HAVANA -- A romantic honeymoon in Paris? A rockin' party honeymoon in Vegas? A retro honeymoon in Niagara Falls? How about a sublime time in both Havana and Holguin, Cuba?
While planning our wedding last year, we chose the Caribbean island option. It turned out to be brilliant, a near-perfect combination of elegant luxury, custom-made adventure and relaxing days on the beach.
People often think Cuba is all about white sand, strong drink, cheap resorts and bad food. In both the resort and food departments, we discovered the opposite is true if you plan well, choose your accommodations with care, and open your wallet a little wider. To make a honeymoon memorable for a lifetime, it is necessary to splurge on upgrades. We made it part of our wedding budget.
It also enriches the experience to go off the well-trodden tourist path, at least on occasion.
That is what we did at the Melia Habana, located in the heart of Havana's diplomatic district, and later at the exclusive Royal Service section of the Paradisus Rio de Oro, an oceanside resort in the eastern province of Holguin. We were pampered in Havana and spoiled in Holguin.
Both facilities are owned by Sol Melia. The staff at both hotels treat all clients with warmth and efficiency -- and then add something extra for newlyweds, as well as for visitors who have just renewed their vows or are taking second honeymoons. A gift bottle of quality cava (Spanish champagne) always said welcome to us in Havana. The Royal Service side of the Paradisus then added on the complete and genuine five-star service, cava included. The Paradisus also hosts destination weddings.
We began our 13-day honeymoon in Havana, devoting four of our precious days to Cuba's capital city.
The Melia Habana lacks the Old World charm of some historic Havana hotels, but, for weary travellers or honeymooners seeking creature comforts, the hotel has modern amenities.
Seaside rooms overlook the Straits of Florida. The hotel has wood-panelled guest rooms reminiscent of high-class establishments in North America. There is a clutch of quality restaurants offering a choice of international cuisines, including Italian, Japanese and a French-style bistro with early morning coffee.
The hotel also provides a free shuttle to the heart of Old Havana, with specified stops and scheduled drop-off and pick-up times.
One warning: As soon as you get off the hotel shuttle, you're a target for scams. In our case, we had been forewarned so it was no surprise when we were approached by a charming young man who claimed he worked at the hotel (he did not). He tried to chat us up and lead us to who-knows-where. Knowing it was a scam kept us safe. We brushed him off politely.
Otherwise, the art of playing tourist in Old Havana is easy. Most of the highlights are accessible on foot. A carnival parade marched down Calle Obispo. On the same street, we stopped for a simple yet tasty seafood lunch at Restaurante Europa, a French-style bistro with a local Cuban jazz band playing the kind of hot salsa the Buena Vista Social Club made famous.
Havana can also serve as a jumping-off point for local travel. In our case, we pre-hired a nature guide -- the celebrated El Chino (aka Orestes Martinez) -- to take us on a birding tour of the famed Zapata Swamp. The national park is part of the United Nations-sanctioned Zapata Biosphere Reserve. About two hours' drive south of Havana, nature flourishes there, including endemic species such as the Cuban Parrot, Cuban Trogon and Cuban Tody.
Food? One option was eating at El Chino's brother's home on the Bay of Pigs. Alberto is an excellent chef and, for a ridiculously good price, he produced two giant plates of lobster with salads, beans and rice. We sat at a table on a balcony overlooking the bay.
Don't be afraid to eat off-resort in Cuba. A second day with El Chino took us to Soroa, a different nature preserve 90 minutes west of Havana. That led to another lunch celebrating local cuisine. The outdoor Comida Criolla was packed with Cubans and the food was delicious. Try the stewed goat.
The only "Oh, oh" moment on the entire trip involved getting from Havana to Holguin. Arriving at the old domestic terminal at Havana's Jose Marti Airport at 5 a.m., we felt transported back in time to the 1950s -- and not in a nostalgic way. The domestic Terminal 1 sits in stark contrast to the sleek Terminal 3 opened by Canada's Jean Chretien and Cuba's Fidel Castro in 1998.
What would Cubana Air's domestic plane look like? Whew! It was up-to-date and the multilingual crew was welcoming and efficient. Plus they served delicious espresso -- better coffee than you get flying domestically in Canada. Bueno!
Because we had booked into Royal Service at Paradisus Rio de Oro, personal transportation was arranged for our transfer from the Holguin airport to the resort. Cool, damp towels greeted us for freshening up. Drinks were offered. Check-in was a breeze. Like the Habana, we were treated with extra enthusiasm as newlyweds.
Anything reasonable you want on arrival can be prearranged, said Norma Machado Ricardo, manager of the three-year-old Royal Service facility. She urges guests to be specific about their desires in pretrip e-mails (email@example.com).
"We have made Royal Service part of our lives," Ricardo said of herself and her staff, who she described as "a mixture of experience and soul.
"When you are happy, I am happy. So, if you enjoy what we offer, that is great. If you can tell me in advance what you prefer, this will help me make a personalized service."
That might sound like hype. It is not. We enjoyed the personalized touch and butler service throughout our stay. Before arrival, our favourite beverages were stocked in the bar fridge. They made our dinner reservations and arranged our spa treatments (rates are similar to Canadian spas). One even prepared a romantic bath for us, sprinkling flower petals atop a foaming bath and setting a chilled bottle of cava on ice beside the jetted tub.
Our room was in a four-plex overlooking the sea. The huge bathroom with its giant sunken tub also led to a private outdoor shower.
"The fresh air touching your ski, the breezes, the sun!" Ricardo said enthusiastically. "It is something simple but, believe me, when you experience it, it is just beautiful."
The seamless service is matched by the relaxed environment. The hillside resort overlooks the beach with its own casual food and beverage service. Beaches in Cuba are public and open to all but only resort guests can sit under the beach palapas and order lunch and unlimited drinks.
The natural setting is inviting. Cuban pygmy owls call out in the morning, with a piercing whistle that cuts through the rest of the avian chorus.
"You know," Ricardo said, "in the way I see it, I like to give our guests the experience of nature and peace. Our guests do not only want to share time with one another while they are here with us, but they can also touch Mother Nature."
During our honeymoon in Cuba, we lived like royalty -- in harmony with nature.