Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday

July 22, 2015
cuba, cuba featured, gp
Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday to Cuba

In the summer of 2008 I took a full-time job during my university holidays. I worked 9-to-5, 5 days a week sorting and numbering invoices while my friends watched daytime TV and went to the pub. Why was I subjecting myself to this particular type of hell? It was, of course, all in the name of travel.

Most of my travel up to this point was limited to Europe. Family holidays tended to be to France, Wales or Cornwall, and school-trips occasionally took us to historical capitals of note. This time, I was keen to try something more exotic. I dreamt of pristine white beaches and azure seas, of spicy cuisines and long conversations in foreign tongues. After a raucous but quintessentially budget first year of university which boasted little more than poorly attended lectures and fast spent student loans, I was craving a culture shock.

Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday

Added to this was the prospect of my first overseas trip with my boyfriend of a year, James. For me, travel is so fundamentally intrinsic to how I live that any prospective partner needs to share that interest in order for things to work. Fortunately, James felt the same, and with no real brief other than ‘sun’, we marched into the nearest travel agent and asked them what they could do for us. We emerged an hour later with tickets booked to Cuba.

For me, whose childhood had comprised of long, hot car journeys, of sweaty seat-belts sticking to flushed pink skin, of soggy homemade sandwiches and warm juice-boxes, the prospect of a bottomless supply of box-fresh, ice-cold goodies was too much.

Cuba has always held an air of mystery with Western travellers – its history, its passion, its music all conjure up visions of heady excess and Latin flair. Since the US embargo on travel to Cuba in the 1960s, Brits have adopted it as a holiday destination of choice, rather snootily claiming it “ours” in the absence of our transatlantic cousins. With Club Tropicana playing on repeat in my head, I was ecstatic to be joining the hoards of holiday-makers who would be making their way in droves to this Caribbean hotspot.

What I didn’t anticipate was that a shamefully uncultured package holiday to a generic middle-of-the-road resort in a non-descript tourist town would turn out to offer none of the exotic vibrancy I yearned for. I had dreamt of vintage cars and cigars rolled on the thighs of virgins, of smoky jazz clubs and salsa parties that spilled out onto the cobbled evening streets. Instead I got Happy Hour, aquarobics and an invitation to join a teenage drinking gang.

How did I get this first foray into tropical travel so wrong? I was lured in by one particularly powerful magic word… all-inclusive.

Travel Cuba: The spell is cast…

For £800 each, James and I secured a return flight, two weeks of full board and dining, and as much rum as we could drink. Not having ‘done’ all-inclusive before, I was mesmerised by the promise of the magic-wrist band, the unspoken code between bartender and holiday-maker; with just the flick of the wrist a pina-colada could be swiftly procured without so much as a cent passing hands. What sublime witchcraft is this?!

Disclaimer – I hasten to add that this was before the days in which I understood the nuances of tipping abroad. Looking back, I would hope that the hotel staff were being paid a fair wage but am since aware that this may not always be the case. Us Brits are guilty of forgetting the cardinal tipping rules and, traditionally, find the whole ordeal just a little embarrassing. I have since seen the error of my ways and will endeavour to tip generously henceforth for all drinks, specifically those that require the use of a blender. Amen.

A couple of nights into our trip, we decided to take full advantage of the all-inclusive situation. Settling into cheap plastic chairs by the pool, we took it in turns to run relays to the bar and back, feverishly replenishing our supply of drinks and snacks. James, a seasoned all-inclusive traveller, remained relatively underwhelmed, turning his nose up to the anaemic chips and declining to sample the full range of house cocktails, sticking resolutely instead to his cups of beer. For me, whose childhood had comprised of long, hot car journeys, of sweaty seat-belts sticking to flushed pink skin, of soggy homemade sandwiches and warm juice-boxes, the prospect of a bottomless supply of box-fresh, ice-cold goodies was too much. As much as you want? For free? Including ice-cream?! The 6-year-old in me was in heaven.

Travel Cuba: The spell is broken…

After a number of rounds, I was really getting into my stride. On a particularly energetic sprint to the bar I caught the eye of a young girl who beckoned me over.

‘I recognise you from the London flight,’ she said enthusiastically. ‘I was the one with my Mum and Dad,’ she added as if for clarification when I failed to respond.

“I think you’ll find that I’m here with my very adult boyfriend on a very adult holiday. I suggest you return to your parents and leave me to enjoy my perfectly legal beverage in peace.”

I smiled and made the appropriate noises, keeping one eye on the frosty, coconutty goodness that was currently churning away in the blender. Had he mixed enough? Would I have to wait for a fresh batch? I was on a very strict all-inclusive schedule after all.

Undeterred, the youth continued.

‘You know they give you wrist-bands for alcohol here,’ she said conspiratorially, leaning in for maximum effect.

Much as I applauded her appreciation for the all-inclusive system, I felt that this was a touch over-dramatic. After all, free drinks are very much the name of the game. I waggled my wrist and gave her a knowing look. This prompted her to launch into the real reason she was here, the reason that she’d approached me at all.

‘A bunch of us are hanging out and drinking by the pool while our Mums get chatting. Our Dads are already hammered so they won’t even notice we’ve snuck off. There’s a couple of 15-year-olds and all.’

My face clearly betrayed my confusion because, frustrated now, she added with the air of arrogance that only teenagers can ever really convey:

‘You don’t have to come. Whatever. We just thought you looked pretty cool and you’d wanna get pissed?’

I pulled myself up to my full height – 5 feet and 4 whole inches – and rather airily informed her that I would not be party to her underage alcoholic shenanigans:

“I think you’ll find that I’m here with my very adult boyfriend on a very adult holiday. I suggest you return to your parents and leave me to enjoy my perfectly legal beverage in peace.”

With that I turned on my heel and marched back to where James had been curiously looking on. In the space of a few short minutes my visions of an exotic, classy, mature holiday were destroyed, to be replaced with a depressing feeling that, wherever you travel in the world, there always seems to be an inebriated Brit in search of cheap booze.

James listened as I regaled the story and, through his tears of mirth, reminded me that this was often the reality of all-inclusive travel. For someone that has had been on many an all-inclusive family beach holiday, he had come to Cuba with more realistic expectations than I – Brits on tour, opportunistic teenagers looking for their first surreptitious piss-up, and coach-loads of tourists dutifully carrying out the exact same activities, taking the exact same photos and visiting the exact same pre-arranged attractions, all on a perfectly regimented schedule. Not exactly the Cuban dream, but a cheap and easy way to visit this corner of the Caribbean.

But to truly see the world, to experience the wonderful exotic intricacies that different cultures have to offer, you need to travel right.

The rest of our holiday passed in a series of pre-paid activities which, adventurous as they sounded in the brochure, turned out be lacking in any real cultural authenticity. Dutifully we’d arrive at the designated pick-up spot in the foyer, traipse obediently onto the coach, file off for our one hour of designated, organised fun, before being carted home again. It felt a bit like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy draws back the curtain to find that the great and all-powerful wizard is just a sad little man with a megaphone. Cuba was never going to live up to the vision I’d painted in my mind, not when our trip was restricted to plastic sun-loungers and coach trips.

But I’m grateful for this holiday for one resounding reason – it taught me that travelling is an art. Anyone with a passport and a good work ethic can travel the world. The logistics are easy – in just a few short hours you can be on a beach in the Caribbean, passport stamped, box ticked. But to truly see the world, to experience the wonderful exotic intricacies that different cultures have to offer, you need to travel right. I see it as an exercise in extremes; finding an Airbnb in Havana, getting lost in the winding backstreets and staying up til sunrise drinking Ron Collins is akin to the David Blane of travel; my trip was more like Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee at Butlins – fabulous fun for all the family, but not quite what I had in mind.

Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday

There is no getting past the fact that I had a fortnight in the Caribbean with unlimited food and drink for well under a grand. But if you’re looking for a culturally unique experience, an all-inclusive package holiday isn’t for you. For me, the magic of all-inclusive turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. I missed out on the real essence of Cuba and came home feeling like I hadn’t got much more than a suntan out of the trip. But, on the plus side, this gives me the perfect excuse to go again. And next time, I’ll remember to take my ID.

Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday top photo credit:  Sandra

Would you like to add your insight to Pink Pangea’s travel Cuba edition? Email editor@pinkpangea.com for details.

About Ellie Brampton

Ellie BramptonAfter years of trying to be conform to a normal life, Ellie has embraced defeat, quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to Central America where she’ll train to be a scuba diving instructor. She plans to travel the world for as long as she possibly can, diving and blogging as she goes. You can follow her adventures on her blog or on her twitter.

One thought on “Travel Cuba: The Truth about My All-Inclusive Holiday

  1. Avatar
    JD
    July 26, 2015
    Reply

    Nice post Ellie. I had a wizard hol in Cuba doing exactly what you wish you had done……but it was expensive. Perhaps the answer is to take the all-inclusive trip for its cheap flight and some time on the beach…but then hire a car and take some days away from the ghastliness of the experience. The B&Bs in the sticks around Cuba were fabulously welcoming and not expensive. They are not easy to book from Europe …. But it’s possible. The advice was not to hire cars. I took taxis between towns, which were relatively cheap but having done it, I would hire a car. The other advice about speaking some Spanish seems wise, especially in the Chtis. Oh yes, I didn’t ever have to wear a wristband and I was asked for a drink by a Cuban lady of significant years smoking a giant cigar!
    Go there before the Americans do!

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