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Once a bustling crafts and trade centre – now one of Europe’s most up-and-coming ski and spa resorts, Bansko in south west Bulgaria, offers fine facilities, value for money and an enviably long ski season, as Sarah Dawson discovers. With a prime position in the shadow of the Pirin...

Ski out and spa in at the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, Bansko, Bulgaria

Once a bustling crafts and trade centre – now one of Europe’s most up-and-coming ski and spa resorts, Bansko in south west Bulgaria, offers fine facilities, value for money and an enviably long ski season, as Sarah Dawson discovers.

With a prime position in the shadow of the Pirin Mountains (of World Heritage status), Bansko was once a hidden gem for those in the know. Following the installation of modern lifts and a collection of smart hotels, the ski resort is now dubbed Eastern Europe’s best and attracting winter sports enthusiasts in droves. A stroll along the cobbled lanes of Bansko’s World Heritage Old Town offers a timeless portrayal into the country’s fascinating history. An unspoilt and rustic atmosphere greets you and the comforting smell of wood smoke fills the air.As you amble the streets, admire timber-framed stone houses and architecture dating from the Bulgarian Revival period. Beside the 19th century Holy Trinity Church watch local women knit colourful socks, blankets and bags just as they have done for hundreds of years.

South Bansko is located within the National Park Pirin, a botanically diverse UNESCO status park. There are over 120 cultural and historic attractions to be explored in this part of the country, from the world famous Rila monastery (95km from Bansko) to the exquisite murals in the Holy Trinity Church.

The five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena is a sophisticated and plush place to park your weary self after a day in the mountains, positioned perfectly at the foot of the ski slopes, opposite the Gondola lift, and is Bulgaria’s only member of The Leading Hotels of the World.

An early evening flight from London Heathrow followed by a three-hour transfer from Sofia meant an uncomfortably late arrival in Bansko, so the hotel’s platter of smoked salmon, selection of cheeses, breads, and desserts in my room was extremely well received.

My alpine-inspired deluxe double room with its wood-styled furniture, cheerful ambience and surrounding snow capped mountain views provided immaculate comfort, and the king size bed (complete with choice of pillows) offered great solace after a night on the taverna tiles.

Bansko has 65kms of marked ski runs with peaks of up to 2900 metres and in February 2011 the International Ski Federation (FIS) Ski World Cup was hosted here. Beginners should not be put off by these statistics, as the resort is also considered to be a great starting point for the winter sports virgin, to which category I belonged. The hotel recommended some one-to-one tuition and I felt I was in good hands with Mariana from the Ulen ski school, an ex Olympic cross-country skier with 25 years experience under her ski salopettes.

I began with the very basics, getting in and out of my skis and cleaning my boots to walking perpendicular to the slopes, for obvious reasons. Once the skis were on and my poles were in the snow, I was eager to get going – I push with the poles and slide on the skis, it can’t be that hard, can it?

An hour later, exhausted from walking sideways up on an almost horizontal mountain (we didn’t venture beyond the nursery slopes) with boots digging into my shins like sheets of metal, I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Under Mariana’s direct, yet patient, tuition, I practiced snow ploughing over and over, widening the legs to slow down, parallel skiing then pressing down on the inside of my skis to stop. Finally, after two hours of gruelling repetition I was thrilled to be skiing down the slope towards the cafe, by this time in definite need of medicinal refreshment.

Over the next two days I mastered turns and even graduated to balancing techniques; skiing down and lifting one foot up, then the other (agony on the shins). After years of avoiding a winter ski holiday for fear of falling over and breaking limbs, or even worse, looking foolish, I felt I had made pretty good progress.

In the great snowy outdoors under bright blue skies and soothing sunshine my lungs felt refreshed from the alpine air and the adrenalin-seeking atmosphere was electric. What wasn’t to love about skiing? Alas, there were bigger fish to fry. It was time to unhook my excruciating ski boots and unwind in Kempinski’s Zalaz Spa.

Awarded Favourite Spa in Bulgaria in 2010 by the SpaFinder Reader’s Choice and Bulgaria’s Leading Spa Resort three years running (2007/08/09), the Zalez Spa and Wellness Centre really did live up to its glowing reputation.

Charming spa therapists whisk clients away to the exotic shores of the Caribbean with St Barths and Terrake products, but as Bulgaria is known as the land of roses (you can buy oils and beauty products almost anywhere) it’s worth sampling signature rituals like the Rose Damascena Body Ritual or the Traditional Bulgarian Hot Ceramic Tile Massage with herbal oils.

My first treatment was a 90-minute hot stone massage, preceded by a body scrub. In a contemporary and tranquil treatment room my male therapist began the invigorating scrub using coarse brown sugar, and after I’d taken a quick shower, continued with a heavenly hot stone massage. Afterwards, my skin had a silky smooth glow, normally unheard of during the average British winter.

The following day I returned to experience the much talked about AlphaSphere, a crescent shaped chair designed by Sha, an award-winning Austrian artist and perception researcher. The chair is said to activate and interweave the senses in an entirely new way to reduce stress, enhance creativity, loosen tight muscles, lower high blood pressure, stimulate skin circulation and promote deep and effective breathing.

This innovative, futuristic and space age styled treatment is being dubbed the ultimate unwind for busy urbanites. It’s practical too – you remain fully clothed and there are no messy oils to stain your outfit or grease your hair.

On the premise that complete relaxation is only attained when all the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue) are relaxed and harmonious, in exactly 23 minutes an AlphaSphere session promises ‘reconnection’ with yourself and the world. Colour, shape and light combine with sound, vibration and warmth to allow relaxation and stimulation – a concept that almost seems paradoxical.

Inside an enclosed pod with subtle violet and blue lighting I lay down on the curved boat shaped bed, my body moulding into its curves and contours. I felt cocooned, warm and safe, in a very womb-like situation.

My therapist said there was only one thing for me to do – relax. As soon as she floated away and closed the pod’s door, the bed began to subtly vibrate (I was on the standard setting, but this can be increased) and my task to relax completely eluded me, as my mind was still full of the day out on the slopes.

Yet somehow and somewhere within the 23 minutes of treatment, the sounds, colours and shapes seemed to morph into one as I drifted into a blissful state, aware of my surroundings, yet at the same time, detached.

Uniquely and quite bizarrely, this treatment does deliver – it allows you to achieve both deep relaxation and rejuvenation at the same time. I felt calmly invigorated and rested, but not in a deep-sated, can’t move, post-massage way. It’s easy to see why AlphaSphere is becoming the treatment du jour for stressed-out businessmen. As well as spas and health centres, AlphaSphere is being used in homes, airport lounges and business areas and is the perfect antidote to jet lag and the daily commute – if only I had one at home!

The spa has both indoor and outdoor heated pools and a hot tub as well as a tranquil wellness and relaxation area just for the grown-ups. I sampled each of the three saunas (of varying levels of heat) and the steam baths but the snow room (an enclosed cold chamber, which is great for circulation) was closed when I visited. The spa also has a fitness centre, an outdoor tennis court, a plethora of treatment rooms and a Softouch Ayurveda centre.

Before and after treatments I spent hours in the spa’s steaming outdoor pool and hot tub, marvelling at views of the majestic snow capped mountain slopes. As an orange sun slipped behind pure white mountains to leave a clear and starry night, I concluded that the natural environment is the perfect partnership for a superb spa experience.

The hotel has a choice of indoor and alfresco bars (the Come Prima Modern Mediterranean Restaurant, The Gallery Restaurant and the Japanese Sushi Bar and Teppanyaki Grill). My group and I ate mostly in the Gallery Restaurant on the all-inclusive buffet menu.

After dark you can enjoy evening drinks snuggled beside one of the hotel’s roaring log fires, or a knees up in the “Sing Sing” piano bar, where a live band entertain until the small hours (which was thoroughly enjoyed by all).

For those keen to party until dawn, there’s no shortage of mehanas (traditional tavernas), pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars in Bansko itself because it is both a modern mountain resort and a living rustic town with a population of around 10,000 people. The Happy End, which is conveniently located within a snowball throw of the hotel, was a good evening end point!

In short, the service at the Kempinski was impeccable not least the thoughtful and delicious desserts and delicacies delivered each afternoon to stave off post ski, pre-dinner hunger pangs. The spa is top class, the therapists couldn’t have been more helpful and the location is superb.

Bansko may not have the glamour of France’s Courcheval or Switzerland’s San Moritz, but if you’re after a low cost luxurious ski and spa break, this Bulgarian resort is a great choice. Whether you are an adrenalin seeker (ski in the winter, hike or mountain bike in the summer), or seek a far gentler experience (a gondola ride to take stunning photos or to indulge in the spa), the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena is an exceptional mountainside base any time of the year.

Sarah stayed at the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena courtesy of Balkan Holidays (
Balkan Holidays offer a seven-night break staying at the five-star Kempinski Hotel from £594 per person (bed and breakfast basis) including flights from London and hotel transfers. Full ski packs and learn to ski packs, including lift pass, ski and boot pass are available from £115. Visit or call 0845 130 1114.Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, is a three and a half hour flight from London and Bansko is a three-hour transfer from Sofia.Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, Pirin Street 98, 2770, Bansko, Bulgaria Tel +359 749 88888; Fax +359 749 88565

23-min AlphaSphere treatment 45 BGN (£20)
90-minHot Stone Massage 150 BGN (£67)
90-minRose Damascena Body Ritual 140 BGN (£63)
90-minTraditional Bulgarian Hot Ceramic Tile Massage with herbal oils 140 BGN (£63)

Bansko statistics:

  • 6.3km gondola lifts and six surface drag lifts
  • 65kms of marked ski runs with peaks of up to 2900 metres
  • An illuminated 7km ski run for night skiing
  • Snowboarders ‘half pipe’ facility
  • Extreme winter sports ‘fun park’ complete with artificial bumps and jumps
  • Ski season lasting from mid December to early May
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