"Is Wi-Fi available in our rooms?" We thought it was a reasonable question since wireless Internet access is common in resorts and hotels worldwide.
The manager laughed and replied, "Sorry. The government doesn't allow it. Local residents might pick up the signal."
Such is life at resorts in Cuba, still suffering from the U.S. embargo with the Castro government exerting major influence on commercial and private activities. That's despite the recent easing on U.S. travel by the Obama administration.
Still the sunny, friendly island circled with numerous outstanding beaches attracts almost 3 million tourists annually, mainly from Canada, Britain, Germany and Spain. Those few Americans who do visit the numerous resorts usually travel via Canada or Mexico (passports are not stamped).
Our visit to Cuba in February was our fourth to this Caribbean country, and we opted to stay at a resort listed as five-star, as rated by Air Canada Vacations and other tour operators.
The all-inclusive Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort & Spa is an hour's drive north of Frank Pias International Airport in Holguin -- on the opposite end of the island from Havana. The secluded Spanish-owned property is situated on a lovely, coral sand beach adjacent to Bahia de Naranjo Natural Park. The low-rise buildings with 354 rooms are spread over many well-maintained acres and include a variety of restaurants and recreational activities. (Our cost was $1,500 per person for seven days, although that covered airfare, resort transfer, accommodation, meals, entertainment and drinks; resorts rated a fewer stars cost a bit less.)
The Royal Service section of the resort -- the newest and more expensive part -- is just 2 years old and is in its own park-like setting, with excellent accommodations and butler service. One other resort shares the mile-long Playa Esmeralda, facing some of the clearest, cleanest salt water we've ever seen. About half the beach has coral outcropping near the waterline but that allows some spectacular snorkeling.
The guests at the Paradisus seemed to be a mix of first-timers and Cuban travel veterans. John Child and his wife from Cardiff, Wales, are typical of the latter. "This is our third visit here," they told us. "It's the best in Cuba. The weather is usually good, and the staff is excellent. The food, especially the lobster, is really good, but the rooms are getting tired and need upgrading."
First-timers Nigel and Diane Cook from the Isle of Wight (located in the English Channel) came to the Caribbean to experience Cuban culture. They soon realized that a five-star resort experience is not quite the same as elsewhere. "You accept that the deficiencies are Cuban, and that's how it is," they said. "If you're comparing it with a five-star experience in other countries, you'll be disappointed. This is Cuban-style five-star."
Like the Cooks, we accepted the Cuban experience at face value because we enjoyed the secluded environment, the quiet pace of the adults-only property, and the chance to visit local markets (with very cheap rum) and photograph the fascinating array of '50s Fords and Chevys.
Some deficiencies are government-imposed, such as the poor-quality Chinese rental scooters outside the main building (we were told that most were broken). Fresh fish must be bought through a government agent (not directly from local fishermen) so quality and freshness suffer. The rum is excellent but the cola is locally produced and well below Coke or Pepsi standards.
The resort ran out of drinking straws some weeks ago and butter was unavailable while we were there, even in the better restaurants.
The resort still needs to improve in several ways. Even with a late arrival our room wasn't ready when we registered. The mini-fridge was empty and warm, the tissue holder was empty and bathroom floor was quite dirty. We tried room service at noon one day; while the delivery was fast, there was no salt, pepper, ketchup or vinegar for the french fries and the rest of the lunch was not appetizing.
Food in the restaurants varies greatly in quality. The Caribbean lobster tail is fine and the Japanese restaurant serves excellent sushi, chicken and shrimp. But the beef is tough, a problem we found throughout the property. Even at the exclusive Royal Service restaurant (with its fine-dining atmosphere and attentive service), the pork was far from tender. Most complimentary house wines at the four specialty restaurants come from Chile and are excellent.
To its credit, the Paradisus Rio de Oro does get high marks on several fronts. Our room had an outdoor shower, enclosed for privacy, with plenty of hot water. The cable TV included news channels from the United States, Canada and Britain. The entertainment each evening was, as expected, of high quality (the best performers must stay on the island rather than head for Broadway or Las Vegas), and the fitness center was well equipped with top-grade Italian equipment. The helpful fitness director, Felix, was a former coach of the Cuban national gymnastics team.
A young Canadian couple, Mark and Kristin Beauregard of Vancouver, have done a lot of Third World travel and appreciated the seclusion of the Paradisus.
"A lot of Cuban resorts are on a strip of high-rise hotels," they told us. "This is much more natural and the main reason we're here."
But Harold Degroot and his wife Linda from Napanee, Ontario, were disappointed.
"We were told this is the only really good place to go in Cuba," he said. "It's decent but doesn't live up to the hype. The furnishings are getting run-down, and the food is nothing special. We're disappointed."
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Nova Scotia. They flew directly to Holguin, Cuba, from Halifax.