Awww, the all-inclusive vacation life. With a couple of clicks you have everything taken care of: the flight, the hotel, the food & drink. Easy peasy. Truthfully, all-inclusive vacations are not my favourite way to travel but when I am in the heart of wedding season, without a free weekend in near-sight, booking that baby allows me to avoid any burn-out. This November we chose to head to Cuba. I wanted ocean swimming and Josh wanted old bars. This was my third time heading to Cuba so I wanted to see something new. We quickly decided to head to Varadero: pristine white beaches and a mere two hour drive to Havana. Perfecto.
The first step was choosing a resort to stay at. There are a ton to choose from in Varadero with a wide range of prices and amenities. I was immediately drawn to the Adults-only resorts. Now this isn’t because I don’t like the children (I am a portrait photographer after all. I love other people’s kids!) but it’s because I tend to not relax when around them. I watch them, I worry about them, I try to help them out. Not exactly relaxing. We were also solid on booking a five-star resort. In Cuba, this rating is important if you want quality food and drink. My go-to vacation website in Canada is Sunwing. They have great deals and I have always had great experiences with them (hello champagne flights!). I read everything that I could about all of the five-star resorts that they had available in Varadero and after lots of debate, we chose the Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa. I loved that this resort seemed to have a big community of regular vacationers. Some said that they have been there over ten times. To me, this speaks loud and clear: it is a great place to go.
Since we flew out in the evening, we arrived at the Resort around 10:30pm. It’s always fun to arrive in the dark because you do not know exactly what you are getting into. We were given a glass of bubbly upon arrival along with our welcome kit that included a lock for our safe and a reservation card for the a la carte restaurants. If you have been to any all-inclusive resort before, you likely know about the annoyance of making reservations at the a la carte restaurants: they are a pain to make. You’re either lining up early in the morning at a desk, hoping to get your desired night and time or you’re lining up that evening in front of a restaurant. What is this, weekend brunch in Toronto?! Our reservation card included completed reservations for us for three nights at the three a la carte restaurants. They were conveniently made for our last three nights which was a pretty sweet move.
Our room was beautiful with a large garden-view balcony. Just past the trees there was the ocean.
The lobby bar was the place to be at Royal Hicacos. It was the hub of the resort and at cocktail hour before dinner and after was when it was most busy. We loved sitting at the bar there. Once Josh told the bartenders that he was also an el cantinero, we were set. They also loved his coasters which he conveniently left everywhere.
Any proper resort should have a swim-up bar. We sat here for an afternoon chatting with some Brits (hi guys!). We went for one piña colada and ended up staying for much more. Those small plastic cups just go down too easy.
Our first day in Cuba wasn’t the greatest, weather-wise. In the morning we went for a walk on the beach and the winds were wild. Red flags were up so there was no swimming and it started to rain a little. We decided that we would head into the town of Varadaro to check it out since sitting at the resort that day wouldn’t be the most pleasant. There is a double-decker hop-on-and-off bus that goes to the resorts and into Varadero that runs all day until about 8pm (I think, don’t quote me on that.) You can buy tickets for it on the bus itself or you can buy them at the resort, which we opted to do. Five CUC’s get you a ticket that you can use all day. The stop for the bus was less than a five minute walk from the resort on the main road.
We got off at the beginning of Varadero and walked from there. I was surprised that the town was actually a lot bigger than I thought it would be. We had lunch basically in someone’s house and it was delicious. Two huge lobster tails for 15 CUC’s. I chased mine with a mojito.
There were a couple outdoor markets where you could buy anything you desired. I love shopping at places like that.
I loved the horse and carriages as well as all of the awesome old-school cars that are now used as taxis. Just look at that pink beaut with a red leather interior!
Cafe con leche was best in the lobby bar in the mornings. Also best if paired with a shot of Ron Santiago Añejo.
This was the most wildlife that we saw on the resort. A giant slug and adorable lizards.
A lot of the food in Cuba is fried. We had lunch one day at the beachside El Viejo restaurant. At night it becomes an a la carte restaurant.
The first couple of days that we were in Varadero, you could not swim in the ocean because the waves were so rough. I overheard someone say on the bus that you can’t swim here and my heart sunk a lot. One of my most favourite things in being in the ocean and we had chosen Varadero because of this. Luckily by about day four of being there, the flags on the beach were yellow and it was safe to go in. We collected some really awesome shells on the beach, ones that I have never seen before. The full curly ones were found on the days when the ocean was rough so I am guessing that things were really being stirred up there because on our last day when we went hunting for more, we couldn’t find any.
The night entertainment at Royal Hicacos was phenomenal. There is no need to go to Tropicana in Havana when you have this nightly. The costumes were beautiful and the dancers were incredible.
We did one day trip through the resort: the catamaran trip. I love going on boats like this so much. We paid $70 USD each for this trip. It included open bar for the day, lunch and snorkelling . We boarded the catamaran and went to a reef in the middle of the ocean for snorkelling. The visibility wasn’t great (see above: rough ocean stirring things up) but I still saw some pretty cool fish.
Lunch was then on an island called Cayo Blanco. I had the seafood and Josh opted for chicken. We then got to hang out on the gorgeous white beach for 2 1/2 hours before boarding the catamaran to head back to the resort.
On the beach at Cayo Blanco there was a ton of little hermit crabs. I loved them. There was also a lot of coral washed up on the beach. Nature is so cool.
We had hours to kill at the airport waiting for our flight home so we drank Cristals which were maybe three CUC’s.
Our haul from the trip: cigars and rum (naturally). We picked up the cigars in Havana (more about that later). The rums are all ones that are not available here in Canada and let me tell you, they are delicious.
All in all, we had an awesome time. Would we go back to Royal Hicacos? Probably not because I like the idea of always exploring new places. However, I would totally recommend this resort to anyone wanting to go to Cuba. It was beautiful, the food was fresh and we were never bored.
• There is a 25 CUC visa fee when you leave Cuba. This has to be paid in CUC’s so don’t forget to save that money.
• Bring a travel cup or mug. It will save on waste from the tiny plastic cups that the resort provides, plus you will then get a decent amount of beer (and it’ll stay colder!)
• Internet in Cuba is pretty terrible. But this means that you can have a real vacation. I was unable to download my emails or send any out. At first it stressed me out but then I thought, “What can you do?!” Royal Hicacos does have a couple of spots where you can get wifi (they call it “wee-fee”). The cost was 8 CUC’s for an hour of time. I would basically post a photo on Instagram that I would then feed to my twitter and Facebook and that was pretty much all I was able to do.
• I had the house red (vino tinto) at dinner every night and it was surprisingly decent. The first night at an a la carte restaurant, we ordered a bottle of Spanish red for an extra 20 CUC’s. It was good but after that, we decided that the house wine was just as good.
• Tip the staff. Give them everything that you are able to. These people make very little money in comparison to us so a little goes a long way. We tipped mostly in USD’s and would leave anywhere from $1 to $5 at the bars and restaurants. We also brought school supplies and big bottles of shower gel and shampoo that we left for the maid. She was very appreciative and left us a very sweet note on our last day.