When the pilot said we would be circling for 10 minutes as they cleared a big dump of snow off the runway I started to feel optimistic. After speeding through the tiny and efficient airport and being told the first resort was no more than 15 minutes away, I was starting to smile. When we actually arrived at Krvavec 10 minutes later and saw nearly a metre of the fresh white stuff I was stunned…
This was barely a two-hour flight from Luton. I was in the Alps and the small but perfectly formed resort seemed like some wonderful fantasy. Then I checked out the price list above the ski pass booth and I was convinced this was a dream. A four-day pass, taking in three different resorts, was €116 – just 86 British pounds. Later I discovered a really good lunch of homemade stew was less than £3, a beer £1.50, and it was served in a rustic, wooden restaurant overlooking a barely populated piste. Dream on.
It just kept getting better. The surprise overnight blast of snow had left the resort, stretching over three peaks with more than 20-odd runs, covered in un-groomed, fluffy snow as if the whole place was off-piste. There were no queues and the sun was shining.
So where is this wonderland, where you can leave London in the morning and be on the slopes before lunch – where you could sneak off for a long weekend skiing for less than the cost of a couple of days in Brighton? The flight time from the UK is shorter than most nausea-inducing coach transfers alone in other Alpine destinations. The food’s good, the wine (particularly the white) excellent and most of the time you will be skiing in a protected national park.
The answer is Slovenia. The little known country that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, tucked into the eastern spread of the Alps bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Covering 20,273 square kilometres, more than half of which is forested, this country is home to just over two million people, and from its tiny Mediterranean stretch of coast you can just about see Venice across the Adriatic on a good day. Stretching north and east from its pretty capital Ljubljana is the wild Triglav National Park with a smattering of ski resorts.
This is the Julian Alps, generally lower than its western counterparts but equally attractive. The resort most well known to other Europeans is Kranjaska Gora just across the border from Austria, which is Slovenia’s biggest ski resort and the most like a traditional Alpine ski holiday destination. The nearest to the airport (8km) is Krvavec and in the heart of the forest is my favourite, Vogel overlooking Bohinj Lake. There are seven other resorts, which the local tourist authorities describe as ‘big’ and nearly 40 others, which can be as basic as a farmer running a tractor-powered lift.
Of course, nowhere is perfect and every wonderland has its foibles and flaws. First off you have to realise that you are not going to get the range and extent of skiing that you get from Slovenia’s more well-known neighbours. The Julian Alps are also lower and therefore the season can be shorter, plus, the infrastructure is not what you would find in France. You are very dependent on natural conditions too, with far fewer snow makers than you would find in more popular destinations. And most important of all, the individual resorts are small, with the biggest, Kransjska Gora, having only a total of 30 km of pisted runs.
Europe’s fly-in resort?
We flew into the small airport that serves Ljubljana and our first stop was Krvavec which is the closest ski resort to an international airport in Europe – 8 km and on Slovenia’s empty roads about 10 minutes. It is also just 25 km from the capital Ljubljana and attracts a fair number of weekend skiers. It has 30 km of runs of which the bulk are not too demanding reds. In Alpine terms Krvavec seems low lying (from 1,450m to 1,971m) which is about average for the area but unlike some other Slovenian resorts it has extensive artificial snow making capabilities, extending its season to an average of 130 days compared to about 100 in most other resorts in the country.
But lack of snow certainly wasn’t our problem – quite the opposite, with the resort swamped by more than a metre in the early hours after a very lean month. While the sun was shining on the runs that were open it was glorious. Quite a few locals had bunked off work and there was a party atmosphere of everyone enjoying the snow and sun. Winter sports are something of a national obsession here – per capita Slovenia came second only to Norway in the 2014 Winter Olympics medals table. But during our visit the weather closed in and strong winds shut some of the higher lifts limiting our options. Krvavec has more black runs than any other Slovenia resort but most were off-limits as the winds grew.
The next day was sunny and it was a 30-minute drive through the forests of the Triglav National Park to Vogel. You get up to the resort in a dramatic and steep gondola ride which seems to ascend virtually vertically for five minutes with stunning views of Lake Bohinj and the national park – named after Slovenia’s highest peak at 2,864m. The base is at 1,500m and is dotted with wooden refuge huts, a couple of restaurants and a small hotel. The resort is small with just 22 km of piste and the highest point is Postaja Sija at 1,800m, reached by a retro one-man chair-lift. The first 1,000m are heavily forested with pretty tree runs.
While snowfall is fairly good, particularly in January and February, there is at present no artificial snow-making. However, the resort is confident that it has found a way through the maze of national park regulations, and work starts next year to install a system. You are very weather dependent here not only on the runs, but off-piste too, as avalanche risk can be high with the wrong set of conditions – in our case lots of early snow, a big gap and then a large dump. But in the right conditions I am assured it is fantastic and there are a number of guides ready to take you through the trees and beyond in the 78 hectare park.
There is a small snow park with a handful of tubes, rails and jumps, which keeps the local boarders busy. In fact, most of the voices you will hear are local and the vibe is friendly and very laid back. This is the ideal resort for those who are willing to jump on a cheap flight and travel independently – the only Brits I met were doing just that and loving it. In the right conditions you can have a day or two of wonderful skiing or boarding in a quiet and extremely cute resort and feel as if you have discovered somewhere magical. And if the conditions aren’t right then you can move on to Kranjska Gora an hour’s drive up towards Austria.
Home from home
Kranjska feels far more like a traditional holiday ski resort attracting far more foreign visitors – some package firms even fly guests to Salzburg and coach them the three hours plus across the border to the resort. There are busy nursery slopes with children learning in view of parents on overlooking hotel terraces. A good range of slopes run in a fairly straight line along a mainly south facing slope and include a World Cup slalom.
As in most of Slovenia there are plenty of drag lifts (13 to 6 chairs) and this is the nearest you are going to get to a queue. The old town is charming and there is a fairly long spread of modern international hotels with a few casinos for the Italian punters. The resort is low (810m to 1,295m) and the season rarely extends as far as the Easter holidays.
But if you want to explore a few family-scale, very charming resorts in a country bursting with culture and wonder then Slovenia has few peers and none at the bargain prices you will find there.