In these uncertain financial times, it might be logical to turn to new, less expensive pastures for the annual ski holiday. Destinations in Eastern Europe pride themselves on low prices, and certainly visits to Bulgaria, Romania and the others all look delightfully enticing when viewed online or in glossy brochures. Value is undeniable, the welcome is genuine, après-ski is lively (and cheap) and thousands of British visitors have a great time each winter.
So why don’t we all forsake Courchevel, St Anton, Zermatt and the rest, save ourselves a lot of money and go East? The main reason is that, with the noted exception of Jasná in Slovakia, none of these alternative destinations compare on crucial markers to even the modest destinations in the Alps. In terms of terrain, size of ski area as well as number and quality of lifts they don’t make the Alpine grade. Just as important is the question of snow. Cover in these destinations tends to be nowhere near as reliable as in the higher resorts of France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. The best time to visit Eastern Europe is in late January or February.
However, for an affordable holiday in beautiful surroundings, with the opportunity to experience some wholly different cultures, then one of the destinations listed below could fit the bill. For beginners, the standard of teaching is generally good, but do always insist on having a teacher who speaks good English. On the other hand, more experienced skiers and snowboarders should not expect to find their familiar Alpine holiday experience at a much cheaper price.
Unless otherwise stated, prices are per person for seven nights, based on two sharing a double or twin room.
Best for beginners
Poland’s main ski resort is situated at the foot of the Tatra Mountains along the Slovak border, with train links to Poprad Tatry airport in Slovakia, which is served by direct flights from Luton airport. Zakopane’s slopes are fairly basic in challenge, best suited to beginners and low intermediates, and waterfalls, lakes and rivers add to the beautiful landscape.
Zakopane has five small ski areas covered by one lift pass, three of which are floodlit until 10pm daily. Of the three areas in and around the town, Nosal offer beginners the ideal place to learn and intermediates a chance to prepare before tackling steeper runs.
Anyone more experienced should head out of town to the other two areas. Bialka Tatrzanska is about 30 minutes by bus and offers 18km of steeper slopes, bump runs and longer pistes. Alternatively travel 2km south to Kuznice where there is a cable-car to the top of the Kasprowy Wierch peak with 11.5km of pistes, which is popular with freeriders. All the areas are linked by free ski bus.
The town itself is made up of fine fin-de-siècle villas and contrastingly more modern buildings. Most of the action takes place on Krupowki, the main pedestrianised street which boasts an eclectic choice of restaurants and lively bars. You are never far from a band in full national dress pounding out folk music.
Where to stay
The comfortable four-star Hotel Nosalowy Park is located at the foot of Nosal has a spa, swimming-pool and three restaurants, and the town centre is 2.5 km away by ski bus. From £247 B&B with Snowtrex excluding travel. Return Wizzair flights from Luton to Poprad from £49.
Best for intermediates
Špindlerův Mlýn, Czechia
Špindlerův Mlýn in Czechia – aka the Czech Republic – is the best destination for those wanting to combine a ski or snowboard holiday with a city break in Prague or the delightful second city of Brno. It’s also the most popular ski resort in Czechia’s Giant Mountains, with buildings dating back to the 1920s that retain some of the atmosphere of the era to go with it. While it has the biggest ski area of any resort in Czechia, Splinder is a low-key place with a reasonable choice of hotels and a handful of bars and restaurants.
The ski area is made up of Medvedín and Svatý Petr, which stretch out from both sides of the resort giving a total 28km of piste with 23 lifts. The pistes are mainly graded red, but there are also some blues and blacks. Other nearby ski areas (on separate lift passes), can be easily reached by ski bus.
Sněžka, 7km away, is the highest highest mountain in Czechia, with an altitude of 1,600m, in an area of jagged stone ridges and mountain lakes and home to the source of the River Elbe.
The best way to get there is to fly to Prague, then take the train to Dolni Branna, the nearest station, 17km away. A return taxi from here to the resort costs approximately £45.
Where to stay
The three-star Hotel Tri Ruže is located in the centre of Špindlerův Mlýn with facilities including a rustic restaurant, bar, café, and terrace. From £376 with SnowTrex, including lift pass. Excludes travel.
Best for experts, on piste and off
Jasná is the largest and most challenging ski area in Slovakia, offering the best all-round slopes in Eastern Europe. It’s a destination with sufficient terrain and facilities to keep even expert skiers and snowboarders blissfully happy.
From the nearest airport at Poprad, served by Wizzair from Luton, it’s a 45-minute drive to the resort, which is a small purpose-built village. Lifts rise from both sides of the mountain and hotels, shops, bars and restaurants have sprung up around these bases.
The 49km ski area is served by five modern gondolas and five high-speed chairlifts among its 28 lifts, and there is also a good choice of modern hotels and attractive restaurants. The pisted area covers both the north and south sides of 2,024m Mount Chopok.
Half the runs are intermediate level blues and reds, while 27 per cent are advanced black runs – more than in most Eastern European resorts. There are also substantial off-piste freeride zones that are mainly avalanche protected as well as two terrain parks. The south side is mostly blue and red runs while the north side accesses more challenging slopes and freeride terrain.
Where to stay
The Dragon’s Lair is a comfortable chalet sleeping 19 by an Australian-Slovakian husband and wife team, 10-minute’s drive from the lifts in the courtesy shuttle. There’s a sauna and outdoor hot tub, with massage and yoga bookable, and a bar/restaurant open to the public on the ground floor. From £570 B&B with Jasna Adventures, including après drinks, lift pass, equipment hire and transfers from Poprad. Excludes flights.
Best for off-piste adventuring
Gudauri is a 144km drive from Tbilisi airport, set at a high altitude of 2,196m, with slopes going up to 3,279m, and the ski season runs from mid-December to the end of April. Tbilisi is served by Georgian Airways from London Gatwick, and airport transfers are bookable in advance.
While Gudauri has 14 lifts and over 70km of runs, and lift-served off-piste opportunities most international visitors come for the heliskiing, which is on offer throughout the ski season from €180 for one 900m-vertical run, including mountain guide and safety equipment. To guarantee a place it’s worth booking in advance via the resort website, but it’s also possible to book in resort at Gudauri Travel bar, the resort’s main apres hub, opposite the casino. Gudauri has grown massively in recent years with new hotels and apartments, lively bars and restaurants serving exotic Georgian cuisine which has influences from Greece and Turkey as well as Iran.
Where to stay
The four-star Marco Polo hotel is 100 metres from the lifts and has a swimming-pool, spa and children’s playroom. From €847 per double room B&B with Gudauri Travel. Return airport transfers from €91 for up to three passengers with Get Transfer.
Best for snow-sure slopes
Popova Sapka, Macedonia
This mainly mountainous part of the former Yugoslavia has an excellent snow record and good cover is virtually guaranteed from January until March. Popova Sapka is in the north-west of the country, 90 minutes/99km from the airport at Skopje, served by direct Wizzair flights from Luton, and is the best developed and the most popular of half a dozen little resorts in the region.
At 10km of runs the groomed ski area is tiny but the real draw here is the off piste. Some 100sq km of terrain above 1,700m makes Popova Sapka powder heaven. Croatian-born Tomislav Tiska set up snowcat operation Eskimo Freeride in 2008. His machine takes just 15 minutes to climb 900 vertical metres and takes visitors up to 2,700m, from where they can explore glorious, untracked powder, accessible only by snowcat.
A chairlift rises from the resort up to 2,510m and a choice of two easy runs comes back down or a gentle traverse heads over to a cluster of drag lifts that form most of the uphill transport. There’s a ski school and equipment rental, but Popova itself is little more than a base area, with restaurants and bars mainly in the hotels. A week on the piste would be too long for all but the wobbliest of intermediates, but combined with one or two days on the snowcat, it makes a fine alternative winter break.
Where to stay
The newly renovated Hotel Arena, which has a spa, is just under 2km from the ski area and bookable through Eskimo Freeride from €200 full board for six nights including wine and snowcat-rides with a guaranteed minimum of 2,500m of runs per day. Mountain guide, avalanche transceiver and airbag are provided. Eskimo can organise an optional extra night in Skopje at the end of the trip, including accommodation, a meal in a traditional restaurant and après drinks for €60 a head. Eskimo can also arrange Skopje airport transfers from €40 return.
Best for western familiarity
Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
To local disgust, Slovenia’s best-known resort is habitually described as a “poor man’s Austria”, but it is appropriate. Slovenia looks westwards rather than eastwards to the Balkans. Consequently, Kranjska Gora’s chalet-style architecture and cosy ambience closely resembles that of its more familiar neighbouring country.
The attractive village is conveniently set right at the foot of the ski area, in a pretty, flat-bottomed valley between craggy wooded mountains in the Julian Alps. The nearest airport is a 60-minute drive away at Ljubljana. Kranjska has considerable charm and a level of sophistication that puts it on a par with similarly sized Austrian or Italian resorts such as Niederau in Austria and Madesimo in Italy.
The ski area rises directly above the village, which has 20km of largely unchallenging runs, which tend to be on the short side and lack variety. The exception – snow permitting – is the steep Podkoren black run that regularly features as a slalom course for World Cup races. As in other east European resorts, snow cover is sometimes questionable, but there is extensive snowmaking.
Overall, Kranjska Gora well suits budget-conscious families with young children as the nursery slopes are central and facilities and hotels are all near the pistes. It also suits intermediates looking for lively après in high season and a good selection of restaurants at reasonable prices – but nothing too challenging on the slopes.
Where to stay
The Best Western Kranjska Gora (formerly the Hotel Lek) has been newly refurbished for 2019/20. It is in a quiet yet convenient spot 300m from the lifts and close to the town centre. From £579 with Inghams.
Best for après ski
Poiana Brasov, Romania
Located in the Carpathian mountains a three-hour drive north of Bucharest, and 12km by bus from the medieval town of Brasov, Poiana Brasov is the only resort in Romania with international appeal. Dracula’s Castle is a 23km drive from the resort and well worth a visit.
The country suffered appallingly at the hands of Nicolae Ceauşescu, its leader from 1965 until 1989, when he was deposed and executed. In the post-Communist era, winter sports were hampered by lack of investment but now they’re thriving.
There’s a good choice of hotels at the base of the slopes and the standard of accommodation and quality of cuisine is high. At the weekly resort-organised barbecue, flaming bear steaks are served up with a background of folk dancing. Brasov has a good range of low-cost shops, a fine 15th-century church and lively nightlife.
With 25km of pistes is served by modern lifts, the ski area is strictly for beginners and low intermediates – strong intermediates and experts will run out of slopes in a day. However, the 12 pistes are sufficient to keep novices busy for a week, lessons are cheap and the standard of tuition (usually in fluent English) in all three ski schools is high.
The biggest worry is snow cover, which rarely exceeds half a metre, and in a dry winter it can suffer badly at the start of a season that doesn’t extend beyond March. But a large chunk of the recent investment has been in snowmaking, and given low enough temperatures the main runs are now secure.
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Sport & Spa is at the foot of the slopes and has a pool, gym, sauna and outdoor hot tub as well as its own ski school and rental shop. From £624 with Balkan Holidays.
Best for luxury
Luxury and ski resorts in Eastern Europe don’t normally go together, but Bansko is home to the only Kempinski in a Bulgarian ski town. That said, it shouldn’t be compared with Kempinski, St Moritz, for example – it is very much the Bulgarian version! Bansko is two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Sofia airport, in the Pirin Mountains, close to the Macedonian and Greek borders. On a clear day there are views of the Aegean Sea.
The original town below the more recently constructed resort village features old stone buildings and cobbled streets and has always been popular with tourists. Bansko itself is a modern resort, with 75km of varied intermediate slopes covering two mountains and 16 lifts that include a six-person chairlift, four quad chairs and a gondola, which goes up to the main mountain from the top end of town.
Nursery slopes are reached from the gondola mid-station as well as at the top of the ski area, and higher up, there is enough to challenge intermediates for a week, provided snow conditions are good. However, the gondola is prone to heavy queues at peak times (which means it’s best to avoid visiting over Christmas and New Year) and the return journey to town is a 7km push down a blue path.
There is a lively, some might say wild, après scene, though. In the old town the utilitarian cafés and Dickensian-era shops that served the needs of local folk before mass tourism have been replaced by boutiques, wine bars and pizzerias. There are also plenty of traditional pubs called mehanas (often with live music). All in all, it’s a fun place.
Where to stay
The five-building Kempinski Grand Hotel Arena is at the foot of the slopes close to the access gondola, and has two restaurants and bars. The spa has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, hot tubs, gym, and treatments available. From £620 B&B with Sno.
Best for village charm
Just about every photo of Pamporovo features the ugly TV mast that dominates Snejanka, the high point of the ski area, but the village below has real rural charm and traditional ski resort appeal. It makes a great first or second winter-sports holiday without breaking the bank.
The resort is set in delightful Bulgarian countryside, 100km from the border with Greece and one hour and 45 minutes from the nearest airport at Plovdiv – this ancient city is a must-visit Unesco World Heritage site. The base of the slopes is a 10-minute ride from the main resort hotels, but there is an efficient free bus service.
Most runs in the 36km ski area are green and blue. A handful of reds and obligatory blacks provide a goal for aspiring intermediates, but none of these present much of a challenge. The longest run of 4km, suitable for intermediates but not for beginners, goes down to the old village and the alternative accommodation base of Stoykite, located in blissfully tranquil surroundings.
Overall, tumbledown stone cottages, rolling meadows and forest form a pastoral symphony so sweet and enduring that the hamlet of Gela (6km away) is said to be the mythical birthplace of Orpheus. The local ski school has a solid reputation with lessons in English.
Pamporovo itself is lively at peak times, a party place with a couple of good restaurants and plenty of bars fuelled by some of the cheapest alcohol prices in Europe. As in other Eastern European resorts, snow cover can be uncertain, especially before Christmas and after mid-March, but snowmaking covers 90 per cent of the slopes.
Where to stay
Hotel Orlovetz in the resort centre has a free shuttle bus for the five-minute trip to the slopes, a pool and a spa area with steam room, sauna, and treatment rooms. From £635 full board with Crystal Ski.
Best for stunning scenery
The ski resort of Bohinj is made up of several villages, set around the lake of the same name with two main separate ski areas above it that are accessible on the same lift pass. The nearby town of Bled, with its fairytale castle tends to hog the limelight as one of Slovenia’s top resorts. But while Bled has plenty of accommodation and acts a major bed base for the region it has only a tiny beginner area. The main ski action lies 27km away here at Bohinj and in another, even more beautiful, lakeside setting.
Bohinj’s main Vogel ski area has 22km of pistes served by eight lifts , including long and wide blue runs help to boost beginners’ confidence, and there are red runs for intermediates. However, anyone more advanced will find the area rather limited. That said, Vogel’s snow park is among the best in Slovenia and suitable for all levels. Kobla, the country’s oldest ski area at the other end of the lake, has the most charm and six lifts serving 23km of runs including a long steep black that used to be an FIS downhill course.
Hotels are scattered in the various villages and small towns around the lake. The largest of these is Bohinjska Bistrica which has a railway station. Overall Bohinj is a beautiful spot for a relaxed holiday in natural surroundings with a little gentle snow sport. It is not, however, the place for vibrant après ski.
Where to stay
Located on the banks of the Bohinj Lake, with views of the surrounding Julian Alps, the four-star Jezero Hotel has an indoor swimming-pool, sauna, gym and massage room. From £414 with Balkan Holidays.