Cocktails on the beach, swimming in warm, turquoise sea, fun in the pool, and live bands at night. What more could you want from a Cuba beach holiday? We checked into the new Iberostar Bella Vista and were very reluctant to check out...
The sea at Varadero is simply sublime. Kilometre after kilometre of creamy sand shelves gently into dreamy turquoise sea where the sandy bed remains shallow for dozens of metres, only disturbed by the occasional darting about of glassy fish. As we lolled about in the shallow water lapping at the beach in front of the Iberostar Bella Vista and looking out on to a horizon of infinite blue, it was hard to get up and go. There was nothing pressing, really, just more sunbathing, drinking cocktails, and unwinding at Cuba's most famous beach spot.
Varadero has been a top holiday spot since the 1840s and its global fame has been soaring ever since. In the last six years, the town end of the Varadero strip - the Hicacos Peninsula - has grown more buzzy as home stays and private restaurants have opened. More market stalls and shops, lure souvenir hunters, too.
Chilled party vibe plus children's entertainment
We had checked into the new, all-inclusive Iberostar Bella Vista Resort, a modern resort channelling a chilled party vibe with its dazzling candy colours, and white light globes. This contemporary feel wraps around the pool area, dining rooms, and lobby bar with its alfresco wooden terrace - host to live music at night with flood-lit seating - and baby-blue parasols, comfy shaded cabanas for lounging, and summer seating by day.
That's not to say it's all for partygoers. In a well-designed corner of the resort is an entertaining children's play pool full of fun sculptures - a thrashing sea monster, a giant tortoise, a floating killer whale, and outsized mushrooms showering curtains of rain, and a Miniclub and Maxiclub entertaining children from 4 to 12 years' old. The pool is surrounded by a ring of sun loungers for the parents.
Rooms with a view
Although the Bella Vista boasts 827 rooms, the resort's footprint is fairly small - although not tight by any means - so there's a sense of intimacy here that you don't get with many large resorts in Cuba. You also see the same friendly staff fairly often which enhances the feeling of familiarity.
The hotel also offers a number of exclusive Elite rooms; 18 of those are classed as swim out rooms where you can slip into a small pool of water right in front of your bedroom and lie on an in-pool blue sun lounger. These look snazzy but are not sufficiently screened from wandering visitors so the pool isn't as private as you might think. The Elite suites boast Jacuzzis and offer guests an exclusive pass to a rooftop restaurant with an alfresco terrace bar dotted with hanging chairs with outstanding sea views: the perfect retreat for a sundowner overlooking the Atlantic ocean.
Our room was on the sixth floor with panoramic views of the turquoise sea seeping into deep indigo in the distance. The bed was huge and comfortable and the blackout curtains were excellent - fitted with velcro fasteners - essential for the intense early morning Cuban sun. There are plenty of lights for reading, and chairs, and a small table, as well as a flat-screen TV; the in-room minibar is restocked daily; and the bathroom's rain shower constantly gushed hot water. You have all the mod-cons in the bedroom, and the Wi-Fi (via a paid-for scratch card) works in the room.
We dined in the contemporary dining room decorated with rose-hued floral abstract works where there's plentiful fresh meats and fish (cooked to order), and pasta dishes, as well as cold cuts and European cheeses. The hotel excelled in the patisserie and desserts department with an entire corner of the dining room devoted to the sweet stuff.
There are a handful of specialist restaurants - the Italian "Fruti de Mare", the Cuban "El Criollo", and the Japanese "Wakame". Guests can reserve these with customer services. We had difficulty getting into the Japanese restaurant as bookings were popular but we eventually managed to get a late evening seating. Unfortunately we were very disappointed. The food there was not at all good. We were happy to get back to the buffet dinner and its huge spread.
Live music under the stars
After dinner, the outdoor lobby terrace is transformed for evening entertainment staging a big screen, professional lights, and live music creating a sleek summertime venue ambience. The vibe is a party one, but chilled and friendly. Guests and staff dance together, or just crowd round to listen to some of the great live bands.
The breakfast buffet is a leisurely affair - open until 10:30 - and is handily next to a little coffee shop offering cappuccinos, lattes, and expressos - perfect for a stronger coffee after breakfast. If you're hungry in between meals, snack bars are dotted around the resort. Our favourite was the "La Caracola" ranch close to the beach for salads, and the exceptionally friendly staff.
On our last morning we headed out on a catamaran run by the water sports' team. We navigated past a few kayakers, burning off a few calories, and headed out onto the water into a picture of blue rippling with light - disturbed only by a few fluffy clouds scudding along.
Post our sail we unfurled on one of the sun loungers on the beach under a palm-thatched umbrella admiring the spacious curve of beach, pinned between two small rocky outcrops. We even found a secret little cave under one of these rocks! Until next time!