There are many things one yearns for when they haven't visited their homeland in a while; the familiarity of the people, the food, the landscapes, the music. In addition to all of these, feeling the warmth of the sun and the pleasure of laying on a stunning stretch of beach was one of the moments I looked forward to the most.
In the spirit of taking some relaxation time close to fine sands and clear waters, I set out to find a retreat in one of the island's most renowned and most beautiful beachfronts: Varadero. As I looked for a reasonably-priced and pleasant venue where I could work on my tan and also indulge in some fun water sports and the lazy satisfaction of the all-inclusive service, Barcelo Solymar proved a promising option that did not disappoint.
During my recent holidays, I enjoyed a three-day getaway within the Barcelo property. From relaxing by the beach and taking part in water sports to enjoying tasty dishes in the restaurants and dancing along to tropical music at the cabaret show, my time at the all-inclusive Barcelo Solymar was full of fun moments and happy memories. For those who would like to know about the property from the viewpoint of one of its recent guests, in this post, I will give you the details of my stay at the hotel.
From Havana to Varadero
Two hours of picture perfect travel: Puente de Bacunayagua
As a Havana native who has been lucky enough to visit Varadero on various occasions, the drive from the capital to the beach hub was not a new experience. Nevertheless, it certainly turned out to be a charming one.
In order to travel to Barcelo Solymar from Havana, I booked a seat in an air-conditioned Transtur bus. In addition to a fairly speedy and very safe drive to Varadero, the service includes a tour guide, who gives passengers details on every significant site on the journey. Our very friendly guide, Raul, let us on in curious facts about each one of the landmarks (some that even I hadn't heard about before!); from Old Havana and the beaches of Eastern Havana to the greenery of the Mayabeque province and the charm of Matanzas city.
The bus makes only one stop during the two-and-a-half-hour trip, but this is possibly the biggest highlight of the journey. Before halting at a bar famous for its delicious pina coladas called "El penon del fraile", the bus drives slowly past Cuba's tallest bridge: Puente de Bacunayagua. Set 110 metres above the Yumuri Valley, the amazing bridge provides unrivalled views of the island's raw palm-tree-filled nature.
If you do not manage to take the perfect shot this time, it will be easier to do so, on the journey back, as the bus stops at another cafe boasting a privileged observation deck, with wonderful views of both the valley and the bridge.
Barcelo Solymar and twin property Occidental Arenas Blancas
As we arrived at the property, the sunny and upbeat Varadero vibe had already been instilled upon us. The bright-coloured lobby, decorated with beautiful plants cascading down through the to the lower levels of the hotel, greeted us with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
Barcelo Solymar is part of the Varadero Resort complex by Barcelo, located right on a stunning stretch of beach. This property is one of three opened by Barcelo Group, a Spanish hotel group based in Mallorca. Barcelo Solymar is within walking distance of its twin property Occidental Arenas Blancas, another charming four-star venue. As a guest of Barcelo Solymar, you are entitled to use the facilities of both properties including the pool and beach areas, and restaurants.
Only steps form the check-in counter, floor-to-ceiling windows teased us with a magnificent view of the hotels large swimming pool complex. Already eager to dive in, we received our keys at the reception and we were immediately escorted to our ocean-view room for a quick change.
Ample rooms with sea views and stocked mini bar
There are two forms of accommodations at the hotel: the stylish rooms within the main building and the lush bungalows, which are ideal for families thanks to the extra space and amenities, which include a kitchenette and a moderate living room area. As I travelled in a couple, I had booked preferred to book a room within the main building.
Upon entering the room, I was very pleased with how spacious and bright it was. The king-size bed was comfy and provided me with a great sleep each night (even though I sometimes have trouble resting on a bed other than my own), the mini-bar was stocked with cans of fizzy drinks, and a large bottle of water, and the balcony offered beautiful views of the pool area and the beach beyond.
A corridor leading to the bathroom boasted a closet with a safe box and ironing board. At the end of it was the sink, complete with a large mirror and hairdryer. The bathroom was also ample, complete with a bathtub, toilet and a bidet. Some of the free amenities included body gel, soap, shampoo, shower caps, body cream and other toiletries.
Finally, the air-conditioned room boasted a two-seater sofa and chairs, as well as a flat-screen TV with a range of international channels. The accommodations were consistently neat and clean and maids were very attentive and polite.
Working on my tan and splashing away: pool and beach areas
The part I was looking forward to the most was taking the time to unwind by the water, under the sun rays. The complex boasts three large swimming pools. Surrounded by deck chairs, where you can lay to kick off your tanning goals, each pool is complete with its own poolside bar, serving cold and refreshing beverages as well as light snacks. In addition to being the ideal place to relax and enjoy a swim, many fun activities take place in the pool area throughout the day. Barcelo's excellent animation team encourage eager guests to participate in dancing lessons, aqua aerobics, games and competitions. This is a great opportunity to mingle with other guests and learn a little bit more about Cuban music and its culture.
However, the biggest attraction of them all, in my opinion, was the stunning stretch of white-sand beach the hotel granted us access to. This part of the Varadero beachfront is renowned as the "playa azul" (blue beach), due to its amazing beauty and warm, pristine waters. With a beach bar not too far away from the shore and hundreds of deck chairs and umbrellas to protect you from the sun, the beach provides everything one would need to simply unwind and enjoy this stunning natural setting.
However there is no need for the beach experience to be low key. If you wish to venture deeper into the waters and have a splash of fun, the hotel includes water bikes and sailboats that all guests are allowed to use for thirty minutes. If you pedal or sail far enough, you may be able to spot beautiful and colourful marine life with goggles and a snorkel. If it is a guided snorkelling experience you are after, this and other aquatic excursions are available and can be booked at the hotel reception (this is not an included service).
Whether it is an active holiday or a more laid-back experience, this excellent stretch of beach truly provided a heavenly atmosphere. Walking through the shore as far as I could through the Varadero strip during sundown, was one of the most soothing and amazing experiences of my entire stay.
Dining options: buffet, ranchon lunches and a la carte restaurants
Dining was consistently pleasant during my time at Barcelo Solymar. The hotel comprises a large buffet that opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, an open-air ranchon featuring delicious barbequed options for lunch and a choice of five a la carte restaurants that opened for dinner.
Choices at the buffet were fairly varied, with a great choice of fresh tropical fruit, some typical Cuban favourites such as "frijoles negros" (black beans) and many continental dishes. Meat, fish and pasta dishes were also cooked instantly by staff members who were quick and amicable. There was no need to get up and look for your own drinks, as waiters were quick to take your requests and bring your beverages to the table.
Lunches at the ranchon were also a good and convenient option for those who had spent the entire morning at the beach, since there was no need to dry off or follow a dress code (casual is more than welcome in the buffet, but guests are expected to be dry to enter). This large open-air venue also offered a buffet, in addition to barbequed meats and fish that are prepared right in front of your eyes.
For a more formal affair, the five specialised restaurants are certainly refreshing options. Barcelo Soymar features Italian, Seafood, Mexican, Spanish and Asian a la carte restaurants. Nevertheless, it is necessary to book the restaurants one or two days before as there is usually high demand and limited spaces.
During my stay, I was only able to visit the Spanish restaurant "Don Quijote", but it was certainly a fine experience. The meal kicked off with a delicious selection of Spanish "pintxos", a main of fish filet "a la vizcaina" (cod accompanied by a tomato, garlic and olive oil sauce) and a sweet "crema catalana" for dessert.
Night-time entertainment: cabaret show, disco, 24-hour bar and cafe
When the evening arrives, Barcelo Solymar is prepared to treat its guests to a night of fun. The hotel's animation team offers a colourful cabaret show starting at 9 pm. Although every evening has a different theme and participation games, the shows looks to emphasise Cuban culture, by playing traditional Cuban music such as salsa, cha-cha, mambo, danzon and conga as well as teach eager volunteers how to dance to these genres. Professional dancers put on brilliant dance routines that make the island's flavour stand out.
Once the cabaret show has ended, the party goes on until 4 am at the hotel disco. Featuring a bar, flaring lights and upbeat music, this is the place to let go and dance the night away. In case you felt too self-conscious to join on the dancing at the show, this might be the place to finally let loose. If you have worked up an appetite after all the dancing, there is no need to worry. The hotel's 24-hour cafe provides a range of sandwiches and light snacks you can order during the wee hours of the night.
However, if it is simply a quiet night that you need after a long day of keeping active, you can ask for your choice of coffee or a fruity cocktail at the lobby bar and spend some time simply chatting and lying back. One of the nights I chose to rest and decided to use the lobby Wi-Fi service in order to check my e-mails and social media. I purchased a Nauta card (1.50 CUC for a one-hour card) and connected to the Barcelo Solymar Wi-Fi.
Overall highlights of my stay – enjoying the all-inclusive lifestyle
There is a true sense of letting go and unwinding that comes with the all-inclusive lifestyle. The breath-taking setting surrounded by lush gardens on the beach of Varadero, and the ease of not needing to carry money around for food or beverages, allows you to truly focus on enjoying the moment. The three days I spent at Barcelo Solymar were full of wonderful moments; from sunbathing on a lounger at the beach with a cool mojito in hand to shaking my hips to salsa music during the cabaret shows.
After enjoying three blissful days in a paradisiacal location, where services and facilities were pleasant, I would certainly recommend Barcelo Solymar for a budget all-inclusive four-star Varadero hotel. This property shines thanks to its amazing pool and beach areas, good choice of food, comfy accommodations, and most importantly its truly attentive and friendly staff that made my stay a memorable and joyous experience.