The St. Moritz Of The Slovak Slopes

Skiing far off the beaten piste

Gstaad, Cortina, Megeve. Ah, the joys of Europe's top ski resorts...and the crowds, the sky-high prices, the hotels booked months in advance. This winter, why not try something different? There are plenty of runs in Europe besides the Alps. Many offer fine skiing and accommodations and a taste of local culture that's lacking at the glitzy Alpine resorts. What's more, prices at these lesser-known spots are much lower, and it's easy to make reservations at the last minute.

Slovakia is a good example. Rene Jakl, a successful Bratislava businessman, could easily jet off to France or Switzerland for his annual ski vacation. Instead, he heads for the Slovak village of Jasna, where he has skied since childhood. "In the Alps, I feel I'm skiing down the front of a chocolate box," he says. "Jasna is just the thing. It's not too, um, tidy." In Jasna, he adds, it's easier to ski off on your own--something that's much harder to do in Alpine resorts.

WOOD SMOKE. Ski buffs are already catching on. Slovakia's ski industry has boomed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But while most tourists flock to resorts in the High Tatras, the saw-toothed range bordering Poland, some of the best ski destinations still get few foreign visitors. Take Jasna, which sits on 2,024-meter-high Mt. Chopok in the Lower Tatra National Park in east-central Slovakia. The town is a collection of 20 mostly turn-of-the-century hotels and guest houses, interspersed with a few Soviet-era inns and a newly completed luxury hotel. Jasna boasts the kinds of facilities you would expect from a resort that has hosted World Cup ski races and that is a candidate for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Yet it retains a folksy, wood-smoke feel that's a world apart from the glitzy Alps.

Jasna has a combined lift capacity of 16,300 people per hour, so there's never a wait for a chairlift or rope tow. There are 15 ski runs, ranging from easy to near-suicidal. One of Jasna's attractions is outstanding off-piste skiing on Mt. Chopok. Ski down the southern side, where there are only three lifts and lots of unprepared powder. The season is short, though: Skiers can count on powder only from late December through February.

For non-downhillers, there are well-marked walking and cross-country ski trails to the nearby Freedom Caves, where World War II partisans holed up amid spectacular rock formations. Jasna also has an indoor sports center, snowmobile rental, and paragliding. The biggest hotels have swimming pools, fitness centers, and massage services that are open to nonguests at prices from $1 to $4 an hour. For meals, check out the dishes in Hotel Grand Jasna's restaurant. Or take the 20-minute chairlift ride to the top of Chopok and admire the nearby High Tatras over a bowl of halusky, a traditional mixture of pasta leavened with sheep's cheese and meat.

Unfortunately, getting to Jasna isn't easy. But devoted skiers say it's worth the hassle. Local carrier Tatra Air runs charter flights from Bratislava to the regional capital of Poprad. But most foreign visitors fly into Vienna and then either rent a car or take the five-to-six-hour express-train ride to Poprad, followed by a $30 cab ride to Jasna.

Once you arrive, though, Jasna turns out to be quite a bargain. Ski rental and lift tickets cost only $15 to $20 a day total, about one-third as much as the prices at upscale Alpine resorts. For $20 to $25 a night, you can stay in Mikulasska Chata, a refurbished lodge with wood-trimmed rooms and a rustic bar overlooking a placid lake. The fanciest place in town, the brand-new, American-style Hotel Grand Jasna, costs no more than $76 a night.

So give Jasna a try--and soon, because it may not remain a secret for long.