Like a wild and turbulent love affair, Cuba overflows with colourful character, fraught history, faded glamour, crumbling architecture and a vivacious spirit. It's a fascinating destination of distinction, where exquisite beaches and bright blue seas contrast with a 1950s time capsule ambience of intoxicating rum, iconic cigars, rhythmic maracas, sweltering rumba and vintage Cadillacs. If you want a holiday that is both blissfully beachy and culturally rich, Cuba will astound in more ways than you could imagine.
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Home to over 300 unspoilt white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and plenty of Latin American soul, there are myriad city and resort hotels to suit everyone from discerning travellers to loved up honeymooners. Capital city Havana is dusty, busy and crumbling, but of course that's all part of the allure. Jump in a taxi – in Cuba that could be a vintage Buick, Chevrolet or Chrysler - for a journey that will inevitably be a roller-coaster ride past derelict ration shops, colonial architecture, welcoming paladares (privately owned restaurants), revolutionary statues and children playing football with balls of rolled up plastic. This is authentic Cuba, a sultry and almost surreal step back in time. The Vedado district's late night bars pump with the sound of congas, güiros and jazz, the face of Che Guevara is imprinted on nearly every wall you pass and a golden statue of Ernest Hemingway stands proudly in his old drinking haunt El Floridita, where you can enjoy great seafood and a daiquiri or two. People-watch on Havana's oldest square, La Plaza de Armas, experience Cuban cuisine in a paladar (La Guarida is one of the most well known), walk the Spanish colonial quarter's cobblestoned streets, roll a fat cigar at the Partagas Factory and cruise in a Chrysler along the oceanfront Malecón promenade.
Travel east to Santiago de Cuba or west to the verdant Viñales Valley, where you can ride on horseback through tobacco farms and take in some of the most spectacular views in Cuba. Built on the fortunes of sugar and now frozen in time, tenderly preserved Trinidad is also a must with its dreamy blend of colonial palaces, mountain scenery and horse drawn carts. After soaking up the intoxicating atmosphere of days gone by, it’s time to explore Cuba’s most stunning asset – the beautiful beaches. Most famous is palm-fringed Varadero on the Hicacos peninsula, an amalgamation of warm Atlantic waters, huge stretches of white-gold sand and luxury resort hotels. Soak up the sun under swaying palms with a guarapo in hand, swim with dolphins, pamper yourself at the spa and enjoy a round of golf at the Varadero Club.
The transparency of the water around Cuba is a huge draw for divers and with over 30 dive sites including Coral Beach, the Bay of Pigs and Saturno Caves, underwater lovers won’t be disappointed. Just off the north coast, amidst palm trees, mangroves and exotic birds, you’ll find Cayo Santa María’s deserted white sands and emerald waters inviting you to beach comb on an isolated island that tourism has barely reached. Look out for Cayo Santa María’s native bird, the colourful tocororo. Separated by the Bay of Dogs' waters and fringed by coconut palms, the island of Cayo Coco is also worth a visit for its shallow aquamarine sea, pristine beaches and magnificent flock of 30,000 pink flamingos.