Five hours' drive from the noisy exuberance and unending colour of Havana lie the sparkling white sands and marble-clad luxury hotels of the exquisite Villa Clara Keys. Here, you can swim in the tranquil, crystalline waters of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoy all-inclusive cocktails by the hotels' vast pools, and explore myriad fascinating attractions nearby.
What are the Villa Clara Keys?
Just off the north coast of Cuba, connected to the mainland by a breathtaking sea road, you'll find the three miniscule islands that make up the paradisiacal Villa Clara Keys. The islands sit within Villa Clara province, of which the historical Santa Clara - famed for being the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution - is the capital city. Home to 20 luxury hotels, surrounded by idyllic beaches and the glittering sea, it's difficult to find a more alluring destination from which to explore Santa Clara.
After an enchanting whirlwind tour of Havana, I hopped on a coach to the Villa Clara Keys to spend a week away from the big city crowds, in the lap of island luxury.
Discovering the Villa Clara Keys, a one-time pirate hideaway
Centuries ago, the Villa Clara Keys were home to fishermen, buccaneers and pirates, who would hide among the thick tangles of the islands' mangroves. When the Communist Revolution succeeded in 1959, conditions on the mainland improved, with the government vowing to provide electricity and housing for all. That prompted the few residents of the sparsely populated Keys to abandon the islands for the comparative prosperity of the mainland. In the 1990s, with the Communist nation increasingly looking to the outside world to support its economy, the government decided that this stunning part of Cuba would be transformed into a tourist haven.
Nowadays, upon reaching the coast of mainland Cuba, you hit the incredible 48km sea road which connects the Villa Clara Keys - Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Ensenachos - with the rest of the country. Speeding along this unique causeway is a heady experience, with glittering waves stretching out to a horizon on each side of the road. The islands form part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve too, so there's plenty of native flora and fauna to see, with the Cayo Santa Maria Wildlife Refuge offering thrilling opportunities to spot exotic wildlife.
Upon arrival, I found myself in a little slice of Cuban heaven. Twenty luxe hotels have been built on the scenic islands since Sol Cayo Santa Maria - the original - opened its doors in 2001. Most retain similar aesthetics; visions of glossy white marble, decadent furnishings, and dark wooden detailing throughout. Babbling water features and lush greenery provide backdrops to all-inclusive bars where mojitos are a must-have.
Outside you'll find vast swimming pools, all-inclusive restaurants with lobster sizzling on barbeques, and pathways to the inviting white sands and glittering warm waters. Afternoons were spent frequenting the pool bar and topping up my tan, and every evening I enjoyed a Havana Club rum on my balcony, gazing over stunning sea views, before heading to delectable multi-course dinners. There's no question about it; in the Villa Clara Keys life is easy and it's impossible not to relax.
Revolutionary history in Santa Clara: Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Once I was suitably relaxed, I was seriously excited to explore the historic attractions in nearby Santa Clara - roughly a 1.5-hour drive from the sands of the Villa Clara Keys. For me, Cuba - among the world's few remaining Communist countries - boasts one of the most intriguing recent histories of any nation, from the revolution and repeated colonisation to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Located close to the world-renowned city of Santa Clara - the site of the last battle in the revolution in 1958 - I was extremely well placed to explore this fascinating past.
We drove to the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Museum, where the revolutionary hero is laid to rest alongside a number of his comrades, and artefacts from his life are on display.
"This is a powerful place for Cubans."
Our guide told us. In the mausoleum burns an eternal flame ignited by Fidel Castro, and the atmosphere was one of high reverence. The adjacent museum contained artefacts from guns and water bottles to photos and letters, and was a fascinating way to learn more about the inspirational life of Cuba's adopted son.
Close by is the striking Tren Blindado - a national monument and memorial park marking the Cuban Revolution. The monument is made from remnants of the armoured train that Cuba's former dictator, Fulgencio Batista, used to fight the Communist soldiers before his defeat to the revolutionaries. Inside the carriages are images, uniforms and other artefacts from the time.
Remedios: Colonial architecture and Cuba's oldest bar
Around one hour's drive from Villa Santa Clara, colourful Remedios offers a genuine glimpse into the Cuban way of life. Striking Spanish architecture in reds, yellows, and blues sits in leafy surroundings, providing one of Cuba's lesser-talked-about colonial highlights. Simply wandering the streets of Remedios is a charming delight.
Dating from the early 16th century, Remedios now contains numerous boutique hotels, and the rustic El Louvre, which claims to be the country's oldest bar in continuous service. It boasts a list of famous former patrons including Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. There's also the Parroquia de San Juan Bautista de Remedios - the city's striking yellow church and one of Cuba's most famous ecclesiastical buildings.
If you're lucky enough to be visiting close to Christmas, head to Remedios on December 24th, when the usually tranquil town explodes into a vision of colour and fireworks with its famous "Parrandas" (Christmas Eve Parade). If your trip doesn't coincide with this time of year, visit the Museo de las Parrandas to find out more about this flamboyant festival.
Sagua la Grande: Visit before everyone else hears about it
To really understand what Cuba is about, consider a trip to Sagua la Grande - a destination that has only recently opened its doors to visitors. As we motored west towards this idyllic little city on an open-top bus, I got the sense that we were starting to see "the real Cuba". Men relaxed in shaded carriages as their horses grazed on grassy banks amidst the thick tropical greenery, and residents chatted on the balconies of their homes, waving as we drove past.
Located on the picturesque Sagua la Grande River, this pastel-hued city - originally founded in 1812 - has undergone a regeneration ahead of its launch as a tourist hotspot. Two of the diminutive city's hotels have been thoroughly refurbished, offering a luxury base from which to explore its charming streets. The city has plenty of cultural kudos - being the birthplace of painter Wifredo Lam and bolero singer Antonio Machin - and is close to the charming fishing town of Isabela de Sagua too.
Rich culture in Havana or the luxury Villa Clara Keys?
In a word: both. When making the trip to this incredible island, you can't pass up on the opportunity to experience the heat and colour of Havana - a truly unique and world-famous city. But after four or five days wandering the labyrinthine Old Town and riding in classic cars, consider making the trip to the Villa Clara Keys to relax in luxury surroundings and squeeze in some off-the-beaten track adventures. This multi-centre trip offers you the best of both worlds, ensuring you see Cuba's iconic sights but also return home from an unforgettable holiday relaxed and rejuvenated.