“When you visit Cayo Largo, it’s almost like experiencing your own private island,” said Sunwing Travel Group’s Chief Marketing Officer Samantha Taylor.
When Sunwing first revealed that its hotel management company, Blue Diamond Resorts, would be taking over every hotel and villa on a small island off of Cuba’s southern coast, the industry’s ears perked up.
After all, it’s not every day that a travel company is granted exclusive rights by the Cuban government to run a destination’s entire hotel inventory.
Sunwing’s Cayo Largo project – arguably one of the company’s most ambitious projects in recent years – was born out of the tour operator’s long-standing relationship with Cuba, resulting in an 11-property takeover – totalling 1,348 rooms – last year for the Canadian market as part of a 10-year agreement.
The intimate resorts and cottage-like villas on lush Cayo Largo – known for its 25 kilometres of white-sand beaches, prime snorkeling and diving areas and sea turtle conservation centre – are set up for all kinds of audiences, from families to adults-only crowds to even nudists.
And, as PAX learned on a press trip with Taylor and the Sunwing team last week (May 19-27), arriving in “Cuba’s Sunshine Coast” is a hassle-free experience as Vilo Acuna Airport (CYO) – Cayo Largo’s international airport – is within a 10-minute drive from every property.
With one entity running the show, it’s transfer heaven.
“We want to deliver that frictionless experience,” Taylor told PAX, on location. “It’s nice to not have to deal with so many different companies. No matter where you go on the island, it’s one family.”
All about consistency
Cayo Largo is one of Cuba’s best-kept secrets, and it’s a “fan favourite” for many Canadians, Taylor explained.
“There's a long, deep history,” she said. “Canadians were coming here for many years, prior to the pandemic.”
When COVID-19 brought global tourism to a near halt, the idyllic island – like most destinations – closed its doors, for just over two years.
It was during this turbulent time that Sunwing landed the opportunity to step in and work some hospitality magic as Blue Diamond – a chain with some 44 properties in 10 countries – got to work in upgrading and enhancing all of Cayo Largo’s 11 properties.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for us to control the consistency and customer experience,” Taylor explained. “It’s all our hotels, from one side of the island to the other."
The initial set of reopenings, so far, have included the 296-room Memories (open to all, families and adults alike), the 307-room Starfish (also open to all, and very family friendly), and the 45-room Sanctuary at Grand Memories, which is for adults only.
An upgraded 306-room Grand Memories is set to open this winter 2023-24.
There’s also a collection of cottage-like villas ready to go, including Villa Linda Mar, Villa Soledad, Villa Natura and Villa Caprice.
To say the process has been a challenge would be an understatement, but it’s one that Sunwing has embraced, Taylor said.
“Our Blue Diamond team has worked so hard to get these hotels to where they are today. When you're closed for two years, it takes a lot of heavy lifting…We almost had to restart the entire island, from infrastructure to upkeep. I think they've done an incredible job, but we still have a long way to go.”
The goal, Taylor said, is to have all 11 hotels on Cayo Largo (some of which are still undergoing renovations) up and running by this winter.
Sunwing’s non-stop Cayo Largo flights launched last November, with an initial offering from Toronto (three hours, five minutes), Montreal (three hours, forty minutes) and Quebec City (four hours, five minutes).
Ottawa was also added for that winter, which was a “great success,” Taylor said.
Sunwing’s Cayo Largo program, which is currently on a limited summer schedule, will return to all the above markets this winter, she said, including Halifax.
Is there a plan to link Cayo Largo with Western Canada?
"In the long term, yes," Taylor said. "As flights get longer, it adds a little more complications. But I think one of the benefits of our new partnership with The WestJet Group is that we are able to access all interconnectivity flights and bring people south. So for next winter, no. But in the long term? Absolutely."
"This is an island that should be accessible to Canadians."
No sargassum here
What are Canadians loving (so far) about the destination?
“I think the pictures speak for themselves,” Taylor said. “People continue to tell us how shocked they are with the beaches. The beaches are incredible, from the colours to the clarity.”
One point that’s worth noting is that Cayo Largo is free of sargassum – the smelly brown macroalgae that is currently piling up on beaches along some coastlines in Florida, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean.
It’s also a “nature-lovers heaven,” Taylor said.
“There's a real feeling of being able to unplug, focus on yourself, leave your worries behind, and lose yourself on the island,” Taylor said. “That’s part of the charm.”
Near Cayo Largo’s marina, there’s a stage, and during the week, shows are held there for all the resorts, creating a sense of community.
“It’s a very easy island to get around. People can rent scooters or bikes and freely go from one side to the other. Everything is very local,” Taylor said.
“Enjoy, Explore, Embrace"
Health and wellness was a reoccurring theme during PAX’s visit, with each morning starting with either a yoga, Pilates or stretch class.
Mind and body are part of the Cayo Largo vision.
“No matter what week you're coming, you'll have [wellness options], for all levels,” Taylor said. “We're not all trying to be yogis overnight. But the idea of stretching and taking time for yourself, and ensuring it's accessible for all customers, is something we’re building into our regular programs.”
Lush and low-key Cayo Largo is also a place where you can bare it all, if you like, as clothing optional beaches are available across the island.
“It’s a friendly lifestyle island,” as Taylor put it, noting the three pillars of Cayo Largo, which is to “Enjoy, Explore and Embrace.”
A vacation motto, you could say.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects Cayo Largo is that Sunwing received an international import license for the entire island.
This means the company is able import branded goods into Cuba – items that typically aren’t available at resorts in other parts of the country.
“I don't think there's one single hungry person on this island,” Taylor said, positioning food supply as an important aspect of the Cayo Largo rebrand.
And what about the Wi-Fi? This question almost always comes up with Cuba.
Since last summer, Internet has been free at all hotels in Cuba, eliminating the pay-per-use scratch cards that were once required in pre-pandemic times.
In Cayo Largo, internet can be limited on beaches, but in main areas like hotel lobbies, solid connections – strong enough to allow for video streaming – are found.
“I’ve been on business calls nearly every day this week, broadcasting from lobbies. I've been on video the entire time, and I haven't had an issue,” Taylor said.
Then again, maybe a visit to Cayo Largo is an invitation to unplug from the world of Facebook, YouTube and email.
“I think the charm of coming here is that can you be purposeful when plugging in. You don't want to always be accessible. But if you do, there are options. It’s really a choose your own adventure situation,” Taylor said.
The number one piece of feedback Sunwing receives about Cayo Largo is “how wonderful and caring the staff are.”
“They will go above and beyond to make sure you have a great experience,” Taylor said.
What’s the best way for travel advisors to pitch this slice of Cuban paradise?
“If [your client] is looking for a place that’s off the beaten path, somewhere that is not overtly commercial, that is authentic, a little smaller, a little intimate, and that never has any seaweed, then Cayo Largo is the perfect partner.”
With files from Michele Yeo.
Stay tuned as PAX bring you more on-location content from Cayo Largo, Cuba with Sunwing.