For a change from resorts in Spain or Portugal, Bulgaria’s Balkan Peninsula has much to offer at competitive prices
As the cyclist passed within a few feet of our table it certainly took after-dinner entertainment to new heights. Not only was he riding a unicycle on a tightrope but he was also juggling five conical hats that all ended up neatly perched on his head.
He was followed by equally talented acrobats, dancers and other slick entertainers, and it was easy to see – at close hand –why Khan’s Tent is packed every night.
Sunny Beach in Bulgaria might have a stereotypical image as a cheap and cheerful resort, but we soon discovered there is more to it than meets the eye.
Sunny by nature
It is undoubtedly a bright and breezy, fun-in-the-sun destination that attracts young people who want to sleep most of the day and party the night away in the plethora of bars and clubs lining Flower Street, the main entertainment hub.
But with the manicured crescent of its sweeping Blue Flag beach, wide choice of hotels from basic B&Bs to lovely four- and five-stars and a host of alternative attractions, it has plenty to offer families, couples and groups of mature friends; particularly since the dark clouds of terrorism have gathered over some other holiday spots and left people looking for an alternative.
Situated on the south-eastern Balkan Peninsula, at the crossroads between east and west, Bulgaria is less than three and a half hours from the UK.
Sunny Beach, set on a six-mile stretch of shoreline, is the largest seaside resort on the country’s Black Sea Riviera.
Aside from living up to its name with temperatures peaking at 30°C in July, another big attraction is that it’s amazing value for money.
Many hotels offer all-inclusive deals, butas eating out is so inexpensive, it’s fun to try out the local restaurants where you’d be pushed to spend £20 on a three-course meal with drinks.
And, with a relatively short season running from May to September, competition is keen, so you’ll find plenty of tempting deals to entice you into the various bars and eateries, such as two-for-one cocktails or a free cuppa with a full English breakfast!
From our base at Hotel Neptun Beach, right on the seafront, it didn’t take long to find a spot on the promenade to enjoy our first lunchtime shopska salad, an essential part of most Bulgarian meals.
Similar to Greek salad, and made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salty white cheese, it can be a starter, side dish or main course. Other Bulgarian specialities to try include kyufteta meatballs, or kavarma, individual casseroles of pork or beef, flavoured with onions and mushrooms.
Out and about
The next day we head to UNESCO-listed Nessebar, built on the edge of a peninsula that was once an island. With a history going back more than 3,000 years, it’s one of the oldest towns in Europe, and known as the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’.
Nessebar’s countless churches are decorated with bright stones and brickwork, and the ruins of 5th-century St Sophia church mark the centre of town.
The surrounding narrow lanes are lined with small cafes and shops, which are a great place to pick up local handicrafts, including intricate lacework, jewellery and colourful pottery.
There are also several hotels in and around Nessebar, which are perfect for those who want somewhere quiet that’s within easy reach of Sunny Beach.
Want to venture further afield? There are plenty of excursions from Sunny Beach to surrounding towns and into the countryside.
Positioned on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea, Pomorie is 11 miles from the resort and one of Bulgaria’s largest centres for therapies using mud, extracted from a lake near the town.
If you don’t fancy getting plastered in mud, Pomorie built its wealth on the wine and salt industries – still in evidence today.
Interesting places to visit include Roman tombs, the medieval monastery of St George and tiny Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord church, built in 1764.
We spend our last evening at Khan’s Tent, which is inspired by the shelters of ancient Bulgarian khans. Situated on a hill overlooking Sunny Beach, it’s the best spot to take panoramic photos of the resort at sunset.
Inside, £25 buys a fantastic evening of live music, a circus-style show and a three-course meal with drinks included. It was an outstanding night.
While most readers probably won’t want to come back with a permanent reminder of their visit courtesy of one of the many tattoo parlours lining the front, a trip to Sunny Beach will leave plenty of other happy memories.
Great for culture vultures
A one-hour ferry service runs from Nessebar to Sozopol, the oldest Black Sea settlement, with its ruins and archaeological discoveries. In 2012, it became infamous for links with vampires after archaeologists discovered a 700-year-old skeleton with an iron spike through the chest.
Great for fun-loving families
Splash out at Action Aquapark, Bulgaria’s first water park. Located on the western end of Sunny Beach, there are white-knuckle slides, a big children’s area and gentle lazy river.
The park is open daily and there’s a free shuttle bus from the main hotel area.
Bulgarian specialist Balkan Holidays flies to Sunny Beach from 18 UK airports.
A seven-night stay at Neptun Beach, Sunny Beach, is from £494 all-inclusive, and from £438 on a B&B basis at The Mill in Nessebar (£12.50 extra per day half-board), including flights and transfers.
For further details, call 0845 130 1114 or visit balkanholidays.co.uk.