by Richard Jones

AFFORDABLE luxury – the dream ticket for many holidaymakers. However, you seldom find those two words in the same sentence, especially when booking a winter break.

Bulgaria may not be on many lists when searching for a skiing trip, but it really should be. A couple of years ago, its largest winter resort, Bansko, topped a poll of European ski centres that factored in hotel, ski pass, equipment hire, lessons, evening meals and drinks for a family of four.

The gateway to Bansko is Sofia airport. After a three-hour flight from Manchester, my wife Rachel and I, with our daughters Isla and Evelyn, were whisked from the city centre’s airport to the Pirin mountains.

Bansko’s main street was a sea of bright lights, with restaurants, shops and ski rental outlets, while in the centre is the best hotel in the resort, if not the whole of Bulgaria, the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko.

In a perfect location for skiers and snowboarders, next to the gondola station, it’s an oasis of luxury and tranquility. As soon as we set foot in the place, we were relaxed.

The hotel features three very different, but equally welcoming, restaurants, and on our first night we were booked into the Italian-inspired Come Prima. With live cooking in the open kitchen, it had a sophisticated ambience, and we tucked into three courses from its Mediterranean menu.

After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of freshly-baked croissants, smoked salmon and piping hot omelettes, it was time to make the short walk across to the gondola. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the top station where our daughters met their instructors. Ulen is the resident snowsports school in Bansko, and 10-year-old Isla was paired with an ex-pat teacher called Hannah. Isla caught the skiing bug, and couldn’t wait to get on the slopes each morning.

Evelyn, six, spent the first morning in the same group, but as a beginner, found it hard grasping the basics. After a private lesson and a few snowball fights with her instructor Chris, she began to find her feet on the nursery runs.

After a long first day’s skiing it was a godsend to head back down the mountain to the hotel. With three swimming pools, Jacuzzis, saunas, steam baths and the Snow Room, the luxury spa was just the job for our aching bodies.

Back in Bansko town, traditional taverns called mehanas provide most of the après-ski.

We headed for tea at Bears, and with a pint of lager around £1.50 and a large pizza under a fiver, it was easy to see why the resort has acquired its cheap-as-chips reputation.

Over the next couple of days, it also became apparent why Bansko is beginning to eclipse Bulgaria’s other main winter resort Borovets.

Post-weekend, queues at the gondola subsided, the slopes were quieter and after a large dump of snow, the pistes were groomed to perfection.

Our skiing confidence grew, and Rachel, Isla and I headed higher up on blue and red runs through pine forests to the imposing Todorka Peak. Although the piste map is smaller than more established resorts (about 70km), there was more than enough to keep us entertained.

Back at the hotel, there was live music in the bar and the girls loved sitting next to the fire, listening to a singer called Lizard playing his acoustic guitar. Our second evening in Bansko was Greek night in the Gallery Restaurant. We had a feast of salad with feta, olives, moussaka and lamb chops, while the cooking station was used to prepare moules marinière.

Although unhappy at the prospect of leaving Bansko, during our last night we were in celebratory mood - and not just because we’d handed our heavy ski boots in. It had been an amazing holiday, rounded off with a reservation at the hotel’s Sushi Bar & Teppanyaki Grill.

There are few dining experiences that can rival sitting with your family, while just two feet away, a flamboyant chef wields a knife bigger than Crocodile Dundee’s and theatrically slices and dices his way through a myriad of meats, fish and vegetables.

The chef played up to the crowd and in between the chopping, sizzling and flashing flames, there were screams of amazement, laughter and applause.

One of the chef’s tricks was to flip a piece of fried egg and see if we could catch it in our open mouths. Unfortunately none of us managed it and the chef missed his target.

However, as far as family holidays go, cheap and cheerful Bansko hit the spot in every way.

• Crystal Ski Holidays (; 020 8610 3123) offers a week’s half board at the five-star Grand Arena Kempinski Hotel in Bansko from £2,948 for a family of four, including flights to Sofia and transfers (price given is for departure on January 20, 2018).

• Direct flights are available from all major UK airports.