I stayed Feb.14 to 21, 2011 in the Cayo Libertad section of the Barcelo Marina Palace resort, the very easternmost resort of the 57 resorts in the Varadero peninsula. I had a great and very relaxed time in this quiet and adult-oriented premium area. However, the bottom line is that what could be a 5-star resort in the Cayo Libertad area and a 4 star resort in the other parts is carelessly drifting toward a lower standard. I paid $1050 per person, of which $170 was for the upgrade to the Cayo Libertad island, and consider it a real bargain.
Still, lots of little irritations and missed opportunities. Still, it was a great experience and very relaxing, which is what I was after. Cayo Libertad is not a teen party area. The whole resort didn’t seem really youth oriented. But for those who want a pleasant getaway in attractive surroundings, the resort is very pleasant, and the Cayo Libertad area is worth the additional premium. Learn as much as you can before you go, because you may not find much information when you get there.
Arrival: We landed at the airport before 10 p.m. It took over an hour in a crowded and cramped terminal to locate all the luggage, which was going around on both the conveyor belts simultaneously. The one money exchange I could find was only for the payment of customs duties. Fortunately, there was no confusion on leaving the tiny terminal, as Sunwing representatives were right outside directing people to at least a dozen parked shuttle buses going to different clusters of resorts. Eventually the last passengers on the list for my bus arrived and the bus took off. There was a student giving an introduction to Cuba, over a painful speaker system (tip: bring earplugs, which will also be helpful if you don’t like the poolside music chosen by staff in their 20s, or the chattering guests who befriend fellow tourists and then converse with them over 30 foot distances), and she collected tips in $5 Cdn bills, so in return for about an hour on the bus and an hour travel, she and the bus driver cleared a month’s salary. One of my companions said at 11:59 p.m. “well, it looks like we won’t get there until tomorrow” – it took a full hour to get from the airport to the Barcelo Marina Palace.
Check-in at the Barcelo Marina Palace was the first sign of trouble. The highly-compensated tour guide did not understand me when I asked about checking in to the separate Cayo Libertad reception. She had no clue what I meant when I referred to the promised “private check-in in separate area”. I looked around in the lobby for directions, but no staff were on hand. So I lined up with the other 20 arrivals at main reception, and when I was eventually served, they had no record of me. Fortunately, I mentioned Cayo Libertad, and then they found me in the computer. We were sent outside to wait 20 minutes for a shuttle golf cart to take me to our special reception.
Rooms: The junior suite was a huge room, with a 20-foot deck with wooden chairs. The bathtub was huge, the walk-in closet had lots of room for hanging things (even if there was no dresser), and the dual sinks were a nice touch. Our room was clean and comfortable. The rest of the resort had lesser rooms, from what I saw and heard. Our magnetic room entry card worked fine. I only heard of one that didn’t. Once the door is open, put it in the card reader slot on the wall beside the door, or the lights will go off after 15 seconds. Sounds obvious, and I’ve done it in other hotels, but at 2 in the morning in a strange country, it can be a bit confusing. My room phone didn’t work. This is actually something quite significant in a premium resort a key feature of which is 24-hour room service. When it wasn’t fixed after 4 days and four requests, I went to see the concierge. She asked my room number and dialed the number. She heard the ringing and said “it’s working now”. I pointed out that she might be hearing something at her end, but it wasn’t ringing in my room. So she got creative and said the whole 8-unit cluster was out. Well, I pointed out that my friends in the room next door were busy ordering things by phone several times a day, so her next defence was to offer to move me away from my friends if I wasn’t happy with the phone not working. Tip: make sure the phone works before you unpack everything.
Our balcony door wouldn’t lock, which seems to be a standard feature of Cuban resorts. I wasn’t too worried as we were up a level on a private island area, but eventually I was in the room at the same time as the cleaner and she noted that a metal piece had been removed. Once the handyman came the next day, he had to go and find the piece somewhere else, but once he came back it took about 30 seconds to screw the latchplate in. Hopefully he didn’t just go to an empty suite and unscrew theirs. Hint to management: part of preparing the room for new arrivals includes seeing if the phone works, the balcony door locks, the bottle opener is there, etc.
Restaurants and Bars:
The food was servicable but after a week monotonous. Not hot. The a la carte restaurant dress code, described as “formal”, means long pants (at least for men?) and preferably a shirt with collar and short sleeves. I saw no jacket or tie, not once, in any of the restaurants. The special reservation Cuban buffet is just another buffet with one person frying prawns 5 at a time on a 20-prawn grill while people stand in line. The regular buffet has similar food, only more of it, with more servers cutting off chunks of rubber chicken or whatever. We got hungry early and went to the Cuban buffet 45 minutes before our reservation time. Out of 40 tables in the pavilion, 20 were in service with cutlery, and of those only 9 were occupied. The chief witch at the door said they were too busy to fit us in and that it would disrupt the flow of the staff (at a buffet, no less) if we took the tenth table prior to our actual reservation time. We held our ground and she gave in after 5 minutes. We sat down beside a couple who didn’t even have a reservation or our silver bracelet status, and they merrily told us that they had had no trouble getting in 5 minutes earlier because they slipped her a little money. But that was the only time I felt that service depended on tips.
Beach/Pools/Grounds: West of the main building is the water slide pool. People crowd around there and reserve deck chairs early in the morning and so on. That’s great for those with kids, or those who feel lost without a trailer park or motel atmosphere. Noisy and communal. For those stuck in that area who don’t get a deck chair, or don’t like crowding, go to the east side of the main building and find lots of space in one of the other pools in the area between buildings B16 to B23. Same idea on the beach. If the beach chairs under the little thatched poles are busy, just head east 200 feet and there will be room at the next cluster. And so on. But the beach is infested with jellyfish, and there are no warnings, unlike other resorts. My favorite spot in the Cayo Libertad reserved area was the cigar bar. Sometimes someone played the piano at 10 p.m. Nobody knew when or if it would happen. All day the building was essentially deserted, and it was great to sit out on the deck area watching the heron or the pelican fly around. It was beautiful. BUT there is a little beach with several chairs right under it, and a sandy descent into pretty water. Several people actually did swim there the last day, and the barman happily watched the girls in their bikinis. He went on break and another staffer came by about the time someone else went in for a swim. The new staffer called out a warning about the barracuda that can attack swimmers. There were actually lots of them, I just didn’t know what they were. They were swimming around 5 feet from shore by the dozen. No warning signs, no warnings from some of the staff. The ocean and pool waters are quite cold. And if “Jacuzzi” brings to mind a whirlpool or hot tub, or even water, you may be disappointed. Half the Jacuzzis were empty of water and the other half were unheated.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel: We were booked in very quickly, but provided with absolutely no information. It stayed that way for the whole week. The bulletin board set out the weather forecast for the week before our arrival, but that was never updated with a forecast for my week; when it was 5 days overdue, they finally took the expired forecast down without replacing it. There are sailboats available at the main beach, but I wasn’t keen to take a boat out into shark-infested waters with the gusting winds that other commentators have noted. On the day we left, my companions wandered into the boat shack and found that a staff sailor actually goes out in the boats with the guests to take care of matters, which would have been nice to know. A couple of days into the vacation, I went to the private area concierge and asked what there was to do that Saturday, and the conversation went like this: “I am looking for something to do. What is available for me to do this coming Saturday?” “Who is your travel agency?” “Sunwing”. “I don’t have their binder here but if you go to the lobby the book will tell you what time your flight is leaving.” “I’m leaving Monday. What can I do Saturday?” [blank stare, then she started fiddling with the phone and wouldn’t make eye contact]
If you take the excursion into Havana, beware of reading during the two-hour bus ride. Our tour guide, who was otherwise very informative, upbraided my wife no less than three times over the tour bus speakers for daring to read while he was talking! He was hurt and thought she was rude to him by not listening intently. Amazing. He kind of lost perspective about who was paying the 67 CUC each, and the possibility that people enjoy passing their time in different ways. I was so offended by the third time, I almost put my book down and said something. She wasn’t really upset, but thought it only fair to torment him for the rest of the trip by asking endless questions as we paraded around old Havana.
Other Comments: The business centre has only 3 computers to serve several hundred guests. One of the computers was so slow the staff warned people about it. The other two worked fine as long as one counted to 10 for email messages to load. Coded cards are purchased for 10 CUC for an hour. The card is good for a month (?) from first use, and can be used in increments over the stay. When the staff member goes on a meal break, the room is closed; she is not replaced by another staffer so people can keep typing away. If the card time runs out, the machine shuts off. Since the “remember me” or “keep me logged in” box is ticked as the default option on email and social media sites, the concern will be that the next user might be able to access the expired person’s account. So untick that box first thing. The magic show was worth watching. Again, no information about what is showing when, at least not in the theatre area. I found a listing once but couldn’t find it again. Beside the theatre, there’s a photo of the entertainers and the name of the show, but no information about when it starts. It seems to be 9:30. The 8 p.m. children’s participatory show seems to involve nothing more than music being piped over the speakers, and one or two mothers who were bemused at the lack of activity climbed onto the stage to walk their toddlers around. A final word of advice about noise. The hotel boasts in name and in website information about being next to the marina. Yes, there are a couple of dozen catamarans and yachts tucked out of sight across the road on the south side. The commercially important part of the bay involves a quay that is being expanded by dump trucks carting rocks to extend the pier, a handful of cranes, and a new resort going up. Large and medium-sized freighters were moving here and there. It’s actually not all that noisy yet, despite all the heavy equipment, and small boys might enjoy watching things come and go, but the pastoral views are all on the north side of the resort. And unless you like thumping bass notes up to 1:30 a.m., avoid staying in buildings B16 and B17 next to the disco (which is also next to the lighthouse and restaurant Faro). And on the ground floor of those two buildings, I suspect that those partygoers headed east at the 1:30 closing will troop right through the buildings and waking up the ground floor guests, although when I was there the disco attendance could be counted on two hands.