My wife and I travelled with our three year old child and we booked our holiday through Thomson/First Choice and stayed at Melia Peninsula in room 2623 for 14 days at the beginning of July 2013. We picked this hotel because of its facilities for children, its location on the beach and that scuba diving was available in the area.
I think it is fair to sum up our overall experience, not just of this hotel but for our visit to Cuba as a whole in this way: We thoroughly enjoyed our stay despite some fairly major issues. I’ll outline the issues encountered in the following review of our holiday. I’ve reviewed our holiday experience as a whole as I think that may be useful to other travellers considering a similar type of holiday.
We arrived in Cuba at Varadero airport on a Thomson flight from Manchester. We sat in premium seats. As far as I could tell the seats themselves were the same as in the rest of the cabin, but the legroom was fantastic. I am fairly tall and usually have trouble with my knees bashing against the seat in front, but on these flights I could stretch out my legs fully without any trouble at all. I felt both the outward and return flights went very well despite being stuck on the plane for about 2.5 hours after boarding due to a technical problem at Manchester before the flight took off. Immigration in Cuba was absolutely painless with virtually no queues, and our baggage also came out pretty quickly. I had anticipated some form of search of our baggage to check for banned items (e.g. GPS receivers), but we just walked straight through and didn’t see anyone else getting stopped either. There was a scanner there, but it was not in use the day we arrived.
In the arrivals hall there was plenty of trolleys available for taking your luggage out. However, it is worth nothing that there are no trolleys available for use on departure. For us this was a problem as we had more luggage with us than we could handle on our own. My solution to the problem was to grab a trolley that was being abandoned by some arriving passengers. It wasn’t ideal though as I literally had to fight off an overzealous porter that claimed that they were only permitted to be used by arriving passengers. But as he was trying to gather together three trolleys and only had two hands I managed to get away from him.
Outside the terminal we were met by the Thomson representative and we were quickly directed to the correct vehicle to take us to the hotel. The trip from the airport took about 45 minutes.
On arrival at the hotel we were greeted by very friendly and helpful front desk staff and all formalities were quickly sorted out and we were soon taken to our room by a small golf cart type vehicle. Before we left the reception we were also welcomed by the hotel manager who invited us for a special dinner for British guests. When we got to our room we also found letters welcoming us to the hotel and giving us details about the kids club as well as an invitation to the Japanese restaurant where a booking had already been made for us.
The room itself was OK, but not exactly what we had expected. Instead of a single large double bed we got two fairly small double beds and a separate cot for our son. This meant that the beds took up a huge portion of the room while each individual double bed felt uncomfortably small. But the main issue with the beds was that they were as hard as rock. We also didn’t like the bolster pillows or the additional pillows available. Both my wife and I suffered from back and neck pains all the time we were there, and personally I didn’t get a full night of sleep at all during our stay.
In addition to the beds there were two small bedside tables, a telephone, a small sofa and a coffee table, a writing desk with a coffee maker, a portable stereo which could play MP3 files on a CD and a chair. There was a small cupboard which doubled as a TV stand that had a small mini bar inside it. The TV was fairly small, probably around 18-20”, but with a fairly narrow selection of channels we didn’t really use it much. The mini bar was stocked with two cans of the local cola, a can of strong beer and a large bottle of water. The room lighting was a little bit too dim for my liking, but not really a problem other than when I wanted to do some reading while lying on the bed. The floor was tiled, which is good considering the amount of sand that we dragged in from the beach, but just like the tiled floor in the bathroom it could get a bit slippery when it got wet.
There is no internet in the room, and during our stay we were also told that there was no internet available in any other part of the hotel. Although I understood that a very unreliable internet connection is usually available for a charge in the reception area. I used my mobile phone to keep in touch with the rest of the world and that worked fine, although I’m yet to see the bill!
The bathroom was basic but adequate, containing a shower cubicle (too tight for my liking), a fairly standard size bath tub with a hand held shower head, a towel rack above one end of the bath tub, a sink area with a large mirror and some room for placing toiletries on either side, a small stool which was useful for our child to stand on, and finally a toilet which was mounted slightly too high on the wall. There was also a hair drier next to the sink and a telephone on the wall next to the toilet.
Next to the bathroom there was a small storage room with a stand for one suitcase, a rack for hanging things, three fairly shallow shelves and a couple of equally shallow drawers. There was also a small safe, an ironing board and an iron. The room was really too small for us to put more than one suitcase inside it, so the rest of our bags lived in the main room for the duration of our stay.
The room was right next to the beach, and it had a small veranda with two chairs and a small table. From the veranda it was possible to get a small glimpse of the beach, but most of the view in that direction was blocked by trees. There was some sun in the afternoon, but for most of the day the veranda was in the shade.
During the first week of our stay the housekeeping was very good. The room was promptly cleaned and tidied up every morning. And it was obvious that the maid went out of her way to make our stay as special as she could. We suspect that there was a change in personnel about half way through our stay as it was a noticeable change in the way the housekeeping was done. The room was cleaned much later in the day, and there was a noticeable change in the level of care and attention to detail. We also experienced quite a haphazard attitude to restocking the minibar (what there was of it), on several occasions finding that it hadn’t been restocked at all or only partially restocked.
RESTAURANTS AND FOOD:
In addition to the main buffet restaurant there was also another buffet restaurant close to the beach that was open at lunch time. As it was close to our room we used that restaurant for lunch for most days during our fist week. But after both my son and I got sick and with the food from that buffet restaurant being the most likely culprit we ate lunch in the main buffet restaurant for the rest of our stay. Unfortunately this didn’t seem to make much of a difference and we both had another round of being sick during our second week. As we hadn’t eaten anywhere else since our arrival in Cuba we are pretty certain that it was the food served at the hotel that caused the problems, but we were unable to pinpoint the exact source. Strangely enough my wife experienced no problems whatsoever despite eating pretty much the same as us.
We found the service in the buffet restaurants to be quite poor at times. At breakfast you could get your own juices, but were completely dependent on the serving staff for any hot drinks. It would frequently take a long time to get served, and quite often the drinks were only lukewarm. At dinner all drinks had to be ordered and it was not unusual for us to complete most of our meal before we managed to get the serving staff’s attention. An additional problem, particularly at dinner time, was that many tables were not being cleared and cleaned promptly. This usually meant another wait while trying to get the serving staff to come and clean the table and bring glasses and cutlery.
Another issue with the buffet restaurant was the inadequate quantities of popular food and inefficient procedures for getting freshly cooked meat or fish. Even at relatively quiet times there were frequently long queues waiting for BBQ meat or freshly fried fish. Unless the queue was very short it could easily take 15 minutes or longer just to get asked about what you wanted and then another 10 minutes while the single chef cooked what you had asked for. Frankly I wasn’t prepared to stand there and wait for 30 minutes or more just to get my food, so usually I gave up on that.
While there in general was quite a lot of other pre-made dishes to choose from, I found that a lot of the food was undercooked (e.g. burgers that were still pink inside). There also seemed to be a significant logistical issue with the alternative dishes. Many of the popular ones would empty very quickly and usually they would not get replenished for a considerable time. All this really restricted our choices quite dramatically, and at busy times would effectively reduce our choices to sloppy pasta, half baked pizzas or some equally unsavoury options.
In addition to the two buffet restaurants there was also four themed restaurants: Japanese, French, Italian and Mexican. The dining experience in all of these was considerably more pleasant than in the buffet restaurants. But they were still far from perfect. The menus were usually fairly limited and apart from the food being cooked a bit better than in the buffet restaurant the ingredients used were most likely pretty much the same, e.g. the beef was just as stringy as in the buffet restaurants but was at least properly cooked. The themed restaurants are only open for dinner and you have to book these up front. We were not told of any limitations in the number of visits that could be made, but to get a table at your preferred time you have to get them booked as early in the week as possible. They start taking bookings for the following week on Mondays. In the Italian and French restaurants (and occasionally in the main buffet restaurant) there was pleasant live music to entertain the diners.
After a week we finally received our formal invitation to the special British family dinner that the manager had mentioned to us previously. This turned out to be quite a disappointment with the whole thing being fairly poorly managed. We had responded to the invite and I suppose the other s attending had done the same. So they should have been aware of the number of people attending. So when we arrived at the designated location (after a ten minute walk from the reception) we found that there was in fact more than 10 places too few prepared. After some time they eventually managed to sort out some additional tables, but they were away from the rest of the group. Not that it really mattered as there was absolutely no interaction between the tables anyway, and apart from the serving staff we saw nobody from the hotel management at all and we also didn’t get the special gift that had been mentioned in the invitation. I mentioned the missing gift to the manager the following morning and to his credit he was quick to follow up on this and make sure that a nice bottle of 7 year old rum was sent to each of the rooms.
The beach was clean and with lovely coloured sand. There were loads of sun beds available; however, if you want a place under one of the small straw parasols then your chances are best if you get there early. The water was also quite clean but obviously quite sandy as a result of the surf, particularly on windy days. The water temperature felt a bit cool at times but was probably around 28C most days. Water sport activities are available on the beach.
There is a small bar on the beach usually staffed by one or two people. The size of the cups used were ridiculously small, e.g. a regular flimsy plastic drinking cup for a beer, meaning either balancing several cups of drinks while walking back to your spot on the beach, make several or more frequent trips or simply don’t bother and allow yourself to get dehydrated instead. I noticed that some people had brought larger thermal drinking cups and it is absolutely recommended to bring something like that if you can as it will both keep your drink cold and free from sand and save you running to the bar every five minutes for a top up.
KIDS CLUB, KIDS POOL AND PLAY AREAS:
There is a kids club next to the children’s pool. For kids under three years old there’s an indoor play club. We took our son there a couple of times and he enjoyed it, although it felt strange to leave him to play around inside all day. There is also a nice play area next to the pool. Our son loved both the play area and the children’s pool. But as it was right at the opposite side of the hotel from our beach it meant a 10 minute walk to get there and so we usually would end up just going to the beach instead.
OTHER FACILITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT:
There is a large adult pool around the middle of the hotel grounds. Next to the pool there is a 24 hour snack bar where you can get food and drinks. We never used the pool itself, but we tried out the snack bar for some late drinks a few times. It can only be described as basic.
Just opposite from the main buffet restaurant there were a few stalls selling various souvenirs. The selection seemed to be similar to what we saw at other tourist spots we visited. As we didn’t buy anything I am not sure how the prices compared.
Behind the souvenir stalls there was a covered area with a stage. From around 8pm they usually had some entertainment for kids, including a mini disco. This was a huge hit with our son and became a regular stopping point after dinner. They also had a family show starting at 9:45pm. Usually this consisted of a mixture of singing and dancing and went on for about 35-40 minutes. The quality of the entertainers was surprisingly good and we enjoyed all the shows we went to.
The main bar was close to the patio area outside the reception. Service was a bit haphazard, and some patience was usually required. But the staff was generally quite friendly and helpful. There just weren’t enough of them at busy times.
In the reception there was also a shop (which we never used) and a currency exchange counter. The rate offered seemed to be very similar to the rate at the currency exchange at the airport. Note that you can’t change Cuban currency back to foreign currency at the hotel but that this can be done at the airport. But the rate you’ll get is quite poor, so you are better off avoiding having to change money back again if you can. At the hotel exchange desk they also told me that I could withdraw Cuban money from bank cards (not cards issued to US banks), but fortunately I didn’t have to do that. I never saw an ATM anywhere in Cuba although according to the Thomson representative there are a couple in Varadero. He also told us that Cuban money could not be used to buy things in the departure hall at the airport but that foreign currency had to be used. And he told us that there was no currency exchange after passport control and security. This all turned out to be incorrect. The fact is that everything is priced in CUC in the shops in the departure hall and that they will accept Cuban money as payment. However, they will also accept Euros or Pounds as a direct replacement. Maybe not so bad a deal if you’re using Euros but this will mean you are paying a 40% premium if you are using pounds. There is also a currency exchange desk in the departure area.
Car rental is also available from the hotel. I hadn’t been able to find out anything about this prior to arrival so I had instead booked a rental car via the Cubacar rental office at the Melia Varadero hotel which is located about 10km away. Apart from some issues related to payment it was fairly straight forward. The rental price agreed included a full tank of fuel and full insurance. As the fuel was paid for up front you had to bring the car back with the tank as empty as possible as they will not credit you for any fuel left. With respect to payment they wanted payment in full up front in cash. I hadn’t anticipated that and had assumed that they would accept a cash deposit with the rest payable on return. But they simply dismissed this and insisted on payment of both a 200 CUC deposit and the full rental cost in full in cash. So the situation seemed pretty stuck, but after some discussion they eventually relented and agreed to credit card payments for both the deposit and the rental despite me offering to pay the deposit in cash.
Driving in Cuba turned out to be pretty straight forward as the roads in general are pretty quiet. However, make sure that you have a map with you and that you have a clear idea of the route you plan to take as road signs are few and far between. And when there are signs they usually only give you the direction to the next village in the countryside or the next town along the major roads. As GPSs are banned it can be a bit of an experience finding your way, but as long as you know which way around the map goes you should be able to find your way around without too much trouble. But allow time for the odd wrong turn!
I booked scuba diving via the excursion desk in the hotel reception. It cost 70 CUC for two dives, dropping to 50 CUC for every two dives if you agreed to do more dives. However, you may have to ask at the dive centre itself to get that rate as I am sure that the lady at the excursion desk is quite happy to just take your 70 CUC every day without giving you any discounts. But note that even when a package had been agreed on, the charges had to be paid in cash for every trip and that it wasn’t possible to charge this to the room or to pay everything at the end by card.
We were told the dive centre bus would come to collect us at 9.15, but usually it would be around 9.30 before the bus turned up. The dive centre was located a mile or so further out towards the tip of the peninsula. There are other dive centres in the area, so it may be worth checking this out if you have a chance, although I suspect the facilities available will be pretty similar.
The dive centre staff was all helpful and friendly. I brought my own equipment and there was no discount for this. Or it is perhaps more accurate to say that there was no additional charge for using the dive centre’s equipment. The equipment they had available at the centre seemed to be OK (I think it was Scubapro BCDs, regulators and masks, and Mares full foot fins) although I did notice some leaking regulators and a couple of divers commented on the regulator being hard to breathe from. So it seems that at least some of them were in need of a proper service. I used a 0.5mm wet suit and I found this to be fine especially as it provided better protection from jelly fish than the 3mm shortie wet suits available from the dive centre.
The dive boat itself is a very modern dive boat with lots of room for people and equipment. Although it still gets crowded on days when they are bringing out learner divers as this can bump up the numbers to 20 or more. I saw quite a few people getting sick on the dive boat as the water could be quite choppy at times, so it is worth taking sea sickness tablets with you if you are concerned about that.
The dive sites in the area are OK, but nothing spectacular. They include a decommissioned Russian destroyer laying in about 30m, and the wreck of a US sugar transporter and a few other deliberately sunk vessels in depths of 12 to 25m. Unfortunately the inside of the destroyer is out of bounds due to the large number of Lion fish both around and inside the wreck. On my visit there I counted nine Lion fishes surrounding one unsuspecting diver who was taking a peek in through one of the hatches. The basic schedule is that they do one deep dive followed by a shallow dive on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and two shallow dives on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. There’s no diving on Sundays. There are relatively few dive sites and you are almost certainly going to dive some of the shallow ones on several occasions if you are doing more than a couple of days of diving.
Some of the stuff you can expect to see are: Spiney lobsters, Green and Grey Morey eels, lots of Lion fishes, Flamingo Tongue sea snails, parrot fishes, groupers and batfishes as well as the odd tuna and barracuda and various other fishes and crabs. If you’re lucky you may come across nurse sharks hiding away in some small caves at one of the dive sites, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see any.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- All inclusive resort ideal for families, with a dedicated children's area, a marvelous tranquil beach, full of activities for all ages. Honeymooners also get special treatment in a quiet special area. Tennis courts, gym, non motorized water sports, drinks, a la carte and buffet dining included. ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Tryp Peninsula Varadero Hotel Varadero
- Tryp Peninsula Cuba
- Peninsula Varadero
- Tryp Varadero
- Varadero Peninsula
- Tryp Peninsula Varadero Cuba
- Tryp Peninsula Hotel Varadero Beach
- Varadero Beach Tryp Peninsula