With Bulgaria in the EU but not yet signed up to the euro, the favourable exchange rate has acted like a magnet for the young and lairy, to the point where it’s in danger of becoming a Balkan version of Torremolinos.
But don’t let the notoriety of one resort put you off. Bulgaria is a relatively unspoilt country brimming with natural beauty, and the tour operators are now on a mission to attract a different class of customer. If our week there was any measure, it may soon be better known as an affordable family-friendly destination, with its own unique charm.
Our family of four flew to Bourgas, in southern Bulgaria, on a package with Balkan Holidays. From there, we were bussed down to the five-star Duni Royal Resort, an impressive-looking complex with a resemblance to the Atlantis hotel group, that has been developed around a bay on the Black Sea. Blessed with a long strip of sandy beach, the resort includes two imposing hotels, several restaurants and bars, and a concrete-looking “amphitheatre”, site of the “all-inclusive” evening entertainment.
We opted for a cluster of small apartments particularly suitable for families, set apart from the noisier hotels and surrounded by forest. These modern apartments are designed to blend in with the surrounding woodland.
Everything was kept spick and span by the army of Bulgarian women who bustle around the resort, brandishing cleaning agents and black bin bags. From the lawns and walkways to the bright bougainvillea flowerbeds, all is meticulously maintained. It is quiet too — all we heard at night was the chirruping of crickets.
We awoke on our first morning to cloudless blue skies and hot sun, and the weather remained glorious throughout our stay, with late twenties sunshine and a sea warm enough to bask in.
Holiday in the sun: the beachfront at the Duni Royal Resort
It was a week spent in the company of Russian, German and east European families. While London friends have started exploring Croatia and Montenegro, this corner of the Balkans is relatively undiscovered; we were virtually the only Brits here. This is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, we totally switched off — we did not so much as glimpse an English newspaper while we were there. Wi-fi is available but at an extra cost and we were happy to forgo it — our priorities being swimming, relaxing, and catching up on our reading.
On the down side, while there are children everywhere, there were no playmates for ours (though they amused themselves happily enough with lots of games involving the resort’s golf buggies, which the staff were remarkably relaxed about).
Duni has a whole range of activities on offer, from tennis to beach volleyball, mini-golf to archery and mountain biking, though some of these cost extra.
There are group aqua aerobics sessions down on the beach, along with the fish pedicures and massage booths.
We found the private beach a bit full-on, particularly the pumping Euro pop that seemed to be as all-inclusive as the towels and sun loungers. But the sea was great, with a restricted swimming zone and a gradually sloping seabed, so even small children could safely splash about. And there is something eternally life-affirming about rolling around in the sea and then running back onto sand so hot that it scorches your feet.
We passed a week lazing by the various pools, and being amused by the sight of our seven- and 11-year-old sons getting their first taste of the all-inclusive holiday. Scarcely able to believe their luck, they set off on endless forays for toxic-looking non-alcoholic cocktails or glow-in-the-dark ice creams, or plates of the pink sugary cakes that appear like clockwork every afternoon. Never had they enjoyed such unfettered food freedom, available with a mere flick of their blue resort wristbands.
But unfortunately we did not. This is not a holiday for foodies. The prevailing ethos seemed to be “quantity over quality” — almost as if the spectre of Communist food shortages still hung in the air. But it was not all bad — fresh fruit and salad were available, though you had to nip in quick to get your share.
Once we learnt how to pick our way around the more hazardous offerings we managed to eat fairly well, but — given this was billed as a five-star hotel — the food was definitely an issue.
Although it is good just to relax in the sun, there is a limit to how much time you can spend reading, and then swimming, and then reading again. Wanting to see a little of the “real” Bulgaria, we took a taxi to nearby Sozopol, an ancient harbour town with a strong naval history. Imagining a picturesque little fishing town, we were surprised at how busy it was — after the seclusion of Duni it felt as if half of Bulgaria had descended onto the town’s meandering cobbled streets lined with pretty wooden houses, packed with touristy restaurants — many offering delicious fare — and street stalls. In summer they hold free concerts.
We were shocked by the London-style cab prices, and subsequently discovered that we were being charged well over the odds, even for tourist rates.
One driver confided that you were only allowed to work certain hotel routes if you paid extortionate fees to the dodgy-looking characters controlling the patch.
But overall our family holiday was a success. You can’t go wrong with a week full of sun, sea and fresh forest air.
Bulgaria definitely has its own unique charm. It is a country that has not realised its full tourist potential yet — but that is not such a bad thing.
Seven-nights at the Holiday Village, Duni, from £562pp (£429 per child, with one free child place, subject to availability) all-inclusive including return flights from Gatwick to Bourgas departing September 14, balkanholidays.co.uk