Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Day Nine -- Saturday December 5, 1998 Met Vincent for Cafe Cubano and breakfast. My wife and I were planning on renting mopeds. That was so we could easily meet with Vincent at his son's grandparents' house. The plan was we would get there and have a true Cuban feast. Then my wife decided that she wouldn't ride any of the mopeds, under any conditions, I guess we miss the feast. Since all couldn't go none went. Thus the three of us lounged around the rest of the day. Except for meals, that is. The food's so good I think I'm gaining weight! After supper, my wife decided to retire early. This enabled Vincent and I to take a cab to the grandparent's house. The grandfather, Angelo, and Manuel, the local family doctor, met us when we arrived. Even with language barriers, we managed to exchange our thoughts and feelings about many things, especially the state of medical care in Cuba. Manuel complained that Family Doctors, like himself, cannot readily obtain the variety of pharmaceuticals available everywhere on mainland North America. Even getting ASA for use in the treatment of heart disease is a problem, let alone for relief of headaches or fevers. Angelo has had a heart attack and copes well but Manuel would like to put the old man on the "aspirin a day"" plan. Unfortunately he cannot because there's none to be had. Likewise, Cubans must also rely upon nitroglycerin tablets, with their very short shelf life, for treatment of angina because the metered sprays we have, with their two-year shelf life, can't be had for any price. What else? We talked about politics, poetry and music until almost 01h00. Day Ten -- Sunday December 6, 1998 Another lazy day because my cold is besting me. Therefore I'll nurse it front of the TV. The sunset is spectacular so I took out the camera and took this one. Day Eleven -- Monday December 7, 1998 Today we day trip to Santiago de Cuba. Our guide, Angel, pointed out some the sights along the way. One was a 100-year-old shipwreck in one of the many bays. I tried to get a photo but the bus was bouncing too much for a good shot. We stopped at the Jose Marti cemetery on the outskirts of Santiago. While visiting cemeteries is not my up of tea, my wife enjoys tracking down families and their history. Besides this cemetery hosts the Jose Marti Memorial. The memorial is quite the sight. It's a circular structure about 25 metres in diameter and about the same in height with two levels. The upper level houses a large bronze statue of Jose Marti. There are eight openings the represents the original Cuban provinces and each of the eight pillars, inside and outside, is carved with the symbol for a province. The lower level holds the memorial cairn surrounded by the flags of countries honouring Marti. Canada's flag is one that's there. Angel told us that the wreath that's placed in front of the cairn is replaced daily as a sign of respect. Upon leaving the memorial, Angel took us through the public part of the cemetery. The Bacardi family plot is here along with some other Cuban notables. Their names escape me now because, at the time, I was watching the mosquito inspectors check all the places where water can accumulate. I asked and was told that this inspection process has almost eliminated mosquito borne disease in the province. Good thing too as one of the diseases was Dengue Fever. I used up my film, loaded another and then we departed on the next stage of the tour, shopping. Our first stop was one of the rum factories that abound in the port area of the city. We got a sample shot of the establishment's rum and looked around the shop. My wife and I decided this was a typical tourist trap as prices here were not a good as those at the hotel. Signs of the new entrepreneurship, perhaps. Next was a cigar factory store. Fortunately, they were friendly and let us watch the manufacturing process. I was able to get the small cigars that my staff and I like. To give you an idea of the area I took this shot outside the cigar store. One thing the picture doesn't show is the horse drawn buses. These operate in their own lanes on the streets. Very picturesque, I think. All shopping done, off we went to tour the older part of the city. On the way to San Juan Hill, we passed street vendors hawking everything from yuccas to vegetables to whole suckling pigs. From this it's evident that free enterprise has found a place in the new Cuba. Our guide says this phenomenon is quite recent. Before climbing San Juan Hill, we stopped at the memorial for soldiers who died in the Spanish-American war. The memorial is similar to war memorials everywhere except for the fence surround. This is very interesting because it's constructed of the weaponry left on the field of battle, rifles, bayonets and swords. Now we can go up the hill. Here we found the requisite memorial commemorating the battle and the fallen. Surrounding this memorial are the trenches that the Americans built to defend the site. These are lined with limestone blocks and most are over 180 cm. From the summit you can see the harbour where Teddy Roosevelt began his charge. I estimate that they must have come about two kilometers up a slope that rises maybe 500 meters above the landing. >From San Juan Hill, we traveled to the Morro Fort. The fort has a long history being built by the Spanish to guard the entrance to the harbour. As you can see from the picture it's well situated for that purpose. The fort is surrounded by a dry moat and access is over a drawbridge with massive gates at the entrance. Inside you can see that the walls are at least 75 cm thick and I suspect there are sections where the walls are even thicker. We passed through to the inner courtyard and climbed to ramparts up multiple sets of stairs. From the top you could see the Caribbean Sea, the harbour and the city in plain view. Antique cannon were strategically placed and one could imagine defending the city against pirates or other invaders. The sun is intense and with no shelter one can imagine armored Spanish soldiers having a devil of a time keeping alert. On the way down and out, we encountered members of the restoration team and we stopped to talked. The staff is not only doing the restoration but they are also re-constructing the kitchen and refectory in the manner of the 16th century so visitors can soon partake in reenactments of the period. They are also investigating for hidden rooms and relics that are hidden by the thick interior walls. I found a working well built in a niche in the interior wall of the lower courtyard complete with pail and turnbuckle. No one could tell me the depth of the well only that it had been restored over the past five years. One of the archeologists went with us as we prepared to depart and showed us one of the locations where they were investigating hidden spaces. The hidden space had been detected by some means or other through a rubble wall at least two meters thick and they were obliged to use small trowels and dental-type picks. I'm impressed. On the way back to the bus, a number of black marketers appeared each with an assortment of cigars. While the prices were excellent, there is always the chance of getting sticks and sub-standard tobacco from these people so we declined. Lunch is next and on an island in the middle of the harbour. We had to drive back to the port area to pick up our boat. Normally I dislike boats and airplanes because of severe motion sickness; however, my wife was hungry and I go on board with some trepidation. Fortunately the harbour was calm and this part of our day, uneventful. The prix-fixe menu consisted of three entrees: chicken, red snapper and trout. Salad, vegetables and wine or other beverage accompanied all meals. We dined al fresco under a grape arbor well out of the sun. My wife and I both selected the red snapper. During the meal, musicians playing Cuban folk music serenaded us. Small pastries and Cuban coffee finished our repast. Once back onboard the boat, I noticed I was getting more pictures that I thought possible even for a 36-exposure roll of film. Oops, the film wasn't feeding properly! Well I opened the camera and fed the film correctly this time. This little setback means I lost at least half my shots at the fort and everything taken on the boat trip. The itinerary for the afternoon will include a visit to the Antonio Maceo monument and a walking tour of the old city. For the ladies the old city tour means another opportunity to shop. Nice calm boat ride again (I could get used to this) and back on the bus. The Antonio Maceo monument is located near the University and is also the site where Pope John-Paul II said mass during his visit to Cuba. As you can see from the picture, the monument is spectacular. The figure and horse are about 20 metres high while the spikes vary between 10 and 5 metres in length. Everything is in bronze and impressive in the bright sunlight. Cut into the mound where the monument rests is an alcove dedicated to the heroes of the Cuban Revolution. A wreath is laid daily in this alcove. Groups of students of various ages also visited the site while we were there. Each age group has its own uniform. Elementary school children wear maroon. Juniors, those in grades six to eight wear red and high school students, blue. One surprising event occurred when a high school student tried panhandling as we got back on the bus. Downtown was interesting, at least the old city where we could walk about. Angel got a bit upset when the group splintered and went every which way. We were no exception and left the square to see what lay in the side streets. I have a photograph that shows one of the staired streets of Santiago de Cuba. The men playing cards outside make the picture interesting. The architecture in this part of the city is definitely Spanish Colonial. As is typical in big cities, most of the buildings show their age. This is too bad because they are quite lovely. Immediately across from the square is the Cathedral, which we were able to visit for a half an hour before mass was to be said. We weren't able to get much history but from the stained glass windows and inscriptions, the church must be at least 100 years of age. One could see the Spanish influence in the layout and decorations. After wandering around some more, we met Angel at the square. While we waited for the rest of the group to slowly drift in, Angel's wife happened by and we decided to go the hotel on the corner opposite to the Cathedral for something to drink. We took advantage of the hotel's roof lounge thus we were able to have our drinks and socialize. The view of the city was excellent as can be seen in this picture. Before returning to Sierra mar, Angel took us by another important icon of the Revolution, Moncada Garrison. This is the barracks that Fidel and his motley crew attacked in July 26, 1953. If you look closely at the picture you can see what are supposed to be bullet marks in the walls. And then we are on our way back to Sierra Mar and supper. After that, we had coffee with Vincent and then to bed. Day Twelve -- Tuesday December 8, 1998 Another day of rest and recreation in preparation for the "Jeep Zafari" tomorrow. My wife went with Vincent to visit Angelo. She came back eaten alive by insects during her visit to Angelo's. The bites are so severe, she requires medical attention to remain comfortable and certainly before she can sleep. Good thing the hotel has a doctor and infirmary on site and was able to provide the necessary antihistimines. Day Thirteen -- Wednesday December 9, 1998 my wife got a decent nights sleep in spite of the bites. Good thing the antihistimines did their job. The "Zafari" started from the hotel at 08h30. We are to go cross-country over the Sierra Maestra range via roads, goat tracks and farmer's paths. We made a brief photo stop at a lookout about 500 metres straight up from the bed of Rio Secco. I slipped tying to get the perfect picture. Boy did this cause a bit of a fuss. I think everyone in the group, except me, thought I was going over the edge. Not so, I simply flattened out and thus limited the slide to 30 cm or so. I got the picture and a lecture from my wife that lasted well into the afternoon. Oh well! It's a bit hard to see but the lower edge of the picture is where it all happened. Next stop was presented as a typical Cuban homestead. The holders showed us their external kitchen and offered coffee prepared using the Cuban method. The stove was a wooden trough on legs about 75 cm tall, filled with what appeared to be baked adobe that had a depression for making the fire and metal bars perpendicular to the trough to support pots and pans. This smallholding was complete with assorted livestock, honey bees, two dogs, a cat and a most wonderful butterfly garden. Orange, brown, zebra-striped and yellow butterflies made small clouds of colour above the flowers. Photographers delight! The water for the coffee was boiled on this stove. To brew the coffee the holder placed a quantity of finely ground roasted coffee into a cone of material something like a nylon stocking, poured in water and began to press the coffee water mixture through the cone and into the cup below. The results were ambrosial, somewhat like espresso only milder. To go with the coffee we were given fresh tangerine segments and cookies made with honey and cocoa. As part of this snack, we were also offered raw cocoa. The pulp surrounding the beans was sweet while the beans were slightly bitter. All in all, I think this stop was a very nice touch. Back on the road and up the mountainside we bounced and wound our way up and over some great scenery. Along the way, we stopped at a small pueblo which, as it turned out, was home to our guide. Here power is provided by means of a generator because power from the grid has yet to reach this high up in the mountains. Today the generator was operating in order to provide power for the repair a 1951 Willys Jeep. Back of the generator shed we saw our first coffee trees close up. We were told that coffee plantations are common in this part of the mountains, as we would see as the trip progressed. Our visit now ended, we climbed back into the jeeps and traveled onward. Our trip appeared to go downhill from there. What I mean to say is we had crested the mountains and were now descending. As promised, we saw many coffee plantations during this part of the trip. We stopped again about half way down the mountain at this elementary school., it has two busts of Jose Marti in front unlike the other schools that we passed on the way. The teacher invited us in as it was near lunchtime and the children sang Guantanamera and the Cuban National anthem for us. We said our good-byes and continued on the trek. A little while later, our guide decided that we should stop for lunch and so we did next to a mountain stream. The sandwiches and cold sodas hit the spot. Some of us brave souls got to dip our feet in the stream which was surprisingly cold considering the ambient temperature was about 32C. The next stop on our trip was the El Salton hotel where we could take advantage of the lagoon and falls or get a massage or food and drink or any of the other amenities offered there. That sounded inviting. The driver took us through a couple of towns or villages as we made our way there leaving most of us with an even more confused sense of direction. But we got there nonetheless. You can tell from the pictures that this was an excellent stopover place. My wife and I separated when we got to the lagoon. She went on an Eco-Tour that started from the lagoon and went up the mountainside while I took a dip and then relaxed by the falls with a book and a drink or two. Her tour took a good hour or so to complete but, being a good husband, I had a beer ready and waiting for her. She said it was interesting but similar to our first stop with the exception that part of the walk went through a coffee grove and she was able to get some berries. She did enjoy the cold beer. Our guide called us together to tell us that it was time for the return trip. There were some moans but he quickly explained that the return trip would be by highway via Santiago de Cuba. This sounded appealing, as it would have been difficult to survive another round of goat tracks over the mountains. Day Fourteen -- Thursday December 10, 1998 We, Vincent, my wife and I, started out after breakfast to visit Vincent's son. This would be the last visit for Vincent for many months and, thus, a bit depressing. We gave the lad a hand-held video game and a bunch of batteries and this brightened things up considerably. Since this was a school day, our visit was foreshortened and we said our good-byes. The taxi ride back to the hotel was a quiet one. No sooner had we arrived, than my wife discovered that she had used up her supply of ointment and was suffering. Off she went back to the infirmary for more while Vincent and I drank espresso by the pool. Eventually she returned, medicated and feeling more comfortable to join us. We reminisced about our joint experiences at Sierra Mar and as lunchtime approached, our spirits rose. After a good lunch and an outside temperature hovering about 33C, we all retreated to our rooms to either siesta or start re-packing for the trip home. After supper, we took in the show. It was not bad so we stayed to the end at 23h00. And then we had to pack! So we did that and finally went to bed at 02h00. Well at least we're ready for wake up at 08h00. Day Fifteen -- Friday December 11, 1998 Home today! After the requisite bus ride to Santiago de Cuba, we spent another hour negotiating bureaucracy then into the departure lounge to wait for our plane. We arrive safe and sound by 17h30.
January 3rd - January 10th, 1999 In October, 15 friends (ourselves included) got together and picked a resort based on the following: 1) we wanted a beautiful beach 2) many dining options and good food 3) reasonable price per person for all inclusive ($900-$1100) -we paid $870/Canadian per person. 4) water sports available; entertainment and planned activities to keep us all busy Rooms needed to be clean, but were not a major issue for us. In making our choice; we stuck to Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Mexico - due to our budget. We are all from Ontario Canada and all are in our mid to late 20's. We are a mix of married couples, dating couples, and friends. In the end we chose to vacation on the island of Cuba. Cayo Coco to be exact. Cayo Coco is an island in the northern part of Cuba that is connected by a causeway (17 km approx). It is known for its laid back atmosphere, and beautiful, pristine beaches. It is also known to be a place for the flocks of pink flamingo’s, but we saw very few. (We were told that is was ‘mating’ season and that was why). Cayo Coco is located north of Ciego de Avila (where the closest airport is: 90 minutes from the resort). Spanish is the language on this island, and the tourist areas offer only minimal knowledge of English; if going= learn some Spanish before you go! There are only 3 resorts on Cayo Coco at the present time and the island is quite isolated from any outside activities not arranged through your resort. Hotel & Club TRYP Cayo Coco (which I’ll call TRYP from this point on) is a very nice looking, well designed resort. It boasts that it is the “largest and most complete all inclusive in Cuba”. The TRYP resort consist of 2 distinct areas; the Colonial (Hotel) section which was built in 1993, and the Modern (Club) section which was built 2-3 years later. Together they form the Village style resort and house the following: 976 rooms, 4 swimming pools (some fresh water, the others salt water), Fitness Center, Disco (with drinks included), 11 restaurants (only 4 are a la carte dining; and the rest are buffet-cafeteria style restaurants, or beach-side lunch grills). The Colonial side is designed like an old Colonial Village and is very charming; both in its architecture and its layout. The main lobby building houses the open air lobby, as well as many guest rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors (some of our group were in these rooms). These rooms featured just small standing balconies and none had an ocean view. Other accommodation’s in the Colonial section were in 3 story pastel coloured villas. This is were we stayed, with an “ocean view” (see room description under Day 2). The Modern section of the resort consists of larger villas centered around the main lobby complex and pool area. This section appeared to be newer and offered more open vistas of the ocean view, but lacked the charm the Colonial section offered. I was not able to get a look at the rooms in this section. The Modern side seemed to have more going on in the evenings. From end to end, the resort is about a 20 minute walk through winding trails and beautiful landscaping. Many of the greenery and landscaping seemed quite mature and there were many, many beautiful flowers and blooming shrubs. The beach was very beautiful; a 2 km. private (no one hassled us once), long sandy beach that seemed like you could walk on it forever. The colour of the sand was greyish white (sort of the colour of cement mix when wet) and was easy to walk on. The coral make up of the sand was course. I heard a few people comment on the beach sand not being the type they had assumed it would be, but that it was nice anyway. The water was gorgeous, a mesmerizing colour of turquoise that grew darker in strips, as the water got deeper. The landscape of Cayo Coco is rather flat with not a lot to see other than the tranquil ocean. I will do a day by day description of events and experiences and then summarize our trip at the end of my report. Day One: Sunday, January 3rd/99 “Big Snow Storm Cripples Toronto” and leaves many tourist “out of luck”. The snow storm hit yesterday afternoon (Jan.2) and lasted early into the next day. We kept our fingers crossed that it would not delay our vacation & after checking our departure time many times, we headed to Terminal I Pearson Airport at noon for our 3 p.m. flight. We had spent the night on the airport “strip” of hotels, so we were close by, but the shuttles were running behind schedule and we were advised to catch one while they were still running. We arrived at the Airport at 12:30p.m. and were immediately told that our flight was now not leaving until 5 p.m.........then again it was bumped to 8:45 p.m........and so on. We sat waiting to board for another hour or so, and then boarded and waited to for the plane to refuel. We finally left the ground at around midnight.......twelve hours later! Talk about crazy. We flew with Royal Airlines on a Boeing 737 small 120 seat aircraft that appeared quite old and unkept. Our flight was on a first come, first serve basis and Shaune and I were unable to even get seats beside each other. I sat with a nice couple from the Toronto area. We were starving by the time “supper” came around, but were served a cold stale tasting sandwich which I couldn’t eat. Seating was extremely cramped . The flight was smooth. Day Two - Monday, January 4th/99 Once we arrived at the airport, we went quickly through the airport and security and boarded a big tour bus and then we were off to our hotel. The ride only took 1:15 min (instead of 1 ½ hr) and was straight driving. It was dark, so the ride was uneventful and sleepy. When we arrived at the Hotel, it was around 4 a.m.; we were directed to our lobby and given a room, along with a blue “all-inclusive” bracelet to wear all week. This allowed access to everything and food and drinks. It took us about 30 minutes to find our room in the dark, with no staff to help us find our way. Our room was an ocean view hotel room in the Colonial (Hotel) section of the resort. We chose the Colonial side basically because our travel agent told us that the Colonial side “guaranteed” Air Conditioning and that the Modern side did not. I really don’t think this is the case though, as we talked to plenty in the Modern section that had A/C. Our first impression of our room: We like that we were located in a villa-style room, which housed about 20 rooms each (I’m guessing). Our friends, Brooke and Blair were located in the room next to ours. Our room number was 2315. We were given the “ocean view” room: ocean view it was not. The ocean is visible in the open air hall way leading to our 2nd floor room before you enter the front door. As soon as you close your front door, good bye ocean view. This is pretty misleading (not even a tiny window to see this ocean view) and we overheard a man arguing with a manager re: his “ocean view”. We didn’t pay extra for this, so it was not an issue. Our room was large with 2 - 3/4 beds pushed together, with end tables on each side. The room also had a desk holding a TV (had a couple movie channels, rest in Spanish) and a chair and mirror; the room also had an empty refrigerator, a small sitting table and 2 chairs. The room had no dresser to put your clothes, so most of ours sat in our suitcases or piled in the closet (in the bathroom). The room had a large balcony (which faced the opposite way of our “ocean view”) with chairs and small table. Great for sitting out and reading a book or people watching. The bathroom was large and separate into 2 sections; As you entered the bathroom there was a large closet to the right (with safety deposit box; costs extra). The closet doors had full length mirrors on them. The counter was long with sink and large mirror. The 2nd section; separated by a half wall held the shower and toilet. The floor had a drain in it, we later found out this is because after you take a shower, you will have 1 foot of water on the floor. The shower set up was plain dumb: there was no shower curtain, just a plexiglass partition that only sheltered half of the shower. As soon as you stepped under the spray, water splashed everywhere onto the floor. Our bath mat was always water-logged and you could not get the floor dry. So......every time you went in to use the toilet you’re feet got soaked. Not nice! This seemed to be the case in most of our friends rooms also, except for 2 couples had shower curtains. The bathroom had marble throughout and was nice looking. I found it hard to get the hot water that I like when I showered. I would just put on the hot water and no cold, and it still was only luke warm. When we entered the room, it smelled. I thought it was stale smoke, but Shaune was sure it must of been there cleaning supplies. Either way, it was not a pleasant smell. All in all, the room was good and what we expected (except for the shower problems). We quickly fell asleep around 4:30 am Monday morning, and woke up to a beautiful sunshine day. We stopped at the main Colonial side Buffet for breakfast with Brooke and Blair and grabbed a bite to eat. The variety of food was not good, but the taste of the food was worse! The only thing we ate was the fruit and toast with butter. We were also given champagne to drink with breakfast -odd, but tasty! The coffee was not awful and Shaune was very disappointed in this. The eggs (scrambled) were cold and not fully cooked; nothing looked too appealing. We quickly ate what we could and met up with our group. We all headed to the Modern side’s pool (our Colonial side’s main pool was empty and being repaired) and walked along the beach. The beach is absolutely beautiful. In the morning, we found the beach to be quite thin, but the tide goes out later in the afternoon and then t he width is better. We all thought the beach was lovely and were getting excited about our stay here. We found the Modern side’s fresh water pool, and quickly made our way to the swim up bar. We would of preferred to have hung out at the ocean, but it was impossible to find a lounge chair anywhere. (This became an annoying fact all week long; they definitely need to invest in about double the amount of lounge chairs). We relaxed at the pool in sit up chairs (because there were no lounge chairs at the pool area either) for most of the day. Towels could be picked up at both sides of the resort. They require you to sign a reservation slip and cost for loss is $15/ per towel. (or maybe $50/ we had trouble understanding her). We had lunch at one of the Beach House Grills and it was pretty good. Cheese burgers and fries for all of us. (This cheeseburger lunch became our life saver, so we didn’t starve). Our orientation with our Signature Tour rep was at 2 p.m. on the Modern Side. The room held about 60 of us, and there was zero air conditioning in the room. The orientation was helpful, but hot. After our orientation, the “boys” hung out at a bar and the “gals” headed for the beach and luckily found some lounges available. We gave the boys the job of reserving supper reservations for the next night. They reserved for Fontanelli’s (Italian). The reservation policy is poorly coordinated. They just changed the policy the week we got there. Now, reservations must be made the day prior to when you want them for. Reservations can be made at 4 p.m. in front of the restaurant of your choice. This results in huge line-ups starting at 3 p.m.; where you wait in a line up for a whole hour, and then only about 1/3 of the line up is able to get reservations. It seemed like we were always standing in line somewhere, waiting for something! We lied out in the sun until it got extremely cold and windy at around 3:30 p.m. We were all getting quite COLD, so we headed for our rooms on the Colonial side to get ready for dinner. We had a good nap before 6:30 p.m. supper at the Pizza Grill. Delicious pizza, but we waited forever (2 hours) and had to basically bribe the waiter to get served because of our large group. This became the norm of the trip, and I’d hate to say how much money we all spent tipping, just to get acceptable service in an all-inclusive that stated “tipping included”- that’s a joke! But, the pizza was good once it came, but he didn’t bring our salads...by this time we were too frustrated to worry about it and didn’t say anything to him. John hit the bars heavy his first day, and during our wait at Fontanelli’s disappeared to eat at the buffet supper. He didn’t return and Michelle was getting worried about him. We spent the rest of the night checking everywhere (including all 11 bars) for him. A lot of walking and no success. He eventually surfaced after we’d all given up. Apparently he had slept on the beach and then went swimming in the storming ocean. He showed up in the lobby in just his underwear and had lost all the rest of his clothes. What a goof! We retired to bed around midnight and John surfaced in the lobby around 12:30 a.m. Day 3 - Tuesday, January 5th/ 99 We woke up late to bad weather. It was raining hard and it was extremely windy. The ocean was all huge waves/ rough seas and it was Red Flagged. It was a boring morning for us and we all hoped the weather would get better quickly. Hung out in John and Michelle’s room, just reading novels, while some played cards. Lunch was at the Hamburger Grill again, which was only “kinda open” because of its location by the beach and the extreme blowing winds and rain. They served us cold hamburgers (all available) which weren’t as good as the day before. (Always better than the buffet though).The Afternoon; we spent in La Salsa Disco in the Colonial side of the resort. The had Karioke and Bingo and Dance Lessons; this was fun and we stayed for a couple of hours and had some drinks. It got very busy in the disco; and suddenly the bartenders would not make an “Fancy” drinks like Daiquiri’s’s (just easy mixed drinks). Again, poor service probably due to under staffing (only one bartender to serve a resort full of rained-out travelers). Shaune and I left at 4 to make reservations for El Dorado, but after waiting in line for 10 minutes, the line closed and we were told they were “sold out” already. (This is where we discovered that unless you want to eat buffet every night; you must get in line by 3p.m. to have a better chance of reservations). We went for a quick swim at one of the two freshwater pool on the Colonial side, and they had slides :so we just had to try them out. Fun, but the water was extremely cold in this pool. Supper was at Fontanelli’s (which is located right by all our rooms on the Colonial side). Fontanelli’s is an Italian restaurant that offers pasta and pizza for entrees (no meat entrees) and an antipasto bar (with about 4 items) for starting. I ordered the pesto pizza, but could not eat it. The pesto was a foul, sour taste. So, I ordered Spaghetti Carbonarra (same as Shaune). I ate some of it, because I was hungry, but didn’t like it much either. It had a cream sauce on it that was very bland and tasteless. Our table of 6 was given a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine with our dinner. Dessert was featured on same antipasto table and they had 1 - 2 good tasting desserts. After dinner, we hung out a while at the open air bar right beside this restaurant, shared a Cuban cigar amongst friends and then headed over to the Disco. They were holding a kids show and then a kids magic show, but we waited around for the dancing. The kid shows went quite late (around 10:30 - 11 p.m.). The disco is good with lots of salsa and Canadian/ American music to dance to. They have entertainment staff that will teach you dances up on the stage to the Cuban music and this was enjoyed by all of us. This was the only place, where there was lots of staff available and it was well run. We retired to our room at about midnight. Day 4 - Wednesday, January 6th/ 99 Weather was still real dreary and dark. We slept in until 10 a.m. and skipped breakfast. We all met up at the beach tower and went swimming in the waves (red flag day again). The ocean was rough and the waves were quite big. Many people were in the ocean. We stayed in for about 15 minutes. The current was strong and tiring and would be quite dangerous for those who are not strong swimmers. We had a lot of fun in the waves. Lunch was at the Colonial side buffet and was more of the same food; extremely bland and poor quality. We had some bread and butter and a small bit of food, and then ventured over to the Beach tower for French fries, etc. They were serving up burgers, hot dogs (not good), fries, and BBQ chicken. Better than the buffet, and we vowed not to eat at buffet again on our trip if we could help it. Took a look through the shops and bought some postcards for 50 cents each. Stamps were only available though at the other side of the resort. My camera broke, what luck! I love taking pictures on holidays and this really bummed me out. Michelle promised me I could have her doubles. At 2:30 p.m. we met to play volleyball in the pool. The net was up, but there was no activity directors to be found and we couldn’t find a ball anywhere. One of the guys finally looked in a storage room behind the pool house and found one. Things are so unorganized and unaccessible here. The water in the pool was freezing, so we didn’t stay in for long. Some wouldn’t even get in the water, it was so cold. The wind was still very strong and I actually wore my light-weight winter shell jacket to keep warm - definitely not your typical Caribbean warm temperatures. We went to go check out the menu at El Dorado Seafood Restaurant at 3:00 and found a line up already forming, so we had to stand in a 1 hour line up to make dinner reservations for about half the group (Seafood restaurant, so only ½ liked seafood - the rest decided on pizza and buffet). This reservation set up would be much more efficient and convenient if they had one central place, where you could reserve for as many nights as you’d like. Wishful thinking! The line up got very long, and we did get our reservations.....but most of the people stood in line for 1 hour, just to be told it was all booked up. There were a lot of angry and frustrated people. Reservations at all restaurants were for either 5p.m.; 7p.m.; or 9 p.m. We had to take one for 9 p.m. for 8 people. Again, these reservation line ups are always for the following night. We spoke with many people the last couple day, and the general consensus was that it was a nice looking resort with pretty grounds and beautiful beach. Ok drinks, very poor service (with major language barriers), and bad food. Europeans seemed to be more pleased with the resort and food than the Canadians we spoke with. Don’t know why this is? We stopped at a doughnut stand and picked up some small sugared donuts - which were quite good. This night we went for supper at the Pizza Grill at 7p.m. (Some went for supper at Fontanelli’s again). They were basically out of everything. Everything we ordered off the menu, he would come back from the kitchen and say they were all out of that item. We ordered green salads; out of that. We ordered combo pizza’s; out of that ........and so on. We ended up getting pizza with just bacon and it was very tasty. We hung out at Fontanelli’s bar for a while and then the disco until about 1 a.m. It was a lot of fun and the music was terrific this time. We all danced up a “storm”. Day 5 - Thursday, January 7th/ 99 Woke up to a bit more sun; Brooke and I grabbed a quick bite for breakfast and then headed to the Colonial side pool. It was overcast most the day, and still not very hot out. We still managed to get a bit of a tan, even if we did freeze our butts off in the process. The weather has been a real disappointment, and perhaps gives us more time to find things “wrong with this resort”. We were really bored the days that the weather was bad and the resort didn’t have anything organized for people to do. The activity directors all seemed to go into hiding while the weather was poor. Also, with the weather being so rotten; the bars and restaurants were busier than usual and the resort did not have extra staff to pick up the pace. This meant waiting far too long for a drink at the bar or for a meal.......a couple times after waiting a ½ hr at the bar, I would just give up and go thirsty -pretty pathetic if you ask me! Lunch was at the Beach Tower and they had set up a nice buffet and grill. It was actually pretty tasty with a fair bit of variety. Shaune and I had the grilled quarter chicken, fries, hamburgers, etc... In the afternoon, Shaune, Michelle, Tammy and myself walked the beach looking for shells that the huge waves had brought in. There were a lot of nice shells, and we collected them to make picture frames for our trip photo. The waves from the previous days had also brought in a lot of Jellyfish! I’d never seen one before: they look like a breast implant! There were far too many to count on the beach, and we heard of many people who had gotten stung the past week by them. You had to be careful where you walked on the beach, for fear of stepping on them. Not once did I see any maintenance people raking or cleaning this beach. It was nice walking the length of the beach and it took a good 30 minutes each way. Today, we stood in line and got reservations for La Loma Azul International restaurant for the next night. We had supper at El Dorado Seafood Restaurant this night and really enjoyed it! .......although, we had to pay extra for our meal. All of us who went (Shaune and I, Tammy, Dave, Tracy, Brian, and Scott) had the lobster entree. Shaune and I ordered the Seafood Crepe au Gratin for starter (waitress told me it had lobster in it; but it was just fish). The Seafood Crepe was very good and had a cream sauce over it. With our grilled lobster (which as delicious and huge), we also ordered a Seafood Spaghetti Marinara to split. We didn’t like it and did not eat it. It was spaghetti noodles with marinara sauce and different seafood’s like mussels, squid, etc. Not the kinds of seafood we are fond of, but Dave enjoyed his. Shaune and I split a lemon tart with ice-cream for dessert and it as good. We paid $11/ per lobster, but it was worth it to have a meal we enjoyed. We all retired early to bed tonight, full from a satisfying meal! We stayed up late and watched a movie on HBO. Our room, 2315 is located adjacent to the disco, so the music is loud until 2-3 a.m. every night. After the disco was over, you’d always hear loud, drunk people slowly and loudly finding their way to their rooms. Not a great room location if sound sleep is important to you. Day 6 - Friday, January 8th/ 99 What a beautiful day, finally! The girls all got up early and went “shell hunting” at around 7:30 a.m. Most were small and crushed by this time from the previous crashing waves. There were still a lot of waves in the ocean, along with the jellyfish, but it was starting to calm down. The wind was finally dying down as well. After shelling, we hung out by the Colonial main fresh water pool and ‘baked’ to make up for ‘lost time’. The sun was out most of the time; but hid behind the clouds now and then. We’d take quick dips in the pool to cool off......the pool water was still very cold and few were in the pool for long. Morning at the pool offered loud music and very loud Activity Directors shouting over the microphone in 4 different languages. I’d fall asleep in my sun lounge, to be quickly woken up to the sudden screams of the staff. A little too loud! Lunch was pizza again. Again, quite good, after a very long wait. They are so under-staffed and poorly trained at this resort. It can be very frustrating at times. We made reservations at the Cuban Cuisine Restaurant for the following night. This time, we went at 3:15 p.m. and were the first in line......until 8 European women walked passed us in line “to look at the menu” and never left the front of the line. Some people! They reserved for 25 people and took up most of the restaurant for the 7 p.m. seating. RUDE! After a short nap in the afternoon, we set out for our dinner reservations at La Loma Azul International Restaurant on the Modern side of the resort. Even with 7 p.m. reservations, there was a ½ hour line up and wait to get your seat in the restaurant. One line up, after another it seemed! Shaune and I sat at a table with John and Michelle. We both ordered the tortellini soup for starts (good). I had chicken skewer and rice for appetizer and Shaune ordered the smoked salmon plate. Both were ok. For supper, we ordered 3 entrees to split. Pork Chow Mein (too salty and we didn’t eat it); Curried chicken and rice (very good); and lamb with vegetables and mashed potatoes (lambchops had a sour taste, but still ok; mashed potatoes very good). Dessert was good also. We both had chocolate cake with nuts and coconut. Michelle had fried banana and John had ice-cream with puffed pastry. Everyone generally enjoyed their meal this time and our waitress was very nice and well trained. She had pretty good English also. During supper, we also enjoyed 3 very good bottles of rose wine (we are not wine connoisseurs though). Entertainment on the Modern side was not too entertaining and there was no place to sit and watch anyway. So, after a few drinks we walked through the resort to our side (Colonial) and then walked to the far end to see this part of the resort. It was very charming and we wished our rooms had have been located at this far end of the Colonial side. The pool is long and winding, and very unique. The swim up pool bar is very large and the pool has a waterfall (but no hot tub that we saw - but, all the hot tubs we found on the property were actually “cool tubs”). The continues like a river and runs along side some of the hotel rooms, so...you can walk right off your patio into the pool. I’d recommend this area of the resort. It is less busy (we didn’t find it until the end of the week) and the most charming rooms at the whole resort. We hung out in the courtyard for a while and retired around 11:30 p.m. Day 7 - January 9th/ 99 Our last full day in Cuba. It was beautiful out and we were all happy about this. We skipped breakfast again and today, hung out at the far end Colonial pool that I’ve just mentioned above. This area was much less crowded, and Brooke always got up early to go sun and reserve us some chairs....they go quick! Some of the group went out kayaking, and had to put a $4-$5 deposit on any equipment they used (so much for the convenience of all inclusive). Some of the group just flat out refused to go back to their room for money when this was supposed to be an all-inclusive resort. They had fun on the kayaks, but we didn’t go. Our small group of friends (10 used them) took up all the kayaks available on the Colonial side of the beach, so there wasn’t enough to go around...let alone plenty for a 1000 room resort. Today, some of us reserved the glass bottom boat tour for 1:30 p.m., so we sunned until 1 and then headed over to the Modern side to catch the boat. The cost of the trip was only $25 per person and included a glass bottom boat, snorkeling at Cayo Coco reef and a short trip to Flamingo beach, before heading back. The trip was from 1:30p.m. until 5p.m. We had wanted to take this trip all week, but with the waves and weather conditions; it was canceled everyday until this day. The trip was wonderful, but not without a few “glitches”. The boat only came in a certain way from the beach, and then all passengers had to wade out in the water to the boat. This was fine, except he had not come in close enough and at some points while wading in the water, it was over your head! People had cameras and towels, etc...with them and most got soaked! Only 6 of us went on the trip from our group (others opted for the plane trip to Trinidad, or the ½ day trip to the village of Moron). Dave, Tammy, Marnie, Vicki, Shaune and I went on this boat trip. We sat up on the 2nd deck of the boat, at the very front and hung our legs over the deck of the boat. It was the best seats in the house and we had a great time cruising to the snorkeling reef. The cruise included an open bar, but the tour guides didn’t speak English and all he provided on the way was Coke. (On the way back, Shaune was able to get a rum and coke out of him; but it tasted like gasoline and was not drinkable!) Once we got to the reef, many were surprised. It was out in the middle of the ocean, not close to any shore. This alarmed some I guess, but Shaune and I quickly went down to the bottom deck of the boat and searched through shabby snorkeling equipment to find a snorkel, mask and fins. Cleanliness and repair was not top priority for this boat, but I wanted to go snorkeling......and snorkel I did. The masks were cheapies and didn’t work real well. The unfortunate part was that the boat didn’t have enough equipment for ½ the people on the boat. RIDICULOUS! Of course, they took their money to take them on this trip, but didn’t apologize when some couldn’t go snorkeling. I was mad about this! After Shaune and I snorkeled for a while, we let our friends have a try, since they didn’t have any equipment for them. I was bummed because I love to snorkel and only got to do it for about 10 minutes before I forfeited my equipment to Marnie. The snorkeling was very good, but not as clear as it would of been before the storms of the past days. The water was a bit wavy and it was tricky avoiding the coral and staying put in the water. I opted for no life preserver, as all they had were big bulky orange life jackets that were not deflatable. We saw a lot more fish than we did on our last trip to St. Lucia and were generally impressed by the beauty of the reef. Many people were pushed into the coral by the waves, and more than a few had cuts and were bleeding (in the water!) If I’d of known this, I probably would have got out of the water! Apparently the tour guides had not heard that Sharks like Blood! Cuba is known for sharks and they also offer Shark Dives to enthusiastic Divers......no thanks! It was the first time snorkeling for Marnie and Vicki and they really loved it once they got used to it. The tour guides did not get in the water with us, and there was no one available for instruction on snorkeling. Tammy and I showed Marnie and Vicki how to snorkel without drinking a whole lot of water. I even drank a bit of water, due to the waves and rough conditions. The snorkeling would have been much better if the sea had been calmer. After about ½ hr snorkeling, we were called back to the boat and were taken a short distance to Flamingo Beach. You must go see this beach if ever in Cayo Coco. It was a secluded beach with no hotels and was just beautiful, and we’d never seen such a beautiful beach in person before. The water was shallow and turquoise blue as far as you could see. The sand in the water was extra soft and rippled. We just got off the boat and hung out in the warm shallow water. Everyone loved the beached and we took a ton of pictures. Shaune and I walked into shore and found a ton of huge shells along the shore line. I was very excited and found 3 large spiral shaped (conch style) shells, that I brought back to Canada with me. The whole shoreline had these shells, I’m not sure if the storm had brought them in lately, as today the water was smooth here with not even a ripple of a wave. We only stayed at this beach for 20 minutes and then headed back to our resort. It was colder by this time and the ride back at the front of the boat got us very wet. Going against the waves, the boat kept banging into huge waves and splashing us like crazy. It was fun but cold. This trip was amazing and if we’d done it earlier in the week; I probably would have done it again. $25/ per person is a good deal.....just bring your own snorkeling equipment. We got back at 5 p.m. and dropped our towels off at the towel hut, where she marked off on the ‘computer’ that we had returned our towels for the week. Then we walked back to our rooms. We relaxed and then got ready for our 7 p.m. dinner reservations at the Cuban cuisine restaurant. At this restaurant, they wear ‘typical Cuban costume’ and serve ‘authentic Cuban cuisine’. The menu was in Spanish and did not describe the entrees......so we guessed. First I ordered the chicken, but it was a chicken leg quarter that had just been boiled and did not appear to be cooked fully, so...... I ordered the beef and it was good. They fried beef cubes basically and they were quite tasteless, so I added a lot of tabasco sauce and then it was good. I like my food to have a ‘bite’. Shaune paid for his meal ($6) of fried steak. He said it was ok, but not great and not worth even the extra $6.00. Our meal was served with bread and butter and our table split a bottle of the rose wine. The meal started with a combination combo plate of pork rinds, deep fried mash potatoes, chicken wings, etc. It was tasty enough. We skipped dessert, and took 2 bottles of rose wine to go. It was a beautiful night and we stopped at the nearby buffet restaurant for dessert and another couple bottles of rose (divided by 15 of us). The staff was very friendly at this restaurant and took a couple group photos for us. From here, we visited the outside bar by Fontanelli’s for a few drinks and then headed to the disco. We gave the bartender a $20 tip up front for good service and he took good care of us the rest of the night. He never refused to make our ‘fruity’ drinks, as many of the other bartenders did. He was appreciative I suppose and was a really nice guy. All of the Cuban workers there are very nice and courteous, just overworked because of the under-staffing problem. We must of drank 20-30 drinks each this last night in Cuba. We had a ball and danced the night away. We had gotten to the disco early enough to get a table, and we all celebrated a lot. Shaune and I left around 1 a.m. and took a stroll on the beach under the stars. When we got back to our room, we quickly forgot about packing and passed out for the night! Day 8 - January 10th/ 99 This day we headed back to Canada and the snow. We woke up early (8 a.m. - early for us) and went out to lie in the sun and get a bit more tanned. None of us got the tans we’d hoped for; due to the poor weather of the beginning of the week. We sat out in the sun until about 11:30 a.m., and then headed down to the beach to get a vial of sand from the beach and take our last walk in the sand. The ocean was extremely calm to day, not even a ripple. It looked absolutely gorgeous. Then we went and packed up our room. We were instructed to leave our bags by our hotel door by noon, or take them to the lobby. We chose to take them ourselves to the lobby. They simply pile all your bags at the side of the building until you depart by bus. Our bags were basically left unwatched for several hours before our bus departed for the airport. I think they should think of a more secure way to store luggage after check-out.....many people, including us, were weary about leaving our bags unguarded. Check-out went smoothly and we paid our $28 in food charges to our room. After check-out, we headed back to the far pool and sat down for lunch at another of the Burger Grill Houses. We’d never tried this place before and heard it had the largest selection. It did. They offered appetizers like: fried cheese, onion rings, fries, etc. They had many types of burgers to chose from and hot dogs and offered a small list of desserts. If only we’d found this place sooner. It was busy and they had only 2 waiters working the place. We waited about 15 minutes before we ordered, and then waited almost another 1 ½ hours before we got our meal. It was crazy. Friends of ours came in after us, ordered and ate their meals before we even got our drinks. Very unorganized! We complained to the waiter after about an hour, because everyone coming in after us had already ate and left....we asked if he’d forgotten about us. All he could say was “Its not my fault”, repeatedly. Eventually, we did get our food and it was very good! I ordered fried cheese and French fries and BLT burger -delicious! Shaune ordered a turkey burger (he didn’t like taste, but I tried and it wasn’t bad) and onion rings and French fries. Long wait, but best burger hut at the resort. After lunch we went and bought some souvenirs at the gift shops. Shaune bought cigars and I bought 2 bottles of white rum and a bottle of banana rum. I also bought a cute little turtle made out of a coconut husk with the word Cuba burnt into its fin. While we waited for our bus, it began to pour rain and got very cold again. This weather was quite unpredictable the whole trip. We took shelter in the lobby and read our novels. We met a group of about 6-7 people from Canada who’d booked the hotel through Premier tours and when they got the TRYP Cayo Coco; there were no rooms available for them. They were extremely upset with Premier and warned us never to book through them. I’d never heard of this company. When they went to check-in, they were told there was no rooms for them, and told them to go sit outside until they ‘figured out what to do with them’. They didn't’ t offer them a refreshment or food, nor did they allow them access to anything while they waited to hear. Again, rotten service! We took pity on them and went to the closest bar and brought them 2 trays of drinks. They were appreciative and wondered what was going to happen to them. The hotel management had mentioned sending them back to the town of Ciego de Avila (1 ½ hrs away) to stay at a little hotel there. They were not enthusiastic about this, and I don’t blame them at all! I don’t know what happened. We saw them depart in a little bus, to be sent to another hotel.....perhaps to a better hotel, if they were lucky! I heard lots of stories of over-booking at this hotel.........to the fault of whom, I’m not sure? Our Signature rep confirmed that 60 people were over-booked one day and they were hustling to find them all a place to stay! Our bus to take us to the airport was 30 minutes late. We were lucky and all fit on the first little bus that came to pick some up. We were the first group to the airport and were given much more desirable seats than we’d had on the way to Cuba. We paid our $20/each U.S. $ departure tax, and then headed upstairs to the airport departure lounge to relax. We played some card games and read a bit while we waited for our plane. The plane did not depart until about 2 hours after scheduled. In the meanwhile, a group flying home with us got extremely drunk at the airport bar. They were so loud and obnoxious and used the f-word every sentence, regardless of the fact that there were small children in the lobby. Most of the lounge moved to the outside patio to await the plane. The airport staff just kept feeding them bottle after bottle of rum and did nothing to control or monitor their behavior. I was very surprised when Royal Airlines allowed them on the plane in their condition; they were loud the whole 3 hour plane flight home, swearing and drinking more. Royal did nothing to control this either. I’m just glad we weren’t seated right near them...but we could still hear them the whole plane ride home. It was a LONG flight! The plane flight home was very turbulent for about 45 minutes straight and then smooth the rest of the way. We were served turkey sandwiches for supper and then we fell asleep for the rest of the flight. We got into Toronto around 2:30 a.m. and did our best to rush through Customs, etc.....and get home as quickly as possible. Toronto had been experiencing one of the largest snow storms in years, throughout our warm (kinda) stay in Cuba. We came home to 10 feet high snow banks and bitter cold! Back to reality, I guess! I will summarize my trip report into likes; and dislikes: LIKES -beach -charming resort (architecture and style) -room size -friendliness of the Cuban people -snorkeling was very good -large selection of pools, and well maintained -clean resort -mature and beautiful landscaping -lobster and El Dorado restaurant -drinks: Club Coco’s, Strawberry Daiquiri’s’s, Pina Colada’s DISLIKES -Food! -bathroom shower (set up and water temperature) -poor service and not enough staff -lack of lounge chairs -LINE UPS! -reservation policy -deposit for water sports equipment; as well as a 1 hr time limit per day! -jellyfish! -no fault of the resort; but the weather sucked (just unlucky I guess) -no “hot” tubs (just cool water with bubbles) -no organized activities/ -no daytime fun to be found I could go on, but I won’t. Our whole groups major complaints was the lack of service and the food. This resort did have some fine qualities. Perhaps if they were to revamp this place and add at least double the staff (trained) and bring their food quality up to par, this place could easily be a real winner. Either way, they were very busy (booked solid) the whole time we were there. So, I do not think any changes are in the process. Eventually, though, they will run out of first- time visitors and I do not know of many that would return for a second try........they will need to improve things eventually. In general, though, our trip was a lot of fun and a wonderful opportunity for 15 friends to go away on a tropical trip together. The general thought was: lets do this again, but next time lets pay more and get more! We definitely found out, most the time: you get what you pay for....and sometimes you get less than you pay for!
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