The eastern end of Cuba offers pristine beaches with charming and quirky resorts that very few Americans visit. Photographer Thayer Allyson Gowdy shares photos of some of her favorite hideaways. Read Travel Editor Tracey Minkin's story of her trip with Gowdy to Cuba, here.
Once the private island hideaway of Fidel Castro, Cayo Saetia, a small island on the northeast coast of Cuba, is a beautiful and utterly off-the-grid escape. Now the site of a private hotel on a protected game preserve stocked with East African animals, Cayo Saetia also has a string of beautiful, isolated beaches. A thatch roof pavillion sits on one of the beaches, offering shade, food, drink, and a perfect view of the bay.
Part of the allure of off-the-grid Cuban destinations is witnessing the various ages of splendor before a more austere era for the nation intervened. Here, at the bridge entry to Cayo Saetia, the patina of the logo is a clue to previous days.
Inspired by the Castro family's stocking of this beautiful island with East African game for hunting, Cayo Saetia has become a game preserve and channeled the style of African lodges into a unique and beautiful retreat. The hotel, now part of the Gaviota group, is charming, idiosyncratic, and unforgettable.
Inspired by a bit of Out of Africa based on its history, even Cayo Saetia's lush resort grounds echo that aesthetic.
The Serengeti or Northeast Cuba? It's a coin-toss at Cayo Saetia, where the dining room emulates the glorious lodges of East Africa's game preserves. Exotic meats such as antelope also appear on the menu.
It's hard not to fall in love with Cayo Saetia's tiny bar, where big game hunter trophies keep an eye on the rum.
Guided by a dream of hunting for game in the style of East Africa, Fidel Castro arranged to have a variety of African animals shipped to Cuba and stocked them here on Cayo Saetia. Now, the wild game lives protected and mingles with more domesticated animals on the grounds of the resort. The effect is wonderfully bizarre and utterly unique in Cuba.
One of the odd and charming offerings at Cayo Saetia is going "on safari," which is a game drive on the island's red-sand roads in search of the preserve's hundreds of wild animals. What better way, in Cuba, to chase East African game, than in a well-loved (and long-maintained) Russian jeep?
An afternoon safari drive on Cayo Saetia is practically guaranteed to be full of wildlife glimpses, particularly antelope, which roam the island preserve in large numbers. Here, two males put on a show for dominance.
A short drive from the resort compound on the island, this small and perfect beach nestles next to a rustic restaurant and bar. Most mornings, guests at Cayo Saetia have the crescent completely to themselves; in the afternoon a catamaran charter pays a visit. The island has 11 more of these gemlike beaches, where you will likely be the only visitors for an entire day.
A bit of Bali in the Caribbean, Cayo Saetia's serene little beach pavilion and pier are about as off-the-grid as it gets. Ask the folks in the restaurant for a bit of fishing line, and see if you can snag some catch, like this Cuban guide is attempting to do.
Nipe Bay, where Cayo Saetia sits, is a large body of water that has played a role in Cuban history from the beginning (including being the site of the storied apparition of the Virgin that led to the founding of the Shrine at El Cobre).
Just 20 kilometers from Baracoa sits a small and perfect strand of pale-sand beaches on the aptly named Bahia Miel (Bay of Honey), dotted with little independent restaurants and one small, charming hotel: Villa Maguana.
Part of the Gaviota group of Cuban hotels, Villa Maguana has a low-key style and cool design aesthetic, relying on the rich colors of tropical woods to contrast with the lush undergrowth right down to the sea.
Inside Villa Maguana's impeccably clean guest rooms, tropical wood defines the aesthetic. An old-fashioned hospitality gesture--the rolling and sculpting of bath towels into two, kissing swans then placed on a bed--is a Cuban trademark and used at Villa Maguana as well.
While restaurants in Cuba work to free themselves entirely of the yoke of having been under government control for decades, beachside hotels like Villa Maguana are simplifying and taking advantage of seafood to make their plates as delightful as their setting.
When in Rome, drink rum. That's the best advice for travel in Cuba, and whether it's a Cuba Libre, a mojito, or a rum version of a caipirinha, this is the way to quench the thirst brought on by the Caribbean heat. This well-muddled glass marks mid-day at Villa Maguana.
Life at Villa Maguana includes the nice perk of strolling up the beach to a smattering of small, very good waterfront restaurants. At Victor's on Playa Maguana, fresh lobster and plantains are done up just right, for very low prices.
Cuban life is impossible without coffee, and once you begin drinking the small, pungent cups of black coffee (not to mention the tiny, milk-laced cortados), you'll never turn back.
One of the many beauties of Cuban travel is its simplicity. A cool shower on the beach, with a coffee or a cocktail at hand, and a superbly clean room for after the salsa ends at the local trova or beach bar. This is life in Cuba's eastern regions, at resorts like Cayo Saetia and Villa Maguana. It's a simple, joy-affirming way to travel.