My family and I just returned from our Spring Break vacation to Cuba. During the planning phases our 15 year-old made it clear that this year had to include a resort with beaches and other teen-agers. We decided on Cuba as my husband and I were interested in its history and exploring it before further changes occur and it certainly fit our son’s criteria. When we told people where we were going, everyone said, “Mona, you know the food is not good.” Well, they were right, but it is possible to sustain yourself (and not only on the fresh fruit garnishes of your rum drinks). Based on my experience and chats with others who have travelled to Cuba, here are my tips for surviving a Cuban All-Inclusive resort.
Go Local: Not all Cuban food is bad. We spent our first two nights in Havana and had some lovely food. It may not be Michelin-star quality, but delicious traditional home-cooking style meals can be found outside the resorts. State-sanctioned privately run restaurants, known as Paladares, are your best bet for dinner. Originally these were right in someone’s living room or garden, but now you are more likely to find them in historical buildings with the feel of a small neighbourhood restaurant.
If you are going to eat in a Paladar pick one with Cuban cuisine. You should always try the local cuisine when travelling but in Cuba this is emphasized. Restauranteurs, operate with restrictions, such as all food must be bought from state-run supermarkets, this means it is difficult to guarantee consistent supply and to get non-native ingredients. Restrictions are easing (when Paladares were first allowed they could not seat more than 12 people and could not serve beef or lobster), so the food scene is changing, but you won’t be disappointed by well-made local traditions. Try any of their pork dishes or the Ropa Vieja (stewed & shredded beef). To go with it you will need a side of Arroz Congri (rice & black beans), Tostones (flattened & fried plantains) and Malanga (a starchy root vegetable similar to Taro).
Pack your Maldon’s: When feeding hundreds of people each meal, the resorts must cater to the masses, so most of the food we experienced at the resort was quite bland (except, for the soups which seemed to be the only thing they used salt on and it was usually way too much). Know where the condiment stations are and load up. And since you will only find iodized table salt, always have your mini Maldon tin with you!
Find the Grill: Tucked around the corner of the large buffet restaurant was our grill. Here you could get fresh fish, shellfish and various meats grilled to order. They don’t really do anything to season your grilled items, so pull out that Maldon’s! This and some selections from the salad bar makes a nice light meal (more room for rum drinks after dinner)! It is also a good idea to seek out a table in these back areas as they usually aren’t as busy.
There is often a grill near or on the beach which is a great find for lunch. At our resort, they grilled whole fish and they were tasty!! Not a fish fan? Those frozen beef patties taste a lot better when they are cooked on an open flame!
Be Willing to Pay: I know, I know this is an all-inclusive, so you don’t want to pay any more, but really it is worth it. The wine selections were quite watery but you could purchase a decent bottle of Spanish wine for about the cost of a glass here at home (7 to 12 CUC). If you didn’t finish it with dinner, you could take it back to your room for a late-night sip in the warm evening air.
The best meal we had during our stay at the resort was a delicious Caribbean lobster (sorry the picture is only of the carnage, I was too busy enjoying it to stop for a picture). Now this was an add on that cost less than 20 Canadian dollars per person, which is pretty good for a large lobster tail. They will serve it to you at any restaurant on the resort at your preferred time. We also bought some nice Cava for $10, which they refrigerated for us until our dinner. When dinner was served, people were looking at us like we were VIP guests…we felt like yelling out, “for a small price, you too can have this!”
Check out the Whole Resort: The big buffets are easy to pick out, but there are often hidden gems on the property. Some are easier to spot, like the ice-cream stand on the path to the beach where our family fell in love with a local flavour of ice-cream, guanabana (soursop). Hidden away from the main pool and beaches was a little stand that made a decent ham sandwich. Just past the main pools was a fresh juice stand where they also would whip you up a fabulous fresh fruit smoothie. They also had an array of infused waters to keep you hydrated. Who knew eggplant infused water was a thing!
Make Reservations: All the four and five-star resorts have specialty restaurants that are included as part of your all-inclusive fee. At our resort the Italian restaurant was the most popular and even if you didn’t like anything on the menu, the antipasto buffet with a giant wheel of Grana Padano and thinly sliced serrano ham was worth it. These restaurants do not always guarantee a better meal, but they do give you more of a dining experience with menus, table service and eating with dozens of people instead of hundreds!
In many cases, these book up fast, so as soon as you get to your resort get yourself to the reservation desk and book yourself in. You can always cancel later. I usually aimed for the 7:30 times. That way if your dinner at the speciality restaurant was not very good, you could hit up the grill at the buffet restaurant before it closes!
I hope this little list helps! You are not going to Cuba for the food. But don’t miss out on the unique culture, rhythmic music, warm breezes, superb rum and beautiful beaches just because there are no celebrity chefs around!