Grab a bargain break in Europe's budget ski capital Bankso before the season ends.
A ski holiday in Bansko that won’t break the bank
The perils of skiing with young children are many. They lose their mittens. They cry when they fall face down in the snow. And their bladders can’t cope with the cold. All good reasons to leave the young offenders at home. Heading for the slopes with three kids under the age of 7 was a bonkers idea, or so I thought. It would be a refrigerated version of the noise and chaos of our life in Dubai, with the added threat of frostbite and avalanches. Far more sensible then to tell them that we were just popping out for a few minutes before piling into a cab to the airport and abandoning them to the care of their grandparents.
That would have been the plan if wily old granny and gramps hadn’t checkmated us before our scheming had even taken shape by cheerfully announcing that they would also quite like to go skiing.
So it was agreed. We would dispense with reason and common sense and instead do what we had vowed we would never do. Within minutes, we were proceeding blindly to the airline website to book our flights, like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards squinting through milk-bottle goggles on his first Olympic jump.
FlyDubai added the Bulgarian capital Sofia to its route network in December and all of a sudden the warmest and most affordable of European skiing has also become the most accessible.
For UAE residents long deprived of the sort of cheap last-minute winter ski deals available to those living in Europe, a week on the slopes with the kids is now a lot more affordable. And the month of March offers the best end-of-season deals for accommodation and equipment hire – which means there’s still plenty of time to book a short break if next winter seems too long to wait.
Bansko is officially the cheapest ski resort in Europe. If you’re used to eating out in Dubai, you’ll feel like Bill Gates when the bill arrives.
Our first restaurant meal for four adults and three children cost about €40 (Dh166), including drinks – or roughly the price of a steak in a half-decent Dubai restaurant.
It didn’t take long to realise how the economic slowdown in Europe and the collapse of the Russian rouble has taken its toll on the town’s winter tourism economy. Competition for tourists is fierce – a stroll down the high street at dinner time involves running the gauntlet of a series of pushy but good-humoured pavement hustlers, asking where you’re from and what you like to eat.
So while Bansko may lack the sophistication of a Klosters or Courchevel, it delivers on value for money. And the skiing is good.
The mountain is served by modern and fast gondolas, and has plenty to keep skiers and snowboarders of all levels challenged. The main runs are also kept topped up by snow cannons to compensate for the sometimes sporadic natural cover – which has unfairly earned the resort the label “no snow Bansko”.
Perched halfway up the Pirin Mountains, 165 kilometres south of Sofia, Bansko is an odd mix of charming old-world heritage site and former-Eastern-bloc functionality. It manages to be both homely and edgy. Imagine an alpine village scene straight out of Heidi, but in neon.
On the main street, restaurants known locally as mehanas vie with a scattering of bars and other nightlife spots. This is a town determined to cater to every conceivable need of the visiting tourist. Even the restaurant menus reflect this, with hundreds of dishes displayed on their illustrated and laminated pages. Somehow, it all works.
Despite the eclectic mix, Bansko is a great family destination with a gentle slope running into the heart of the town that serves as a vast playground for children on sledges, as well as learner skiers young and old. The atmosphere is generally jolly and there’s plenty to keep kids entertained.
The odd mix of shops and restaurants also reflects the huge variety of seasonal visitors to the town. Greece and Turkey share Bulgaria’s southern borders, with Serbia and Macedonia to the west and Romania to the north. Bansko also attracts a large British and Russian influx during respective school holidays.
We travel from Sofia to the resort on a shuttle bus called the Bansko Express, which is like a less magical version of the Polar Express, in a Transit van.
It costs between €12 (Dh50) to €30 (Dh124) per person each way, depending on the size of the group, and can be booked online in advance.
While the journey takes just two-and-a-half hours in travel time, with kids, you should roughly double that to get a better sense of how long it will actually feel like.
The questions from the back are frequent and wide-ranging. It’s like a mobile preschool Davos.
“Are we there yet?” “Why isn’t there any snow?” “Where does snow come from?” “Who would win in a fight between a lion and a crocodile?” “What about a coyote and a lion?” “Is a coyote the same as a hyena?” “What if there were lots of coyotes against just one lion – who would win then? Daddy, open your eyes. I’m talking to you.” That’s before we had even exited the airport parking.
Having established the hypothetical relative dominance of all species in relation to all other species, we arrive at our Bansko hotel somewhat jaded and befuddled, with mental images of pugilist big cats and canines floating like butterflies and stinging like bees.
The grandparents, deploying all the accumulated shrewdness of their combined 140 years, have made sure they’ve booked a separate transfer to the resort – another point to the silver sledders. By the time we limp through reception like the survivors of an ill-fated arctic expedition, they’re all snug and smug in fluffy white Kempinski bathrobes.
While Bansko may be the budget capital of the European ski season, the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena is the resort’s nod to luxury. It’s by some measure the best place to stay in the town – and just a few yards from the gondola that transports skiers up the mountain.
For visitors acclimatised to the high standards of UAE luxury hotels, the Kempinski doesn’t disappoint. But where the hotel really scores is making the practical business of skiing and post-piste relaxation extremely straightforward.
With just a week to play with, or five days of skiing when the arrival and departure days are stripped away, it’s important to keep the faff potential to a minimum. And with skiing, there’s always plenty of faff. Where do you get your passes? Where do you hire your gear? How do you organise lessons? When does the ski kindergarten start? It can all become a bit daunting.
The Kempinski can organise most of this for you, without guests having to stray farther than the toasty reception, where a row of stuffed reindeer heads preside solemnly over the comings and goings.
It also has its own ski room, run by a pair of affable and chatty hotel veterans, where guests can store their equipment. It opens directly onto the nursery slope. It means the journey from breakfast table to gondola takes just a few minutes – a massive advantage if you also have to herd uncooperative children in unfamiliar footwear, dragging skis and poles behind them.
The most tiresome part of skiing is always the getting changed, which can become downright exhausting if you also have to project-manage the little ones at the same time. The hotel ski room makes life considerably easier.
The hotel also has a selection of Jacuzzis, steam rooms and saunas – and even a snow room to cool off again. The heated outdoor pool is a big hit with the kids, who are fascinated by the notion of swimming comfortably outside in sub-zero temperatures.
But an even bigger advantage for those travelling with small children is the kids’ club, where the little darlings are kept entertained and engaged with all sorts of arts and crafts when they’ve had enough of the cold. They lap up all the attention, and it becomes harder over the course of the week to lure them out onto the slopes.
The enduringly sunny attitude of the ladies at the hotel is in sharp contrast to the considerably sterner approach of the staff operating the ski kindergarten on the mountain, which is supposed to keep young kids entertained with indoor and outdoor activities. It’s a good idea in theory, because parents can pop in and out while skiing past to check all is well. But when we visit, there are too many kids and too few staff. The atmosphere inside the building is as frosty as outside. This is one corner of eastern Europe where educational glasnost had still not penetrated.
When our 3-year-old starts to whinge, the response of one of the supervisors is to give him a level dead-eyed stare.
“Stop crying little boy or your mummy will leave you,” she says slowly and deliberately, like a Bulgarian version of a James Bond supervillain.
Even the normally belligerent wee man tilts his head quizzically at that one – before giving a little gulp. But in fairness to her, it did shut him up. There were no requests from our children to return to the ski kindergarten after that.
Still, we are able to tell them who would win in a fight between the two ski kindergarten ladies and an assorted gang of tigers, lions and coyotes. It would be the ladies, children – most definitely the ladies.
So back to the ultimate question. Is it possible to enjoy a ski holiday with young kids? At times, yes. Yet, even with the help of the hotel kids’ club and the able assistance of the two pensioners on ice, it’s occasionally a challenge – but then all holidays with young kids are. Overall, it gets the thumbs up from the big and little people alike. We’ll be back next season.