Cow bells can be heard outside when we wake after our first night in Bansko, Bulgaria. Going out onto our hotel room’s verandah, we find that the bells actually belong to 100 or so sheep, tended by a shepherd and his dog. Above the animals, cable cars cross almost silently as they go up and down to the Pirin Mountains, which are directly opposite. All together, it is quite a sight to begin the day.
Bansko, 160 kilometres south from the capital, Sofia, is the top ski resort in Bulgaria. It is said to feature the country’s best ski centre, the longest slopes and the longest season, from mid-December to mid-May. Numerous new hotels and facilities have been built near the gondola lift station, and the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena is the most up-market of them all.
When guests pull up, the valet takes care of their cars, leaving them to inspect the plaques commemorating the many awards won by the hotel. It is a heck of a list but bear with us because it says a lot: Bulgaria’s Best Ski Hotel in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (2016 results awaited), as awarded by the most prestigious organisation in the international ski industry, World Ski Awards.
Also, the Kempinski gained admission to the TripAdvisor Hall of Fame last year after winning Certificates of Excellence for five consecutive years from 2011. And there is more: “Bulgaria’s Leading Spa Resort” in the World Travel Awards 2015 and “Bulgaria’s Best Hotel Spa” in the World Spa Awards 2015. Plus: “Best Spa Hotel” in Bulgaria, as named by the Bulgarian Tourism Board, in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (the 2016 result is again awaited).
Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena – remember this brand of hoteliers dates to 1897 – opened in October 2005 and since then remains the only five-star hotel of an international chain in the Bansko region; in fact the only Kempinski in Bulgaria. It has accommodated more than 100,000 guests, including Hollywood celebrities, top skiers, sportsmen, statesmen and popular singers.
The hotel is one building in five segments, the whole being reminiscent of a large alpine chalet with wooden verandahs. There are 157 alpine-style rooms and suites, a luxurious spa, and meeting and dining facilities with spectacular Pirin Mountains views. Pirin National Park was established in 1962 and received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983. It covers 40,000 hectares and gives tourists the opportunity to discover Bulgaria’s natural beauty.
This though is August, and it is the wrong time of year to use the Kempinski Ski Room. Here in the season you can store and dry your gear, and VIP passes are available to avoid queuing on the adjacent cable car. In fact, total novices can turn up with no gear at all and hire the lot, plus take skiing lessons. In summer, visitors to the Pirin must content themselves with hiking, fishing, rock climbing, horse riding and golf.
Still, whatever the season, a good breakfast is required first and in a Kempinski there is a vast repast: 100 items is standard, meaning multiple fresh fruits (by the barrelful), dried fruits, nuts, cereals, salads, trout, salmon, sausages (by the bucketload), breads, cheeses; you name it. Banitza is a traditional Bulgarian baked filo pastry of whisked eggs and sirene, the national cheese.
Another culinary cornucopia awaits at the evening buffet, including cold cucumber yoghurt soup, artichoke and calamari salads, braised lamb, chicken with mushroom sauce and mahi-mahi fish. Then, aprés-ski or aprés-hike there are the convivial surroundings of the lobby bar (by the hectare) with crackling fireplace in winter and enough comfy chairs for a furniture shop.
Outside the hotel, almost in the shadow of the Pirin Mountains, are two outdoor pools and a kids’ pool, and there is an indoor pool and indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis. Summer or winter, a feature of the spa area is the snow room, a freezing experience said to be good for you immediately after immersion in the steam bath, Turkish bath, Finnish sauna or bio sauna.
Guest rooms come with separate baths – good for soaking sore muscles – or a young Thai lady offers a soothing massage in the spa.
We would send you a postcard but people don’t seem to do that nowadays.
Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena,
96 Pirin Street, Bansko, Bulgaria