Viva Cuba!

In November, 2011 Kim and I got away for a much needed break to Varadero, Cuba for 1 week. Yes, I am FINALLY blogging about it… We stayed at The Paradisus Varadero and upgraded to Royal Service, complete with a Butler!  Cuba is known for its great beaches, but many say, don’t expect good food at the resorts.  Our first trip to Cuba a few years ago, we stayed at a Sandals, and we had Amazing service and food. So amazing, that we only left the property once to go on a catamaran excursion. Since that trip, the location of the Sandals property moved, and from the reviews on Trip Advisor, the service was also suffering.  The other Paradisus property, called Paradisus del Mar is coincidentally where Sandals used to be, and was under renovations. Because I like to try new things, and I really wanted to upgrade to Royal Service, I chose Paradisus Varadero.  Boy was I happy with my choice!

I am not hard to please- good food, room service, yummy drinks, and good service at a decent price (Since I am not a Cdn dentist, I am on a budget). At least when I am on a beach/ relaxing trip with my husband.  Thank GOD for Trip Advisor!  Since I had done my homework, I was pretty sure we would experience all of the above. (Yes, I was being cheeky)

Night #1: We arrived with a little glitch- we were taken to the regular reception at first, as it had not yet been documented that we had upgraded to Royal Service. Once we told them about the upgrade they put us on a trolley and took us to a private reception area, gave us moist towels to freshen up, and glasses of champagne.  Be patient with everything, and remember that you are in Cuba, with their limited technology, and snail like internet.  We were then taken to our room, and shortly after our arrival, there was a knock at our door.  It was our butler, ensuring that everything was OK, and to introduce himself. (Picture us smiling HUGE smiles inside!)  As we were hungry from our late arrival, we asked if we could order room service, and of course we were told yes, and were given a  menu. We proceeded to fill out what looked good- 1 of everything + a bottle of rum, mix and ice, then sent the butler on his way. As soon as the door closed, we high fived each other in amusement over having our own butler!  After a short wait, our plates of food came, and we filled our bellies with much content, cracked open the rum, and smiled a smile that one can have after feeling so pampered. If you would like to see a YouTube video of our room, click here.

After filling our bellies, we went exploring the grounds to see as much as we could in the dark. There was a definite division between the Royal Service side and the regular part of the hotel. The biggest difference is how quiet it is on the Royal Service side, which I very much appreciated for this trip, which was for relaxing in peace and quiet. When returning to our room, there was a breakfast room service order handing from our door. Hmmm, more room service? Count me in! The only downfall were the limited choices on the menu, so I thought I would see if I wrote a couple of special requests on it what would appear the next morning.  I discovered that I made the right  choice of making a special request, because everything I asked for, was delivered and set out on our deck right on time the next morning. What a life!

Going to the beach and pool was our daily routine, as the weather cooperated beautifully the week we were in Cuba. On the Royal Service beach there was a breeze/wind so you were safe to stay comfortable on the hot days. For the days it was too windy, which is common in Cuba we hung out at the pool. Each day our butler had reserved a cabana or an umbrella with loungers for us.

Relaxing, Eating, Drinking is the thing to do in Cuba!

Our days would start off with breakfast on our deck in our suite, but once Kim discovered that there is was a yummy buffet breakfast in the Royal Service restaurant each morning, we ventured out a couple of mornings for breakfast. I kept discovering the European influences, particularly in the food, which made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. At breakfast they had the traditional meats and cheese with bread, but my favourite was the abundance of wonderful espresso, cappuccino, and they even knew what a real Macchiato is (someone please teach Starbucks…) And as I discovered in Cinque Terre, having a cappuccino in the morning at the beach is simply Heaven on Earth!

Fresh fruit, bread, meat and cheese for breakfast, along with cook to order eggs if you wish.

Time for a Mojito por favore!

Since it is always 5 o’clock somewhere, the yummy drinks would start being served before lunch. The bartenders at Rincon Frances, the pool bar at the Royal Service pool were ALL AMAZING! Because it is months after we were there, I can not remember all 3 of their names. Jorge, Lester, and the lovely lady pictured with Lester.  We got to know all of them quite well, and enjoyed talking to them about their own families, joys and struggles of living in a communist country. One thing was common with all 3- they all loved what they did for a living, and they all had good things to say about their employer at the resort that they worked for. And not once did they or any other staff at this resort put their hand out for a tip.  So my best advice to those that travel to countries where they make so little from working so hard, and happily at that is to PLEASE TIP.  In addition to tipping, we took a suitcase full of childrens clothes, toys, and school supplies, which we shared with many of the staff that we got to know, from a gardener, our maids, butlers, restaurant staff, and of course our favourite bartenders.

Our Day Trip to Havana

We had decided that since on our first time to Cuba, we did not really see much more than our resort, and since traveling to me, includes learning more about the people and how they live, visiting Havana for the day was an obvious choice for us. Our butler arranged a day trip in an antique, refurbished car, with a driver and an English speaking tour guide. I very much dislike bus tours, where you feel like a cow that is being herded from one place to another, and the extra you pay is well worth the extra time and attention you get in a small or private setting. Plus we were helping a new business to get off its feet, as Cubans are now allowed to have their own businesses like being a tour guide.

Michel on the left was our tour guide, and Michael in red and white striped shirt was the owner of the car, and driver.

We were picked up at our resort around 9am by Michel and Michael, and set out on our way. Our first stop was, Bacunayagua, the tallest bridge in Cuba. It was a windy day, and just like in the movies, you could see the huge vultures flying around. We stayed long enough to take in the views and to also discover that it was a bit of a tourist trap equipped with a bar of over priced drinks, and souvenirs. It is a beautiful spot, and I am glad that we stopped, but off to Havana we must go.

Our next stop, was to see The Christ of Havana. It currently had scaffolding all around it, as a restoration project was about to begin on it. The statue was situated in a place where Jesus could watch over Havana and its bay. It is also a symbol of the predominant religion in Cuba; Catholicism.

 We visited San Salvador de la Punta Fortress, which construction on it began in 1590. Currently it has a world famous cigar factory; famous because the owner holds more than one Guinness Book of World Records for the longest cigars.

Old Havana

What immediately struck me was the overwhelming feeling of the European influences in Old Havana. I felt like I was all of a sudden in Europe! It had squares and piazzas with old churches just like Italy; a gathering place for the members of its community. There were cafes like St. Marks Square in Venice, banks and shops.  Whatever I was expecting, this was not it. I commented to Michel how I felt, and because of Cuba’s Spanish influence that this must be what Spain must be like. He was very excited by this, as most Cubans have never traveled. And yes, just like in any other place in the world, there are scammers just waiting for the unsuspecting tourist like us. Normally I have my eyes wide open for them, but because we had our own personal tour guide with us, I assumed that he would help us prevent a small scam from happening to us. As we were walking up to the church where this statue was at, a man came up to Michel and us, shook Michel’s hand like he knew him, and he was also wearing a tour guide ID tag, which he immediately pointed out to us. He then put in each of our hands a CD (you can see us holding them in the picture). He asked us how we liked Cuba and its music.  He told us for a donation we could have a piece of Cuba to take home with us and share with our friends and family. He then said that we should get our picture taken in front of the statue, and if we held his hand and beard it would be good luck. Before I knew it, he had our camera and was directing us how to pose while he took 2 pictures for us. I thanked him, and try as I might he would NOT take the CD’s back. I kept saying no thank you. It came down to him demanding us pay him 10 dollars for a CD, which by the way was a burnt copy of a CD to which we had not even heard any music to know if it was not a blank.  Oh great, we were being scammed. I looked at Michel for help, but he did not seem to know what to do, so my survivor instincts started kicking in, and in the end we walked away but not before having to pay him 4 dollars for the service of taking our picture (with my camera). In the end it was not worth the time, or energy to argue, so we gave in and left. I needed a drink!!!

We went to Hotel Ambos Mundos, where author, journalist, and nobel peace prize winner, Ernest Hemmingway used to stay. They also are known to have the best Mojito in Cuba, and I must concur that they are VERY GOOD! The cafe is on the roof top, so the views were spectacular. This was also a great opportunity to ask Michel more questions about Cuba, and how he has felt the effects of the recent changes in Cuba. Michel also had just as many questions for us as we did for him, including about computers, the internet, websites and blogging. We found out why many Cubans do not travel. It is not that they are not allowed to, but it is so expensive to just get a passport. The average Cuban makes only 15 – 20 CUC (at par with the Cdn dollar) per month, so once you have to save for each member of your family to just get a passport that will expire in 1 – 5 years it is not worth it.

We walked through Old Havana, and learned that the government is now putting money into restoring the old buildings, but the amount of money it costs, and the amount of buildings that need restoring, it will take many years to not only complete, but to even get started on the many projects. It was nice to see that progress has started, and the mood seemed very hopeful.

Time to eat!  The Michaels took us to El Guajirito for some traditional Cuban food. May I say, YUM! Food is a big part of learning about another culture, and  I must say that the Cuban food we had is Yummy! We each had a Cuban sampler plate, and there was nothing that we did not finish, and walked out stuffed, and extremely satisfied. Also the price was very fair.

As our day continued, we were taken to a market filled with everything touristy- paintings, toys, jewellery, t-shirts, etc. We walked around, but nothing screamed at us to take it home. We were not there for shopping for a bunch of chachkees, but to see the sights, so we turned out to be the clients to bought nothing, to the surprise of our guides. I honestly mostly enjoyed driving around in our old Chevy, and talking to Michel.

To end our day in Havana we were taken to Revolution Square, and where the government offices are.


Eating, Eating, Eating!

I would not feel right if I did not share my experiences of eating, not only in Cuba, but at our resort. Our absolute favourite dish from all of our fabulous meals, was the Chocolate pudding dessert at the Royal Service Restaurant. I lost count how many I had! One of the foods we most look forward to eating whenever we go to a beach destination is the seafood. Luckily in the Royal Service Restaurant, we could have as much lobster as we wanted every day. The wonderful food was plentiful, but the best part was the service we received by those serving us our wonderful meals.  For example, we had strayed away from our favourite restaurant and tried the Japanese restaurant one night. It was very disappointing.  We decided to walk back to our side of the resort, and have a drink at the bar, and ask if by chance we could order our favourite dessert. The answer was yes, and from the picture above you can see us sitting at the bar with BIG smiles on our faces.

One day as we were walking along the beach, we could smell the most wonderful smells. There was a BBQ happening on the beach!  They were BBQing fresh fish, chicken, sausages, and the most Amazing Paella! Each batch was freshly made right there on the beach.  While one was almost done cooking, the chef would whip up another batch, to get it going, because as soon as one was done cooking, he would dish it out and suddenly it would be gone- it was that good!

The servers always made us feel welcome. One night they brought out a special treat- a Flambe Cake for my Birthday. It was fun to watch them flambe it at our table. We of course shared the rest of the cake with the other guests in the restaurant.

So remember if you hear that the food in Cuba sucks, that there is good food out there, because we definitely found where the good stuff is!

My Favourite Things about Cuba!

Instead of telling you, I will show you with more photographs I took. The people, the food, yummy drinks, the pampering we felt at the resort, the time spent as a couple, room service, and the beaches.

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