Snow, snow, everywhere snow! Back in Canada again! I've returned from the Brisas Sierra Mar. Translates breezes, mountains and sea. Quite true: this Santiago de Cuba resort about an hour from the city, is located along the south coast built atop the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. The glistening turquoise Caribbean Sea stretches over the horizon. The beach is about a two hour walk through fine, dark volcanic sand between two rocky points. The temperature? Late January? Early February? 30 degrees Celsius by day, 20-25 at night. Perfect!
For a week I lay on the beach. Yakking with my sister. Read a book. Worked on my tan. Went diving in the sea. Even conferenced with the Santiago teachers about the Cuban School Project over the weekend. Sprung for an over nighter so we could still get some time together. For them to relax a bit too. All on my own dime, so no excuses necessary. And no matter. It was very cheap.
Now I'm back home, vaping on my couch about my experience. Here's how I've decided I am going to approach this: with a 2 part report!
Part 1: A Kulture Kult Review of the resort! Actually, I am so pleased I am awarding the Brisas Sierra Mar a Kulture Kult Ink Caribbean Winter Resort Award just for the occasion!
Part 2: The latest news on the Cuban School Project 2015! This will also include my notes on the Cuban teachers reaction to the recent announcement of normalized US-Cuban relations.
And so ..... drum roll please!
Part 1: Kulture Kult Ink Resort Review + Award!
The Brisas Sierra Mar is an all inclusive 3.5 star Cuban resort. The type they do best. What's lacking in amenities and finesse, it more than makes up for with dumfy everyday charm and good cheer. Regretfully, true 4 or 5 star resorts, by international standards, are still often a stretch at best for this embargoed non US sun destination.
Expect a lot of everyday English and French Canadian and East European tourists at the Brisas! Many are repeat visitors. Why? The ambiance is very genuine and bang on! And the price is right! This is peak season. My sister and I paid about $1000 [Cdn] each for 2 large spacious, separate adjoining rooms. Two queen king size beds in hers, a king size one in mine. The rooms had air conditioning, a small fridge, satellite tv, and basic bedroom furniture including a desk, drawers, night tables, safe and big balcony with chairs looking out to sea. The washrooms were leaky but with a good shower stall and other facilities.Towels, soaps were provided too. Our guests shared a room, double occupancy with full all with inclusive privileges for $140 [CUC] a night total. It's much cheaper on both counts during off season!
If you are willing to let your hair down, hang loose and have a great time for cheap, I have no trouble recommending the Brisas as my Kulture Kult Ink Caribbean Resort Pick for Winter 2014/15! A quick rundown:
The food was good, if you like sea food. Otherwise there's a great Cuban a la carte. Also, hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches with fries are available at the 3 grills. They are at different locations. At least one will always be open. Likewise there are 3 bars for fruit juice, soda, soft drinks, local liquor and beer. The huge open air lobby/ piano bar is open round the clock, the beach bar during the day, and the pool bar until late at night.
Folks seemed split over the food depending on whether they like fish or not. Unlike during my last 2 visits, the menu was pretty limited. The bar drinks are quite strong unless you ask them to water them down. Hope you like unlimited beer, rum and wine. Otherwise BYOB. The Cuban Havana Club rum is well known for being especially smooth, depending upon how many tipple! I myself stick to the non alcoholic drinks which are perfectly fine for me.
The hotel is arranged in two tiers. There's the upper "Garden Rooms" facing the mountains. They provide easy access to the upper area pool, mini-gym, lobby, buffet and outdoor stage. Then there's the "Ocean View" rooms below, with ready access to the beach.
My sister and I are beach people, so the latter suited us great. Warning though: the elevators were frequently out of service. The porters are very helpful. However we got a lot of exercise climbing up the 100 or so stairs. Ditto the upper level guests coming down to the beach. This will definitely be a deal killer for many, so beware. It was the during same my last visit, even though the elevators have apparently been fixed. Go figure!
Alas! Let's face it. This Brisas is pretty groovy in it's own way, but it has seen better days. With it's decaying grandeur, it is still a very lively, friendly place. It's also clean. Upstairs, there is daytime entertainment and a swim up bar in the pool area. But the pool liner is still loose and in need of a fix like when I visited last spring.
All singing! All dancing!
There's a rather repetitious Tropicana show every night. Carmen Miranda look a likes dance around with fruit baskets on their heads. Gay caballeros in skin tight pants prancing about. All to tacky, pre-recorded music. Then there's the magician-slash-comic. Tiresome in a land of so much great local song and dance, [see @ Club Rio! and @ Tropicana! ] but the Brisas house troupe seem to be trying pretty hard in their own way. The guests both male and female, mostly the French Canadiens and East European ones seemed quite pleased being on a first name basis with them. Joking about in a bawdy flirtatious manner. On and off stage every night. Around and about the resort throughout the day. I will give it to them, this was a main draw. Quite harmless. None of my business.
To each their own! We were there for the beach! Fortunately the lounge chairs were never hard to get. A huge new load of sand and a nice long rock break water now help define and enhance the main hotel beach area. It's been nicely rebuilt, the hurricane damage fixed. Indeed Santiago de Cuba is directly in "hurricane alley" and the effect can be quite devastating. Another resort, the Bucanero remains closed for good after being hit and destroyed head on for the second time during hurricane season, typically from June to October.
There was a catamaran, paddle boats, dive shop; all the typical fare on the beach. Here's the knock out punch for visitors like me though: There is a huge coral reef extending the full length of the beach. I spent many, many hours there each day. Then recuperated on my lounge chair with my book and a cold drink. It does not get much better than that for me folks!
The coral reef shows some signs of damage. In Cuba this is usually much less so than at most resorts throughout the Caribbean. There are over a dozen types of coral! Quite decent! There's huge schools of tropical fish, octopus, and lots of big and small conch shells. The reef is a good distance out, maybe a 100 meters, but the sea bottom gets quite shallow again. Not a problem for me, I'm a strong swimmer. Aside from the possibility of getting washed onto the coral on a rough day, there are few dangers. A swim beyond the rocky point nearest the hotel reveals many isolated beaches stretching endlessly further down the coast. I spent a fair bit of time there too, as well as taking long strolls unaccosted down the other way.
The beach consists of fine, black volcanic sand rather than the virgin white sand Cuba is so famous for. However, it is a very safe and friendly place. It is also very quiet without the crowds and tacky tourist attractions one usually finds at other more popular and non embargoed US resort beaches elsewhere in the Caribbean.
So. I read my book. Swam. Slept a lot. Took almost 1000 underwater photos. My underwater camera sprang an underwater leak. I lost about 400. Yiikes. Life is tough for us Canucks!
We held our Cuban School Project meetings at the lobby with follow up sessions of a sort on the beach. Regretfully, the dial up internet service is extremely frustrating and quite useless. That created some business problems, but I otherwise very much enjoyed the respite from being on line. If you are an internet junkie be forewarned: Embargo woes again: Cuba is not the place for you!
Our airline service was good though we upgraded to VIP last minute. Avoided the hustle and bustle of the check in and immigration lines both ways so I wouldn't stress out. In Cuba we were personally escorted straight through past the lines. Taken to a nice lounge with all the amenities. That's a great option in case Toronto gets snowed in and you get stuck!
Otherwise it's a typical commie airport. Old, seriously outdated. You need to pay for toilet paper except in the VIP washroom. Like everywhere else in Cuba there's not much to buy. This is about as good as it gets! Cigars and rum are the only real specialties. They are considerably cheaper than abroad. Other notables: A great Cuban CD counter with very knowledgeable staff! The Cuban book rack has translations of various political tracts. The party newspapers and magazines are free in the VIP lounge. Got a few in English for my erudition and amusement now that I am back home.
Yer Complimentary US Public Service Announcement:
An interesting aside: Despite the embargo, many US tourists still unofficially visit Cuba via Canada, Mexico and some of the other islands. They have been doing so for as long as I've been travelling to Cuba, over 32 years. It's not a problem for the Cubans. Nowadays they automatically stamp your passport unless you ask them not to. In the past they usually stamped a separate card you just needed to keep with your passport until you left the country.
This service is still available upon request for US, Canadian and other nationals who are concerned about getting hassled by anti-Cuban Custom agents when later entering and leaving the United States. Don't laugh! Canadian business travellers have been arrested and detained in the US when "caught" having been in Cuba during years past, though it is not illegal for us as Canucks! Our US friends seem to have since taken a chill pill when it comes to Cuba. So here's to hopefully better daze!
Conclusion: Drum roll please ....... Kulture Kult Ink awards the Brisas Sierra Mar it's Canuck Caribbean Resort Award for Winter 2014-15! That's based upon it's unique, laid back, unassuming charm. Also because it is very safe, and quiet with a decidedly "non American in the Caribbean" over all ambiance.
So, are you looking for 4 or 5 star amenities and service? Noise? Hardcore partying? Huge crowds of tourist's mostly from the United States? Then do not, repeat -DO NOT come here!
But if you are a fellow Canuck "on the cheap" or one of our open minded US compatriots "on the sly" looking for a great, unique and very relaxing getaway, I present to you the Brisas Sierra Mar! It wins a big 2 thumbs up!
PS: Alt Pick? See my review for the Jibicoa Cuba @ Si!
My sis and I!
Next! Part 2: The Cuba School Project report + local scuttlebutt on news from Santaigo de Cuba!