Four days in Havana, four at the beach. Sounds peachy, right? My father and I had packed a city guidebook and a stack of Martin Cruz Smith novels set in Havana. We'd culled tips from friends and acquaintances. We roamed that city, from the old town down the Malecon to the shells of American expat mansions.
We didn't plan much for the beach.
I mean, no restaurants to think about, no maps to decipher. We're a well-travelled father daughter team, if I may say so. Surely, four days of a package holiday wouldn't throw us any curveballs.
Below, a few nuggets of info I wish I'd known.
Stake out pool chairs
You know that stereotype about German tourists getting up at dawn to claim beach chairs? It's a real thing. It's not just for Germans. Our resort was mostly Canadians, and yet each morning by 10:30, poolgoers were out of luck if they wanted to sit someplace.
For two days, this pissed me right off. For two days, I daydreamed of hiding people's chairs, dropping their paperbacks into the kiddie pool, spilling beer on their towels. I thought about opening my own resort with a "no savesies" policy. I sat uncomfortably in aluminum bar chairs.
Bring a travel mug
Everybody does it! I imagine it feels gauche ordering delicate little cafes con leche in a Tim Horton's travel cup, but BYOM(ug) is part of resort culture.
Resorts don't seem to trust patrons with glass highballs under the unlimited drinks policy. Rightly so. Thus, booze is served in plastic cups, measuring about three modest ounces.
The resourceful drinker will bring a 1L travel mug to the bar, request his or her booze of choice, and migrate happily to the beach or pool, with enough liquid to last a good while. Package travel veterans seem to favour the 2L model the size of a small keg.
Forgetful travellers can hit the gift shop or tourist market for shabby bamboo mugs, often with portraits of Che painted crookedly on the side with nail polish.
Don't study frantic Spanish
I mean, if you're keen or restless, knock yourself out, but don't stress about being understood. I didn't meet a single member of staff who didn't speak basic English. Many were beautifully fluent. Of course, they were charmingly patient when I hit them with my bad Spanish, but it really wasn't needed to be understood.
One morning, at the crowded cafe, I ordered two cups of coffee in choppy Espanol. Beside me, a group of Nova Scotian women rolled their eyes so hugely, I could almost hear it. "Typical!" they spat. "Of course he serves the Spanish woman first."
(there is nothing remotely Hispanic or Mediterranean about my pink, pasty appearance)
I told them that I was Canadian. This seemed to make it worse. Could they sense my Ontario roots?
Tip with pesos
We met a few waiters and drivers with pockets full of foreign coins. British pound coins, Canadian loonies and twoonies, Euros in change. Useless to them. Change offices trade paper money only, no matter how high the coin's denomination.
They can ask customers to trade the coins for bills. We got this question several times, from guys with about $50 or $60 in Canadian change weighing down their pockets. It's a pain in the ass for them, I'm sure. We witnessed more than a few tourists shaking their heads suspiciously when asked to change money.
Conclusion? Tip with pesos. Or be generous and tip with bills.
Take a daytrip, or a half-day trip. Walk the beach until the resort fences disappear.
Go to the nearest town, even if it's tiny. Look around at local churches, at fruit vendors. Look at the roofing tiles and backyards of people's homes, and think about them. Look at what people wear when they don't wear resort uniforms.
I'm not against resorts. I think they're great for local economies. I get that not everyone is a backpacker and not everyone enjoys drinking mystery booze from a street vendor while eating fried scorpion. So be it, different strokes and all that.
Buuut, I do assert that resorts are artificial environments, and that beyond them lies a local culture that is worth exploring, even for just a few hours. The beach isn't going anywhere. Your staked out pool chair will wait. You're hydrated from the travel mug. Go.