Pink flamingos forage in mangrove forests, and coconut trees line sweeping beaches. Here, on the north coast of central Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway once fished from his boat, the Pilar, the Spain-based Iberostar hotel chain recently opened a five-star waterfront property.
With 482 sleekly styled rooms in 15 trim, white low-rise buildings, the Iberostar Playa Pilar is a slick cousin to the chain’s quaint, colonial-style older properties in the region.
A 45-minute drive from Cayo Coco’s international airport, along a crab-and-cow-shared causeway, the Playa Pilar sits on the blissfully quiet Cayo Guillermo coastline. The resort is close to nature trails, sand dunes and a coral reef.
Though there’s not a village, museum or market in sight (sorry, culture vultures), the hotel’s namesake public beach, Playa Pilar, is a mere 15-minute walk away via low-tide waters, sloping hillside path or road (you can also take the bus).
The sparkling white sand and turquoise sea blow the term “postcard perfect” right out of the salt water. Really.
The spa – access included for suite guests, and only $38 Cdn if you’re not – is definitely worth making time for. Sheltered by white walls on three sides, the private blue-tiled pool opens up to tropical ground covers and a shimmering horizon beyond. Take the waters by stretching out on a submerged jet-lined lounge chair, standing below a massaging waterspout or resting elbows on the pool’s infinity edge. Then don a white robe and pour a glass of cool eggplant tea before retreating to a deck chair or cabana.
Eat In or Eat Out?
Except for maybe a lunch of lobster or chicken at the neighbouring beach grill, expect to dine in at the all-inclusive Playa Pilar. Guests at the thrice-daily buffet will find meals similar to the simple fare found at many Cuban resorts. Step it up a notch by making reservations at the four à la carte restaurants serving authentic Cuban meals, Japanese, Italian or Mediterranean cuisine. While 24-hour room service is not yet available, the snack bar is open around the clock. Meanwhile, the pool, beach, theatre and 24-hour lobby bars make sure no one’s thirsty. At least once, make sure you tuck into the cool confines of the cigar lounge, where mix master Oney carefully crafts his versions of such local classics as the rum punch and mojito.
Whom You’ll Meet
Visitors from Canada, the United Kingdom and Argentina, in that order, are all more than happy to hop on direct flights to Cayo Coco. (Expect to eventually see Americans, too, in light of the United States’ recent approval of flights to nine Cuban destinations – Cayo Coco included.)
If I Could Change One Thing
There’s not a chopstick to be found at the Japanese restaurant or a leaf of lettuce at the buffet’s salad station, but these are “Cubanisms,” as I call them, and perhaps new-resort growing pains are easy to overlook. Still, I would love to see the pool hours extended – 6 p.m is far too early in the day to shut down for the daily chemical-release cleaning. The tropical sun arches its way west well into the evening and it’s hard to resist the allure of a twilight swim in a softly lit pool.
SHEILA HANSENCAYO GUILLERMO, The Globe and Mail
August 1, 2016