CUBA conjures up romantic images of revolution, cocktails and cigars but as capital city Havana prepares to celebrate its 500th anniversary, Mike Maloney found there was much more to this captivating country.

Cuba has always seemed a little exotic, a little off the beaten track to the average UK holidaymaker, but this island of great beauty and variety has much to offer the discerning visitor.

We arrived in Havana, which immediately lived up to its reputation as a beguiling, intoxicating city.

The faded grandeur of the colonial buildings, the neo-classical shopfronts and of course, the colourful classic Buicks and Chevrolet taxis, soon caught the eye.

I quickly learned not only are the Cubans a very friendly people - indeed Havana is a safe city - they are also resourceful - they've had to be.

Since the revolution of '59 and subsequent US trade embargo the country has had to fight for its economic existence.

Roberto picks me up from my hotel, the elegant Melia Cohiba, and laughs when I marvel at how he has kept his shiny, classic chevrolet in pristine working order.

"Of course it has a new engine, " he says. "Many of the parts are hard to find but we Cubans are very resourceful."


Hamburg: There's more to this city than sex and The Beatles

TRAVEL: A trip to Porto and the Douro Valley

We arrive at the imposing Plaza de la Revolucion. This vast square is a monument to the revolution. Its eerie to stand in the almost empty concrete expanse as the morning sun shines on the imposing steel-frieze images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro which dominate one side of the square.

One can only imagine the scene when its filled with tens of thousands of celebrating Cubans.

Our next stop is the Habana Vieja (old city) where I drop in to La Floridita, the bar frequented by Hemingway and birthplace of the daiquiri, before I take a stroll.

The old city is a delight, crammed with tourists and locals, flamboyant palaces and imposing neo-classical blocks.

The Parque Central is a beautiful square, ideal to sit and watch the world go by.

The nearby Capitolio Nacional, whose dome dominates this part of the city, is worth a visit.

Its interior is intricate and stunning but the 17.5 metre ornate bronze Estatva de la Republica (Statue of the Republic) was undergoing restoration during our visit but will be ready and resplendent for the 500th anniversary celebrations.

You could easily spend a day in the old city, marvelling at its stunning architecture, chatting to the friendly locals or haggling for a bargain.

A walk along the pedestrianised Obispo street is a must: crammed with eateries, bars and second-hand stalls.

You will be approached by hustlers, offering everything from cigars to rooms but they're pretty harmless.

The city pulsates with music and dance. It seems everyone can play an instrument or dance the salsa and there are plenty of venues.

But none tops the Tropicana nightclub.

It's a real throw-back to a bygone era and truly a dance spectacular: colourful, vibrant, the extravagantly dressed dancers gyrating amid the palm trees.

You could imagine the likes of Sinatra or Meyer Lansky entertaining friends to this lavish spectacle.

We had a great view from our raised seats and as I puffed on a fine cigar, sipped an exquisite rum and watched the colourful show in the sultry night air, it was a heady mix which imbued the senses.

And in true Cuban style, we were all invited on stage at the finale for a dance.

It is easy to forget you are in a tropical paradise amid the hustle and bustle of Havana.

But we certainly got away from it all for a day with a visit to the jaw-dropping landscape of the Vinales valley.

It had a lost world feel thanks to its magnificent "mogotes" - the boulder-like fists of limestone which dominate this fertile valley.

The pretty town of Vinales has a laid back vibe and we were treated to a look at its first hotel.

Other attractions nearby include the Mural de la Prehistoria and Indian caves, both worth a visit.

The Mural de la Prehistoria is not actually  a prehistoric mural but was in fact commissioned by Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.

The huge mural, on the side of one of the mogotes,  is a modern depiction of evolution on the island and is quite a spectacle.

 We explored the nearby Indian caves at first on foot before we were led down to a subterranean river and enjoyed a fun boat ride along the illuminated interior.

However, the highlight for me was a visit to a tobacco farm, where we treated to the sight of Jorge, who has been rolling cigars for 40 years, showing off his skills.

Cigars, as you would expect, are great value in Cuba and you can buy everything from Montecristos to Cohibas at cheap prices.

 I snapped up quite a range to take home as gifts.

We also enjoyed a fun boat trip up the river from the Canimar River Tourist Park.

As always the Cubans knew how to party. The cuba libres flowed as uptight westerners, myself included, unwound and joined in fun dances as the boat wound its way through the verdant riverside vegetation.

You really got a sense of the natural beauty of Cuba as it seemed a world away from the city.

The river park was an hour's drive from Cuba's most heralded beach resort.

As this island lies between the warm waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic ocean, there are plenty to chose from.

But we were fortunate to stay one night in Varadero.

Its beautiful white-sanded beaches and calming turquoise waters made for a relaxing stay.

There is so much to see in Cuba. I could happily have spent another week.

But the highlight has to be Havana.

What better way to celebrate its 500 years than to take a trip to this beautiful city and country.

You won't be disappointed.


Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick every Sunday and Thursday to Havana.

We stayed at the hotel Melia Cohiba in Havana.