JUST because a place is a ski resort doesn't mean you have to take skis. There's no need for long underwear, either. And you don't even need it to snow – for the mountains can be magnificent for a long-time skier even when it isn't winter. Staying in a ski resort out of the skiing season would be a nice, quiet change was the thinking behind a first-time trip to picturesque Kranjska Gora in Slovenia, tucked in a corner of the Julian Alps near the borders of Italy and Austria, but the pace – if you wanted – could be more than hectic. Many of us skiers think throwing ourselves down mountains with planks strapped to our feet must seem ever-so-slightly eccentric to beach holiday fans who reckon the top winter sports are Christmas shopping and drinking granny's advocaat. It might even appear downright daft . . . until you see blokes hurtling downhill on bikes, in summer, and through streams, trees and rocks with no soft snow to fall on. Now who's daft? Our stay coincided with a weekend of downhill mountain bike racing, which explained why the main chairlift was festooned with bikes, as helmeted riders in futuristic body armour hooked their machines behind the seats and jumped on to be whisked up the Vitranc, before plunging back down, tackling tree roots, boulders and man-made jumps as well as countless other hazards with apparently no fear, or no sense, or perhaps no thought other than winning.
Running the bikes a close second in the downhill thrills department was a summer toboggan run, a sure-fire way of getting flies in your teeth as you are strapped on to a seemingly precarious sled with a handbrake lever and are despatched from the Vitranc mid-point at timed intervals, to hurtle down a snaking, polished monorail to the foot of the mountain, with the worrying thought that the rumbling sound you can hear is some maniac catching you up. Great fun, and a great excuse to then lounge in a deck chair at one of the base area bars and sip a beer as you watch other mums, dads and grandparents with green faces try to convince their kids they weren't really scared as they walk away with buckled knees.
Bikes of different sort were also a big attraction for a few days, with European Bike Week just over the border at Faak am See in Austria. More than 100,000 motorcyclists from all over the world turned up, most of them seemingly on customised Harley Davidsons, with hundreds passing through to thunder over the twisty Alpine passes. A good many bikes looked more expensive than the average house and some were towed in special trailers behind equally-expensive cars – how many five* hotels in England can you imagine hanging out banners reading 'Bikers welcome'? It's not all speed for the adrenaline junkies, though, for there are lots of gentle gradients and flat bits as well as the steep stuff. There are miles of mountain slopes and meadows clothed in lush grass and wild flowers to wander at leisure, plus paths through the forests to explore, meeting an occasional walker and maybe passing the time of day with a farmer or his wife; accompanied by sound effects from grazing cows and goats with bells round their necks and catching glimpses of the local wildlife while criss-crossing tumbling streams carrying ice-cold water from high among the peaks.
Some rural railway lines in Slovenia have suffered the same fate as ours, but redundant trackbeds make great footpaths, especially for the not-so-nimble and you can gently stroll or go Nordic-style power walking to your heart's content, with plenty of time to see the surrounding countryside and the region's signature hay-drying racks – a model of which was apparently presented to Prince Charles. A friendly tourist office in the centre of the village provides loads of free advice and handy maps, and Thomson's in-resort reps Emily and Louise can also tell you all about suggested routes, as well as leading some walks. One favourite is just a few kilometres to the beautiful Jasna Lake, an oasis of calm with crystal-clear, turquoise water, guarded by a statue of Zlatorog, the legendary golden-horned chamois of Mount Triglav, the country's highest peak. Head the other way for a few klicks and you reach Planica, one-time 'mother of all ski jumping hills', where more world records have been set than at any other. Seeing it with no snow cover is food for thought about the athletes why fly off the end of it . . . and it's a fair old task to climb to the top. You can gain plenty of height on some trips around the glorious countryside, too, with an outing to Lake Bohinj at the heart of the Triglav National Park and a cable car ride high above it to the Vogel ski centre. The views are stunning, and the tiny resort village is a great base for high-level walking . . . and a refreshing high-level beer while soaking up the sun. Another spot to savour from on high is Lake Bled, with a 'must see' chocolate box view from it's cliff-top castle, followed, maybe, with a dead-flat, 6km walk around the shore. Such effort deserves a world-famous reward on the café terrace at the Hotel Park, as if any excuse were needed for a kremšnita, a deliciously indulgent vanilla cream and custard slice that is simply irresistible.
Indulgence on a different scale can be enjoyed in the truly delightful capital city of Ljubljana, with its mini-Prague feel and architecture. St Nicholas' Cathedral and its sculptured doors has to be on the visiting list, before a trip to the castle via modern funicular and then its bell tower, via spiral staircase and vertigo, to enjoy a stunning panorama of the city and the mountains. It's also a good spot to look down and maybe select a likely cafe by the river – and there are dozens to choose from – where you can relax with an excellent coffee. Food and drink is a major item on any holiday and all tastes are catered for at very reasonable prices, even in Ljubljana and back in Kranjska Gora, where we stayed at the 4* Hotel Kompas, just across the road from the Vitranc lift and only a few minutes from the centre of the village. Meals there were excellent and varied, with a wide selection of help-yourself dishes geared for outdoor appetites, but with plenty of healthy choices and options for vegetarians. The village itself is also well served with bars, restaurants, cafes and a local bakery. Pizzas are huge, so a shared one makes a good lunch for around the €7 mark, or you can have a made-to order sandwich with a choice of fresh bread and meat or cheese from the local Mercator supermarket for less than one euro!
Surprises, too, on a night out in the resort, with a large beers only a few cents more than a small one in the popular Sporty bar – and a large one was still less than €5. Needless to say, that encouraged consumption somewhat, mainly due to an enthusiastic bunch of paraplegic competitors from the World Rowing Championships on nearby Lake Bled. Any excuse . . . and was schnapps mentioned? One popular Thomson night out is a schnapps tasting, helped by Emily and Louise and hosted by a local bar owner. A (mercifully) seated tour of various varieties and blends came to the conclusion that the local speciality made from blueberries was the tastiest and most user-friendly and several bottles were duly bought to take home. Well, blueberries do count as one of your five-a-day, don't they? The verdict on the whole trip was that Slovenia, and Kranjska Gora in particular, is a superb mountain tonic even without snow – and don't forget to pack the sunscreen.
- For holidays in Slovenia visit Inghams Slovenia