There's more to this Caribbean island than the beach

See Cuba before it changes, that's the mantra. Alison Shepherd wanted her whole family to experience the place

Ramon shouted to Louis, his seven-year-old co-driver: "Mira, mira, el agua," as we whooshed through a small pool, in a manner English bus drivers love to emulate. "Look, look, water," followed by "Mas rapido?" – "Faster?" – was to be the theme of our day-long, exhilarating jeep safari through the baked, ochre scrubland around Matanzas, the "Venice of Cuba".

And Ramon wasn't the only Cuban keen to impress Louis, our youngest. Not a day, not an hour, would pass without someone ruffling his hair, offering him fresh coconut to eat, or talking football. This is a land that loves children: always polite and respectful to our teenage girls, but definitely hands-on with Louis.

"Come, sit with me up here on the front," said Arturo as our family of five clambered aboard his horse-drawn carriage to promenade around Havana Vieja. This is the only way to view the city when the temperature nudges 30C at 10 in the morning and you don't want to bully your brood around the sites.

Arturo, and his new pint-sized apprentice, showed us Havana's hundreds of years of history at a lilting pace, cooled by the breeze: the colonial buildings over-shadowed by a belching industrial chimney; the baroque cathedral jostling for attention with the art deco Edificio Bacardi; the claustrophobic streets of Centro and its untold centuries of peeling paint; and the grandiose, spotless space of the Plaza de la Revolucion. Adults and children alike, we were all captivated by the sensory overload: the architecture's dilapidated elegance; the rich aroma of exotic foliage, with a note of sewer; and, above all, the rhythm of music, that accompanied us like a movie soundtrack.

It was on that carriage trip on our first day on the island that we realised, had we ever been in any doubt, that the luxury found in our four-star hotel was not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of Cubans. Through glassless windows we glimpsed family life in tenement buildings that looked uninhabitable, while the few recognisable shops were reminiscent of Moscow 20 years ago.

The reality of the situation was only fully brought home to us later. "Come to dinner with us tomorrow night," said a Cuban friend we had arranged to meet, "and we'll show you real Cuban food." After an hour of negotiation with their concierge, involving lots of passport waving, we finally reached their 24th-floor flat. But there were no tummy-warming smells to welcome us, just our very apologetic friend. "I'm really sorry. I took the afternoon off work, even roped in a friend with a car, because someone had said that a shop across town had some fresh vegetables – but we couldn't find one potato."

Rice, eggs, fruit and vegetables have all been scarce since hurricanes Gustav and Ike swept through. So we ate unusual-tasting pizza at a local, non-tourist restaurant, helped down by the local Bucanero beer, which, along with rum, is definitely not in short supply.

After three days of Havana, we headed for the beach at Varadero. It is on the island's roads that Cuba's "otherness" shines through. But it isn't the landscape itself, for the ochre and scrub is the staple in hot-country scenes, although the speed at which the scenery changes to lush forest here is extraordinary. It's not even the huge "Revolucion Siempre" billboards that are as prevalent as Tesco hoardings back home. The most striking thing is how often, in the first 10 minutes, someone says: "Look at that ... horse rider ... pony and trap ... horse and carriage ... really old American car ... truck full of soldiers." It's as if Cuba exists in many different layers of time simultaneously, so the medieval donkey drover plods beside a 21st-century people carrier along a tarmacked road, which will suddenly become a dirt track.

Then there are the long ribbons of people by the roadside, who, we assumed, were waiting for buses. Not so, said our guide, another Louis, telling us that anyone with transport who can squeeze in another body or two is expected to pick up hitch-hikers and take them as far as is convenient. Which explained why we, in our half-empty people carrier, were experiencing the only hostile looks of our whole trip.

Once past Matanzas, the historic two-river city whose many bridges earned it its Italian nickname, the crowds of patient, roadside hitchers began to thin as few Cubans have any need to access the long, thin peninsula which is home to the one part of Cuba specifically designed with tourists in mind. Varadero, 20km long and just 1.2km across at its widest, is a continuous run of four- and five-star hotels, all catering mainly for non-Cubans.

Canadians, quaffing all-inclusive cocktails out of insulated coffee mugs, are the most evident national group in Varadero, followed a long way behind by a motley band of Europeans. Our 11 days here passed quickly, with just the jeep safari and a dolphin trip to remind us there was an outside world.

For once, we grown-ups didn't have to listen to the "I'm bored" whine, or umpteen requests for money for drinks and ice creams. Just one wrist-band gave the kids access to all their stomachs could desire. Family dinners brought us together, to catch up on poolside news. We got to know the first names of all the young men and women who looked after kids by day and became high-kicking song and dance stars by night. And Louis could update us on his lizard and insect sightings, and produce the latest gift from a doting Cuban.

The white-sand beaches offered up beautiful conch shells, and the food was fresh and plentiful. Staff were charming and hospitable and the swim-up bar a treat. But there wasn't one of us, kids included, who didn't at some point hanker to return to gritty Havana.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Alison Shepherd and family were guests of First Choice (0871 664 9012; firstchoice.co.uk), which offers a 14-night, twin-centre holiday in Cuba from £5,936 for a family of four, with three nights' B&B at the NH Parque Central in Havana and 11 nights at the all-inclusive Iberostar Varadero resort. This price includes flights, transfers, taxes and charges, and is based on two adults and two children sharing a family room.

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