02 JAN 2013: Once in a while I come across a little gem and love it so much I’m reluctant to share it with you, in case the price goes up when I want to go again.

Tucked away in the southeast, 859 km and a world away from Havana and Varadero, 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.

A guest said, “ It is the traditional Cuban property. “ It might be, but it was the cleanest property I’ve ever stayed in. Staff were always working.

Speaking of staff, they were lovely, polite, courteous, anxious to help, and that included the front desk. And no we didn’t tip them until we were leaving.

Our maid was exceptional. She put everything back just the way we left it - including a knife on top of a washcloth in the bathroom.

Alfredo was bartender of the little covered bar overlooking the water. Yes, he could find a bottle of scotch for me, nothing was too much trouble. His smile brightened the day.

The dining was full of smiling helpful staff, the tablecloths were spotless. We couldn’t decide which of the wait staff was the most helpful so we tipped them all. We did love Daisy though.

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 a few reviews that complain about the food, but on property, despite eavesdropping, we didn’t hear any food complaints.

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 available 24-7 to help guests, a true hostess.

Directly behind the resort was a farm, and the fields had oxen, cattle, goats, pigs, and 11 riding horses. It wasn’t just the kids who were fascinated. The animals according to one guest liked to escape and eat the watered ‘tourist grass’. A highlight one day was two of the horses running down the beach before the cowboys arrived. The gardeners were doing their best, but the horses had a grand day, and galloped back along the beach at dusk.

Riding is a bargain, and just steps away. 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 asked us what we thought of the music.

After thinking a minute Tom responded. “We’ve heard Stand by Me, all Shania Twain’s songs, several Kelly Clarkson tunes, the usual collection of techno boom boom around the pool, but at the end of the day it is actually quite a nice mix.”

Mornings consist of Yoga at 10, aqua at 10:30, and then Spanish classes, in the afternoon very funny bingo, followed by dancing lessons.

There isn’t an animator yelling into the mike all day.

Last time I visited, I couldn’t get over the great shows. I laughed for five years over their Titanic skit. When I met the manager and asked if they still did that skit, he said no they hadn’t done it in years. The last night to surprise us, they did it again, and it was laugh till you cry funny. If your clients do go, tell them to ask for it.

On the other hand there isn’t a real kid’s programme, if they have enough kids, they have someone organize games and things. The families that were there, and that included grandparents seemed to be enjoying their own company, so it wasn’t a problem.

There is a pool, and wading pool in the Marea section, which is close to the black sand beach. 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 Fallon, 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. In fact there were a number of guests who unpacked for three months. Many of the guests come over and over again, some three or four times a year. One couple has been 51 times. It has the highest repeat business of any property that Sunwing carries. Feedback is 91%, unheard of at a 3-star.

I asked the General Manager Diomedes Lara, about several of the complaints on the review sites, yes he reads them, and they are working hard to correct them. There's not much that can be though about the two hour transfer over not the greatest roads. Personally, I loved seeing the way people live in the countryside and villages.

When the folks at home ask what I’ve done on my vacation I’ll answer, “Lay in the warm calm Caribbean and watched the Sierra Maetra Mountains change colours as the sun hit them. “ And that’s exactly what we did for two weeks over Christmas.

We arrived home to find we hadn’t even taken any decent pictures; we were too busy just enjoying.

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

Next time three weeks!

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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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