Ski resorts offering bang for their buck are hard to come by, especially in Europe, where having a penchant for powder is a particularly expensive habit. Step forward Bansko, officially now Bulgaria's most popular ski resort (the Snowboarding World Cup was held there this year) which offers a dream combination of high peaks and low prices. With a lively, up-for-anything vibe, it's fast becoming the destination du jour for skiers looking for fresh snow, fun and plenty of face-planting. Here's everything you need to know.
Nestled at the base of the UNESCO-listed Pirin National Park, Bansko is gritty but charming. Currently undergoing an aesthetic transformation with many buildings under construction, it's nothing a light dusting of snow can't fix, and what the town lacks in immediate beauty it more than makes up for with a supercharged atmosphere. After a day on the slopes you're spoilt for choice when it comes to après, with an abundance of bars, restaurants and clubs at the bottom of the mountains beckoning in the party people. While 75km of tree-lined runs should should please most levels of skiers and boarders, it's all about the blue and red runs here - adrenaline-chasing junkies may not be stretched to their limits, though there are a few blacks if you can't resist showing off.
Bansko is 155km southwest of Sofia, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the airport. One of the cheapest options is to hire a car (which can be done in advance or at the airport), alternatively get a private transfer for around 30€ per person. The team at Bulgarian Transport are excellent, but if you're travelling en masse we recommend arranging a minibus transfer for around 14€ per person.
Accommodation to suit every requirement awaits, from top-notch luxury hotels to chilled-out chalets, you're spoilt for choice. For five-star decadence head to the Hotel Grand Arena; situated next to the resort's only gondola, you can ski straight off the piste and into an outdoor hot tub. At the other end of the scale try the family-run Avalon Hotel, or head to the St Ivan Ski & Spa for basic self-catering apartments. It's worth noting that many of the hotels can arrange ski hire on request, as well as daily shuttle buses to the gondola if you're a bit further out.
The pistes are served by a new gondola, which swoops you over gorgeous fir-tree forests to the top of the mountain - once you've overcome the long morning queues and apparent lack of queuing etiquette, that is. Be prepared to get your elbows out or get down early as it can take up to an hour to board (we told you Bansko was the place to go). If you're raring to go and really can't wait to hit the slopes, you'll find taxi drivers by the entrance who will take you to the base for 5€ each. Plans for a second gondola are on the horizon but at the moment a ski pass costs 30€/day or 175€/week, which you can buy from the ticket office. There are ski-hire shops on every corner; Traventuria offers great deals, while those wanting tuition can book into the local ski school where lessons start at 70€ per person for an hour. Insider tip: instructors hang around at the bottom of the mountain at lunchtime offering guidance at cut prices.
As the sun sets, ski down from the 2,500m summit and join the 14km-long ski road snaking all the way to the base of the mountain. It's a blue run, so after 4.30PM when the lifts close it gets jam-packed with beginners making a shaky descent - but skimming between them makes the scenic ride home all the more interesting. Once at the bottom, you can't miss Happy End which plays loud EDM music to a raucous international crowd. Bansko at its finest, this place will pump you full of cheer and send you merrily on your way. Other standout bars include Euphoria with its excellent al-fresco terrace and Penguin's Bar & Diner which is packed every night of the week. For a more conventional Bulgarian experience, head to one of the many 'mehanas' - cosy local restaurants loaded with traditional charm. Molerite is one of the best, offering outstanding food, Bulgarian wines and live music. If you want a night off, leave the slopes a little early and head to Dobrinishte, a village just a few kilometres away from Bansko where hot mineral springs will soothe the day's aches and pains.