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Non-euro destinations Turkey and Bulgaria are currently enjoying a boom in popularity with UK visitors, offering good value beach holidays, guaranteed sunshine and easy accessibility. But how do they rate for spa pampering? Catherine Beattie reports…. Bulgaria If you’re looking for an affordable break, Bulgaria offers some of Europe’s lowest...

Spas in the Black

Non-euro destinations Turkey and Bulgaria are currently enjoying a boom in popularity with UK visitors, offering good value beach holidays, guaranteed sunshine and easy accessibility. But how do they rate for spa pampering? Catherine Beattie reports…. Bulgaria
If you’re looking for an affordable break, Bulgaria offers some of Europe’s lowest prices and most reliable weather. The country’s main lure is the Black Sea coast with its wide beaches of golden sand, picturesque bays and somewhat overdeveloped resorts. Currency is the Bulgarian lev, which will be phased out in favour of the euro by 2010.Bulgaria may not be the first destination that springs to mind when planning a spa holiday, but nonetheless has a spa heritage and many therapeutic mineral springs. The Communist-era spas are more like huge medical institutions than luxury resorts and remain largely unvisited by overseas tourists. By contrast, the country’s new luxury spa and wellness market is growing rapidly with ambitious new projects that will soon add to the 85 or so, four and five star hotels currently licensed to offer modern spa facilities. Most of these are located in tourist cities like Varna and in popular winter ski and beach resort areas.

Golden Sands 
Golden Sands is about 17 kms from the historic city of Varna, Bulgaria’s largest port and 25 kms from Varna Airport. The resort is situated on a wooded hillside and most hotels (except those on or very near to the beach) are reached by sloping paths or steps (something to keep in mind if you have mobility problems or small children).

My room is on the seventh floor of the five-star Hotel Melia Grand Hermitage, one of Golden Sands’ largest hotels with 727 rooms and suites. The hotel is surrounded by outdoor pools, gardens and parkland and has direct access to the promenade and the Blue Flag beach. My room overlooks the sea and outdoor pool and is in the hotel’s LEVEL area, entitling me to extra guest privileges including express check-in, use of a separate dining area in the main restaurant, free mini bar and internet access.

Coming down to breakfast my first morning, I find the ‘special’ dining area empty (probably because it is uncomfortably cold), so I walk quickly through to a small dining area outside. The breakfast buffet (reached via the chilly dining area) is a long stroll from my table – not good for making several trips or when I want a coffee refill. For a five-star hotel, service is poor and the food uninspiring – I settle for some fruit, a couple of small hard rolls and coffee. After breakfast, I ask Reception if I can borrow an adapter plug to charge my phone and laptop, but none is available.

The YHI Spa is one of Grand Heritage’s main attractions. In addition to a full range of spa treatments, hairdressing and beauty services, you can also book dental treatments like tooth whitening and implants. Emre Kiris, the charismatic spa manager explains that the spa’s unusual name is inspired by the myth of Yhi, a goddess responsible for creating life and light. He shows me around the facility and tells me about the spa’s exotic menu that includes therapies from Thailand and Indonesia, Hawaiian water massages, Japanese shiatsu massage, French procedures with curative mud and traditional cleansing rituals in a Turkish hammam. We walk past a well-equipped gym and down the stairs to the indoor pool area, where several of the spa’s 26 treatment rooms are located. There are sauna and relaxation areas, a chromatherapy (colour therapy) room, treatment suites for couples and a unique vinotherapy room for the Thracian Wine Ceremony, the spa’s signature treatment. This uses Bulgarian grape seed products renowned for their antioxidant properties and is popular with couples. The treatment encompasses skin peeling, grape body mask, grape seed oil massage, a rejuvenating wine bath and a glass of wine.

After my tour of the spa, it is time for a treatment – I’ve chosen to have a Hot Stone Massage. First, I complete a health questionnaire, then Rada my therapist shows me to one of the massage rooms and leaves me to get ready. On her return, she checks I’m comfortable and starts massaging my legs and feet with the smooth hot stones. She then helps me sit up and places hot stones in a line down the treatment table. When I lie back I can feel the therapeutic warmth softening my shoulders and lower back. Small hot stones are inserted between each of my toes, while Rada deftly massages my tummy, legs, face and neck. Half way through, I turn over so my neck, shoulders and back can be treated. More warm stones are placed down my spine while Rada attends to my legs, feet and arms. Finally all the stones are removed and I’m left to relax for a few minutes before getting dressed. A lovely experience that leaves me energised and glowing!

I spend the rest of the day enjoying the sunshine and exploring Golden Beach, strolling along the promenade with its shops, snack bars, pavement cafes and stalls selling all kinds of goods and souvenirs – but no adaptor plugs.

I meet my colleagues for a drink and dinner outside (the private dining area is still empty). The meal is another buffet (so more walking to and fro), but at least we have a waiter looking after us and there’s a good choice of fresh fish, meats, salads and vegetables and even some local white wine.

I’m beginning to warm to the hotel, but when I return to my room at the end of the evening, I find it hasn’t been cleaned or serviced. I can easily make my own bed, of course, I just don’t expect to do so in a five star hotel.

Verdict: Reasonably comfortable room but poor breakfast buffet and general service in the hotel. The YHI spa is excellent – great amenities and choice of treatments carried out by friendly helpful staff. 

Sunny Beach
The five-star Barceló Royal Beach Hotel is in the centre of Sunny Beach, the biggest and most popular of Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts. Sunny Beach boasts eight-kilometres of Blue Flag beach flanked by beachside hotels and apartment complexes linked by a bustling promenade of shops, stalls, restaurants and bars. There are children’s playgrounds, an aquapark and sports facilities galore as well as all kinds of nightlife.

The Barceló Royal Beach Hotel is conveniently situated in the middle of the resort’s largest shopping mall, so many boutique-type shops and small cafes are just minutes away. The hotel has a large garden with three large outdoor pools, an indoor pool and is minutes from the beach. While we wait for our rooms to be prepared, we enjoy a tasty buffet lunch in the modern restaurant.

My 4th floor room is comfortable without being luxurious – it would be nice to have a plug for the basin and a shower that didn’t flood the floor, but at least it overlooks the large outdoor pool complex, currently thronged with families enjoying themselves in the sun. From my balcony, I can see the sea beyond the high rise hotels and apartment blocks. I unpack, freshen up and set off to find the quickest route to the beach.

Ten minutes later, I’m standing on a wide expanse of soft golden sand, covered with multi-coloured sun loungers and parasols stretching as far as the eye can see. Although the beach is busy, because it is so vast, it doesn’t seem overcrowded. I take off my sandals and paddle along the shore as far as a small jetty, from where boats depart for the village of Nesebar, across the headland. According to my guidebook, Nesebar is an unspoiled gem, with quaint cobbled streets, traditional architecture and fine fish restaurants. I’d love to visit and feel tempted to climb aboard one of the boats, but no one speaks English and can tell me how long the trip takes and the cost. Returning to the hotel, I buy some water at a small shop AND an adapter plug!

In the evening we go to Khan’s Tent – a popular nightspot on a hill overlooking Sunny Beach. For the first time since arriving in Bulgaria, we have a non-buffet dinner, served by cheery waiters who bring us authentic Shopska salad (made with chunky salad vegetables and white cheese), followed by chicken and potatoes and ice cream cake. Our glasses are topped up with copious supplies of Bulgarian red and white wines and we are entertained with a talented cabaret of acrobats, musicians and conjurers. When the show finishes, the disco starts and we all take to the dance floor to burn off the night’s calories.

Next morning, we have a brief tour of the Royal Spa, which is situated on the lower level of the hotel and has the largest hammam/Turkish bath in Bulgaria. The spa manager announces that we are all having the Chocolate Massage and shows us to the communal changing room. We change into paper thongs and cover ourselves with flimsy cotton wraps (no bathrobes). We walk through to the warm hammam, where we are told to discard our wraps and lie face up, virtually naked, on the heated marble tables.

As inhibited Brits, we are uncomfortable with such an arrangement and request that our treatments are carried out separately. After some discussion, this is reluctantly agreed, and we are taken to single treatment rooms.

I find it hard to relax – after the hammam’s warmth the treatment room feels cold and the therapist’s manner is brusque. As soon as the treatment is finished, she disappears to look after another client, leaving me in the shower with only a small hand towel to dry and cover myself. I’m about to make a naked dash to the changing rooms, when thankfully I find a paper thong and a fresh wrap in a cupboard under the sink.

Verdict: Comfortable room, though bathroom had talcum powder and a foot print on the floor and lacked basic essentials. Not only an unusable shower and plug-less basin, but dim lighting and no tissues or water glasses.
Despite my traumatic experience, the Royal Spa is a great facility with excellent amenities and over 200 different spa rituals and procedures, including romantic couples treatments. A private treatment in the hammam would have been a real treat. 

Balkan Holidays (Tel 0845 130 1114 offers:Seven-nights bed and breakfast at the Hermitage in Golden Sands from £415 per person;Seven-nights half board at the Barceló in Sunny Beach from £462 per person.

All prices include flights, transfers, accommodation and supplements.

Balkan Holidays offers summer beach holidays, winter ski, lakes & mountains holidays, tours and excursions, city breaks, last minute holiday deals and low cost flights to Bulgaria from 21 UK airports.

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