6 Jan 2024

MY DEC. 6 MAREA TRIP REPORT: Not perfect but perfectly fine!

It wasn't perfect but it was perfectly fine!

TORONTO, DEC. 6, 2023, 6:15 A.M.
The first flight from Canada to Manzanillo de Cuba was loaded and ready to roll down the Pearson airport runway when the pilot introduced himself on the intercom and informed us that we were overweight. Okay, he didn't mean that we, the people, were overweight; he meant the plane was overloaded.

The solution was to unload everyone/thing and bring in a newer plane with a larger payload capacity – a bigger belly, in other words. This took about 4.5 hours and meant that the first flight to arrive in Manzanillo came from Montreal. Because of the delay, however, the Dec. 6 Toronto passengers are entitled to compensation in the form of a $125 CAD monetary refund or a $225 voucher. [To my Dec. 6 clients: Please check your email for instructions on how to submit a claim, if you haven't done so already.]

Rumors and speculation circulated as to why the plane was overweight. Was somebody just bad at math? Did a lot of people show up with extra luggage that hadn't been booked in advance? Although Sunwing now seems to be following the WestJet protocol of not weighing carry-on bags, in my observation, I don't think that was the cause. The delay was annoying but, in the end, it was a minor hiccup and, happily, I have a voucher for my next trip!

Upon our eventual arrival at the Manzanillo airport, we were greeted with great hoopla! There were musicians, dancers, stilt walkers, entertainers and TV crews – the return of Sunwing flights to the province made the national news in Cuba. The reopening of Club Amigo Marea del Portillo was truly a BIG deal. After a surprisingly fast and smooth bus ride to the resort, the celebration continued, complete with music, welcome cocktails, many hugs and face-splitting smiles!

The 2nd hiccup was due to the ongoing renovations. Part of the Marea section is still under construction and that hotel was not quite ready for occupancy on Dec. 6. Those who had been booked in the beach-level hotel had their accommodation upgraded to cabañas or Superior rooms in the Farallón hotel. Although the Farallón was absolutely gorgeous and the view is incredible, not everyone was pleased; some people really wanted to be in the Marea section, no matter what.

Those with mobility issues were given rooms on the Farallón's lobby level (2nd floor). Food was available at the newly expanded snack bar near the pool, as well as in the á la carte restaurant. If required, meals could be brought down from the buffet for those who can't manage stairs, I'd been assured in advance. Future plans for the resort include the installation of a "scenic elevator," according to the incoming manager, Abel Carcur. No timeline for this has been given but, judging by how quickly he seems to get other things accomplished, I would guess it will happen sooner rather than later. We'll see!

Anyway, as the days clicked by, people were moved into the Marea hotel just as soon as room renos were finished – if they wanted to move! One couple in my group, who had booked a full month, ended up in the Farallón instead of their usual Marea hotel room and, although they could have moved down the hill, they opted to remain where they were. I think more than a few people will choose the Farallón in the future!

By the second week, the main Marea dining room was ready for use as the venue for the Repeaters' Dinner. Work continues to be done in that section as fast as possible, but there's a lot to do. One of the biggest parts of the overall project is the construction of a floor atop the á la carte restaurant, dwarfing the stage. This will be a disco! In fact, another change that's afoot, once Blue Diamond fully takes over, is to make the Marea section into a music and party zone. The Farallón will become the more sedate and upscale hotel of the two. [I hope to be able to provide more details about these pending changes later.] 

Hiccup #3 pertained to WiFi. At first, people were told they would need to pay for WiFi and different prices were given. The most commonly quoted rate was $0.21 USD/hour, which needed to be paid with a Canadian credit card. Seriously! However, Sunwing's website clearly stated that WiFi was free throughout all their resorts in Cuba. Naturally, this was brought to the attention of Elena, the onsite Sunwing rep., as well as the management team. Abel quickly rectified the situation. In short order, WiFi was free and refunds were being offered to people who had already paid. [NOTE: This service is provided in blocks of 3-5 hours and, if you leave it "on," you will quickly burn through the allotment and have to go back to the lobby desk to have another block of time activated. I would recommend flipping your internet access "off" or switching to airplane mode when not using it.] Food is another thing people are always concerned about, of course. On the first night, we were served an elegant meal by the Farallón pool, complete with artfully arranged lobster and steak entrées. Throughout the remainder of my two-week stay, I ate shrimp, fish, chicken, pork and beef. And yes, I had some bacon for breakfast! Overall, I would say they were not lacking in meat. There were sufficient vegetables and fruit, too, but not as much variety as one may prefer. For example, leafy greens were rarely available but, if you like beets, you'll be pleased.

Sometimes, when I arrived late to the buffet, I discovered sausage and cabbage in several of the covered trays; I suspect they ran out of other things and didn't want the trays to be empty. They temporarily ran out of a few key items, such as butter, but there was certainly no shortage of delectable desserts, pastries and bread. The person or team in charge of baking is doing a top-notch job. And, for those who will want to know, the toaster was working beautifully. All in all, I never left the table hungry!

What haven't I covered yet? Entertainment! The music is excellent, as always, and most of the musicians will be familiar to anyone who's visited this resort before. Quite a few members of the animation team have returned and they've been joined by some new folks, all of whom are working hard to keep everyone highly entertained. Most of dancers are new to the resort, and they're very talented. Also new is an aquatic ballet team from Bayamo instead of Santiago, as before. Since they don't have so far to travel, they are able to present water shows every week, which is delightful! 

I would be remiss if I didn't at least briefly mention the beach, Cayo Blanco and other excursions. The beach in front of the hotels is being rehabilitated. Mother Nature apparently decided to move most of the sand to one big pile at the east end of the beach, effectively closing the river's mouth. Workers are cleaning the beach daily and hauling loads of sand back to where the humans would prefer to have it. More palapas and other structures for shade are being built, as well as a new beach bar below the Farallón. Regarding excursions, in my view, the land-based tours are reasonably priced, given the current cost of fuel in Cuba. In December, most people seemed to be going on excursions by "Jeep" rather than bus and, in that scenario, the driver serves as guide. On the sign you'll see five different options but, if you're interested in going somewhere else, I would encourage you to ask – it may be possible to customize a tour!

I wasn't able to take a ride on the resort's fancy new boat during my Dec. 6-20 stay but it looks nice. The general consensus seems to be that the rates for a day at Cayo Blanco and the Sunset Cruise are a bit high; keep in mind that all prices are in USD and must be paid with a credit card. Interestingly, during the first week, Cayo Blanco cost $85 but, by the second week, it had gone up to $90. The Sunset Cruise increased by $1 from one week to the next. Perhaps they'll lower the rates later! 


On a related note, I found out during my second week that people can now buy a pre-loaded Bandec credit card at the bank kiosk in the Manzanillo de Cuba airport. That's important to know if you only have credit cards linked to U.S. banks. So, American tourists who want to visit Cuba can use their greenbacks to buy these Bandec cards, which can then be used for excursions and shopping at government stores, including the resort's little tienda.

Oh, yes, that reminds me... you can pay with cash at the craft market that has been set up near the round-about at the resort entrance. Most vendors will accept either USD or CAD. In the future, a more permanent craft market will be built along the road between the two hotels, Abel has told me. As well, in that same stretch of road (west of the dive shop), a new ranchon will soon be ready for use and, hot on it's heels, a spa will be constructed next door. The spa will include massage and aromatherapy services and, possibly, a tattoo studio. It will be fun to see how all these excellent plans evolve!

One final "hot tip" for those who want to book a special room at the Marea hotel in the coming year: ask about room #127. It will have a private Jacuzzi-style bath adjacent to the back door! Woohoo!

Well, I think this has become a pretty comprehensive trip report! There are a few rumors floating around about other pending changes at our beloved second home and, when I have confirmation of the details, I'll let you know.

Bye for now!
~ Jenny 


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