|Old Reviews - Islazul Costa Morena|
Arrival: January 29 - February 17
Since it is cheap you shouldn't expect too much but it is quite adequate if you ignore various things that are in disrepair. I stayed in the older building (1xx) and the furniture was old plywood and splayed at the bottom that was probably due to water damage. The bathroom had broken tiles in the shower. The sink drained slowly but the toilet worked fine (hooray!!!). The TV was older but worked OK as well. The key safe was free. The mattress was old but made into a king sized bed; it had no blanket other than a sheet. My idea was this is what a real Cuban hotel should look like so I had no big complaints. Apparently the staff is quick to fix something but I never bothered to call them. However, a couple was without a toilet seat for the whole week that they were there. You have to ask your maid for a towel. If you want the Hilton, please go to Niagara Falls but the newer buildings (5 and 6) have better rooms.
Restaurants and Bars
The water in the room might be OK but I got water from the handy barrel cooler in the dining room.
The food is all right but not terribly exciting. There is lots of grilled or fried chicken. If eggplant is in season you will see a lot of it. There will be fish from time to time, bacon once, and beef rarely although the stews are tasty. Once they had delicious roast pork and when they often fry thin pork steaks they are the best. Pancakes in the morning tasted good and you can get eggs any style. There is no a la carte although you can find lobsters outside the hotel. You will not starve here and the food is good enough.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel
There is a games room with pool and ping pong etc. There were a couple of kids there the first week and none the next. In fact, there seemed to be about 100 people there at any time so, although there are not many lounges around the pool, there never seemed to be a problem.
We took a local bus for CUC4 to Santiago to look around. It leaves at 07:30 and gets you near downtown. You can either fight your way onto another bus or just take a half hour to look around while walking downtown towards Parque CÃ©speses. I was in Santiago a couple of years ago and have noticed that things are getting better there. The women dress well, almost to Mediterranean standards. Some Cubans are getting fat like their North American counterparts so food seems to be more plentiful. The pollution is bad as vehicles spew out diesel fumes. You can walk around fairly freely but there will be people looking for handouts; there were no â€œtourâ€ guides this time which bugged us two years ago. It is a nice place to walk around (Moncada barracks!) and there is lots of music in the evening but we were there during the morning. You can catch the bus back to the hotel at 1 pm which stops at the hotel's delivery entrance but check with hotel staff about the details of catching buses.
The weather is 5-star. We had an hour of light rain in two weeks and one cloudy day. Otherwise, the weather is perfect: strong sun, about 24C every day, windy sometimes, clear and not humid, nights were cool sometimes and you'd need a sweater. The stars are clear and bright.
My preference was to hike around. There is a walking tour I did up the highway to the Carosol Hotel and then make a left into the mountains on a dirt road. You go by a military training facility, ranches and the small defunct town of Sigua. There are animals everywhere and even a reservoir lake. We once hiked from Baconao (we took the bus there at 10 am for CUC1) through the road from the totem poles back to Sigua and the hotel; it took 4 hours. There is a delightful hike to the cascades; hike up the dirt road from the hotel and turn left at the gravel pit, past the baseball diamond and on to the river about an hour away. You go along the dried out wash way and mountains which are very beautiful. As mentioned, you can hike to the public beach to the west. The horse and buggy guy, Mariano, will get you around as well at CUC2 per person per hour; a trip to Baconao will take an hour each way so is a nice trip. There is an aquarium to the east about 4 km but we never went in although the dolphin show is supposed to be good and you can even swim with them (at an inflated cost); however, most of the aquarium is not in service. There is a Disneyland (Cuban style nearby) with Snow White and so on but it is pretty poor looking. Across the street from it is the Mini Zoo but there is nothing there at all.
I'd recommend the Grand Piedra to visit that we went to last time. It is a hair pin turn drive up a mountain then a climb up many steps to the top of the mountain. The view is spectacular and, supposedly you can see lights in Jamaica to the south west at night. The area is where Castro hung out and started the revolution; there are some â€œmuseumsâ€ on the highway. Guantanamo is just to the east past Baconao but you can't get there from here due to the mountains and military.
The area is very dry but it has interesting arid features. A walk through the cactus garden near the hotel is recommended for the less adventurous. The hotel has a beautiful tree by the dining room that has fabulous pink flowers that continually fall off. The area is in the Sierra Maestra Mountains so it has nice panoramas everywhere. It is completely safe.
I would recommend this hotel to budget travelers who don't complain too much (no one likes a bitch anyway). The weather is 5-star. If you want much better accommodation try the Carosol which is about 6 km east down the road. I was in there and it looked much better with swim up bar and perhaps 3.5 star atmosphere. The popular Sierra Mar is to the west of Santiago but about 80 km from the airport.
Sunwing flight from Toronto left on time. Arrival at Santiago de Cuba was $%^&. Our usual procedure is one gets the luggage, the other changes money. Unfortunately, cambio was in departures not arrivals; the security guard at the door would not let us through without all luggage! Finally got that sorted out and got our CUCs. The Sunwing rep was no where to be found; no one knew what bus to get on; so can you imagine 200 people talking to every bus driver asking, "What resort are you going to?". Finally found the right bus.
The bus ride to Costa Morena is about 30-35 minutes and because it was daylight we saw some of the most amazing scenery. Nice way to get your bearings. When we got to the hotel, check-in was so simple. Even before we got to the front desk, a porter was putting our bracelets on and calling for a bellman. The desk clerk asked everyone if an ocean view room was OK! This is something we usually have to pay a little extra for. We were given the room key (but no one could get a second key - no problem because the resort is laid out nicely and is small enough to find your partner if you needed the key) and a safe-deposit key. (The interesting thing here - no one was charged for the safe! We were expecting a charge when we checked out - never happened).
Got to our room (Building 5 - second last) second floor, corner unit. Pleasantly surprized at the size - 2 single beds; vanity table with chair and mirror; sitting area with 2 chairs and coffee table. Best surprise was the mini-fridge. We weren't expecting it and it was included. We stocked it from the hotel's convenience store as we could. The store has very unusual hours. The bathroom was really dated. Shower only; toilet; sink and 2 bath towels (no hand towels). Water pressure and temperature the first few days for us was great; then slowly tapered off. Last day there was no water in the shower area; but the sink worked fine. Our balcony was large with 2 muskoka chairs and a small wooden table. One note here - the air conditioners are all brand new and work really well. The only drawback - the water condensation - obviously had to go somewhere. Out to the balcony floor! We noticed that our balcony always had a pool of water - finally got the maid to put a pail under the nozzle but it only took a couple of hours to overflow. It only meant that we had to wear shoes on the balcony to avoid slipping on the wet tiles.
Attended the orientation session the next day at 2 PM. Sunwing rep showed up with no ID so I am assuming he was the rep. His name was Pablo and he had an apprentice, a young man named *****. Pablo did a great threatrical performance, falling on his knees, raising his arms to the sky and telling us about the greatest part of Cuba - Santiago de Cuba. Mentioned a tour to the city which would happen (never did) on Tuesday. Lots of people tried to sign up but most ended up booking private cars because the bus never came. You are able to get a bus twice a day to a private beach about 15 minutes away - but the bus always broke down! Eventually the manager would pack his car with as many guests as he could carry and away they'd go. A bus would show up an hour or so later - but by that time everyone had wandered off to do something else (only in Cuba, eh?). We never did see Pablo again until at the airport on departure - he didn't recognize anyone! As a matter of fact, he was so rare, we began to think his name might be Pedro - we never did find out.
However, in Pedro/Pablo's absence, ***** was at the hotel for 5 mornings out of the seven. We had asked for info on orphanges, schools, etc where we could drop off alot of things. He said he would check and on the day before we left he appeared to tell us we had to go to Havana! Asked if he could find us a beauty salon type of establishment as one of us had brought 1 large suitcase filled with professional supplies and appliances. He would check into it - never could find anyone, but he would gladly take the stuff and make sure it found a good home. He spent most mornings telling us of his schedule - work as a rep in the morning, go to school in the afternoon, drive a cab at night, and try to see his 6 month old daughter. By the way - he's looking for 100 CUCs to buy a cell phone so he can keep in touch with her - just in case she gets sick! I asked if he could reserve 5 VIP seats at the airport for our departure. He would check into it - never heard back.
Food was surprisingly good. Good assortment of fruits, cheeses, cold cuts for breakfast with a chef doing an egg/omelet station at breafast; cooking fresh meats at lunch and dinner (no a la cartes). Breads were amazingly fresh and tasty. Deserts were just so-so. Some nights there would be a small bowl of pudding or flan, but usually small cookies that resemble shortbread. As an afterthought - strange to have cabbage and brocolli for breakfast - glad I like them!! The buffet could use a little reorganization; it sometimes got very crowded standing in line waiting for those in the lead to have the meat cooked, but this is something that I'm sure will be fixed very quickly as the management received many comments on it.
Not to put a damper on this, but every couple of days, a new group would come in. The new groups were apparently being rewarded for work well done. Unfortunately, they were rude, pushy and greedy. It became a race to see who could get first in line when the doors opened - if you were 10th in line, by the time you got to the vegetable/meat section you had to wait for the staff to replenish. However, the meat/fish of the day was gone - the chef would resort to pork or lamb. Still good, but sometimes disappointing. Breakfast was the same story - every one of the new group would take a whole baquette of bread, all the packets of jam, 15-20 tea bags, 50 packets of sugar, all of the little sugar cookies, all of the cold cuts - really left very little in the buffet line. Once again, comments to buffet manager so hopefully that too will be rectified.
The beach had been severely damaged in the recent hurricanes. As a matter of fact, half of the resort was closed off because of damage done to the rooms. We were still able to enjoy the water - but water shoes are a must! Whether you are a beach walker or a swimmer - beware of the massive rocks and stones - you could easily break an ankle or leg. Lots were walking around with minor scrapes from run ins with rogue rocks (!) but it wasn't long before we all got more careful. Swimmers should be aware that the flags are out for a reason - usually it was because of strong undertows and high waves. There were no incidents while we were there but there is always the possibility that some one who has imbibed too much, might disregard the flag, please be careful. There is a lifeguard on duty and he does watch very closely.
The pool is a good size and kept very clean. Room for everyone, volley ball net and water polo nets easily available. The animacion staff organize some fun activities (try throwing a coconut, backwards over your head at three tins of beer - it was a hoot watching). Nightly shows at 9:15 precede the opening of the disco. Certainly not Las Vegas, but really entertaining. The one thing that is needed, is more chairs. The sitting area is large and there is plenty of room considering there might be 50 guests who go to the shows - but only chairs for perhaps 20 or so.
Bars: there are 3. Pergola (10 AM to 10 PM) right beside the buffet restaurant; Merino (10 AM to 6 PM) is the pool bar where most tend to congregate, and finally the Lobby Bar (24 hours). 24 hours is a misnomer - it's usually unstaffed but the desk clerk will come over and open it up for you. The lobby bar is a cash only bar. All drinks are 1 CUC and they have a good selection of really cold Cuban beers (Crystal, Mayabe, Bucaneero) and of course rum. The lobby bar is NOT part of the all inclusive package.
I have contacted Sunwing to comment on the rep's involvement (or lack of) with the Costa Morena's guests. I really hope to hear back from them, but I have a feeling I am going to have to hound them.
Check out was at 6 AM, bus was picking us up at 7:00 AM. No rep, no breakfast. We're sitting in the lobby waiting for something. The bus pulls up at 7:45 and the bus driver said he's here to take us to the airport; goes into the buffet kitchen, brings back a batch of really good ham and cheese subs. No rep. We drive to the airport (saw a really great park with pre-historic animals (wooly mammoths, etc.) that we didn't know was there - would have been a great park to visit. Got off the bus, no rep but a lady with a VIP sign asking passengers if they wanted to use it. We signed up, she took us into the terminal, got everything situated and who shows up - ***** to say he had been up until 3 in the morning getting this arranged for us! A true trooper! By the way Pedro/Pablo showed up too, but he didn't recognize any one from Costa Morena! What a surprise. Sure hope that Sunwing gets back to me.
This has turned out to be longer than I thought, and I hope I haven't put too negative a tone to it; we really had a great week. No one was sick (although a couple of Canadians had colds). This place is truly a hidden gem. Go with the right attitude and you will have a wonderful time; get involved with staff and talk to them, appreciate them - I know we wouldn't hesitate to go back if the price was right. Certainly not a 4*-5* but who wants to get dressed up in evening wear to walk through the lobby - we're there for sun, fun, relaxation and that great Cuban charisma. What more can we ask for?