Bulgarian beauty at the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko
By DARREN FULLERTON
When a friend suggested Bansko of all places for a summer break, my initial response was a quizzical look followed by “that’s in Bulgaria, isn’t it?!”. Although it may not be a destination that jumps to mind for many, I was looking to discover a place that would meet one key objective for some precious time out – I needed pure unadulterated R&R.
Of course, all the other key ingredients were important too: great food; somewhere to go for a lively atmosphere, as well as the opportunity for a bit of impromptu adventure.
Could Bulgaria really tick all these boxes? There was no reason to have any pre-conceptions and it was simply a place that I had not really thought about until now. I love discovering new places that are off the beaten track and Bansko certainly turned out to be a dark horse. If you want to follow suit – and you will by the time you have finished reading – don’t expect typical utopia. You won’t find any beaches or the touristy accessories that go with a seaside destination. Rather, the backdrop here is the majestic Pirin Mountain that is punctuated with pine forests and magnificent sharp and rolling ridges that sprout high to the gods. If you think this is no place for relaxation, think again. This is utopia with a refreshing edge.
After a busy work schedule and a week void of sleep leading to my departure, I arrived in Bansko completely exhausted. However, leaving was a different story and when I departed I felt rested, revived and energised. This is largely due to three days of pampering at the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena. Set towards the top of the town, this incredible retreat overlooks Pirin. With a room facing this spectacular setting, it was impossible not to feel a sense of awe while the burdens of the world literally dropped from my shoulders, as effortlessly as the sun descended behind the mountain.
This really is a gem of a retreat that boasts everything you need for an indulgent break. While it is best known as a luxury ski destination, the spa also puts the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena on the map. However, there is more to this place than just these obvious luxury aspects.
They have fine-tuned the balance of every component. The building is grand but not imposing, meanwhile the interior is traditional, yet also modern and chic. The staff are very attentive and provide a professional service but also remain very relaxed. While the facilities are plentiful, the hotel also has an intimate feel. This all leads to an overall lavishly grand experience, but not one that is contrived and it is a cut above without being stuffy. On reflection, it is balancing juxtapositions like these that make or break a getaway holiday and Kempinski are certainly hitting the right note at this establishment.
The level of care they put into staff selection is evident throughout the fabric of the operation. The doorman parks your car when you arrive before taking your bags to your room while warm and friendly reception staff greet you with an informative welcome. The housekeeper was even eager to help plan my route to the mountain.
The hotel itself is made up of five big pine clad mountain lodges, all connected together with opulent sloping corridors. The rooms on one side face quaint Bansko town and on the other side you are treated to the Pirin Mountain. The main restaurants and spa facilities also face Pirin, so sitting outside and eating breakfast as the morning mist rises from the mountain proves a rare and special treat. The slopes finish literally in front of the hotel so it wasn’t hard to imagine the transformation this setting enjoys during winter: manicured green textures becoming fluffy and white, scattered with skiers gliding back down towards the gondola, which starts directly opposite.
Offering all the facilities you would expect from a five star hotel and more, I had to battle with the temptation of spending the duration of the trip inside the grounds – pampering at the spa, dining in one of the restaurants and having cocktails on the balcony at sunset. The room was luxurious, modern and well maintained, with pine clad features, which reminds you of the mountain setting. A huge bed providing optimum comfort ensures a great night of sleep and a sizable modern bathroom with all mod cons helped ease me into spoiled mode.
During the stay I had a look at the Presidential Suite, which can only best be described as luxury redefined. Usually the preserve of celebrities and corporations, the suite is perched on the fifth floor of one of the lodge buildings, up in the rafters. Designer furniture and art make this place as much of a rarity as the grand layout and opulent bathrooms.
The spa is a luxurious haven for all to enjoy. There is a whole heap of pampering treats including an indoor and two outdoor pools, one of which boasts to be heated even when surrounded by snow in winter. Hot tubs, hammam, steam rooms, saunas and hot beds, all help relax the muscles after a hard day of skiing or mountain hiking and there is also a small gym with decent equipment.
For those who enjoy the ultimate spa experience, massages and other treatments can be booked in the treatment zone, where the lighting, whale music, aromas and climate culminate to relax the senses and move you to a place that is a world away from reality. If you are in search of an experience that is truly unique, AlphaSphere, conceived by European designer, Arti Sha, is a boat shaped chair that rocks a little when you move, radiates soothing lights from the inside and hums sounds that gently pass through the mind. This piece of genius took me to another place entirely and I was sent into a meditative state. It is hard to think of another time in my life when I have felt utter bliss like this.
Incorporating the wonders of technology into the spa is something Kempinski have embraced and this is further proven by the introduction of Asyra into their repertoire. It entailed holding onto two metal handles for five minutes, while a gadget scanned all the nooks and crannies of my body before presenting an insightful report on the areas for improvement in my health. Nutrients that were lacking were the subject of this report and rather craftily, the whole package concluded with a tailor made menu offered by the hotel’s head chef.
A couple of hours later, I was presented with a bespoke menu by the chief waiter and given the chance to adapt it before making a reservation for that evening. It may have been healthy, but it was an exquisite dining experience. Salmon served on bean mash, lemon sole, caramelised goats cheese salad and feta ravioli provided gastronomically delightful satisfaction, enhanced all the more with a sip or two of wine recommended by the knowledgeable waiters.
There are plenty of dining and socialising options at the Kempinski and one that I really enjoyed was the outdoor terrace bar, bringing Ibiza chic to the mountains with its stylish white colour coordination and trendy atmosphere.
As for Bansko, it’s evidently a new resort town and like the Kempinski, it feels quite modern, yet there is clearly a real effort to retain the traditional charms of an old mountain town. Wooden clad chalet-esque buildings house a substantial choice of great eateries and places to sit for a local beer (Zakorka is one of the best beers I have ever tried) while you watch the world pass by along the sloping, well-maintained avenues. The atmosphere in summer is pretty laid back, but still buzzy enough for an enjoyable evening out. It is easy to imagine how lively it is in the winter months – Bansko is now Bulgaria’s top ski destination.
About 16km beyond the town, up via the snaking mountain road, you’ll find the Vihren Hut from where you set off to indulge your sense of adventure. The drive up is pretty special. Dramatic lush green peaks team with azure blue skies that literally take your breath away. Air is quite scarce at the best of times as this is 1950m above the sea but in the height of summer it is still brilliantly warm. From the Vihren Hut there are plenty of directions you can go for a hike along marked routes that are colour coded according to the level. The terrain is rocky and green and peaky with a few lakes scattered around. Think The Sound of Music and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. It’s a place where you can challenge yourself, get your adrenaline going or simply escape, relax and be at one with nature.
Bansko is a special little destination that took me a world away from everyday life in a way that was more unique, exciting, relaxing and breathtaking than most other places I have visited. I will definitely be back in the winter to check out the world class slopes but I recommend others to make the most of its solace sooner rather than later.
Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena in Bansko is located at 96 Pirin Street, Bansko 2770, Bulgaria. More information can be found by calling +359 74 988 888 or vising the website at www.kempinski.com/en/bansko/hotel-grand-arena/welcome