More Americans are now discovering what many Europeans and Canadians have known for a while – Cuba rocks! It’s an enchanting place that really understands the meaning of hospitality. As a guest in that country, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the warmth of the Cuban people.
That makes staying at all-inclusive resorts extra special because you do really feel like you’re welcome. That was the case during my most recent visit to Cuba with a four-night stay at Sanctuary at Grand Memories Santa Maria. It’s a hotel within a hotel – in this case, Grand Memories Santa Maria, which is part of a much bigger complex including Memories Paraiso Beach Resort, located on an island connected to the mainland of the northeast part of the country.
Sanctuary is an adult-only offering, which for many visitors is a big advantage. Tired parents who need a break from hearing, “Mom!” or “Dad, I need…” every five minutes welcome some peaceful togetherness time. And couples just looking for a romantic vibe get plenty of that, too.
Sanctuary is a world unto itself – especially if you want a more intimate environment. It has its own check-in desk, restaurant, pool and beach area. But you can also venture out in the other parts of the resort where the action is always in high gear, depending on your mood.
If you hang out at Sanctuary, consider bumping up your experience with all the inclusions of Diamond Club status, including: early check-in/late check-out, butler services, in-room bath towels, 30 percent savings on spa services, a well-stocked premium mini-bar refreshed daily, bathrobe and slippers, and more.
The “stay at one, play at three” feature means though you’re staying at one hotel, you can take advantage of everything the sister properties have – more of everything in a nutshell, from bars to activities, nice restaurants and a lovely spa where you can have an excellent massage with Cuban rum outside in the gardens. Having such a wide range of options is a great perk for guests.
The best feature of this trio of properties operated by Memories Resorts & Spa is the beach. I’m a bit of a beach snob, having traveled extensively to more than 70 countries. I’m picky about what I want from a beach. I like clean, white sand, no rocks or sharp coral in the water, crystal clear water with waves that aren’t too crazy high, and plenty of space where you can find a quiet spot to claim as your own.
The beach at this Memories property delivers all those things in spades. It is a huge attraction for sun seekers who are quite content to spend the day reveling in the warmth of the Cuban sun. The water holds your gaze with its deep aquamarine color that changes shades with the light throughout the day. Brown pelicans hover above looking for the right moment to plunge down to grab a fish. The scene is what every person who is stuck in the middle of a cold winter somewhere craves.
Just a cautionary note here: The sun is intense and you’d be foolish not to pack a beach cover up, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. When my boyfriend and I ended up in a Cuban medical clinic (long story, but he had a horrible tooth infection which was looked after by an attractive female dentist who did surgery on him, while wearing five-inch heels), I saw a parade of tourists arrive in agony because of severe sunburns.
Sanctuary at Grand Memories Santa Maria was opened in January 2017 – and with that, comes good and not-so good things. The service especially has yet to find its groove. It can be wonderful and attentive, but also disappointing. My boyfriend dropped a glass and it shattered on the tile floor in our room. After three calls to the front desk and being assured someone was coming to sweep it up, no one ever came.
I also found Sanctuary’s restaurant to be inconsistent. The lunch buffet featured some great Cuba dishes, like ropa vieja (shredded beef in a tomato sauce), well-seasoned rice and beans, plus crispy roast pork and fried fish. Other dishes were less appetizing. Trade embargoes imposed on the country makes getting some ingredients very difficult. They do their best with what is available. I came to Cuba prepared, packing a bottle of hot sauce and a seasoned salt to add a bit of zing as needed.
Being a new property (set in a pre-existing resort) certainly brings with it a few issues. Some buildings had hot water issues and there is still some updating needed. For example, the grout around the tiles at the swim-up bar needs repair. If Sanctuary at Grand Memories Santa Maria wants to be a go-to adults-only paradise, it needs to deal with the hiccups.
The good news is that Sanctuary is totally capable of doing that. That’s clear when you look at the more established sister resorts. There, the service is more consistent and polished. Our server at the Italian restaurant, Grazie, could not have been more personable. The young man at the front desk there quickly arranged for a taxi to pick us up when my boyfriend had to get medical attention for his infected tooth. While we waited for our bus to take us to the airport, a young woman came to the sitting area in the lobby to take drink orders.
Those experiences are more consistent of what Cuba offers and the kind of hospitality that makes the country such a huge draw for international visitors. Once this newbie property finds its groove, it will be a crowd pleaser.
Rates start at US $1,500 approx. per person for seven days, including flight, hotel, meals and alcohol. Check rates with Memoriesresorts.com.
The writer was hosted by the resort, but her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Michele Sponagle.