Taking it easy in Cuba

I never considered myself a resort person. The idea of sitting on a beach for days on end surrounded by other tourists just never appealed to me… until now. It maybe age, it maybe work, or it maybe love.

My partner Matt is a beach person. Every weekend in the summer, he takes the ferry to Toronto Island to bask in the sun on the sandy shores of Lake Ontario. He’s done the resort thing in Cuba twice before and loved it! So, we booked a resort he’d enjoyed before with SellOffVacations.ca, I got books out from the library on Cuba, and a little over a month later we packed our bags and headed to Pearson Airport.

Neither the UP Express train nor the TTC was ran before 5am, so we had to take an airport taxi. It was a pleasant luxury to be picked up from home and dropped off right at our terminal! Even at 4am in the airport was swarming with people!

Flight to Cuba

We checked our bags and swiftly got through security. We were flying Sunwing, which apparently had complimentary ‘champagne’ service. To my surprise, this perk was still honoured at 7am. I guess Canadian law doesn’t extend this far up in the air… or it’s non-alcoholic. Either way, it helped make up for the cramped seating and lack of electrical outlets on the plane.

I settled into Company Town, a Canada Reads finalist as Matt tracked our flight progress and speed. We were handed tourist visas and a customs declaration card for entry, with a stern warning not to make any errors or else we’d be charged $20 for a new one!

Photo of items on an aeroplane tray: A 11 Y T O water bottle, Cuba travel guide, a Canada Reads book, and a glass of sparkling wine

Varadero Airport

Customs was slow and disorganized. Then we had to go through security, which seemed a bit odd coming into the country. Past security, we found our bags all lined up. Airport personnel were playing catch amongst the suitcases with a spaniel. Suitcases gathered, we handed our customs declaration card off and exited the airport.

Outside was a line of buses, taxis, and people directing the human traffic. We lined up to exchange our money for the CUC, which unfortunately was 1.39 CAD. As we waited in line, we watched spectacular 1950’s cars drive by as palm trees waved in the breeze against a soft blue sky.

We got 149 CUC for $200 CAD. Matt really wanted to get beers for the bus, so we got Cristal beers for 2.50 CUC each from a cart seller. Beer pretty much costs the same as at home – just less flavour. It’s still very refreshing.

can of beer by a bus window in Cuba

Bus to the resort

We found our bus, which to our embarrassment had been waiting for us. The drive was full of lost photo opportunities. Aqua water crashing on the shore, colourful apartment buildings, horse drawn carts and old cars, bikes, aloe plants and palm trees. It was stunning – so different from anywhere I’d been before!

The bus had a MC chatting up the guests. He was warm and friendly, gave the bus a quick Spanish lesson and reminded us to tip everyone. This motivated us to give an extra big tip to the bus driver out of guilt of holding everyone up.

Arrival at Melias Las Antillas

We were greeted with a sparkling fruit wine with a pineapple taste to it. We filled out some paperwork and handed over our luggage to the bellboy before making our way over to the cafe for coffee with liquor. Sparrows were singing throughout the lobby, fluttering around people’s tables. It was lovely to watch and listen to them!

Our First afternoon at Melias

Once we were settled into our room, we went exploring. We surveyed the pool, the buffet, and the beach. I was instantly drawn towards the waves, jumping into the blue waters as soon as I got my chance! I only came out when I started to worry about sunburn… then I started to worry about all the ocean water I had ingested. If I get sick, I’ll have only myself to blame!

photo of a sunset over the ocean waves

First evening at Melias

After dinner, we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. Once dark fell, the trees were alive with the sounds of insects – across between a cicadas and cricket. Matt and found a hammock under the palm trees, swaying gently in the breeze as we sipped pina-coladas. Once I started drifting, we went back to the hotel room where Matt got his binoculars to study the full moon and Jupiter. I had a bad case of the hiccups and took photos of the moon through the palm trees in a torrent of comical convulsions.

We sat and watched a pop concert until I started nodding off on Matt’s shoulder (we had been up since 3am after all). Sleepy, we made our way back to the hotel room where Matt put on Groeland to listen to before we fell asleep.

Photo of waves crashing on black rock cliffs

Day two: our first full day at the resort

We set an alarm to go want the sunrise on the beach, but it was cloudy so we decided to sleep in instead. After breakfast, we went for a long walk up to the cliffs.

The cliffs were very exciting! They were made up of porous volcanic rock with green brush and red lichen growing on top. As the waves crashed against the black rock, the sound of thunder erupted around us! The dark cliffs were beautiful contrast to the aqua blue waters and white foam against a blue sky. We walked back to the hotel with our sandals in our hands, enjoying the sand between our toes.

People watching on the beach was fun – there seemed to be every sort of person from tattooed bikini babes to old men with beer bellies in speedos. We always enjoy the diversity of bodies – everyone wearing whatever they feel comfortable in! There were lots of cute toddlers and kids building sand castles too – and a chubby baby observing the waves for the first time. I thought he was particularly cute – but then I have babies on the brain after spending a wonderful weekend with my cousin’s triplets two weeks ago.

We had a coffee at the cafe, watching the sparrows hop from table to table pruning themselves. Back at our hotel room, I sat on our patio enjoying the breeze in the palm trees and birdsong with Cuban music as a backdrop coming from the speakers inside. It was very peaceful.

An Afternoon at Melias

We did a short weight routine in the gym. To my delight, there was a sauna too – and pitchers of fruit infused water. This was a place I could hangout!

After a ‘resort orientation’ with an unpleasant Nexus rep and an icky at the Cuban restaurant, we went down to the beach to sit in the sun. Matt listened to Beirut as I finished my book and did some sketching.

There are lots of wild dogs and cats on the property. One dog decided to have a snooze right behind Matt’s chair. It was nice to think that of all the places to nap, the dog thought beside us was a safe and comfortable place to sleep.

With the loud disco music at the pool bar turned off, we cuddled up under one of the white gazebo beds. Matt eventually fell asleep and I sat reading a new book, listening to the birds, admiring the white curtains blow in the breeze with the green palm leaves as slate grey clouds rolled in overhead. It was beautiful.

Photo of beach huts at sunset

Second Evening at Melias

It really started to cool down with the sun setting. There were dogs barking on the beach as the wind picked up again, adding drama to the scenery.

We walked down to the beach to watch the sun set. Golden light seeped through the dense tree tops as we made our way down the sandy boardwalk. We found a spot on the grass, leaning on one another as we watched the sun descend behind the horizon.

We continued to sit there until a light rain began to fall. The sound of crickets filled the grass behind us. As we made our way back to the resort, I struggled to describe the new scent that surrounded us. Matt smelled the sea and rain. I was reminded of trees in early summer – the sweet scent of green leaves.

I chose a huge skewer of chicken and eggplant for dinner. We watched as it was cooked in front of us over a fiery grill. It was very good! We sat at a table outside, sipping glasses of white wine as crickets chirped and the sound of music drifted over from the bandshell at the centre of the resort.

Cats were making their rounds as each table begging for scraps. Back at our room, Matt watched a kitten hunt and eat a lizard right in front of him! Nature.

The evening’s entertainment was synchronized swimming followed by a fiddler accompanying 1990’s disco music. I had trouble putting aside my theatre expectations, so we walked down to the beach to look at the stars. There was the Big Dipper, the North Star, Orion, and Jupiter with wisps of clouds lit by the full moon. It was the ideal end to our first full day in Cuba!
bird on a fence at sunrise

Day Two: a Stereotypical Resort Day

We got up at 6:30 to watch the sun rise. We climbed the stairs to the top of the resort to watch it from the fifth floor. To the east was the highway. Buses and taxis rumbled by as sparrows gliding between our heads.

In the field beyond our resort were two camels grazing. Once I’d had my fill of the peach morning sun rays seeping through the clouds, I scurried on down to take their picture. Matt followed closely behind, saying “See the sunrise, stay to the camels!”

Photo of a camel tethered to a pole in a field.
After I’d taken some pictures through the fence, we went back in for breakfast. Our aspirations to have a light breakfast when out the window once we saw the buffet. There were pancakes with molasses, all sorts of cereals, eggs, cheese, and meats. I had some hot chocolate and made myself a mango lassi by mixing mango jam with a glass of thin yogurt. What with all the other things I piled onto my plate, I was stuffed!

We decided to walk off the carbs on the beach. I was so hot in my jeans and hoody (Matt likes the AC high so I always anticipate the outside world being much cooler than it is) that we turned back part way to change into beachwear. We claimed some beach chairs along the way, setting down our towels and my book. Apparently that’s the way to do it on resorts.

I changed into my green string bikini back at the room and we picked up some postcards and stamps at the resort’s post office (1.70 for international stamps AND postcard!) which was run by a very nice lady. Once on the beach, Matt put on his headphones and I set about writing my cards. I quite enjoy writing postcards – it’s like a condensed blog post!

It started to rain when I went to refill our Bubba cups. Light at first, then a torrential downpour before switching back to light again – then the sun came out again, all in a matter of fifteen minutes.

Once the rain cleared, I went for a swim. I chased waves all across the resort! Time is meaningless when dancing among the waves. I couldn’t get enough – kept on going back in for more!

While I dried off, he went to get us each a burger from the beach BBQ. The burger really hit the spot! After one last run in the waves, we went back to the room for a nap. We woke up just before dinner, surprised to find we both had bad sunburns. Inevitable.

We walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. Once it had dipped behind the horizon, we walked back to the resort. A skinny black dog ran across the beach and down to the water. He looked so happy and free.

We went to the Cuban restaurant for dinner. I had lobster and Matt had chicken with plantains topped with meat and vegetables. After dinner we laid in the hammocks between the palm trees before going for a stroll around the perimeter of the resort, stargazing. I enjoy the quiet of the far corners of the resort.

Back at our room, Matt turned on the news while I scrambled his Rubik’s cubes (he brought three!) for. We fell asleep as bass thumped in the distance with the white noise of the AC unit…

Photo of the moon silhouetted by palm tree leaves at night

Day Three: Getting Antsy at the Resort

Matt got up to watch the sunrise while I snoozed in bed. I met him at the cafe in the lobby and we walked down to the breakfast buffet together. I resisted temptation this morning, keeping to a yogurt smoothie, muesli and a poached egg. The waitress gave me a rose crafted from a paper napkin and a cigar for Matt. I thought of my friend Kitty back home as I held the rose – she’s very good at floral paper crafts too! My friend Caitlin would be going nuts over the cats everywhere on the resort. Cat lover’s heaven!

After breakfast, we went for a long walk to the other end of the resort beach where there was a white colonial style gazebo with white curtains fluttering in the breeze. We passed some lovely looking resorts along the way – some with beds on the beach and others with two story cottages that reminded me of the waterside apartments of Montreal.

Photo of an elevated beach hut
We got caught in the rain along the way, taking refuge in an elevated palm leaf roofed lifeguard hut. We watched the dark clouds over the waves as water dripped from the dry palm leaves overhead. Once the rain stopped, we continued our walk where we saw dark coloured seagulls, a pelican, and crab. I stopped to examine shells and coral washed up along the shore, admiring all the small delights along the way.

The sun came out once we reached the gazebo. Neither of us had any sunscreen on, so hurried back. We took our sandals off and walked barefoot through the wet sand as waves lapped at our ankles.

Photo of a white gazebo overlooking the ocean
Back at the resort, we had a cup of espresso. Matt discovered that Wifi was only 2 CUC for 1 hour, so I hastily updated my Instagram accounts, Facebook, and blog, trying to leave enough for Matt to check his stocks and CBC news later. Matt teased me that I was a true millennial after all – can’t stay disconnected for too long!

Photo of porous rock next to aqua sea water

A Lazy Afternoon

We went to the beach BBQ for lunch where the chef cooked us up a chicken and beef burger topped with cheese, tomato, lettuce, and cucumber. The cook wore a tall chef hat with a colourful polkadot apron. He was a very jolly man, calling us “the Prince and Princess” with a huge smile.

After our delicious hamburgers, we went for a stroll before parting ways at the pool. I went and made myself comfortable in a hammock strung up between two palm trees while Matt went to read on the terrace. I then spent some time in the sauna, returning to the room where I found Matt watching Black Mirror.

Matt had gone from “Next time we do this, we should stay for two weeks!” this morning to “I want to go home.” in the afternoon. We walked together to the Cuban restaurant for an afternoon snack where we discussed possible activities. In the end, we decided to go our separate ways this afternoon.

It was another windy day at the beach. I found a spare chair under a palm leaf umbrella where I worked on the day’s blog post before going for a stroll down the beach to the cliffs. I studied the shapes the sea foam made around my feet, the little clouds of sand and dappled sunlight in the clear water, and how bubbles would blow across the wet sand with the wind.

There were lots of shells and coral fragments to admire. I saw a tiny crab and more black capped seagulls. I passed a beach wedding surrounded by bikini-clad onlookers with cameras with pink and white polyester blowing from the arbour and chairs set up for the guests. There were children making sand castles, bobbing in the waves wearing red wading wings, and couples of all ages cuddling at the waters edge. I enjoyed the many sights on my walk.

I returned to the room to find the place reeking of disinfectant. Matt had reported the ant problem in our room and it smelt as if they’d sprayed Raid everywhere! I quickly changed out of my swimsuit and into a cotton dress. I had planned to have a nap, but instead I walked the perimeter of the resort, gazing over the chain link fence. The camels were gone, but there were lots of colourful flowers to admire and stop to smell.

Photo of a yellow wall lined with bushes next to a palm tree

An evening to ourselves

I came to a rest in a hammock. Not long after, Matt came into view having spent some time sitting on the beach. We walked back to the room together. Matt was not impressed with the fumes or persistent ants in our room, so called the resort manager. The manager had gone for the day, but another rep spoke to us. At first they said they couldn’t change our room as the resort was all booked up, but Matt used his magic to get us a new room on the second floor.

Our new room was much nicer. It had a private balcony, some more furniture, fancier soap, and most importantly – no insects! One we’d unpacked, we hurried down to the beach to catch the tail end of the sunset. We visited the buffet where I filled my plate with spinach and rice with a bowl of spinach soup on the side. I was quite pleased with all my spinach.

After dinner, we sat on our new balcony and perused my Cuba travel book. We were both feeling concerned about finding an affordable way into Havana. Train and bus might be an option, but if all else fails we can take the tourist bus into the city of Varadero to get a taste of real Cuba. There also appeared to be a historical sugar plantation near by. We have two fall back plans if Havana doesn’t work out.

We sat on the balcony in silence mostly, sipping Cuban rum as we looked out at the stars and the palm trees against the night sky. Disco music and laughter spread over the landscape from the “Disco Fun Pub” (I kid you not, this is the actual name of the place) with crickets singing in the grass below our balcony. I felt quite content to sit still and quiet in our little oasis. There’s something so special about being in a balcony – our own little balcony at that! It was the ideal way to spend the evening.