Old Reviews – Sol Cayo Guillermo

In December 2003 (yes, a year ago, but our memories of Cuba are so fond and vivid) we went to Sol Cayo Guillermo, off the northern coast of Cuba in the Jardines del Rey archipelago. Cayo Guillermo is an island off an island off the main island of Cuba. Flights land at neighbouring Cayo Coco. We absolutely loved our trip here. There are only 4 hotels on Cayo Guillermo, and the isolation is one of its charms. There’s no town to wander in to; there’s just the beach. And it’s the most amazing beach I’ve been to in all my sun-destination travels (Cuba, Mexico, Hawaii, Turkey, Spain…) The four hotels in the island are in a row, and this one’s at the end. You could seemingly walk forever on the beach. You can also walk out in the water seemingly forever. The waves that lap at the beach are playful, but not so much that you’d worry about them knocking over your kids. And you really can walk out into the water for what seems to be a mile and not go over my head (well, my 5’5" head anyways). It’s still great for swimming, but if you like to do lots of deep water exploring, you may not be as enchanted. (Though it’s close — about 2 nautical miles — to one of the best coral reefs in the world; you can get there by boat.) For me, it was the perfect beach. The sand was white and powdery. No rocks. No coral. No garbage. At resorts, so many people seem to hang out by the pool that there’s always room at the beach to get set up with beach loungers and palapas. The sister hotel next door (Melia Cayo Guillermo) had a kids’ club, so that’s where most families tended to stay. Sol Cayo Guillermo is not a party place (though, like all resorts, they have evening shows and a disco) but is the place to go if you actually do want to relax and lounge on the beach or go for long walks. This resort had a smallish, intimate feel that I liked. I think there are only 268 rooms in total. All of the accommodation here is in two-story bungalows, and from what I remember there were no more than 4 units per bungalow (2 up, 2 down.) We had a great room on the second floor. We were close to the beach anyway, but being higher up we had a better view of the ocean. Also, the upper suites have vaulted ceilings (maybe 16 feet at peak) so felt more spacious and looked like a ski chalet on the inside, but painted in Caribbean blues and yellows. If your travel agent can put in your room request (upper floor, corner suite, ocean view, king-size bed, etc) it’s best to do this at time of booking. But if you don’t like your room upon check-in, let the front desk know right away, and they’ll do what they can do meet your request. (At time of booking, we put in for an upper floor room with balcony and ocean views, and got what we wanted.) Go to the orientation that the travel co. has scheduled for you on day 1 or 2. They will tell you how many a la carte dinners you can book (you don’t have to dine at the buffet every night, but you need reservations for the restaurants) and which activities are included. The main bar and snack bar are open 24 hours; this is standard in the better hotels. There are day trips you can take, but we really wanted to relax here. We did book a half day trip, which we enjoyed. It was a small tour (I think 6 or 8 of us) and we took a boat ride (on a Zodiac) through the mangrove swaps, saw an alligator farm, and walked around in the town of Moron. It was a short outing, but we were glad to have a taste of Cuban life outside the resort. On Christmas Day, we went to Playa Pilar, a nearby beach that was a few kilometres away. Again, stunning! Much in Cuba is one way for the Cubans and another way for tourists. Things generally favour the tourists: better food, freedom of movement, better transportation, ability to buy whatever we want, etc. Another point to note: Cuban citizens are not permitted on Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Coco unless they’re there to work at one of the resorts. There’s a bridge between Cuba and Cayo Coco, and there’s a passport checkpoint. If you’re not a foreigner with a valid tourist card, or you’re a Cuban who’s not on your way to work, you’re not permitted to pass. Note about the bridge: While crossing, look out your vehicle window, as the largest flock of flamingos in the Caribbean makes its home here! If they’re far out (they’re bothered by airplane noise, etc), look for a line of pink on the horizon.

Food: You’re not going to Cuba for the finest food, so keep in mind that while the Cubans have a food shortage and are still on rations, you as a fortunate tourist will never go hungry. You may find the food lacking spice or variety, but you’ll always have a good selection, and some great, fresh fruit, fish and seafood. Take a bottle of wine with you, if you want something nice to drink with dinner (the wine they serve generally isn’t of good quality to begin with, and proper storage may be lacking) and if you’re so inclined, take some garlic powder or a jar of minced garlic or ginger. I’m vegetarian (no meat, fish or seafood) so it was a little trickier for me, but there was a pasta bar where a chef will make pasta and sauce from scratch for you, and there’s always lots of rice, veg, fruit, and fabulous homemade ice cream. The Cubans are big on sweets, so there’s lots of dessert options. (But little chocolate, so you may also want to bring your own if you’ll need a fix.) The coffee/espresso/capuccino is very good. Tea is not. If you value your tea, bring your own. (By the way, all these things I’m suggesting to you, I neglected to do myself, and I still had a great time.)

Tipping: Much appreciated, but not expected. We found the staff to be very friendly and helpful in general. I did not find that the service altered depending on whether you tip or not. For us, we tipped as much as possible, because the money means so much more to them. (Tips allow them to have money beyond the $20 or so they make in wages each month.) But also, you’re at an all-inclusive and sometimes you’ve just come from the beach and you’re not carrying cash, so sometimes you don’t tip. Both trips we took down things to give away (clothes, books, medicine, shoes, toiletries, etc), and we left what things we could when we checked out. We left a tip for our maid each day, as well as a small gift i.e. a necklace, a pair of sandals, small bottle/sample of perfume, etc. They really appreciate anything that they can’t get in their country, and the trade embargos ensure there’s a lot they can’t get. We also gave things away to "behind the scenes" staff, and found others doing the same. One guy gave a suit to a gardener, another family gave the pool guy a bag of things from The Bay. We left a bagful of things for the entertainment staff in their dressing room, and a bunch of dresses to the seamstresses.

Shopping: The government owns and controls most everything, so the content from shop to shop between tourist hotels changes little. If you want to bring back Cuban goods (rum, cigars, coffee) it’s best to get all that at the large duty free stores at the airport when you leave. Prices are a bit lower than at the hotels, and the selection is greater. Havana Club is the better rum available (go for at least the 7-year), I think Cohiba is one of the better cigar brands, and I’m told that Cubita coffee is excellent. At the airport duty free stores you can also get a decent selection of books, calendars, the ubiquitous Che t-shirts, some handicrafts and artwork…

Our fabulous Sol Cayo Guillermo trip was done for under $1000 per person, all-inclusive (including taxes, service charges, and other fees). The advertised rates will likely be around $780 plus taxes, etc.

Would we go back to Cayo Guillermo? Yes. While I generally favour trying new places (in 2004 we went to Sol Rio de Luna y Mares in Holguin, Cuba), we loved this resort so much and would return, and heartily recommend to others.

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