Wynne Gray tastes the real Cuba, before the tourist invasion.

Make a list. What is your holiday priority?

Sun, rest and recharge within short-range of New Zealand?

Then don't get out the globe to make plans for a visit to Cuba or thumb through the places to see and stay on the Caribbean island.

However, if your soul is more inquisitive and you have an accepting nature and a week to spare, Cuba should be top of your list. It's a marathon journey from New Zealand and rules about visiting are changing regularly, so research and using a diligent travel agent is wise.


Arriving at Havana Airport acquaints you quickly with life on the island. In single file you are matched against your passport and then directed through a door into the dimly-lit chaotic luggage retrieval area.

Locals all seem to have swathed their luggage in blue plastic wrap while visitors wait as the conveyer belt slowly disgorges their bags. Job done, it's next door for one of the few official money-changers.

Make sure you bring US dollars or euros to exchange into Cuban peso or you'll end up like the distressed young couple whose attempts to change their currency were rebuffed.

We decided to split our trip into three segments - time in Havana, then a visit to the central south coast to stay in Trinidad before going north to Jibacoa which was billed as a coastal resort. Each leg of internal travel was about four hours on adequate roads where signposts were sporadic and indistinct.

Bus travel is popular, so too fixed-price private car hire while homestays are a great and cheap contrast to the more predominant hotels in Havana. There was a quaint attraction about our hotel in the old quarter of a city which houses about 2.7 million inhabitants.

The foyer of the Hotel Raquel was a huge expanse of marble floors and columns, ceiling fans and dim lighting with the unreliable 110v system, ferns and plants in massive pots, several statues, a bar, reception area and dining room for the occupants of the 25 rooms.

At night or when the rains swept through the city, large wooden shutters enclosed the windows while the atrium rose to a stained glass ceiling in the middle of the rooftop viewing platform.

Inspection of the city is best done on foot. If the weather turns dirty, a tuk tuk is a great way to navigate the one-way street systems and if you want a wider tour, you can hire any of the 60-year-old American cars and their talkative operators.

Our driver said a relaxation of the laws allowed him to make more in a day's tips than he did in a month with his computer engineering degree.

We drove the six-lane roads in the outer suburb of Vedado, taking in the massive Place de Revolution square and monuments to Fidel Castro, Che Guevera and the army, before reaching the far end of the Malecon. Its 7km of rock wall shelters the road from the sea-swells and gives fishermen a place to try and hook some daily sustenance.

Imaginative owners cram their shops with a wide range of merchandise while the restaurants and dancing are ubiquitous companions.

Thirsts are dealt to with chilled water, fresh fruit drinks, beers, and the cocktails that headline the options at Floriditas, where Ernest Hemingway slaked his thirst after days writing in his nearby hotel room.

Life for many locals is tough. Their houses are decaying, rain invades their rooms and there is minimal income, while increasing numbers of tourists bring their loot to the capital.

Food is restricted, jobs too unless the young go to university or can hook into an existing family industry. Many have taken up the entrepreneurial avenues tourism has brought to replace the sugar cane industry which went the way of the Russians in 1991.

Ladas run the roads alongside the convoy of American models which are constantly being panel-beaten and repaired as the salt air eats at the brightly painted bodywork of the Chevs, Fords, de Sotos and Chryslers.

JayJay drove our purple 1951 left-hand drive Chev convertible. There's no need for spare cans in the back seat as petrol is widely available at US$1.10 a litre for top grade and 85c for diesel.

Hardship is apparent but the people are warm and welcoming. They share their goods and knowledge because that has been their way of life for so long, and Cubans feel rich in that environment.

The country is not as safe as it used to be but we never felt threatened.

We tried the cigar and rum factories, ate basic beans and rice dishes and more inventive cuisine, visited limestone caves out in the Vinali Valley, prowled the markets, swam in the sea and thanked our instincts which took us to this intriguing country before it absorbed too much American influence.