If you are looking for mild winter temperatures, you might want to consider Cuba, a sub-tropical paradise with more Canadians per square mile than anywhere else in the world, except Canada.
Landing in Santa Clara in central Cuba, it is amazing to see an airport smaller than a high school in a city of over 200,000 people. The kicker is that there are signs for only four airlines in the airport, all of them Canadian- SunWing, Air Canada, Air Transat and Westjet.
You need to pinch yourself and remember that you are in one of the few remaining communist countries of the world, which means that for Cubans, only domestic flights are permitted. The government doesn’t allow them to leave their country.
Our all-inclusive week in Cuba took us to the Royal Hideaway Ensenachos, a stunning, five star resort located on one of a cluster of 500 small islands, or keys off the coast of Villa Clara. The five year old, Occidental Royal Hideaway has a welcoming, Spanish style lobby with its polished marble floors and high column ceilings. The huge property surrounding the lobby features lush vegetation and gardens, and the guest villas have their own courtyard and concierge services.
A conversation with the manager was quite revealing. The government controls all hotels in Cuba, so the hotels themselves are not involved in any marketing or promotion. The hotel specializes in ‘organic food’ so that means that all of the vegetables and fruit are naturally grown, without pesticides and herbicides. Furthermore, the food is ordered fresh each week, and is tested daily to ensure high quality and safety. It is reassuring to know that since the hotel opened, there have been no cases of tourists getting ‘ill’ from the food.
The food and its excellent presentation should satisfy even the most discerning palate. The main buffet contains a vast assortment of fruit, vegetables, seafood, meats with various salad combinations, special order requests for omelette and crepes, and homemade bread of many kinds. The croissants and the ice cream melt in your mouth. The ample red and white wines are imported from Chile. The table settings and the linen tablecloths and the personal service round out what was to become a week of fine dining.
The nearby beach is less than five minutes away from the main lobby, along an elevated wooden pier, which cuts through an area of mangroves to the 3-kilometer private beach. Cuban beaches are renowned for their fine, white sand and turquoise water. The beach at the Royal Hideaway is no exception. Unfortunately, we lost a couple of days when a cold front came in, toppled over beach umbrellas, and dumped a huge mound of seaweed on the water’s edge. Wherever you travel these days, you see how the weather is changing.
Without a doubt the highlight of our trip was our interaction with the people. Despite the fact that most hotel staff had to spend about 2 hours on bus to get to work, work a 12 hour shift and drive for another 2 hours to get home, the service was top notch. We were pleased to tip the waiters, porters, concierge and other staff but we could see that they wanted to make our trip memorable and they were very eager to please. The Cubans we met at the hotel had a strong work ethic and despite having only the basics, seemed generally happy and well adjusted. They made us feel at home.
Keep in mind that for trips to Cuba you can fly direct from Montreal and Ottawa, and avoid the hassle of flying through American airports. No doubt the weather will warm up in the weeks to come, and by February and March, Canadian tourists will be flocking to Cuba in droves to escape the dreaded winter.