My first foray on the slopes was in Bulgaria. After nearly killing myself on a drag lift, getting shouted at daily by our instructor Boris and food poisoning which rendered me unable to leave our 70s communist style monstrosity of a hotel, I swore never again. Luckily that was over 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then. Skiing can be a prohibitively expensive sport and so it’s great to hear about family friendly budget options. Fiona recently revisited the scene of my nightmare first ski trip to Borovets, Bulgaria and had a brilliant time….
The words ski and budget are not often found in the same sentence but we’d heard that Bulgaria was a good place to test this theory so decided, rather spontaneously, to try it out. It helped that friends had previously recommended Borovets to us and, having been twice themselves, had some good tips up their sleeves. After a quick bit of research, it was obvious it was far more economical that your average trip to Les Trois Vallees or the like and most importantly it had the last minute availability we were looking for. The snowfall, as with anywhere, was always going to be a risk over the Christmas period but we decided to suck it and see.
Due to booking only 6 weeks or so before departure we missed out on the some of the better online packages and deals (for example Neilson seemed to offer some good rates) however, we found a deal with Easy Jet and jumped on it. We paid £3154 for flights and accommodation for 4 people, on a half board (d,b&b) basis at the Rila Hotel, which came highly recommended and was bang on the slopes. There were cheaper deals to be had if you were more organized or stayed further out but we felt this was not a bad start.
The EasyJet flight went out of Stansted at some ungodly hour so we opted for Valet Parking to help with a smooth start. We used Stansted Parking.com – their Meet and Greet Service (not to be confused with I Love Meet and Greet which in my opinion is a better service but more pricey!). This valet parking option is basically a car park, bang next to the terminal, where you leave your keys in an office and then pick them up from the same office on the way home. The car meanwhile is moved off site. I have used swifter proper valet series but this was good value.
Our EasyJet flight was on time and functional. The flight time to Sofia was 3 hours and Bulgaria is 2 hours ahead of London.
Transfers were not included in the Easy Jet package however the staff at the Rila hotel were very helpful during our pre-arrival correspondence and were happy to book it on my behalf, with child seats, for 80 Euro; unfortunately it didn’t turn up! Despite that initial panic and feeling of being stranded in a foreign land, we quickly found the official taxi rank and had a taxi sorted within 5 minutes (watch out for the unofficial taxi drivers vying for your business!). The total transfer time from airport to resort was approximately 1hr 20mins and we paid 58 Euro (significantly cheaper than previously quoted so worth using an ‘official’ airport taxi).
Rightly or wrongly I had very low expectations of hotels in Bulgaria and prior to doing my research was envisaging a rustic, run down, depressing looking hotel (they definitely do exist in Borovets as Mrs Jetlag and Mayhem can vouch for personally!!) so I had to eat my words when we found the ultra modern and very comfortable Hotel Rila. On arrival in didn’t disappoint and we were greeted with friendly efficient staff, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the slopes, a big open fire and a large open plan bar area with plenty of seating.
Our room (I had booked the Studio) was just fine. Nothing over the top but it had everything we needed. The kids were in a bunk, we had a comfy double bed, a mini kitchen area with table and chairs, views overlooking the mountain, a bathroom with a bath (albeit brown water!) and warm radiators to dry out our kit. There were also plenty of hooks for coats and salopets and enough drawers and hanging space to avoid too much mess and any tantrums.
The facilities at the Rila were great. The bar area was really nice, especially the bar on the upper terrace where you can sit in the open air, in deck chairs, with the comfort of a heat lamp to keep you cosy! The indoor pool area was big (a little chilly for my liking but the kids didn’t mind) and there were a couple of Jacuzzi’s which suited me perfectly! If you paid a little extra you could use the steam rooms and sauna, but we didn’t bother. The spa treatment menu was fairly extensive yet pleasantly inexpensive. I had the sports massage towards the end of the week and can’t recommend it highly enough…just what the doctor ordered… ahhhh! There is also a small hairdressing salon, a nail bar, and a kids pottery and sand art area… perfect to kill a few hours on a non-ski day. There was a kids club available however from memory this was fairly limited and, as we didn’t use it, unfortunately I cannot comment.
In my opinion the only thing that let the hotel down was the hot food. It was tragic. We were on a dinner bed and breakfast rate, so opted to eat in the hotel most nights to save money but can honestly say we didn’t have one good meal. The food is served up as a typical hotel buffet and whilst the choice was actually OK, the hot dishes were, without doubt, stone cold every night! The kids seemed to be happy with cold chicken, chips and pasta but I certainly wasn’t. Thankfully there was a large salad bar and there was always plenty of fruit on offer. Wine is fairly reasonably priced (phew!) and there is an A La Carte restaurant within the hotel if you don’t mind spending a bit extra.
As previous family ski holidays have been in France, I am used to booking lessons in advance for fear of there not being any space at ski school. However, fear not… Borovets is very relaxed! I called the main operator ‘Borosport’ a couple of times prior to arrival to try to book the children in, but was assured I could book it all on arrival, so took their word for it!
However, calling ahead did at least let me establish that we certainly wanted to go down the Private Lesson route. Not only is this pretty economical but it’s worth noting that if you want group lessons with Borosport, children aged 6 and under have no choice other than to go to the Kindergarten. Despite being only 5 & 6 years old, I knew they’d get very bored if we went down this route as they’ve skied twice before, so a joint private lesson it was to be.
On our arrival we ventured to the main Borosport office, which is conveniently a hop and a skip from the hotel Rila, at the foot of the main slope. Booking the kids into a lesson was quick and easy (although in busy periods I still think it’s safer to try and book these in advance!). One of the main plus points about private lessons is that you pay as you go opposed to a 5/6 day course…so if your child has a hissy fit one day, as my daughter did on day 2…and announces that they categorically do not want to ski…then you haven’t wasted any money!
You can also purchase your Lift Pass from the Borosport office and ski, boot and helmet hire is all within striking distance, once again very convenient and very easy. Contact details for Borosport and all prices for lessons and ski hire etc can be found on this very useful website http://www.borovets-bg.com/en
On our first full day we awoke to plenty of snow and a light flurry in the air, simply perfect; we really lucked out as meanwhile were hearing tales of grassy patches in Meribel. The children were booked into lessons from 10-12pm with a female instructor called ‘Gerry’, who spoke good English and had a friendly manner. Whilst they found their snow legs again, we shot off to find our way round the piste map.
The resort sits at 1350m, whilst the highest lift is at 2550m. There are a total of 65km of ski runs on 25 pistes (4 Green, 5 Blue, 9 Red and 4 Black runs plus a long Blue skiway). The lift infrastructure (4 chair lifts and various drag lifts) is relatively new and speedy, however be warned, the main gondola is very antiquated and slow (allow 20 mins to get to the top of the mountain!).
There are three main ski zones:
Sitnyakovo ski center (1300-1750 m. asl.) – This is the lowest ski center and the lifts are part of the resort area. This fact turns many of the hotels into ski-in/ski-out accommodation. This is also where night skiing takes place, which is from 6:00PM till 9:00PM. This is where most beginners learn to ski, as the slopes are well suited for first timers. Snow cannons help keep a good base snow cover.
Yastrebets ski center (1440-2050m. asl.) – This is the middle ski center and is serviced by the Yastrebets Express ski lift. This is one of the most popular ski areas as it provides a good selection of intermediate slopes and is equipped with snow cannons. To get there you need to take the gondola to either the middle or top station and ski down to the lift.
Markudzhik ski center (2140-2483m. asl.) – This is the highest ski zone in the resort. It’s serviced by a new 4-seat lift and two drag lifts. To get there you need to take the gondola to the top station and then traverse diagonally to the ski area. This zone has the most natural snowfall, but no snow cannons. It is also the most affected by the wind conditions, so sometimes it may be closed while the other parts of the mountain are open.
The skiing is by no means overly testing and if you’re hard core/ expert/extreme skier looking for off piste fresh powder then this is not the resort for you….But as a family resort, offering enough skiing to keep you occupied and happy for 2 hours whilst your children have lessons and then keep everyone smiling for the rest of the day, its perfect. We skied the entire lower slopes with the children, who were so confident and comfortable with their surroundings by the end that they even attempted (and survived!) a black run! (fortunately Bulgarian black runs are a little easier than the French!).
In my opinion, the best bit about the skiing in Borovets was the Night Skiing!! We had never experienced this before so one evening, after a chilled out afternoon at the hotel, we all took it for a test run. It was really fantastic and so memorable. The slopes were fairly empty, they were well lit and well groomed and by now we knew the route so everyone was happy with what lay ahead in the night sky! You do need to purchase an extra lift pass for an evening ski, but it’s well worth the experience and for us, one we will never forget.
One of the main differences between Bulgaria and the Alps is the lack of real Apres Ski. Whilst there are numerous bars (due to it’s smaller size and good concentration of bars, Borovets is the world leader in bars per square kilometer!) they simply do not have the atmosphere and flair that you see elsewhere. There are very few bars on the slopes, little or no live music and no dancing on the tables as far as we saw (!) but the beer is cheap and locals are friendly and welcoming, which suited us perfectly. ‘The Golden Horn’ became a favourite; nothing to look at on the outside but a free lollipop for the kids on arrival kept them happy and with a second floor bar overlooking the slopes, it was a great place to eat, drink, relax and be merry!
If you’re looking for a No Frills, No Fur, No Fuss ski holiday then you’re in for a treat. It’s low key and friendly and super chilled out. The slopes aren’t busy, the pine trees make for a very pretty ski area, and it’s inexpensive and very convenient. All in all I’d highly recommend giving Bulgaria a go!