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I spent one week at the Sol Rio de Luna y Mares (May 28 - June 4, 2004). It was my 10th trip to Cuba, my 4th time in the region of Guardalavaca (Holguin). I booked with Sell Off Vacations (thank you Angela and Charles!), the tour operator was Signature Vacations. I flew with Skyservice. As expected the seats are cramped (I'm 5' 8" and my knees were touching the seat pocket in front of me), the seats were a bit uncomfortable for the lower back (I could feel the metal frame underneath), the boxed lunch was ordinary at best (make sure you ask for a vegetarian meal if you don't eat a lot of meat, otherwise you might go hungry!), but the plane was clean, and the staff was very courteous. I flew out of Montreal and I'm glad to be bilingual, because the staff didn't speak French very well (only 1 fluently bilingual staff member on the return flight), so the announcements were difficult to understand. But some of the staff did speak sufficient French to serve the passengers. The checked baggage allowance is 20 kilos, my suitcase weighed 18 kilos (good thing I didn't bring all the gifts I had wanted to bring!). The carry-on luggage was not weighed, and the size restrictions didn't appear to be systematically enforced. There were 158 passengers on board for the trip down, 140 for the return trip (capacity is 180), with a stop over at Cayo Coco on the way home.
Airport / Reception desk: The plane landed on time at 10:30 a.m. Outside the airport, we were given a sheet with the number of the bus we had to take, the name of our Signature rep and the date and time of our briefing. Our bus was on its way at 11:05 a.m. We stopped at the hotels at Playa Pesquero first, then at the Paradisus Rio de Oro, then at the Sol Luna y Mares, around 12:25. There were only 5 of us checking in, so it went really well! I had written to the hotel about 2 weeks before to request a room on an upper floor, in a quiet area. At first, the girl at the desk told me that my assigned room was 2077 (2nd floor, overlooking the roof of the lobby), with no possibility of changing. I politely insisted for an upper-floor room, saying I had written in advance to request it. Another employee heard this, asked me what my name was, and remembered me - she's the one who had received my email. They made a phone call, told me to go grab a bite to eat, and that my room would be ready after my lunch. I had a pizza and a beer at the pool restaurant, returned to the desk, and was given the key to my room, #3016. Upon check-in they give you a leaflet with a map of the resort and useful information, such as opening hours for the bars and restaurants, beach towels, activity center, etc. My check-out was very easy, since I didn't go home after one week but simply changed resorts on June 4 (I spent the 2nd week of my vacation at the Paradisus Rio de Oro next door). On my last day at the Luna y Mares, I went to the beach in the morning, returned to my room around 11:00 to pack my bags, was at the front desk checking-out at 11:30, was in a cab at 11:40, and arrived at the Rio de Oro at 11:45.
Room 3016 - Mares side: Very nice, located almost at the end of the 3rd floor, which is the last floor in that section of the hotel. There was a staircase close by which took me down to a path behind the pool restaurant, leading directly past the pool to the stairs going to the beach - perfect location for me. I had an ocean view (the East side of Playa Esmeralda), and there was an archway-covered balcony with a small table and two chairs. The room had a king size bed, 2 comfortable chairs and a small table, a large bench for the suitcase, a mini-fridge with bottled water replenished daily, a c.d. player, a coffee maker, and a TV with over 20 channels (I only "watched" the Latin music channel - no videos, just music). The A/C worked very well, no card needed for the electricity. I kept the A/C on low during the day and found that this low setting was sufficient even in the evening and throughout the night. For storage, there is a fairly large closet at the entrance of the room with 2 drawers, and a chest of drawers in the room with 3 large and very clean drawers. Both night stands have a small drawer, and the bedside lamp have a glow-in-the-dark on/off switch - very practical! The vanity table also has a small drawer. There is a safe in the closet, which works with a key, not the room card. You get the key from the reception desk and you have to leave a $25USD deposit which you get back when you check out. The bathroom has a sink with sufficient counter space, a toilet, full bath and shower, a bidet, a hairdryer (nothing fancy, more like a hose blowing hot air), as well as a very practical clothesline over the tub. There were 4 bath towels (no hand towel or face cloth), and the beach towels were also left in the room - again, very practical! A few tiles were chipped in the bathroom, the paint on the walls and the furniture could use a fresh coat, and the bedspread definitely needs to be changed. But everything was kept very clean by the camarera. No fancy towel designs though!
Beach: What a fabulous surprise! Playa Esmeralda is just gorgeous! There are about 50 steps between the Mares pool area and the beach, and most are part of a steep semi-circular staircase. However, you can also use a sloping path, which is a bit less direct but much easier for anyone with mobility problems. All worth it when you get to the beach, which is nicest in front of the Mares. Once in the water, it gets deep fairly quickly (unlike, for the sake of comparison, the beach in front of the Melia Cayo Guillermo). There are some rocks as you enter the water in front of the Luna, more so in front of the Rio de Oro, but I'm told that's where the best snorkelling is. In front of both the Luna and the Mares, there is lots of space, lots of chairs and parasols, lots of trees for natural shade. The sand is a bit coarser than on Cayo Largo or Cayo Guillermo, but it is perfectly walkable nonetheless. Two resorts share this beach: the Sol Luna y Mares and the Paradisus Rio de Oro. It is located in a bay, and it takes at most 20 minutes (if you walk very slowly!) to walk from one end to the other. (Sidebar: I've said this before and I'll say it again: I find it absolutely CRIMINAL for any smoker to leave their cigarette butts in the sand of the beach. Not only is it disgusting, it is harmful to the environment, as cigarette butts are never biodegradable no matter where you dump them, let alone on a beach. Rant over.). The chairs are wide and rather comfortable for hard plastic chairs. However, they are stacked up every night, and a couple of staff members from the nautical center are supposed to help guests with the chairs in the morning. I am saying "supposed to", because this is some of the most indifferent staff I have seen in all my trips to Cuba, with respect to the chairs anyway. Many times I saw clients (including elderly people and kids) struggle to get some chairs off the pile and drag them to their chosen spot (and the beach is quite wide!). The staff would not move unless specifically beckoned, and even that seemed to be a bit intimidating for some guests to do, since the staff was sitting around chatting and not paying much attention for the most part. Now I don't have a problem getting my own chair, but if the resort chooses to stack the chairs in piles of 20 and keep them all in one spot, then the very least the staff should do is be helpful to the guests and help them retrieve the chairs. Maybe tipping gets these guys moving, and I do tip a lot in Cuba to say thank you for good service, but no one should have to tip to receive basic service. This was less of a problem as the day went on, since the piles were lower, and some guests didn't use their chairs all day.
Activities: The activity center is located on the beach, and this is where you can exchange your beach towel. This is also where you make reservations for the catamarans, kayaks, or pedal boats. For the catamarans (Hobie Cat), spots fill up quickly, and you may not be able to have a spot for that day unless you go before 9:00 a.m. The entertainment staff seemed very friendly and was present throughout the day, announcing upcoming activities (beach volleyball, aerobics, cocktail demonstrations), but never pressuring you to participate.
Pool (Mares side): fairly small, everything seemed clean, parasols all around but fairly close together, swim-up bar. I never used the pool, since the beach was so gorgeous! However, I did wonder what happens when the resort is full, since this is not a spacious pool area. The view from there is splendid, you can see the ocean over the top of trees and foliage - gorgeous! The pool on the Luna side was similar, maybe a bit wider, but still relatively small. There is a board announcing daily activities at the pool on the Mares side (not sure where it is located on the Luna side).
Restaurants: Both the Luna and the Mares sides offer 3 restaurants, 1 buffet, 1 at the pool and 1 at the beach, so you have 6 restaurants to choose from. The buffet at the Mares is a nice, bright room, with high ceiling and an outdoors section overlooking the pool area. The smoking section is outdoors, while the non-smoking section is inside, air-conditioned. The buffet at the Luna is smaller and seemed darker to me both times I went there for breakfast. There is a also a small outdoor section at the Luna buffet. The pool and beach restaurants become à-la-carte for supper: Mexican, Creole (Cuban), Italian and Mediterranean. You can only have 2 à-la-carte per week.
The food was the big disappointment of the week for me, the only exception being the Cuban à-la-carte, which was easily the best meal of the week. The food at the buffet was bland, seemingly recycled from lunch to dinner, and with very few options for people who don't eat meat. At least there was usually a pasta station at dinner, and the flambéed desserts were great. I've been to 2 other Sol Clubs before (Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Largo), and the Mares buffet didn't offer nearly as much variety. I didn't try to buffet at the Luna for dinner, I'm guessing it must have a similar menu (the breakfast menus were almost identical).
The service at breakfast was horrible in the Mares buffet. Continental breakfast is available from 6:00 to 7:30 a.m., and full breakfast from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. However, many times most of the staff walked in around 7:45, which means waiting until they arrive to get a cup of coffee if you were there before them - at least the café con leche was very good, and the nearby lobby bar makes great coffee too. Also, the earliest the omelet station was set up all week was 7:50, more often it was closer to 8:00. Special mention to Juan Carlos who prepared eggs in the morning, and to Suki who made my omelet a couple of times, both were very professional and friendly. However, I found most of the staff at breakfast to be indifferent - a rare occurence in my trips to Cuba. Service was better during dinner (served from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. - very busy as of 8:00 p.m.), with special mentions going out to Yahima and Elsa Maria, both very professional and friendly waitresses, and also to Mayte, one of the cooks, who prepared the best pasta of the week at the pasta station.
For lunch, I went only once to the buffet and 6 times to the pool restaurant on the Mares side (the Carabela). I didn't try the beach restaurants nor the Luna pool restaurant. There are several reasons why I loved going to the Carabela. First, the tables are set wide apart, so you don't feel cramped at all. There is also a nice breeze flowing through the restaurant, so it was really comfortable. Secondly, the view from there was spectacular - overlooking the sea, just gorgeous! Finally, the food was ok and service was the best here: my thanks to Yandis and Katia. Yandis was the friendliest, most gracious and professional waitress I met all week.
For the à-la-carte restaurants, I tried the Italian, located at the pool restaurant on the Luna side, "El Galileo". My meal was utterly bland; the cheese and tomato appetizer was very ordinary, and the pasta was not much different than what I could have found at the buffet (and I don't mean the pasta station, which was actually better). I didn't even stick around for dessert. Another indifferent waitress served me at first, fortunately her colleague who came on halfway through my meal was friendlier. The best surprise came at the Creole (Cuban) restaurant, located at the Carabela (pool side at the Mares). I already enjoyed having lunch there - it was even better being there at night fall! The meal was great. I had an appetizer of grilled vegetables (eggplant, green tomatoes and half an onion), very good. The main course was grilled pork cutlets, also very good, served with rice and beans, and some vegetables. For dessert, I had the café cubano - it was coffee, flambéed with rum and coffee liqueur, and a scoop of ice cream which melted slowly. It was so delicious, I almost asked for a 2nd one! I highly recommend this à-la-carte - my thanks to Katia in Public Relations for suggesting it. Katia is the person who makes the reservations for the à-la-cartes, you simply go to her desk in the lobby between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Katia is very nice, warm and professional.
I never saw any musicians at the restaurants, this is a first for me, as there is always music in Cuba! Maybe it's because it was low season, but it was a bit disappointing.
Bars: No chance to go thirsty here! There 2 bars on the beach, 2 bars beside the pool at the Luna, 1 swim-up bar at the Mares, 1 pool bar at the Mares and a lobby bar both at the Mares and the Luna. My favorite was the lobby bar at the Mares (the only one open 24 hours), in part because the staff was just great (special thanks to Alexis and José Antonio who took very good care of me in the evenings!). They also made the best rum punch I've had so far, with bits of fruit in it! There are lots of chairs, tables and benches around, and I found the entire lobby to be very nice, very clean. You can also see the pool area and part of the sea from the lobby, and you can listen to the evening entertainment, since the lobby is right behind the stage.
Entertainment: I didn't see any shows, so I obviously can't comment on their quality, but I did stay to listen to the house band a couple of times, and it was very good. However, I could hear the show from my room every night (except the night of the beach party), and that was the other big disappointment of the week. This problem will be solved when the new entertainment area located between the Luna and the Mares is ready. Not sure when that will be, since it was still only concrete walls when I was there. But until then, I doubt there is a room at the Mares from where you cannot hear the shows at night, unless it is at the end of the 3rd or 2nd floor, facing the gardens. The Mares is built like a "U" around the pool area, with 4 floors in the center, 3 floors in the middle wings, and 2 floors at the very end. The stage area was below the center part of the building. I like to go to bed early and wake up early when I'm on vacation, so I had to leave the music channel playing on the TV in order to drown out the noise from the shows if I wanted to sleep before 11:00 p.m. - not fun. But I didn't want to change rooms, since I loved being able to watch the sun rise over Playa Esmeralda when I woke up!
Internet: There are 2 terminals in front of the reception desk, you pay after each use. The cost is $1 USD for 10 minutes, with a minimum charge of $1 USD. You can see the amount due on the screen. I found the speed to be similar to my dial-up at home.
Phone calls: The cheapest I have seen in Cuba: $1.95 USD per minute to call Canada through the front desk!
Massage and fitness center: Located behind the pool restaurant on the Luna side. I passed by a couple of times, and the gym didn't seem to be well equipped. Not sure how much massages cost, I'm guessing $20-25USD for an hour, same as other resorts I've been to; you can obtain info either from your rep or at the front desk.
Stores: There is 1 store on the Luna side (in front of the lobby bar), 3 on the Mares side (near the reception desk), including a cigar store. However, if you want a good selection of cigars, I recommend going to Guardalavaca ($10USD for a return cab ride), to the Casa de Habanos at the Atlantico hotel, in front of the reception desk. Much more variety there.
Mosquitoes: Biggest and most pleasant surprise of the week! I didn't see or feel any mosquito during my entire stay at the Luna y Mares. Maybe it's because it was breezy and windy all week, maybe it's because it hasn't rained in a while, but I never put on any insect repellent, and I never had to use my anti-histamine cream! A first for me in Cuba, as I am usually a target of choice for mosquitoes!
Summary: This is a decent resort, it's very easy to find your way around despite the 2 sides. On the Luna side, the rooms are spread out in 4 buildings, 5000 is closest to the Mares, the 6000 is behind the pool, the 7000 and 8000 are a bit further out, in a quieter area. There is not a lot of landscaping on the Mares side, but the grounds and gardens on the Luna side, in front of Building 8000 are very nice indeed. There is a shaded path that winds through the grounds all the way to the beach, providing a great view of the surrounding country side. There are also a couple of spots which seem to be set up for bird-watching.
This is definitely not a 4-star resort in my opinion, because of the poor quality and variety of the food (particularly at the buffet), the indifference of some of the staff, and the fact that my room was looking a bit "worn around the edges". That being said, Playa Esmeralda has become my 2nd favorite Cuban beach now, if only because of the vast space and all the natural shade. I would recommend this resort if you love a great beach, if you don't mind not eating all that well for a week, and if you get a really good price for it.
Excursions: I suggest attending the briefing session to find out all the details. Here are some of the excursions offered by Signature (I'm assuming they're pretty similar to what other tour operators are offering) :
Santiago de Cuba by bus: $69 USD per person
Santiago de Cuba overnight: $185 USD per person
Dolphin swim: $79 USD per person
Holguin: $44 USD per person
Fantastica: $105 per person (dolphin swim, tour of the country side)
Catamaran: $69 per person
Jeep Safari: $71 USD per person
Havana Overnight: $325 USD per person
Havana One Day: $189 USD per person
VIP lounge at the airport on day of departure: $20 USD per person
If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the forum section, I will do my best to answer them promptly!
Thanks to Anne (Montréal, Québec, Canada) for this trip report ...