Author: Ben Lloyd (Page 1 of 13)

I'm a keen traveller - and a professional copywriter

Arrival in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria

Departure airport: London Stansted
Destination airport: Burgas, Bulgaria for Sunny Beach
Airline: Jet2

Stansted is, as always, a complete nightmare. To be fair, car park buses and security were actually relatively efficient for once which made a pleasant change. Once through security however, it becomes clear that the airport is in a mess.

There are queues for everything and nowhere near enough seats for the number of people waiting for their flights to be called. In reality, the chaos is caused by panicking travellers turning up three or more hours early for their flights. If everyone arrived two hours early as instructed, the queues and overcrowding simply wouldn’t happen.

Top tip: Use Jet2’s twilight luggage drop-off service – it’s one less headache when you turn up at stupid o’clock the next day

Bonus tip: You can park in Stansted’s Mid Stay car park for one hour, free. The round trip should take well under an hour because the airport is much less busy in the evenings.

The flight itself was relatively pleasant. Jet2 is firmly no-frills territory, but the crew make a good effort so the journey feels less like a crowded coach trip. Arriving at Burgas Airport, we were greeted by uniformed staff who swiftly directed us towards our taxi driver who would be taking us on to our hotel. 

With no Bulgarian at our disposal, the drive was quite quiet – and illegally fast. We arrived long before the other holidaymakers who had opted for the included coach transfer. 

The Aqua Nevis Resort Hotel is located on the outskirts of Sunny Beach, in a somewhat odd location sandwiched between a beer distribution warehouse and the local bypass. Inside however, the property is pretty decent. Our triple room looks out on the pool (and beer warehouse) – sadly you cannot see the Black Sea which is about 15 minutes walk away. 

Our room has an enormous double bed, an extra single, and two very large wardrobes. The TV has about 10 channels, some of which are in English. If you really cannot live without TV, bring your Amazon Fire TV Stick or similar. We ended up playing MTV 80s for most of the day (it’s the only music channel available!).

Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick

Take your TV with you anywhere in the world – all you need is a free HDMI port. It’s not as polished as an Apple TV box but it is a lot smaller and cheaper.

Just remember that you will probably need a paid VPN subscription if you want to use British TV apps like iPlayer and ITVX while travelling.

Top tip: These devices are always MUCH cheaper during an Amazon sale.

Check-in at Club Aqua Nevis is at 2pm. If you arrive early, it is possible to complete the usual formalities – collect your towel cards, hotel wristbands and aqua park entry wristbands – but you won’t be able to get your room keycards in advance. This is not really a problem – your wristband allows you to grab lunch or start taking advantage of the all inclusive bar.

Main meals are served three times each day in a large dining room. Everything is self-service, and in one corner there are chefs working a grill and a pan, producing nightly “specials” (usually fish or chicken and pasta). This is not gourmet cooking, but it is hearty, filling and limitless. There is a large salad selection for anyone trying to be healthy and an even larger selection of desserts for everyone else. Say hi to Chris on the ice cream counter – he’s a great guy.

Late that evening I get a text message from Jet2 introducing our tour rep Chris (another one) and detailing the days and times he will be onsite to answer questions or provide assistance. There is also a 24 hour hotline if we run into real problems while in Sunny Beach.

Initial impressions: 

  • Jet2’s charges for seat reservations are extortionate.
  • Food is available from somewhere inside the complex between 8am and 9pm, so you are unlikely to go hungry.
  • There is a supermarket directly across the road from the hotel, so you can buy water and milk. Each hotel room has a small fridge to store them in too.
  • Bars are open between 10am and midnight. Just about everything is included.
  • The rules for collecting and returning pool towels seem oddly complicated.

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Settling in at the Aqua Nevis Hotel and Aquapark resort

Breakfast at the Aqua Nevis Resort seems to be a continuation of dinner – with the addition of pancakes and omelettes cooked to order. Fresh honeycomb is an interesting novelty.

After breakfast we visited the spa to swap our ‘towel cards’ for a green towel that can be used at the hotel pools. These towels can only be collected between 9am and 12pm, or returned between 4pm and 7pm. Your towel cards must be returned at some point during your stay or you will be charged at checkout.

We decide to take a trip into the centre of Sunny Beach and use the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel. It quickly becomes apparent that Flower Street – the centre of the town – is like a Bulgarian version of Magaluf, so we head back to the hotel after a quick walk on the beach.

Top tip: You can find the free shuttle bus timetable on the desk at reception. 

The weather is very hot, but despite this we have no problems finding a sunbed by the hotel pool. Later we decide to check out the Action Aquapark next door. Apparently rated as one of the top 25 waterparks in Europe, Aqua Nevis Resort guests have free access for the duration of their stay. By now the sky is clouding over and a breeze has picked up. We risk a few laps of the lazy river and head back to the hotel.

Later in the afternoon we visited the “sports” section of the resort and play a few games of pool in the arcade. Each frame costs 4 lev and there is a machine to buy the necessary tokens mounted on the wall.

Today’s observations:

  • The Aqua Nevis Resort is extremely popular with families
  • The WiFi system requires you to re-login frequently – make sure you take a picture of the tiny slip of paper you are given at reception because the password is not memorable.
  • There are a couple of chilled water dispensers located around the hotel building so you can refill your own bottles.
  • The “Animations Team” organise activities for kids, teens and adults almost continuously throughout the day beside the hotel pool or on the sport pitches located behind the hotel.
  • There is a stage at the back of the hotel which hosts a range of entertainment at night, including a kids disco, bingo and karaoke.

Top tip: Entertainment runs until 11pm most nights. If you have young kids (or prefer early nights) consider asking for a room at the front of the hotel which tends to be quieter.

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Lazy day in the Action Waterpark

A pattern is emerging. Breakfast, followed by a lounge in the sun for several hours. Then lunch followed by a trip to the Action Waterpark next door. We’re busy doing not a lot and yet still everything is tiring.

Top tip: Food and drink in the waterpark is not free. You will need to head back to the hotel lobby to get drinks and then take them into the park.

Today I learned a little more about the Aqua Nevis Resort hotel. Built 2012, construction took just seven months. The development is co-funded by TUI Holidays to capitalise on the already-successful waterpark next door. There is a photo montage showing construction just outside the main restaurant, culminating with a picture of an Eastern Orthodox priest blessing the hotel.

I have spoken with a number of the hotel staff today, many of whom have travelled long distances across Bulgaria to work the summer season. It’s early days, but they seem to be enjoying themselves at the moment. 

Later in the evening we catch the live show – a Freddie Mercury tribute act. The singer may have been more Borat than Bulsara, but it was amusing and he went down well with the crowd.

A picture of the Freddie Mercury tribute act at Aqua Nevis resort, Sunny Beach, Bulgaria
Borat or Bulsara?

A really lazy day

Today we mixed things up a little, heading into the Action Waterpark after breakfast. Despite already being 25ºC, the water in the pools had not yet been fully warmed by the sun, so it was quite cold. We ended up staying for several hours and missed lunch in the dining room. Instead we had a hotdog and chips from the hotel’s poolside bar.

Top tip: Doughnuts and biscuits are served in the hotel lobby every day at 4pm. Be there early because they disappear quickly once the kids arrive.

I had a quick chat with the man working the pasta bar who tells me this is his second – and last year – working at the Aqua Nevis resort. Although he likes his job, the pay in Germany is much better. It will take him ten years to save the deposit for a house working in Bulgaria, or just one season in Germany. 

We’ve also remembered why we don’t normally do pool or seaside holidays – we’re both quite red now, despite our liberal use of sun lotion. However, we are also getting into the swing of doing absolutely nothing…

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Sightseeing in Nesebar

After several days relaxing, it’s time to do some sightseeing in the ancient town of Nesebar. The free hotel shuttle bus was packed, so instead we decided to walk into town. We headed down to the beach and noted that there were more waves than on our last visit. We decided to catch the ferry across to Nesebar (15 lev each) so we could better appreciate the views of the Black Sea. There was a little bit of a swell which made the journey quite interesting, accompanied by whoops of excitement from the kids who were on board.

Nesebar itself is pretty, and there are plenty of ancient monuments and sites to check out (along with plenty of shops selling tourist tat). Some of the buildings and ruins are more than 1500 years old – and the foundations of the city walls are at least another 1000 years older…

A picture of Linda and Ben standing in front of the Hagia Sofia Church while sightseeing in Nesebar, Bulgaria
This church is older than the USA. By a considerable distance.

We took a leisurely stroll up the island and took the opportunity to grab two geocaches. Next to the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God Eleusa we stopped for lunch in Bistro Sezony, a little restaurant that looks out over the sea, back towards Sunny Beach. Lin had the grilled sea bream and I had deep fried goby – both were very good. Two mains and two beers cost ~£25. Probably a little over-priced but the food and view were good.

A picture of some deep fried goby I had for lunch while sightseeing in Nesebar
Deep fried goby

On the way back we decided to catch the road train, figuring we would get to see some sights on the way. The man selling tickets (5 lev per person) assured us the “train” went to Sunny Beach – but neglected to tell us that that was just the very edge of the town. When we reached the end of the line, we were still more than 2.5 miles from the city centre and the Aqua Nevis resort. We – and several other passengers – were caught out. 

After walking a few blocks we found a bus stop and were able to continue our journey to Flower Street – just as it began to rain. Tickets cost just 2 lev and it is possible to catch a bus all the way from Flower Street to Nesebar Old Town (or vice versa).

Back at Aqua Nevis there was a Bulgarian theme to dinner this evening, with several local delicacies to try. Kebabs, mish mash and goulash were on offer, along with national desserts. Everything was pretty good – definitely one of the better nights in the restaurant.

Evening entertainment came in the form of a quiz, won by a massive team who were very quick on their mobiles. Afterwards we enjoyed several drinks prepared by the ever-friendly team working the lobby bar.

Top tips:

  • Don’t catch the road train when sightseeing in Nesebar – it probably doesn’t go where you want it to.
  • Make sure you ask the bus driver if they are going to Flower Street – not just Sunny Beach. Otherwise you will probably end up at Sunny Beach bus station which is a slightly further walk back to the hotel.
  • The Aqua Nevis bar staff are happy to make stronger drinks – you just have to ask.

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Waterparks and magic

Originally we had intended to go into the city of Burgas at least once, but after yesterday’s public transport “adventures” we decided against it. We’ve actually really got into the swing of doing absolutely nothing, so after breakfast we headed back to the Action Aquapark

And so we do nothing but eat, drink and laze. For a whole day.

After dinner entertainment is provided by Zane the Magician. He does several versions of the ‘sawing the lady in half trick’ and they are all pretty good. He finishes his routine by levitating a member of the audience which is a nice spin on an old classic. Zane the Magician’s show is well worth catching if you get the chance.

Annoyingly, the end of our holiday is in sight and we’re both quite disappointed this will all end soon.

Shiny stuff

At some point overnight, Linda remembered she wants to get a new pair of silver hoop earrings (the pair she bought from Amazon were deceptively labelled plated junk). During our visit to Nesebar, we spotted a decent looking Bulgarian silver jewellery shop called ‘Argento’ at no. 14 Mena Street (I’ve just tried to add it to Apple Maps), so we decide to make another trip to the island.

This time we caught a bus direct from Flower Street to Nesebar Old Town (2 lev per person). The bus drops us right at the gates to the ancient town, so it’s only a short walk up the hill to Argento. 

A picture of Nesebar city walls which are just a few hundred metres from the Bulgarian silver jewellery shop, Argento
The Nesebar town walls are really, really old.

We spent a lot of time looking at Bulgarian silver jewellery – rings, earrings, bangles and more. The young man running the store is the son of the jeweller. He is incredibly helpful and he explains each of the various pieces we look at. Lin chooses a pair of silver hoop earrings and a large silver bangle that has been beaten and chased with traditional Bulgarian motifs. At their request, we agree to pay cash in return for a larger discount.

The jeweller’s son takes me to a “trustworthy” ATM at a nearby bank branch where I am not charged any commission or charges for using my Revolut card. He tells me that the local media has been running news stories about the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow Euronet ATMs that are everywhere in Sunny Beach. Not only do they charge extremely high commission rates (~20%), but no one seems to know who owns them – or whether they are skimming cards of unsuspecting users.

After the Bulgarian silver jewellers we stop for a beer in the Nesebar square. Who doesn’t like a cold beer in the shade on a very warm day?

A short bus trip back, a quick cocktail by the pool and it’s lunchtime. Afterwards we head back to the Aquapark for the last time, trying out some of the larger waterslides.

A picture of a waterslide at Action Waterpark in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria
Big slide, big fun

After dinner entertainment tonight is karaoke. Enough said.

Top tips

  • Ask the bus conductor if they are going to “Nesebar Old Town” – otherwise you may end up having to walk from the new town which is also known as “Nesebar”.
  • Stay away from the Euronet ATMs – even if they are legitimate, you will still end up paying far too much commission. This advice applies to Euronet ATMs everywhere – not just Bulgaria.
  • Don’t forget to return your pool towels to the Spa on your last night before 7pm. Otherwise you may be charged for not having a “Pool Card” when you check out the next day.

Home again

We’re up and packed early, so we can take our time over breakfast. Around 10am we checked out, the process takes 2 minutes, and then we waited outside reception for our private transfer to Burgas Airport. The Jet2 coach arrives earlier and collects a handful of guests for their return to the airport. Shortly afterwards a 9-seater minibus arrives – a bit overkill for the two of us!

Check-in at Burgas Airport is quick and security is smooth. The whole process takes less than ten minutes – which means we are now really early for our 13:15 flight. The airport is looking pretty busy, so we decide to use my two free Priority Passes to the access the lounge (you get two free every year with an Amex Gold card). The lounge is nothing special, the food choice particularly underwhelming, but it’s a nice quiet space which we have completely to ourselves. It’s also located directly opposite our gate, which makes a pleasant change (looking at you London Heathrow and Berlin).

Unfortunately, the usual Stansted inefficiency and incompetence means that our plane is late to arrive at Burgas airport. In the end we manage to depart just 20 minutes after our scheduled flight time, which is pretty good work by the aircrew.

Top tips

  • A packet of crisps costs €4.50 at Burgas. Buy snacks before arriving at the airport.
  • The Priority Pass lounge is only really good for small snacks, so don’t expect a filling meal before your flight. The beer is cold though. (You get free Priority Pass membership when you apply for an American Express Gold Card, which is nice).
  • Do not leave the lounge until your flight is called – you will just be stuck in a crowd of hot and bothered people creating a traffic jam in the airport.

Final thoughts

In the interests of transparency, it’s important to tell you that Lin won this holiday through a competition run by Jet2. There is almost nothing about this prize that matches our usual travel style – we usually take city breaks and do a lot more sightseeing.

So has this trip changed our mind about resort holidays? Absolutely. We’ve actually enjoyed being able to sit around and do nothing. Lin has even talked about holidaying with our large (and mostly grown-up) family at some point in the future. We’re sure the grandchildren will love the aqua park, pool and the activities laid on by the Aqua Nevis Animations Team. We’re also sure our kids will love the fact that you could conceivably enjoy a whole week away without spending another penny – you get all-inclusive for much less than a week at Centerparcs for instance. 

Sunny Beach and the Aqua Nevis resort are set up in such a way that you can do as much or as little as you want. Taking a bus into Burgas seems relatively straightforward, while UNESCO-listed Nesebar offers plenty of opportunities for traditional sightseeing. Flower Street (the centre of Sunny Beach proper) is a short walk away if you want loud nightlife. Or you can stay on the resort and take part in the many activities that are organised every day. 

We’ve really enjoyed ourselves this week – far more than we ever expected.

Who is this trip for?

  • Cost-conscious families
  • Anyone on a budget
  • Sun worshippers
  • Waterpark thrill-seekers

Who is this trip not for?

  • Snobs
  • Gourmets
  • Heat-haters
  • Non-swimmers

Next stop, Prague.

Stansted shocker

Departure airport: London Stansted
Destination airport: Václav Havel, Prague
Airline: Ryanair

There is something seriously wrong at Stansted. Security is actually working quickly and effectively and we both clear the scanners in under 15 minutes – even after Lin forgot to remove her toiletries from her bag and had to undergo the usual ‘enhanced’ check.

Ryanair’s advice to arrive three hours before flight time turns out to be utter nonsense. Departures is busy, but nowhere as bad as our previous visit. We have no problem finding a bench to sit on this time, and munch a £4.99 WH Smith meal deal for breakfast.

The gate experience is the usual Ryanair farce. The “priority” queue is longer than the regular queue – and that’s before you count the non-priority travellers taking the piss. Fortunately the process is relatively smooth and we leave just a few minutes late (airport incompetence rather than Ryanair’s).

Arriving at Prague Airport, the post-Brexit passport queue is quick and efficient – absolutely no different to the pre-Brexit process (I know – I have always queued because I have always collected passport stamps). The immigration officer even sends me away from the desk to call other passengers forward while he processes my passport.

Top tip: The Airport Express bus (route AE) leaves from directly outside the terminal and costs 100CZK (£3.45) per adult – buy your ticket from the driver. It takes you directly to the main railway (Praha hlavní nádraží) station in the city and the journey takes about 40 minutes.

When visiting Prague we have established something of a ritual – we stop at the Café Trinity at the bottom of St Wenceslas Square for a beer to break up the walk to our hotel. But after sitting on the terrace for five minutes and being unable to get service (or find out if they even sell beer any more), we decamp to the Jan Becher bar/restaurant instead.

Beer drunk, we continue our walk down to Hotel U Zlatého Stromu which will be our base for the next four nights. As we approach, I have two major concerns. First, the hotel is located on the main route between Prague’s famous astronomical clock and the Charles Bridge, meaning there are thousands of tourists passing our front door all day and all night. Second, there is a big sign advertising a nightclub inside our building – and it’s far bigger than the one for the hotel.

Check-in is quick and we are allowed into our room a little early. The room is decorated in a similar style to the other Bauer Hotels in the city, which is nice (more about them tomorrow). I’m pleased to see that our room is at the back of the hotel, away from the noise of the street – but it is also directly above the nightclub which I can see out the window.

Feeling quite hungry we head out for some food, eventually arriving at a place on Melantrichova that specialises in “Prague ham”. Linda and I both opt for the ham and mashed potato – and the waiter immediately forgets our order (he admits as much after the first 30 minutes of waiting). Eventually the food arrives and it is actually pretty decent, but the poor service detracts from our experience.

Afterwards, we head off for our first escape game of the trip – Moriarty’s Phantom Trap, operated by Questerland. Rated 10/10 difficulty, this is a hard room, particularly when there are only two of you. The first hour passes quickly and we expect to be ejected at any moment. However, we struggle on with the tasks, making very slow progress.

Eventually after 109 minutes, the games master helps us solve the final puzzle and we are free. We feel slightly embarrassed, but the young man running the room tells us that larger groups often take well over two hours before giving up entirely. (Prices from 1290 CZK / £44 GBP – not bad value if you’re allowed to keep going as we were).

A short tram ride and walk back to the hotel and it’s time to call it a night.

Bonus tips:

  • The Hotel U Zlatého Stromu is not air conditioned – all you get is a fan which is hidden in the wardrobe.
  • There is no lift at the hotel and your room will be on the second floor or higher (reception is on the first).
  • The reception desk is not staffed after 7pm in the evening.
  • You will be given two keys at check-in – one for your room and a second for the iron gate used to keep nightclub revellers out of the hotel after 7pm.
  • There are never enough plug sockets at Bauer Hotels properties – you will probably need to unplug a lamp or the TV. I strongly recommend packing a socket doubler or 4-gang power strip as well as your travel adapter.
  • The WiFi is rubbish. If you want to stream a movie, it has to be done during the day because there simply isn’t enough bandwidth to support all the guests at night.
  • Taxis from Prague airport cost £20/€27+ if you really can’t bring yourself to travel on the bus.

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

And in support… Johnny Depp

We both sleep very well. Neither of us heard the nightclub downstairs, but that may be because it was Sunday night. Perhaps tonight will be different…

Breakfast is served on the ground floor in the hotel’s conservatory. There is a small selection of cooked food – sausages, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, baked beans, green beans and ham – along with continental breakfast items like cheese, ham, salami and salad. There is also a small selection of cereals, cakes and a bean-to-cup coffee machine.

Having already visited Prague once this year, we decide to have a lazy day at the hotel. Which provides an opportunity to say a little more about the hotel.

This is our fourth trip to Prague and the third time we’ve stayed in a Bauer Hotels property. On previous trips we used the Hotel U Prince, located on the Old Town Square, even scoring a free upgrade to a suite once when staying for our wedding anniversary.

If you like you like clean, minimalist design, the Bauer Hotels are not for you. If you like dark wood, odd paintings in heavy gilt frames and various metal sculptures and oddities, you’ll love it.

Top tip: When staying at the Hotel U Prince, see if the attic room is available. Yes, there are stairs to climb and yes, the ceiling is low, but the views from the dormer windows are spectacular. You can see every one of Prague’s main sights from the room.

This latest trip to Prague is something of a last minute thing for us. Linda wanted to see Johnny Depp (and Jeff Beck) perform and we both wanted to see Kiss one last time. By some good fortune, both are performing in the city within a few days of each other – which is why we are here.

After a quick (somewhat overpriced) meal in the hotel restaurant (goulash for me, gnocchi for Linda), we set off for the Jeff Beck gig. A short walk to Mústek station and six stops on the ‘B’ metro line gets us to Českmoravská and the O2 Universum.

The venue itself is brilliant. Spotlessly clean, well-priced and a world away from the O2 in London. Flushing urinals means that the place doesn’t smell like piss – unlike it’s London-based namesake. Food and drink is also extremely reasonable; a beer costs 55CZK (£1.90 – cheaper than our hotel). You can even get a giant slice of pizza and a drink (including beer) for less than £5 GBP.

The show is opened by Czech Rock n Roll Hall of Fame member Michal Pavliček, his set is almost entirely wordless. It’s actually pretty good.

Jeff Beck then comes on stage and also performs a wordless set – again, pretty good. The show then shifts up a gear as Johnny Depp makes his appearance. The crowd – including two guys in full Pirates costume go nuts. Depp roars and snarls lyrics from their forthcoming album ’18’, and actually does a really good job. ‘Death and Resurrection Show‘ is a barnstorming finale.

After the show ends we stop for a beer to avoid the crush at the doors. Then it’s back to the hotel for some sleep.

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