A European ski holiday is never going to be cheap, but the resorts of Slovakia, a land of picture-perfect castles and mountains in the heart of Europe, offer good value when compared to some of the continent’s better-known ski spots.
The Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras is perfectly situated for skiing in the small resort of Strbske Pleso, which offers incredible views and nine kilometres of family-friendly ski runs. I’ve always thought of this hotel as something of a hidden gem, considering the quality on offer for the money charged. Did it live up to expectations on my third visit?
Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras is a five-star, 98-bed hotel located in the village of Strbske Pleso, a ski and health resort in the north of Slovakia, close to the Polish border.
The nearest major airports are Bratislava (3.5 hours away, but limited air service), Krakow (3 hours) Vienna (4 hours) or Budapest (also around 4 hours).
It is possible to fly into the nearby Poprad airport, located just 30 kms away, but there are just a handful of flights available (to/ from London Luton, Kiev and Riga).
We came via road from Budapest, and the journey was hassle free, as well as scenic.
Kempinski High Tatras is the most luxurious hotel in the surrounding region and is formed of three separate buildings, the oldest of which dates back to 1893.
It boasts a beautiful lakeside setting and is walking distance to some very nice local restaurants serving inexpensive Slovakian cuisine (cheese and dumplings feature heavily - perfect after a day on the slopes).
Its major appeal is for those who want to take in amazing alpine views, and enjoy the great outdoors.
Making a reservation turned into a bit of a saga, as we wanted to book two adults and two children in one room for a five-night stay. This isn’t possible, either directly on the hotel’s website, or via online travel agents, which prompted us to book two rooms when we searched for a 2+2 booking.
I ended up contacting Katrin Knoll, the hotel’s general manager, who suggested that, if we book a suite, she would allow us to have two additional beds in the room for an additional charge.
I went ahead and booked a suite (for two adults) on hotels.com, in order to reduce the total price of the stay by using some of my free night credits, but the Kempinski subsequently told me they would only allow me to have the extra beds in one room if I booked directly.
After we pushed back, the hotel relented and agreed to honour our hotels.com booking.
We ended up paying €360 per night for the suite before the hotels.com discount - which is not over the top when compared to the rates charged by fancy resort hotels in Switzerland or Austria.
The children’s beds were chargeable at €40 per bed, per night (which I thought was pretty steep).
On arrival, you are immediately hit by the delightful scent of cedar wood burning in an open fire in the hotel lobby.
Check in was smooth, and we were invited to enjoy a glass of local sparkling or mulled wine while our bags were sent up to the room.
We had a bit of trouble finding our way to the room, but that’s probably due to not listening properly to the instructions given by the front desk!
The lobby area is large, features ample seating for those who want to sit and relax by the fire and was warm and cosy in contrast to the snow and freezing conditions outside. Ski maps and other leaflets can be found in the lobby.
Parking was included in our stay but otherwise costs €30 per day for outside, or €40 per day for parking in garage.
Check in is from 3pm, check out is at 12pm. We were helped with our luggage, both on arrival and on departure.
Our suite was located in the historic wing of the hotel - one of the three buildings that form the hotel. We needed to take two different lifts to access the room from the main building that contains the restaurant, reception and the bar.
As expected, our room featured a large double bed and the two extra beds were already set up. Waiting on the spare beds were special robes and slippers for the children, which was a nice touch.
All the beds were very comfortable.
The room was huge, and everybody was excited when we realised there was a staircase hiding behind a set of curtains in one corner of the room.
Running upstairs, we discovered a turret with far-reaching views across the valley. Some suites feature private hot tubs, though we weren’t so lucky.
There was a welcome gift including a bottle of very nice Slovakian red wine, Haribo sweets and fresh fruit. There was also a personal letter from the general manager.
Considering the size of the suite, the bathroom was small and it was difficult to manage with the four of us using the room for nearly a week. There was no separate WC as you will find in other hotel suites.
There was free, open internet in the room, as well as all public areas of the hotel, with no password required.
Our in-room mini bar was stocked with complimentary water, juices and soft drinks, though the snacks (Pringles and M&Ms) were chargeable.
Kempinski hotels offer free milk and cookies for children, which we took advantage of several times during our stay.
Housekeeping service was our only real gripe with the hotel. Every day, the maids would leave dirty coffee cups in the room, and would never replace any of the dirty items that they did remove. This meant numerous calls to request new plates, glasses, cutlery etc.
The in-room coffee was also quite poor - only instant sachets were available. A stand-alone coffee machine in the room has become the standard in luxury hotel rooms these days.
There was no shortage of seats!
The 1,300 sq m2 Zion spa and pool complex is absolutely fantastic and the mountain views simply cannot be beaten.
During this stay, however, the pool area was very busy and it was sometimes necessary to wait to get a seat round the pool during the late afternoon and early evening peak. Our visit coincided with UK half term and the hotel was busy with families from the UK and Ireland (which I hadn’t noticed on previous visits).
In the mornings, however, the pool area was much quieter and many seats were free.
Pool-side service is offered, but note that free tap water is not available (instead you can buy a jug of water for €4). There are great mini hot chocolates for the kids (or the young at heart) for €3.50.
During busy periods, however, the pool-side service gets overwhelmed. On multiple occasions we didn’t order drinks because the waitress told us it would take 30 minutes or more to make them, because there were a lot of other orders before us.
At busy times such as this, the hotel really should provide extra help (if only so that they can sell more drinks!).
Beyond the pool is the adults-only spa area, featuring a steam bath, Finnish sauna, caldarium and a tropical and arctic rain shower. It is a real sanctuary away from the noise of the pool!
As in many European hotels, you are expected to remove your swimming clothes in the sauna facilities.
There’s also an adults-only seating area next to the pool, where you can enjoy the views and the peace and quiet.
Food and drink
Breakfast is included for all guests and consists of a high-quality buffet with a wide selection of items, served in the hotel’s Grand Restaurant (where dinner and lunch is also served on a chargeable basis).
The breakfast buffet is available from 7am until 11am each day and packed breakfasts are available to order for those who are heading out early.
On the first morning, we went to breakfast at 8.30am and the restaurant was very busy, though this may have been a one-off as it was much quieter on subsequent days.
As you enter, it’s possible to pick up a newspaper, including a print-out of that day’s (UK) Times, which I thought was impressive.
Classical music plays in the restaurant and as you survey the buffet you will find fruits and yogurt, meats and cheeses, hot breakfast items, as well as cakes and pastries and a selection of cereals.
Sparkling wine is available and it’s also possible to squeeze your own fresh orange juice.
In addition to the buffet, guests can order additional items a-la-carte - some free, others chargeable. The kids loved the made-to-order pancakes (free), serviced with a huge dollop of chocolate spread, cream and fresh fruits.
There’s also a mini kids buffet which has a sparkling fruit juice served in a champagne bucket so the children don’t miss out.
For those who really want to push the boat out, it’s possible to order, with 24 hours’ notice, an ‘Emperor’s Breakfast’ priced at €400 for two people. Included in the menu is a bottle of Louis Roederer champagne, wagyu-kobe beef tenderloin, foie gras and omelette with truffle shavings.
As we had children with us, we didn’t eat other meals in the Grand Restaurant, which can accommodate up to 116 guests and boasts one of the largest wine cellars in the region.
We were tempted to order room service one night, but the menu seemed expensive (as you would expect), but also limited in choice.
Another evening we ate in the bar, which is cosy and had a live singer when we visited. We had some nice cocktails, including a Bourbon Maker’s Mark with honey and egg white (€10.80).
The burger and “steak chips” served in the bar (€19.50) was just OK, and the chips tasted like low-quality frozen ones that needed a few more minutes in the fryer.
Kempinski offers a free shuttle bus to the nearby ski resort, taking just five minutes and leaving every 20 minutes during the morning time. You just need to call for a pick up when you are ready to return.
A couple of well-stocked games rooms featuring books, a pool table, as well as traditional games such as chess and draughts.
In another room there is a wii console (go to reception for the controls); children can also let off some steam in the play area.
The Kempinski also offers a gym, which didn’t seem to be used much during our stay (not surprising, when you see the views from the pool!).
Massages and treatments can be booked at the Zion Spa, with treatments starting from €50 (though most are most expensive). An aroma stone massage, for example, costs €109 for 60 minutes, or €139 for 90 minutes.
The hotel is dog-friendly and we saw a number of guests with their four-legged friends (though dogs are not allowed in the bar or restaurants). Surcharges costing up to €50 per day are charged to guests with dogs.
Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras is still one of my favourite European hotels, though I was irritated by how difficult and expensive it was to book a room for two adults and two children.
The hotel did a great job catering for the children and we appreciated their robes, milk and cookies, as well as special items for kids on the breakfast buffet.
Breakfast is very good, but the quality of the food in the bar could have been higher.
The pool and spa is unmissable, but on this visit was very busy and extra resources are needed at the pool-side bar.
The Kempinski is a great hotel (hence my three visits) and I would love to visit in summer to enjoy walking and cycling in the area. Its also great that you can access local restaurants serving inexpensive meals nearby.
Where do you like to stay for a luxury European ski holiday, and are you tempted to try the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras?