Cheap and cheerful skiing, Czech-style
The nagging dread of every parent who books an expensive “activity holiday” is that their child -- particularly if he or she is of the difficult, fussy variety -- arrives at a far-flung destination and ruins the vacation by taking an instant dislike to sailing or climbing or whatever else was promised.
Aside from the obvious parental emotional suffering, such anti-activity behavior can represent thousands of dollars down the drain.
With this in mind, I'd always resisted the pleas of my sporty, but of the difficult, fussy variety, 12-year-old son to take him skiing.
What if he hated it, and we’d be left sitting in a café on a snowy mountain sipping cocoa for a week? While that may be one pretty hot chocolate vista, I can get the same sort effect in hometown, Brighton, minus some snow-capped peaks.
Foremost in my mind were "distant" and frightening skiing holidays in the French Alps, where the sky seemed to be the limit in terms of costs.
Perhaps it was more a question for me, how much do I bank on my son actually enjoying what he says he wants to do?
When my friend Robin suggested my son and I join him and his two boys on a skiing trip to the Czech Republic, I was amazed. My first reaction: "Can you even ski in that country?" I’d certainly never heard of the possibility.
Robin assured me that while Czech ski resorts are tiny compared with those in the Alps or Austria, they’re great for beginners.
The domineering accountant side of me was even more receptive when he explained that the cost of the expedition would be a fraction of what it would be if we were going to the Alps.
Even better, he owns a house near the small ski resort of Bublava in Western Bohemia, so we didn’t have to shell out for accommodation.
Keeping to my life-shaping budget principles, I scored round-trip easyJet flights for two people from London Gatwick to Prague for £150 (US$227). Upon arrival, we hired a Volkswagen Golf estate car, our share of which cost £100. Two five-day lift passes were £85, while ski and boot hire came to £100. I booked ski lessons for my son from an English-speaking instructor, at £24 each; after just two sessions the cocky lad decided he didn’t need any more.
The price for the whole trip, excluding food and drink, was a very reasonable £500 (US$760). I couldn't have been happier.
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We were, of course, fortunate that we didn’t have to worry about accommodation, yet even if we had stayed in a hotel, it wouldn’t have broken the Bank of Wilkinson: a twin room in an upmarket hotel just a few hundred meters from the ski slope was about £40 (US$60) a night.
Enough about the costs though; the most important aspect was the skiing experience.
Not that planning had anything to do with it, but we timed it right, visiting the Czech Republic during a cold spell. The snow covering was excellent at about 12 to 20 inches. The daytime temperature was about -8C (17 degrees F) which meant the snow remained powdery and there was no ice -- an important consideration, especially for beginners and intermediate skiers such as us.
Given how close it is to the border, Bublava is a small resort popular with German skiers, with just four runs -- a black, two reds and a blue -- as well as a nursery slope.
Even though we visited during school holidays, there were relatively few people around -- a fraction of the numbers you'd expect at more established ski resorts.
This meant the arch-enemy of skiing, the lift queues, were mercifully short.
The surrounding countryside was beautiful and unspoiled and we found the whole experience relaxing.
Czech skiing is a world away from the ostentatious Alps. Everyone was friendly and all levels of ability were accommodated. My son’s instructor was friendly and helpful, despite his limited English.
We enjoyed the skiing, and when we tired of Bublava’s four runs, we drove a few miles to the neighboring resort of Stribrna, which had a beautiful cross-country red run on which we didn’t encounter a single person. (There's also a difficult black run.) Although that excursion cost just a few pounds, it would have been more convenient to incorporate it into the Bublava lift pass.
Several other ski resorts are also within a short drive.
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If there was one downside to the Czech skiing experience, it was that the food served in the bars and cafés near the slopes was at best average, really little better than the fare you might expect from a roadside café.
Washing it down, another story. Czech beer is excellent in taste and value (just 30 karuna/US$1.50) for a half-liter.
See you next year
Far from the trauma I feared, Bublava was brilliant and might reshape how I evaluate future activity-based vacations.
I’d have no hesitation about returning to the Czech Republic for skiing, though those planning a ski vacation need to ask what they’re after.
If money isn't the priority, and you want the very best and widest range of skiing and après-ski socializing, then go to the United States, Austria or the Alps.
But if you’re on a tight budget, or want something thoroughly un-flashy and a bit different, consider the Czech Republic.
And for the record, my son loved skiing and quickly developed a “no-fear” approach to descending the slopes. If any of Bublava's skiers were crashed into by a pack of over-confident English boys, I apologize. Be warned, we’ll be back next year!
Bublavais one of the smaller Czech ski resorts. Other main resorts include Spindleruv Mlyn, Bozi Dar and Klinovec.
The nearest airport to Bublava is Prague. Although there are bus services, the easiest way to get there is by renting a car -- it’s a two-hour drive from the airport. Check www.bublava.cz (Czech or German only) or www.svejk-bublava.cz for accommodation options and more information.
The Czech ski season runs from December to early April.