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Honeymooning in the High Tatras

This is the photo that made me fall in love with Grand Hotel Kempinski in the High Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. I was sitting at my desk, browsing the travel boards of Pinterest – “researching” honeymoon destinations, when really I was supposed to be locating the missing receipt from June 24th for our long-suffering accountant. After falling down the rabbit hole of white sand beaches, exotic islands and all-day long cocktail fests, I saw this picture and my heart started to beat a little faster…

Fast forward a few years to May 2017 and I was more than a little giddy as I packed my suitcase for our trip. What better way to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary than by having a second honeymoon in the hotel of my Pinterest dreams.  Not only would it combine several of my favourite things – it’s a luxury five star hotel with an amazing spa, views over the lake and mountains, easy access to hiking trails, incredible food, the list goes on! But Slovakia also happens to be where one side of my husband’s family hail from (his grandparents emigrated to Canada decades ago, but the roots run deep).

At first I intended to keep our destination a surprise from Jay, but given that my plan involved him driving a hire car through Poland and Slovakia (because no way was I volunteering for that job after what we refer to only as ‘The Rockies Incident’!), I decided I’d best fill him in. And so, with just a few weeks to go – because last minute is how we inevitably roll – the planning began.

Luckily the hotel’s website is full of useful info and advice, as my usual attempts to get travel tips via Instagram/Facebook/TripAdvisor didn’t amount to much, aside from a few slightly disconcerting mentions of rutted roads and crazy driving. These turned out to be (mostly) unfounded; the surfaces we drove on were way better maintained than most Scottish roads and aside from being overtaken by a madman in a Maserati in a heart-stopping moment on a hairpin bend, the journey passed without incident.

Our trip’s lack of Googlability started making sense when the lovely Alena (who as the hotel’s Director of Sales & Marketing was able to fill us in on all the backstage chat!), later explained to us that while Štrbské Pleso, the mountain lake the hotel overlooks, is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, visitors mainly come from Slovakia and neighbouring countries such as Hungary and Ukraine. As far as the rest of the world goes, it’s really a hidden gem, hence the lack of top tips from other travellers. In English at least, we’re still working on our Slovak.

As we drove south from Kraków airport, past elaborate churches and endless roadside shrines, the mountains suddenly loomed into view, and excitement danced deep. We were on our way!

Driving over the border into Slovakia was a blink and you might miss it moment. There were no guards, passport checks or stalls selling tourist tat. And just like that, we suddenly became the only car on the road. One of the benefits of travelling in spring.

On arrival, we were shown to our spacious, elegant room (the huge marble bathroom made my heart skip a beat!), where the romance levels were ramped up by the scattered rose petals, plus strawberries and sparkling wine that thoughtfully awaited us. Only to be immediately distracted by the most incredible view! The alpine lake was mirror-like, and the glorious towering peaks of the High Tatra mountains doubled in it. Having lived in the mountains of Canada and New Zealand, and made several trips to the Alps, I realise now that I have never had an actual view of any of them from my bedroom window. Needless to say, I took a lot of photos that day!

When we could finally tear ourselves away from the view, we headed to The Lobby Lounge & Bar, where we tucked into a delicious afternoon tea. Being cycling obsessed as he is, Jay immediately spotted the wedding photo of one of his heroes hanging on the wall behind us. Peter Sagan is as big in Slovakia as David Beckham is in England, and it turns out that the charismatic and much adored professional road cyclist celebrated his wedding to Katarina Smolkova (in his own unique style) at the hotel in 2015.

Then it was out into the crisp mountain air where, after a five minute walk, we were soon rewarded with breathtaking views south over the Low Tatras. Up above us, on the hotel’s roof, sat a turret with what has to be one of the world’s best hot tubs. Accessed from the honeymoon suite, this open-air private whirlpool for two offers 360 degree views – with the lake and snow-covered mountain peaks on one side, the rolling hills on the other. Just imagine watching the sun set from there!

As golden hour turned to blue, we strolled hand in hand around the lake, laughing and reminiscing over how we met, our wedding day and the highs of the last 10 years – the lows a whole world away. It felt like falling in love, all over again.

We awoke to sunshine and browsed a map of the hiking trails over a hearty breakfast, washed down with coffee and power shots, having first taken advice from the helpful concierge over which routes were still closed due to snow. I was seriously tempted to fill my pockets with pastries for the walk (did I mention that the food here is amazing?), but restrained myself. If your appetite, and budget, allows then you can upgrade to the Emperor’s Breakfast, a feast for two which includes Champagne, Wagyu-Kobe Beef Tenderloin, a Fluffy Omelette with Truffle Shavings, and more!

Our stomachs satisfied, we grabbed our rucksacks and set off for a half day hike, heading up a rocky trail and enjoying the views down over the valley as we quickly gained height. After a while, the trail levelled out and took us through the trees, until we emerged at picturesque Popradské Pleso. From here we gazed up at the imposing switchback route climbing the mountain on the other side of the lake. I felt slightly relieved it wouldn’t open for another few weeks.

We headed back down to the hotel and rewarded ourselves with a platter of cheese and ham, washed down with Slovak craft beer, before hitting the sanctuary of the Zion Spa. There I settled down with a view over the glacial lake to browse the treatment menu (the Couples’ Treatment room sounds ideal for honeymooners), and was so relaxed that I immediately fell asleep. And didn’t wake up for almost two hours. Oops!

After a refreshing dip in the pool and session in the herb-infused steam rooms and invigorating cold plunge pools, we met with Alena, who took us on a tour of the hotel and filled us in on its history. The three buildings of the hotel were sympathetically restored and transformed into one complex after falling into disrepair, but started life as a romantic villa in the late 1800s, the Grand Hotel (completed in 1906) and a wellness centre dating from the 1920s (the combination of the lake and altitude creates a climatic spa effect). Today the hotel retains its romance and period charm, while offering 98 luxurious rooms and suites, including the Presidential Suite, which a certain Canadian rockstar stayed in recently when he toured this part of Europe.

We also got to have a peek at the ballroom where weddings are held, when they’re not taking place on the lawn outside. Suffice to say, it was more than a little magical – getting married here would be a bit like starring in your very own fairytale. If you are thinking of having a destination wedding – and like the idea of bringing your friends and family to a beautiful place, which is off the beaten track yet easily accessible – we can highly recommend taking a closer look.

We dined at the hotel’s Grand Restaurant that evening, where head chef Tomas Tejbus’ menu offers rustic, modern interpretations of typical Slovak dishes alongside international cuisine. I chose Cream of Cauliflower Soup with Coconut Milk (delicious), while Jay gave me slight food envy with his Beetroot Lokša (thin pancakes made out of potato dough). I followed up with Grilled Fillet of Cod with Beluga Lentil, Sautéed Fennel and Bacon Foam (it was every bit as amazing as it sounds!), paired perfectly with a crisp Slovak white wine recommended by the sommelier. Chocolate Symphony and a glass of Bentianna – a honey, herb and grape digestif aptly described as “a dance of flavours and scents”  – brought the meal to a perfect end.

With its views over the valley, relaxed atmosphere and attentive service, it would have been easy to stay a little longer in the restaurant. But we were keen to try some more local drinks, not to mention the “wellness” cocktails that the hotel prides itself on, and headed downstairs to the bar, in search of the famous Tatratea Liquor that we had heard great things about.

We may have been a little over-enthusiastic in our drink sampling, and woke up on our actual wedding anniversary feeling slightly groggy. But the exquisite cake that was delivered to our breakfast table (I’d happily sell my soul for another slice right now), meant that we left the hotel on a sugar and mountain-air induced high.

Some places you go to explore, others to laugh and love. Some restore and revive you. This is all of these, and more.

With its amazing views, luxurious rooms, incredible food and chi-restoring spa, Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras has stolen our hearts. We can’t wait to go back… Christina x

Feeling smitten?

Our room with a view – We stayed in a Deluxe Room Lake View for two nights, courtesy of Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras.

Getting there – The nearest airports serving the UK are Poprad (25 minutes from the hotel), Kosice (1.5 hours), Kraków (2.5 hours) and Bratislava (3.5 hours). We flew with Easyjet from Edinburgh to Kraków and hired a car at Kraków Airport. You can also travel to the hotel by train, followed by limousine car or taxi. The hotel website has more details on this.

Places to see – Spiš Castle, the largest medieval castle in Central Europe is less than an hour away and is surrounded by three more UNESCO sites. Cafe Dedo on the top of the Lomnický peak and Belianska Cave are also popular visitor attractions.