The summer holidays may officially be over, but there’s still time to book an October half-term break. Head to Bulgaria’s Sunny Beach, says Ruby Kitchen.
Rustic appeal, pristine beaches and picturesque landscapes. Sunny Beach, now one of Europe’s most economical escapes, has a hidden charm beneath its sun-drenched exterior. We went early in the season, ahead of the crowds which descend every summer enticed by the low price of a pint and the warm waters of the Black Sea. What we found was an ideal family destination, with a wealth of wonders on its doorstep.
Sunny Beach itself is the largest and liveliest resort on the Bulgarian coast boasting five miles of sandy beaches, sporting activities from sea-kayaking to paragliding, and is known for its nightlife. The bars open early and close late, and the crowds are certainly spirited.
Toting two under-fives, I was hesitant about how we would fit. But we weren’t alone; there were countless families like ours making the most of the low-priced packages and new flights direct from Leeds Bradford Airport.
There is certainly something appealing about guaranteed sunshine, white sandy beaches and a hotel pool. It was simple, easy, and the kids were happy. There were water parks galore, easy entertainment and child-friendly restaurants. And there was an abundance of rich culture on our doorstep.
Neighbouring Nessebar was a true delight. Unesco protected, it’s a “living museum” just minutes from Sunny Beach. This historic town, dating back 3,000 years and perched on a vast rocky peninsula stretching out over the sea, has been linked with ancient civilisations and houses the remains of 40 magnificent churches.
Particularly impressive is a medieval fortress wall, surrounding what was once the castle, while the sandstone and red-brick walls of the Pantokrator Church are worth a mention. With its narrow cobbled streets, gabled houses and remarkable architecture, this old town captures a snapshot of old Bulgaria’s cultural treasures.
We took a trip to the Blue Mountains. Great towering blue-black peaks, carpeted in green and dotted with tiny villages, it was as if we were stepping back in time. One stop took in the time-worn town of Jeravna, a close-knit community still cloaked in bygone customs. Don’t drink from the fountain, we were warned, or you’ll have to marry a local man. And atop a steep hill, up winding cobbled streets lined with toppling wooden homes still standing after 300 years, is a magnificent hidden church housing glittering icons and weathered stone sculptures.
The tour also took in a traditional meal in a neighbouring village – rich red wine with a meaty stew – before the ascent to the top. Thankfully, it was by bus, and the descent after a hot day was by chairlift. This was the best way to take in a taste of the picturesque “true Bulgaria”.
The trip day came to a close with a tasting at Pomorie winery. Bulgaria is proud of its wines. Once one of the world’s largest producers, it has a long history of grape growing. And it is famed for its rakia, a potent fruit brandy up to 70 per cent proof which is served with almost every main meal and is certainly a heady brew.
With Sunny Beach and Nessebar being such a popular destination there is an abundance of restaurants, many with a focus on seafood. Traditional dishes include roasted pig and the aforementioned stews, accompanied by light, crisp salads.
Dubbed the best value for money holiday outside the Eurozone by Post Office Money, the cost of a trip is certainly one of the country’s greatest draws. A three-course evening meal for two, complete with a bottle of wine, was just £22.32 and our spend certainly did go further. A pint, I’m told, is £1.
We stayed at the family-run Hotel Trakia Garden, perfect for children with two outdoor parks, impressive pools, and an indoor play area. Aptly named, Trakia Garden is home to an abundance of outdoor space, bursting with glorious flowers, and a small petting zoo.
The food was excellent – well above the hotel’s three star rating – with the restaurant itself soon becoming my favourite space. It’s a huge room, bathed in light with an outdoor terrace, a garden with a barbecue, and the warm presence of family owners Zlatelina Trepechova and her Scottish husband.
We spent more time here than we might normally do on a family break, but it is such a simple solution. Within minutes of the beach, it was at the heart of Sunny Beach but quiet enough to escape the bustle.
Bulgaria, it emerged, is an untapped treasure. Rich in history, with a warm, welcoming atmosphere and all the delights of an impressive 230-mile long Black Sea coast. Sunny Beach lives up to its name, with summer temperatures averaging 25 to 30 degrees.
For a family break, that proved to be all it promised in terms of an economical escape, it was ideal.
Leeds Bradford Airport has teamed up with tour operator Balkan Holidays (0207 543 5555, balkanholidays.co.uk) and is offering trips from all-inclusive to budget stays.
Flights take three-and-a-half hours to Bourgas.
A seven-night break at the three star Hotel Trakia Garden, Sunny Beach, costs from £1,306 based on a family of four including return flights from Leeds Bradford Airport to Bourgas and transfers to and from the resort.