Photos by Wild Whim Photography + Design by Wade Carr
Where are all the Cuban wedding blogs?
One of the greatest challenges planning my destination wedding was a lack of real wedding blog posts. I scoured the internet and bridal websites like TheKnot.com for more resources. To my initial surprise, there were few-to-no personal stories. Presumably this is because most wedding blog posts most voraciously created by American brides…American brides who can’t travel to Cuba.
A second challenge was Cuba’s web presence, or lack there of. It was, and to some degree still is, offline. Official statistics indicate less than 5% of Cubans have access to open (non-state controlled) internet. Lest I conclude, Cuban vendors (venues, photographers, florists, etc) are not creating promotional web content for prospective brides. This even applied to the resort we eventually selected. There were few wedding photos apart from a small white gazebo and pictures of a dated, pink satin draped reception. TripAdvisor had some user-contributed images but nothing which really inspired romance, wanderlust or a dreamy (modern) wedding. This brings me to the reason I wanted to write this post. I want to offer engaged couples an honest look at what Melia Varadero has to offer.
Keep in mind, we settled on Cuba for our destination wedding in February 2015. At the time I’m writing this, the United States has made significant changes to their foreign policy. Cubans are using creative work-arounds to access the internet and new web infrastructure has been announced. Hopefully this means better resources for brides trying to plan the biggest (and most costly) event of their lives.
What was my overall impression of a Melia Varadero wedding?
Melia Varadero hosted a great wedding. We were a party of 45 total and guest feedback was for the most part, exceedingly positive. Our ceremony took place on the front lawn which we preferred to a beach wedding. We also opted for a private reception which took place in a ground-level room that served as the art gallery by day. We chose our reception menu and it was the best meal we were served all week. The entire experience was a week long party with our friends and family; in short, it was the best time.
How much does a destination wedding in Cuba cost?
Qualifying for a free wedding
If you bring a certain number of guests you will qualify for a ‘free’ wedding. I don’t know the minimum number of rooms which must be booked to qualify because my party was so large. What does free wedding mean? Basically it covers your paperwork, ceremony set up, a cake and a few bouquets and boutonnieres. (See the full list here.) Otherwise, extras can be selected from this list: weddingcubachannel.com/extra_services. I strongly urge you to obtain an invoice from the wedding coordinator before the wedding to ensure there is no miscommunication when it comes to settle the bill.
How to score a private reception at Melia Varadero
You’ll need to bring 25 or more guests to secure dinner, speeches and dinner in a private room. During dinner wine and beer will be served at no extra cost. Optional extras include an open cocktail bar, centerpieces, additional floral and decor, and a deejay. We really wanted to make our resort-hosted wedding feel like our own wedding so we brought decorative items from Canada.
Ouch, gouged on currency!
Packages are charged in CUC, which are tied to USD. Depending on the exchange rate, Canadian brides should account for a 20-30% premium.
What are destination wedding incentives and how can I benefit?
No doubt you’ll be booking your wedding guests through a travel agency. The agent/agency will gather quotes from trip operators. Operators are companies like Air Transat, Sunwing and WestJet Vacations. The agency negotiates a group rate with the operator. Because weddings are so lucrative (45 guests at $1,600 = $72,000+) resorts and operators offer couples incentives to book their property.
Incentives differ between resorts and brands. Melia Varadero offered us this: “16th adult complimentary based on double occupancy excluding taxes. Maximum of 4 can be earned. Must be booked by final payment to qualify.” Incentives are paid in cash (well cheque or via refund to your credit card) and can be as low as one incentive per 11th guest booked, or as high as 21st guest booked.
How ‘easy’ is it (really) to get married in Cuba?
Very. All you have to do is be in the country 48 hours before your wedding ceremony. All the paperwork is handled by the resort. The downside: paperwork is processed on island time. We were told to expect our marriage license within 3-4 months. The upside: our marriage license is going to be issued by the Canadian embassy in Havana. Pretty bad ass. However, it’s pretty weird to have been married but not yet have changed my last name, or register it with the municipality here in Canada.
What was the ceremony like?
Well organized and executed. Everything ran on time and there were no surprises. Brides do need to know the ceremony will be performed by two people: lead by an officiant speaking Spanish and translated into English by the wedding coordinator. The officiant will read 3-4 sentences and the coordinator will translate.
How long is the talking bit? We were a bit worried about how long our guests were going to be listening to a ceremony in a language they do not understand. Would it be painfully long? Would I be standing there looking awkwardly at my groom? Or worse yet, would I crack up laughing? Not to worry prospective brides! The ceremony took maybe ten or fifteen minutes, depending on whether you write your own vows.
What was the reception like at Melia Varadero?
The biggest issue you will have is waiting until you are at the resort to consider private reception rooms. For some reason or another, the resort could not email us photos. We opted for the art gallery, requesting they leave the paintings on the wall but clear the sculptures. My greatest concern was that the room would feel empty with only 43 guests, 10 of which would be seated at our head table. However, with space reserved for the ‘dance floor’ and tables of six, the space did not overwhelm our party.
Our Biggest Mishap
The reception was supposed to start at 6 p.m. (or was it 7?) with dinner served shortly thereafter. When our MC arrived he discovered the sound system had not been properly set up. While the microphone had been arranged, we needed to be able to play music from a smartphone. It seemed an important cable was missing and the staff weren’t much assistance. Furthermore, despite noting that we wanted to hire a DJ for our reception it seems he did not turn up. We scrambled to find a fix while our guests waited in the Piano Bar. Luckily we solved the issue as not having music during dinner would have been regrettable.
What type of decor and floral did Melia Varadero offer?
Brides can expect white linens, white chair covers, coloured sashes, and white china with gold accents. Email in advance to see what colour sashes they have. Our wedding colours were blush and gold so we had to bring our own sashes, which were used for chairs at the ceremony and reception.
Floral options were limited. The resort could not tell me in advance which types of blooms I could choose, only that they were imported. When we arrived we were handed laminated cards and told to choose from roses, lilies, and some other tropical varieties I can not recall. From what I remember floral came in white, pink and red.
Tell me about the on site salon. Should I get my hair, nails and make up done there?
Let’s squash grand visions of a luxurious Western-style spa right now. The salon is housed in the most outdated space at the resort. And remember that embargo? That means the quality of beauty products is on par with drugstore items, or poorer. I would suggest getting all beauty services done before arriving in Cuba. That includes manicures, pedicures, waxing, eyelash extensions, hair cuts, facial and anything else you’re considering.
Hair – I did a test run the day before my wedding. With the world’s oldest looking curling iron and a handful of bobby pins, a middle-aged balding man who spoke no English coiffed my wedding look. (I say this with humour!) I had showed him a few images of what I generally wanted and his coworker translated for me. I needed a middle part with some tendrils but told him to do ‘whatever’ he was best at in the back. It all worked out for me, but if you have an elaborate or particular look I’d suggest practicing it yourself or have a bridesmaid do your hair.
Also, bring your own hair products from home; my Aveda brand products far exceeded the quality of anything in the salon. (Again, due to that pesky embargo.)
Make up– given my experience above, I opted to do my own make up. I knew before leaving Canada I might need a back up plan. Prior to departing I asked one of my beauty-talented friends to swing by Sephora for a make up application.
What are the options for photography?
The resort has a recommend photographer and videographer but their portfolios weren’t exactly aligned with our vision. We opted to bring a photographer with us from North America. Bringing a photographer was by and large our most costly expense (and that accounts for the wedding dress!) Slowly it seems that Cuban photographers are beginning to use Instagram hashtags like #CubaWeddingPhotographer, but otherwise I couldn’t find anyone local whose photography I was floored by.
How was the Melia Varadero from a guest perspective?
The staff – in a word: awesome. Very courteous and professional. Some of the housekeepers were a bit chatty in the morning while cleaning rooms. A few times I was woken up by their conversations. The bartenders and wait staff were friendly.
There’s an expectations that guests should tip in Cuba which caused me some tip-fatigue. From ordering a drink to using a washroom (outside of the resort), there always seemed to be someone asking for a peso. What made this especially difficult was the scarcity of small bills.
The food – everyone arrived in Cuba with the expectation that the food would be mediocre at best. I would advise against dining in the buffet when possible. I would especially avoid it outside of lunch and dinner hours.
We were pleased with the number of a la carte restaurants. While we were served some ‘interesting’ plates, food generally exceeded our expectations. We liked the pork chops and grilled chicken at Trinidad, the steak and skewers (brisket) at The Steakhouse, and the Asian fare at Sakura. The International Restaurant was my least favourite.
The property – clean but a bit dated. I don’t have much context here because I’ve never stayed in a Mexican or Caribbean resort but many guests remarked positively on the Melia Varadero. (Some of those comments coming from guests who had visited Cuba before.) There were some exteriors which could use a power wash and some of the decor and design seemed dated but it was a nice property overall. The beach was spectacular and unfortunately we didn’t get a lot of sun but the pool area was quite nice.
Entertainment – meh (not that we were much interested in it)
The Level – located on the fifth floor, The Level has modern room furnishings, a private bistro and wi-fi. Anyone is allowed to access the fifth floor which was great because most of my bridesmaids did not upgrade. (I’ve heard horror stories about bridesmaids who could not get ready with the bride in her room because they were denied access to the floor.) Note: the bistro will only serve guests with the correct colour wristbands.
There are specific perks to Level guests worth noting. First, they receive unlimited reservations to the a la carte restaurants. Other guests must make reservations through an attendant. Drinks served in the Level’s bistro taste better and there is a dedicated hospitality staff to arrange services. Also, The Steakhouse is closed during the day to anyone not staying on The Level. Trust me, this lunch option exceeds the caliber of food served in the buffet and 24-hour bar. Last, guests staying in suites will receive a bottle of spirits delivered to their room each morning. All in all, we found upgrading to The Level to be great value.
If you’re considering a destination wedding at the Melia Varadero and have a question let me know! Comment below or send me a tweet.