As you know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, my partner and I have a particular traveling style. (To see all the travel posts on the blog, click here.) I tend to take the lead on planning–with lots of discussion and input from my partner, of course. When I’m planning a trip, it goes like this:
- buy guidebook (my current favorite is Rough Guides) and skim all the important parts
- read the heck out of the Internet
- plan a general itinerary/schedule/route
- look up all the B&Bs, guesthouses, hotels, etc., on TripAdvisor
- prebook some of the hotels and transportation
…and then spend our actual trip meandering slowly across a country, seeing the sights at maybe half the speed of most tourists, enjoying lots of downtime to relax and acclimatize and explore. We stay in locally-owned guesthouses or B&Bs, use a mix of public transport and taxis, and soak up lots of the culture. Sometimes we’ll book a day trip or a few days on a tour, but most of the time we like being left to our own devices and handling the logistics ourselves.
My partner enjoys this type of travel–we’ve done a lot of it together and adjusted to each other’s pace and preferences–but he’s gotten used to letting me lead the planning. But when we decided to go somewhere warm for a week this winter, I begged off the planning due to time constraints…
…which is how we ended up booking a vacation at all-inclusive resort in Cuba.
Not only that, we booked a package through an airline. No thinking or logistics required (with a few exceptions I’ll get to later). We were both curious to try out the complete opposite of our usual travel style…and hey, there was a beach, what’s not to like?
The beach: Okay, there was a fabulous beach. The sun was great, the beach umbrellas were great, the lounge chairs were great. I could complain about the constant wind and the chilly water (both the ocean and the pools…yes, pools, plural), but really? It beats the hell out of Toronto in March.
The lack of research: As I mentioned, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to spend dozens of hours planning a trip this time around. It was really nice to be able to take a trip anyway and not have to worry about not being prepared. (We did do enough research to know we should bring first-aid supplies, toiletries, sunscreen, and bug spray. But that goes for most places.)
The resort we picked: The research we did do was on resorts (mostly via TripAdvisor, of course)–and this paid off. The one we picked, Melia Las Americas, was not cheap, but Cuba is cheaper overall than other Caribbean islands, so we were okay with the price point. It’s an adults-only resort, and when we were there, it was not crowded at all, as you can see from the pictures. Plenty of lounge chairs, lovely architecture and landscaping, multiple outdoor pools (even if they were chilly). The service was fairly good–a nice change from our usual style of roughing it, relatively speaking.
The food was hit-and-miss, but we’d been warned to expect that of Cuban all-inclusives, and it wasn’t so bad once we figured out how to get the best use out of the buffet and the various à la carte restaurants. (Go for the meats that are grilled as you watch. Take a little of everything, then go back for seconds once you figure out what’s actually good. Arrive early for shorter lineups and fresher food.)
The pace of life at an all-inclusive: So what does one do at an all-inclusive resort? Eat. Drink. (Side note: all the coffees were made with goat’s milk. Took some getting used to.) Go for a dip in the pool or a wade in the ocean. People-watch. Talk. Lie on a lounge chair and stare at the ocean. Read. (My partner got through almost an entire epic fantasy trilogy. If you want a chance to catch up on your reading (and who doesn’t?) I definitely recommend it.) Repeat. Definitely not our usual pace, but it was kinda nice to do absolutely nothing for a week. It was also fun to spend the day in a combination of bikinis, coverups, and long lightweight skirts, then dress up for dinner.
This Canadian can’t get over the crazy spiky trees. The one on the right was in front of our door. Click to enlarge.
Lack of originality: Once we started talking about the trip, we were taken aback by how many people around us had already been to Cuba this year. An undiscovered location it is not, at least for Europeans and Canadians. (Now that some of the restrictions for Americans have been relaxed, I expect it will slowly become a popular destination for you folks as well.)
Complacency: We were lulled into complacency and forgot to do as much research as we should have. For one thing, we didn’t bring the correct plug adapters for our laptops (we needed a three-prong to two-prong adapter), so one charge and we were done. For another, we had thought it was OK to tip in American dollars at the resort, but judging by the lukewarm reaction we got, we perhaps should have been tipping in pesos. Eventually we gave up tipping altogether. It didn’t make a noticeable difference in service.
Lack of control: We didn’t end up taking any “excursions” (guided tours) beyond the resort. I think it was a little bit due to laziness, but largely a matter of preferring to be in control. A 12-hour guided tour to Havana, including 2 hours on a tour bus each direction, just sounded like too long a day on someone else’s schedule, and too much forced socializing (did I mention we’re both introverts?). Same for the full-day dive tour, with the added difficulty of our both being shade-lovers (giant beach umbrellas made of dried leaves = best thing ever).
In fact, we didn’t leave the resort at all, not even to go into the nearest town (Varadero). I attribute that to a lack of confidence, since we didn’t have our usual experience of landing at an airport, having to immediately navigate to our lodgings, and thus being immersed in the country from the start. Here, we were insulated from the start (we walked out of the airport and immediately boarded a bus owned by our tour company that took us straight to the resort), and it dictated the rest of our stay. Granted, it didn’t help that we were only in Cuba for a week, and we felt obliged to make the most of the resort while we were there.
On the other hand, we did get to look at a lot of palm trees. Canadian, remember? Click to enlarge.
Lack of adventure: When you come back from a trip like that, there are no stories to tell! You can’t complain without sounding whiny. You didn’t do much of anything, and you certainly didn’t do anything different from all the other people you know who’ve been to all-inclusives.
Okay, we did have one adventure, and it was in the 30 minutes we spent outside of the resort’s/tour company’s control. On our homeward journey, we took a taxi to the airport due to missing the tour company’s bus…and he got stopped by police for speeding. We were a little worried that the police were up to something more serious, maybe related to noticing the foreigners in the car, but nope, just a speeding ticket. But at least we can say we had an interaction with the Cuban police…?
What are your thoughts on all-inclusives? Want more information? I can share my packing list, or talk more about the specific resort we stayed at. Let me know!
My usual style of travel is somewhere in between your usual and the all-inclusive. I’ve never done one of the latter — so found this perspective interesting, although not too surprising. I think probably a week would be sufficient? I guess if you had longer, you’d get out and see stuff.
I love adventure style travel, sometimes off the beaten track, sometimes not. But, because I’m usually going solo, and I detest travelling alone, I often pick up small group adventure tours (such as Intrepid Travel, an Aussie company) where the hard stuff (macro itinerary, transport and accommodation) is taken care off (although is still local transport and budget hotels), but there’s plenty of freedom during the day to explore at your own pace. It’s kind of like assisted backpacking.
I actually don’t do too much research about the country before hand, since I rather like immersion and discovery, but agree one needs to know what first aid supplies and electronic adapters to take. 😉
Yes, I’ve heard from others that a week at a resort is plenty and two weeks is too much. If we’d had two weeks, we would have seen a little more of the country. We talked to some Swedes who stayed in Havana for a few days before coming to the resort–that might have been a better idea.
Small group adventure tours / assisted backpacking sounds great. I’ve done variations on that a couple of times (usually as part of a longer, independent trip) and enjoyed it…maybe next time. 🙂