Trip: Cuba

We are back from a trip to #Cuba.  Sort of hit and miss…

It started off in Vancouver Airport.  #SunWing did not have enough personel for the flight out.  Or the pilots they had could not fly yet due to regulations.  Our flight was delayed 2 hours.  There was a bit of an issue to that they were thinking about having our direct flight take a detour from Vancouver to Edmonton to drop someone off before heading to Cuba.  Naturally at least half the passengers were irritated about this and made it known.  I do not know who thought that diverting a jet to another city to drop one person off in that city was a good idea to inconvenience everyone else on the plane.  Thankfully that did not happen but still damage is done.  I never flown with SunWing before but they lost some points with me for that nonsense.

It is true that you will see a lot of old American cars driving around.  You also see a lot of Ladas and a few newer Kias.  Eventually you just cannot keep those old ones running.  We went on a few day trips and seeing something broken down by the side of the road is not uncommon.  Having said that, there really is not much traffic on the roads.  Owning a car is expensive for the locals.  Most do not have one.  You still see many taking horse drawn carriages as a means of transport.  It is quite the oddity seeing 4 ages of transportation using the streets daily.  Horse drawn carriages, 50’s American cars, Cold war Russian models, and modern Asian models, mostly Kias.  All sharing the same road.  Which leads to interesting issues as all ages have different accelleration and decelleration characteristics.  But seeing these old American models running around does put a smile on your face as they are so different than what you see day to day at home.

We stayed at the All Inclusive Resort Blau Marina (formerly Barcielo or something like that, #BlauMarina)  On the face of it the resort looks very nice.  Beatiful beaches, pools, and overall look.  Rated 5 stars!  I do not know what sort of star system they were using but it certainly was not Michelin Guide Stars (#MichelinGuide,  I would rate the Blau 2.5 or 3 star at best.

Bed was super uncomfortable.  Almost like we were sleeping on a box spring instead of a mattress.  Both our backs are feeling it in the morning.  And we are not that old!  There is hardly any documentation in the room about the resort, about the menus of the restaurants, about the amenities and options available to the client.  Even in a cheaper motel/holel like a Confort Inn in the Canada and US you have a binder with everything you could ever think of inside it.  Nothing here other than a letter size sheet that has basic information in at least 3 different languages.  You can imagine how little there was on it in the end.

The TV had a good selection of channels.  Reception was bad the first few days but I think someone else complained and the reception improved greatly the rest of the trip.  One day there was no reception at all though.  After the first night sleeping with the mosquitoes we went on a bug hunt and entered and left the room as quickly as possible in hopes to not allow any more blood suckers in the room.  Damn there are a lot of them there.  All the standing water around Varadero does not help either.  Deep Woods Off was very useful.

The fridge was suppose to be restocked every day.  Especially the water that we used to brush our teeth and take during the day.  We had to ask a few times at the front desk for a new bottle.  We never touched the beer but we did take a pop or two.  Neither were replaced back to original quantities.

The good, the AC worked great!  Thankfully.

We were there for a 10 day trip.  Really an 8 day trip considering lousy #SunWing flight times.  But the Blau only allowed us to ‘reserve’ at the a la carte restaurants 3 times.  It did not matter how long you stayed, 3 days or our 10 days, you had a limit of 3 other restaurants.  Grumble.  The other days we ate at the Buffet restaurant.

Buffet Restaurant, they do not buy the best meat.  The chicken was the best of the lot but they managed to make everything chewy.  Really chewy, like shoe leather.  A lot of the options seemed saltier than I normally cook.  I can forgive that to a certain degree but some were just over salty that it became inedible.  The bread does not last long in warm humid weather, it was not great.  They need to know how to make a good pasta sauce.  Their tomato sauce is aweful.  Their pizzas…  If you want to call the focaccia like bread with a wipe of aweful sauce and sprinkle of cheeze “pizza”.  It deprogrammed me of my love for pizza.  A big problem with the buffet here is that a lot of food that should be warm ends up being cold when you eat it.  Rather unsatisfying.

Desserts were not very good either.  They need to learn how to make whipped cream and icing.  Whatever they were using was odd.  Plus a lot of the desserts may have looked different but pretty much had the same or similar flavour.  Not great.  They did have ice cream, and disappointingly they were always mis-labelled.  I was always looking for just plain vanilla but ended up with coconut or the one occasion soursop, which funnily enough was what I wanted but the soursop tub was placed under the vanilla label and nothing was under the soursop label, so I was expecting something else.

No fresh juices were available.  Only options was red or white wine, beer (one option) Cola, a Fanta/C-plus Orange Soda, a Sprite/7up Soda and water.  The sodas and water (and I think even the beer) were from a Cuban brand called Cielo Montero (sp) which is not bad as sodas go so I did not miss Coca-Cola or Pepsi.  But no fresh juices.  Not even juice from a can or bottle.

The best items on the buffet menu were the fresh pineapple.  I am not a guava fan but I suspect the fresh guava is also very good.  You could tell some of the fruit was from a can though.  Compared to some of the cooked and prepared stuff, the canned stuff was welcomed.  The soups were in general good except for the odd one which was over salted.  The whole cooked turkey and pig was the best meat there but usually was cold by the time you get to eat it.

We did take advantage of our three reservations at the other restaurants in the hotel.

First one was Italian.  There were two soups on the menu, we each ordered one.  Server brought out two of the same.  Our server was clearly over worked and really did not want to be there anymore, a bit of an attitude.  I picked one item on the menu only to be told it was replaced with something else.  No warning that it was not available.  We had to ask what the chef special was and other things instead of being told what they were.  Food in general was a lot better than the buffet but service was poor.  In gerneral service is excellent where you go but every now and then you can see some Cubans are clearly not happy and are overworked.

Second one was Spanish.  I had higher hopes this time, server was in happier spirits.  Appitizers were fine but the main courses were not.  I ordered a cod and it was the thinnest cut of cod I have ever seen…  And unsurprisingly it was chewy.  It is a talent to make fish chewy.  My wife had pork skewers.  One skewer was fine, although the pork was chewy.  The other skewer was pretty much raw and uncooked.  We pointed this out but I do not thing the server bothered to point it out to the chef.  Even pubs in Vancouver try to maintain a sort of quality control to ensure they do not poison someone or send out something raw.  A bit of a let down.

Last one was Cuban.  It was another buffet.  Better than the regular buffet but only marginally so.  The big difference is the live trio playing cuban songs and customer requests.  They were good though.  I had to hand it to them.

In short, there does not seem to be a good enough training for the staff.  In Canada waiters/waitresses all (usually) offer to explain the specials, ask for a drink to start, proactive in refilling drinks or water, inquire if everything is ok or if we need anything, etc.  You will miss some of this in Cuba.  It seems they have not learned some of it.

Enough about the food and hotel.  In hindsight we should have walked across the road and tried the small restaurants at the marina.  I am not sure if they would have been any better but I am certain they could not be any worse.

Day trips, we took 3 tours with #SunWing tours which are realy #Gaviota tours.

Sugar cane factory tour which was pretty interesting.  We walked away with two bottles of Mulata rum each.  I am not sure how good that rum is considering that tour guides rated “Santiago de Cuba” rum as the best, then “Canay” and “Havana Club”.  So Mulata is at least 4th in the ranking.  Steam locomotives.  They seem to have a lot of them in Cuba.  One that still works took us from the sugar factory to the city station.

3 city tour.  Although we really did not see Santa Clara, the Ché Guevara memoria is in Santa Clara.  That is one thing you will see a lot in Cuba.  A lot of slogans, a lot of images of Ché.  In a way it is depressing that they are still living in the ‘past’ and not moved on.  But anyway.  Cien Fuegos was the next stop which was a lunch stop, again buffet but even though a much smaller buffet, it was  better quality; and a stop in the main square for some history and some walking time.  Last stop was in Trinidad which is an older city to visit as small museum and some free time for a walk about.  Then a long bus ride back.

Havana Tour.  Visit the new and old Havana.  Cubans seem to like Ernest Hemmingway.  He used to fish a lot in Cuba and so a bunch of fishermen pooled their money to make a memorial for him.  Quite a few Spanish forts around there.  Walking tour of the old Havana, and a small museum visit.  Finally watched a show at the Tropicana.  Which would have been a whole lot better if we were not in the worst possible seats!  Our table was right behind a side stage where 3-4 performers would ‘sometimes’ be which blocked the view of the main stage.  And this show pretty much typifies Cuba.  If you like smoking, Cuba is the place to be.  When you enter the Tropicana ever guy is offered a Guantanamera Cigar.  And a lot of people lit those suckers up.  There is even a stereotypical ‘cigarette’ girl, the kind you see in the older black and white movies.  People smoke.  My wife is allergic so the show was very unpleasant. It made me appreciate smoke free Canada.  Such a big difference.

Not a tour but a hop on hop off bus of Varadero.  Not much to see in Varadero.  It is a modern town so just the beach, shops, restaurants and not a lot else.

One thing we realized early one, tip everyone.  Cubans work hard (or most do in the service industry if they are not already over worked with the long days and more than ready to go home) and they do not make a lot.  They live off of tips.  We heard a few stories where someone with a very good education ended up in the tourism industry because it paid better than the good job they studied for; a job you would get a lot of money for in any other country.  It is really rather sad.

One other gripe was the orientation meeting with the #SunWing rep.  He mentioned something was completely wrong for a lot of the guests.  Most if not all of our flights were early morning.  This meant a bus ride at 1 AM in the morning to the airport.  So the rep mentions that our checkout time was actually 12 noon the day before.  Ah, no, in our case it was the same day as the flight so we did not have to check out the day before and all the nonsense of having the hotel store our luggage and all that.  Maybe some trips are like that but a lot of guests were actually shocked and annoyed by it.  We actually checked twice with the front desk about this.  First time front desk Blau personel did not even check with the computer and just told us to check with the SunWing rep.  To me that was kind of weird and unprofessional Blau!  SunWing rep is not Blau Hotel.  Second time we had someone more clued in and checked the computer.  It matched our itinery so we ignored the SunWing rep’s instruction which was completely wrong.  Thanks for causing us some stress SunWing!  Again, SunWing, you lost some points with this garbage.  And if you do that to your clients, forcing them to checkout a day early just to save a few bucks then I am really disappointed in you.

Sounds like a lot of whining.  Probably.  Cuba is beatiful though.  If you look past the decay and age, there is a lot of beautiful old Spanish influence in the architecture.  The old cars are a blast from the past.  The friendly and often humorous people.  It is a beautiful country.  I just will not be coming back sorry to say.  Hawaii and Bahamas were better all in all in comparison.  But I feel you need to visit at least once.  Cuba is unique.