About thirty miles off the north coast of Cuba there is a string of tiny islands that barely make it above sea level. They would probably have been ignored if it wasn’t for the long sandy beaches, crystal clear water and reefs teaming with colourful coral and even more colourful fish. Castro, not adverse to foreign money pouring into his island built an incredible 48 kilometre causeway from the town of Caibarien on the mainland to Santa Maria, the largest of the islands. He then invited luxury hotels to come and take a look.
Santa Maria now boasts 15 glamorous luxury resort hotels with 5 more due to be completed within the next year, and a bunch of less than glamorous apartments to house the staff. There are no permanent residents on the island, no town, no grocery store, nothing apart from a gas station and the hotels with all that they offer.
We have decided to take a three day break at the only “adult only” hotel on Santa Maria and enjoy the sun, sand and sea. Unfortunately the sun rarely shines, the sea is so turbulent that no one is allowed to swim, and the beach is covered in seaweed dumped there by the waves. The staff valiantly clean it up every morning but it is a losing battle.
At the beginning of the causeway there is a check point where three imposing looking men in military style uniform and peaked caps wave us to a stop and motion us to wind down the window. They ask for our passports and proof that we have somewhere to stay. It feels like we are crossing a border into a different country.
And in a way we are
We drive the 30 mile causeway and count the cars we see. Precisely seven. At our hotel there is a small car park with just 3 cars in it. Everyone arrives by tour bus and has come directly from the airport. They don’t stop anywhere. They don’t pass go. They go directly to jail, albeit a comfortable jail. They are mostly Canadians attracted by the cheap prices the Canadian tour companies offer on all inclusive packages. Where else could you get all this food, drink, entertainment, sun, beach and sea for such a reasonable price. This is Cuba as they know it, and they love it. If they wanted to leave the hotel (they don’t because it involves spending more money) they can’t, because there is no public transport and they are 30 miles from the nearest town. If we talk about what we have been doing they just stare at us blankly. After 7 days they can use the get out of jail free card and climb back onto the bus and return to Canada, and tell all their friends about their trip to Cuba.
The first sight of our hotel is impressive. It could be anywhere in the world, but we have seen nothing like this in Cuba.
After the places we have been and the rooms we have stayed in, I am ready for a little luxury. Of course I am always ready for a little luxury, but now more than ever. This is a five star hotel and certainly looks like it……………….. until we get to our room, which is more like a nice 3 star room. I booked an upstairs suite with a view of the beach. I get a downstairs suite with a view of another apartment. I am not happy. The charmingly friendly lady at the front desk merely shrugs her shoulders and says they are fully booked, which we later discover is not true, and is an excuse used by every member of staff to explain why things aren’t going as they should.
The room, much like me, is a little tired, oversized and comfortable. The grounds, like Gordon, are lovely in parts but in sad need of attention in others (oh dear, now I am in trouble with Ed. It is just a throwaway line, but I like it!)
There are two restaurants for dinner. One is where the breakfast and lunch buffets are served and looks a little like a cafeteria. It serves Mexican food in the evening. The other is open only for dinner and is much more glamorous and serves what they call international food.
Our suite comes with a butler. How glamorous is that. Not at all, is the answer. He tells us that reservations are needed for dinner and so he has already gone to the trouble of booking us a table at 9pm in the cafeteria restaurant. We tell him we don’t want to eat in the cafeteria restaurant and we don’t want to eat at 9pm.
He gives us a look that I am sure butlers should never give their clients.
“The hotel is full” he sniffs “and I am not sure that I can change the reservation”
We ask him very nicely to try. He gives us that look again.
He later tell us, between gritted teeth and sighs, that he has managed to get a table in the other restaurant at 8.15. We are clearly supposed to shower him with gratitude and dollar bills.
He assures us that there is nothing available earlier.
We turn up at the restaurant at 8pm. It is only half full and we get seated immediately. Two couples come in after us, but by 9pm the restaurant is almost empty. Everyone it seems eats early.
We decide not to use the butler for anything again and book our own tables at the time we want without any trouble for the next two evenings.
This is an all inclusive hotel. We are not sure what this means as we must be two of the few tourists who have never stayed at an all inclusive hotel. But we are delighted to find out that not only does it include all meals, but it also includes all drinks, and all entertainment. Apart from the two restaurants there is a casual cafe by the pool where you can have snacks 24 hours. There are bars everywhere, including on the beach. Alcohol flows freely in both senses of the word. Entertainment is provided all day, from yoga lessons by the pool to acrobats, singers and bands performing at different locations all the time. At one point two extremely handsome, bronzed and well built young men wearing nothing but rather small silver lurex speedos and huge silver angels wings on their backs, stand either side of the lobby entrance. They attract quite a crowd. Not wanting to seem stand offish we join the gathering, pushing our way to the front for a better view. After half an hour the two angels still haven’t moved or done a thing. The crowd is getting restless although they seem quite happy to continue watching . I ask our friendly receptionist what they are going to do
“They are the entertainment” she says
Yes, but what are they going to do?
“Nothing” she replies “aren’t they entertaining you?”
Well if you put it that way.
After dinner there is a different Cuban band each night with dancing. It really is very impressive. It reminds us of being on a cruise ship, but without the hassle of having to go on shore excursions, and sadly without the level of service.
Our butler is a sign of things to come. The staff are for the most part very friendly, but very few of them speak English and none of them is efficient. The fact that they can’t speak English is not a problem – we are after all in their country. The fact that they can’t do their job, is a bit of a problem – we are after all paying for them to do their job. The restaurants are the worst. We order our food from the menu, usually having to point at what we want as they don’t understand our feeble attempts at Spanish. The food comes either within minutes of placing our order, or after about an hour and several complaints. Whichever is the case, it is almost never what we ordered.
The first evening we complain to the Maitre D’. She apologises saying “The hotel is full and your waiter is new. He is still learning”
We decide not to make a fuss and accept that we will just eat what the waiter brings. We come to the conclusion that the waiters go into the kitchen and bring back whatever the chef has just plated.
The one exception is Anna, the lovely lady who cleans our room. She leaves us hand written notes each day telling us how nice we are and how she hopes we are enjoying our stay. She speaks not one word of English and the notes are written in perfect English. But I am still convinced she writes them. She leaves single hibiscus flowers everywhere, even in the outside lock of our door so that we get them as we return to the room. She has also mastered the art of towel folding better than most. She brightens our stay considerably
On our second evening we are having a drink and watching the after dinner show when a young attractive couple comes and sits next to us. He tells us that they were seated near us in a restaurant in Havana, and then again in a restaurant in Trinidad, and now we are in the same hotel. He tells me he recognises us because of the very colorful shirt I have worn in each place. Totally embarrassed I assure him that I have more than one shirt.
They are an Italian couple and we chat for a while. He says he has not known any Canadians before arriving at this hotel, and he is shocked by them and their behavior. He says they are all obese, they take huge amounts of food at the buffets, they are drunk by mid afternoon and never leave any tips for anyone.
He asks me if Canadians are all like this. Oh dear, how can I answer that. I know I have to tread carefully. I am already in so much trouble over my comments about Australians. And besides, I have many Canadian friends and some of them are not overweight and most of them don’t get drunk before the sun goes down, and many of them leave tips however small.
After three nights it is time to leave. At the end of the causeway we go through “Border Control” again. Within minutes we are on the outskirts of Caibarien where the main road takes us past more of the soviet style apartments
We have left the Canadian version of Cuba far behind
Welcome to Cuba
Santa Maria is very popular with French Canadians and Marirtimers
I love reading your blog, Andrew. While reading this latest entry, I am reminded of a joke (apparantly) common in the Scottish golf caddy brotherhood: What is the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? Answer: Canoes sometimes tip.
LOVE LOVE your blog !!!
Susanne, LOVE LOVE your comment. Thanks so much. Andrew