Cuba’s Holguin province has been known for its beauty since Columbus discovered America – literally.
In November 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the northeast coast of Cuba and found himself in an idyllic paradise. Attempting to describe his discovery, he declared it to be, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”
Perhaps a touch of hyperbole, but he wasn’t far off. Between the mountains and the ocean you’ll find a vacationers dream, complete with wide sand beaches, sky scraping palms and lace petaled orchids. The cars are classic, the horses and goats graze freely along the road side and teams of oxen still work the land. It is a place like no other.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Holguin province, while vacationing with my husband at the Sol Rio De Luna y Mares – a lovely resort in a stunning setting.
Once two resorts, the Luna and the Mares have come together to provide guests with a wealth of amenities and an enviable expanse of beach front.
The brown sugar coastline and shimmering blue waves are a sight for winter-weary eyes. It’s like the world suddenly goes from grey-scale to Technicolor. Cuba boasts a reputation for some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and Playa Esmeralda is one of the crown jewels.
The span of beach at Sol Rio De Luna y Mares is bookended by an eco preserve on one side and the five-star Paradisus Rio de Oro on the other. You can expect uninterrupted relaxation, plenty of space, lots of loungers, an absence of beach vendors and zero hassle. The resort provides a range of equipment, for water sports, so when you just can’t sit another minute, you can flaunt your kayaking skills or take up windsurfing or snorkelling.
Now, before we get into the specifics of the resort, it’s important to put things into a Cuban context. Cuba is the sort of place where nobody locks their door, because nobody’s lock works. Resources are limited which means your room may have dated decor, and something is likely to be broken. Government policy, international relations and economic limitations all play a role.
But don’t let that scare you off. Cuba is a study in ingenuity, practical problem solving and environmental sustainability. Cuba has a fantastic education system, which means the man at the omelette station may speak six languages and the bartender may be a qualified surgeon. There could be problems, but the brilliance of the solution will often surprise you. It is a fascinating place to visit, and worth tolerating the odd inconvenience.
When we checked into the resort, we were given a room in the Mares building. The Mares rooms have not been renovated yet, while the rooms on the Luna side have been updated. Our room was in need of a spruce up, but overall it was fine. The decor was tired and a little shabby, but the room was clean. Our balcony door didn’t lock and it was difficult to get the entry door to close securely. The bed was two twins pushed together and there was (in my opinion) a creepy mural overhead. We could have muddled through, but I wasn’t thrilled with the room so we agreed to stick it out for the night and ask for a change in the morning.
The next morning, our request for a switcheroo was accommodated without so much as a raised eyebrow. We were moved to a room on the recently renovated Luna side, in the highly sought after 7000 block. This block is popular because it is quiet, close to the beach and offers fresh and cheerful decor. FYI, for some reason the Luna side also gets more TV channels than the Mares.
Our new room was on the third floor. It had a cathedral ceiling with exposed woodwork and an ocean view that was to die for. An ocean view room can be reserved ahead of time, for a premium, but as it turns out, you could get lucky and score one for free.
Throughout the resort, all rooms are equipped with air conditioning, a coffee maker, fridge, hair dryer, an umbrella, and a safe to secure valuables.
The hotel supplies soap, shower gel and shampoo/conditioner, but they are quite harsh. It is a good idea to bring your own products, especially if sensitive skin is a concern.
The grounds of the Luna y Mares are beautifully designed and immaculately maintained. The variety of fauna throughout the grounds boggles my Canadian mind. It actually pains me to think of the plants we could grow if our climate was more hospitable.
The flowers, trees and shrubs start out in a small nursery, tucked off to one side of the property. They are transplanted into their permanent positions by the army of gardeners who work ceaselessly to maintain the exceptional grounds.
The resort is quite big, but not huge. There are no shuttles to carry you between areas, but we didn’t find that we missed them. It was pretty easy to get around. The pathways and buildings were fairly accessible, for individuals with mobility issues. Parents with strollers seemed to navigate the property without difficulty. There were a few areas that could be problematic for wheel chairs, though I never witnessed anyone having any difficulties.
There is an elevator to the upper floors of the Mares building. The buildings on the Luna side are accessible on the first floor but upper floors are restricted by stairs. Even the walkways are terraced by steps, on the second and third floors.
The food in Cuba has a reputation for being bland and mundane, that said, the food at the Sol Rio De Luna y Mares was quite good.
The Colon buffet puts on a good breakfast spread. The food was always hot. Don’t bother with the bread, in the morning, as it tends to be stale. The buffet offers a good variety, and will suit a range of pallets. Eggs and omelettes are made to order. The Colon is praised for its selection of cheeses, fruits and upscale fare such as smoked salmon.
The best cappuccino on the resort is at the snack bar by the Luna pool. It also became my favourite spot for lunch. The food is made fresh, to order. I loved the pizza, topped just how I like it – absolutely delicious. They also serve an assortment of sandwiches and delicacies like chicken cordon bleu. This snack bar is open 24/7, so if you’re foraging for late-night fries, you’ll end up there. We spent quite a bit of time there. It is very relaxed and the staff is friendly – far more laid back than the frenetic lobby bar.
There are several delicious options for dinner. Stick with the Colon buffet for easy casual dining, or try one of the four à la cartes specialising in – French, Italian, Cuban and beach front Romantic fare.
The buffet offers plenty of variety and fantastic desserts during the dinner service. The specialties change each night so there is always something new to try.
You are guaranteed two à la carte reservations each week. I recommend using them to secure seating at the high demand restaurants – the French in particular and also the Italian. We found that by dressing appropriately and arriving shortly after the first seating began, at 6:30pm, we could be accommodated at the Cuban and the Romantic restaurants, without reservations.
The French restaurant is raved about by everyone who tries it, and is in very high demand. The service there is a cut above and the atmosphere captures the elegance of a dinner in France. They extend little touches and details to create a gracious fine-dining experience. I thought the food was good, though in my opinion, the other à la cartes were equally delicious. Each of the restaurants executes a unique and flavourful dining experience.
For me, the best part of our stay at the Sol Rio De Luna y Mares was the location. As I’ve already mentioned, the beachfront is amazing and that’s what it’s all about for a lot of holidaymakers – give them a frilly cocktail and a lounge chair and they are set for the week. But I’m that annoying person who gets bored, after a while, and starts bugging everybody to “go do something.” I love to explore and would feel absolutely trapped if I was stuck in the confines of the resort for a whole week. I liked the Luna y Mares because we had access to cheap and cheerful excursions to occupy a couple of hours each day. The animation staff offers guided jaunts around the area, each morning.
The resort is right beside Las Guanas ecological and archaeological park. An easy walk next door and you’re in the jungle, experiencing the flora and fauna of the area and gaining an understanding of pre-colonial life.
The Luna y Mares is only five kilometres from Guardalavaca. We rented bicycles from the resort one afternoon and peddled through the gorgeous countryside to the market in town. My bike sucked a bit…OK quite a bit, but my husband’s was fine and once I’d peddled off the cycling cobwebs it ended up being a really nice afternoon. If you’re not feelin’ the rickety bike rental, you can always hop on the double-decker bus and see the town in comfort.
The gentleness of the countryside, around this resort, is both calming and restorative. It’s a beautiful area to walk through. We spent hours, one afternoon, adventuring through the woods, finding secret coral beaches and unexpected bars with cheap rum and cola.
That in itself, the simple freedom to go for a walk off the resort, is quite an endorsement for Cuba as a whole. There are many beautiful places to visit in the Caribbean, but some vacation hotspots leave travellers feeling wary to leave their resort, particularly if they are travelling with children. In Cuba, however, most visitors feel quite comfortable exploring the towns and rural areas outside the gates of their resort.
It is that sense of safety and security, combined with the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the country and the time-capsual’esque nature of daily life that brought me back to Cuba this year and will undoubtedly draw me back again. And if we were to visit the Holguin region again, I would love to make Sol Rio De Luna y Mares my home away from home. –Jen R, Staff Writer