150km (93 miles) E of Zilina; 350km (217 miles) NE of Bratislava
The High Tatras (www.tatry.sk) are Slovakia's biggest tourist draw, and a visit to the country is not complete without seeing these majestic mountains. It's not the hills' height that's so impressive -- the tallest are only in the 2,600m (8,528-ft.) range. Rather it's the way that they vault, so dramatically and out of nowhere, from the flat grasslands around the town of Poprad to their lofty snowcapped peaks.
The High Tatras are commonly called the "world's smallest Alpine range." That's a reference to the relatively short length of the mountain chain, just 30km (about 20 miles) end to end. The Tatras are actually part of the much larger Carpathian range that begins its rise just outside of Bratislava and then draws a wide arc through northern Slovakia, southern Poland, and into Romania.
The High Tatra resorts enjoyed a brief golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the wealthy classes from Hungary, Austria, Germany, and later Czechoslovakia came to ski or to ride out the hot summers in the mountains. Many of the most beautiful buildings, including the two "Grand" hotels in Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica, were built at that time. The two world wars and the decades of Communism afterward put an end to all of that. These days, the High Tatras remain a popular tourist destination for Slovaks, Poles, and, increasingly, Russians, though it's hard to escape that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia for those good old days.
The Tatras have two main tourist seasons, summer hiking and winter skiing. Summer season starts in mid-June, when the trails to the peaks are opened up to the public, and runs through October. The hikes here are some of the best in central Europe, and if you enjoy walking, then pick up some maps and gear and plan on staying at least a few days. In terms of planning, it's possible to base yourself at one the main resorts and do a series of day hikes, or you can hike the complete range, bedding down each night in a series of simple mountain chalets situated at comfortable hiking intervals. For information on booking accommodations in mountain huts, contact the Tourist Information offices .
It's also possible to hike across the peaks into Poland (and you no longer need a passport to do this), but note that the trails in the higher elevations and across the peaks are closed in winter from November 1 until June 15.
Ski season, depending on the weather, starts in mid-December and runs to mid-March. The best skiing is situated near Strbské Pleso, but all three major resorts have lifts and ski-rental facilities.
Most of the best trail heads, hotels, and restaurants are clustered around the three main resort towns, which ring the peaks at an elevation of around 1,000m (3,280 ft.). All are easily reachable by car or electric railroad from the regional capital of Poprad.
At the far western edge is the resort of Strbské Pleso. The word pleso means tarn and refers to the resort's large mountain lake. Strbské Pleso, traditionally, was the most youth oriented of the resorts, and accommodations and restaurants were limited mostly to student-dorm-type facilities. As of this writing, however, the Kempinski Hotel Group was planning to open a massive five-star hotel along the edge of the lake in early 2009. This will certainly take Strbské Pleso upmarket.
The resort of Smokovce, divided into "Starý" (old) Smokovec and "Nový" (new) Smokovec, lies in the middle and is about 18km (11 miles) east of Strbské Pleso. Starý Smokovec has the largest station on the Tatra electric railroad and is a main junction for reaching the other resorts. This is the liveliest resort and has the best hotel and restaurant facilities. It's also close to the Hrebienok funicular, and makes a great base for hiking in the peaks.
The third of the bigger resorts is Tatranská Lomnica, about 6km (3 3/4 miles) to the east of Starý Smokovec. Tatranská Lomnica is quieter and boasts two of the area's best hotels. It's also close to the cable car to reach the peak of Lomnický Stít (2,634m/8,640 ft.). One disadvantage is that you'll have to travel a bit to get to the best hiking trails.
One note about the environment: A powerful windstorm struck the High Tatras in 2004, knocking down tens of thousands of trees in a matter of minutes. The damage was greatest in the area between Strbské Pleso and Starý Smokovec. The authorities have done a good job clearing trees where they could and all of the trails are open, but you'll still notice extensive damage, especially in the lower ranges. Sadly, it will take a generation to fully restore the mountains to their former glory, but the beauty of the peaks and upper elevations remains intact.