Bansko, Bulgaria – Travel Review
by Richard Jones
Affordable luxury – the dream ticket for many holidaymakers. However, you seldom find those two words in the same sentence, especially when booking a winter break.
Bulgaria may not be on that many lists when searching for a skiing trip, but it really should be. A couple of years ago, its largest winter resort, Bansko, topped a poll of European ski centres that factored in hotel, ski pass, equipment hire, lessons, evening meals and drinks for a family of four. A week-long package in the Bulgarian town came out at less than half the price of a similar break in St Anton, Austria.
The gateway to Bansko is Sofia airport, and after a three-hour flight from Manchester, my wife Rachel and I, along with our daughters Isla and Evelyn, were whisked from the capital city’s airport and into the Pirin mountains.
Bansko’s main street was a sea of bright lights, with restaurants, shops and ski rental outlets doing a roaring trade, while bang in the centre is the best hotel in the resort, if not the whole of Bulgaria, the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko.
“Oasis of luxury”
In a perfect location for skiers and snowboarders, right next to the gondola station, it is an oasis of luxury and tranquillity, and as soon as we set foot in the place, we were relaxed.
The hotel features three very different, but equally welcoming, restaurants, and on our first night we were booked into the Italian-inspired Come Prima. With live cooking in the open kitchen, the place had a sophisticated ambience, and we each tucked into three courses from its weekly Mediterranean menu.
After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of freshly baked croissants, smoked salmon and piping hot omelettes, it was time to squeeze into our boots, pick up our skis and poles and make the short walk across to the gondola.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the top station where our daughters met their instructors and skiing pals for the next few days. Ulen is the resident snowsports school in Bansko, and 10-year-old Isla was paired with a lovely ex-pat teacher called Hannah.
Despite being in a group of adults, Isla really caught the skiing bug, and couldn’t wait to get on the slopes each morning. Rachel and I would stop to watch her leading the snowploughing adults down the blue runs each day with a massive smile on her face.
Evelyn, six, spent the first morning in the same group, but as she was an absolute beginner, found it hard grasping the basics. Nevertheless, after a private lesson and a few snowball fights with her instructor Chris, she began to find her feet on the nursery runs.
For the rest of the week, she made herself at home at the kindergarten where she played indoors with the other girls and boys as well as practicing her snowplowing and turns out on the magic carpet area.
After a long first day’s skiing it was a godsend to able to head back down the mountain and be pampered at the hotel. With three swimming pools, outdoor and indoor Jacuzzis, two saunas and steam baths and the unique Snow Room, the luxury spa was just the job for our aching bodies.
“Groomed to perfection”
Back in Bansko town itself, traditional taverns called mehanas provide most of the après-ski. Competition is keen – and touts loiter outside the pubs beckoning tourists to part with their Levs.
We headed for tea at Bears, and with a pint of lager around £1.50 and a large pizza under a fiver, it was easy to see why the resort has acquired its cheap-as-chips reputation. Over the next couple of days, it also became apparent why Bansko is beginning to eclipse Bulgaria’s other main winter resort Borovets.
Post-weekend, the queues at the gondola subsided, the slopes were quieter and after a large dump of snow, the pistes were groomed to perfection. Our skiing confidence also grew, and Rachel, Isla and I headed higher up on the blue and red runs carved through pine forests up to the imposing Todorka Peak.
Although the piste map is smaller than more established resorts (about 70km), there was more than enough to keep us entertained. Plenty more piste has been planned for Bankso, as well as a second gondola (the need for which was there for all to see at the weekend).
But the pesky queues were the last thing on our mind once we were back at the hotel and relaxing in the Lobby Bar. At night, there was live music on in the bar and the girls loved sitting next to the fire and listening to a singer called Lizard playing his acoustic guitar.
On our second evening in Bansko, it was Greek night in the Gallery Restaurant, so we had a feast of salad with feta, olives, taramasalata, moussaka and lamb chops, while the cooking station was used to prepare moules marinière. Then, it was with a heavy heart that Isla and Evelyn said their farewells to their skiing friends on our final day.
And although unhappy at the prospect of leaving Bansko, during our last night we were in celebratory mood – and not just because we’d handed our heavy ski boots in. It had been an amazing holiday and we rounded it off with a reservation at the hotel’s culinary piece de resistance, the Sushi Bar & Teppanyaki Grill.
There are few dining experiences that can rival sitting with your family, while just two feet away, a flamboyant chef wields a knife bigger than Crocodile Dundee’s and theatrically slices and dices his way through a myriad of meats, fish and vegetables.
The chef played up to the crowd and in between the chopping, sizzling and flashing flames, there were screams of amazement, laughter and applause. One of the chef’s tricks was to flip a piece of fried egg and see if we could catch it in our open mouths. Unfortunately none of us managed it and the chef missed his target.
However, as far as family holidays go, cheap and cheerful Bansko hit the spot in every way.
Crystal Ski Holidays (crystalski.co.uk; 020 8610 3123) offers a week’s half board at the five-star Grand Arena Kempinski Hotel in Bansko from £2948 for a family of four including flights from Gatwick to Sofia and transfers (price given is for departure on 20 January 2018). Direct flights available from all major UK airports.