Let me just preface this with the fact that I felt pretty horrible the entire time I was away (started before I left and didn’t have anything to do with the food or anything)… I also didn’t have a single drink the entire time I was there (see point #1). So with that in mind, here we go…
Cuba – take one.
So I’m trying a different kind of adventure this time around… first go at an all-inclusive and my first time in Cuba. Direct to Cuba flights from my city don’t start until the week after spring break (wtf?), so I drove to Moncton to meet up with the girls. Sunwing flight was delayed about three hours, but I knew that before I even left for Moncton. No big deal. Hung out with the girls, had some lunch, watched their not quite frantic repacking (seems to be a trend every time we all go somewhere warm together at least). A few hours before the flight, John’s taxi service takes us to the airport (thanks John!), and we’re some of the last to check in for that flight. No seats together and not a lot of seats left to choose from at all. Sunwing is very high-tech… they printed and cut out boarding passes, used a sticker page to assign seats, and that kind of thing.
So we get through security and begin the sitting process. I’ve never seen the Moncton airport so full, since it normally just has the wee AC flights and one to NJ…. It was pretty packed though, and we managed to find some seats together. And so we wait…and wait… and around the time one would think they would try and board that size of a plane passes… and the time that we should have left passes… and some more time passes… and not a peep from anyone at the airport. I don’t think Sunwing keeps much for ground crew at the airport, and apparently they didn’t manage to get a flight crew either. So eventually we get an announcement that the crew were missing, and then later they were there and there would be another announcement in 30 mins. Likely more like an hour later, we get an announcement that our flight is delayed until the next morning at 10am. Apparently the flight crew were sick. So, to this point, Sunwing gets a fail. Shit happens when you travel and I have no issues with that, but if our flight isn’t leaving, you should be a bit more prompt about telling us. And if you are offering hotel vouchers and that kind of thing, it might be worth mentioning. They never did. We gathered up our luggage from the spinner, Mel beat back the masses to get us a cab, and we headed back to Hotel MacDonald. Snacks and Scrabble and we called it a night (though the MacDonald liquor cabinet got raided, but not by me… I don’t like drinking around flying).
Are those pineapples?
Cuba take 2: Back to the airport around 8am and we put our bags back through. They weregiving out breakfast vouchers for $10 each that you can spend in the Moncton airport, but they aren’t really making an effort to give them out. Mel and Mich get them, Sue and I have to go back for them. Got some shit food from the airport (I actually spent most of mine on water) and sat around some more. Played some Battleship with Melissa, walked around some, dealt with some rude fellow passengers (when there’s not a lot of seats and there is a lot of people, you don’t lay across 5-6 seats… when the airport/gate is empty, go to town), and endured a travel douche (for anyone not aware, a travel douche is someone who constantly brags about where they have been, what they’ve done etc., no matter what the current conversation is about… like “how long is this flight… five hours… oh, that’s nothing because when I travelled to China blah blah blah”… heck yea talk about your travels… travellers tend to have awesome stories… but don’t be a travel douche!!) They announced that our flight was leaving on time at 10:25 (they told us the day before it was 10:05), and I’m pretty sure it was after 11 when we finally did leave.
Flight was about four and a half hours and all I really wanted to do is sleep… the person beside me woke me up once because he wanted to go to the bathroom (no issues), and then again to see if I wanted a drink, and then repeatedly by hitting me with his damn pointy elbows. Middle seat dwellers are the worst… for some reason they always think that they get both arm rests for some reason. Likely if someone is sleeping, they don’t really want a drink, but what do I know. They gave out free champagne at the start of the flight, there was free beer/wine during (I don’t know if it was always free or just because of our delay), there was a snack, normal complimentary drinks, a lunch (shittier than normal airplane food), and a chocolate near the end… also a hot towel, some thinger to fill out to get $50 from them by allowing them to spam you or something. They had forgotten to load the earphones on the plane, but they played a movie (in the wee tvs that come down from the ceiling) – and some bits of tv. I didn’t watch any. They gave us our Visa thinger to fill out on the plane.
Touch down in Cuba around 2:30 Cuba time. Customs was simple, though set up a little different than most… little wooden stalls instead of the normal areas where you can see through. The girl who stamped mine didn’t speak to me except to get me to look at the camera at one point. Luggage came out eventually, loads of Sunwing peeps at the door once we left to point us to our bus (you could also get beer with Cuban tourist pesos or CAD). We waited for a few people and were finally off. Jorge gave us a bit of an introduction to Cuba on the drive (including pointing out the agave plants growing off the side of the road as we drove by… and not 2 minutes later the hobbler (annoying person who tripped coming on the bus, ended up being at our resort, and who was an incredible drama queen and super bitchy to our maid) asked if those same plants were pineapples). We were the sixth resort we stopped at. It was probably about 90 minutes after we got off the plane by the time we were at the resort.
Check-in at the resort (Arenas Doradas in Varadero) was a bit slow. There was one person working the desk, and they definitely work on Cuba time here. Be sure to go with the flow 🙂 Got checked in, tried to get rooms for our friends near ours, but that didn’t work out, got some money changed over ($200 CAD was about $180 in their tourist peso (CUC) at the hotel – whether it’s better at the airport or somewhere else, I don’t know). Got the fancy golf cart treatment to get taken to our room, and that guy told us a bit about where things are.
I liked the resort. I knew coming in what to expect from a place in the Caribbean, so while it’s older, that didn’t bother me. Our room was a bit shabby, but everything worked well enough and that’s fine. There was beds for sleeping in and we had running water. We had a nice terrace out back and the grounds were really nice. There were 11 sections of buildings with rooms in them, but none of the buildings were higher than 2 stories. We were in the 700 building – close to the beach and the pool, and a bit longer of a walk to reception, but I liked the location. The beach was really nice, with free water gear you can use, and some trips you can pay for and there’s a bar and restaurant down there. The pool was kind of in the middle, and there was a bar there, and a late night snack area kind of thing. Most everything else was up in around the lobby (buffet, restaurants, some shops, night club, stage area, and the 24 hour bar).
We didn’t bother to unpack since we were going to wait until the next day and see if Mich and Sue could move over by us. We spent a bit of time in our room and then went to find the others. They had a room in the 300 section on the second floor… a lot brighter than ours, but I preferred the location of ours. We did some exploring from there, with pit stops at the pool bar for a drink, back around to our room to get out the cups we brought with us, and then back up to the lobby (because the pool bar closes at 6 – pool and associated bar are only open 10 to 6). Sat around and chatted, and then wandered off to the buffet for supper. It was pretty much what I expected. There was a station where you can order stuff they cook “fresh”, a station with salads (not lettuce salads, more like pasta and potato salads), a station with bread (including a giant toaster from like 1950), a station with meats and mains and stuff, and then one with fruit and and ice creams. They served beer and wine in there, and there was a water dispenser (handy for filling water bottle). Food was edible, though a bit bland.
After supper, we sat around at the tables outside the lobby and enjoyed the warmth for a while, and then we wandered off to watch a bit of the dance show they were putting on. I feel the same about this as I do about most of those kind of productions – I’m sure they try very hard and mean very well, and hopefully they are getting paid so they can live of it or partly live off it at least, but it was pretty terrible. That was a perfect cue for going to bed in my universe… I had no pretenses this week about being a rocking party animal, all-inclusive or not. I planned to sleep when I was tired, eat when I was hungry, drink when I was thirsty, and mostly relax all the time.
Coconut water and simple things.
Mel woke me up for breakfast because we were supposed to meet Mich and Sue, but failed to account for the time difference. So we actually got there early and ate without them, and then wandered off to find them in their room. Oops. They were trying to get their room switched, so we went back to ours and unpacked some, and then waited around for them. Then it was beach time, so we all wandered down to find a nice shady spot to relax. I hadn’t seen a gardener to make friends with yet, but Yoel stopped Sue and Mich and opened a coconut for us. Yummo. There’s palm trees all over this resort…. coconuts are one of my fave foods in the universe, so hooray!
Beach relaxing time – reading and sleeping on the beach, and then we had some lunch at the restaurant down by the beach. I had a whole grilled fish and some rice (that I dumped some fresh salsa on to give it some flavour). And then I went back to my room to hang out on the terrace in the shade. I spent most of the afternoons by myself, working on some writing, reading, or whatever… and that was totally ok with me. The girls spent that time at the beach or at the pool. I enjoyed relaxing in the shade.
The evenings all kind of blended together on this trip… I suspect we sat around the lobby area outside.
Banana hammocks and naked ladies.
I think this was Monday. Beach in the morning, and playing in the water… which was crystal clear and warm and beautiful. Lazed on the beach, ate some lunch, relaxed some more, ate some supper, sat around. Our resort had a mix of Candians and Europeans, which meant it also had the swim suits associated with each 🙂 I’m no model, and I don’t care about clothes and whatever, but some of the outfits were pretty out there. And if your fat swallows all the parts of your bikini, maybe it wasn’t your best decision of the day. Also, if your wife’s bikini top falls off while she is sleeping, maybe you shouldn’t take pictures of her… who knows. Great people watching if nothing else. My Spanish is pretty broken at this point since I haven’t used it nearly like I should have over the years, but here and there I got a laugh catching parts of what the guys working at the resort had to say about some of the visitors (the beach guys). There were some people peddling stuff on the beach, but they weren’t pushy or annoying in any way.
Catching a bus by the side of the road.
Tuesday we went took the HOHO bus into Varadero for a few hours. It was $5pp for the day and we could buy the tix at the resort or on the bus. We bought them at the resort, but the guy put the wrong date on them or something, so the girls had to buy theirs again on the bus (and then get a refund later at the hotel). The bus stops all over the place on that main strip in Varadero. We did a bit of shopping and then headed back to the resort. I bought a painting and a gift for my sister. I’m not much of a shopper.
After spending the morning in Varadero, I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to go to Havana the next day like we had planned (see the previous commentary about feeling like shit), so we spent several hours in the lobby waiting to cancel our tour with the Sunwing rep (stay tuned for a Sunwing rant at the end).
More relaxing and eating and sitting around. I’m pretty sure I called it extra early this night.
Punch a fish in the face.
More beach time and water fun in the morning… eating… and then I did some more relaxing on my terrace. While I was relaxing, the girls paid one of the guys from the resort to take them out snorkling on the catamaran. The water was pretty rough by then, so they had a rough ride and a hard time getting back onto the vessel when they were done. The guy brought some bread to feed the fish. I think it cost them 20 CUC pp and was for two hours. And Sue accidentally punched a fish in the face…. and knowing her, she likely apologized to it 🙂
This is also the day where the door to our room stopped working, but it was fairly quickly remedied after a couple of trips back and forth to reception and a visit from a maintenance guy. Sadly, the door broke as I was being nice and took a coconut out to put in the trash instead of leaving it for the maid to clean up. And I was soooo thirsty. I gave the maintenance guy a chocolate bar (one of Mel’s, hehehe) as a treat and it was like I had given him the world.
We had dinner at one of the a la carte restaurants this night. It wasn’t really any better than the buffet in my opinion, but the girls liked it fine. More hanging out in the evening…. sitting around playing cards in the gazebo for the evening, I think. The night likely also involved overpriced Pringles… yuck.
Maybe next time Havana.
Mich and Sue booked a shorter different tour on Thurs to go to Havana, and Mel and I did very little. We spent some time on the beach walking around. The water was really rough (yellow flag out), and we later heard that a Canadian tourist and a Cuban life guard who tried to save her both drowned that day. Heartbreaking 😦
Cuba, please let me go home.
So this was probably the very first time ever that I wanted to go home from a trip. Of course, any time i travel without Greg I miss him and want to get back to the same place as him, but normally I would just rather him come to me. But this time, since I felt so shitty off and on during the week, I just wanted to go home. (I had actually seriously considered paying the several hundred bucks to see if I could get back on a flight to Halifax earlier in the week, since Sunwing to Moncton only goes once a week… but I decided to stick it out.)
Check out time at the resort was 12:00, so we paid 25CUC to be able to keep one of our rooms to 4:00. I did very little at all this day. I lazed around and read and stuff. I packed my stuff. I had a shower. Very taxing 🙂
Our bus pick up at the resort was supposed to be at 6:30 for our flight at 9:55pm. This got delayed to being picked up at 9:00 for a new flight time at midnight. Great. So we sat around in the lobby. I played some game on Mel’s phone and read while they played cards. I was tired of resort food so I didn’t even bother to eat and just drank some water.
Bus finally came about 30 minutes late and off we went to the airport. Checked in (got assigned the same seat I had on the way to Cuba), passed our Visas in to customs, and parked it on some chairs. And the fun begins. While we sat around waiting, our flight delayed again to 1:30am, then to 3:30, then to 5:00, then to 5:30, and then to 6:00. We were given a piece of paper with the word “snack” on it so we could get a drink and a sandwich in the airport (sandwich was inedible, we didn’t even bother trying), and there was pretty much nothing to eat but junk in the entire airport. It’s not a big airport – 4 gates in the section where we were, with several small duty free shops all selling what you would expect (booze, smokes/cigars, knick knacks, and shitty snacks… and rum in juice boxes… and viagra and vallium). The bathrooms were hit or miss – sometimes they had toilet paper, sometimes they didn’t. So finally, after hours and hours of sitting, playing cards, reading, trying to sleep, talking to other passengers, etc., they make an announcement that our flight is now delayed to 5pm. From there, they advise us to collect our luggage and meet the Sunwing rep for more info. Sound familiar? Seriously? Both ways?
So we go downstairs and get our luggage, which had been left out in the pouring rain the entire million hours we were sitting at the airport. We head outside and there’s no Sunwing person, but everyone is heading towards buses, so we do the same. Eventually a Sunwing guy comes on the bus and tells us that we’re going to the Memories Varadero resort, that the bus would come back for us at 2:45. Pretty much into a “whatever” phase at this point. No point in getting worked up when there’s nothing you can do.
So, we get to this resort (which apparently Sunwing owns – a 4.5* with 1000 rooms and line ups for everything) with 5 other buses full of cranky tired people. And of course everyone wants to check in and get a room at the same time. So, eff that. We went off to find the buffet because we were frigging starving. The food here wasn’t any better than at our resort, but there was so much more variety that it was almost like Christmas… there was pastries, they had chocolate on them!!!! Once fed, all was much better. It was cold and raining (weather was perfect the whole time we were there, and it just started to rain when we were sitting in the lobby waiting to leave on Friday), and the line to check in to get a room at this new resort took about 3 hours. Not exactly ideal since they wanted people to check back out of noon. So it was 11 by the time we had a room, and we were told we didn’t have to check back out until 4… slightly better, since the Sunwing people at the resort were telling people that the bus was now coming at 4 and our flight was at 8.
Took a ride on a golf cart with a fun guy from the resort, tried to sleep but at that point (had been up for 27 hours), I was really too tired to sleep. I hate when that happens. Checked out around 2:00pm and got some lunch (already knowing there was nothing in the airport), and then stood around chatting with some of the other folks we met (and had some tasty Cuban coffee). Bus arrived on time, we got on the first one, and off we went to the airport.
At the airport, there was no one at the Sunwing counter yet, so we spent another 30 mins waiting around. Finally checked our luggage again, dug through the pile to get our Visas so we could give them back to customs again, and then back to the gate to wait for the flight. The departures board in the airport never listed a gate for our flight, never set it to on time, boarding or anything, we just kind of figured it out. When the flight crew finally arrived at the airport, people cheered. Michelle heckled instead (You look well rested!!). [They had lied to us previously saying we weren’t flying home for technical reasons, not that the crew needed to sleep yet again. They also bused the people from the Moncton flight to the downstairs of the airport, leaving us the feeling that they were hiding the arrival of that flight from us at 4:30am or so.)
So we finally boarded (never an announcement for that either), and departed late because a couple of drunk assholes misplaced a passport. And then the drunk assholes sat besides me on the plane. Great. The crew explained the situation that caused the delay, including the part where Sunwing knew 12 hours before they took us back out of the Varadero airport that we wouldn’t be flying home that night… but apparently it wasn’t important that we were all there tired and hungry). Tried to sleep the entire flight with no luck yet again (combination of being starving and drunk assholes)… maybe got 20 mins. Finally arrived in Moncton shortly after midnight. Customs was same old, same old, though we had a long wait for Mich since she was at the back of the plane. John’s taxi service picked us up again (thanks John!) and off to reclaim our cars. I drove home from there, in snowy yuck about half of the way, and finally got to F’ton around 4:30am. And then I went to bed. The end.
The constant needing to tip to get basic services in Cuba got really old for me really quickly. There was a real difference in the service our maid provided once we started leaving gifts, and that really drives me crazy (I’m a great tipper when you deserve it, but in general I hate the entire tipping process). But I also wanted to have towels and toilet paper. A couple of days stuff magically walked itself out of our room. It wasn’t anything super valuable (that stuff was locked up), but it’s still annoying when people rifle through your stuff and help themselves. I would never do that to anyone. Whether it was the maid or not, I can’t say. More than she had keys to the room I am sure. And I found they tended to unlock rooms and leave them wide open to go get something from their supply closet or whatever. (You could rent a safe at our resort for 25CUC extra.) Our maid also made sure to let us know our last day was her day off… you know, in case we wanted to leave her anything else (and we did… Mel did mostly… any bathroom stuffs she didn’t want to take home and some snacks and stuff).
They really made an effort to keep the grounds of this resort pristine. The gardeners were all very friendly, and I loved that I could easily get coconut water most any time during the day. They were lovely to chat with as well, and really appreciative and proud when you complimented them on how nice they kept the resort.
The food at the resort wasn’t great. If you read anything at all about going to a resort in Cuba, you should likely know to expect this, and I did. I’m not a fussy eater in that I’ll try and eat most anything, but I don’t like processed foods, and I’m not a big meat eater. So I was pretty surprised to find a fair bit of weird processed stuff, and very little fresh fruit and veg. There was always pineapple, guava, and papaya. There was also always cucumbers, tomatoes, and green peppers. I nearly cried with happiness they day they put oranges in the buffet. I ate a lot of rice and beans. There was loads of bread, but it tasted like nothing. The omelet station guy was very friendly and service in the buffet was hit or miss. The front section was better than the back, but we frequently had to track down glasses, drinks, cutlery etc. Juices in the morning were weird tasting packaged thingers. You could get drinkable water all over the resort to refill bottles or whatever.
If you’re a smoker, you will love resorts in Cuba. If you’re not, well… too bad I guess… at least at this resort. People smoked EVERYWHERE! So there really was no escaping it if you wanted to be in any of the public areas. Blah.
I really didn’t do much of anything during the week like I said, but if you’re the type that needs to be entertained all the time, this resort may not be for you. The entertainment staff tried hard to work with what they had, but you can only do so much I think. One of the ladies did speak about 4 languages though, which was pretty impressive. There was some stuff on the beach and by the pool during the day. The night club was always dead. The shows were terrible. The beach bar and pool bar both closed at 6pm. The lobby bar was open 24 hours a day, but tended to run out of stuff at night.
There was internet access at the resort for a fee. It was 5CUC for 30 minutes, and sporadic at best. All I did was send quick emails to Greg, and it worked well enough for that. Pretty sure you could buy phone cards there as well.
There’s some shops at the resort, and some vendors rotate in and our every day, so if you want to buy something, there’s lots of options. The prices of the arts and crafts type stuff was were comparable to Varadero. There’s also a shop with liquor, cigars, etc. I suspect that was more expensive than most places.
Cell rates on Cubacel were $3.20 a minute. I had to make a few calls and I don’t really want to look at my cell bill. Phoning from the phones in the lobby weren’t cheap either.
You can get a beach towel at the resort for a deposit. You had to pay 10CUC at reception, and then take the ticket they give you to the towel hut by the pool. You could switch out for a fresh towel whenever they actually had them and were open, and then at the end of the week you get your ticket back and then get your deposit back.
If you’ve never been to Cuba, a 5 star there and a 5 star here are definitely not the same. Our resort was a 3.5* and it was fine (though I think we overpaid a bit). If you’re a drinker, bring a cup with you… a bigger one. Then you don’t have to deal with the stupid wee plastic cups at the resort. Mine never had anything but coconut water in it, but i still put it to good use. There didn’t appear to be much for variety in drinks. They had Cristal (Cuban beer) on draft, and you could buy a few others in the gift shop. They didn’t put real juice in anything as mix, and don’t expect to get the American sodas you are used to. They have their own replacements – not sure what exactly or where they were getting them from. They seemed to have a lot of Brittish and Asian snacks (embargo and all that). There was one day there was no hot water for showering, but that’s hardly a life-shattering problem. Bring bug repellant (I brought an all natural one and it worked perfect). Bring sun block … us pasty Canadians need it 🙂
The hotel offered a free shuttle to Varadero that went a couple of times a day. If I go back to Cuba, I’d love to get to some of the clubs and in to Havana and to explore more of the country outside the resort… so we’ll see how it goes. There’s so many places i want to go that it’s hard to repeat them (French Polynesia is calling my name).
Large bottles of water were placed in our room every day. The phone in our room worked the first day, but not really after that. But we didn’t really need it for anything either. The tv had some English channels (didn’t care, but in case you wanted to know), including CTV from Canada. Not sure how they pulled that off.
And finally… Sunwing. Think long and hard about booking a vacation with this company. They constantly delayed our flights, the planes are super cramped, they misinformed us repeatedly about why we weren’t leaving, and we even found out that they left us sitting in an airport for 10 hours when they knew all along we weren’t flying home that night. Their on resort staff were hard to track down, and no one answers the phone at the numbers they leave on the resort for you to contact them with. We’ve sent them a letter asking for them to refund the airfare portion of our trip, but I’m not holding my breath. But I definitely won’t even use them again (thought I might change my mind if they make a gesture of good faith and actually fix this situation). Sunwing no bueno, Sunwing no mas!! (there’s a whole song to the tune of Guantanamera, but I don’t know all the words lol… it’s what too much time in an airport will do to people)
The only highlight of not being able to fly home was meeting some nice people in the airport (hiya Nancy, Scott, Jamie… ) and maxing out the people watching (the hobbler and purple… funny to us, not worth the effort to type out explaining otherwise).
So this ended up being a pretty long one… despite the fact that I did next to nothing while I was away. Overall it was still a fun time with one of my sisters and some friends, and even when stuff goes wrong and you feel like hell, you can’t replace those kind of memories.
It’s all part of the adventure 🙂
Addition – 04/03/2013: It’s been over a month since we’ve been back and we’ve received nothing but a form letter back in response from Sunwing. In addition to this, the charges for the excursions we didn’t take posted to our credit cards around the middle of March, but the refunds didn’t follow. Can’t say I’m surprised at this point… and now we have more to chase down with Sunwing. Stay tuned…