Mention Bulgaria to seasoned skiers and snowboarders and the first thing that comes to mind is its cheap reputation. With pints of beer for £1.50 and lift pass prices under £200, its bargain basement fame seems justified – this year the resorts of Borovets and Bansko both, once again, topped the chart of the cheapest resort in Europe in the Post Office Travel Money’s annual Ski Resort Report. But is there more to a ski holiday in Bulgaria than simply saving some cash?
I visited Bansko, one of the main resorts, with my family just before the world shut down in February 2020 and there’s no doubt it’s cheaper than a week would have been in the Alps.
We stayed at the Kempinski Grand Arena, a five-star ski-in/ski-out hotel with several restaurants, large bedrooms and an indoor pool and spa. A week’s holiday for the three of us, including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation, is approximately £2,000 with Balkan Holidays. The equivalent in the Alps would have been double that.
Yet a holiday is about so much more than just getting a bargain. It’s such a personal thing, tied up in expectations, previous experiences and money mindset. And while not everyone may want to eschew their favourite Tarentaise hot spot for somewhere in eastern Europe, there are plenty that do, and they are loving it.
Bansko has 75km of runs – by the end of the first day I’d skied them all – but the holiday became about more than just the skiing and we mixed up time on the slopes with swimming and relaxing in the spa, eating and drinking in the old town and sledging. My daughter was then three so spending long days on the slopes wasn’t an option anyway, and the fact that everything was significantly cheaper than the Alps just made for a more enjoyable holiday all round.
This sentiment of simply having a great holiday is echoed by Bulgaria’s many fans. Nick Bantick, a 28-year-old software salesman from London, said after a visit this season: “I’ve visited Bansko three times now for a reason. There’s decent skiing for beginners and the more advanced, and there’s really fun and varied après. The town is large so there’s always something going on and it’s great for people who aren’t so uptight about their slopes and just want to have fun.”
It’s not just Bansko that appeals to Britons. Rachel Gill, 53, a travel agent from Cornwall recently returned from Borovets with 12 family members, including two young children. Her grown-up children were paying for themselves so the choice of resort was cost-driven, but she also chose Borovets because it offered more than just skiing.
“Yes we did runs over and over again, but that wasn’t a problem,” she says. “We’d return, especially with the little ones, as it was great fun having drinks and sledging at the bottom of the slopes at the end of the day, and everything was great-value compared with France. You just have a nicer time if you feel like you’re not being ripped off, don’t you?”
So if you like the sound of a more reasonably priced ski holiday, what can you expect from Bulgaria? The country’s three main resorts are Borovets, Bansko and Pamporovo. All in the south west of the country, they’re roughly one, two and three hours from Sofia airport respectively, and flight time from London to Sofia is just over three hours.
Bansko’s 75km of slopes makes it the largest, while Borovets has 58km and Pamporovo 36km. All three resorts are more suited to beginners and early intermediates than experts, simply because the resorts aren’t that extensive and the mountains generally not as steep and dramatic as the Alps.
And yes, you will find pints of beer for £1.50 in resort. On the slopes that might rise to about £3, but you’ll easily spend less than £5 on a hot lunch, and eating out in the evening will be just as reasonable – expect to find typical eastern European and Middle Eastern dishes on the menu, with lots of grilled meats, vegetables and pastries.
Lessons, kit hire and lift pass are cheaper than in the Alps too. Balkan Holidays sells a package of all three for six days in Bansko at £252; if you’re travelling independently six-day adult lift passes at the resorts vary from £144 to £193, ski hire for a week starts from about £64 and six half-day group lessons begin at £107.
And the current Covid situation? Entry rules for Bulgaria are straightforward – visitors from the UK have three options. They must present proof of full vaccination (second dose no earlier than 270 days, and no later than 15 days prior to arrival, or a booster) or evidence of prior infection (at least 11, but no more than 180 days before arrival) or a negative test (PCR within 72 hours of travel, or antigen within 48). Children under 12 are exempt from any requirements, while children aged 12 to 18 must follow the rules as above.
Once in resort, masks must be worn in all indoor public spaces, and over-18s will need to show a vaccination certificate, proof of recovery or a negative PCR test performed within 72 hours to enter restaurants and bars, hotels, cinemas, museums, galleries, shopping malls, gyms, swimming pools and spas.
Is a ski holiday in Bulgaria better than the Alps? That’s subjective. You might not get the shiniest, latest kit to hire or endless kilometres of slopes but when you’re enjoying five-star accommodation at three-star prices and great food that isn’t all about melted cheese, who’s complaining? Certainly not me and my family.
How to do it
Iglu Ski offers seven nights half board at Hotel Breza in Borovets, from £404pp based on two people sharing, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers, departing March 19, 2022 (igluski.com).
Balkan Holidays offer seven nights half board at Hotel Strazhite in Bansko, for a family of four (two children aged five and six) from £3,165 total, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers, departing February 19, 2022 (balkanholidays.co.uk).
Crystal Ski Holidays offers seven nights half board at Hotel Lion in Bansko, from £754pp, based on two adults sharing, including flights from Manchester and transfers, departing February 26, 2022 (crystalski.co.uk).