Studded along the north central shore of Cuba is a string of islands that the locals have dubbed Los Jardines del Rey, which literally translates to “the King’s Gardens”.
While the initial attractions in this necklace of islets might appear to be the larger Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria, a true connoisseur would quickly spot tiny Cayo Guillermo as the diamond is this particular chain.
They say that Cayo Guillermo was a favorite spot for Ernest Hemingway to hang out, and during my recent stay at the Hotel Playa Pilar, it was easy to see why.
Mounted on the smaller section of the Playa Pilar Beach, the hotel is directly adjacent to a national park that sports a protected area of towering vegetation-covered dunes… and a beach that is one of the more spectacular in the Caribbean.
Hotel Playa Pilar is an all-inclusive family friendly resort, with a large pool, an active and friendly recreational staff, and free daytime baby-sitting services for children (parents take note since this is a rarity). There is however a charge for young ones still toting diapers. The kiddie facility has a great playground and its own pool with an area for parents and grandparents to watch… or not, depending on the mood.
Both kids and adults will enjoy the free Spanish and salsa lessons and daily fitness programs.
Dining includes a buffet with cuisines to suit young palates and old, as well as four specialty restaurants, three of which can be booked on a complimentary basis by all guests. The Japanese-themed restaurant is worth the show, though it might leave you wondering how your personal Cuban chef manages to hang onto all of his fingers.
The Mediterranean eatery has yummy fish dishes, including a succulent Cuban take on bouillabaisse. Other offerings are provided by a gourmet restaurant and a Cuban steakhouse. Families generally prefer the earlier sittings, so book later if you want a more intimate dining experience.
The Spa provides an oasis for adults with its own hydrotherapy pool and both a Finnish sauna and steam room. Singles and couples massages might be just the ticket while the kids are being entertained elsewhere.
Non-motorized water sports are all included, so feel free to book a kayak, paddle boat or to take a catamaran ride out to nearby Half Moon Island. Evening entertainment is also included, ranging from the exotic to traditional Cuban to the downright spooky “Horror Show” that will have the young ones squealing.
With all the on-site activities, it’s tempting to not even leave the resort, but at least walk up the beach to the larger section of Playa Pilar. This is one of the nicest beaches I’ve seen in the Caribbean, with fine powder-sugar sand that will tickle your toes as you walk. Watch for areas of sharp coral on the way if you choose to walk up the beach, or take the shuttle bus if you prefer. The dunes are cool to look at but are protected so don’t climb them (there are some nasty thistle-bearing weeds that look like inviting patches of green grass… be warned).
The more adventurous among you can venture to the Cuban mainland and sample authentic Cuban culture in the provincial capital of Moron (accent on the second syllable please) or even fly to Havana.
The Cubans are a genuine and friendly people who love kids and enjoy life. Get to know some of the staff and you’ll quickly be rewarded with friendly smiles, perhaps even a flower woven from palm fronds, or an elegant rose folded from a napkin.
Consumer goods such as soap, toothpaste and nail polish are a safe bet if you want to show your appreciation for excellent service.
Tourists use the Convertible Cuban peso, which is pegged to the US dollar. Best shopping bargains are Cuban cigars such as Cohibas and Monte Cristos; aged rums such as Havana Club and Cuban crafts; especially lovely and inexpensive wood carvings, boxes etc.
Our special thanks to Janet, with guest relations, for making our visit a wonderful and memorable one as well as to all the staff at Hotel Playa Pilar. Keep an eye out for us next year!
Photos courtesy of Stella van der Lugt—All rights reserved.