After your Sunwing Airlines flight lands in Santa Clara, you drive north toward Cuba’s coast. Soon you reach the first of 46 bridges over the shallow blue waters of the Cayos de Villa Clara section of the Jardines del Rey Archipelago. If your ideal Cuba vacation involves empty beaches and pristine sea life, Cayo Santa Maria is for you. There are only a dozen hotels (for now) on Cayo Santa Maria. This part of the keys is a relatively new area of development in Cuba, and now is the time to go before the long sandy beaches become as packed with hotels as Varadero. Melia Buenavista is the most isolated of the dozen hotels on Cayo Santa Maria. Standing on the beach I could only see one hotel in the far distance on another island. It’s a vigorous 45-minute walk on soft white sand to get to the nearest hotel.
Built on the edge of a mangrove forest, Melia Buenavista is a quiet resort and is ideal if you want to commune with nature. At each of the resort’s three beaches, the fish were so friendly they swam up to check out my ankles as soon I entered the water. A school of sergeant majors followed me as I snorkeled off Playa La Duna, the longest of the three beaches. The visibility for snorkel-ing was best at the crescent beach near the resort’s main pool. Almost completely sheltered from waves, you could see hundreds of urchins and fishes in the turtle grass.
Taking an eco-walk with Navy is an ideal way to learn about the Cayos. On my walk, I learned to differentiate between white and red mangrove, I barely recognized birds that summer in Canada due to their colour change, I saw barracuda and hound fish a few feet from shore, and even found an immense intact sand dollar. On the exterior walls of several hotel buildings, I saw the bright blue, green and scarlet Allison’s anole lizard, looking almost like a cartoon. Melia Buenavista has just 105 rooms, and the feeling is of a luxury boutique hotel. There are activities from pool volleyball, to taichi, to salsa lessons, but the vibe is quiet and laid back. I loved my morning yoga class under the thatched roof of a pavilion over the water.
The resort has three restaurants. Breakfast and lunch have small buffets of breads, charcuterie and fruits, with a focus on a la carte selections. Dinner is entirely a la carte. 24-hour room service is included at no extra cost. Should you tire of these choices, Melia provides a free shuttle service for you to dine at either Melia Las Dunas or Melia Cayo Santa Maria, nearby. Rooms are large, with a big bathtub and an outdoor shower, a walk-in closet and separate indoor and outdoor sitting areas. As the whole hotel has The Level service, your butler will even pack your suitcase for you when it’s time to catch your Sunwing flight home.