15 JUL 2015:  “Today, December 17th the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba” said President Obama.
 During the two-hour transfer for our fourth holiday at the 3-star Club Amigo Marea del Portillo Resort, I noticed groups of people with their children. It seemed odd for a Wednesday night at 9:30 and it crossed my mind that it might have been a holiday.

Not till way into the next day did I hear the big news. Locals were cautiously optimistic, but felt it would be a long time before it affected them.

For your clients who are concerned about the prices, and the changing face of Cuba, this resort may be a good choice. Manzanillo de Cuba is tucked away in the southeast province, 900 kilometres from Havana, and in the warmest part.

This year for the first time ever, we invited another couple to come with us. I sat them down and explained exactly what it is like.

“If you want Sandals, this is not the holiday for you.” They loved it. They kept telling me it was so much better than expected, and they want to come back this year.

Well, I brought two guests but Jenny Cressman has brought 300 guests since 2009.

“We had so much fun on my two previous trips, that the following year, I organized and led my first large group there. This, in turn, led me set up a website (JennicaCuba.com) and to become a licensed travel agent, now affiliated with P&G Travel because they specialize in Cuba trips.

The local landscape – a combination of soaring mountains and charming ocean bay – can’t be beat but, for me, the true hook is 3-star Club Amigo Marea Del Portillo with 130 rooms and its sister resort a leisurely short walk away the 120 room Farallon de Caribe.

Guests can use the dining rooms and facilities in both. “ Staff are lovely; polite, courteous, anxious to help, and that included the front desk. And no, we don’t tip them until we were leaving.

The food? Well, it is Cuba, and they do the best they can with shortages, and a low food budget compared to other destinations. Sometimes the food was delicious, sometimes it wasn’t … just like my cooking. Christmas Eve dinner was fabulous.

There are many things about this resort that make it more than a 3-star. You could get a cappuccino 24 hours a day. There were lifeguards on the beach, and there were enough beach chairs, and shade even though the resort was full.

Elena de Moya, the  state-of-the art Sunwing rep meets people at the airport and gets them registered right outside, making for very little lining up. She is always available to help guests, a true hostess.

Several guests have complained about the livestock in their reviews. That astonishes me. It is one of the charms. Directly behind the resort is a farm, and the fields have oxen, cattle, goats, pigs, and 11 riding horses.

It isn’t just the kids who were fascinated.

The animals, according to one guest liked to escape and eat the watered ‘tourist grass.’ I do chase the goats away from the gardens though.

Riding is a bargain, and just steps away.  Chi Chi is in charge of the riding programme and in fact owns them. He is a big part of the resort and the reason many go back over and over. Once a week, if you’re any good at it, you can race against the locals. On another afternoon you can challenge the locals in a baseball game.

There are some interesting tours, well priced and not far away. Diomedes Lara the charming hotel manager, and his wife Barbara the food and beverage manager, are wonderful hosts, setting the tone for the staff. There isn’t an animator yelling into the mike all day. If they have enough kids, they have someone organize games and things. There is a pool, and wading pool in the Marea section, which is close to the black sand beach. Yes, there are stones in some areas, but in others just sand right out into the water. There is a large pool with a swim-up bar at the Farallon, with a longer walk to the beach.

This is a perfect property for seniors, who want quiet enjoyment, and to unpack and stay for a while. One couple has been 51 times.

It has the highest repeat business of any property that Sunwing carries.  Positive feedback is 91 percent; unheard of in a 3-star. This is also a great place for people who want trekking, biking, and being involved with the small communities in the area. This resort is part of the Viva Cuba programme, an added bonus.

As always there are lots of improvements. A new disco is being built with a small eatery at the water’s edge below the Farallon section.  This year we got Wi-Fi around the pool for the first time. There are lots of blogs on this property.

“It’s like you’re part of a cult” says Lawrence Elliott, Sunwing Group VP.

When the folks at home ask what I did on my vacation, I answer, “lay in the warm calm Caribbean and watched the Sierra Maetra Mountains change colour as the sun hit them.  I do intend to start hiking, maybe next visit.“

When I think about our time there I remember the smiles, the gorgeous scenery, and the great swimming.

Club Amigo Marea del Portillo Resort
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Sam Ion

The expert on All Inclusives, Sam delivers up-to-date info on alternate Wednesdays in her column Not Just All Inclusives.

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