Located off the northern coast of the main island of Cuba

Life’s a beach on Cayo Santa Maria

We’ve all heard the Christopher Columbus poem, but have you ever wondered where it was that Columbus really landed?

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue,

He had three ships and left from Spain;

He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.”

We’ve all heard the Christopher Columbus poem, but have you ever wondered where it was that Columbus really landed?

On a recent trip to Cuba, Duane McCartney found the answer. Columbus landed in Cuba on Oct. 28, 1492, and at the time he believed the island was a peninsula of mainland Asia. In reality, he was about 145 km south of what is now Key West, Fla.

Cuba has been through a lot of ups and downs since Columbus’s first visit. But after the demise of the Soviet Union, the country experienced a harsh era of economic hardship.

Today, tourism is a major source of revenue and many Cubans rely on the money generated from the industry to survive.

There are more than 400 major holiday resorts spread over some 3700 km of beautiful coastline.

These resorts have become increasingly popular with Canadians and more than one million Canadians visited Cuba in 2010.

In December, Duane and Joan McCartney of Lacombe joined their daughter and son-in-law Theresa and Chad Mudrik and granddaughters Sara and Gracie for a week-long stay at a newly renovated all-inclusive resort located on Cayo Santa Maria.

Located off the northern coast of the main island of Cuba, Cayo Santa Maria is a small island that is connected to mainland Cuba by a 48-km long causeway.

Located about 90 minutes from the Santa Clara airport, The Memories Azul Beach Resort was so newly renovated that the painters were putting the final touches on many of the rooms and the hotel bars were just being stocked as guests arrived.

“You don’t know what to expect when you arrive at a place during opening week,” said Joan. “The day after our arrival, the staff increased by 400 new employees. It was quite a challenge for the new staff to get acquainted with their jobs and sometimes it was a challenge for the newly-arrived guests, but we all managed.”

The amenities at the resort were more than adequate and the group soon discovered three distinct pool areas consisting of family-oriented relaxation areas with pools designed for all ages, basketball and tennis courts, pool side lounge areas and bars.

The group all agreed that the best feature of the resort and Cayo Santa Maria is the beach. “The beach is about 13 km of pure white sand that is the finest I have ever seen,” said Duane. “It was like icing sugar and the sea was that deep Azur blue that just makes you feel happy inside. It’s a beautiful area — the region surrounding Cayo is dotted with many rocky islands all covered in dense mangrove trees that basically grow right out of the water.”

Cayo Santa Maria is quite isolated, so the family really enjoyed the convenience of their all-inclusive resort.

“There was lots to see and do with three-person catamaran rides just off the beach, ocean swimming and snorkelling in front of the resort, music, and learn-to-Salsa dancing classes by the pool,” said Joan. “In the evening, there were concerts featuring Cuban bands and dance troupes or you could just relax on a lounge chair near one of the bars.”

There were also several day tours on offer.

“We took a one-day catamaran trip, which included some of the best snorkeling I have ever done,” said Duane, an avid scuba diver. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to line up a dive as there was only one small diving operator to service seven large all-inclusive resorts on the island, but the snorkeling spot was just as good as a dive.” The trip also included a stop at an isolated beach, where their granddaughters founds a starfish, an excellent interactive show with the dolphins at the marina, a lobster dinner and a relaxing trip back under full sail.

The McCartneys and Mudriks admit that travelling to a resort during opening week can have its challenges but if you keep an open mind, you can have a wonderful time at the Memories Azul Beach Resort in Cayo Santa Maria.

If you go:

• A one-week all-inclusive stay at Memories Azul in Cayo Santa Maria will cost about $1,100 per person depending on your dates of travel and includes, air, hotel, food, drink, entertainment and all taxes and fees. Package tours to this resort are available through Sunwing Vacations (www.sunwing.ca).

• For more information on travelling in Cuba, visit www.cubatourism.ca.

• Duane and Joan highly recommend that first-time visitors to Cuba see the sites of historic Havana if possible. While it is possible to book a day trip to Havana from Cayo Santa Maria, they did not do that on this trip. Duane previously visited Havana. Below are some of their recommendations for visitors to Havana, Cuba.

Top tourist sites in Old Havana

• Cigar factory: There are several cigar factories to choose from in Havana, but the Partagas factory is located just behind the capital building and a half-hour guided tour costs about 10 CUC.

• Havana Club Rum Factory_ Havana Club is one of Cuba’s most famous rums and a guided tour features displays and exhibits that are subtitled in English.

• Tropicana: The Tropicana cabaret show has been operating in Havana since 1939 and is one of the most famous cabarets in the world.

• Old Havana: A UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Havana retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments and a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. In Old Havana you can visit the oldest military fort in Cuba, historical churches, the former Presidential Palace, beautiful parks, old hotels and many other interesting sites. It is also fascinating to see the old cars that line the streets.

• Restaurants in private residences: There are several restaurants in Old Havana that are actually inside private residences. Duane says that some of the best meals he ate in Havana were at these restaurants. “The menu was all in Spanish but we figured out that la langosta meant lobster,” explained Duane. “So whenever we went to different in-home restaurants, we ate lobster. It was quite the experience!” One of the more prominent in-home restaurants is Paladar Vista Mar, which has been reviewed by Lonely Planet.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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