tough because of the gradient and the vertiginous nature of the path (if you choose to follow the route strictly). It all starts so idyllically. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is in my opinion the jewel of the High Tatras Mountain Houses for its location if nothing else: the water of Zelené Pleso (meaning green lake) is for me for a rich turquoise when you see it in certain lights and as you climb steeply away from it through the surrounding ampitheatre of mountains the first thought is that you wish you weren’t leaving at all.

Anyway, the red trail bends down with the yellow trail around the side of the lake-front terrace of Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, crosses a bridge and then divides, with red going right and yellow left. Now, read this carefully. Both trails can ultimately get you where you want to go on the Tatranská Magistrala. The red trail to the right (the official trail route) is extremely difficult (that’s what we referred to in our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala as “for the experienced only” during its precarious ascent to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou.) The yellow trail to the left then links up with green and blue trails to get you to exactly the same point as the red, i.e Skalnaté Pleso, a lake at 1751 metres with cable car stations both down to Štart (and then the mountain resort of Tatranská Lomnica) and up to the peak of Lomnicky Štit (2633.8 metres and the second-highest summit in the High Tatras after Gerlachovský Štit).

The Red Route and Official Tatranská Magistrala Trail Option

The path starts off well enough, ascending around Zelene Pleso then doubling back high above the forest and the line of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track to reach the small tarn of Čierne Pleso. You’re already way above the snow line here and because you’re in a rift directly below the high peaks the snow here stays thickest and longest, way into June and even July. As it’s melting, it’s especially dangerous because with each step you can plunge down a couple of feet. The path goes across several small snow fields before you even arrive at the most dangerous part, where two gullies both ascend steeply in what looks like the direction of the summit.

The Red Trail: tough

The Red Trail: tough

The left option, which we took first of all, is not the official path and gets pretty hairy pretty quick (only a smidgeon below proper climbing, which with rucksacks and no ropes we were not prepared for). The right option (the actual path) isn’t any easier, ironically. A huge snowfield about four feet deep went right the way up the gully (this was in June, remember) and covered the chains that you really rely upon for support pulling yourself up the slippery rocks. Even if there was no snow, this would be an arduous route, with a difficult descent (invariably in the mist) once you get to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou down to Skalnaté Pleso (we checked this from the other end). Paths are crumbly scree in many places and over waterfalls in others, where a misplaced step could result in a nasty fall. In the end, after three hours plugging away, we had to turn back and take the lower route as snow was covering the trail signs and at the summit the path is not always obvious.

 The Yellow/Green/Blue Trail Lower Option

The yellow trail, beginning as a wide metalled track above a fast-flowing mountain stream (Zeleny Potok), is, despite its lower elevation, a much more beautiful route, winding down through forests. It’s also a mountain bike trail. We soon realised why we’d met no one going up over Sedlo Pod Svištovkou: everyone was taking this sensible lower route and it’s a much more popular path than the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1: Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. The first couple of kilometres are prettiest: then there’s a loop through some of the forest which suffered in the May storms and then the thick forest returns and, an hour from Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, you reach a green trail sign by a small forest shelter.

Now it’s time to stop descending (you’ve come down in height about 275 metres since Chata Pri Zelenom Plese) and ascend again. A 15-minute climb up through woodland plonks you on the blue trail which now, with little possibility to go wrong, ushers you up to Skalnaté Pleso. Still, you climb a good 450 metres on this path and whilst the way is never in doubt as it snakes up through the forest, it’s tough on the knees because it’s built of huge stones like some Inca highway. From the time you join this blue trail, it’s a 1.5 hour climb to Skalnaté Pleso. Just over half-way through, the path kinks as you come onto open moor at a rather idyllic grassy picnic spot. From here you can already see the path cutting up all the way to the observatory at