Winter magic in the Tatras, Poland
Earlier this year, during the February half term, we decided to book a trip to the Tatra Mountains (Tatry) for a winter break in Poland. I was eager to return to the Tatra Mountains after a number of years had passed since my last visit, and to introduce my husband and children to the beauty of Zakopane and the surrounding regions.
We had always been a bit reluctant to go skiing as a family because it felt like it would be hard work, but I was keen for the children to have their first ski lessons in the Polish mountains. Taking my Mama along for the ride, we set off on our adventure. Although we’ve had frequent visits to Poland over the years to cities such as Warsaw, Gdańsk, Kraków and Wrocław, this was the first time that we would all experience Poland in the snow.
The highlight of this slightly last-minute winter family adventure was its affordability, with Poland holding its own currency, złoty and ski lessons and passes coming in considerably less than at better-known ski destinations.
Known as the “winter capital of Poland,” the traditional mountain resort of Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Mountains offer a full array of winter pursuits, from mountain skiing to cross-country skiing, as well as sleigh rides in the snow, Nordic walking, hiking and Snowlandia, the world’s largest snow maze complex.
According to ABTA’s recently published Travel Trend Report, Poland is one of 12 destinations to watch in 2019. Wellness breaks are specifically highlighted: “More people than ever are seeking new ways to alleviate stress, reduce illness and boost wellbeing – with trips globally up 20% since 2015” and Poland is also noted as having “almost 500km of ski slopes, with excellent facilities at a fraction of the cost of those in better-known winter sports destinations.”
Little did I know at the time of booking my trip, that our winter break to the Tatra Mountains would hit two up-and-coming-trends, combining in ‘wellness’ and ‘skiing’ during the same visit.
My last visit to Zakopane in Poland was when I was 13 years old. I had taken part in a student exchange during the summer holidays and my mum was a helper, too. Mum has since been back with friends and for a wedding, but for me, a return visit was long overdue. From my earlier trip, I could remember the warm, deep colours of all the traditional Polish wooden houses and lots of churches.
It was also summertime when I last went and I had memories of endless greenery, spectacular mountain views and dazzling blue skies. The ski lifts, even back then, were working all summer long, taking people on snow-less adventures around the mountains. I remember wondering what it would look like covered in snow. I also remembered the mountain people, called górale, dressed in traditional costumes, selling their home-made produce in makeshift street stalls.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I found that Zakopane had changed so much, with newly refurbished luxury hotels and trendy, folk-inspired ski lodges aplenty. Yet, the mountain people remained just as they were, still by the roadside, selling their homemade produce alongside oszczypek, a type of smoked cheese made from sheep’s milk made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains.
It’s hard to reconcile Zakopane as it was then to how it is now. Outside of Poland, Zakopane used to be a little-known winter retreat. Now, it has almost a new identity; as an attractive mountain resort town, offering cool cafes and modern, thermal health spas and action-packed winter pursuits to a steady stream of visitors.
Back then, as was also the norm, we travelled to Poland by coach. I can still remember the interminably-long and squashed coach journey from Manchester to Zakopane. Luckily, these days, Poland is served exceptionally well by frequent and affordable flights from the U.K. No soggy sandwiches required.
A number of friends had told us about their annual ski holidays to Poland, usually in and around a resort called Białka Tatrańska. Since this was something of a last-minute break, we found that a lot of the resort hotels were fully booked. So instead, we opted to stay at a thermal resort just outside of Zakopane for two nights and then we booked a further four nights in a recently refurbished hotel close to the centre of Zakopane.
Getting to the Tatra Mountains
There are really a couple of options for getting to the Tatra Mountains. The easiest way is to fly to Kraków and arrange a bus or private taxi transfer from there to Zakopane or Białka. Private tour companies operating from Krakow will be only too happy to help you. We struggled to find flights to Kraków and our closest airport here in the U.K. is Luton, so we found that flights to Katowice were much more affordable and easier to come by.
We booked a hire car through the airline and were promised a new vehicle with winter tyres, which allayed our concerns somewhat as to driving to Zakopane. The hire-car was indeed new and comfortable and the roads were easy to navigate.
Katowice and Krakow are about 80 km apart. However, we bypassed Krakow and drove via Wadowice (the birthplace of Pope John Paul II where we found a beautiful museum dedicated to our wonderful Polish pope) and then onto Nowy Targ and to our first stop in Szaflary. There were plenty of places to stop for drinks/snacks and toilet breaks along en route.
Gorący Potok – Szaflary
In Poland, wellness resorts used to be known as ‘sanatoriums’ (as far as I understood from various Polish Aunt’s telling me about them) and people would visit for respite or recovery. Wellness is a concept that Poles value hugely and there’s no shortage of spa and wellness resorts all around the country, with different regions catering to different needs. Spa resorts around the Baltic coast offer sea air, others, the deeply relaxing countryside. In the Tatras, you’ll find thermal mountain waters and crisp, clean air.
I hadn’t done much research when we booked, but I did come across a family-friendly thermal resort on Booking.com called Gorący Potok, with a couple of log-cabins onsite available and so we decided to give it a try. We were rewarded with magical winter views and a big selection of outdoor heated pools and thermal baths.
Each of our cabins had a little kitchenette area, they didn’t offer room service, but there was a canteen and a restaurant onsite. We had breakfast in the restaurant during our stay and a big menu to choose from for dinner with a children’s play area within the restaurant. Meals and drinks were affordable too. We paid on average an additional £50 per evening for 6 of us to eat and drink, which included steaks, desserts and cocktails.
The water itself within the pools and hot tubs was very hot and not all of the pools were suitable for the children. They enjoyed jumping in and out of the warm water from the snow. I was in heaven and simply loved feeling the snow falling on my head and the views of the Tatra Mountains from inside the pools.
This resort would be a great place to visit during the summer, as they have lots of slides and outdoor activities, too. Massages and spa treatments were affordable, too.
All in all, we’d definitely go back here again, though a day-visit or a one-night stay would probably suffice.
Goracy Potok has become a bit of an instagram hot-spot and so by the evening, there are a lot of young couples rather than families. However, given we were the only family staying onsite, there were moments when the resort was closed to the public and we had the whole place to ourselves!
Our next stop was Zakopane itself. The snow was falling thick and fast and there was a bit of traffic on the way in. There’s actually only one main road into Zakopane. One bridge, in particular, sticks in my mind as being the bit that caused all the jams. I had probably sat in the same jam, on the same bridge, in my coach 26 years ago. It did look as though they were working on it. Still, it was a bit of crawl getting into Zakopane and I was pleased we’d broken up the journey by staying in Goracy Potok.
As soon as we hit the outskirts of Zakopane, we began to see more built-up areas with lots of the traditional wooden houses that I had remembered from my earlier visit. Almost everyone has a snowy bee hive in their gardens and there are more and more hotels being built on the outskirts.
Hotel Foluszowy Potok
We found our hotel in Zakopane called Foluszowy Potok very easily and the hotel manager greeted us and helped us to park the car given the snow was so thick. The hotel, which had had a complete refurbishment and had only just opened was incredibly modern, welcoming and spacious. It was just on the outskirts of Zakopane but as such, it was quiet and very relaxed. They had a very good hotel restaurant, too, called Czerwone Korale, serving really high quality food. I suspect the restaurant is something of a hidden gem as most people head into the centre of Zakopane to eat. For us, as a family it was perfect – welcoming, laid-back and our waitresses (all young mountain-dwellers) were very helpful and attentive.
The town centre of Zakopane is centred around the high street of Krupówki. Since my last visit, the high street had changed almost beyond recognition with modern book stores and clothes stores and an array of restaurants and cafes to choose from.
It’s also easy to pick up a horse and carriage ride from Krupówki. The Górale (mountain people) still consider this their main source of winter income. The people of the Tatra mountains have their own dialect, which even I, as a Polish-speaking visitor, found the dialect fascinating if not a little hard to understand. It’s worth asking around for a good rate for a sleigh-ride as you don’t want to pay over the odds.
The food around the Tatra regions, is, as expected, warming, hearty, comforting and traditional. Anything described as a “karczma” is a traditional “inn” and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded with traditional Polish highlander music. That being said, there are plenty of modern restaurants now in Zakopane, too, serving refined Polish classics and some international food. It’s always best to book because places get really busy over the winter months.
Other hotels that had been personally recommended to us in Zakopane included Hotel Sabała – this is on the main high street of Krupowki. We had a good, hearty meal there after an afternoon of sleigh-riding and shopping, with Polish mulled wine, grzaniec, homemade noodles with ceps, pierogi and plenty of soup for the children. Being in the centre of town it’s quite busy and there’s a high footfall of tourists.
On another day, we called into the Grand Hotel Stamary. Our friends had got married there and it was truly luxurious, with a beautiful lounge and also a very relaxed atmosphere.
Again, we had some excellent food in their bar area, including a huge pork chop on a bed of sauerkraut, more chicken soup for the children (they couldn’t get enough of it) and pierogi (Polish dumplings) filled with strawberries for dessert, as well as Polish beers, vodka and orange and gin and tonics for the adults. Even Poland has picked up on the gin trend.
It would be a real treat to stay there in future. This is a very classy hotel and has a very particular charm. I can imagine it would have been a real magnet for the elite in days gone by.
Hotels which have also since been recommended include the Hotel Belvedere (a four star) and Czarny Potok (a family-friendly three star) – as I said, there are lots of beautiful, affordable hotels to choose from.
We opted for traditional Polish restaurants throughout our stay and also enjoyed our visit to Gazdowo Kuznia where the children ate more chicken soup. We also ordered their mushroom soup, Polish dumplings/pierogi with a lamb filling and a creamy mushroom sauce (unusual for Poland, but traditional of the highland regions) and honey pork ribs.
For dessert, we popped into a delicious bakery on the high street called Jagoda, a treasure-trove of Polish patisserie, where a lady was frying fresh Polish doughnuts filled with rose petal jam. I’d go back, just for those.
Things to do in Zakopane
You can ski in Zakopane itself, although on this occasion, we drove to a resort further away in Białka where a particular ski school had been recommended. As you drive or walk around the centre of Zakopane, you can see plenty of ski lifts around. The main ones include:
- Nosal Ski Centre (for beginners)
- Szymowszkowa SKi Centre (for intermediate skiers)
- Harenda Ski Centre (a mixture of slopes)
- Kasprowy Wierch (advanced skiers and snowboarders)
- From Zakopane, take the cable car to Mount Kasprowy. During the winter months, two chair lifts operate and there are also two skiing pistes for advanced skiers and snowboarders.
- In good weather/with good visibility take a funicular up to Gubałowka Hill, which you’ll find in the centre of town. From the top, you’ll get spectacular views over Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Mountains.
- Keen/experienced hikers may way to explore Morskie Oko, a hike to a very deep and beautiful lake.
- Even more experienced hikers can explore Mount Giewont (approx. a 2.5 hour climb) with mini buses available on the way back to town.
- There are other walks around the Tatra National Park with sleigh rides and waterfalls – it’s best to take a private guide.
- Snowlandia is fairly new and it is the world’s largest snow maze. In fact, it’s a snow village, complete with a maze, a snow castle, a mini zoo and a toboggan run. We drove past this and regret not making time to stop there with the children! Next time…
Skiing in Białka Tatrańska
Białka Tatrańska is the resort that most people we knew recommend going to for skiing in the Tatra Mountains. You can get buses or transfers there from Zakopane but there is also plenty of accommodation within Białka itself.
We headed for Hotel Bania Thermal & Ski (which had been highly recommended but was alas, fully booked during our visit). Instead, we parked nearby and used this resort as our base for day-trips, calling in for food and drinks in and around the hotel.
Hotel Bania have a great children’s play area and their own ski school nearby, as well as a huge thermal spa complex. It’s on the bucket list for our next visit, but for a family of 5 (or 6 with my mum) it could be quite pricey. The facilities are really excellent though and there is everything onsite from a creche to a nightclub, lots of restaurants and unlimited access to their thermal spa complex.
We were able to book 2 x 2 hour ski lessons jointly for our older two children at fairly short notice at Stok School. A 2-hour ski lesson costs around £23 in high season. The instructors we had, Basia and Sławek spoke perfect English and the children (10 and 8) went from complete beginners to skiing independently down a green slope in just 4 hours.
It was also simple and quick to hire all the ski equipment they needed, including helmets. Tip: You should know their height, weight and shoe size according to Polish measurements before you start queuing.
We watched them on the green slope and also took our younger one to the snow play area. My mum kept warm inside the Hotel Bania and had a few Polish mulled wines with cherry vodka to keep warm! Arranging for the children to learn to ski wasn’t as traumatic as I thought it might be after all and as such, we’ll definitely plan a ski holiday as a family again.
Nearby ski lifts include:
- Kotelnica Express Ski Lift – 250 yards
- Bania Ski Lift – 300 yards
- Kotelnica II Ski Lift – 1,100 yards
- Grapa Litwinka 1 Ski Lift – 1,150 yards
- Pasieka Express Ski Lift – 1,450 yards
- Kotelnica III Ski Lift – 1,500 yards
There are also plenty of other hotels, aparthotels and apartments to choose from in the local area, but they do get booked up early.
Aside from a ski/thermal spa holiday based at Hotel Bania, I’d also like to visit the nearby town resort of Bukowina Tatrańska. We drove through this area on or way to Białka Tatrańska and there were some really beautiful views and places to stop and eat. This is right near to the Slovakian border, so if you’re in a hire car, you can cross the border and easily explore two countries.
Also on the bucket list is the wellness resort of Hotel Bukovina and visit the nearby Termy Bukovina Thermal Baths, which both look simply stunning, and a great destination for a relaxing mountain break at any time of the year.
If you’re staying in Kraków and want to find some snow within striking distance, head to the Beskid National Park. You could stay in Kraków and plan a day-trip to Zakopane, but I’d recommend more than a day visit if possible.
Overall Views of Our Winter Break in Poland
We really loved our family trip to the snowy mountains in Poland. Granted, having skied in the Alps and in America (though not with the children) you don’t quite get the same expanse and range of ski pistes as you might in larger resorts. However, for families, or skiers who want to enjoy some winter pursuits as well as a bit of skiing, Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Resorts offer affordable breaks with far fewer tourists and crowds as you’d find in France, Italy, Switzerland or Austria.
Poland is definitely a contender for future trips for our family and the affordable, high-end thermal spas on offer are a real added bonus. Given that your trip to Poland will be calculated in złoty rather than in euros, I think there is by far an advantage here and this makes a real difference to the affordability of a break than what you would pay for a ski or winter break within the eurozone.
We couldn’t fault the quality of the hearty, highland-style breakfasts on offer, with eggs, bread, Polish sausages, cold meats, fruit and porridge. All of the food and drink on offer everywhere we stopped was amazingly good value and there are some very modern, emerging, instagram hotspots to be found, too!
Poland is an emerging tourist destination. As such and at times, it’s not geared up for a heavy flow of tourists. Service can be a bit slow, or at the other end of the spectrum, a bit abrupt. Sometimes it feels like Zakopane wants to stay as an exclusive winter destination for Poles, rather than open itself up to tourism, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
If you do go to Poland for a winter break, don’t tell anyone I told you. A ski holiday in the Tatra Mountains is one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
We travelled to Katowice with Wizz Air and stayed at Goracy Potok Resort and the Hotel Foluszowy Potok. We learnt to ski with the Stok Ski School in Białka Tatrańska. This holiday was taken at our own expense. However, I have written about our experiences as part of a commission for the Polish National Tourism Organisation.
With thanks to some of our Polish friends for their top tips on where to stay and where to ski ahead of our holiday.
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