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Overall rating: Very Good
My wife and I and our two kids (Stef 14 and Sean 10) stayed at the Solymar in Varadero during the last two weeks of July 2002. This is a 4 star facility but with food far below that standard it is hard to give it a rating any better than, say, "Very Good" or 3 star (maybe 3 1/2 star). Despite it being the rainy season, the weather was hot and sunny throughout with the exception of one evening when we had a spectacular thunderstorm. The humidity hit us at first but we got used to it.
These were excellent for the most part. The building is very new (less than a year old) and well looked after. Our room was quiet (on the 4th floor) and faced away from the beach side but still overlooked water - albeit on the undeveloped side of the Varadero Peninsular. The air conditioning seemed inadequate at first. It would appear to be on when you went into the room as the temp was a good deal cooler in there; however, you soon felt that it had gone off, whereas, in fact, you had merely got used to the difference and the difference was not that great.
One evening - the only evening we were too tired to do much - we wanted to turn in early and the air conditioning was off. We phoned down to the front desk and they told us it would be off for another two hours. From this we gathered that it was off for the whole building or perhaps our wing or just our floor. It was miserably hot in our room. Three hours later (11 p.m.) I phoned again and the person said "how long has it been off? I'll send someone up." A maintenance person appeared quite soon and just flipped a breaker switch in our room. The air conditioning was back on. So what had been the real story? After this, I climbed up on the bed and re-directed the louvers so that they pointed down at an angle instead of straight out. The cooling seemed much better after this.
Our shower would run through a cycle from scolding to warm no matter how it was set. This was somewhat annoying to say the least but we managed. Our room service was very good and we tipped the maid a dollar a day (as well as leaving gifts at the end of our stay). She would do all those clever towel tricks and even taught our son how to make a swan. Note: We Canadians have a reputation for generosity and these people make terrible wages so take lots of one dollar bills. We got through about 150 of them. Then again we got great service too. One of the waitresses we befriended told us that the Europeans hardly ever tipped at all and often didn't even say "thank you." She mentioned the Italians and the French in particular. I asked "what about the English" and she just rolled her eyes. I said "I'm English" and she was all apologetic and embarrassed. I said "don't worry, I understood only too well." They're still tipping the traditional sixpence over there in the UK.
During our first week the place was less than half full, but after that they had there busiest week ever with over a 1000 guests. Nonetheless, the place did not seem overly crowded and they coped very well with the influx. The guests were mainly French Canadian with lots of Europeans (mainly from Italy). We also met people from the States (surprising), from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. We also heard German accents (maybe Dutch).
Pleasant surroundings with well-groomed green areas. There is a variety of plants and flowers and the overall effect is quite pleasant. It is more developed than a lot of the publicity photos would leed you to believe. There were facilities for archery and shooting but we did not see these in use once. Somewhere there are tennis courts but we didn't see them. Mind you, we weren't looking for them either. Since the pools are in the grounds I'll include them here: The pools were a favourite with our kids and during the second week they didn't even go to the beach at all (typical). The quality of workmanship (or lack thereof) was starting to show up at the pools where a number of areas showed the effect of missing mosaic tiles - mostly on the pool bottom but also in several other areas as well. How on earth are they going to shut the pools down to fix that problem? The guests will riot. There are two pools and both are no more than waist deep on a short guy.
Oh dear. Well this is a stumbling block for the Cubans in general and this hotel in particular and they had better get it sorted out. However, it was not as bad as we had feared after reading these bulletin boards, and, in every restaurant, we could usually find something edible. But that's not good enough is it? Not for the money you're paying out anyway - even if it is all-inclusive. By the middle of the second week I could hardly face eating anymore and craved something simple like toast or tea and cookies. But on a more positive note, we tried 3 of the 4 A La Carte restaurants and used both buffets regularly. This is what we found:
You have to line up (for up to an hour) to book your 3 choices of restaurants for the coming week. We favoured the Creole Restaurant and went there 3 times; it's located on the beach and seves as the same venue for the breakfast and lunch buffets. We had decent chicken (hard to muck that up) pork ("pig cutlets") and veal. I tried the red snapper (head and tail an' all) once but it was not pleasant - too strong tasting. The service was quite professional and they were obviously trying really hard. Our first A La Carte was the "International." We were not acclimatized yet and found it a bit hot in there. It was also too small, dark and enclosed. None-the-less, we had a fairly decent steak in that restaurant.
We almost gave the Italian Restaurant a miss based on what we had read in these bulletins; however, it just goes to show, these are only opinions that we read and you should always find out for yourself. Actually, it wasn't that bad. I had shiskabob (spelling?) and it was pretty tasty. We were warned off the ice cream before travelling by the woman who gave us our hepatitis shots. She actually said to us: "Now I don't want you to eat the ice cream in Cuba." Yeh right. We didn't suffer any, and it was very good although frequently quite soft (it's the heat yuh know).
There were always loads of different pastries at every meal, but we did not try them once. In the beach-side restaurant, you will not only have to fight the flies (actually they're not that bad in Cuba) you will also have to fight the sparrows away from the breads and pastries (most unpleasant). We were bombed by bird poop at the Creole Al A Carte when a bird, sitting on some kind of horizontal wheel above our table, let loose on the one of the side dishes (really unpleasant).
"Good news everybody": There's Pringles, decent cookies (from Spain) and Nestles' chocolate available in the hotel boutique. The Pringles will set you back $3.25 US. Someone advised us to take snacks. We didn't listen.
The lobby bar is by far the best place to get drinks. They serve a quality Pina Colada and a semi-decent cappuccino down there. The latter will vary in quality though, and, if you ask for a latte, you'll get anything from a week cappuccino to hot milk. Most evenings, for about 3 hours, a lady comes in and plays the piano and it's a nice spot to relax for a while. This lady is a professor of music and owns the piano. She told me that it was built in 1838 and had been handed down through her family. She's a lovely person and we always tried to tip her if we had spent some time there.
At other bars, the drinks (and the mixes) are watered down and stay away from the beer which is served at the beach bar (the one right on the beach). It was truly 'orrible and tasted like it had been brewed that morning. The most common beer is 'Crystal' and makes Coors Light seem like a strong Belgium beer in comparison. Cat Pee!
There is a nightly show from 10 to 11 p.m. in the Solymar Teatro and for the most part it was pretty good. Great dancing but by the second week I had really had enough of Cuban music. It's like Disco on steroids. And it's everywhere: On the beach, on the coach trips, on the Jolly Roger catamaran day trip. Aghhhhhhh. Lord, please make it stop. Only one time did we walk out of that show an that was when they had an audience participation evening and the commentary was full of bathroom humour. I've never been a big fan of that. Apparently there is a very good show at the neighbouring hotel (to the East - further along the peninsula).
On the Beach:
Here I found my greatest joys and greatest frustrations during this holiday. Lets start with the old towel on the beach chair syndrome: Better get up early if you want a palm covered beach hut shady thing. There are lots of beach chairs but the shade is limited. During the first week, we could still get shady spot at 11.00 a.m. but by the second week, I was getting up at 8.00 a.m. and putting out the towels before doing anything else (except for dressing that is). I saw no problems with people moving or stealing towels. There is a security person on the beach and if he parks himself near you, you will have to put up with his damn walkie-talkie going bible, blibel, beep, bleep all day long.
The sand is near white but it is not as fine-grained as you might imagine or have expected from the images. It is mixed with a great deal of broken shells, and stuff of a similar nature. I even found a whole shark's tooth right under the beach hut. The sea is clear and very warm - almost hot in spots near the beach towards the end of the day. We took snorkelling gear but there is little to see except for some little translucent silvery fish. I did spend some time diving for beer cans mind you which leads me to one of the biggest disappointments with Varadero in general:
The litter on the beach - by the end of the day - was disgraceful. How people can treat those pristine beaches in such a manner I can't fathom. I retrieved a dozen beer and pop cans from a depth of about six feet perhaps some 50 feet out from the shoreline. One day when I was sailing, I watched some Spanish-speaking people throwing one beer can after another overboard from their catamaran. I retrieved some of them and took them over to show the revellers. I shouted at them to take their bloody garbage back to the beach but it was "no comprende Senor." Cerveza!? Cerveza!? They thought that I was offering them more beer.
On our last evening (thank goodness we didn't do this earlier) we walked for a mile down the beach (towards the town) and walked by some of the cheaper hotels and past villas and homes. Well the garbage was absolutely horrendous. The beaches were covered in it. There were even bottles floating along the shoreline. What the hell is wrong with people in this regard?
The best thing about the beach (and for my holiday in general) was the sailing. The Solymar has two Hoby Cats and an 'Escape' (model type) sailboat. You have to book the catamarans (for only half an hour as well) but the sailboat is first come first served. I tipped the guys every time and often kept the sailboat out for an hour. Each day (without fail) the wind got up about 2.00 p.m. and the sailing was great. Steady winds, good waves and getting drenched by warm water - wonderful. The catamarans are quite big and a bit scary for just one person. Those things can really fly across the waves.
Another nuisance on the beach is local Cubans (crouching in the water) who either want to sell you cigars (never do this, it's illegal) or ask you to go and get them food from the nearby buffet. They say "it's all included for you, so why not?" It gets tiresome after a while. There's volleyball and soccer on the beach as well as exercise sessions (to that ubiquitous Cuban music) and a European game with the heavy steel balls (?).
Warning: don't walk over the foliage at the back of the beach (use the boardwalks) when going back to the hotel. There s a very nasty little cactus-like burr that will sink itself into your soles (shoes or feet).
Take plenty of sunscreen (SPF 4, 15, 30 and 50) use the 50 if you get mildly burned but don't want to curtail your beach or pool time. Use the SPF 4 only when you have a very good base tan. Another warning: I got a partial buzz cut prior to the trip and burned my scalp twice.
All of the following are highly recommended (some are expensive):
In order of rating (highest to lowest):
A must. Yuh gotta do this one if no other. A two-hour coach trip that is interesting in itself with a stop off at the highest bridge in Cuba. It was here that I found out that my camcorder had run out of juice and I was unable to use it for the entire trip - 'cos I couldn't charge it up (wrong voltage in the Solymar - 220 v - so be warned). The tour guide was excellent although she did deliver all the standard government propaganda about there being no homeless people, no crime (yeh right) no drugs, no illiteracy, etc., etc. in Cuba.
We stopped off again, at a Fort, just before arriving in Havana. We were given an interesting tour and then taken for a good lunch. More touring afterward with a visit to a large flee market. We were able to dispatch our kids back to the hotel on an earlier bus while we went to a hotel to get ready for an evening at the Tropicana open-air nightclub. We were fed again at the hotel (the old Havana Hilton, before it was taken over by the Government) and then taken to the Tropicana.
This was 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment, which was about 30 minutes too long for my liking. However, it was very well done and well worth the additional cost involved. We arrived back at the Solymar about 2.00 a.m. in the morning. We ended up in the company of a lot of Brits on the Havana trip which was nice for me.
SNUBA diving at the Bay of Pigs:
Yes that's right SNUBA not SCUBA. It's like a cross between snorkelling and SCUBA. The tanks are floated on the surface in a small inflatable, and then you are fed air through 20 foot-long hoses. Two people go per inflatable with a guide. You can dive to about 20 feet and it's a lot of fun. The trip there is right across the island of Cuba from north to South to the Caribbean side and it's very interesting in itself. After our snorkelling and SNUBA sessions, and after lunch, my daughter and I did 40 minutes of SCUBA diving.
Now, I have been diving once (20 years ago in Belize) but my daughter has never done it. It was a risky venture but we paid our $25 each, got five minutes of instruction (in broken English) and we were off to the edge of the reef where the depths drop of by hundreds of feet. We went down to 56 feet and it was a bit scary. My daughter looked white as a ghost at that depth and I was lamenting about what I had risked on her behalf. But it was a memorable experience (she loved it) even though I was glad when it ended. We got back on the bus almost straight away and I promptly threw up (big time).
Yet another warning: Towards the end of the second week I got a case of salt-water poisoning: With all of the sea activities, one way and another, I had swallowed too much seawater. It gave me severe runs plus it caused my bottom lip to become covered in sores (like cold sores or how I imagine scurvy looks). My lip was swollen; it throbbed away and looked very ugly indeed. The sores did not go away until about a week after we had returned to Calgary. Your body giving up water in order to try and dilute the seawater in your stomach causes the runs. This is why drinking it is so dangerous and actually makes you more dehydrated.
The Jungle Cruise:
Bit of a misnomer, "Jungle Cruise," but still a lot of fun nonetheless. We were picked up in a small bus and taken to a nearby marina on the peninsular. Here we were given Jet Skis (Seadoos, or similar) to ride on. The kids had to accompany us (one with me and one with Carol) and we set off at high speed in a long line (supposedly 100 metres apart). It got real rough and one guide kept urging me to go full throttle; however, my son was getting scared (I was a bit alarmed myself) so I eventually got real mad and told him to "get lost." The spray - when we ploughed into a wave - was so strong that it would knock the controls into neutral and we would come to a sudden stop. Still, it was great fun. On the way back we travelled through a mangrove swamp to a small zoo. Here we were shown snakes, a crocodile, iguanas, a hairy rat-like creature and some birds. When we were getting ready to leave, the Dutch fellow on the next Jet Ski to us started to freak out as he thought that there was a giant spider on his leg. Turned out, it was a small crab.
The Jolly Roger Catamaran Cruise:
This was a long trip. We set out from the same marina in a very large vessel and motored most of the way to a distant island east of the peninsula. We just anchored off an island and went snorkelling. We up-anchored and travelled to another island anchoring quite a few hundred meters off of the beach for still more snorkelling (I saw a moray eel). We had lunch (lots of lobster) and then motored to the other side of the island where the boat was beached.
We swam here on a very white beach and saw many hermit crabs on the beach. There was a smell of hydrogen sulphide (rotten eggs) in the air; I believe it might have come from the nearby mangrove swamps. It was a long day by the time we got back and the bloody music was driving me nuts. Be advised not to do the sunset cruise portion of this trip on the same day, as it would be just too much. You can book it for another day without penalty.
We also booked the "Party Night" but cancelled it as well as cancelling the "Sunset Cruise." I just couldn't take several more hours of that frantic disco-like Cuban music. But that's just me. You go for it.
So vot else:
A major warning: Don't eat at the airport; a big mistake and a major ripoff. $22 USD for 4 crappy lunches. Mine was a cupful of over-cooked scrambled eggs on two pieces of dry toast (no butter). My daughter said that her spaghetti sauce tasted like stomach acid reflux. The cappuccinos was dreadful and it was a poor ending to what was otherwise a very good holiday. If you have a long wait at the airport - buy Pringles there. Would I go back to Cuba? I honestly don't know at this time. It was kinda hard work in some ways.
Please contact me at email@example.com if you want more details. I will put up some photos at the following web address (when I get them back and when I get them scanned):
Thanks to Tim for this trip report ...