All-inclusive Vacation in Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba

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This post is long overdue, but I still wanted to share a recap of my experience in Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba at the end of December. This was only my second all-inclusive vacation (the first was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in 2012), and I had heard mixed reviews about vacationing in Cuba prior to my trip. My boyfriend had been multiple times and wasn’t super keen on returning, but once we explored our options, we quickly realized it was the most affordable choice for the time of year. We were looking for an easy and relaxing beach vacation to unwind at the end of the year, and decided to book.

Here’s a summary of my experience for anyone looking travel to Cayo Santa Maria in the future:

The Location 

Cayo Santa Maria is a small island off of Cuba’s northern coast, known for its beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts. To get to the island, tourists fly into Santa Clara airport (the teeniest, tiniest airport I’ve ever travelled to – seriously, our departing flight from Cuba was one of two departures scheduled for that night) and then take a one hour bus ride to the resorts. Hurricane Irma in the fall of 2017 caused considerable damage to this area, including to the highway that connects Cayo Santa Maria to the main island. The resorts were reopened in mid-November, but we weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived.

We were relieved to find that most damage had been repaired by the end of December, when we landed for our vacation. The weather was a perfect 25°C and sunny during the day, and cooled off at night to about 18°C. Hurricane season in Cuba is June – November, and after some pre-trip Googling I was convinced we would be met with swarms of mosquitos and sand fleas that appear after heavy rainfall. However much to my relief, this was not the case. We were lucky to steer clear of rain almost entirely, and were able to soak up the sunshine and avoid the harsh Canadian winter at home.

The beaches were beautiful, with soft sand and turquoise waters. Due to the hurricane, there were some minor debris still left along the coast, but nothing that took away from our experience. The water was calm, and shallow enough to wade into for a few hundred feet – great for a non-swimmer like me. 

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The Resort

We chose to stay at Ocean Casa del Mar, a relatively new resort that opened in 2016. I was attracted to the modern design, which was initially what drew me in when searching through different resorts to stay at online. When we arrived, my boyfriend was instantly impressed with the resort in comparison to some of the others he had stayed at before. I, on the other hand immediately zoned in on the stained linens, rugs and towels. After the initial shock, I was able to look past this, and accepted that this was a somewhat normal quality standard for a cheap, all-inclusive resort.

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I would rate the overall cleanliness of the resort a 7/10, but I did appreciate all of the modern touches – especially the pink walls outside of all the units. The air conditioner in our room worked well, which was important for staying comfortable in the heat, and we had convenient access to both the pool and the beach. The grounds of the resort had been affected by the hurricane, so it was bare in some areas, but I could tell that the landscaping would be beautiful in a few months time.

Ocean Casa Del Mar Pool

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The resort put on a show in a stage area by the lobby each night at 9:30 with live singing and dancing. We caught it a few times but spent most evenings relaxing in our room and binge-watching Ozark episodes I had downloaded to my phone before we left, lol! Other activities including dance lessons, pool games and Spanish lessons were also available, but we spent almost all of our daytime just relaxing on the beach.

The Food

This was what people had warned me the most about before the trip. Anyone I talked to who had travelled to an all-inclusive resort in Cuba did not have great things to say about the food. I think this almost worked in my favour, because my expectations were so low when I arrived that I was pleasantly surprised by the selection!

Ocean Casa del Mar had a variety of themed restaurants (that were located in the same spaces, but changed theme based on the night of the week – Italian, Asian, Seafood, etc.), and a main buffet that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were definitely a few unusual items on the menu, but for the most part we didn’t have any trouble finding things to eat each day (though we did consume a LOT of fries). We figured out early on  that the best food was at the beach. With a number bars spaced out along the sand, they had fresh whole grilled fish, burgers, and even paella on a few occasions.

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While overall I was okay with the food situation, I did notice a few questionable practices happening at the resort. For example, the same spatula was used to portion out, cook and serve the raw chicken, beef and pork at the grilling station. I had also received a few warnings to avoid eating the produce, as it could be washed in tap water – which often contains bacteria our digestive systems aren’t accustomed to. We made it through the week without any stomach issues (thankfully), but once we were home both my boyfriend and I were sick for a week. I’m not exactly sure what the culprit was, but it could have been one of the above.

Tips for travelling to Cayo Santa Maria

  • The plugs in Cayo Santa Maria are different than North American plugs. Bring an 220v compatible adapter to be able to use and charge your appliances.
  • Cell service is rare, if not impossible to find. Wi-fi must be purchased at most resorts and is spotty at best, so plan accordingly – or better yet, plan to go off the grid!
  • If you have some extra suitcase space, gently used clothing, cosmetics and gifts are great to bring to Cuba to donate to hotel staff and locals, who are super appreciative of anything you give them.

I personally love the carefree nature of an all-inclusive vacation, and would love to go on more trips like this in the future (hint: there may be another one coming up very soon!). If your thing is sitting on the beach, unplugging and having a few cervezas in the sand, Cayo Santa Maria is definitely an affordable option to consider.

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London Travel Guide

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I visited London, UK back in December to visit my boyfriend who’s currently studying overseas. It was my first time in the bustling city and I had such an amazing time taking in the sights (and eating delicious food!). The holidays are such a beautiful time to visit London – the streets are decked out with glittering lights and you can totally feel the festive spirit in the air.

This trip differed from other European vacations I’ve taken, since I actually knew someone who lives there. I spent less time hitting the tourist sights and more time exploring the city from a local’s perspective, which was a nice change.

That being said, you’ll probably find some of the typical London landmarks missing from this list – that’s because I didn’t have a chance to make my way to see them! Things that are still on my London bucket list (meaning I’ll definitely have to visit again) include: going for a stroll along the Thames, taking in views from the London Eye, and riding a double decker bus!

Here were some of my favourite parts from my trip in December and my recommendations for when you visit:

What to Do

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Visit local markets

London is known for its awesome markets, lined with stalls featuring local vendors, authentic food and fresh flowers. I visited Columbia Road Flower Market which was packed with beautiful blooms, as well as Brick Lane Market, which offered cool vintage finds and tons of affordable and delicious food options nearby. Spitalfields Market was a short walk away, where my boyfriend picked up a new coat!

Explore Covent Garden

Covent Garden is full of places to shop, eat and to spend the day exploring. For the holidays, the indoor hall was decked out with a huge mistletoe installation which was so pretty to look at. I recommend stopping for tea and macarons at Ladurée – the balcony upstairs also gives a great view of the street performers down below!

Hit the shops!

There’s tons of amazing shopping in London, from the busy tourist areas to vintage stores and the independent vendors at the market. Spend a day on Oxford Street (the busiest shopping street in Europe!) and hit up all the major stores. I love & Other Stories for simple pieces and jewellery, and Primark for a bargain that can’t be beat!

Spend a day in Chelsea

This was one of my favourite days I spent in London. Maybe because I’m a diehard fan of Made in Chelsea (anybody else?), but also because it was such a pretty area to explore, without the overwhelming crowds found in the more touristy parts of the city. Harrods is nearby, and here you’ll find the pretty pastel houses that are oh-so-instagrammable!

What to Eat

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Friends of Ours

Friends of Ours is a trendy little spot in Shoreditch serving delicious brunch items with a twist. We tried the Pork Belly Benedict (with candied & coffee cured pork belly!) as well as the Sweetcorn & Beetroot Fritters and they were both amazing.

Wahaca

A cool Mexican spot offering delicious tacos, tostadas, burritos and more, Wahaca is a fun place with cute decor to grab a quick bite. The prices are pretty affordable in comparison to the other restaurants in London, and you’ll definitely leave with a happy belly.

Peggy Porschen Cakes

This is a haven for anyone who loves anything cute, pretty and pink. Peggy Porschen Cakes serves up adorable cookies, cupcakes and desserts on pastel plates that’ll make you swoon. Snap a pic in front of their pastel pink doorway and spend an afternoon chatting over tea.

Sketch

Visit Sketch for an unforgettable experience! This was one of our special occasion meals and it did not disappoint. Sketch is an uber stylish restaurant (a celebrity favourite) featuring four different dining rooms, each with their own theme. We ate in The Gallery – full of everything rose gold and blush velvet and absolutely stunning!

Other Things to Consider

  • Watch. Your. Valuables. I got pick-pocketed while shopping on Oxford Street and lost my phone on my second day in London. Make sure your valuables are safely tucked away (an inside pocket of a jacket is ideal) or carry a purse that’s hard to get into.
  • Find time amidst your food adventures to try some local specialties: fish & chips and a full English breakfast are a must!
  • Pick up an Oyster Card (you can load it up with whatever amount you see fit) and take the London Underground to get around the city. The tube is easy to navigate and the quickest and most affordable way to travel. Walking is also a great option if you’re exploring Central London.

Happy travelling!

 

Barcelona Travel Guide

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Earlier in the Fall, I travelled to Barcelona, Spain with my boyfriend for a week. It was one of our favourite trips, filled with sunshine, good eats and amazing sights! Here are my tips for everything you should see and eat while you visit this beautiful city.

What to Do

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Take the HOHO bus

My mom is an avid traveller, and one of the first tips she shared with me about visiting a new city is to take a Hop On, Hop Off (HOHO) bus tour! Yes, it is the #1 most touristy thing you could do, but it also gives you a great overview of the city and the major sights. You can decide what you’d like to explore further and hop off the bus whenever you like! The HOHO is particularly handy at the beginning of your trip, when you’re trying to get the lay of the land and see what you’re most interested in.

See the beautiful architecture

Barcelona is well known for its beautiful architecture, particularly the work of Antoni Gaudí, a Spanish Catalan architect. La Sagrada Família is his most famous work, and the most popular tourist attraction in Barcelona. The stunning church draws in huge crowds every day of the week, so be sure to buy your tickets ahead of time online to skip waiting in line!

Another beautiful attraction by Gaudí to visit is the Park Güell. Here you can go through a stroll of the gardens, snap amazing photos, and take in breathtaking views of the city. This was one of my favourite spots to visit on our trip!

Stroll along La Rambla

La Rambla is a pedestrian street along the edge of Barcelona’s historical Gothic Quarter. Lined with tons of shops and restaurants, you can easily spend an afternoon walking along and taking in the sights.

Hit the beach!

Barcelona is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches! Spend a day soaking up some sun at Barceloneta (the closest beach to the tourist areas), or travel a bit further and visit one of the other beaches. We visited both Barceloneta as well as Platja del Bogatell, a smaller beach up the coast.

Be warned – it’s much more common at European beaches to go au natural – and for a timid girl like me, the sight was a bit shocking at first (but you’ll get used to it!). There will also be a lot of vendors attempting to sell you drinks and beach blankets.

Spectacular views at Tibidabo

Tibidabo is a mountain that overlooks Barcelona, offering up awesome views from the highest point in the city! To travel to Tibidabo, you’ll use the Funicular, a tram that takes you up to the top of the mountain. At the summit, you’ll find a stunning church and an adorable amusement park (instas anyone?).

Where to Eat

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La Boqueria

You’ll find the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria off La Rambla, a huge market home to some of the freshest produce and seafood in Barcelona. Get delicious juice for 1€ or sit down at one of the many bar style restaurants for the best meal of calamari, grilled fish and razor clams you’ll ever have!

Brunch & Cake

In addition to the traditional Spanish fare, Barcelona also caters to the trendy, modern food scene. Brunch & Cake serves up gorgeous brunch dishes including eggs benny and banana french toast. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported into a Pinterest wonderland when you sit down in this pretty space featuring white marble, wicker chairs and gold accents.

Taller de Tapas

While there may be more authentic choices for food in Barcelona, Taller de Tapas became one of our favourite places to eat while visiting. With multiple locations in the city, this restaurant offers an extensive menu featuring different Spanish tapas including patatas bravas and more.

Plaça Reial

Located just off La Rambla, Placa Reial is popular square in Barcelona with a number of great restaurants to choose from. Sip sangria on a patio onlooking picture-perfect palm trees and share an order of paella with friends. We tried Les Quinze Nits and Ocaña and loved both.

Other Things to Consider

  • It’s normal to eat dinner late in Spain – most locals don’t go for dinner until 9pm or later. We totally adopted the siesta lifestyle and napped from 6pm – 8pm almost every day!
  • Barcelona is notorious for pick pocketing – protect your valuables, especially in busy tourist areas and try to use purses with secure zipper closures.
  • Stores are closed on Sundays – if you’d like to get some shopping done, be sure to keep this in mind!
  • Tipping is not customary in Spain – leave a tip only if you had an exceptional experience or were very happy with your meal!

Happy travelling!