granted it's not a 5 star, even for Cuban standards but it is a solid 4 - 4.5 star and worth every penny we paid. We were there for 2 weeks and loved every moment, even the incredidle tropical rain storm we experienced.
THE PROPERTY - well laid out. Basically the biggest difference between the Paraiso and Azul is where you sleep. As a guest of either you have full run of both properties. We were on the Paraiso side and very lucky to be in bungalow 33 - room 3365 - 3rd floor Ocean Front and incredible view. Close to the Ocean, far enough away from the Theatre we didn't get the music (which was done by 10:30) and close to all amenities. Note: Ocean front means that you are the closest bungalow to the ocean and there are no other bungalows in front of you. In that Cayo Santa Maria is an island, there are no structures actually allowed on the ocean front. This goes for both Azul and Paraiso. Each building is 3 stories high and contains a number of suites. We actually for the very first time in Cuba, got a King size bed. We always ask but it's been the luck of the draw. The room was spacious and clean. The view was spectacular. There were 3 different services to our room. The morning gals, they came anywhere between 10am - 3pm. The mini bar guy - he was there between 4:30 - 7pm, then the evening ladies who did a room refresh, turn down service and made the towel art, they usually came between 8 - 10pm, so if you were in your room you didn't get this service.
The PARAISO side is flatter and easier for those with physical challenges to move around, AZUL has a lot of ups and downs.
The Property itself is fairly large and a mirror image. Each property has a large main pool with a pool grill/bar that is open 24hrs. There is a shared Childrens area with activities for the kids. The Theatre is also shared. The Theatre has two bars one at each end. We found ourselves here alot because they made the special drinks that the poor souls in the lobby bar did not have time to make. The Theatre Bars seldom had line ups. They were usually open around 4 - 5pm and shut down around 11pm. We did go to both the Lobby Bars. Yes there were line ups, but man, did they work their butts off. Very little time for them to be social or friendly. They were on full speed ahead most days, they also worked 16 hours a day. I would challenge any one of you Canadians out there to pull the shifts these people pull and put on a happy face!!!.
THE FOOD- it's CUBA. For those of you who are not creative enough to put a plate of food together from the buffet for yourselves, get off your high horses. The food was fresh, good, yes plain because they were feeding over 800 people a sitting....but we found fresh salmon, capers, cream cheese and the best bread you can imagine. We also had fresh grilled fish, with salad and rice, freshly made pasta primavera with fresh greens that tasted like they came from the garden. The fruit was plentiful and hell they even had french fries for you die hards. If you were expecting gourmet meals you had to go off the resort to get them or perhaps make special arrangements with the chefs in the a' la cartes and pay a little. Breakfast was equally good, if you knew how to put food together. Yes if you wanted an omelet and you were there at the peak time, you waited in a 4 - 5 min line up. But if you waited until aroun 9am no line up and everything had been refreshed. They don't eat like we do. That is the bottom line. One comment I do have to make for you bacon pigs. I have never seen a fight break out over bacon before!! One lady loaded a huge plate full of bacon, basically cleaned it out for any one else. Really? was that necessary? The guy behind her who was patiently waiting was none too happy. However had he waited another minute or two the bacon had been refreshed.
A LA CARTES - we didn't really care if we went to these or not, we hit two, the Steak House and the Tex Mex. Again this is Cuba, their main staples are Fish, Pork and Chicken. For you Keg Steak lovers DON'T ORDER BEEF. They simply don't know how to cook it and their beef is not grain fed like good ol' alberta beef. The Fish, Chicken or Pork is outstanding and you can't go wrong.
THE BEACH - WOW WOW AND WOW. Yes the towel game is alive and well at both the beach and the pool. This is really ridiculous, but hey, There is nothing that does the soul more good than walking the Ocean at 6;30 - 7AM, watching the sun come up. Watching the family of dolphins feed on the sardines as they are going by. Watching the seagulls and pelicans fish. and watching those energetic people do their morning jogs on the sand. The Ocean and beach is so peaceful at that time of day, it is worth getting up just to experience it. The Ocean is calm, it's torquoise blue water softly kissing the sand....need I say more. Get up just to experience it. Those crazies that get up at 4am to put their towels by the pool...well what can I say, that's just stupid and a little wierd.
CATS - we are cat lovers and I'm sure there are a few of you out there. Please feed the cats. There is one in particular that we grew to love. She hung out by the theatre. She was unique because of her deformed face. She is loving and very cool. If you go there please look out for her, give her fresh water and bring her treats. She loves fish of course and bacon, but you have to cut it up as she can't tear at it like a normal cat. She's also expecting kittens. If anyone can update us please do.
OTHER - tipping - is alive and well. They appreciate what you can give. Practical items that we take for granted are in short supply for most cubans - ladies if you bring tampons - leave them, that is a treat for the cuban gals. Jeans, good shoes, jackets, anything Nike is big. Cosmetics too. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the Cuban economic situation. They have the basics, but the fun stuff is hard to come by when you are on a very limited income.
We didn't do any of the tours - this is our 5th time in Cuba (1st time at Cayo Santa Maria) and we really didn't want to tour, but we did hire a taxi - THOMPSON - was his name - excellent english, you can arrange this through the Sunwing person - he charged 130CUC - we had a private tour all day, did what we wanted, where we wanted, had a great tour of Santa Clara and back - it was well worth every penny. He drives a little crazy but has an excellent reputation.
MY BEST ADVISE TO ALL IS TO GO WITH NO EXPECTATIONS AND ENJOY IT FOR WHAT IT IS. We met people who loved it as much as we did, and others that found lots of things to be nit picky about. Personally I think that those that need to complain, would, no matter where they are.