Of course it’s pouring with rain on arrival at Bulgaria’s Sunny Beach. Calling a holiday resort ‘Sunny’ is the meteorological equivalent of ‘Happy Valley’ or ‘Lake Placid’, the kind of names that provoke grim death. And the town is not set up for rain, which gathers in great pools by the side of the road.
Hopefully, it will brighten up before Sunny Beach’s roughly 800 hotels prepare to welcome the annual army of tourists who will arrive from next month. Last week, it was announced that the resort, which lies on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, near Burgas and Varna, offers the cheapest sunny holiday in Europe for British travellers.
A study of 20 resorts by Post Office Travel Money found that prices in Sunny Beach are a third lower than in the Algarve, Portugal, its nearest rival.
Sunny Beach in Bulgaria, pictured, has been named as offering the cheapest sunny holiday in Europe for British travellers
Bottom of the table was Sorrento, the smart resort on the Bay of Naples in southern Italy. The report said that prices had dropped more than 10 per cent in the past year, mainly as a result of competitive pricing.
The more lively the town in the summer, the more melancholy it is out of season, and in high summer they don’t come more energetic than Sunny Beach. Things kick off when the charter flights begin in May, and build to a high pitch between June and September.
The main drag, Flower Street, becomes a raging party spot, full of teenagers, stag dos, hen parties and sundry other young people, drawn by sun, sand and the prospect of getting leathered for less than the price of a single craft beer back home.
Meanwhile, in the large all-inclusive resorts along the seafront, families can sprawl by the pool for a fraction of the cost of comparable destinations in Spain or Portugal.
Even somewhere like Torremolinos, which in other ways is comparable to Sunny Beach, cannot begin to compete on price. The calm Black Sea makes for easy swimming, while the gently curving shoreline has room for thousands of loungers.
All this fun has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, Channel 4 aired the first episode of What Happens In Sunny Beach, which ran for two series and exposed the antics of guests and staff. Not all of it was family viewing. The following year, BBC Three’s one-woman fun police, Stacey Dooley, featured Sunny Beach in an episode of The Truth About, entitled Booze, Bar Crawls & Bulgaria.
A graphic showing the prices of holiday essentials in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria, compared to the Spanish resort of Torremolinos
Nobody would deny that there is an underbelly to Sunny Beach. How seedy you find that underbelly depends on your interests.
Stories about drugs and sex abound. There is a small casino attached to my hotel. Bulgaria’s legalised gambling draws tourists, in particular from Turkey and Israel, where it is highly regulated. Next to the casino is a sex shop. Garish and puzzling toys peer out through the drizzle.
It wasn’t always like this. A man called Nicola explains that Sunny Beach began life in the 1950s as a resort for well-heeled elites in the Soviet Union.
‘Back then it was a lovely spot, with a few hotels nestled in the woods along the beach,’ he explains. It was after the advent of democracy, in the 1990s, that a building boom began, with developers throwing up large, functional resorts designed to pack in as many package tourists as possible, with the result that Sunny Beach will not be winning any architecture awards any time soon.
Sunny Beach, pictured, has roughly 800 hotels and they are preparing to welcome the annual army of tourists who will arrive from next month
Tourists from Britain and the rest of Europe started coming in larger numbers after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, since when its reputation as an anything-goes paradise has steadily grown.
Nicola’s assessment of the contemporary Sunny Beach is less favourable. ‘There are so many more beautiful parts of Bulgaria to see, especially in the mountains,’ he says.
‘Sunny Beach is girls, gambling and alcohol, but if people want to come, what can we do?’
Two years ago, the country’s then deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov, tried to crack down on some of the less salubrious businesses in the hope of attracting ‘more solvent’ tourists. To judge by the mix of businesses, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Sunny Beach is astonishingly cheap.
At the Kondor Bar, I glug bottles of local lager, Kamenitza, for 88p a pop. I speak to two of the town’s year-round British residents, Gav and Mark, who are keeping half an eye on the football. Both work in lettings. ‘It’ll be as busy as ever this year,’ Gav explains. He’s not worried about any dampening effect from Brexit.
‘People have already booked their holidays and they still want to get away. You have the weather, the beach and the prices are just…’ he adds, gesturing at his beer.
Tourists from Britain and the rest of Europe started coming in larger numbers after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, since then its reputation as an anything-goes paradise has steadily grown
Round the corner at Djanny’s, by consensus the best restaurant in town, I have a glutton’s jamboree: bread covered in molten cheese, a shopska salad of cheese, tomatoes and cucumber, a pork skewer straight out of Game Of Thrones, a chocolate brownie with ice cream and three more beers. The total price is £20.
Waddling over to my hotel like a Perigord goose, I start to see the place’s appeal.
The next day I head back to the beach. In summer, the sand is scaled with white loungers, but today it is empty and stretches off appealingly in both directions, wide and golden.
I can see why those old Soviets decided to pitch up here. At last, light pokes through the bluish clouds and Sunny Beach, briefly, lives up to its name.
From Venetian sands to a Turkish retreat: The eight other hot spots that won’t burn cash
By Tom Chesshyre for the Daily Mail
Bagging a bargain beach holiday does not mean limiting yourself to the likes of Sunny Beach in Bulgaria or Torremolinos in Spain.
Great deals are to be had across Europe. Here’s our pick of some of the best…
Waves crash against the beach of Lido di Jesolo, which is close to Venice in Italy. The sandy beach is nine miles long, with pleasant ice cream parlours and restaurants
You may not think of going to Venice for a beach break, but that is (almost) what’s possible at Lido di Jesolo in Italy, just northeast of La Serenissima.
It’s so close you can easily go to the city for a day trip and the best thing is that, when you return, the Lido is an oasis after all the crowds. The sandy beach is nine miles long, with pleasant ice cream parlours and restaurants.
How to do it: Seven nights half-board at La Serenissima (tui.co.uk), which has a pool and is a short walk from a waterpark, from £249 pp in May with flights and transfers.
Mlini in Croatia is a traditional fishing village that is a 15-minute bus ride from the city of Dubrovnik. There’s a charming centre with tavernas and restaurants
Another good choice for culture vultures, Mlini in Croatia is a traditional fishing village that’s now a popular resort within a 15-minute bus ride of the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.
There’s a charming centre with tavernas and restaurants, plus quiet coves with sand and pebble beaches. Ferry rides are available to visit islands along the coast.
How to do it: Seven nights’ half-board at Hotel Astarea, which has a pool and access to a pebble beach (jet2holidays.com), from £441 pp in May with flights and transfers.
Kioni, pictured, is a fishing village on the remote north-east coast of Ithaca in Greece. It has a tiny sandy beach and a handful of boutique shops
Kioni is a fishing village on the remote north-east coast of Ithaca, legendary home of Odysseus. It’s got a tiny sand beach, yacht moorings, seafood tavernas and a handful of boutique shops.
The joy of northern Ithaca is its peace and quiet, well off the beaten track in the Ionian Sea. Walkers can explore many ancient inland pathways.
How to do it: Seven nights’ self-catering at Likoudis Apartments (ionianislandholidays.com) with a shared pool, from £362 pp in May with flights to neighbouring Kefalonia, car hire and ferry crossing.
Tavira is a sleepy, ancient town in Portugal with fine 18th-century buildings. It is also blessed with some of the Algarve’s most picturesque beaches
Ihla de Tavira is on the eastern coast of the Algarve and is blessed with some of the region’s most picturesque beaches (and there are plenty to choose from).
It’s within a nature reserve, reached via a short ferry.
There are a few small restaurants and bars on the island, while Tavira itself is a sleepy, ancient town with fine 18th-century buildings.
How to do it: Seven nights’ B&B from £338 pp at Vila Gale Tavira (onthebeach.co.uk), which has a pool and is close to the beach, with flights and transfers included.
Olu Deniz on Turkey’s south-west coast has long been popular due to its gorgeous sand beach curving into a splendid turquoise lagoon
Tourism in Turkey has suffered of late due to regional troubles, which has had a knock-on consequence: many bargains are around.
Olu Deniz on the country’s south-west coast has long been popular due to its gorgeous sand beach curving into a splendid turquoise lagoon. It’s a relaxing spot, despite the many hotels, tavernas and restaurants at one end.
How to do it: Seven nights’ B&B from £282pp at Liberty Hotels (thomascook.com), which has a pool and is 150m from the beach, with flights and transfers included.
The Costa de la Luz in Spain is a far cry from the resort of Torremolinos. Pictured is one of the region’s serene beaches
Chiclana de la Frontera on the Costa de la Luz is a far cry from Torremolinos. Yes, tourism is well-established, but Chiclana is typically Andalusian with cobbled lanes, whitewashed houses, tapas bars and flamenco dancing.
It’s a five-minute drive from Playa de la Barrosa, a beautiful stretch of sand.
Cadiz, one of the oldest cites in western Europe, makes a good day trip.
How to do it: Seven nights’ all-inclusive from £394pp at Riu Chiclana (firstchoice.co.uk), which has a pool and is 200m from the beach, with flights and transfers included.
Pose in France
Many consider Nice on the French Riviera, pictured, as the place to go for a city break – but there’s the long stretch of beach as well
Stay in the heart of the French Riviera at a hotel in Nice and enjoy the elegant Promenade des Anglais.
Many consider Nice — with its Matisse and Chagall museums — a place to go for a city break, but there’s the long stretch of beach as well. Lots of posing goes on at Plage Publique de Beau Rivage — all part of the fun.
How to do it: Seven nights from £453 pp staying at the Radisson Blu Hotel Nice on the Promenade des Anglais (loveholidays.com), which has a pool and is 50m from the beach, with flights included.
Relax in Corsica
Pictured is the gorgeous sandy beach by the village of Algajola, which has pleasant bars and restaurants and a fine 16th-century castle
A sandy beach curves along the coast by the sleepy fishing village of Algajola, close to the ancient town of Calvi.
This is a quiet spot on the French island of Corsica, somewhere to relax with a novel. Pleasant bars and restaurants are to be found in Algajola, which has a fine 16th-century castle.
How to do it: Seven nights’ B&B at Hotel Santa Vittoria (corsica.co.uk), right by the beach, from £499pp with flights and transfers.