Buena Vistas in Havana

In her gold bikini, Cordelia O'Neill discovers where the heat is on

It's a sweltering evening and through the darkness, musicians drum an intoxicating Salsa rhythm. Tall palm trees seemingly swing in time as I sip my glass of seven year-old rum and prepare for a night to remember. Suddenly the spotlight swings to the two stages, and a flock of girls – the so called Diosas de Carne, Goddesses of the Flesh – descend from trees in time to the music.

The music picks up, lights flash on glittering sequinned and feathered costumes, and the world-famous Club Tropicana kicks off another long Havana night.

Launched in 1939 at the Villa Mina, a sprawling six-acre estate on the outskirts of the city, this floor show inspired copycat cabaret in Paris, Las Vegas and New York, and has drawn countless tourists to Cuba's capital for nights of decadence, drama and daiquiris.

But the sequins and feathers hide a darker side of the club, whose history is almost inseparable from the Cuba of the popular imagination – gangsters, gambling and gunshots.

The past is rarely far away on this Caribbean island which won independence from Spain in 1902. Apart from the near-constant presence of its revolutionary heroes – Fidel Castro and more photogenic Che Guevara – the island's chequered history is etched into its heart.

Very little is new in Cuba – from Spanish colonial style townhouses (some undergoing restoration, but more falling down stone by stone), to the classic American cars – Chevrolets, Buicks and Cadillacs.

One of the best places to view this irrepressible capital is from the top of the 137m high memorial to the island's most honoured patriot, Jos Marti.

A slow lift takes you to the top of the obelisk, topped with a statue of the poet, journalist and leader of the 1895 rebellion against Spanish rule. Having paid my respects, I decide to worship the local culture in a slightly less worthy way, and slip into my gold bikini, don a pair of oversized Sophia Loren-style sunglasses and make for the rooftop pool of my hotel – the neoclassical Saratoga.

With the sun beating down and a cocktail in my hand, I have a 270-degree panorama of the city taking in the Capitolio Nacional – a 1929 copy of the Capitol building in Washington, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Habana Vieja district by the harbour, and the sprawling Centro Habana.

Like many luxury hotels here, the Saratoga was built in the 1930s and decayed. It reopened in 2005 with reproduction 1930s details – floor tiles, a sweeping central atrium and the rooftop pool. Also worth seeing is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba – the flagship hotel and the hangout of Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and novelist Ernest Hemingway in pre-Castro times.

Soak up the Hemingway vibe in the writer's old hangouts, La Floridita and la Bodeguita del Medio. "My daiquiri in El Floridita", he wrote, "My mojito at La Bodeguita". In La Floridita, a bronze statue of him props up the bar.

Economic necessity and Raoul Castro's modernising reforms ensure Cuba welcomes tourists with open arms – particularly since the market for their sugar crop disappeared with the collapse of the USSR.

Former plantations are slowly being converted into expansive tourist resorts along a shimmering coastline. But reminders of the tough regime under which Cubans live are plentiful. One is the dual currency system: tourists use a convertible peso worth nearly 25 times more than the non-convertible peso in which Cubans are paid. Anybody in the tourist industry with access to tips, takes home more than doctors or teachers.

Castro, whose rule was described as "like having a very strict father" by one guide, is a looming presence. More human aspects of revolutionary life are visible in his birthplace outside the tiny village of Biran, about 750km east of Havana.

Seven Castro siblings grew up here in a comfortably-off family. Castro's father Angel, an immigrant from Spain, owned a farm and expanded with a general store, telegraph room, school, hotel and mini cockfighting stadium. In later life, the son's zeal for stamping out private property ownership extended to his family's own farm.

Castro's baseball shirt (number 9) hangs in his teenage bedroom and a bullet hole in the ceiling signals unconventional bedtime games.

Havana's Museum of Revolution, in the former Presidential Palace with a magnificent and largely undamaged mirrored ballroom, explains events of 1959 with Kalashnikovs carried by Revolutionaries, bloodstained clothes and torture instruments allegedly used by US agents on Castro's men. Outside is the yacht which brought Revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, and the remains of a spy plane shot down in the Cold War.

A total absence of billboards takes some getting used to. The only advertising allowed by government tells citizens of their luck in living under such progressive economic policies.

Choose your souvenirs carefully. My favourite was Perfumeria Habana 1791 – a vintage-style perfumery where trainees mix a scent (I chose a sandalwood and rose mix) to fill bottles sealed by wax. If you want cigars, don't buy a box on street corners, lest they are rolled up banana leaves, and keep receipts for customs officials when you leave.

Havana is only a part of Cuba's heritage. We headed for Cayo Saetia, a tiny island off the coast of Guardalavaca. This nature reserve, once a private government game reserve for party officials, has zebra, water buffalo, boar, antelope, deer and ostriches. Ancestors of these beasts roam the island's plains and dense forests and I take a white-knuckle

safari in an ex-military Jeep to see them, before having lunch overlooking the beach.

This paradise island has pristine white sand beaches, calm blue seas, lush flora and fauna, and macaws calling from the treetops.

It's also a fine spot to explore the coral reef encircling Cuba's eastern Holguin province – the second biggest in the world. Under the crystal clear waters, it's like being plunged into an aquarium, as brightly coloured fish dart around the reef.

In Cuba, a sea-change is coming, albeit slowly. Since Fidel handed over to his brother in 2006, the island has opened itself to the West, and President Obama's election could

end the ban on visitors from the US. Enjoy this crazy, contradictory country before too many Americans arrive.

GETTING THERE

Cordelia O'Neill was a guest of Thomson Holidays (0871 231 5595 and thomson.co.uk), which offers twin-centre 11-night stays on the resort of Guardalavaca and Havana from 1,876, including return flights with Thomson Airways to Holguin.

Internal flights by Air Cubana. Departures from Manchester, the programme runs year round.

YP MAG 11/12/10