Taking a vacation in Cuba has been the talk of the travel industry ever since the United States lifted the embargo against its citizens last July. Unlike the beach getaways Canadians and Europeans have enjoyed for years, Americans are limited to highly structured guided tours. Many experts predict that the character of the country will change as a result.
One such change is a growing desire for luxury experiences in a destination better known for low priced getaways. Still, many travelers are asking: Is Cuba is ready to deliver a luxury vacation on par with 5 star hotels around the world? While only time will tell, I was able to discover for myself what the current version of Cuban “luxury” is really like.
I recently returned from a short 6-night visit to the popular island nation. We landed in Varadero Beach, famous for its nearly thirty kilometer long white sand beach that rival some of the best anywhere. The bustling capital city of Havana is a 2-hour drive away, separating it from more urban Cuban experiences. For both beaches and city life, Canadians and Europeans have been flocking to Cuba for decades. Many are looking to vacation in Cuba and escape winter and take advantage of budget priced all-inclusive packages.
Luxury Hotels in Cuba?
All hotels in Cuba are 51% owned by the Cuban government, in partnership with (primarily) European and Mexican hotel chains. Melia International (based in Spain) offers nearly 15,000 beds in hotels and resorts across the island. Most recently, the chain has been promoting a new luxury option with their “Royal Service” and “The Level,” including private butlers, concierge service and upgraded amenities for a premium price. In the past, governmental restrictions and supply limitations made it difficult for hotels to deliver a luxury-style experience. It is understandable then that some wonder if times have indeed changed.
My wife and I stayed in the Royal Service area at the Paradisus Princesa Del Mar (opened in 2014), located on the famous beach strip of Varadero. Our room was a generously sized swim-up junior suite that overlooked a sprawling pool that circled eight buildings.
Luxury Rooms and Suites
The room included a King size bed, espresso machine, flat screen TV mini bar (local soda pop and beer). We enjoyed a sitting area that walked out to a private patio, a small garden area with 10 steps to the pool. I must admit I was disappointed with the bedding compared to other luxury hotels with European pillow top mattresses and high thread count sheets. Instead, the bed had a very basic eight-inch mattress with ordinary budget linens. They did offer a pillow menu with a choice of firm or soft which was welcome.
Unfortunately, the air conditioning thermostat did not work, leaving us with a choice of simply on or off, but without automatic temperature control. It was a small detail, but not the sort of thing a well-established luxury resort would overlook. The bathroom was quite large with a modern Jacuzzi tub along with a separate area for the toilet and shower. However, there was no light in the shower, which meant cleaning up in the dark. Again, it’s a small thing but luxury is all about those many small things.
Overall, the service was good, but not what I would classify as exceptional, at least not when compared to other luxury experiences. Yes, we did have a butler (a nice touch) who was very kind when we interacted with him. He was only available from 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM, leaving things like dinner reservations up to one of his fellow colleagues. My other experiences in past with butler service were more engaged and proactive. Most of them check in several times throughout the day to ensure all is well with their guests. This was not the case here.
For dining the Royal Service guests were offered a separate area for buffet breakfasts and lunch along with two exclusive bars. Our buffet was never crowded, and there was a respectable effort to create an upscale dining presentation. Sadly, the food was essentially the same as served in the general section of the hotel. The variety was adequate but I noticed many disappointing inconsistencies.
For example, there was no bacon served all week and the omelet station was limited to three filling options. These are small examples of the difficulties faced by the “old Cuba” that still persist, including being unable to maintain stock comparable to international standards. Our dinners were a hit and miss affair. Some meals were quite good, but service levels were noticeably lacking and slow.
Entertainment in Cuba
Cuba shines here since the island is famous for artistic talent, and we truly appreciated the high caliber of musicians and dancers. All were quite professional. In fact, I would love to see more live music offered throughout the resort more frequently. It seems a missed opportunity to overcome other areas that were lacking. With all the challenges, there is one area in which a vacation in Cuba still shines above all. Its people are famously warm and welcoming and always offer smiles to all.
Our personal highlight was a private day trip to Havana in a restored 1956 Chevy. In my opinion, experiencing authentic Cuba (especially old Havana, a Unesco World Heritage site) is one main reason to visit the island. Walking down old cobblestone streets lined with restored 400 year-old buildings line with cathedrals, museums, cafe’s, bars with live Latin Jazz playing was such a treat. The dining experiences are diverse and delicious. We enjoyed an authentic Cuban lunch in the garden of a private home that catered to tourists who could afford their prices. I noticed several small, newly restored boutique hotels in old Havana, which promise to deliver an authentically Cuban experience. As a music fan, I would have liked to spend more time in the capital since they have some of the best live jazz available anywhere.
So, to answer the question: is Cuba is ready to deliver a luxury vacation on par with 5 star hotels around the world? I have to say: not quite. That does not mean that you cannot have a wonderful, culturally rich and enjoyable vacation experience. But, perhaps instead of comparing it to others, we should simply appreciate it for what it is. After all, it was the “authentic Cuba” parts of our trip that we enjoyed the most. With the growing demand from cruise lines to American tour packages the island will surely change. Why not discover an authentic vacation in Cuba while you can? I’m certainly glad we did.