Fancy skiing but horrified at the price? Slovenia has high-quality, low-cost resorts, with great scenery and friendly locals to boot
When I learned to snowboard in the French Alps over a decade ago, it was not particularly cheap, but it was affordable. No-frills airlines wooed us with crazy low prices; the pound was strong, so lift passes, food and accommodation were all within reach. Not so now, with many resorts in France and Switzerland running as super-rich enclaves that even couples on double London-weighted salaries struggle to afford – let alone those with families.
Last week, in search of affordability, but also adventure and originality of the kind you can’t get in Les Trois Vallées, I went on a snowboarding trip to Slovenia. One of the biggest worries on any ski trip, let alone one in which you venture beyond the big four of France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, is snow quality. So it helps that I arrive after a massive snowstorm, to more than a metre and a half of fresh snow.
The pine trees that line our route are so weighed down with snow they look like weeping willows. Elsewhere in the country, a freak ice storm has brought down trees and cracked power lines.
At least where we are it’s magical, even more so as we pass a misty Lake Bled, with its Gothic island church, on our two-and-a-half-hour drive from capital Ljubljana to Vogel, which is the country’s best all-round ski resort. Once there, we find that while mountain access is fine, the high volume of heavy, moist snow on the slopes after the storm means the avalanche risk is at level five – the highest. The top lift at Postaja Sija, an endearingly retro one-man chair, is closed, as is the scenic home run. We have to cancel our off-piste guide and we’re told not even to cut in between the pistes.
Still, the slopes are well-groomed and the area (there are just 18km of pistes when all lifts are open) is much more varied than we had expected. As more lifts open throughout the day, we get enough fresh turns in to offset the disappointment of the loitering cloud layer that prevents us from taking in the views of Lake Bohinj, which we’re told are reason enough on their own to ski at Vogel.
Visitors shouldn’t be put off by the relative lack of altitude. The top lift is just 1,800m, but snowfall is frequent. Although the majority of the voices we hear are Slovenian or Croatian, we meet some Brits in the restaurant at lunch time over a hearty fried-cheese-and-sausage stew (we passed on the sausage with minced lard).
Kavitha Muthiah, a cardiologist from London, is learning to snowboard for the first time. She tells me: “We wanted good value and didn’t feel we needed a vast network of lifts for our first time on snow. Plus the nature was a big pull. It’s beautiful: we’re staying a short walk from the cable car but really feel like we’re staying in a forest in the middle of nowhere.”
Vogel is within the Triglav national park, so it’s protected from development and artificial snow-making is not permitted. It definitely feels unspoiled: traditional refuge huts are available for rent at the top of the mountain all year round.
More experienced snowboarders Lisa McGuigan and Linn Kathenes from Reading are also visiting for the first time. I ask what they like about Vogel, and Lisa says: “It doesn’t feel like you’re getting ripped off all the time, as it does now in the Alps. We booked it all ourselves. The flights were cheap, as was the car hire – just £55 for the week. It’s a smaller resort but there’s more than enough to do – and the fresh snow has been fantastic.”
Linn also likes the fact that it’s somewhere new: “I have been snowboarding in lots of places but I had never been to Slovenia before, so that definitely appealed. We did a lot of research, and though it’s not a massive ski resort by French standards, you can make it as challenging as you want. We have also had the most incredible service. We arrived during a snowstorm and our hotel owner waited up late to make sure we got there safely.”
Every Slovenian person I meet is also super-friendly. Whether that’s a national trait, or gratitude for snow tourists (no British package company currently offers trips to Vogel), it’s difficult to tell, but you are certainly not met with the complacency you so often find in mainstream Alpine areas.
Vogel is in the Julian Alps, the most easterly point of the main European range. Aside from the Slavic language on road signs and the fact that Tito’s old villa is there on the shores of Lake Bled, there’s very little that identifies Slovenia as a former eastern bloc country. The excellent homemade food, the schnapps, the architecture, and even the music – we hear lots of waltzes and soft rock – appear to have far more in common with Austria and Italy, albeit with a refreshing Slovenian twist.
• Accommodation and lift passes were provided by Spirit Slovenija (spiritslovenia.si/en). A six-day lift pass in Vogel costs £116; six days’ ski or snowboard hire costs £80 (vogel.si/zima). The five-star Bohinj Park Hotel (+386 8 200 4000, bohinj-park-hotel.si) has half-board doubles in February from €115pp including use of the ice-skating rink and aqua park; one child under 14 can share a room with two adults at no extra charge. Flights were provided by easyJet (easyjet.com), which flies from Stansted to Ljubljana from £76 return