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Melia Cayo Santa Maria LauraT Toronto, Canada

Melia Cayo Santa Maria
22 - 29 April 2006

We flew with Air Transat out of Toronto and have nothing but good things to say about this carrier, both flights arrived on time at their destinations. If you can afford it, upgrading to Club Transat is well worth the cost. The separate check-in means no waiting in long line-ups at either airport, priority boarding and disembarking before others, baggage is first off the plane, attentive service from flight attendants, choice of 4 hot meals served on real china, free bar service and snacks, separate bathroom on plane, etc.

Arrival at Santa Clara Airport and at the Resort
Since Club Transat passengers' luggage is marked with priority tags, they are taken from the plane first, so our bags were waiting for us as soon as we got through customs and we were on the first bus to the resort. You are given an envelope at the airport with your room assignment, keys, resort passport and map (which you will need when picking up your beach towels for the first time) and bracelets. Therefore, no check-in at the resort was required. We changed a small amount of money at the airport counter and were lucky enough to be first in line to do that as well before boarding the bus for the 90 minute ride to the Melia. You can also change money at the front desk of the resort at any time. You go through a few small towns on the way and it's interesting to get a view of the conditions in which Cubans live. There is a tour guide on the bus who provides a running commentary. We were greeted by resort staff in costume, bearing welcome drinks as soon as we arrived. By 12:15 p.m. we were in our room, which I thought was great, since we landed after 10:00 a.m. and I wasn't expecting to be at the resort until after 2:00.

On the recommendation of friends who had been to the Melia Cayo Santa Maria previously, I e-mailed the resort a week before our arrival to request a specific room. Although I never received a reply, I was thrilled to learn that my request had been granted and we were given a gorgeous oceanview room on the second floor of building #7. I have stayed in a lot of resorts, but this is the nicest and most spacious room I have ever had. I was extremely pleased with everything about it from the lovely foyer, to the comfy daybed, wrought iron furniture, separate rooms for the vanity and tub/toilet/bidet. Believe me, neither my friend nor I travel lightly, and there was lots of room for storing all our clothes, shoes, cosmetics, and all the stuff that two ladies can not live without for one week.

Maid service was wonderful and our two maids left gracious notes each day thanking us for the gifts we left them. They also constructed the most elaborate towel models I have ever seen and it was a treat to go back to the room at the end of the day to see what they had done. Great imagination! Our fridge was stocked with water, soft drinks and beer. Someone would come by daily asking if we required anything further.

Thankfully, we did not encounter one insect, except for a fly, in our room all week. We did see lots of geckos on the walkways to the beach, lots of stray cats (especially in the beach restaurant), and one very large iguana.

Food and Bar Service
They say that one does not go to Cuba for great food, but I have stayed at a couple of places in Cuba where I was very impressed with the food, Melia Cayo Santa Maria is not one of them. While the food was adequate and I could always find something to eat, it wasn't great. The two exceptions to this were the Mediterranean and Italian a la carte restaurants, where we enjoyed lovely meals of filet mignon and lasagna respectively, served in elegant surroundings by attentive staff.

There are two options for breakfast, either the buffet or the beach restaurant. We tried the beach restaurant once, but found it was nothing special, the offerings were limited, and it took too long to get service. The buffet breakfasts started out not great, but improved by the end of the week, when they started making crepes (with real maple syrup!), and churros.

For lunch, there are 4 options - 3 of which we tried, 2 of which we liked. We never went to the buffet for lunch and only once to the beach restaurant where the service was very slow and the food disappointing. Our two favourite lunch places were on either side of the pool. At the barbecue we enjoyed the spareribs served with rice, and at the poolside restaurant we tried the hotdogs, spring rolls, and individual pizzas which were pretty good. The best thing about lunch was the make it yourself banana splits - what could be better on a hot day?

There were a number of bars at the resort, and although we are not drinkers and didn't spend lots of time there, we found the service quick and friendly. For those non-drinkers, we would highly recommend the slushy drinks - ask the bartender to mix the strawberry and lime slushies for a wonderful and refreshing non-alcoholic drink. Bars were available at the beach, in the beach restaurant, at all the lunch hour restaurants, in one of the pools, in the lobby, and in the piano lounge. They were all well staffed and line-ups were either non-existent or very short. On some evenings, bar staff would go out to folks in the lobby asking if they would like a drink, very nice touch.

The Beach and the Pool
Photos of the beach at Cayo Santa Maria do not do it justice. I have never seen such a strikingly green ocean, nor a beach as wide as this one. The beauty of it compares favourably to that of beaches I have visited in Turks & Caicos and on the island of Eleuthera. The only problem is a lack of palapas, considering the size of the resort, and the continuation of that disgusting habit of either getting up before 7:00 a.m. or leaving towels overnight to reserve these much sought after shady places. Resorts really should crack down on these culprits, who save spots even though they have no intention of using them for much of the day. I heard that some people even got into a fight over this practice, although I did not witness that myself.

While there was also some palapa saving at the pool, one could normally find shade there at most times of the day. There are two very large and pretty pools side by side, one of which boasted a pool bar, and we spent many happy hours floating around in them on the plentiful foam mattresses available there. If you are so inclined, there is an aqua gym class at noon everyday except Sunday, which is a lot of fun and keeps one from being a total slug all day.

General Comments
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay at Melia Cayo Santa Maria. With the exception of the folks at the front desk, we found all staff members to be very friendly. Guests booking through Air Transat Vacations get a free one-hour water treatment at the new and gorgeous spa at the resort, including sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and private pool. One morning we walked along the beach to the site of the new Melia Las Dunes, still under construction. There is a guard there, so you can't get up close, but the buildings look lovely and I'm sure this will be a very nice resort once it's complete. We also walked through the Sol resort on the other side of the Melia Cayo Santa Maria and enjoyed a drink at one of their bars. From what we could tell, this resort looked nice, but not as pretty as the Melia.

Depending on which building your room is located in, there could be lots of walking at this resort to get anywhere. The beach is located at the end of long boardwalks inhabited by cute little geckos. Unless you are on the second floor of the oceanview buildings, you won't be able to see anything out your balcony doors, since they have kept the vegetation between the rooms and the beach intact and it is quite high in places. This is very impressive for the environmentalist in me. Also impressive is the fact that inspectors were on the grounds looking at the plants to determine that they were in good health. The grounds are lush and full of beautiful flowers, lovingly cared for by a team of gardeners. I brought baseball caps to give to a couple of them, who were very grateful for the gifts. These folks are too often overlooked by guests handing out tips and presents, so if you get a chance, remember the other staff members who keep the resort running.

There were 8 weddings planned for the Melia during the week of our stay, so the resort was quite full. We watched the florists creating lovely floral arrangements on the pillars leading up to the gazebo on the afternoon of one of the weddings. What a beautiful location overlooking the ocean for the service!

Considering the fact that they go through the same thing every week with the 200+ guests from Toronto departing at the same time, one would think that they would have more than one staff person at the desk at check-out time. However, they did open the buffet early for us at 6:30 a.m. so that we could have breakfast before leaving for the airport.

For me, the most important question after having stayed at a place for a week is: would I return to this resort? In a word - absolutely! I would not recommend this place for someone looking for a party atmosphere. However, if you want a beautiful beach, a relaxing atmosphere, and a place where you are treated like a welcome guest, the Melia Cayo Santa Maria is the perfect choice.


Melia Cayo Santa Maria Bellagio Leicester, UK

Flight: I flew with Excel Airways from London Gatwick on Sunday 1st May on board a Boeing 767 200 series aircraft seating 290 passengers on the inaugural UK flight into Santa Clara airport. We had previously been advised that the aircraft would need to refuel at Gander airport in Newfoundland as the flight to Cuba was too far for this particular type of aircraft to fly non-stop. This first leg of the flight lasted 4.40 hours and we were required to stay on board whilst refuelling took place, which took just over an hour. We then continued our journey to Santa Clara reaching there at 5.30pm, the second leg of the flight lasting just under 6 hours.

The airport is very tiny and passengers were off loaded from the plane in two stages in an effort to prevent congestion. However once you passed through immigration and then through the hand luggage scan and security check the area set aside for baggage collection was ridiculously small. The cases were off loaded from the containers and passed down a chute where two airport personnel stacked them on the floor to await collection by the passengers as they gradually arrived though immigration and security. Well it was total chaos as there were so many suitcases scattered all over the floor and people were pushing by trying to locate theirs whilst the guys were still continuing to stack yet more cases in an ever decreasing area of floor space. Unfortunately this airport, in its current state, is totally unsuited to handling aircraft containing nearly 300 people.

Anyway after 2 hours everyone was seated aboard the eight air conditioned luxury coaches provided and we had a police motor cycle escort as far as the causeway. Once seated you were then handed an envelope containing your blue AI bracelet, hotel passport, showing your room number which was needed to obtain the beach towels, key card for your room and registration card which just needed to be filled in and handed to the rep. on the bus. This was a very good idea as it completely cut out the necessity for you to check in on arrival as it had already been done on the bus. The hotel is 110 kilometres away from the airport and the journey lasted about 1.30 hours so it was around 9pm when we eventually arrived at our final destination. We had driven through three towns, including the quite large town of Remedios where many people were sitting outside their houses waving to us. The police escort finally left us when we arrived at the toll booth at the entrance to the causeway but as it was getting dark by then I could see little of the remainder of the journey along the causeway which stretches some 48 kilometres out to sea to Cayo Santa Maria. However we had a truly wonderful greeting on our arrival at the hotel with live music from a band and dancing from the animacion staff dressed in really colourful costumes. Rum and fruit punches were also laid out for us to drink and after a quick couple of these I made my way for a quick check of my room before returning to sample the buffet just before it closed. I then returned to my room only to find my baggage still had not been delivered, but after a phone call to the front desk it arrived soon afterwards.

Background: The Melia hotel was opened in December 2003 and is owned by Gaviota but managed by SolMelia. It comprises 358 rooms - 18 bungalows of 16 rooms and 9 bungalows of 8 rooms. Construction is currently well underway on a new Melia hotel to the east of the property, but it is far enough away in my opinion not to inconvenience guests currently staying at the Melia. I would have thought that the new hotel would have been called a Paradisus, but according to the information I could glean it is still to be called a Melia hotel. To the east of the Melia lies the Sol hotel which is some 4 years older and can be accessed by means of a pathway between Bungalows 04 and 06 of the Melia and also via the beach if so desired. Melia guests have the use of all the facilities of the Sol but cannot eat over there, despite it saying on their website that you are able to. Should you try to eat over there staff will usually point to your wristband and politely advise you that you cannot be served. During the course of my stay the hotel occupancy rate was around 69%. I found this a most acceptable level and I would imagine if the hotel was full to capacity the buffet restaurant would have been bursting at the seams. I, personally, only received one mosquito bite during the whole of my stay, possibly due to my strict regime of applying a deet based repellent before venturing out every evening.

Room: I had emailed the hotel two weeks earlier with a room request and I was delighted to see that it had been honoured, apart from the king sized bed. I was in room no. 0723, located on the second floor of Bungalow 07 with a magnificent full panoramic view of the ocean. I could not have been more pleased. As you open the door you enter a hall area with a wicker stand for storage of your suitcase plus an umbrella stand, complete with umbrella, which I'm pleased to say I never found necessary to use during the whole of my stay. This area can be separated from the remainder of the room by the drawing of a curtain if required.

The main area of the room consisted of 2 three quarter sized beds pushed close together with bedside cabinets at the side. A mosquito net draped from the ceiling was also provided should it be required. Room furniture consisted of a large, very comfortable wrought iron couch, coffee table, armchair, desk with chair, TV on top of the unit that contains the mini fridge and also the coffee maker. The mini fridge contains 1 x 1.5 litre bottle of water, 1 x 0.5 litre bottle of sparkling water and 4 cans mixed of orange, lemonade and Mayabe beer all replenished daily as required.

There is an archway, again curtain across if required, leading into area which contains the vanity unit (wash basin), hairdryer and also bathroom scales. To the right of this is a two door closet which houses the iron and ironing board and has a hanging rail with twelve coat hangers, a shoe rack, three drawers for clothes storage and three deep shelves, one of which houses the mini safe which is secured by entering in your selected PIN on the key pad, whilst the other two contain two blankets and two extra pillows for the bed. On the left hand side there is a door which leads to the bathroom which contains the bath with shower over, WC pedestal and bidet. two large shower gels and one bottle of shampoo, along with soaps are provided in a zipped Sol Melia bag and will be replaced when required, not by the chambermaid, but by calling the front desk. Two face cloths were also provided and the two bath towels and two hand towels plus the extra towel provided to stand on when climbing out of the shower, were of good quality and were replaced daily if left in the bath as requested. Constant hot water was always available at any time day or night for showering and the pressure of the water was excellent.

The air conditioning I had to keep running day and night during my visit in order to maintain an acceptable level. I felt that the vent above the entrance to the wash room area was far too small for the size of the room. I checked out a room over at the next door Sol and the vent there was much larger for a smaller room, which resulted in a much cooler and more pleasant temperature being maintained. Electricity is 220 volts taking either the European (Not UK) two or three pronged plug or the North American two pronged flat pin, but because of the voltage difference Canadians will need to use a converter. However there is one 115 volt plug in the bathroom suitable for running an electric razor and that was configured for the two pronged flat pin plug that the Canadians use..

The patio doors lead to a quite large sized balcony equipped with the standard two wicker chairs and table. There was also a sliding mesh door that you could use if you needed to keep the patio door open and this would prevent any bugs from entering the room. However once you opened the patio door the air conditioning automatically cut off.

Beach: This is the jewel in the crown at this resort. It would be hard to find a better beach anywhere in the world than this. The sand is white and the sea is turquoise, picture postcard perfect as many of my photos show. There are quite a number of palapas with sun beds at the back of the beach but these do get taken quite early on. There is a row of sun beds about five yards in front of these and some of these are usually available throughout the day. The beach directly in front of the Melia does have a slight drop as you go into the ocean and also the sand is soft and quite difficult to walk on at this point. However if you walk about 60 yards to the east towards the resort that is under construction the sand is firm and white and there is no drop whatsoever into the ocean. You can walk for over 2 miles in this direction before coming to a section of coral that extends out into the water.

The first week of my visit the sea was calm as the temperatures soared into the nineties but during the second week, although we had no rain, the wind strengthened and most days the red flag was flying. The ocean had more of a swell and the waves were higher and stronger but it was still quite safe and good fun to be in. There was no seaweed at all on the beach during the first week but with the rougher seas some did come ashore during the second week but it was cleared first thing each morning.

Water Sports Centre : This is located on the beach on the dividing line between the Sol and Melia hotels and is a shared facility. Here they have a large floating trampoline which they anchor about 5 yards out to sea when the ocean is calm. There are about 8 Hobie Cats available but you are not able to sail these yourself, a member of staff has to do the sailing. Two types of pedaloes are available along with kayaks and windsurfing. You can take out the X14 sailing craft (crew of one, sort of like a Laser) or the Hunter 140 (crew of two) unaccompanied, if the winds are light and if you know how to sail, but you are required to sign a document stating that you know what you are doing, and making you responsible for any damage you might incur.

Pools: The two pools and the surrounding landscaping are very beautiful. There is an elevated section between the two pools that has three large palapas which will take two or three sun beds and set in the centre of this is a heated jacuzzi. The pool closest to the Snack Bar has the swim up bar which is basically only accessible from the pool. The other pool is shallower in parts and is suitable for children. There were plenty of umbrellas and wooden sun loungers with 'floaties' on them around both pools, but these were usually taken up by 9am in the morning. Unfortunately some guests were in the habit of taking these 'floaties' to their rooms overnight to ensure they would have one for the next morning, a particularly nauseating habit in my opinion. Most sun beds both at the beach and the pool were being reserved early on by use of the beach towels. I can honestly say that I am NEVER party to this game but as I hardly ever use a sun lounger either at the beach or by the pool it isn't a problem for me. I feel sad to report that the 'towel' reservation system appeared to be being practised by most guests during the morning and early afternoon as far as I could see. I sat in the jacuzzi one afternoon for over half an hour and all the sun beds under the three palapas in there were unoccupied but were still 'reserved' by beach towels.

Restaurants: As a MAS cardholder I had emailed the hotel ahead and requested they book me the a la cartes in advance. Although the brochure said there were only two a la carte restaurants, all the reviews had indicated that there were four. However on arrival in my room I opened the envelope that contained my restaurant reservations to find that only two had been booked. Later I found out that the final night at the Pool side Lobster grill had been three days earlier and that the Creole restaurant (the Beach Snack bar in the daytime) had also closed for the season. This just left me with the two a la carte options at the El Portulano, Mediterranean restaurant and the Casa Da Vinci, Italian Restaurant. Normally these restaurants can be booked at the Customer Services desk in the lobby area between 9am - 5pm. Plans are on display to build a Japanese restaurant close to the Mediterranean restaurant and this should prove to be a much needed addition to the rather limited availability of a la carte restaurants available at present.

Mediterranean: My second night's dining was in this restaurant where I ate a most disappointing Filet Mignon, This had been recommended to me by a previous guest but it was far too chewy for my liking and the portions of vegetables that accompanied it were minuscule by any standards. The whole meal was so disappointing that I have completely forgotten what I had for a starter and dessert. There was a lovely trio playing music on a flute, violin and bass and this I felt to be the most enjoyable part of the whole evening.

Italian: On the third night of my holiday I dined in this restaurant. My first bottle of red wine was far too dry for my palate so it was quickly replaced with something more palatable, I started with a rather bland minestrone soup and then as nothing else really appealed to me on the menu I had some sort of chicken dish that was nothing really exciting either.. For dessert I had the cheesecake which was fine and I finished the meal off with an excellent Spanish coffee as I had done the previous evening in the Mediterranean restaurant.

Buffet: Breakfast hours are from 7am - 10am and consisted of the usual standard fare. Once seated the waitress would serve you with orange juice and coffee as required. The orange juice was from freshly squeezed oranges and I have to say it was truly wonderful. To eat, I generally just had two fried eggs on toast although I did try the bacon on a few occasions but it just was far too fatty and had a funny taste to it (just as it did at the Playa Pesquero) . The sausages were not to my taste either. At the same station where your eggs were fried you could choose to have omelettes which were cooked with fresh eggs and a good selection of toppings if required. Scrambled eggs and French toast were also available. Two toasting machines meant that there was little queuing unless it was very busy.

Lunch is served here also between 1pm and 3pm and this was often the best meal of the day with a choice of two soups and usually a lovely joint of ham that was carved for you. I have to say this was delicious and I would have settled for that for every meal. The selection of vegetables was not particularly appealing to me I have to admit and there was generally a lack of potatoes (apart from fries}.. There was a pasta station and an assortment of mixed salads available with a range of desserts that included pastries, fresh pineapple, mango and also usually a selection of tinned fruit including peaches, pears and pineapples.

The evening buffet from 7.00 -10.00 was somewhat similar to the luncheon buffet including the choice of two soups, but from the grill section you could have pork chops, chicken or beef grilled for you and there was always an ample supply of fresh French fries. In addition to the mixed salads available, you could select your own salads and if you so required have them mixed for you. Cold meats and cheeses were always available and during the first week smoked salmon, but by the second week that seem to have disappeared completely. On the carvery section there was usually a large fish available and alongside this a meat or poultry joint which varied from night to night from being turkey, chicken, joint of beef, a large leg of lamb or a roasted pig, all of which were absolutely delicious. The usual array of pastries, cakes and fruits were available for dessert with the added addition of a nightly flambe, be it banana, pineapple or guava. The main problem here was that if you arrived quite late in the buffet say about 8.30pm the main carvery joint of the day had finished and frequently was not replaced. This I found quite hard to understand and unacceptable. I know it's Cuba, but this is a 4 star plus hotel and if the buffet is open until 10pm I would expect the full range of food to be available until at least 9.30pm if not later. As there are only two very small a la carte restaurants in operation at the present time, it should not be difficult to work out how many guests would be dining each evening so enough turkey, beef, pork or lamb should have been available. Also there was a sign in the window of the buffet restaurant recommending that there be two sittings one commencing at 7.00pm and the other at 8.30pm, well if you had arrived at 8.30pm every night I don't think you would have been a happy camper on every occasion with the selection that was available. I can only assume that as the low season had just started and with the closure of the other two a la cartes, coupled with the first ever arrival of the food loving Brits some miscalculations had taken place with regard to food quantities and I trust this will soon be corrected.

Casa Da Vinci 24 hour snack bar: I only had one meal in here at lunch time. I ordered a pizza and it was just a small all cheese pizza - very disappointing. At least over at the Sol at their 'Los Flamencos' snack bar you were able to get a pizza complete with toppings

El Almirante Beach Snack bar: Opening hours 0930-1830 This seemed quite a popular spot for lunch time dining. They had a selection of salads and some hot food, but you could also order from the menu and have waitress service. I did eat there on a couple of occasions eating fried chicken with fries but hamburger and fries were also available along with a couple of other choices..

Lobby Bar: This is open 24 hours per day and they have quite a good selection of international brand drinks, plus coffee is served 24 hours of the day if required.. If you chose to sit at one of the tables in this bar waiter service is available, In the far corner of the lobby bar was a solitary pool table. As this was in frequent use I did feel there was sufficient demand for a second table to be provided. The bar staff here were excellent and very friendly. Service was always quick and I cannot speak highly enough of these guys behind the bar.

Leading off the Lobby Bar is the Piano Bar which is totally enclosed and air conditioned.. This is a very relaxing way to spend an evening where you can sit and listen in comfort with excellent waitress service for drinks and listen to the wonderful pianist playing on the grand piano. Some nights, apparently, there is a mother playing the piano with the daughter singing and they are supposed to be very good, but I was never fortunate enough to be there whilst they were performing. After 11.30pm the Piano Bar then becomes the Disco. I never stayed for that, fortunately you could only hear the music from it when people kept opening the door as they were either coming or going.

The evening entertainment takes place in the Theatre close to the Lobby Bar. It's the usual fare for Cuban hotels. I was coerced into watching two of the shows and I must say the costumes were really beautiful and the dancers were very good but the singing was all lip synching to popular songs which is not really up my street. If I am going to listen to singing I want it to be live but in all fairness the entertainment animacion team were all very friendly people and we had a lot of good laughs together.

Other activities: There has been a definitive lack of sporting activities at this hotel in the past but they are attempting to correct that now. Six brand new tennis courts, along with an outdoor squash court, a general sports area suitable for football or volleyball plus a netted area that I believe will be used for baseball hitting practice have just been completed, A new gymnasium has also just been built and is due to be opened around now (late May). Also a small archery and shooting range is under construction at the moment. Previous to this any sporting activity you wished to participate in would necessitate you going over to the next door Sol hotel which would be a bit of a pain I would imagine. Bicycles are available free of charge and are located at the front of the hotel alongside the moped and car hire locations. The hotel has its only mini club complete with pool, but was in little use whilst I was there as few children were present. Towels and sports equipment are available from the towel hut just past the pools and close to the Beach restaurant and this booth is open daily from 9.00am until 6.00pm. Yoannia who is usually 'manning' the station is a really lovely lady and fluent in four languages.

Whilst at the Melia it is worthwhile taking a walk down the road in the direction of the Sol where, across from the entrance to that hotel, you can take a path that leads you down over a bridge to a wooden jetty that extends out into a lagoon where there are four benches to sit on. It was an absolutely beautiful spot, so picturesque and peaceful, I could have stayed there all day..

Excursions: These are the prices quoted for Thomas Cook clients at both the Melia and Sol hotels:

Dolphin Delights - Tues - Adult $115 Child $87 - Lunch included
Havana Day - Thurs - Adult $150 Child $113 - Flying from local airport on Cayo Santa Maria, 10 kilometres from the hotel
Havana 2 days and Tropicana - Wed & Sun - Adult $199 Child N/A - Bus to Havana
Sugar and Rum - Sun, Mon, Wed - Adult $48 Child $36
Catamaran - Daily - Adult $72 Child $36 - Lobster lunch included
Topes overnight - Sun & Thurs - Adult $135 Child $101
Trinidad colonial - Wed - Adult 69 Child 52 - Lunch included
Deep sea fishing - Daily - From $200 per boat
Santa Clara and Remedios - Daily - Adult $51 Child $38
Sunset Cruise - Tues - Adult $35 Child $25- Drinks and dinner included

Child age 3-12, Credit card surcharge of 11.24%
In this instance the $ sign refers to convertible pesos.

Note the Credit card surcharge. This reflects the upward revaluation of the convertible peso by 8% on April 9th 2005 by Fidel Castro.

Return journey: There were 76 Brits to be conveyed back to the airport from the Melia hotel on two coaches, the remaining six coaches were required to transport the 200 other Brits staying at the Sol. Coach pick up times were 11.00am, 11.30am and 12 noon for a projected 5pm departure from Santa Clara airport. I was on the 11.30am coach and when we arrived at the end of the causeway we had to wait for the two 11.30pm coaches from the Sol so we could get our police escort to the airport. Checking in was not the nightmare I had imagined and by 1.25pm I had checked in, paid my 25 cuc departure tax. passed through immigration and managed to find a seat in the 'departure' lounge. Our aircraft was due to fly at 4.55pm so we knew we were in for a very long wait. The aircraft was due to land at 2.55pm - well naturally enough at that time there was no sign of it. We did then have an announcement to the fact that the aircraft would be late because it had flown via Gander and had to stop for refuelling. This did not go down well for we all knew then that we would be flying back on the same aircraft that we had flown out on, despite assurances from both reps at the hotel that this would NOT be the case.

The aircraft finally landed at 3.50pm just under one hour late but soon after this the air conditioning in this tiny room with nowhere enough seats to accommodate the 280 passengers failed. After a further 90 minutes the pilot, first officer and the nine cabin crew, who had been staying at the Melia hotel for the past four days, in order to fly the plane back, boarded the aircraft and I assumed that it would not be long before we would be allowed on board. WRONG. It was another hour later, when people were complaining bitterly about being cooped up in a cattle pen for the past five hours and with no air conditioning for past two hours, that we were finally allowed to board. Once we had all settled into our seats the Captain announced that they had let us onboard early because of the air conditioning problems at the airport. He later comes back on to announce that we would have to return via Gander for refuelling. This did not go down well at all I can tell you because by this time everyone was totally fed up. Eventually, to a large cheer, he came back on the intercom to announce that they had done some recalculations and found out that we could now fly back to Gatwick direct without refuelling en route, but this would result in a further short delay on the ground in Cuba whilst we took on board yet more fuel. This we did and we eventually took off at 7.45pm which meant take it had taken virtually four hours to turn the aircraft around in Cuba and over eight hours after our hotel pick up. Needless to say every passenger vowed they would never again be flying with Excel Airways. In all fairness though, I do have to say that the cabin crew were excellent, one of the best 'teams' I have ever flown with. The problem lies with the Boeing 767 series 200 aircraft, the seats have NO pitch whatsoever, the entertainment system is dire and they are totally unsuited for long haul travel.

My photos of the Melia, Cayo Santa Maria can be viewed at: