Monday, October 21, 2019













Camping with black bears and canoeing on the French River, Ontario, Campsite #609, July 27-August 3, 2015:


Canoeing and camping on Franklin Island, Ontario, June, 2015


Camping in Long Point Provincial Park and driving/bike riding in nearby areas, Ontario, May 18-23, 2015


One week at the Club Amigo, Guardalavaca, Cuba and a trip to Banes—January, 2015:


Trips to Santa Lucia, Cuba: two weeks at the hotel Club Amigo, trip to La Boca and three days in Camagüey, October/November, 2014:


The Massasauga Provincial Park, Ontario: canoeing trip and an encounter with the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, September, 2014

Temagami, Ontario: Camping in Finlayson Point Provincial Park and Canoeing on Lady Evelyn Lake-August, 2014

Camping on a River, Next to a Bear Crossing-Bayfield Inlet, Ontario-July/August, 2014:

Camping on and Canoeing Around Franklin Island, Ontario, July 13-19, 2014:

Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario—Canoeing & Camping on Carlyle & Terry Lake, June 26-July 03, 2014 

Cayo Largo, Cuba—One Week at the Hotel Pelicano, January, 2014

Camagüey, Cuba: At the Hotel Club Amigo Caracol in Santa Lucia, Villages of Tararaco & La Boca and a Trip to the City of Camagüey, November 22-December 06, 2013





The Massasauga Park, Ontario: Camping and Canoeing at Blackstone Harbour and Wreck Island. August, 2013

Canoeing and camping at Chutes, Matinenda, Missisagi and Oasster Lake Provincial Parks & Manitoulin Island, Ontario.  July 15-25, 2013 :

Canoeing and Camping in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, on Carlyle Lake--June 25-July 02, 2013

Algonquin Provincial Park—Bartlett Lake, May 2013.  Defeated By Black Flies! 

Canoeing on Georgian Bay, South of Philip Edward Island, Ontario--August, 2012:

Canoeing on the Key River and Georgian Bay, Ontario, August, 2012:

Canoeing on Anima Nipissing Lake and Lake Temagami, Camping in Finlayson Point Provincial Park, Ontario—July, 2012:

Canoeing in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and Camping in Silent Lake Provincial Park, Ontario—June, 2012:

Bon Echo and Algonquin Parks.Radio Observatory. Black Bear's Visit on Our Campsite. Ontario, October 04-11, 2011:

Restoule Provincial Park, Ontario, September 15-21, 2011:

Emily Provincial Park and Kawathra Lakes, Ontario, September 2011:

Canoeing on the French River (Wolseley Bay) and in Killarney Park, Ontario, August 21-29, 2011:

Canoeing south of Philip Edward Island and the Foxes, July 31-August 6, 2011:

Canoeing in the Massasauga Park, Ontario, July 15-22, 2011:

Canoeing on the French River, Ontario, south of Lake Nipissing, July 03-08, 2011:

Camping in Six Mile Lake Provincial Park and Canoeing on Various Lakes in Muskoka, Ontario, June 18-24, 2011:


Canoeing around Philip Edward Island, Ontario, August 11-20, 2010:

Canoeing on the Pickerel River in Ontario, July 28-August 03, 2010:

Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario--Carlyle Lake.  June, 25-July, 02, 2013:

Canoeing on the French River, Ontario, south of Lake Nipissing, around Okikendawt Island (Dokis Indian Reserve), July 14-22, 2010:

The Massasauga Provincial Park, June-July, 2010:

Canoeing in the Massasauga Park and Sharing it with Black Bears, July 07-14, 2009 and September 25-28, 2009:

Canoeing in Killarney Provincial Park, August 12-16, 2009:

French River Canoeing Trip, Ontario, Canada, August 19-22, 2008:

Sunday, October 20, 2019


I have always considered the French River area to be one of the most beautiful places to go canoeing and camping, so Chris and I were quite thrilled to it again. It was very hot and sunny and we were aware of the fire ban—well, we had to forgo sitting around a campfire in the evenings, but it was not the first (and last) time I had to deal with fire bans.

Hartley Bay Marine, from where we commence most of our canoeing trip on the French River
We left Hartley Bay around 4:00 pm and soon reached Wanapitei Bay and paddled towards its western shore. The campsites along that shore appeared to be vacant, but we kept paddling until we reached the ‘intersection’ of the Main & Western Channels. First, we checked out campsite #617, where I had camped 9 years ago. It was nice, offered a breathtaking view, but we could not find a good spot for the tents (except on the small beach facing east—and I really like watching sunsets). Besides, it was quite windy and we were incessantly attacked by horse flies. We saw blueberries bushes with very few tiny, dry and bitter blueberries.

Our campsite #619. In the spring this whole area is under water

We paddled to campsite #618 across the river, but it was occupied. So we continued paddling on the Western Channel for several minutes until we arrived at campsite #619. The campsite was not perfect, but since it was very humid, sunny and hot (over +30 C), Chris was extremely reluctant to keep paddling any farther. The campsite faced west and at least we could admire sunsets! It had nice rock formation and a fire pit already full of wood. There was a spot for at least one tent near the fire pit, but we decided to set up our tents on the small ‘beach’, farther down from the fire pit. By the way, we could see that probably during the spring thaw the width of the river increased by up to 10 meters—there were sandy deposits even in the forest. Well, we hoped that during our trip the river was not going to suddenly become as big as to flood our campsite—unless there was a huge rainfall or the dam near Lake Nipissing burst!

View from our campsite-sunset

Although we were not aware of any issues with pesky bears this summer, we still decided to hang our food. The problem was finding the right tree in the forest, not an easy task considering swarms of voracious horse/deer flies and mosquitos. Supposedly the food should be hanging over 30 meters from the tents; in our case, after almost one hour, we managed to hang the barrel with the food and the cooler about… 3 meters from the tents. I guess it’s still better than NOT hanging it at all… By the way, I again appreciated the bear-proof bins installed on some campsites in the Massasauga Provincial Park—I wish all parks had such bins.

Part of our campsite and a fire pit-unfortunately, we were unable to use it

The campsite had several rock formations, which were perfect for sitting or relaxing. However, it was quite exposed and it was difficult to find shade—we had to keep relocating our chairs all the time. Another issue was boat traffic—not far from us was Atwood Lodge (on Atwood Island) as well as other cottages, so plenty of motorboats (including, on a couple of occasions, a barge carrying construction equipment and building materials) were passing by all day. From time to time we saw canoes and kayaks too. At night we could sometimes hear trains’ whistles.

The pike made a tasty supper

It was our intention to do as much fishing as possible, but the hot, sunny & humid weather prevented us from paddling during the day, it would have been too arduous. So we ended up spending most of the time sitting at the campsite, relaxing, talking and reading books. Fishing from the campsite during the day did not bring any results. A couple of times we took the canoe for an evening paddle around Atwood Island and nearby bays. In no time we caught several pikes—some of them we had to release due to the size limits (we were not permitted to keep those between 53 and 86 cm in size).
The fish is being cooked... and the white dots are mosquitos, swarms of them, it was just unbelievable!

Unfortunately, when we brought the fish to our campsite to clean & fry, we encountered another problem: MOSQUITOES! They became very active after 8:00 pm and while Chris was cleaning the fish, I had to wave a towel to chase them off, but due to their huge numbers, it didn’t do much good. But the worst was yet to come: when I was frying the fish (on my propane stove, of course), a huge, dense CLOUD of mosquitos appeared and they were all over me and the frying pan, it was absolutely horrendous! Even though I did spray myself with a DEET-based insect repellent, it did not help much: while the mosquitoes were not biting me, they were getting into my eyes, ears and mouth. As soon as the fish was ready, we hastily ate it, with our headlamps on, standing close to the shore and still being attacked by multitudes of hungry mosquitoes. I’ve been camping for tens of years and it was the second time I encountered so many mosquitos. We quickly went to our tents and could hear the continuous buzzing outside for at least another hour. We decided to skip fishing in the evenings—even if we caught any fish, it was impossible to clean & eat them. One night we were fishing from our campsite and apparently caught a catfish—but it must have been very big because the 35 lb. fishing line snapped.
Garter snake was trying go catch a frog
Regarding horse flies, I found a perfect solution to get rid of them. Namely, I taped a sticky patch (from Canadian Tire) to the top of my hat. Because horse flies are somehow compelled to sit on the top of one’s head, the patch made the perfect landing strip… and once they sat on it, they stayed there… forever! Without exaggeration, this method eliminated 95%+ of flies.

Because most of the time we just sat at the campsite, I managed to read a wonderful, yet very depressing book, „A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. Most likely the book and its characters will stay in my memory for a long time. It is a masterpiece—but at the same time the story is so horribly sad that at times I wondered if the plot took part in India in the 1970s or during the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War (round-ups, forced labour, forced sterilization). In spite of everything, I recommend it to everyone.

We didn’t see or notice any bigger animals on our campsite, not even a squirrel. Once I found a garter snake near my tent’s entrance—I gently grabbed it and moved to the forest. The next day my friend saw another garter snake, much bigger, near the water. As we were watching, it suddenly jumped towards a small frog, but it escaped. We also saw several birds circling above our campsite. It was mainly turkey vultures, looking for carrion. While fishing, we spotted several blue herons and loved observing them majestically taking off, flying and landing. On one occasion I saw a falcon and a blue jay. And we often heard invisible woodpeckers in the forest.
Smoke coming from the nearby forest fire
On the sixth day the weather became somehow peculiar—layers of darker clouds moved in, but it did not rain and we could still see regular clouds behind them. Soon, we noticed—and later smelled—patches of smoke. Obviously, there was a fire going on somewhere! The sun, shrouded by the smoke, appeared unusually red.
The sky was full of smoke coming from the forest fire
The next day the sky looked similar, leaden and full of smoke. We thought that the fire was very far from us and we were even planning to go fishing later afternoon as the sun was much less intense. Then before noon a park boat arrived at our campsite with an assistant superintendent (the same one that we had met 3 years ago, in 2015) and another park employee. We were told that a major fire had been raging in the Key River area for two days and that there was mandatory evacuation of all campers, cottagers and visitors, so we had to immediately pack up and head to Hartley Bay Marina.
The sun, shrouded by the smoke, appeared unusually red

Within one hour we were on the water. From Wanapitei Bay we could see the smoke in the south. There was a chopper flying above us. Soon we noticed many other kayaks, canoes and motorboats, all proceeding towards the marina. The park boat once again approached our canoe and the warden took down our campsite permit number, to keep record of those campers who were safely leaving the area.
The local firefighters near Hartley Bay Marina
Once we reached Hartley Bay Marina, we quickly packed the car, put the canoe on the car and left the loading area to let other people use it—and indeed, it was a very busy place, teeming with campers and boaters forced to cut short their vacation! At the entrance to the marina we were stopped by local firefighters who asked us to write down our names—that we had safely left. While driving on Hartley Bay road, the smoke was getting more visible. There was a police cruiser at the end of the road, making sure nobody was going back towards Georgian Bay.
At Grundy Lake Provincial Park-a fire ban notice. All campers followed this fire ban

The fire, called “Parry Sound 33”, which began on July 18, 2018, turned out to be one of the major fires in Ontario, scorching 11,362.5 hectares. It was officially declared to be extinguished on October 31, 2018!
Our campsite #127 at Grundy Lake Provincial Park
Out of my approximately 15 camping & canoeing trips on the French River, this one was the least successful due to the sweltering weather, fire ban, clouds of mosquitos and finally the evacuation that cut our vacation short. Of course, such inconveniences did not change my opinion on the French River—it was still my favorite place to come camping and canoeing! Well, it was another adventure and I’m looking forward to visiting this outstanding park again and again in the future.

Abandoned gas station and a service station in Still River, near highway 60

As we were driving to Grundy Lake Provincial Park on highway 69, the smoke became much thicker; it was like driving in a dense fog. All cars slowed down and had their lights on. Luckily, Grundy Lake Park was still open and there were some sites available. We stayed on campsite #127 for two nights. It was a nice, average site. The smoke from the fires had not reached the park, so at least we could breathe easier and I aired out my car which reeked of smoke.

Still River. Abandoned gas station

The park was pretty full and there were many families with kids. Of course, there had been fire ban in the park for some time and I was told by the park staff that it had been religiously observed by all campers. The park offered various children/family-related activities and had a naturalist center open.

The park had several lakes (no motorboats were allowed), but we did not canoe on them. According to the park tabloid, there were a number of paddle-in campsites for those who would like to experience more seclusion, peacefulness and wilderness.

I even found this black telephone at the abandoned gas station in Still River! In September, 2018, we stopped there and Catherine tried to make a phone call, using this very device (!

Just vis-à-vis the park entrance was the new location of Grundy Lake Supply Post (relocated from the intersection of road 522 and highway 69). It sold gas, various camping/fishing supplies, basic groceries, ice cream, hamburgers as well as rented canoes, delivering them directly to the park. It was here that we had purchased our canoe in 2010!

By the way, 4 days after our departure the whole park was evacuated and 800 campers had to immediately leave it due to smoke coming from the “Parry Sound 33” fire.

At the Hungry Bear Restaurant

The next day (Sunday) we went for breakfast to the Hungry Bear Restaurant—just the previous day the place was encompassed by smoke coming from the fire—but fortunately, the wind had changed its direction overnight and the sky was perfectly blue.

We had an omelet and a 3-egg breakfast with coffee (free refills), it was very tasty and exactly what we needed after one week of canoeing & camping on the French River. On my way to the adjacent Trading Post I met Hungry Bear & Blueberry Hound who just emerged from their den and were very happy to shake hands and pose for photos!

Still Riven-an old gas tank

After breakfast we drove south on highway 69 to a town of Still River. On the east side of the highway we could still see the semi-ruins of a truck stop. I had spotted this building in September, 2008, while coming back from our fantastic canoe trip on the French River. Catherine and I had spent there about 30 minutes, exploring the buildings and taking photos of the gas dispensers and the existing structures. There had been a rotary phone which Catherine had tried using; whereas unable to talk to anybody, it had made a great prop for photographs! Then over the following 10 years I passed this truck stop on numerous occasions and each time part of it was missing or destroyed by humans or elements—and people kept dumping more junk around this place. So, it was almost exactly 10 years later that I, along with Chris, re-visited this place. Indeed, it was quite junky—now there were old boats, cars, a school bus and a myriad of other junk—among them, the black rotary phone! Part of the building was missing—yet when I entered the still standing building (it was not locked), I was surprised to see plenty of relatively new stuff, including some power tools. It appeared that somebody had set up a workshop there and was still using it. I was a little concerned that this place was open—after all, nobody else was around and for thieves it would have taken just minutes to grab the most valuable stuff and take off. There was a police station nearby and I wanted to report this fact, but of course, there was nobody inside. We took numerous photos of this place and then drove just across the highway, to an abandoned restaurant and motel. 

Welcome to Long Branch Hotel. Dining Lounge. Truckers Welcome

There was a big, faded sign that said, “Welcome to Long Branch Hotel. Dining Lounge. Truckers Welcome”. Alas, it must have been a very long time since the place saw any guests! We carefully entered the former restaurant/lounge. Part of the floor had caved in. There were some old furniture and some had stickers with prices—I think that before the place went under, there was an auction and whatever was not sold, still remained. The second building, the hotel, was also in a very bad shape. The main hall’s floor totally caved in. The rooms contained some broken furniture, toilets and drywall. All the windows were broken and the glass was everywhere—as well as graffiti adorned both buildings. It was obvious that vandals had been here at work for a long time; again, it is one of those things I could never understand—wanton destruction of property! We carefully walked around the buildings and saw some covers on the ground—perhaps the gas tanks were still buried underground, as there was a smell of gas. While we were exploring the hotel, a couple arrived and also embarked on a tour of the restaurant.

I think it was part of the restaurant

“If you’re planning to stay here overnight, there’re plenty of vacant rooms in the other building”, I told them. Well, one would have to be really desperate to take shelter there!

A hotel room, with a private bathroom!

Having spent two nights in the park, we packed up and headed home, stopping in Parry Sound. First of all, we went to Hart’s and No Frills, where we purchased a few food items and drove to the Sequin River, where traditionally under the train trestle we had lunch. Later we walked back to town and went to the new location of the Bearly Used Books bookstore. Now it was on the main street, in the same building that members of the federal and provincial parliament had their constituency offices. The place was huge, but in no time I found my way among the thousands upon thousands of books and soon felt like at home—or rather, like at the old location! As always, the staff was very nice and knowledgeable, quickly pointing me to the right area. Unfortunately, this time I was unable to spend too much time in the store, but still managed to buy three very interesting books.

Inside Jessica Vergeer's Studio. Vintage-style posters of Parry Sound, Wreck Island, Killbear Provincial Park and the Lighthouses at Snug Harbour and Red Rock.

Just vis-à-vis the bookstore, across the street, was Jessica Vergeer’s Studio. About a year ago I had seen some of Jessica Vergeer works online and I was finally able to visit her store. Indeed, the paintings were awesome and I could appreciate them even more because I had canoed & camped on Georgian Bay for years and had personally seen—or rather experienced—the one-of-a-kind scenery depicted in them. She is a very gifted artist!

Postcards of original paintings by Jessica Vergeer

I bought several postcards of original paintings by Jessica Vergeer as well as vintage-style posters of Parry Sound, Wreck Island, Killbear Provincial Park and the Lighthouses at Snug Harbour and Red Rock. Since I had visited most of these places by canoe and/or camped there, the pictures brought back plenty of wonderful memories!

Even though we were not able to spend a lot of time in Parry Sound, I truly enjoyed our visit there.


Our 13th trip to Cuba in 9 years and 2nd to the Carisol Los Corales since November, 2010 commenced in Toronto on January 4, 2018 by Air Cubana. We immediately recognized the 23 year old, all-black livery Airbus A320, as we had flown it to Cienfuegos in January, 2016 (LY-COM). After a 3.5 hour flight we landed in Santiago de Cuba just before 6:00 pm. Upon arrival I exchanged money, getting 153 CUC for CAD $200 (i.e., 76.50 CUC for CAD $100), the hotel offered 74 CUC for CAD $100. The only problem was a small musical band that suddenly materialized next to me, playing loud music while I was busy counting & checking the money—they could not have chosen a worse time & place for their performance! Furthermore, they expected a tip—in your dreams! The bus ride to the hotel took over one hour and we still managed to have dinner.

Junior Suite H-4, Carisol, which we got the second day and spent there 13 nights (upper floor, on the left). In spite of all the predicaments we faced, it was quite nice!

Two weeks before the departure, we had sent an email to the hotel, asking to either upgrade us to a bungalow at additional cost (bungalows were not offered by Hola Sun) or give us a quiet room, far from the pool and the entertainment area. Unfortunately, we got a room in Los Corales in the 500 section, number 520, which almost exactly met the conditions that we had NOT asked for. It was facing the swimming pool and the entertainment area, so the first night it was quite noisy because of the show and later people kept congregating in the bar area. The back of the hotel building faced two abandoned structures and a field where various farm animals grazed. The following day after 10:00 am the pool music began. By the way, in 2010 we stayed in room 516!

View from our balcony-yes, that's a horse! We saw horses, donkeys and even a herd of cows/goats passing just in front of our door!
We were determined the change the room. The next day we approached the front desk, only to be told by a stern & rude clerk that there was no availability of any bungalows or rooms. We insisted on speaking to the manager who was much more receptive and said that with a fee of 20 CUC per night per 2 persons we could move to a bungalow at Los Corales or a junior suite at Carisol.

View from our balcony-a storm and rain are coming!

Incidentally, the previous evening, upon our arrival at the hotel, we inquired about upgrading to a bungalow and the stern clerk at the reception desk told us it would cost extra 30 CUC for 2 persons per night; apparently the price had gone down overnight ;). We went to the Carisol, spoke to the person at the reception desk there, were given an upper level junior suite in the “H” section and soon we moved in—Angel, a very nice hotel employee, drove us & our 5 suitcases in a golf cart.

Another view from our balcony on similar bungalows.

The next day we paid almost CAD $400 for the upgrade and the safe (2 CUC per day). However, from the outset we experienced a plethora of problems (which I mention later in this review) and my friend demanded a refund of the extra money we paid for the upgrade. Fortunately, she did get it back, albeit in CUCs.

At the beach, original carvings by tourists from Poland

During the first 7 days of our stay we had the worst weather ever in Cuba—it was cold, windy, cloudy and raining (one evening we experienced such a heavy rainfall that we were unable to go to the dinner), so we never spent any time on the beach. I was sorry for those who came for vacation for just one week! The weather improved significantly during the second week, it was sunny and hot (up to +30 C), although it rained at least once.

The bad weather almost forced me to spend more time than I had been planning on reading books. The first book I read was “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Although it was quite long, it was also very readable and I finished it in just several days. I had read several books on Stalin before, but this was probably the most comprehensive and impressively researched. A book about a monster and his evil lackeys, who blindly follow him and carry out his every order, no matter how thoughtless, cruel or reckless.

The second book, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, was a wonderful book. The story was incredible, yet very painful—so much so that eventually I found it quite difficult to read. Yet I am glad I did.

On the beach with the hotel's employees

Certainly, the Carisol is much quieter than the Los Corals, as the latter has nightly entertainment and other activities. We could freely use all facilities & restaurants at both hotels and did not mind the 5 or so minute walk to the other hotel and back. At 10:30 in the morning a very entertaining & inspiring Cuban lady was conducting stretching exercises on the beach. Catherine heartily participated and she really enjoyed them. The beach was quite nice, but there were not enough palapas or trees providing shade, so we had to ‘reserve’ them early in the morning by 8 am. 

Is it really a Tarantula?

At Carisol, around the pool and after the rainfall, we saw many toads and several times they gave a unique & noisy performance in the evening. Another evening, on our way to dinner, we spotted a big spider—we were told it was a tarantula. Just a few days later Catherine spotted an identical spider in the resort’s washroom and she said it was a very unnerving encounter. There were plenty curly-tailed lizards all over the property, which often chased one another on the beach the way chipmunks do in Canada.

Then we moved to the Carisol section and got a junior suite in building “H”. The junior suite was on the upper floor, facing the ocean, and had a balcony with two comfortable chairs. We also had a view of the mountains. There are 4 units in each building, 2 on the ground floor and 2 on the upper floor. We were never bothered by entertainment noise or any other sounds and never saw any bugs in our room, except for tiny ants which were usually on the balcony, attracted by drops of liqueur. On the balcony we spotted a large green leafcutter-type grasshopper and a small gecko. From our room’s balcony we often watched horses & donkeys grazing the grass just in front of our room (what a wonderful environmental way to mow the grass!). On two occasions we were quite surprised to witness a herd of about 10 big bulls and cows passing just meters from our room as well as a herd of goats. Some horses had bells, so at night we heard them long before we saw them. Actually, we enjoyed those animals very much, as they gave a genuine rustic touch to the resort.

From our room #520 in the Los Corales section we could see such animals and the abandoned buildings, supposedly a hotel for the resort's employees.

Unfortunately, encountered a number of problems during our stay:

  • There was NO hot water whatsoever for the first 7 (seven!) days.
  • Cold water was just trickling for the first 7 days, so even our cold showers were difficult to take.
  • We (as well as many other tourists) had NO water (cold or warm) at all on 3 separate occasions and such shortages lasted from about 3 to 20 hours at a time. Some newly arrived tourists were very upset as they desperately wanted to take a shower after their flights.
  • One evening the balcony, bedroom & bathroom lights suddenly went out. The technician was unable to fix them, but they were back on the next afternoon.
  • The air conditioner did not work for the first 2 days (the remote control was missing), but since it was cool outside, it was not a big issue then. Later it was functioning, but every while it stopped (probably the circuit breakers tripped and had to be reset).
  • During the second week we had no A/C for 2 nights, even though we notified the front desk numerous times. Eventually a maintenance guy came, reset the breakers and showed me how to do it. Yet the A/C stopped working just minutes after he left. Despite my resetting the circuit breakers many times, they kept tripping every few minutes and after 1 hour we gave up. It was quite hot, we left the door open, but mosquitoes got into our room and finally we had to close the door and ended up having a rather uncomfortable night. The air conditioner seemed OK after something was replaced, as it kept working without interruptions. We also got our lights back after a night of semi-darkness.
  • Power went down about 6 times, but it was restored immediately, within less than 20 seconds. Yet probably due to the power surge the coffee maker which we brought from Canada broke.
  • The TV set worked, but the audio sound was very distorted and the closed captioning did not work, so we never turned it on again (in our case, it was not really a problem, as we do not have TV sets and do not watch TV back home anyway).
  • There was no telephone in the room—each time there was an issue with our room, we had to walk all the way to the reception to report it.
The food was not bad and probably both of us gained several pounds!

There was plenty of food and it would be difficult to go hungry, but it was quite repetitive and relatively basic. Well, I never go to Cuba expecting gourmet cooking—yet I still managed to gain about 5 lbs.! We had meals at both Carisol and Los Corales—the latter was more crowded. Outdoors dining at both hotels was awesome (one of the reasons we went to this resort), but not always available. Breakfast egg stations served eggs & omelets, but most times they were slow and inefficient, some inexperienced cooks had problems even with cracking the eggs! Lunch & dinner: cooks prepared pork, beef, hamburgers, hot-dogs, turkey—but I never saw shrimps & fish. The buffet food was quite tasty & healthy, yet almost identical every day. For dinners we ordered red wine, which was below average—well, nothing really unexpected. Service was spotty—some servers were very good, others mediocre. At Carisol a 7-person Cuban band played Cuban music, but a little too loud, it was often impossible to conduct a conversation. Besides, when the band was playing inside the restaurant, the acoustics was terrible, the cacophonous sounds were deafening! At Los Corales there was probably a different musical band—one evening it played excellent Cuban jazz music which I loved. At Los Corales there was a restaurant adjacent to the main one, which offered pizza and spaghetti. We went there once and had a pizza, which was OK.
A short ride in this boat on Laguna Baconao was quite pleasant

We only went once went to the outdoor a’ la carte restaurant at Carisol (La Piazza). We waited for one hour for the food, the order was not correct and could not be changed. The beef was like shoe leather and the desert consisted of… melted ice cream. In addition, the 7 or 8 piece musical band was standing very close to our table and was very loud; I considered tipping them NOT to play. Overall, it was a disappointing experience and it was relief to leave—it is much better to go to the regular buffet.

Of course Catherine did not pass this occasion and immediately posed next to this antique car for a photo! 

It was a pity that we stumbled upon so many problems—especially that some of them were eventually rectified AFTER our (often repeated) interventions—meaning that they could have been fixed BEFORE! Besides, many other hotel guests we met had had similar (and even worse) problems, some had to change rooms several times, especially after the heavy rains, which caused inside flooding and leaking. I guess a proactive approach is not the hotel’s forte. Overall, I would give the resort 2.5 out of 5 stars.

This donkey was a frequent habitue of the resort grounds

In spite of all the predicaments we encountered, we had gone to Cuba with a (very) open mind and we made our vacation enjoyable, taking whatever occurred in strides. Besides, we enjoyed the surrounding mountainous scenery, bike riding, visiting nearby villages as well as watching the ocean, mountains and the horses, donkeys, cows & goats from our balcony.

Would we return to this resort? Incredibly, the answer is ‘yes’, provided that we could ensure getting a problem-free, ocean-view junior suite in Carisol.

Blow holes near the hotel

Our Hola Sun package included a free trip (by a horse-drawn buggy) to Laguna Baconao & the crocodile farm. We also had a 20 minute boat tour (3 CUC extra per person) on the lagoon—the scenery was beautiful, as it was surrounded by mountains. The crocodile farm basically consisted of 4 cages containing large dozing crocs, do not expect an eco-tour ;).

Pumpkin in Jarden de Cactus with our rental bikes

The hotel (Los Corales) offered free bike rental for a 24 hours period, to be returned at 10:00 the next morning, but their quantity was very limited and were often unavailable. But at least they were maintained on a regular basis by the guy in charge of the rental. We rented bikes on 3 occasions and rode to the village of Baconao, Laguna Baconao, Jarden de Cactus, Hotel Costa Morena, the Blow Holes (!) and the Aquarium. Easy, yet awesome jaunts!

Elementary school in the village of Baconao, Marti's bust and a Cuban flag

When we had visited the village of Baconao in 2010 (by a horse carriage), I had taken a number of photos of local residents. This time I brought them with me—and yes, I met two women whose photos I had taken 8 years ago! The village now had a nice restaurant where we had beer. We also walked on a narrow path between homes, sometimes talking to the residents. We also met one guy who spoke English, we talked to him, his mother and his brother. He asked us if we had any hats—we promised to bring him some and indeed, we rode to the village again several days later and brought him two hats. There was also a school; since it was morning, a lot of kids were coming from various directions. Nearby was a gate manned by a guard—the road was off limits to non-Cubans because it led to the vicinity of the American military base in Guantanamo. Supposedly the area around the base is full of mines.

This road leads to the vicinity of the American military base in Guantanamo and is off limits to tourists. In the past we saw a guard there, but this time the booth was empty and Catherine wanted to take advantage of this situation and ride there

At the hotel we met a very nice woman from Quebec who also spoke fluent Spanish. Incidentally, she had some major problems flying Air Cubana to Cuba—she was kicked off the flight, then had to take a different flight, landed in Cienfuegos, I believe, took a bus and then a cab to get to the hotel. We talked to her on several occasions and one day the three of us rode the Jarden de Cactus (as per her suggestion). What a great garden! The gardener in charge of the place showed us so many different plants (and our friend graciously translated everything for us) and at the end took us to the very top of the hill—the view was awesome, we could see the ocean and the Hotel Costa Morena. Later we rode to the hotel and had a couple of drinks there.

Blow holes near the hotel

We also saw the Blow Holes (just past the Aquarium). We left the bikes and descended to the rocky shore, where they were located. They are formed when the sea caves grow landwards into vertical shafts, which can cause abrupt blasts of water from its gaping hole. There were many of them and we could hear them ‘breathing’; then every minute of so, as the waves the rocks, water and air rushed into these crevices and burst out. I found one hole which was probably too far from the see and instead of spraying water, it only released air. I covered the hole with a coconut—and suddenly it was pushed about 10 feet up in the air! We spent some time, enjoying this interesting spectacle.

Goats in the village across from the hotel

There was also a small village vis-à-vis the hotel. We walked there on our last day and visited several farms. One had plenty of cute goats. Then we took another dirt road and eventually reach the hotel.

Only for pedestrians!

We had also planned to go to Santiago de Cuba and stay there for one or two nights. Because just before our trip I had gotten an extremely nasty flu, which almost caused me to cancel our vacation, we decided to shorten our trip to this lovely city for just one day. Since the hotel offered a free bus ride to Santiago on Sunday, we took advantage of it. We took advantage of a free bus trip to Santiago de Cuba on Sunday—it was certainly a highlight of our stay at the resort. 

It departed from the hotel at 10:00 am, arrived in the city at 11:30 am and left back for the resort at 4:00 pm, giving us just over 4 hours to explore the city. We managed to walk from Plaza de Dolores along the main pedestrian street (Francisco Vicente Aquilera) to Parque Cespedes. There were plenty of shops & shoppers and no cars! I took several photos just in front of the building with a blue balcony—it was there that Fidel Castro had announced the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959! Then we talked to a taxi driver—his antique American car (Willy Jeep) from 1942, was quite unique, only a very limited number of such model were still extant and his was the only one in Cuba. In 2010, at this very spot, I had taken a photograph of a very nice Cuban lady—I brought this photo with me and the driver immediately recognized her. She was not there, but he said he would give the photo to her.
A new taxi driver in Santiago de Cuba!  On the left the building with a blue balcony—it was there that Fidel Castro had announced the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959!

We wanted to see the Cathedral, but it was closed. We just went up the stairs and had an awesome view of the whole Plaza.

In front of the building with a blue balcony—it was there that Fidel Castro had announced the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959!

While walking around, we met Alfredo, an English-speaking, 37 year old Cuban guy who became our unofficial guide. Catherine remembered one man’s words of wisdom—“Hire a local guide and he will keep the beggars away”. We walked with him to Tivoli and the waterfront. There were lots of industrial buildings, but no big ships. I took several photos of kids playing in front of a house. 

Then we hailed a horse carriage and asked the owner how much he wanted to take us to the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia and back. After some haggling we decided on 10 CUC and rode there. As we got there, some Cuban told us that we should quickly walk there to see the 2:00 pm change of the guard at Fidel Castro’s grave. 

The grave, consisting of a granite boulder, is decorated with a plate that reads simply: "FIDEL”. It was located very close to the tombs of Jose Marti and other Cuban heroes. Nearby were the graves of fallen participants of the Cuban Revolution, but unfortunately, we were not allowed to go near them, I only saw a myriad of plates with their names. There was a security guard, telling us where to take photos and where not to go. Uniformed soldiers were standing under shaded structures. Then at 2:00 pm a number of guards emerged from the adjacent building and marched towards the various tombs. Overall, it was an interesting spectacle. We quickly walked to the horse carriage and rode back to the town center. Our guide remained with us; we invited him to an outdoor bar for beer and at the end gave me 10 CUC and two razors for which he seemed grateful. 

We were back at Plaza de Dolores at 3:30 pm. I walked around the Plaza, took some photos and then spotted a Cuban guy singing a song—I videotaped him and almost missed the bus that started leaving without me!

Santiago de Cuba is a very beautiful time and I wish I could spent several days exploring it—well, probably I would not mind walking at the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia for the whole day, as it contains so much of Cuban history.