On New Years Eve 2018, we landed in Cuba with Scott’s parents for 2 weeks away on an all inclusive ‘Royal Service’ holiday at the adults-only Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort and Spa in Holguin. It was hot, sunny, relaxing and we managed to get quite a few excursions in so we had a lot of great experiences too.
Cuba is still a communist country, and therefore everyone is earning the same amount of money. Waiters make a lot of extra money through tips, so be expected to tip a lot of times, but remember that to them it’s a huge life changer – doctors and lawyers will often change their career path just to be earning more money. This also means that going onto the internet isn’t quite as simple as connecting to the nearest Wi-Fi, as you need special codes that last for something like half an hour, and they are all traced back to you!
As we stayed in a resort, we didn’t really experience very much of the country and our main experience of transport here was coach, provided by our travel provider (at the time, Thomas Cook). There were quite a few taxis outside the airport when we landed, and we passed a lot of bus stops whilst we were out and about so I’d imagine it’s fairly easy to get around. In addition to regular car taxis, there are also quite a few horse and cart around – in my opinion, the horses were far too skinny and shouldn’t have been out working in that heat, but I suppose that’s just the culture difference.
Internal flights to Havana are very scarce (maybe a handful a month, depending on when you are visiting), and the bus time from Holguin is something like 13 hours. For this reason, we didn’t take the trip into the capital as we’d already paid for the accommodation for 2 weeks and didn’t want to add any more on, but it’s worth factoring this into your trip if it’s important to you.
On our holiday here, we made friends with a lovely Canadian couple; Kathleen and Brian. It really taught us loads about the importance of meeting new people whilst on holiday/travelling, as the knowledge, experiences and stories that they shared were really inspiring to us both, and we still keep in touch to this day!
What to do
Go to the beach – The beaches in Cuba are like something off a postcard. They have beautiful white sand, stunning plants and flowers and coconut trees! We actually happened to be lying on a beach here, cocktail in hand, whilst we made an offer on our first house together! Sometimes, depending on the specific beach, a man will sell you a freshly chopped coconut, with a bit of rum poured in, and a straw in the top.
Use a swim up bar – Obviously, this is completely dependant on the resort that you’re staying at, but there was a swim up bar at Paradisus Rio de Oro which was great! We were able to float around in the pool all day with endless drinks. This is brilliant most of the time, but when you make friends with a 7ft Canadian (bit of an exaggeration) who likes to pick you up and chuck you across the pool, drinks start flying!
Pool activities – There are usually a great choice of pool activities at many of the resorts – from water volleyball (which I found out I am NOT any good at), aqua yoga and pool parties. We watched the water-aerobics on a couple of the evenings, which were a lot better than we thought they would be – I’d recommend watching a performance if you haven’t seen one before!
Go scuba diving – We were lucky enough to have scuba diving as a part of the ‘all inclusive’ deal, so it was organised for us by the hotel. We first had an introductory session in one of the pools at the hotel a few days before, where everyone tries on the scuba gear and learns how it all works and the signals to use once in the sea. You also do a few laps underwater to get used to breathing through the apparatus. We were then taken on a coach to a spot on the coast about half an hour away, where we got on a boat and went out to sea. Our diving guide, who swam with our group of about 10 of us, was amazing and he really made sure everyone was comfortable in the depths that we were diving to. He pointed out a few colourful fish, and a large grouper as well, but overall the sea life wasn’t anything special when we went out.
Admire the Cuban cars – Cuba is famous for it’s bright array of 1950’s cars, which define Fidel Castro’s reign. We saw lots of these classic vehicles at Holguin airport. If you are planning on visiting Havana whilst here, there is a 2 hour ‘Classic car and Cocktail Tour‘, and I’m sure there are many others similar depending where in the country you are staying. We were also told that a lot of the people who work at the resorts have old Cuban cars, and they often arrange to take you on a real authentic tour of Cuba in them, for a small price.
Visit the spa – Again, this only applies to resorts with a spa included, but at Paradisus Rio de Oro there was an amazing spa there with a couple of pools and sun lounger areas, as well as it’s own private beach. We both had massages here, which was in a little ‘hut’ type thing at the end of a pier, overlooking the sea. We love to have some kind of spa day when on a longer holiday, as it’s a great way of properly relaxing into the holiday!
Go on a boat trip – One of the best excursions that we did was a boat trip, where they took you out into the sea (on a boat filled with alcohol) to snorkel, swim with dolphins and also sea fish. They picked us up directly from our resort and took us to the boat, as well as returning us again. It was a great price, at roughly £85 per person, and I’d definitely recommend. Scott’s mum cried and said it was one of the best days of her life!
Swim with Dolphins – We booked this as a part of one of our excursions included with the boat trip, but you can do it on it’s own too. A boat will take you out into the sea where there is a restaurant and dolphin enclosures. The enclosures themselves were large fenced off areas in the sea where there were a handful of dolphins (including Bea, our dolphin friend). We got in as a group of 4 and had about half an hour swimming around in the sea with her, doing tricks and splashing about. Once we finished in the sea, we had a fishy meal in the restaurant above whilst Cuban singers serenaded us.
Snorkel – At the resort we were staying at, we could borrow snorkel, mask and flippers to go to the beach with and snorkel. We did this a couple of times; once going deeper into the sea with Brian and Kathleen who are a lot more experienced than us, where we saw loads of coral and a lobster. We also went snorkelling as part of our boat trip, where we held sea urchins and watched dozens of tiny fish feed from it in our hands!
Smoke a Cuban cigar – It might not be for everyone, but its on Scott’s bucket list, so it had to be done. Whilst in Cuba…
Go sea fishing – On our way back on the boat trip, we ended up sea fishing. It wasn’t planned, but the captain of the boat and our guide suddenly set up the fishing rods whilst sailing back to see what we could catch. Good job they did! There was a lot of commotion going on at the back of the boat, and we realised that we had caught either a 300lb tuna or marlin (so we were told). Sadly, after a long struggle, the line snapped and the fish swam away, however we would’ve loved to spend the day sea fishing!
Go to a Cuban festival – Sadly, we actually missed this, but a lot of people at the resort caught the bus into a nearby town to experience a real authentic Cuban festival, and said how good it was. I think they were on every Tuesday, and the bus took you into the town to listen to the music, drink rum with the locals and try real Cuban food!
Where to eat
At Paradisus Rio de Oro, they had a huge selection of restaurants to chose from. There was a Mediterranean restaurant, a Cuban restaurant, a grill and loads others including a buffet, which was really nice! Most of these were situated down in the main part of the resort, but there was also a more upmarket gormet restaurant in the royal service area called Los Helechos. One of our favourites was Tsuru, a Japanese restaurant where the chef’s cook your food in front of you. They get you up and cooking as well sometimes, and we had a really nice meal. There were a load of bars in and around the resort, including a swim up bar in the main pool, and a bar down by the beach which served food. The Cuban food that we tasted here was nothing special but I feel a resort isn’t the place to try this, and if we’d gone into a nearby town we would’ve had a much better experience of an authentic Cuban meal.
It’s clear to say that Cuba is a very stunning country, and a resort is the perfect way to experience the beauty and tranquillity! It was my (Alex’s) first resort holiday, and it didn’t disappoint, however the only downside was that it’s hard to experience the authentic side of Cuba, and we didn’t get to visit the capital of Havana.