Explore (0845 291 4541) offers a 15-day Viva Cuba! itinerary, from £1,156 per person, including local transport, guide, accommodation and some meals. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777) flies from Gatwick to Havana; from £445 return.
Stay in a real Cuban home with Casa Particular; rooms from £18 a night. Villa las Brujas is set on a fantastic beach on the island’s north coast; doubles from £51. Hotel Florida in old Havana is an elegant restored colonial mansion; junior suites from £87.
The best time to visit is from December to May when the days are dry and sunny. From June to November it can be hot, humid and wet, while the hurricane season begins in June and can continue through to November.
What are the ingredients of a perfect teen holiday? Smoking, drinking and gambling might be a good start. With a dash of revolutionary socialism, perhaps.
I wasn’t actually intending to expose Laura, just 16, to the first three when I planned our post-GCSE break in Cuba. But while any Caribbean island would probably have ticked all her boxes – she had just two: beach and sunshine – I thought a dash of history and politics would spice things up for me, and even be a little educational for her.
Explore’s Viva Cuba! holiday would give us a taste of this surprisingly large country and, I hoped, provide some congenial companions for Laura. It succeeded at both better than I could have dreamed. By the end of the trip, when the kids (two girls and three boys between 14 and 16) had formed a tight-knit group, gossiping, laughing, sharing iPod earphones, it was hard to remember the day they’d met at Havana airport – eyeing each other suspiciously and sticking close to their own families.
Our days were filled with activity: walking Havana’s streets of crumbling mansions, a tour in a 1950s saloon car, salsa lessons on the hotel roof. I don’t think anyone missed Topshop.
The differences between the UK and Cuba were more noticeable when we headed west towards Viñales: here we experienced families living in small, one-storey wooden houses, and fields being worked with machetes and oxen rather than tractors. Viñales is prime tobacco country and on a walk through fields and orchards, we called at a tobacco farm. The kids must have wondered what had come over their responsible parents when we gathered at a shady table outside farmer Francisco’s houseand he passed round a cigar he’d just rolled from home-produced leaf.
‘Go on, darling, take a drag,’ I coaxed. Was I mad? Not really – I just wanted her to experience everything the island had to offer. And it wasn’t as if I was thrusting a Marlboro Light on her. Did she like it? Not much, but none of the youngsters was going to admit this.
This was a different matter. Rum flows cheaply and freely in Cuba, and each hotel we stayed at offered a welcome cocktail with or without ‘vitamin R’, with no ID checks for under-18s. The adults soon developed an enjoyable mojitohabit, and we had to keep an eye on the kids’ growing taste for Havana Club mixed with local TuKola.
The days all included stuff to keep the teenagers happy as well as interest for the parents. We swam in the sea, in rivers and, most memorably, in the Cave of the Fishes, a tectonic crack in the earth that ran 70 metres deep, where we snorkelled in warm, slightly salty water with fish that have found their way in.
This took place at a motorway stop-off on the way to the Bay of Pigs. A crowd had gathered at a round table with a dozen or more numbered metal houses around its edge and a guinea pig snuffling around the centre. Punters paid a peso and placed a hand on their chosen house. The idea is that the rodent dashes into one of the houses, and that punter wins a bottle of rum. This is the only place in Cuba where gambling is legal, and the takings support farms devastated by hurricanes.
The mood grew more sombre at the Bay of Pigs museum, where our youngsters couldn’t help but notice that the some of the people in the photo gallery of those killed helping foil the CIA-backed invasion were barely older than them.
After that, just in case we tourists were getting too fond of bourgeois en suite hotel rooms, we headed inland for probably the most memorable part of the trip: two days’ trekking in the Topes de Collantes mountains, sleeping under the stars in remote haciendas. Arduous hikes down slippery muddy paths and back up lung-stretching steep hills.
Lots of places claim to offer eco-tourism, but I’ve never stayed anywhere quite so green as these converted farms: accommodation consisted of foam mattresses on the veranda (you could sling your sleeping bag in a small tent) and food is all locally grown. Solar panels provided electricity and sporadic hot water, and meals were cooked on huge wood fires.
Coming down from the mountains we had a few days in a very different Cuba – a tourist hotel in Playa Ancon, near Trinidad. This was the Caribbean of holiday brochures; a crescent of white sand fringed with palm trees, lapped by a multi-hued turquoise sea.
Years before this trip, Laura had asked me who that ‘man with the hat and the star’ was that she’d seen on T-shirts, so I’d told her a bit about Che, Fidel, the revolution. That all came to life with a visit to the city of Santa Clara, site of the last battle in the Cuban revolution, where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is venerated.
The museum next door had photographs of the handsome hero – as a child in Argentina, organising revolutionaries in the jungle – and belongings such as a white coat from his medical student days, an asthma inhaler and, yes, a trademark beret with star badge.
Che’s socialist ideals have clearly been tempered in today’s Cuba: there are plenty of tour buses and all-inclusive resorts, and the growth in private enterprise will change things more. But I felt glad to have given my daughter a taste of a different system.