|Sol Cayo Santa Maria||Avid||UK|
We arrived at Gatwick airport at around 6:15 am for the 10am flight. The line for the check in was a bit confusing, as there was no differentiation between the different Excel flights. However, just after 6:30 they formed us into another line for the Cuba flight, and we were one of the first people through. There was one couple in front of us who got turned back for excess baggage. The people next to us were having problems as well. We luckily scraped through the baggage allowance and got our tickets.
We were supposed to take off at 10am but we were still boarding at 10am. My first impression of the Excel 767, was that it was not as long as some of the other aircraft I could see. As soon as we boarded we found out that we had the smaller 200 series and not the 300 series as advertised.
All the seats on the Excel flight had leather covers, although they did appear aged. The first thing I noticed when we took our seats was how small they were. The leg room was ok, but I am 5’8. The width of the seats on the other hand was dreadful. There was no way myself and Yvonne could sit comfortably, so one of us had to ensure there arm was across their body, so the other person could sit. I also noticed the lack of seat back screens, but was not to surprised as I had heard before hand that their in flight entertainment was on the poor side. They tend to have small screens aprox 14inch placed every 10 rows or so.
We finally got in the air at 10:45am. Shortly after take off they announced that they had not packed the headphones for the in flight entertainment, but if we had our own headphones we could plug them into the seat and they would work, they also asked us, if we had headphones but did not want to watch the movie to loan them to fellow passengers. Yvonne decided to try to watch the movie, and plugged her new Sennheiser headphones into the seat. I watched as she physically jumped as the sound came through, extremely loud static noise, that blew one side of her headphones, and they were then useless for the rest of the holiday.
The food was served about 2 hours into the flight. Sausage and mash with peas, cheese and biscuits, and a small sponge cake. To be honest it was a nice meal, as plane food goes. The staff on board were very good, and tried their best, the meal was served quickly and was nice and hot.
After 5 and a half hours we descended into Gander in Canada. We were soon on the ground, and I was so glad to see it so I could get off and have a walk around while the plane refueled. I have stopped in Gander before, so was used to the holding area for passengers while planes refuel, but at least you can get a drink, and use a proper toilet. However Excel don’t seem to like letting their passenger off, I guess they must like DVT in their passengers. We were instructed to stay seated during refueling, and to take our seat belts off, incase of an emergency. (Thanks for that)
They had the plane refuelled in just over and hour and we were back in the air. Now for another 5 hours with no entertainment. I spent the time reading and checking my watch, until were about 40 mins away and they announced they would be spraying the cabin with disinfectant, as per Cuban regulations. After they had finished we started our decent into Cuba. We came down very low and seemed to fly at this height for a long time, much longer than I have ever experienced, I would say about 15 mins. We past the airport to the left hand side of the plane, and then did some spectacular banking maneuvers with the plane making shuddering noises, a few mins later we were on the ground.
Being at the front of the plane, we were some of the first off, as they asked we disembarked in two groups, governed by seat numbers. We walked down the steps and onto the runway. I could feel the heat hit me as soon as I reached the door way of the plane J we were lined up at the door way to the airport and were then taken in. We had to line up at the immigration booths, and then were filtered through. I was the very first person through, and when I got through the door on the other side, I could see that this airport could not hand what was about to come. The room the other side was very small, with a straight case conveyor belt, about 15 feet long. As the people started coming through, the room started to get more and more crowded. The cases were trickling through, and the 2 Cuban gentlemen trying to get the cased off, and line them up were facing an impossible task, as more people started to arrive, and try to find their cases. Very quickly I could see that tempers were beginning to get frayed, and this was not an idea situation. The Cuban immigration sniffer dogs were out as well clambering over all the cases, but it was nice to see the dogs enjoying themselves J Another problem with this is that there was only one toilet in this room. Not one male and one female, just one stand alone toilet, with a lady outside guarding the door. I decided to go outside and come back for my case as it was getting mad in that room, however we found out that if you went out you couldn’t get back in, so we stayed and stuck it out.
As soon as we got out, Yvonne went to change money while I queued at the rep stalls to get our envelope. They are very efficient at this, and we had our envelope within mins. In the envelope was a welcome map of the hotel, our bright orange wrist bands, room cards, and a safe key. It was so nice not to be checked in at this point and not to have to queue again.
The cased were loaded onto the coach, and we got on. The coach was very nice and air conditioned. After another half hour we were on our way. The coaches leave in a convoy with a police escort. The rep insured us that the police escort was nothing to worry about, and was just there to clear the road of people on push bikes and on horses and the like. The sun was beginning to go down as we set off, and towards the end of the journey we were in darkness. However we did see some of the towns on the way through.
I began to fall asleep on the bus, and must have drifted a bit, as we were soon at the hotel, when in fact the journey takes around 80 mins. The arrival at the hotel was a loud affair, the rep told us to forget our luggage, and that it would be taken to our rooms for us. We got off the bus to a live band and colorful dancers handing out cocktails. Even though I was half asleep, it was a lovely way to arrive. We tried to find out room. This is not an easy task in the dark, as the hotel is like a maze. However they have people strategically placed to point you in the right direction. We got into our room, and it was boiling. I found that the main power was powered by the key card. We put in the second key card and the aircon burst into life. We set it on high, and as cold as it would go, and headed out for some food. By the time we got back the room was chilled J
We did not do much that night, just crash out. However the rooms are very nice. We had 2 double beds, 2 rocking chairs, a fridge, a TV a safe and a nice bathroom with a bath with a shower over it. We were given a bottle of water in our fridge on arrival, and were told that we could get it filled up at any bar, and we could drink the water if we wanted to as it’s treated. We left to go for breakfast and our first real look at the complex. We were very impressed with what we saw. The hotel is set in very lush vegetation, which is a good thing, and a bad thing. Good points, is it seems to be a home for wildlife, and we saw some amazing lizards and birds around there, but it can make you feel a bit enclosed sometimes. We had an upstairs room that viewed out over the sea, but the vegetation came up to our balcony. I would have imagined it must have been very dark for the people downstairs. We found our way to breakfast in the main buffet restaurant. The choice of food there is very good. There is a choice of croissants, breads, cold meats, cheese, fruits, and full cooked breakfast, with an omelet station. Also there is a man making pancakes as well J my favourite bit was the orange juice. They have a machine freshly squeezing it J
We left for the welcome talk, but to be honest, I wished we hadn’t. Nothing against the reps, they were lovely, but it was an hour sitting listening to sales talk about the trips, and to be honest I was still tired from the flights so wasn’t interested.
We left and went for a walk to the beach. The beach is about 30 seconds walk from the edge of the hotel, and has wooden walkway bridges to it. WOW was my first opinion when I saw the beach. The sea is like you see in pictures, a beautiful turquoise blue, and the sand looked so white.
Walking on the beach though is a little difficult. The consistency of the sand is such that you sink in it no matter which bit you walk on, but it’s a tiny price to pay when you see it. We went for a swim in the sea, and it was lovely. Even with my Speedo goggles I could see loads of brightly coloured fish, as we were only up to our waist in the water. Another thing to say, is that the sea slopes in quite steeply, so it may not be ideal for small children or midgets.
For lunch there were many options, there is a beach bar, which as the name suggests is right on the beach. They serve cheeseburgers, hotdogs, grilled chicken and chips and the food there was very nice J we mostly ate in los flamencos where they served cheese burgers, hotdogs, chips and pizza. The Pizza’s there were lovely, and made freshly to order J however the pina coladas there are amazing. They make them with the slushy machine, so they are icy cold. Many an afternoon was wasted there drinking the rum heavy pina coladas, but what are holidays for J
We ate once in the buffet restaurant at lunch time, and that was fine, however I tend to over indulge in a buffet so it’s not ideal for me.
The bars are in plentiful supply during the day time, but I feel at night they could do with another. In the evening they have only the patio bar and the pool bar open. The piano bar is also open, but this is intended to be more of a quiet/romantic couple bar, with candle lit tables. However by the end of the holiday, it had been taken over by larger crowds of people, and it seemed to spoil the atmosphere a bit.
The mosquitos were not really a problem, we only put repellant on at night, and didn’t finish one bottle of it between the two of us. However this may be a seasonal thing so make sure you take some as there is potential there for them to be a problem, with all the vegetation and stagnant water.
The swimming pools are very nice, they have 3 separate pools, one is very shallow, like a splash pool for toddlers, and people who just want to get their feet wet. The other pool is the ‘fun’ pool, which has the pool bar in the centre. However it is not a swim up bar, it can only be reached by the bridge. This pool is the most sizeable pool, but is very busy with people playing volley ball, and with the animation team doing water aerobics and the like. There is also another adult pool for swimming and relaxing by, set further away, however it is in reach of the fun pool, and often had kids running past and jumping into it, dropping water over the sunbathers.
Next to the fun pool is the animation centre, where you can get your towels exchanged. They also have a couple of pool/small snooker tables there. Also table football and table tennis. The cloth on the pool tables is awful, so don’t expect much of a game, it actually has folds in it lol.
There is a water activity centre on the beach, where they loan snorkeling equipment. This is included in the hotel, so does not cost extra. They also have pedal boats and small sail boats. I think Mr B took a pedal boat out, but we didn’t. We did however borrow some snorkeling gear, as we left ours at home by accident. It was not of good quality, and both mine and Yvonne’s masks leaked, they were ok for just splashing about near the shore. We saw some fantastic fish, and even managed to get a few pictures of them J
As I said before, the resort is quite large, and they have little golf carts, buzzing around the hotel, that you can catch a lift on if your tired of walking J We went to reception one day to ask about walks, where we could see wildlife and flowers an the like. The must have misunderstood us, as she called over one of the golf cart men, who took us on a tour of the hotel complex, and the neighbouring Melia complex. This was brilliant. The driver of the golf cart, had near perfect English, and kept stopping at different places to show us indigenous plants, and to explain what other uses they have in Cuba. Including one called Noni, which is used for the treatment of Cancer.
He also took us out to the Zaida del Rio Villa. This private Villa, is on the hotel complex, and has its own private pool, Jacuzzi, and private chef, as well as its own private access to the beach. You can upgrade to this Villa, however its $300 a night on top of the standard room rate….ouch!
We did manage to go on a few walks when we were there. Opposite the entrance to the Sol, is a sign for ‘Megano Beach’ we followed the path down for a hundred meters or so, and found ourselves on a long wooden jetty, that goes out into a lagoon. We spent a good while here, as it’s absolutely beautiful. If you’re prepared to wait, and to look there is a lot of wildlife here. We even saw a blue crab. I have never seen a blue one before, but he looked amazing.
We also walked to the left of the hotel for aprox 1 hour and got out onto the main causeway. We saw some nice birds here, however the road is busy with construction workers, and we got sick of getting dust blasted every time a lorry went past. We did also walk for an hour to the right of the hotel, right to the end of the road. There is some fantastic black rock here, that looks volcanic, and we have been told some amazing snorkeling, to be had off the shore here. We walked on after the road ended, towards what looked like small buildings, and some old construction site material. However when we got a bit closer I noticed a lot of antennas and thought it may have been something military. This suspicion was confirmed when 30 seconds later we saw about 10 soldiers all in uniform. At this point we turned around and went back the way we had come. After talking to Wossa at the bar later on, he had gone up that way and continued on through the military buildings (he said the soldiers were fine with him going through) he found an amazing part of the beach where you could walk out into the sea, and it was fantastic for snorkeling. That will teach me to be braver next time.
We did not get up to anything else really, as the holiday was just about relaxing, and getting away from the craziness of life. With this in mind the holiday was a complete success.
The flight home
We were luckier than some people, as we were on the last lot of busses to leave. They left at 11am 11:30am and 12. We were on the 12 o’clock bus. The check out went very smoothly, apart from that I think the phone calls were very expensive. We called home 4 times, for very brief calls, and it came to £50. Another thing I really liked, was that the hotel made everyone a packed lunch, with a sandwich, banana, biscuit and a drink.
The busses took us to the airport where the mayhem began. There was already a queue of people outside the airport trying to get in. As usual there was a mass scramble of the people on the busses, trying to get their cases, as quickly as possible, and join the queue. As we had some pesos left we used one of the porters. Normally I wouldn’t bother as it’s only a few steps from the door, but we were glad we did. He joined the queue, up the steps (as it was smaller than the ramp queue) and carried our cases in. As soon as we were inside he opened the queuing rope, and moved our cases right into a check in line, and ushered us through. A felt a little embarrassed about this as we had just jumped about 100 places in the queue, but the Cuban guards there called us through, so in we went.
We quickly got checked in, and were given our seat numbers, however all the seats in 2’s had gone, and we found ourselves in a 4. Not ideal considering how small the seats were on the way out. After checking in we joined the queue to pay out 25pesos each leaving tax. After this we had to go through a final check of the passports. I went through with little interaction, but they asked Yvonne several questions, about what she did for a living, and they wanted her to tell them about the place she had stayed in. Once through, we arrived in the waiting area. This is clearly too small for the amount of people there, and there is not enough seats for people to sit down. We took comfort in the fact that we only had to stand for another 2 and a half hours. Luckily we meet up with Mr B and Wossa, who had been on the earlier buses, and had managed to get themselves seats. Mr B being the gent he is, gave up his seat for Yvonne, and we all participated in a game of musical chairs, as we all took turns in standing and sitting. There is a small snack bar where you can buy food and drink, and even a Coca Cola. We bought a burger as we were hungry for 2 pesos, which isn’t to pricey at all. There was also a small gift shop/duty free place. I wouldn’t rely on doing your shopping here, as it was very small.
As time marched on, we got closer to the arrival time of the incoming flight. This came…..and went. Then there was an announcement, by someone that works for the airport. Excel had not been able to get the 767 300 series plane, so they had planned on using a 747 jumbo. However, the runway in Santa Clara could not cope with a 747 so we were using the 767 200 series again. The incoming flight was going to be late, because surprise surprise it was flying via Gander and had to stop for refueling. We had another hour tagged onto our flight time. Just after this announcement, the lights went off for a second or two and then came back on. However the aircon didn’t restart with them. By now people were getting very angry, as people had been complaining to Thomas Cook about the flight out, and had been assured that the plane coming out was a temporary measure, to get us out there as the 300 series was out of service, and that we would not be flying back on it.
Approximately fifty minutes later, the Excel plane landed. And the tired looking passengers, started their trek across the runways, as we had done 14 days earlier. We still had to wait for all their luggage to come off and for the plain to be cleaned and fueled before we could move out of a building that due to the lack of air con was now becoming like an oven. After another 90 minutes or so the cabin crew and pilots for our flight began to trickle through our holding cell, and making their way to the plane. I saw many passengers speaking to the Captain and first officer, trying to explain our plight. After another hour we were told that we could board the flight. A massive cheer went up as people started to push towards the doors. By now people just wanted to get into air conditioning, and we knew the plane had it.
Thirty minutes later, and we are all aboard the plane waiting to fly. The captain comes on the speaker. They are currently doing their paperwork and flight plans, and have let us onboard, due to the aircon problems in the airport. Everyone was very disappointed that we were not taking off, but glad we were not in that building. After 45 minutes the captain came on again to tell us that there are just finishing off, but due to the plane we would have to go via Gander on the way home. At this point I was expecting world war 3 to break out, as people were so tired, and dehydrated and angry, but with mass grumblings people accepted it. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, before being told that they had done some recalculations, and that we could fly direct to Gatwick. However, we would have to wait another 45 mins while they added more fuel to the plane to get us there.
Eventually we were up in the air, after what seemed like a life time. They started to sell the headphones for the films, at £2.50 each. However a large section of the rear left of the planes didn’t work, due to a wiring problem in the entertainment system. However we were lucky or unlucky enough for ours to work. They showed 2 of the worse films I have ever seen. I would imagine straight to video films. The food again on the way back was sausage and mash, or a chicken hot pot. I went for the sausage again, as it was good on the way out, and better the devil you know.
The flight back went smoothly, apart from that they had nothing savoury like Pringles or nuts for sale, and they ran out of cigarettes on duty free.
The landing in Gatwick was scary, the plane seemed to swerve hard to the right as it touched down, which made people around me gasp and grab onto the seats in front, but we got there safely.
Would I go back to Cayo Santa Maria……..any day of the week
Would I go back with Excel………highly doubtful
Excel has the potential to ruin what could be a fantastic holiday destination. I really hope they get their act together soon, as I would imagine Thomas Cook customer services are going to feel the brunt of the complaints, as Excels customer service is virtually non existent, and they may feel that the resort isn’t worth the hassle.
We like Cayo Santa Maria so much, that we want to get married there next year…………but after the Excel experience we may look elsewheretop