Scroll past the photos to read the text! xo NWL
When I travel with less people, I favour renting a home or staying at a boutique hotel but when travelling with a group ranging in age this year from 12 to 82, it made better sense for us to hit an all-inclusive.
Relax, spend time with family, eat at an off-resort Cuban restaurant, visit Havana and get on a boat to go somewhere. With the range of ages of everyone travelling, it was very important to us to be able to hang together as a family, to have enough visual stimulation for the older ones who don’t move around as much, good pool options, a beautiful beach and activities for the younger ones who do move around a lot, enough seclusion for those of us who require some quiet time and finally, a place that had opportunity for the couples within the family to have a bit of alone time together. Oh, and the resort has to fit the basic requirement; nicely laid out, and not huge. It’s tall order and Melia Cuba’s Paradiusus Varadero Resort & Spa fit the bill, the budget and did not disappoint.
I will review the resort property, food offerings and beach before getting to the fun experience of Havana for the first time, the spectacular El Canonazo restaurant and finally, the serene Cayo Blanco. Read on!
Billed as a five-star property, the Paradisus Varadero Resort & Spa is located within the ecological reserve on the Varadero peninsula. It is a newer property which is sectioned off into three distinct areas; The adult only Royal Service, the Family Concierge and the main area of the resort. As much as I liked the idea of the Royal Service area – (who wouldn’t enjoy that?) – the no children part and it being situated a little far from the main hub of the resort ruled that one out. For the Family Concierge area, I will tell you that it looked pretty awesome and had some extra restaurants that were only for the individuals staying in that area (the Cuban – Thai fusion restaurant sounded so yum). It was a bit of a walk for the elders and the 12-year-old was more interested in Wi-Fi than the splash park and playground. The resort had a little bank which made it easy to convert our Canadian Dollars to Cuba’s Convertible Peso (CUC) since we were lazy before the trip and did not pre-order CUC’s from our bank two weeks prior to our departure.
The main area of the resort was tightly laid out with enough loungers around the pool for everybody, cabana looking shelters with lounge chairs underneath, a snack restaurant, swim up bar, lobby bar and a restaurant which offers views of the pool and resort or a gorgeous beach view, depending on where you sit. We had full pool and partial ocean views so that we could keep track of each other as we all wandered about the property. Collectively, we tend to gravitate towards the fun (but short of the afternoon dance lessons) so this was ideal.
I love to eat (anyone surprised by this?), so restaurant and food quality is always something that I consider. There are many restaurants on the resort as well as the a la carte restaurants that most resorts of this size offer. I truly was not thinking that I would experience a resort restaurant that would change my life – and I didn’t this time, BUT I will say that there some very good meal offerings on the resort. Everyone was able to find something to keep their tummies full. My favourite a la carte was SAKURA, the Japanese tappanyaki-style restaurant. There was also the ARA, which is the main buffet and the Bohio for the gorgeous views of the glistening Caribbean Sea.
Resort Entertainment and BEARS vs BABIES
For the most part, I find resort entertainment awkward to watch – not this time. I will usually not be found sitting down in theatre-style seating facing a stage to watch the nightly shows however I really loved the lobby performances while chilling out with our new friends over a nightcap and small board games. Yes, the very, very cool Robbie and Ally introduced us to the fun of Bears vs Babies and my life is forever changed. So much fun and laughter was had. (I miss you two already!). Most memorable was the roller skate performance that we caught on the last night. It was similar to the acrobatics done by figure skating superstars. Seriously.
Cannot and will never be able to put that show into words.
The Beach/Playalife (not to be mistaken with PLAYA LIFE. Get it? No? Okay.
When one goes to Cuba, there is an assumption that there will be some beach time involved. The beach did not disappoint. We are not at all the types to get up at the crack of dawn to ‘save’ a beach lounger with a towel, so we didn’t get one. Laying our towels out on the powdery sand was enough. There were the standard offerings; windsurfing, kayaking and dancing to trap music on the beach. Yes, you read that right.
**Note: There are two Paradisus Resorts in Varadero and the other one didn’t look quite the same as the one we visited. Has anyone out there visited the other Paradisus? Because I would love to know your thoughts – Email me!
As a group, we decided to stay at the resort for the first two days to relax, get over the six-hour overnight flight, acclimatize and pretty much take everything our resort had to offer before venturing off to discover more of Cuba. My very first trip to Havana (Habana) was amazing. It was a super fun day thanks in part to our lovely, funny, outgoing Cuban guide Jenny and very quiet but friendly driver Alex (cubawithus.com.cu). We decided on a driving tour with stops at certain locations because of the age of some family members. Walking Havana would have taken a really long time because the city is huge. We were also driving four hours return from Varadero to Havana, so that had to be taken into consideration as well.
Havana is broken down into new and old sections, all of it amazing. Many of the buildings even in the new section looked old and beautiful. That may have something to do something with hailing from a country that is relatively young. (We don’t have super old buildings in Canada that one may find in Cuba or European cities). We began our journey at 8:30am and went to Revolution Square after stopping midway at a rest stop with, souvenirs, pina coladas served in pineapples and sick views of the highest bridge in Cuba. It was really interesting to see all of the old cars mostly from the 40’s and 50’s that were lined up in the square. It was like a car show. Most of them are taxis now, lovingly restored and painted in vibrant colours. We had the opportunity to pose for pictures in some of the vehicles and wandered around enjoying conversations about the cars with their owners.
From there we drove around, saw the abandoned former American Embassy, hotels, grand private homes and government buildings. It was truly all so beautiful. The buildings in the old Havana were incredible. We wandered on foot along cobblestone streets for a while near the Habana Cathedral. I could have studied that gorgeous cathedral for hours. The intricate details and craftsmanship of structures from hundreds of years ago never fails to leave me in absolute awe. We saw the Hemingway Bar which we ended up skipping because it was so packed. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means that buildings, streets – virtually everything must remain as is. As though frozen in time. Old Havana was a sight to see. From the super talented street performers to musicians and the perfumery, a historic building that was insanely lovely and decorated in an elaborate, old-world kind of way. The perfumery was a bit heady being steeped with the scent of various fragrances, but worth every second of the time that I spent in there.
Part of the plan was to check out an authentic, family-owned Cuban restaurant. Havana’s El Canonazo was so bang on, it was borderline insane. Every single thing about this place was off the charts. Sensory overload at its finest.
Wait, I’ll back up. When Alex pulled up to the lunch spot, I was instantly confused. The restaurant was a house? What? Going with the flow was easy as we wandered up to this nice home painted in a pretty orange hue. An elderly man was chilling out on a chair by the front door, carefully gazing at the people walking past without moving his head. We didn’t enter the house (that might have been weird), but followed a path that took us around the left side of the house with our shoulders brushing past soft, dark green foliage.
Out of what seemed like nowhere, the narrow path opened up and it was almost like we were transported to somewhere else. The ‘backyard’ was a tropical, serene oasis. (PLEASE see the photos in the blog and on Instagram highlights @nicowalkerlyons because I cannot describe this place properly.) There was thatched hut covered eating areas. There was a wishing pond with the cutest little turtles and a golden Reina Maria (the Virgin Mary) shrine. I could have died a happy Nico at that very moment.
We got ourselves some drinks and a seat on the short retaining wall of the pond and took a moment to take it all in because it was legitimately way too beautiful. Unlike anything that I have ever seen.
The meal was spectacular. It wasn’t even just food. It was a feast. Generous individual entrees with unlimited salad, delicious saucy black beans and rice served family style by hardworking and lovely servers. I may have shed some happiness tears. Our family, Jenny and Alex who we invited to dine with us laughed ‘til our faces hurt, shared stories and had the best time. When we left, we were fully satiated and genuinely in love with this amazing restaurant.
As much as I have proclaimed to not be a ‘boat person’, I am totally a boat person. If we are near an ocean, find me a boat. It then goes without saying that we found ourselves on a boat. In Mexico it was a private catamaran and then a luxe ‘fisherman’s ’boat, in Spain it was a mini-yacht, in Costa Rica it was a speedboat, in Jamaica it was a small, anchored fisherman’s boat that didn’t go anywhere because the captain was nowhere to be found – but we will leave that alone before I go further off topic.
The Varadero marina was very close to the resort, if I had to throw a guess out there I would say 15 minutes. Our boat was a fairly large party-style catamaran with surprisingly not a lot of people. The music was pumping, I was dancing like a crazy, drinks were flowing and the snorkeling was fun (although the day we went out, the current was rough.) I was told that the views of the underwater life and fish were amazing. Robbie and Ally joined us on the tour and while the rest of the family enjoyed the covered part of the catamaran, we sunbathed and laughed while the ocean waves periodically lapped up to surprise us with salty sea water smacks in our faces.
I had no concept of the time because I left my watch at home but eventually, the beautiful Island Cayo Blanco came into view and rendered everyone speechless. As the island became larger and larger upon our approach, we became giddy beyond belief. The sand was totally blanco and after docking, walking down the pier and piggy-backing my kid through shallow waters (because she didn’t want to get her feet wet yet - sigh), we arrived!
The sun was fiercely hot and the only shelter was in the form of the dining area with two long rows of picnic-style tables. We chose shelter for the buffet lunch chow down and the fiercely hot beach and bath water warm ocean for everything else. It was great because those who didn’t want or need too much sun could still watch the action. We frolicked, played, laughed, attempted cartwheels, took photos and finally got the kid in the water for some savage play time with her dad. So sweet.
The Cayo Blanco excursion was our last off resort venture and for the rest of our family vacation, we hung out at the resort and enjoyed the last three days soaking up the sun, watching Robbie do backflips on the beach and having fun. (He was the total backflip boss – catch him in my Instagram highlights under ‘Cuba’.)
Our last night was bittersweet. I was excited to get home to our cat, Princess but I had also fallen in love with Varadero and our new friends. We had champagne at sunset on the beach, complete with group selfies gone horribly wrong with our friends Jay and Kristina from Germany (and part of the Sonnenuntergang), played more Bears vs Babies and said goodbye to our favourite bartender Lachy (not to be confused with Leche – Spanish for milk) before being the last people on the bus that would take us back to the airport (not one bit sorry).
The VIP lounge offered decent enough sandwiches and a nice glass of whatever you wanted before the flight back to Calgary. I would recommend springing for the extra $40 to enjoy a bit of comfort before a long flight home with Sunwing.
I would do it all again in a second.
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