Arrival – DECEMBER 30th, 2007 – JANUARY 13th 2008. We arrived on a direct flight from Vancouver at 5:45am! We breezed through customs with no questions or problems…even though we had 2 suitcases full of gifts in our luggage. We had purchased the concierge optional package, so there was a taxi(van)waiting for us, which sped us away while everyone else crammed onto busses. We reccomend the concierge service!
Rooms – We were immediately checked into our rooms upon arrival; I’m not sure if that was because of our concierge status, or the resort’s occupancy level, but after the red-eye, a 7:00am check in was welcomed. The Bellboy drove us(golf cart)straight to our rooms….a good thing, because at first glance, the grounds seem complicated and confusing to navigate. Don’t despair! After a day or so, and a look at the site map that they provide, it will be easy to find your way around. I’m not sure how other folks have gotten lost, if they had the same clearly outlined map that we had. The room itself was above average caribbean fare – my wife has travelled extensively throughout the region as a business traveller, and she assured me that it far above the norm! Large, clean, and in good repair; The same with the bathroom/shower. The concierge package includes a stocked bar fridge and bar…which included Cuban Rum, Gin, Vodka, Scotch, Red& white wine, Beer & sodas. This was restocked daily, usually around 9:00am. Our room was located in building #25, overlooking the concierge pool. A very nice, quiet area, away from the main compound. Some may think it isolated, but we enjoyed the "resort in a resort" feel…with our own pool, hot tub, concierge office(where you can change money for CUC, make dinner reservations, and deal with any other concerns). This area is also close to the spa, gym & tennis courts(watch out for people sneaking in from other resorts to use these facilities! We cought a couple one day hiding their bracelets under their watches.)
Restaurants – The restaurants. Hmmmm. Well; I had read most of the reviews here before we went to Cuba, and I was a bit worried about what the food would be like. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Without exception, we found the food preperation and quality to be excellent; bearing in mind what is available to them here in Cuba, and what other resorts are serving(we talked to many couples staying in other resorts while we were there). Yes, they do use some frozen vegetables…but they are kind enough to thaw them before serving! There was always a large selection of fresh fruit & vegetables at the Buffet restaurant for each meal. and a good selection of entres to choose from as well; Beef, chicken, pork and sausage grilled to order, as well as several different types of fish & shellfish grilled as you like. There is also a pasta bar, where you select the ingredients, pasta & sauces, and the chef cooks it all up in front of you. They make personal pizzas there as well… On my wife’s behalf, I must mention the bread; She wanted to bring the baker home with us…they had the best fresh baked bread & rolls we’ve ever had. Most time still hot-from-the-oven-fresh!
Aside from the buffet restaurant, there are 4 others , which require reservations…and long pants for the men! A real pet peeve for me, as I don’t wear pants, even at home(literally, NOT figuratively!). But, I packed the one pair of dress pants I own, and grudgingly suffered through wearing them four times. The restaurants serve, respectively, Itallian, Fish, Caribbean, and Beach Grill fare… We found the food to be equal in quality with the buffet, but the style of restaurant just wasn’t to our taste. It was all very elegant & fancy; small portions elegantly prepared and presented, but it somehow just didn’t seem to fit our "resort vibe". I guess, if you like that sort of thing, then you will! We certainly had no complaints about the food quality. One warning about the Beach Grill, though…they allow smoking in the restaurant. We are both non-smokers, and were disappointed to have someone puffing away at the next table while we were trying to enjoy dinner. None of the other restaurants allow smoking.
Bars – The bars are….well…bars! We didn’t spend a lot of time in them, as that wasn’t the reason for our trip. The main bar is the "Lobby Bar", very large, with big comfortable chairs & open air walls(if that makes sense). Attentive staff and speedy service here(as everywhere else in the resort). there always seemed to be music trivia going on when we were there….but live music on other occasions as well… There is also a pool bar, a 2nd floor piano bar(VERY smoky!), and a disco bar…but we never really used any of these.
Beach and Pools – This is the real reason for any Varadero vacation; the BEACH! It goes on for miles, and it is beautiful. Very fine, warm sand, bathwater-warm clear water, and hot, hot sun! The resort supplies beach chairs and palapas(perminant beach umbrellas). Fair warning….if you want to have a chair in the shade, then you have to get up early and "reserve" your space by leaving a towel or book or what have you, on one of the chairs. I am an early riser(befor 7:00am), so this was never a problem for us….but by around 8:30 – 9:00am, most of the beach umbrellas were spoken for. Ditto for the main pool area…so if you want that particular spot, be prepared for early mornings! We spent most of our sun time at the concierge pool…much quieter and more private; also easier to find a lounger! Worth noting: I had read that the pools were not kept clean, etc… I can only surmise that the people who complained of this liked to sleep in a lot. I was up every day before 7:00am, and EVERY day, I got to say good morning to the pool cleaner! he was out there for an hour every morning, cleaning the concierge pool & hot tub. Go figure…they try to do the cleaning and maintainence while everyone’s asleep….;)
Grounds – The grounds were very clean and well kept; there were always gardeners around, doing the weeding, cleaning, and planting. We also saw people cleaning the pools & spas. In addition, there were workers doing maintainence and general upkeep…fixing cracked paving areas, painting, etc. Everything that we encountered was in good repair & functioning. As previously reported, the grounds are a bit dark at night; we were told that this is on account of the strict energy saving policies in Cuba. They also ask that you disengage the power in your room when you are not there. We would reccomend that you bring a small flashlight with you, if you find it hard to find your way at night. We had brought one, but after a few nights, didn’t bother to use it. Once you get your bearings, the dim lighting really ins’t a problem.
Activities – In addition to the Spa, Gym, and tennis courts, there are other daily activities you can participate in(depending on the day). They have dance classes, spanish lessons, billiard, ping-pong, and dart tournaments, dance demonstrations, and other things. You are given a daily schedule of events upon arrival, to choose for yourself. They also have shows in the evening, on a large outdoor stage; Mostly Dance shows, with various themes…Cuban history, Caribbean, Magic, Circus…etc. The New Year’s Eve show was fantastic, complete with fireworks on the beach for the finale.
Tours – There are 2 options for booking outside tours; there is an office onsite(sort of like a travel agency)where you can book tours or rent a car, etc. They offer a wide variety of tour packages, depending on your taste. Havana tours, Catamaran tours, jeep tours, etc…
The 2nd option is to book tours through your travel representitive; We booked our trip through Signature Holidays, and used their onsite representative to book our excursions. He was available each day, for 2 hours or so(meeting in the Lobby bar)to book and arrange outside tours. He was also a wealth of information on local customs, advice on how we should conduct ourselves, and so on. We booked a Havana tour, which included an evening at the Tropicana nightclub, and a Jeep Tour, which took us out into the countryside, to see the real Cuba that resort visitors don’t often see. We actually detoured from the group and got our driver to take us through local villages & a tour of Matanzas(local city)so that we could distribute the gifts & medical supplies that we had brought with us to the people that really need them…NOT the hucksters in Havana who pester the tourists, then sell the goods on the black market! PLEASE don’t give those professional beggars anything! If you bring things that you want to give away, simply ask someone at the resort what would be the best way to distribute it…Our Signature Rep actually collects things and then takes them to Schools and Orphanages…a much better option than having them end up on the black market.
Conclusion – Simply put, If you are staying at Sandals to visit Cuba, then you will be thrilled, refreshed, and satisfied; if you are travelling to Cuba to visit Sandals, then you may be a little disappointed(but you would also be missing the point). Cuba is a beautiful country, and it’s people are genuine, friendly, and welcoming. If you take the time to get to know them, and their country, you will want to come back again and again. we will be!
A FINAL NOTE: there has been much discussion on this website concerning tipping. Keep this in mind: Yes, you paid a lot of $$$ to stay at Sandals all inclusive resort….but that money goes to Fidel, and the offshore business interests! the average wage in Cuba is around $270 per month… so TIP THE STAFF!! They will be pleasant, efficient, and professional wether you tip or not, but a bit of money will go a long way in making their everyday life a little better. We tipped on average about $15 CUC per day..very LOW by Canadian standards, but a lot of money to them. And don’t just tip the food&bar service staff…remember the grounds keepers & security people as well…they work long hours to make sure that your stay is a safe and enjoyable one.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org