Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mojito, Less Eat-o

Q.  What do you get when you cross a Canadian blogger with a Cuban resort?

A.  A much overdue blog post.

Oh Cuba; land of swaying palm trees, warm sunshine, turquoise waters, and dyspeptic turistas.

My wife and I just returned from a seven night stay at the Melia Cayo Santa Maria. Our choice for this hotel was based mainly on two factors; the mostly positive reviews on TripAdvisor, and the relatively low cost. Honestly, I believe the management at the Melia must read those good reviews and say, "What? Seriously?"
I swear there are people on TripAdvisor who would give a positive review to the Bates Motel.


Actually, the photo above just about illustrates what I might have looked like had I tried to survive more than a week on the food at the Melia Cayo Santa Maria. More about the food later.

We flew into Cuba on CanJet, which is my third favorite Enfield, Nova Scotia based airline.  CanJet — the airline that gets you there on time and then keeps your luggage nice and safe on the plane while you relax and have a seat on the edge of the baggage carousel for two hours.


When we reached the resort, we were greeted with music and champagne (well, not champagne, just some sort of cross between Thunderbird and diluted Aqua Velva). My wife did not finish her drink. I drank most of mine and saved a splash or two as I was in dire need of a good shave.

We arrived at our room. My heart sank, because, to be frank, it stank. It was dank and rank. Was this a prank? This was an alleged “junior suite” room with "elegance club" privileges. Our “view” was a wild, scrubby, brush area, that separates the hotel from the beach. I almost needed a machete just to sit on our veranda. After two days of enduring this room, we demanded to be moved elsewhere.

We were relocated to a second floor room in the same building, overlooking the walkway but at least this room was less humid and considerably cleaner. However, the patio door did not lock and the room door only unlocked after several swipes of our room key card. As well, the toilet only flushed every 15 to 20 minutes due to the fact that the tank filled as slowly as someone trying to draw a bath with a squirt gun. Speaking of bathtubs, this was where the shower was. Not a big deal ordinarily, but the sides of the tub were quite high. You had to practically be an Olympic hurdler to get in and out of it.

Oddly enough, we had no critters in our ground floor room, but we discovered a gecko and another (as yet unidentified and un-Googled) specimen. My wife commented that our original room was likely too creepy for the lizards.


The beach was lovely; nice, wide, clean, and with soft sand. In fact, the sand is so soft and so white, it almost felt as if I were back on our snow-covered Lake Huron beach (but with a temperature differential akin to Mercury vs. Pluto).

There are two large pools at the Melia. For two days though, we only had the use of one pool as first one, then the other was closed for maintenance. Word from management was that a flocking agent had been added to the pools to clarify the water. I've used flock in my own pool back in Antler River, and the particulate matter that sinks to the bottom is a greyish-white. The stuff at the bottom of these pools was suspiciously green. One worker vacuumed out the pools for what seemed to be 48 hours straight. He wanted to get the flock out of there. In fact, I believe most of us wanted to get the flock out of there. No signs were posted during the closures, so the pool guy had to constantly be on watch to shoo newcomers out of the pool. How dare they just jump in and frolic around in the water like they were on vacation or something?

We found the drinks to be fine, but inconsistent. Sometimes strong, other times weak. They were served in thimble-sized plastic cups. However, we did enjoy the mojitos (moe-hee-toe). I was hoping the sugar, mint, and lime juice in those was enough to sustain me in lieu of nutritious food.

Food glorious food
Hot sausage and mustard
While we're in the mood,

cold jelly and custard
Pease pudding and saveloys
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it boys

- from the musical Oliver!

I do believe that if any of those Dickensian guttersnipes had spent a week at our resort, they would have returned to their gruel at the workhouse and felt like Diamond Jim Brady or Orson Welles sitting down to a meal at The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.

"Please, sir, I want some more. I just came back from the Melia Cayo Santa Maria and I am frightfully hungry."

Lunch at the pool "snack" bar consisted mostly of banana chips and underdone burgers. There were no french fries (no potatoes at all, as we later learned), but listed on the menu was — I kid you not —  fried starch. FRIED STARCH!!!  After seeing that, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the unidentifiable dishes at the main buffet were grilled lard and sautéed grease.

The resort ran out of cheese and we were offered pizza without it. We declined. Crackers and ketchup would have been a superior option. And I once made a bad decision to order a hot dog. The meat was a choice blend of sodium-chloride and mystery mush. Mushrooms and potatoes were other items that we could not get at various times.

"But fear not", I said to my griping grumbling gut! "The à la cartes are coming!"

Our first à la carte dinner was at the Mediterranean restaurant. One of the main course selections was "fresh fish and shellfish on potatoes". OK. Sounds interesting. Let's give it a try. The waiter brought our dishes out with shining platter covers. Oh boy, this looks good! He waited for just the right moment, and with a flourish, uncovered both plates simultaneously. He did it with such panache, you would swear he was serving up a dish for the Sultan of Brunei. We knew there were no french fries at the pool snack bar, but we were fully expecting the menu-listed tubers for our main course. We were served the fish and seafood (mussels, calamari, shrimp) sans spuds, and in a bowl of broth. It looked exactly like the seafood soup I had just ordered and did not finish due to the fact that there was a particularly unappetizing shrimp, replete with little legs, eyes, and what seemed like foot-long antennae which stuck out of the bowl. Ugh! Strike one of the three à la cartes.

Our second reservation was a late meal (8 PM) at the Japanese restaurant. This one I was really looking forward to. But after a few bites it started to get to us due to an overabundance of sauces. The chef, who I believe had a black belt in cooking utensils, splashed on soya, teriyaki, garlic, and (I think) Aqua Velva Cuban rum. There were many strange indeterminable flavors. We ate a little more than half of what was on our plates, but my stomach paid for it that night. I felt like I was suffering from Tokyo ptomaine toxicity. Strike two on the à la cartes.

Our final reservation was the Italian. I love Italian food and had worked up a good appetite for this meal. We started with a plate of oil and balsamic vinegar to dip our stale bread into. Then we were given our appetizers. My wife had some strange Gorgonzola salad with a few small items surrounding two wedges of cheese that tasted a lot like plain tofu. My appetizer was a standard bruschetta (which is excellent by the Melia standard). Next up was the minestrone zuppa. Strangest minestrone I’ve ever had. It consisted mainly of peas, carrots, and soggy croutons. I ate maybe half of it. Finally, the main course arrived. My wife ate most of her fish (a whitefish and salmon combo). I ordered the vegetable-stuffed cannelloni. One bite of this chewy, doughy, tasteless mess was enough for me. I had to retire to the buffet to get some pasta to satisfy my hunger. Strike three! À la cartes out!

By the way, the pasta cook at the buffet once gave me a disdainful look because I ordered rotini. In his opinion, it was fusilli. Believe me, it was rotini. And the stuff in the Italian restaurant was not cannelloni. It was crapolla.

The buffet had many trays of weird concoctions, with plumes of steam emanating from them which added to the illusion that I was a starving man damned to wander about in some sort of smorgasbord hell. I ate virtually nothing but pasta since everything else I tried I just could not finish. For breakfast, I ate only omelets and fried eggs. I would not touch the scrambled eggs, which my wife described as "chunky yellow soup." We were served Tangish "orange" juice and inconsistent coffee. Sometimes it was good, while at other times it had the look and consistency of used motor oil. Fruit choices consisted mainly of guava ("Would you care for some guava with your lava java?"), honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon that contained as many seeds as molecules.

On about the fourth or fifth day of these vile victuals, I was tempted to hunt down our room lizards and fry them up on the clothes iron for a nice hot reptile repast.

After last year's experience in Cuba, you would think that I had learned my lesson. Next year if I get the urge to escape the cold and snow, I'll buy a week's worth of food, crank the heat up to 25C, strip down to my shorts, and play my DVD of The Endless Summer over and over.

I might even post a glowing review of the whole experience on TripAdvisor.