Arrival The flight with CanJet to Santa Clara was fine, and a local Transat Holidays (multilingual) agent was there to direct us to the correct bus for the hour-and-a-half trip to Melia Las Dunas. The guide on the bus was a student and his English a bit difficult to understand, but frankly he was a bit superfluous anyway as we all just wanted to get there and finish with the journey. Check in at the hotel was quick and painless, which is just as well as it was nearly midnight by the time we were in our room and ready for bed. Next morning, after the talk and introduction to the hotel and its facilities, we had to book (up to 4) a la carte dinner restaurants for the week, although we actually just booked one, preferring to use the buffets and snack bars the rest of the time. We also had to book our excursions (again we just booked the one, to Trinidad), and pick up our beach towels for the week from the pool area (they seemed to run out of clean towels for a while the next day, but we had no problem getting ours, and once you have them you can exchange them for clean ones as often as you like). We were there during the last week in March (the week after Toronto March Break). This is technically spring in Cuba, and the weather was hot and sunny, with about half a day of rain the whole week. It was pretty windy the whole week, though, and the waves were quite high until the very last day, so water sports (and some trips) were inadvisable. In the hotel itself, away from the wind on the beach, the breeziness was very pleasant, however. Evenings were of course cooler but still warm, and the nights pleasantly cool for sleeping (but not cold). And no mosquitoes!
No complaints about the room – clean, nicely decorated, well-appointed, comfortable enough beds, easy-to-use security safe, minibar fridge stocked with the basics (minibar drinks are included in the package and restocked daily), good shower with plenty of hot water, little balcony, TV with an adequate selection of programs in several languages, even a hairdryer. No dodgy toilets, cockroaches, sewage smells or any of those other things you tend to read about in these reviews. The rooms are in two-storey blocks with 24 rooms in each block (12 on each floor), with access from both ends. Some of the upper rooms probably have a sea view, I would think, depending on the direction they face and the part of the hotel they are located in. Ours looked out onto jungle and a gravel path.
Like most of these places, however, the walls are paper thin, and it is pot luck whether you get a noisy one or not. We had a party crowd in our block on one night, with lots of late-night drunken shouting and clip-clipping up and down stairs, and then another night with a very loud television. But these seemed to be isolated incidents, and in general it was pretty quiet.
The maid kept things pretty clean and tidy, and did the towel origami thing each day. She also left us a cute little welcome note (in English) on the first day. She did, however, insist on leaving the air conditioning on full blast each day, which was totally unnecessary, and we had to open all the windows to warm the place up each afternoon when we came in.
Restaurants and Bars
There are two main large buffet restaurants, where we ate pretty much every breakfast and dinner, plus another restaurant which has a lunch buffet. The main buffet restaurants are attached to each other, and frankly there is not much to choose between them, although there may be (very) minor differences between what they serve from day to day. The choice is fine for a week, but you’d get pretty sick of it after two weeks, I would think. As vegetarians, though, the buffets were by far our best option, and we never had any difficulty finding a table. In addition to the expected salads, breads, cheeses (and cold meats), fruits and desserts, there were usually a selection of cooked vegetables, potatoes, pasta, pizza, eggs, etc, as well as the made-to-order omelette and crepe stations at breakfast and the made-to-order pasta station at dinner (as well as a meat/steak station which we did not investigate). The (not made-to-order) hot food was not always hot and the ready-made pizzas, pasta, crepes, etc, were usually pretty tired and cardboardy. The cakes and desserts were very much variations on a theme and not particularly fascinating. Juices were canned (apart from the orange juice, I think), the cereal was often stale. The fruit was pretty much limited to pineapple, banana, papaya, melon, watermelon, orange and grape fruit, and it was not great quality at that, but it was edible. The cheeses were very bland and often variation so processed, but there are one or two which re OK (particularly one with little holes in it). But having said all that, quite honestly, you don’t go to Cuba for the food – you just need enough to keep you going, and it certainly had that. The croissants were pretty good, the flambeed bananas are recommended and it was nice to get Spanish-style churros and dipping sauces. As a veggie, I have eaten much worse. There were also four or five a la carte restaurants (e.g. specializing in pizza, pasta, Cuban food, seafood as well as a so-called romantic one). From a quick look at the menus revealed a severely limited vegetarian selection so we just booked the pizza place for one evening, as much for a change of scenery as anything else. It was OK but certainly nothing special. In addition to the buffets and the a la carte restaurants, there were several bars snack bars scattered around, open for lunch and for most of the afternoon, serving sandwiches, pizzas, burgers and hot dogs (no veggie ones), fries, even poutine. The Beer Garden bar is open all day and night and serves food all day, so you’re definitely not going to starve. There are also of course many bars to serve all that alcohol, including swim up bars and the 24-hour Beer Garden, and small bars on the boardwalks to the beach. The beer is a choice of the local Crystal and Bucanero (OK, served nice and cold) as well as Becks and something else imported which I have forgotten. The wine served is cheap Spanish plonk and not very exciting. And there is the usual array of spirits and cocktails (and a few non-alcoholic cocktails and slushies for the kids).
By far the best coffee, cappuccino and cocktails were served in the piano bar by the lobby, and we soon realized that it was better to get a cappuccino there rather than risk the cafe con leche in the restaurants (which was sometimes OK and sometimes not).
Beach/Pools/Grounds: The beach, as you will probably have gathered, is beautiful – clean, white sand, no rocks, beautiful turquoise sea, no jellyfish, no hookers or people pestering you. It is separated from the hotel by a natural area of vegetation crossed by three boardwalks. There are plenty of loungers and some palapas for shade (no natural shade). It was quite windy most of the time we were there and the waves can be a bit scary (but fun), although I am not sure how typical that is. You can walk for several kilometres up and down the beach from the hotel, past the three other hotels on the that part of the cayo and some totally undeveloped parts.
The pools are also nice, a little cold, but not enough to keep you out of them (just enough to keep them from being busy). There were enough sun-loungers and we never really had a problem finding shade when we wanted it. A minor problem with people leaving towels, but not too bad, and not as bad as many other places. There is an activity pool on one side of the hotel and a leisure pool on the other. We were on the quieter leisure pool side (although you can of course use either), which suited us fine. Actually, even the activity pool was not that active or noisy, although I believe they had some water sports events from time to time. It’s certainly not a wet t-shirt contest/thumping disco kind of a place. There is a late night disco near the reception for those that need that kind of thing, although I can’t comment on it.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel: The lobby area is pleasant with plenty of seats and a nice place for an evening cocktail/coffee/game of cards. There is an information place, and the Transat Holidays people were also usually there to answer any other questions. The bank in the lobby often had a line-up for changing Canadian dollars to convertible pesos, but not always. It was open quite long hours, so just wait until the line dies down, or try later in the afternoon. Lots of 1 peso notes or coins are useful for tips, and bear in mind that you will need 25 pesos per person for exit tax at the airport when you leave. There are a couple of stores and, of course, an artesania market. Phones and internet are slow and expensive, but at least available. The activity centre (sports and games area) was well used, but not overused, and you could usually get to play whatever you wanted (table tennis, air hockey, table soccer, pool, board games, etc) when you wanted it. There was always someone there to help, and there were also different activities going on at different times, including basic archery lessons, Spanish lessons, mini-tournaments, etc. The activity centre also loaned out basketballs, tennis rackets and balls, etc, for use at the tennis courts over the other side of the hotel. the tennis courts were in good condition and one or more was usually available (despite it being shared with the Melia Cayo Santa Maria next door). You can take out bikes for free, and even scooters – there is nothing much to see, but it makes a nice change, and you can get to the other end of the beach or go birding at the causeway. The gym near the tennis courts was also in good condition and reasonably well appointed (and cool!), with a weights room, treadmills, step machines, a rowing machine, stationary bikes, exercise mats, etc. It was rarely in use when we went there, and we never had a problem in getting onto anything. The spa (also by the tennis courts) seemed relatively expensive, comparable to Toronto prices, and we were not tempted, especially given that everything else was for free. The watersports centre on the beach was not operating for most of our stay due to the wind and high waves, but in theory they have sailboats, windsurfers, kayaks, pedallos, and more – all free. I’m embarrassed to admit that we didn’t bother with the shows (starting at 9.30pm) at all. From what I saw of the practices, it was the usual predictable (and necessarily amateurish) all-singing all-dancing affairs with enforced audience participation. Sorry, but been there, done that. There were various pre-show entertainments in and around the lobby, mainly revolving around salsa, of course (I was pretty sick of salsa by the end of the week, although even on the bus back to the airport some people were still calling for more).
Day trips worked out at around $100 per person, so we only booked one, but I think it’s important to get out of the hotel at least once and to see a bit of the real Cuba (because the hotel is very definitely NOT the real Cuba). Bear in mind that there is no town around the hotel that you can walk to or even cycle to. We went off on bikes one morning and there is nothing but scrubby jungle and a handful of hotels on the whole island – no locals live there at all, and construction workers and hotel staff are bused in each day.
The snorkelling/catamaran trip was not available, due again to the wind and the waves, although I’m not sure that we would have chosen it anyway (it doesn’t involve the real Cuba either). The jeep trip looked a bit like something quite tame pretending to be something adventurous, and the prospect of driving in a convoy didn’t appeal. We were tempted by the so-called jungle hiking trip until we realized that it was 4 hours in a bus to get there, and 4 hours back, with a much shorter time in between for hiking and swimming in rivers. There were shorter trips to Remedios and Santa Clara, but if we were doing city sight-seeing and markets, we thought we’d go for the best and booked the Sancti Spiritus/Trinidad trip. And very good it was too. You get to see a bit of small town Cuba from the bus, get information on farming practices, etc, etc. There was a more or less enforced stop at a famous artisan’s factory (actually nothing special, and a bit of wasted time in my opinion), and sangria in an converted colonial house. A quick walk around the provincial town of Sancti Spiritus and it’s market (a food market for locals, not a tourist market. The lunch at a converted farmstead in a natural park just outside Trinidad (pretty basic food and conveyor belt service, but pretty surroundings by a river – it would have been nice to be able to spend more time there walking around). Then on to colonial Trinidad (World Heritage Site), guided tour around a museum and free time to potter round the markets, have a drink in cafe, or just walk around and distribute any gifts for kids, etc. Lovely little town, with cobbled streets, brightly coloured colonial houses, 50-year old American cars in the streets, and only a small amount of people trying to foist knocked-off cigars on us.
Then back on the bus, and our guide George (presumably Jorge), who had already told us lots of interesting stuff about education, healthcare, prices, jobs, car licence plates, etc, opened up to questions about Cuban life. He was, I thought, very honest and open about the good and the bad, and clearly very proud of his country and its achievements, while recognizing its limitations, and he earned his tip. The trip picked up from the other hotels on Cayo Santa Maria, (Sol Cayo Santa Maria, Barcelo Cayo Santa Maria, Melia Cayo Santa Maria and Royal Hideaway Ensenachos) so we also got to chat to some other people. All in all, a good 12 hour trip, pretty well organized and well worth doing.
Other Comments: Between 90% and 100% of the guest were Canadian, and I would say that at least 70% of those were Quebecois. It was predominantly a middle-aged crowd – very few kids, teens or babies, and very few of the very old, mainly thirties to fifties. Not too many buff bodies, and not too much screaming and shouting. A lot of the guests were big into drinking, carrying around their own large refillable mugs. However, considering the quantity of alcohol imbibed, they were reasonably well-behaved and there were only really a couple of occasions when I felt a bit embarrassed to be Canadian. Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink too, but I just don’t see the point in excess. The staff were pleasant and courteous and attentive to a fault, and even the cooks and gardeners seemed to be trilingual. We tipped most meals and some drinks, but its certainly not mandatory (and I don’t really think it makes any difference top the service you receive). We tipped a convertible peso at a time (it just seemed easiest) and it seemed to be well received (a convertible peso goes a long way for the locals).
We were there during the last week in March (the week after Toronto March Break). This is technically spring in Cuba, and the weather was hot and sunny, with about half a day of rain the whole week. It was pretty windy the whole week, though, and the waves were quite high until the very last day, so water sports (and some trips) were inadvisable. In the hotel itself, away from the wind on the beach, the breeziness was very pleasant, however. Evenings were of course cooler but still warm, and the nights pleasantly cool for sleeping (but not cold). And no mosquitoes!