Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Minty mojitos. White-sand beaches. Vintage cars. Salsa dancing. And cigars.
A lucky group of 15 travel advisors from Ontario and Atlantic Canada are in Cuba with Transat this week, seeing the best of Havana and Varadero – two sun-kissed vacation spots long loved by Canadian travellers.
PAX has joined the group, exclusively, to cover the one-week FAM, which involves a marathon of hotel site inspections – 24 properties total! – and an itinerary of immersive activities that aim to unlock Cuba’s colourful charm, local life and culture.
The island is a “very popular” destination in Transat’s South program as Air Transat flies there from multiple gateways in Eastern Canada and Ontario, explained Sherri Bourne, business development representative for Atlantic Canada at Transat, one of the FAM’s leaders.
“When we think of Cuba, we think of beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts…but there is so much more to explore,” Bourne told PAX.
That’s why Transat kickstarted the trip in vibrant Havana so travel advisors could learn about the destination’s fascinating history and influences, which date back more than 500 years.
With a bustling Malecón (a waterfront esplanade/seawall) stretching roughly eight kilometres around the city’s coast along with classic architecture that blends Moorish, Baroque and Art Deco styles, Havana presents one of the most poetic cityscapes one will find in the Caribbean.
There’s also the rows of classic American cars from the 1950s that line Havana’s streets – a colourful and iconic sight, unique to the region, that captures the eyes and hearts of visitors (photographers especially).
Unpacking Hotel Grand Aston La Habana
The FAM began yesterday (Dec. 8) as the group checked into the brand-new Grand Aston La Habana, a stylish, 600-room hotel, opened by Indonesia-based Archipelago International just last March, where they’ll stay for two nights.
Rising high into the sky, overlooking the Malecón and Caribbean Sea, the upscale property is in Vedado, Havana’s central commercial district, in a privileged location that's close to offices, shops, restaurants and entertainment.
With contemporary design, the hotel’s interior is a fusion between Havana’s style of the 1930s and the Asian refinement of Grand Aston.
The property, notably, has a 24-hour fitness centre, a spa that offers authentic Balinese treatments and a sparkling 56-metre long swimming pool overlooking Havana Bay.
While in town, agents will explore other hotels, such as Melia Havana, the historically-eclectic Hotel Nacional, and Iberostar’s Packard and Parque Central Hotels, and soak up some rhythm and dancing over dinner at the fabulously-flamboyant Tropicana Cabaret.
The group will then transfer to the resort town of Varadero, where they’ll stay at the Iberostar Selection Varadero and tour several resorts in the area, including new products like Hotel Palacio (Monte Hermoso and De Los Corredores) and Sirenis Tropical Varadero.
There’s even plans to go on a jeep safari excursion early next week (you can bet that PAX will have its cameras rolling for that one).
"Duo" packages that combine both Havana and Varadero are part of Transat’s offer – and it’s an option that Canadians love, Bourne explained.
“It includes the transfer between the destinations, so everything is done for them,” Bourne said. “It helps them experience the best of both worlds.”
As for Transat's FAM, which has brought together both rookie and veteran travel advisors, as well as people experiencing Cuba for the first time, there has never been a better time to brush up on product knowledge.
Especially now, as the pent-up demand for travel continues to fuel the industry’s recovery.
“We spent two years being shut down in Cuba and we had a lot of properties that remained very faithful. So it’s nice to revisit them and see what improvements they’ve made,” Bourne said.
There are also new hotels that were supposed to launch prior to the pandemic, but due to COVID-related challenges, their opening was delayed.
“It will be nice to see new resorts that are just waiting for people to visit,” Bourne said.
And these new properties will, without a doubt, get visitors.
“Travel is so busy right now,” Bourne continued. “Consumers want to go. They’re ready.”
The high demand for travel is what led Air Transat to double its lift to Cuba from Atlantic Canada – out of Halifax and Moncton, in Bourne’s territory – increasing service to five departures a week.
This adds to an already-robust Cuba schedule that Air Transat operates out of major and regional gateways in Quebec and Ontario.
There’s also something to be said about the magic that happens when travel advisors experience a destination for themselves.
“We see a direct return,” Bourne said. “Our agency partners will gain the confidence they need to go back, recommend and sell these properties. It’s a refreshing update for everyone.”
Transat's trade FAM in Havana and Varadero runs until December 15. Stay tuned for more exclusive coverage from PAX!
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