Black sea beauty
Thomas Breathnach leaves the brash beach resorts of Bulgaria behind to discover a very different world
It was way back in the 1950s when the first sods of a resort named Slanchev Briag were turned. The Black Sea hotspot started out as a popular getaway for affluent Russians, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain, authorities soon cottoned on to the capital power of British and German mass tourism.
After remarketing their town like an export bottle of plonk, Sunny Beach or Sonnenstrand was born.
On my recent trip to its parasol-peppered shores to experience what the Bulgarian package holiday has to offer, I had hoped to uncover a little culture too.
Following a three-and-a-half-hour scoot across the continent, my friend Carolyn and I landed in the city of Burgas, a short bus transfer from the moon-lit wetlands of the Black Sea.
Arriving into Sunny Beach, there was a palpable sense of anticipation aboard our coach, with the hotel drop-offs of fellow passengers eliciting varying degrees of envy and relief. We seemed to have drawn the long straw however; Hotel Majestic was an impressive resort right on the beach, with a proud number 2 TripAdvisor ranking out of the resort's 202 hotels.
The next morning, we theatrically threw our curtains open to a glistening complex of pools and a sun-scorched seafront, all luring us in for an early dip.
There was a little business to attend to first as we made a beeline for the Falcon/ Thomson welcome orientation downstairs.
Holiday rep Allison power-pointed her way through the local lowdown while our fellow travellers, an older group of Mancunian ladies, bickered alongside us about conversion rates. Two Lev to the euro, for the record.
By the end of the session, we'd earmarked quite a to-do list; a catamaran trip on Tuesday, Splashworld on Thursday and Khan's Tent cabaret show (featuring contortionist Bendy Wendy), the apparent must-see, lined up for Wednesday. Factor in our tan-time, beach batting and a Friday road-trip, we were already fully booked.
After a morning swim (in perfectly warm waters) we began to explore our surrounds. Sunny Beach's main boardwalk strip is party central; a rather arresting onslaught of neon bars, clubs, restaurants and tacky vendors punting everything from knock-off Prada to all-day English brekkies.
A short stroll on, however, and we soon found ourselves in the ancient village of Nesebar – whose terracotta-topped Old Town earns it the moniker as the Pearl of the Black Sea.
A narrow causeway marked by a wooden mill connects to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose highlights include an exquisite Byzantine church and a share of hidden beaches with retro straw parasols and colourful fishing boats.
Restaurants in Sunny Beach tend to have catalogues rather than menus – massive compilations of dishes which were generally delicious and good value (while not astonishingly cheap). We were glad of our refuge back at base however, and of what would become the evening ritual of the hotel buffet. Food at the Majestic was excellent; salads, roasts, fresh veggies and an a la carte local menu night where we enjoyed Bulgarian salad (not unlike a Greek variation), delicious lamb kebabs and a tasty spread of pastries and baklavas.
A few days of blissful sun-lounging later, we were off to Khan's Tent (€45), a giant marquis commanding a panoramic mountainside setting over Sunny Beach.
A modest four- course meal (perhaps we'd been a little spoilt by the Majestic) accompanied a razzmatazz show from can-canning carnival dancers to a plate-spinning Charlie Chaplin.
If the cabaret was a little beyond our demographic, Aqua Paradise (€20), Sunny Beach's newest theme-park attraction, would surely balance things out.
After catching the local shuttle, we arrived at the park like two kids at a Willy Wonka water-world.
It was initially overwhelming but maintaining our Germanic sense of order, we'd soon hatched a ride strategy: ease in with the Space Jam then advance to the Tsunami before heading for the Wiggi-Wild-Wild West show.
It turned out to be a masterplan: over a sun-scorched afternoon, Carolyn and I dipped and dived from disco-lit spiralled tunnels to raging, rapid whirlpools. And just like any kiddy theme-park, it seemed like it was us thirty-somethings who were enjoying the greatest splash.
The next morning we set off on our Bulgarian road-trip – an orange Nissan Micra (€35 per day) our conspicuous and trusted transit.
"If you don't refill with petrol, I will come back to hotel to find you" deadpanned our rental agent in the hotel car park.
"Ah, cool the jets, Dimitar!" I'm a man of my word.
Ditching the sat-nav for the traditional map we were off, and it was only a matter of minutes before we'd left the anonymous chaos of the resort.
Tar soon turned to gravel as we rose up Sunny Beach's surrounding mountains, a herd of wild horses on a parched hillside marking our arrival to the village of Kozichino.
The pedestrian pace of bucolic Bulgaria life was instant; goat shepherds in the valley, farmers tilling the land, old ladies with a woman-of-Aran timelessness crocheting by the roadside.
Later, came Medven, a Balkan mountain village of wooden chalets and evergreen hillsides lending a postcard hint of Transylvania, while beyond a mountain pass, we encountered the communist-blocked, yet otherwise pretty, city of Sliven.
Navigating a land of sporadic signposting – in the Cyrillic alphabet – doesn't come without a few detours however. By afternoon, we were wonderfully off-course, motoring across labyrinthine plains of vineyards and sunflowers as we tried to pilot towards our next post of Vedrovo.
After finally discovering a tiny abandoned hamlet with the character of a Belarusian exclusion zone, Carolyn and I headed to its post-office, tentatively decoding the sign 'âåäîâî' like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Google translate. We did eventually manage to crack it however: "Ve-dro-vo" it was, and we were back on track.
Driving back to the coast that evening, Bulgaria had indeed delivered the holiday mix we were hoping for.
High octane Sunny Beach may not be to everyone's smack but with a great hotel base, plenty of beach time and a few back-road days of adventure, you'll have your package getaway down to a tee. Just make sure you don't miss out on those evening buffets.
Need to know
Thomas went to Bulgaria with Falcon Holidays (1850 45 35 45; falconholidays.ie), which flies from Dublin to Burgas from May until September. A seven-night package, including flights, starts from €379pps (three star Polyusi Hotel).
For a family waterpark package (two adults plus two children), four-star Aqua Nevis Club SplashWorld have all inclusive rates from €2,079.
Thomas stayed at the four-star Hotel Majestic which offers rates from €579pps half-board. Make sure to request a sea view.