Northern Cuba harbours some of the region’s most unspoilt islets, fragments of tropical paradise unfurling into the sublime waters of the Caribbean. There are hundreds spanning the country’s north coast in the lyrically-named "Jardines del Rey" (Gardens of the King), and the Cuban government has developed a handful of them into beach resorts with international hotels and modern tourist facilities to rival any other Caribbean holiday destination.
Exploring this constellation of coral islands is pretty simple thanks to a series of snaking causeways extending from the mainland in Cuba’s central Villa Clara province. Built to allow the passage of marine life and cause minimum disruption to the ecosystem, they cross the shallow water to the emerald-tinged "cayos" (cayes or keys as they call them in Florida) and link together the largest tracts of land.
Like many coral islands in this part of the world, the islands have swirling lagoons lined with thickets of mangroves and languid waters that act as a nursery for underwater life including baby turtles, feeding a rich biodiversity that’s unrivalled in the region. On the reverse side, soft coralline sand collects in the curves and indentations of land to form stunning half-moon bays and boundless ribbon-like beaches washed by gentle waves.
Driving 250 miles east from Havana to the province of Villa Clara, via the former revolutionary stronghold of Santa Clara, my bus joined the 48km-long concrete road built across the mere two-metre deep mangrove-dotted sea. This cluster of limestone and coral-encrusted cays rises just five metres above the water at their highest point and includes Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Las Brujas, as well as Cayo Santa Maria.
We were headed to all-inclusive beach resort the Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria, which despite having Cayo Santa Maria in its name, is actually located on the small islet of Cayo Las Brujas a few kilometres west of Cayo Santa Maria. Run by renowned international hotelier Banyan Tree, it has laid claim to one of the most idyllic beaches on the cays.
We arrived to a carnivalesque welcome, sequinned and bejewelled dancers, swaying hips and rum-spiked coconuts to get us into the holiday spirit. It was past sunset, but I was eager to check out the beach, and doing a quick recce, I realised the resort was sprawled between a rocky limestone shore and a brackish lagoon festooned in leafy mangroves.
A giant half-moon bay of floury sand stretches away from its tip. Although the security told me the beach is off-limits at night, they did allow me to pad across the velvetine sand for a little paddle in the warm shallows before I headed to Dhawa’s busy bar for a Cuban nightcap where rum daiquiris and mojitos are pretty much on tap.
The next morning my only thought was to see the half-mile-long carpet of silken sand in the daylight. The Caribbean sun revealed its full glory, curving away from the shore in brush-strokes of platinum and electric blue.
Sheltered from the open ocean, even on a wind-swept day the waters were never too wavy for swimming, which can happen on eastern Atlantic-facing beaches in the Caribbean. Sprawled beneath a thatched sunshade, the offshore breeze kept me comfortable in the sweltering heat and I watched as guests from the hotel harnessed the wind to sail hobby-cats across the bay.
Surprisingly I found the water at its most serene during a thunderstorm when the beach was deserted. The surface of the silvery water was only disturbed by the circular ripples of raindrops and shimmered as sheets of lightning flashed across the far horizon. On this occasion the storm was far away enough for me to bathe safely, but it would be dangerous to swim if it was overhead.
Like many Caribbean resorts, the Dhawa is designed to be completely self-contained so that you could spend a couple of weeks relaxing here and never need to leave the hotel grounds. An enormous blue pool reaches down through the centre of the complex towards the beach with a swim-up bar for those who dare to drink and dive. The tiled sun terrace is furnished with plenty of comfy sunbeds, though being allergic to chlorine, I preferred to lounge at the beach where kind beach attendants offered sunlounger service, bringing a round of refreshments at regular intervals.
Dhawa’s 516 rooms are arranged around the shore in neat unimposing buildings of a few storeys – all with balconies either facing the central swimming pool or looking out over the ocean. According to Banyan Tree’s Managing Director Des Pugson:
“Dhawa is very much designed for what you need when you need it.”
Its target market is as much millennials as romantic couples and families, with a vibe that’s intended to be “fun, simple, and a little bit cool”. While the beach is a relaxed haven with free-to-use sunloungers spread around its rim, there is more energy centred around the contemporary pool area where activities and live entertainment – including an incredible display of aqua-acrobatics and synchronised swimming – take place on a weekly schedule.
Grazing and lazing
Recently built, the hotel’s rooms are smart, fresh and modern with tiled floors, walk-in showers and white-and-aqua hued décor. A substantial king-sized bed with plump pillows and crisp sheets kept me from missing my own bed, while the in-room Wi-Fi meant I could check-in with friends and family, which can sometimes be complicated in Cuba.
In fact, Dhawa was one of the first resorts to offer in-room Wi-Fi in Cuba, where access is usually restricted by the need to buy an internet card and then find a hotspot to log on. Although online access is rapidly increasing, some hotels only have internet available in the lobby, many "casas" have no internet at all, and open spaces such as parks have been set up as hotspots by the government where you can see locals gathering to use the web. All this is great if you need a digital detox, but can make contacting home trickier than usual.
The large airy buffet restaurant serving a varied breakfast, lunch and dinner seemed to be open for grazing at most times of day, with live cooking stations and a romantic terrace perfect for honeymooners. Next door, the a la carte eatery was a more gourmet affair, where I sampled a few small plates including a yummy salmon and buttery quiche starter. By the pool, guests can stop by the snack bar for pizza and plates of chips – basic but mine were garnished with crispy bacon, which was a nice touch.
A huge reception and lobby area cooled by Caribbean fans is an extra place for guests to lounge out of the sun. Off to the side, the piano bar provided a civilized night-time setting with occasional singing and live music, while on the other side of the main bar an on-site disco became increasingly lively as the free-flowing cocktails inspired guests to hit the dancefloor.
Beyond the beach
While life in the cayos tends to centre around the hotels, Cayo Las Brujas opened a new commercial centre – Flor de Sal Square in Plaza Las Salinas – in early 2018 close to the beautiful beach of Playa La Salina. It can be reached on foot from the Dhawa or you can board the panoramic bus which provides a hop-on hop-off service for all the hotels in the area. La Estrella and Las Dunas are two other tourist villages on the cays with a similar selection of shops and cafes.
In the early evening I visited Plaza Las Terrazas – a shopping and eating area in the eastern part of Cayo Santa Maria where a beach party was being hosted, and where I was lucky enough to see the famous Cuban band Los Van Van perform live.
The main hub is a neat and colourful square and pedestrianised area with stores and restaurants spilling onto the terraces similar to many purpose-built beach resorts you might find across the world. The development fans out from an idyllic strip of beach with soft mounds of sand shelving into gentle waters.
Although pretty, there are no permanent residents in Cayo Santa Maria so for a heady dose of Cuban culture, heading back to the mainland to spend a day exploring Central Cuba’s charming settlements is an absolute must. The heritage towns of Sagua la Grande, Remedios and Caibarien, each splashed in a rainbow of pastel colours and reminiscent of old world Spain, each welcome visitors with open arms.
After a few days of sampling the cayos potent cocktail of sun, salsa, sand and rum, I could think of nowhere better for an affordable and unspoilt Caribbean beach holiday with the major bonus of having Cuba’s unique and colourful culture just a short hop away.