Cuba, Part II

The direct nonstop service between Kelowna and Varadero is what predicates this area as being many of my clients' “first impression” of Cuba.

Like any resort town, it fluctuates to the needs and demands of its international clientele and is simply a slanted reflection of the real Cuba.

It is my role as a travel consultant to manage my clients’ expectations when discussing destinations and hence my observations regarding the level of service and amenities of the area and how they compare to former vacation hotspots.

Cuba is a diverse and complicated destination in and of itself. To enjoy it best is to be open to its political and economic challenges as well as it’s versatility and beauty. 

The island is the largest in the Caribbean, measuring more than 110,000 kilometres square. 

There are 16 international airports on the island, but few domestic flights between them, which makes the island best explored by car or bus.

However, in saying this, public transport is limited and unreliable. Local workers rely on a hitchhike-and-taxi-share process to get to/from their workplace. 

Car rental is readily available however extended travel is inhibited by a lack of gas stations once you leave the urban areas. Accommodations range from luxury hotels to unique “casa particulars,” which are their version of B&Bs. 

Again, the further you wander from the larger city cores, the fewer the accommodation options.

Our amazing tour guide during our two-day trip to Havana was a wonderful source of information. 

The government owns a controlling interest in all the hotels and resorts in Cuba. They own all the transportation vehicles, shuttle services and majority of the vintage taxicabs.

The country’s employer is the government. They own virtually 99 per cent of all residential housing. In fact, it is only within the last three years that it has been possible for Cuban nationals to purchase their own home or apartment. 

This is usually done with the assistance of overseas family as the government monitors bank accounts that show a balance above $1,500 Cuban pesos. 

Much is made about the low monthly income earned by the Cuban people, but technically the government looks after all housing costs, medical and dental requirements, food ration stamps and provides free primary, secondary and university education. 

It may surprise you to learn that Cuba is one of the leading providers of medical personnel to developing world countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

A drive through the agricultural areas of the Cuban countryside is a true eye opener. Time has truly stayed still for this section of Cuba’s population.

Small, simple corrugated roof homes with no running water and little power is the norm. Large water canisters are attached to elaborate bicycle trailers and hauled to the village centre. 

Our unannounced arrival by scooter prompted lots of big smiles and waves from the local children and a few women approached us to try to sell big blocks of fresh homemade cheese. 

It is here that you understand that all the supposed progress facilitated by the Castro government has been primarily for the city dwellers. 

As Canadian, we are taught that “the sky is the limit” when pursuing our dreams and goals. 

In Cuba, the “sky” is determined by Castro.


Cuba bound

The air was warm with a mango-scented breeze when we arrived in Varadero. 

The Customs officials take their job seriously with stern faces and brusque queries. One can’t but help but feel a little intimidated. 

There was no “welcome to Cuba” during this entry interrogation. Thankfully, we were deemed “acceptable” and allowed to pass through the exit door accompanied by a loud buzzer.

Once we collected our luggage, it was off to the Cambio or money changer. You can’t buy Cuban pesos outside the country, so you need to bring cash to exchange upon arrival. 

The Convertible Peso (CUC) is given to tourists to spend and is based on the USD. Once we had some local currency, we jumped into a taxi and headed to our resort.

The beach town of Varadero is10 kilometres from the airport, but the hotel strip extends all the way to the end of the peninsula, which extends another 30-40 km beyond. Along this narrow windswept road, there is a string of international resorts ranging from sketchy two stars to contemporary five-star palaces. 

The farther from Varadero, the newer the resort. Star categories in Cuba don’t measure up to equivalent ratings of the Mayan Riviera. A five star here is a solid 3.5 star in Cancun.

The beach is the true star of this destination. Baby powder white sand stretches for kilometres allowing the avid walker an endless route.

The ocean is clean and vibrant with turquoise hues. Water sports, sailing craft, parasailers and kite surfers along with boogie boards and snorkel gear keep the vacationing clientele busy.

A tourist bus goes from all the resorts to Varadero — $5, hop on hop off all day. Scooters are also readily available for fun exploration of local towns and farm villages.

Varadero has longed been plagued with reviews about terrible food and unhygienic conditions. I felt the food was fine. By no means the same calibre of Mexican counterparts regarding variety and service, but it was plentiful and fresh. They do the best they can with the limited source of produce at hand. 

The accommodations were clean and well maintained. Stick to Barcelo, Iberostar and Melia properties and you will be fine.

The one consensus is that no one employed in the hotel industry seems to like their job. Bar service was slow everywhere we went. Reception staff ignored guests and promised services were never delivered. The general feeling is that you are being tolerated. 

Now and then a bright smile would break through and all was right in the world.

You do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Havana. Ideally, do the overnight tour to soak up the culture and vibrant nightlife. Cuban music and dance is truly fabulous. 

A sad, aging beauty, Havana nonetheless will impress you with a quiet dignity. The tour guides provide a veritable treasure trove of facts about Cuba’s past and hopeful future.

Cuba is a diamond in the rough. Go with an open mind and adventurous heart. Go because it’s not Mexico.

An amazing family vacation

Have you heard the acronym “SKI” Holiday? 

Rather than leaving it all to the kids, today’s Baby Boomers are choosing to “Spend the Kid’s Inheritance” and share in creating travel memories with their extended families.

Multi-generational travel is fast becoming a popular way to create family unity and to “share the wealth,” so to speak. It’s unique in that it requires some finesse to properly address the different expectations, requirements and limitations of the different age groups represented in a large family group. 

One perfect option is the Oasis class ships of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. 

Imagine a ship of such vast proportions and diversity that it houses seven distinct "neighbourhoods." Truly a destination in itself, the Oasis class ships offer activities, culinary experiences, entertainment and accommodations to suit every budget and expectation.

There is something for everyone with complimentary Youth Programs crafted for specific age groups ranging from three to 17.

Kids can be a part of the evening Talent Show, take part in ship-wide scavenger hunts, compete in rock climbing or hangout in the very cool Teen Lounge. All the age appropriate activities are chaperoned by professionally trained staff, each holding a minimum of a four-year degree in education or similar field. 

RCCL is the first autism friendly cruise line, offering special programs, initiatives and dietary options for families living with autism.

Everyone will enjoy the amazing complimentary activities onboard as well. Ziplines, FlowRiders, Rock Climbing Walls, Sky Diving Simulators are but a few of the adventures awaiting the young and young at heart participants!

There are over 15 dining venues aboard the Oasis Class ships, eight of which are complimentary. My Family Time Dining allows for expedited dining for the kids who are then collected by the Adventure Ocean staff for a fun night of fun while the parents relax and continue their meal.

While the kids play, the adults can, too. Live stage shows featuring Broadway productions of Grease, Mama Mia and CATS to name but a few.  Live music and comedy shows. 

You can take in high-dive aquatic shows and ice-skating extravaganzas, work out in a state-of-the-art fitness facility with trained staff and the newest fitness classes. Indulge at the full-service spa for the ultimate relaxation.

The misconception is that ships of this size will feel overcrowded. The reality is that the space ratio to passenger is equal to or better than the mid-size ships. Granted, ships of this size can rarely dock in destination, but they have the whole “tendering” situation down to a science.

For the discerning clientele, the Royal Class suites deliver the thrill of all the ship’s experiences with the amenities and luxury of the world’s finest resorts. Room categories within this Royal level range from Junior Suite to the luxurious Four Bedroom Family Suite that can accommodate up to 14 family members comfortably. Indulge with the Ultimate Star service. 

Your Royal Genie takes your VIP status ship wide. Fully inclusive dining at all venues, Front of the Line access to all the shipboard activities, priority seating at all the shows and complimentary beverage packages.

We haven’t even mentioned the itineraries. Then again, with ships that have this much to offer, you may simply choose to stay aboard. 

Check out the Oasis class ships of RCCL for your Ultimate Family Vacation.


Luggage tariffs looming

The people of Europe and the U.K. have long been accustomed to paying fees for their air travel. 

Low-cost airlines randomly offer airfares for as little as one euro, but it is understood that the applicable add-ons mark up the actual costs significantly.

Delta Airlines has recently advised that they will begin charging checked luggage fees for travel to Europe and North Africa for flights originating from Canada and the U.S.   

North American travellers had acquiesced to paying baggage fees for domestic and trans border flights since September 2014 on economy class airfares. Only Elite frequent fliers and higher-class tickets were unaffected. 

Until this recent announcement, economy fare travellers were allowed one free checked bag for overseas flights.

Delta is affiliated with both KLM and Air France. It is not yet clear if the new policy will affect their flights as well.

The new charges are effective April 10 or later and apply to tickets purchased after Dec. 6, 2017. The first checked bag will be $75CAD. It is expected that both WestJet and Air Canada will follow suit although to date they say there is no change to their baggage policies.

Airlines refer to these as ancillary fees. They increase revenue without affecting the base introductory fare structure. On a global basis, they have generated over $82 billion in profit in 2017. 

North American airlines claim that these initiatives are necessary to compete with low cost airlines such as Flair Air and WestJet’s new ultra low-cost airline Swoop, which will be launched in June.

Fees that apply to these low-cost airlines range anywhere from printing boarding passes to seat assignments, onboard food purchases, iPad rentals and even blankets. 

How can you beat these extra charges? Well, there is always the option to pay more for the flight. The very lowest fares are limited on a per seat per flight basis. These are those sales you see advertised by WestJet and Air Canada. 

Basic economy for the most basic of services. More expensive fares will include more amenities and may be worthwhile to invest in. Be sure to investigate those airlines that offer a premium economy class. 

Larger seats, better meal service and hopefully included luggage fees make for a much more comfortable experience for an approximate 30 per cent fare increase.

You could also consider airline affinity credit cards. I have the WestJet Mastercard, which awards me with a free checked bag on each and every one of my flights throughout their system. Well worth the $99 annual fee. 

It’s a bitter pill to swallow I know. Luggage fees have been a long-time staple for most of the countries of the world. Canada is simply just a bit late to the table. 

Being aware of and planning for these extra incidentals will make your next overseas holiday that much more enjoyable.

More The Joy of Travel articles

About the Author

Joy has long been a believer in the art of travel: the belief that a vacation is something to be anticipated savored and then long remembered as one of life’s great adventures. 
Website: thejoyoftravel.ca

You can contact Joy at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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