I pushed open the heavy, wooden door and immediately recognised the cracked marble staircase, the crumbling ornate pillars, and the fading homage to Fidel painted on the wall. In 1994, this tenement building in central Havana was turned into a film set for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s internationally-acclaimed, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), a picture I studied almost a decade later at university.

Three flights up a dark staircase hides La Guarida – the den or hideaway – where much of the movie was filmed. It was home to a gay man called Diego, one of the main characters. His apartment was an Aladdin’s Cave of illicit art, literature and trinkets, all prohibited by the regime.

The film was so successful that tourists arrived in their droves searching for this clandestine paradise. The real owner, Enrique Nuñez del Valle, saw an opportunity. Using the original props as decor, he opened a paladar – a dining experience unique to Cuba, where families open private restaurants in their own front rooms – named after the movie (www.laguarida.com). I’d spent so much time analysing the iconography and symbolism of La Guarida, it was truly surreal to be sitting in the very same apartment gorging on the best food Cuba had to offer. But then again, walking through the streets of Havana you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the world’s largest film set.

That said, the notion that Cuba is locked in a time warp is becoming somewhat outdated. Since El Comandante, Fidel Castro, transferred power to his brother Raul in 2006, there has been modest socio-economic progress. Cubans, for example, can now own computers and mobile phones. Access is restricted, but there has been enough online liberty to fuel a cultural upheaval. Cubans can now also stay in hotels that were once the private enclaves of foreign guests.

The colonial outpost of Trinidad de Cuba © Cuba Tourist Board

Old Cadillacs

But thankfully for tourists, there are more than enough superficial oddities. One can still marvel at the clapped-out Pontiacs, Buicks, Fords and Cadillacs that chug their way noisily through the pot-hole ridden streets (you can usually book a classic car journey at your hotel reception).

It’s a similar story in relation to housing. While much is invested in constructing and restoring hotels, most of the grandiose baroque and neo-colonial buildings are dilapidated and, often, literally falling down.

I was treated to a fairly standard itinerary during a recent visit: Revolution Square, the Havana Club rum museum, La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering hole, El Floridita. These should be on every visitor’s “to do” list.

You don’t have to look too hard, however, to find something off the beaten track. For starters, forego the lure of the luxury hotels, and bunk up with a Cuban family for a few days. The casa particular is a similar concept to that of the paladar. It provides the tourist with an authentic Cuban experience, and allows some natives to live above the breadline. Expect to pay between £5 and £80 per night.

Cigar smoking is as synonymous with Cuban culture as salsa, and tobacco plantations and factories are littered across the country. But the guided tour at the Partagas factory in central Havana should not be missed, unless you suffer from a respiratory illness.

You’ll need to clear your lungs with a blast of fresh air, so walk directly to the Malecón, the concrete promenade that stretches some eight miles along the sea front. In the morning, you’ll see no more than a few amateur fishermen with homemade rods, but from late afternoon it becomes a hive of activity and a haven for people watching.

World Heritage Site

To escape the humid bustle of Havana, go to the central station and catch the Hershey train – built in 1917 by the famous American chocolate manufacturer to transport workers from the capital to Matanzas. Then switch lines and move on to Santa Clara, 270km east of the capital.

What this city lacks in architectural beauty it makes up for in history, culture and lively nightlife. It was also the site of one of the most significant moments in Cuban history – the battle of Santa Clara. In late 1958, Che Guevara and his guerilla army used a bulldozer to derail a train carrying supplies and reinforcements for Batista’s army. They went on to capture the city, and less than 12 hours later Batista fled the country. A short walk from the main square is the site where the attack took place, and the bulldozer and fallen train carriages remain preserved in the same spot. A mile out of town is the Che Guevara museum and mausoleum.

A two-hour drive south is the colonial outpost, Trinidad de Cuba. Its museums and beaches are a huge draw for tourists. In 1988, UNESCO made this architectural jewel a World Heritage Site. The highlight for most is a visit to the Manaca-Iznaga tower, which commands stunning views over the coastline and the Valley of the Mills.

Resorts

Cuba’s modern resorts tend to receive most government investment. The Cayos, especially Cayo Coco, are ideal for those looking for heat, good food and some peace and quiet. My father-in-law visits once a year, and insists it’s the best part of the island.

Varadero is Cuba’s biggest resort © Cuba Tourist BoardFurther west along the northern coast is Varadero, the largest and busiest of the resorts. It’s big, bustling, and not to everyone’s taste. But it is best placed for those wanting to combine beach-time with day trips to the cities and countryside.

Pinar del Rio, on the west side of the island, is only a few hours drive away. Known as the garden of Cuba, it boasts some of the island’s most impressive landscapes and wildlife, including the country’s red, white and blue national bird, the Tocororo. And, like much of rural and coastal Cuba, there are scores of outdoor activities in which to indulge, including trekking, snorkelling and scuba diving. Just to the north lies the Viñales Valley and its impressive El Indio limestone caves.

Rumours that the US’s softening stance on Cuba will soon lead to an invasion of tourists seem somewhat premature. As recently as July, President Obama was under Congressional pressure to uphold existing laws. However, the paralysing embargo is sure to come to an end sooner rather than later, opening Cuba up to American tourists. I recommend you get there before it does.

Cuba facts

At only 31, journalist Martin Ferguson has already experienced some of the world’s most fascinating destinations. But he regularly tells family and friends that Havana is the one city they must see before they die.

When to go

Cuba enjoys 330 days of sunshine a year. The rainy season – which often brings violent storms and occasionally hurricanes – runs from May to October. The dry season, therefore, is from November to April.

Getting there

There are scheduled flights from London Gatwick to Holguin and Havana with Cubana Airlines (www.cubana.cu) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com). Air Europa (www.aireuropa.com) flies from Gatwick to Havana via Madrid. Charter flights with Thomas Cook Airlines (www.thomascookairlines.com) and Thomson Airways (www.thomsonfly.com) go to Varadero, Cayo Coco, Santa Clara and Holguin.

Getting around

Hire cars are available at airports. Drivers must be at least 21. Public transport is safe, but often extremely busy and unreliable. Taxis are a cheap and safe way to get around.

Accommodation

The pick of Havana’s hotels include the imposing, twin-towered Hotel Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com) and the Hotel Saratoga (www.hotel-saratoga.com). While Hotel Playa Pesquero (www.hotelplayapesquerocuba.com) is the stand-out resort in Holguin, the Blau Hotel (www.blauhotels.com) in Varadero and Tryp Cayo Coco should also be considered. For casas particulars, visit The Casa Particular organisation (www.casaparticularcuba.org).

Tour operators

Specialists include Captivating Cuba (www.captivatingcuba.com), Cuba Direct (www.cubadirect.co.uk), Havanatur (www.havanatur.com), Headwater (www.headwater.com) and Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
Mainstream operators include Thomas Cook (www.thomascook.com), Thomson Holidays (www.thomson.co.uk) and Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.com).

Tourist information

Cuba Tourist Board: www.travel2Cuba.co.uk

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Cuba.