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« on: May 10, 2007, 08:41:59 PM »

We stayed at the IV from 31st March to 14th April and had a fantastic time. We travelled with First Choice from Manchester flying premium which was well worth the money. Larger seats, food served on plates instead of plastic trays, free in-flight drinks, a higher ratio of flight attendants compared to Economy making service quicker, and getting suitcases off the plane first making for a quick and easy exit from the airport.

On arrival at Varadero Airport, after we had exchanged money (pounds sterling cash recommended), we were met by the First Choice rep who directed us to a comfortable air-conditioned coach. The journey to the IV hotel is about 35 minutes. We were taken direct to the hotel rather than diverting to drop off at other hotels as sometimes happens.

As we approached the hotel we were pleased we had chosen the IV as it is approx 20 minutes from downtown Varadero making the hotel more peaceful than a centre of town setting. The hotel is very attractive with large open areas making the hotel light and airy. Large flower arrangements in the reception/lobby area add a touch of elegance. The garden area you walk though to all rooms is very pretty and well maintained by the ever present gardeners.

On arrival we were greeted by a waitress serving cocktails (one of many during our 2 week stay), and check-in was quick and efficient despite there being about 30 other guests on our coach. We had booked a Junior Suite and were rewarded with a large room, with 2 doubles and single bed, table and chairs, a couch and a balcony with a view to the sea. Buildings 17 and 20 are the Junior Suite buildings with a guaranteed sea view (unless you are on the ground floor !). The other buildings with standard rooms face into the garden area, or if you’re unlucky enough to get an outward facing room, the road or neighbouring hotels.

The hotel is a good size, not too big, and this allowed the kids to wonder around, take meals on their own and come and go from the room without us having to worry about them.

Beds and furniture are comfortable and the rooms are kept very clean. Our maid Dionysis looked after us very well and in return we left her gifts every morning. We had taken basic toiletries (soap, shampoo etc), childrens clothes, pens, pencils, colouring books to give to hotel staff as well as leaving monetary tips. She showed her appreciation by always leaving some interesting towel and bed linen art, from swans and elephants to baskets, always decorated with flowers.

The public areas of the hotel are kept equally clean and tidy with staff every present to mop up any spillage in the restaurant or even rain water from the torrent we got on the Wednesday of our second week.

Restaurants are all good. The main buffet serving breakfast, lunch and evening meal had a wide range of foods for all meals. Evening meals always included salads, cold meats, pasta, pizza, and fish for anyone wanting just a light meal but also available by rotation were large grilled prawns, lobster, roast beef, roast sucking pig, pork fillet (although slightly under-cooked), beef steak, and duck. Chicken was on the menu most evenings in various forms. Vegetables were a little more difficult to come by so we chose to accompany most of our meals with salad. Various sweet puddings were available or a reasonable choice of fruit.

The Japanese restaurant is good fun as the food is cooked Tepanyaki style, although the flavourings are not particularly authentic as the only ‘spices’ available were salt, black pepper and soy sauce. Even so, the food was fresh cooked and enjoyable with a choice for the main course of prawns, beef and chicken or if you wanted a mix of all 3. Make sure you book in early as this restaurant is popular.

The Mediterranean restaurant was the most formal and served mostly fish, although chicken was also available. My wife and I enjoyed our meal, but our 2 children less so, so we only went to this restaurant once during our stay.

The Cuban restaurant is outside by the pool area and doubles as an eating area for late breakfast and lunches. Lunch was fairly repetitive with pizza, pasta, burgers, sausages, chips being the main staples, but the outside barbecue usually had an extra dish which was different every day. Again salads, cold meats and fruit featured here. The evening menu was short but again enjoyable, although the presence of the occasional fly became irritating to the children. We read numerous warnings about mosquitoes at this restaurant, but never saw one; in fact I don’t think we saw one during our whole stay.

The pool and beach areas are lovely. The main pool is large, although quite cold on most days, with the sea being somewhat warmer. Having said that it is quite refreshing after being laid in the sun in 30 degree heat for an hour! The pool has a swim up bar which was nice to use during an afternoon to try one of the various cocktails on offer. The beach is typical Caribbean scene with turquoise water and soft sand which was lovely to walk on. The sea was generally calm and good for a swim, although we had a few quite windy days which made the sea quite rough and tended to throw up large amounts of seaweed. No worry though as the ‘man on the tractor’ would emerge before dawn to rake his way up and down the beach to clear the worst away.

Although this hotel is not a 5 star rating as stated in Cuba (4 Star Plus rating with First Choice is more accurate), the one thing that makes this hotel stand out from others is the staff. Whether it be a gardener going about his duties, a cleaner sweeping up or the entertainment team (Star Friends) dashing from one event to another, all appeared happy in their work, were polite and friendly to guests and did everything they could to make your stay enjoyable. The gardeners would often give my wife and daughter a flower as they walked through the garden to breakfast, and all staff greeted guests with a friendly ‘Hola’.

Service in all areas was generally good, although lunchtimes in the Cuban restaurant could be slower at busy times. The waiters/waitresses in the restaurants were always prompt in refilling water/wine glasses often before they were empty.

The Star Friends entertainment team really were the star attraction. These guys and girls work so hard; 16 hour days 6 days a week and always with a smile on their faces. They organised all the day time activities around the hotel including mini-golf, bowling, shuffle board, water polo, water basketball, salsa dancing, darts, beach volleyball, rifle shooting and archery to name but a few. Everyone could join in if you felt like leaving your sun lounger, but the ‘friends’ weren’t pushy if you didn’t want to participate. Our 2 kids joined in some event or other most days, along with the friends they had made during our stay.

During the evening the entertainment moved to the theatre where a kids mini-disco was held most evenings, which was followed by the in-house band playing for 30 minutes. The main evening show usually started round 21.30 and lasted about an hour. The shows were generally of a high standard for a hotel, although not London West End. You have to remember the performers are all local entertainers, so although the dance steps might not always be perfect they are putting their all into entertaining you. The singers were of a very high standard, which did seem to common trait where ever we went. All the local bands that played in the hotel (Cuban restaurant some lunchtimes and buffet restaurant some evenings) were excellent.

Generally the hotel ambience was quite and relaxed, although during our second week there did seem to be an increase in the number of very large parties (weddings I guess) which did seem to make the whole hotel busier and noisier at times. This did seem to be most prevalent around the pool area during the day and in the lobby bar in an evening. It’s a pity some guests chose to drink rather too much during the day, particularly as this is a family hotel.

We also encountered several rather rude guests who seemed to think that by holding out a 1 CUC coin would get them to the front of the bar queue. Why they couldn’t join the queue and then tip the bar staff like everyone else beats me! The occasional guest who chose to stub out cigarettes on the floor or in the sand instead of using the receptacles provided was unpleasant, but we didn’t let these minor irritations spoil our holiday. I suppose you have to expect to meet these inconsiderate people wherever you travel!

We also decided to take a day trip to Havana. We organised the trip ourselves with one of the ‘OK’ taxi drivers who are always parked outside the lobby area of the hotel. We had a great time with our taxi driver taking us wherever we wanted throughout the day. He organised a walking tour of Old Havana and booked us into a fantastic restaurant before taking us New Havana, Revolution Square then onto the Partagas Cigar factory for a tour and finally the Capital building. The taxi journey cost 150 CUC (approx £90) which is considerably less than the First Choice tour would have been for 4 people.

We also had half a day in downtown Varadero where we went to the market and did our gift shopping. Everything is very good value for money here, except the T-Shirts. Take a walk up 1st Avenue to Josone Park for a little bit of peace and quite, you may even catch another local band playing by the small café.

No matter where we went in Cuba we always felt very safe, wondering around both Varadero and Havana on our own without any problem. There is quite a Police and Military presence in Havana, so the odd beggar or tout trying to sell something have to be very low key otherwise they risk arrest. A polite ‘no thank you’ from you usually moves them their way as they don’t you to create a fuss.

One thing to remember about Cuba is that you are travelling to a very poor Communist country. The USA still has a trade embargo in place, 48 years after the revolution lead by Castro, and as a result the local people have very little money and access to very few everyday items. Even soap is rationed to 1 bar per month, so please take small gifts of toiletries, childrens clothes, books etc. You will find everyone very appreciative if you given them gifts.

Overall I would definitely recommend Cuba for a holiday and particularly this hotel. We will be returning in the near future….
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