You had me at ‘Hola’… Arrived back to a really damp and rainy Nova Scotia after a week at Sol Rio de Luna y Mares at noon today, so before I completely slide into a two day crash, I’ll relay my experience and hopefully it will be useful. We were trying to decide where to spend a week. That was all we had. I’ve only been to Cuba once, spending much more time in Mexico and South America. I knew Guadalavaca was a beautiful area and not quite as ‘slick’ as Veradero and after some resort research, I decided on Luna y Mares. For one thing, it seemed like the resort had huge personality and I really liked what travellers from my area were saying about the staff and management. As an aside, somebody in another review mentioned a ‘cookie cutter’ vacation, and in my opinion that’s a good representation of the experience you’ll have in Orlando or Las Vegas, or even Cancun, which is sort of like Miami. You’ll rarely see a bug, and essentially enjoy completely sterile and pristine accommodations. Staff will be efficient and professional and friendly, and you’ll be blown away by Hollywood and Broadway style stage shows… and what’s not to like about that? If that’s what you want. For us, it’s about the experience. Because, on a ‘cookie cutter holiday’ you’ll rarely find a housekeeping staffer who throws her arms around you after the second day of cleaning your room, telling you tales about life in her country and displaying genuine interest in life in yours, nor will you often find a bartender making impassioned salient points about why Che Guevera is a hero and ‘descamisado’ and will never die in the eyes of many Cuban people.
So, ahem… after that fairly lengthy prelude, I’ll give you the goods, as I saw them!
We flew Transat Holidays and arrived at the ungodly hour of 4 am last Sunday, April 5. I was far too excited to sleep and after getting our room ( more later) prowled around the resort for an hour to check out the lay of the land. My excuse for this pre dawn explorative quest, was that I was hungry and wanted a burger- a blatant lie—I was waaay to excited to eat it, but we did get one on the Luna all night snack bar. We were served by an amiable if somewhat sleepy bartender. I didn’t have any tip money so I gave him some sun glasses, which I felt was good and proper. Anyone I ask to cook for me at 5 am deserves something, don’t you think? The hamburger was good. It tasted a lot like my mother’s to tell the truth, and the fries were delicious! After the burger, I had no more excuse not to retire for the remainder of the night, so off we went to room 4009 on the Mares side, overlooking the pool and the ocean. It was big and it was spotless, and it was COLOURFUL! To me, it embodied the Caribbean in a blend of turquoise, pale orange, burgundy and white—a combination that I wouldn’t have thought stunning, but was. The beds were two singles pushed together. Very comfortable. There were extra blankets in the closet, and water in the small fridge. The bathroom was large with a tub and shower, toilet and bidet; sort of a cool European touch, I thought. Everything worked perfectly. The room fixtures were not brand new. It was not the Hilton or the Hampton Inn. I thought it was better. Sunday am, we staggered off to the Transat Orientation before 10. The Transat Rep was informative knowledgeable, and remained extremely accessible all week. During orientation, the hotel’s food and beverage manager introduced himself, welcomed us, but we didn’t catch his name; only that he was from Spain, so we nicknamed him Mr. Barcelona!
Tromping back to our room on the way to the beach, we met our housekeeper. Her name was Rosa Carmina- and we completely fell in love. She told me with complete sincerity, that the most important thing for her was that my holiday be happy and stress free. I gaped. I couldn’t help it, but she meant it, and though I’m not sure I deserve it, such was the level of her professionalism. She was incredibly funny and, intelligent- and a way of connecting with people instantly. I don’t mean that housekeeping staff shouldn’t be / aren’t intelligent, but it occurred to me after several conversations with her that the country would be better served with Rosa in a diplomatic capacity. She hopes to finish up her degree in the fall, and I can’t help but think her talents are a bit wasted making ducks out of towels, sporting sunglasses and scarves (although the one she did for me looked uncannily like a great aunt I had that died last year!)
We were extremely fortunate to receive an invitation to the new French Restaurant (Bistrau ) on it’s opening night, and it was one of the most delicious meals we’ve ever had anywhere in the world. No joke. There were a group of Health Care Workers from NS at the next table, and we overheard them trying to estimate how much the meal would have cost in Halifax. Possibly $300 a couple with wine; at least that was our guess. I was able to snag a copy of the menu, so here it is, although it will no doubt vary.
Nicoise Salad with Tuna Duet of Asparagus with Citrus Cream Smoked Salmon Plate Champagne Pate with Cognac
French Onion Soup Lobster Bisque with Armagnac
Salmon Steak, with Creamed Dill and Fried Vegetables Sauteed Caribbean Prawns with Garlic and Butter Rice Crown Pork Medalions with Matignon Sauce and Potatoes Beef Entrecote with Pepper Sauce and Stuffed Potatoes Chateau Brilliant and their Classic Garnish
Lemon Pie Pears Cooked with Red Wine and Vanilla Ice Cream Carmelized Banana Pie Chocolate Mousse There you have it! We had Smoked Salmon Plate and the Lobster Bisque to start. The smoked salmon tasted exactly like home to us (NS) but it was from Chile. Good on the Chileans, I say! The bisque was also delicious! We then had the pork medallions and the beef- both of which were fork tender. For dessert, we had the banana pie and the pears. It was a toss up- but I think I’d choose the pears next time—amazing.
The restaurant is very small, and there were a group of very celebratory French Canadians there as well. They were having a lot of fun, and slightly boisterous, and on the way out, a gentleman with their party congratulated the Maitre’De on the opening and whispered humbly that he hoped he “wasn’t too loud.” I snickered to myself, wondering if he’d ever seen a bunch of Nova Scotians on a rant- Here on the South Shore, we drink Cuba Libras; just without the lime—we call them ‘Dark and Dirtys’! Between the two provinces, no doubt we’d be a force to be reckoned with!
We had opportunity to speak with Carlos Freeman, the Maitre’De, and he told us, he had spent the last several months preparing for the opening of the restaurant, ensuring that the ambiance be perfect, his staff highly trained in both food and wine pairings as well. While the other a la cartes were excellent within the resort, Carlos and his staff’s culinary efforts, I believe will make his restaurant many guests first choice. Plus, Carlos is a great conversationalist and host. We felt really privileged to attend the opening. The Colon Buffet is large and varied. The name still cracks me up, even if it is Columbus in Spanish—no doubt that show’s my level of maturity. Seriously, if you can’t find something to eat there, you’re not hungry. It has a huge selection and the food is very good. It’s been covered in many reviews. My biggest regret is that I saw a pig roasted on a spit and it looked delicious! We went to the French Restaurant that night, so I missed Porky Pig- much to my dismay! This is getting lengthy, so I’ll try and summarize a bit. We took a horse and buggy to the mini zoo. Our driver’s name began with a G, I believe, but his horse was named Hurricane. He was a lot of fun! He talked in broken English; I in broken Spanish and once in a while we understood each other. Once we got to the Mini Zoo- Rob, the handler took us around to all of the animals, and ‘G’ was so interested, he decided to come with us. We got up close and personal with an African Turtle named Paca, and went in an iguana’s cage named Marisa and scratched her under the chin. ‘I mention G and Hurricane in particular, because we took a horse and buggy into Guadalavaca the day before and our driver was dour and incommunicative and wouldn’t even try to converse with me in my horrible Spanish. I know it must be frustrating but it’s a bit deflating. I’d much rather take another trip with G and Hurricane. The mini zoo doesn’t seem to publicized well, and it’s really worth the trip. You could walk it or take a bike. It’s not far at all. We also went ‘snorkeling! That was great fun! Close to the Rio D’Oro, we even saw what we think was a tuna. If you have your own gear, that might be good as it’s very popular and might not be available when you want it. The hotel entertainment was also great fun! Very talented entertainment staff were able to engage a large range of ages and cultural tastes effectively. I also loved the music. I’m really glad not to hear hip hop blaring through the speakers by the pool. It’s not that I mind hip hop (although I’d prefer Nickelback- I’d just really rather hear local music) and that was phenomenal. The bar staff at 1492 was excellent! Dania (daytime) is very charismatic, and is able to make each patron feel like they were the most important in the world. That’s a gift when you’re not always respected by vacationers. It’s likely evident, that we, like many people grew very attached to people in a very short time. My partner gave away his ipod. No coercion, or manipulation by anyone. I was proud that he did it.
I had read that Mohamed Fawzi, the General Manager of the hotel was extremely competent, as well as customer oriented, and that was evident quickly. I had the pleasure of speaking to him briefly. I’ve never seen management as visible or conscientious about performance and quality control in a resort. It appeared that at least several managers put in at least a 16 hour day in the trenches interacting with their guests, and there seemed little Mohamed wasn’t on top of.
Mr. Barcelona (we learned his name was Ferran, an hour before we left!) cropped up everywhere too. I’d see him conferring in the early morning hours with his manager, while walking the property, and later clearing glasses from a table if the wait staff were swamped and once high fiving a bartender on the way through the bar. It really made me happy to see “Mr. B” high fiving his staff, because after a day or two in dealing with the front line staff, it’s evident that life for them in Cuba is not the same as life for us. For example, we have no problem buying aspirin, buying a pound of hamburger, and many things we take for granted are just beyond their reach, economically. That’s one reason, I think it assuaged my conscience to see that their managers treated them with respect. I went so far as to ask Rosa, the ‘housecleaning diplomat’ if the General Manager was a good boss. If she had been disparaging, I naturally wouldn’t have given her up- but she wasn’t. She said he had very high standards and wanted the hotel to be excellent. A worthy answer I thought. Last evening, we had grilled lobster at a table by ourselves outside the international restaurant. It overlooked Playa Esmerelda; there was no wind, and the moon was almost full. The lobster was grilled, and served with a pepper mayonnaise, ceasar salad and a French onion soup that was as delicious as any I’ve had anywhere. For dessert, I had flan with coconut ice cream, and then we watched the water ballet show. I can’t see how our last evening could have been better. I am grateful I don’t have ready access to that coconut ice cream here in NS. I don’t want to be mistaken for the rare Albino Northern Porpoise on my next trip!! Three last things
1. Second morning out, I got sunstroke. We were on the beach for two hours and I had a hat on. No booze. Really, violently ill and dizzy.l Had to go back to our room, and lay down for almost 24 hours. Be really careful of the sun.
2. We bought some beautiful end tables from a vendor at the hotel. Very nice man. They had fish swimming through sea grass and customs confiscated them because he used seeds for the fish eyes that are poisonous. Apparently it permeates the wood. There’s no way he would know we’d have an issue, but make sure you check because we could easily have taken them out and replaced them with something here.
3. If anyone wants more details or has questions, we’d be delighted to try and answer them. firstname.lastname@example.org
As for a return visit, bring it!