Travelling to Cuba, or any long-haul destination for that matter is not exactly cheap for us Brits. Canadians, and now even Americans, have it easier and closer to home. But those visiting from the UK will easily spend well over £700 per return flight journey per person when organising a Cuba holiday. So no, it’s not like going to Malaga, Mykonos or the Amalfi coast and jumping onboard a low-cost carrier. However, many luxury hotels these attractive European destinations may boast, they don’t work out as expensive because of the proximity. Yet they can’t be compared to the Caribbean, least of all to Cuba.
This is why when considering to splash the cash on a pampering beach holiday in Cuba’s famed Varadero beach, picking the hotel is a crucially important decision, especially in a developing country still working on driving up its sometimes lacklustre luxury standards. So, as soon as our eyes stumbled upon it , we knew which one we were going for.
Why the Iberostar Bella Vista?
My trip to Cuba wasn’t a strictly leisurely one. My main purpose of travel was to see extended family and for my aging and frail grandparents to get to meet my one-year-old toddler while admiring how much my now four-year-old son had grown since his last visit three years ago, when he was as old as my daughter now was. Therefore, I spent most of my two-week Cuba trip based in Havana, visiting family and friends (which happen to live quite far from each other) and there wasn’t a lot of extra time left for frolicking in the beach. Still, it had to be done, I had to take my children to Varadero and I wanted to treat all of us to a few days of complete switch-off and beach-basking. Not that you can truly disconnect with a toddler and a pre-schooler, but we’d still take the closest we could get to the word “relaxation”.
We looked around for best-value-for money and kid-friendly Varadero hotels, spent a good while reading reviews and comparing prices until we were finally recommended the Iberostar Bella Vista by the expert team at Cuba Holidays, which also happened to be on offer as it had only been opened for a couple of months. It meant we could stretch our travel budget that bit further to allow us a brief three-day stint at a luxury Varadero resort. We don’t regret the choice for a millisecond. Our only regret is not having been able to make it a longer stay.
First impressions - Location
We arrived at the hotel at after a two-hour ride on a Transtur bus coach from Havana, stopping midway to enjoy freshly-squeezed pina coladas at a thatched hut perfectly with live music from a Cuban trio playing traditional sounds. I had the pina colada brought to the coach as my daughter had fallen asleep in my arms. The hotel was the penultimate stop (last one was Paradisus Varadero standing right at the end of the Hicacos peninsula in the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve) and as such is one of the furthest away from downtown and its attractions (mainly its popular arts and crafts market but also its charming clean streets, horse-drawn carriages and friendly locals). Indeed, the Bella Vista feels remote and isolated and this has its advantages and disadvantages.
On the downside, we were about 20 minutes to downtown and unlike other hotels, the Iberostar Bella Vista doesn’t offer a shuttle service there. Going would have cost us about 15 CUC each way, which is not cheap. We would have gone if I hadn’t been before but for the distance and cost involved, and considering I was only staying three nights in Varadero, it wasn’t worth the hassle.
On the upside, we did have the Melia Las Americas hotel next door, with its adjacent Varadero Golf Club (the only 18-hole championship golf club in all of Cuba at present) and the Plaza America Shopping centre, with a lot of convenient little shops, a bank for exchanging money, a pharmacy and a shop selling local textile goods and a good and varied array of souvenirs. We did venture here one day trying to find a set of beach toys (bucket, sand molds, tools and such) for our little ones to enjoy the beach, but sadly we didn’t, as they had run out of stock, but this kind of thing is not uncommon in Cuba and actually to be expected, so remember to bring your own essentials. However, I’m sure we’d have more luck in the many shops and stalls and downtowns but we didn’t want a trip there eating more of our holiday time.
Instead, we did buy a small selection of well-priced souvenirs and beachwear. The fact that the shopping centre was close to the hotel, didn’t mean it was within easy walking distance (around 25 minutes on foot going through the beach) but with easily tired/bored kids we weren’t going to make it on foot. It was a five-minute ride by taxi, which we ordered from the hotel desk. Now, be careful here about specifying that you want an average 5 CUC taxi and not a roofless classic car (unless of course you do) as we were charged triple the normal rate – 15 CUC for a few seconds’ ride. This was money completely wasted as the journey wasn’t scenic and too short to enjoy. On our way back we hailed one of the ordinary taxis parked outside the shopping centre and agreed upfront that the fare would be 5 CUC to our hotel.
Gigantic would be a good word to describe it, windy would be another. Elegant would be my third choice. The large open-plan lobby is open on all sides which means that right at the entrance gusty winds can literally blow you over - however high the temperatures might be at the peak of summer you would instantly be refreshed upon walking in. Be mindful of wearing a short dress or skirt, hold on tight to the hem as you enter the lobby because it will fly up (it happened to me, eek!).
The vibe is modern elegant with contemporary, comfortable furniture throughout, including the roofless wooden sundeck the lobby leads onto, with luxurious Balinese style beds overlooking the pools and the sea beyond. Were it not for our hyperactive kids we would have enjoyed lingering there with a drink or two.
The lobby was the main centre of entertainment action at the hotel during most evenings (we were there only three nights and it rained on most, so maybe they do rotate between lobby and other areas when it isn’t wet). During our time at Iberostar Bella Vista we got to see several shows and live acts, but more on this later in the entertainment section.
This is a hotel that has over 800 rooms, so a lobby this big certainly means room for everyone and never feels crowded (not even during theme parties, you’ll still find a seat). There was a day in our stay where it rained all morning (and then some more in the afternoon) and the entertainment team had to improvise games and dancing lessons on the lobby. Because there was nowhere else to be, it felt like all hotel guests were there, and they all fit fine. Now I can’t tell you whether when we went perhaps the hotel was operating at full capacity, probably not, but it certainly wasn’t empty.
The spacious, modern rooms
The rooms get a big thumbs up for me. I got to inspect four of them on the same floor (6th) as we were staying with extended family members – my mum and dad had a room, my grandmother and aunt shared another while my sister and her boyfriend had a third one. Because I had booked my room separately for my family and my father had booked the rooms for the rest of the extended family members, all their rooms were next to each other and on the same side, overlooking the pools and the beach beyond – the best views there are unless you are located on a higher floor (it goes up to 11th).
We weren’t as lucky as them, despite being on the same floor and on the same end of the corridor our room was on the opposite side, meaning our balcony looked out onto a not so-pretty sandy stretch with a building site (we’re not quite sure what they’re building here, perhaps an extension of the resort itself?). Not very attractive, but we didn’t mind as we planned to stay inside the rooms as little as possible.
Regardless of views, all rooms were equally modern, clean and spacious. No issues with the changing of bath towels (if you want them to be changed daily just leave them on the floor) or re-stocking the mini bar, which comes with a big bottle of water, a can of beer and two canned soft drinks, all of which was replenished daily without fault. I don’t have anything negative to say about the cleaning service, they left everything spotless day after day.
The stunning pools
This was my kids’ favourite part of the hotel and with good reason. The large kids’ pools are nothing short of amazing, with two awesome waterslides, one in the shape of an orca and the other in the shape of a dragon – I saw kids of all ages having a blast, even tweens! There was a smaller slide for younger tots in the shape of a turtle, and my four-year-old favoured this one as the bigger ones proved a bit more daunting. He did enjoy them but only if one of us slid down with him (which many parents did) otherwise stepping into the darkness of these beast’s mouths with strong bursts of water coming at you from all directions was a bit scary for him.
The shallowness of both kids’ pools means peace of mind for parents as even my 16-month-old was at ease wading along on her own without much difficulty (of course babies this young can slip so an adult must always be near).
Mere steps from the kids’ pools are the two large adult pools, one of which sits adjacent to a swim-up bar serving a variety of drinks and cocktails. They both have depths of 140 metres at the shallowest points which means they’ve been designed for adults’ use. That’s not to say children don’t join parents at the adult pools as in fact many do with the aid of inflatables or indeed many children past the age of five are able to swim unaided. None of the pools were serviced by lifeguards, at least not during the days I stayed, so parents must keep an extra close eye and never expect to rely on external help.
I’ve noticed that many on TripAdvisor seem to complain that the adults’ pools have not been explicitly labelled as adults-only and have children and tweens splashing about. In my personal experience, there were families with children in the adult’s pool on the left but none on the right, meaning there is room to accommodate both: parents wanting to swim in depths past ankle-deep while minding their kids, and adults travelling solo, as friends or couples and seeking a quieter atmosphere. Perhaps this is something management could address by declaring one of the two adult pools strictly off-limits to younger guests, while allowing families on the other. It would seem like a fair compromise to me.
There’s a third, smaller, paddling pool inside the kid’s club area, where my son also made a splash as part of the organised activities for children. Two to three monitors were in charge of looking after groups of kids no bigger than 10, aged between 4 and 9 approximately.
Fantastic kids facilities and mini-club
Having just mentioned the kids’ club and its friendly monitors naturally leads me to the part about the hotel’s fabulous facilities for children and the daily activities programme planned for the youngest.
You’ll find the Iberostar Star Friends kids’ club adjacent to the kids’ pool and an outdoor playground with swings and slides (a large twisting purple slide and smaller more conventional straight slide). The area is built around a circular centre hall, with two buildings acting as purposely-designed toilets for children and a main room for games with hula hoops, a drawing wall with coloured chalks, fancy costumes, board games and more.
On the day we arrived one of the kids’ club monitors approached us after spotting us in the pool and told us all about the kids’ club and the organised activities for the day along with opening times. She cheerfully greeted my son and invited him to come over the kids’ club next day. She also had compliments for my daughter but at 16 months old she was far too young to participate in the games. She did however tell me that all monitors were certified childminders and that they also offered in-room babysitting services for an extra fee. We might have considered using babysitting services on one night to have a quiet meal but as we were only going to be there three days it wasn’t worth the hassle.
The next day after breakfast we dropped our son in the kids’ club, where the monitors were busy face painting two other children but quickly acknowledged him and told him he’d be next. Sure enough it was my son’s turn after less than three minutes and he quickly made friends. They said they were going to play dress up and asked him to choose a costume, but as he wanted his face painted as a dinosaur and they didn’t have dinosaur costumes he was happy not to fancy dress that day. He did dress up as a lion the next day and they did a long conga line throughout the resort with the kids (which we did miss as we hopped to the Plaza America shopping centre to get some children’s cough medicine).
Overall my son loved the kids’ club and the monitors, they were all really kind and attentive. On the third day, it rained a lot and they managed to organise fun indoor activities including a birthday party for one little girl, complete with birthday cake, games and dancing. All kids around the resort were invited to join in, our son included. We couldn’t have asked for warmer, sweeter people to look after our offspring.
The restaurants – a limited experience
Iberostar Bella Vista has five restaurants, one of which is the main buffet while the other are a la carte restaurants that need prior reservation. Sadly, I can only comment on the buffet restaurant since they were unable to book me in at either of the other four, stating that they were all full for the next three nights, which meant we didn’t get to sample any. This was a major disappointment for us as there was no way to have them booked beforehand. The lady at the Public Relations desk (where you go to book them as it’s not done via the main desk) looked sorry and explained we could have called the hotel a few days in advance, but of course that memo got to us far too late (and we suspect it may not have been as easy as calling ahead).
I think that for all the four a la carte restaurants to be booked solid over a three-day period (and sometimes more depending on occupancy levels) is grossly out of order, especially since those staying five to six days would still only be likely to experience two out of the four a la carte! So much for a hotel that calls itself a Gold Premium, five-star property. Considering the hotel was operating at half capacity at the most when we visited, I can only imagine it will get much, much worse when it fills up at the height of peak season.
Perhaps tour operators should issue a warning in this respect, advising clients to request to be booked at certain restaurants way in advance of their arrival to avoid disappointment. Just a thought.
We were really looking forward to trying the Japanese restaurant, which we looked at from outside and. There was also an Italian, a Cuban and a gourmet adults-only, none of which we entered but we got a peek from the tall windows looking over the pool area. All a la carte restaurants are placed in a line next to each other, running along the curvature on the left side of the pools, so easy to find.
Since we had all our meals at the buffet restaurant, I can indeed comment on this one. It wasn’t spectacular but it was sufficiently good, it always looked clean, sleek and neat and I found there to be a good variety of food items to choose from (then again, I’m certainly not the world’s fussiest eater, and I always remember I was born in Cuba, so I’m well aware of the challenges in obtaining ingredients). It’s big and spacious and waiters are courteous and attentive. At least in my experience, it never took long from the time we chose a table to the time a waiter arrived to ask for drinks. Often, we asked them to also fetch a highchair for my toddler and help putting tables together as we were a long party of extended family. There were never any issues, they were always friendly and had a smile on their faces (perhaps that was helped by my daughter’s funny antics, it probably had something to do with their grins).
Only on one day at lunchtime the selection seemed more limited and the restaurant coincidentally was at its busiest, meaning long lines to get something from the cooking stations (there were two to four and not all of them were always operative) which led me to think that on really busy times the hotel has to think up an alternative and expand their buffet section to cope with larger number of guests. Otherwise it would be a massive chaos. It’s a very new hotel so I expect trial and error to be part of the initial glitches. Hopefully they’ll learn and adapt as they go along.
There are five bars: one at the lobby (with a great atmosphere, it’s always full yet they serve you quickly), one adjacent to one of the adult pools, one at the beach and another one on the far left of the pools, quite a way off actually, which makes you wonder why it’s called Pool Snack Bar, you have to walk quite a bit from the pool to get here as it feels quite removed from the pool area. In addition, there is a nice bar / coffee shop serving a wide variety of hot drinks as well as some pastries and baked goods.
As I was, more often than not minding the kids along with my mum and sister, it was usually left to the men in our party to fetch us drinks at the pool, so I never actually went to get one myself. The drinks only took long to reach us because there is quite a physical distance between the pools. Again, this is a really huge resort so walking distances can be an issue for some. A more practical design would have perhaps placed the swim-up bar in the middle of both pools to shorten walking distance, but then the overall layout wouldn’t look quite as stunning.
As I was saying earlier, the lobby bar was lovely and always busy. This meant the two barmen were never idle and preparing drinks non-stop but I never waited too long to get serviced. You can ask for any cocktail in the world you want, they’ll most likely be able to make it. If unsure, you can always request the full cocktail list and order from there.
I never tried the beach bar or the pool snack bar as I actually never stumbled upon them until the very last day, when on a rainy, boring afternoon we went on a walk to inspect the exterior of the a la carte restaurants we were booked out of. At the end of the long line of a la cartes sat the pool snack bar, which, felt very removed not only from the pools but from everything else. It was completely empty with the exception of two guests sitting at the bar despite having ample seating space and tables both indoors and outdoors. It looked new and impeccable and it offered light snacks and lunches, but we never got to try it.
Then, there is the nightclub, which I never got to attend but which my sister and her boyfriend did on one night and said was OK. I must insist on getting a more descriptive review from them.
Whatever other snags there may be, there is one thing no guest can dispute. The hotel and its grounds are simply gorgeous, positively gleaming against the sun. This is a new build so indeed the newness of it all plays a big role in it looking so shiny and beautiful. Design-wise it looks both majestic and modern, with generous splashes of colour beautifully applied here and there, making it lively and inviting but never gaudy or ostentatious. It’s modern feel adds to the resort’s cool vibe, so definitely not another boring hotel in the peninsula’s long strip. It’s Varadero’s newest property so indeed one that won’t look tired for quite a while yet we expect. The colour palette is bright and refreshing.
Animation and Entertainment
Now, on the three days we were there (two of which had intermittent downpours so the lack of outdoor activities was only the weather’s fault) we didn’t notice much going on in the daytime, not at the pools at least. On one day we did see some group activities for adults organised at the beach (aquaerobics and such) and during an entire morning when hell broke loose outside as the heavens opened, the hotel’s entertainment team organised some dancing classes in the lobby as well as a spot of bingo where three lucky winners were awarded prizes (bottles of rum and Iberostar T-shirts). After lunch that day there were clear skies for about half-an-hour. We were just unlucky that a tropical storm hit us during our stay, two days later it was back to summer sunshine and clear skies. Oh, well, what can you do?
We did experience evening entertainment on all nights, always at the lobby. We’re unsure as to whether there was live entertainment elsewhere but after dinner we always stopped by the lobby to check out if anything was on. On our first night, they had a special white-themed gala (which we were notified about on a letter left in our room) accompanied by a lovely spread of canapes, sweets and small bites. Ethereal-looking actors on stilts and wearing white from head to foot pranced about the lobby to the sound of a live violinist. Very classy indeed.
On another night, they had live actors) covered in silver paint from head to toe recreating moving statues with different backgrounds, from the colonial past of slavery to a beggar, a young couple arm in arm and even The Reaper himself! I have to admit I loved it but my children, especially the youngest found these slowly moving statues a little scary. A talented lady sung some timeless soulful tunes as the metallic creatures wandered about and posed with guests.
On our last night the lobby’s subdued, refined atmosphere with airs of nostalgia was changed for a livelier alternative. Things kicked up a notch as the cabaret arrived to the Iberostar Bella Vista’s lobby, all plumes, feathers and skin-tight costumes on beautiful dancers moving to the conga beat. This, of all the performances on previous days, was the most folkloric and Cuban. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finsh.
No free Wi-Fi but cheap internet access
Before the Iberostar Bella Vista opened many news channels in the industry announced it would be the first to offer free WiFi in Cuba, and many wondered whether this indeed would prove to be true, but the claim happened to be a rumour after all.
Yes, the Iberostar Bella Vista offers WiFi throughout its common areas, and yes, it’s easily accessed but it comes with a fee. To get online you’ll have to head to the hotel’s telecommunications desk and ask for an ETECSA internet card. They cost 1.50 CUC and allow you to browse the internet for an hour. Connection service can be patchy at times and you must remember to log off at the end of each session to avoid using up your minutes, but overall internet is not as expensive as it used to be and big step up from having to log onto a computer in a little musty room for 5 CUC half-an-hour. I was able to log online a couple of times during my stay and found it OK, Whatssap worked fine as did other apps like Facebook or Intagram (if you plan to load a photo, this might take anything from a few seconds to a couple of minutes depending on everyone else’s usage at the time). Little baby steps with Cuba. That’s how it is.
Issues and little snags
One of the main gripes I and other guests at the hotel had was the fact that one of the lifts doesn’t work, and apparently it hasn’t worked since the resort’s opening. It looks really but for a new build that’s only a few months old. This has been mentioned by many on TripAdvisor both before and after I went, which means it might take long before this issue is looked into. It can make for long waits by the only operating lift and for those staying on higher floors, using the stairs isn’t always an option. I was on the fourth floor and used the stairs many times on our way down, but with two young children going up the stairs was never an easy alternative, especially if they were tired and asked to be carried!
I asked one of the hotel’s maintenance workers one day as we all waited by the one working lift and he confirmed that the lift hadn’t been functioning since its opening, he didn’t care to explain why and just shrugged it off, possibly signalling something to do with management not wanting to deal with it for now. It’s bad that the staff themselves look resigned that it doesn’t look likely it will get fixed soon. If the hotel ever nears its full capacity there will be problems.
My main other problem I already explained earlier. Restaurants have nowhere near the capacity to host the number of guests this hotel was built to accommodate. The fact that all a la carte restaurants were booked solid for the next four days speaks volumes about either cripplingly poor capacity levels or poor hotel organisation. Whichever one it is, it needs to be addressed soon. People book a five-star Gold Premium with five advertised restaurants hoping to get to eat out at different venues each evening, not a buffet meal every day and night at the very same spot every day of their stay. Not acceptable.
If you really want luxury – The Elite Level
Upgrade to Elite Level and you won’t have a single complaint. Well, you may, but more likely than not you will have walked away feeling you had experienced top-notch luxury and pampering. This is where many of those who have stayed claim that you truly get the Gold Premium standard promised by the resort’s five-star plus category.
Positioned on the highest floor (11th) this adults-only section enjoys an exclusive gourmet restaurant and bar as well as premium views over the resort grounds and the beach. The fact that it’s adults-only means that us a family couldn’t have even considered the option, but it’s there for those who can. I only heard great things about there from Elite guests at the resort.
The stunning beach
I’ve saved the best for last. The section of beach reserved for the Iberostar Bella Vista is too beautiful for words to do it justice. It’s not massive, it’s not tiny, it’s just right. A stunning cove enveloped by two jutting, rocky headlands on each side this beach feels private and intimate (even though all beaches in Cuba are public). The truth is that because of the natural barriers that surround it at each end, it’s highly unlikely any other guest from any other resort would make their way here on foot. On most days, it felt perfectly uncrowded.
Any criticism perhaps would be that it’s maybe a tad small for a hotel that can host well over a thousand guests, so when it does get full it might feel crowded. I don’t know, that was certainly not my experience in June though.
Even when overcast (and it rained for two days out of our three-day stay) the beach remained as spectacular as ever, with its sparkling varying tones of turquoise and its white find sands. A variety of water sports equipment is available for rent (with non-motorised boats being free for guests to use). With unfavourable weather conditions, I didn’t even get to consider hiring a banana boat, but it’s easily doable as there’s always staff and lifeguards here.
We really enjoyed our stay at the Iberostar Bella Vista. Both our kids had a blast, and in the end that’s what matters most to parents and what makes a family holiday truly special. There are issues that need to be looked into to make this the five-star Gold Premium property it claims to be, at least if it is to properly complete with the likes of the Sanctuary at Grand Memories Varadero, the Blau Varadero or the already well-established and massively popular Iberostar Varadero. At the moment however, I still feel confident saying this is one of Varadero’s top options for families. It’s still very new, so there’s still time for it to climb all the way up to the top.