The first thing that strikes me about Cuba is the colour – the pastel blues and fuchsia pinks of the old colonial buildings, the colourful cigar-smoking street characters carrying songbird cages or selling home-made paper cones filled with peanuts, the classic American cars with their polished chrome bumpers. And, oh, the music.
It seems that around every corner and in every town square there’s a band playing salsa, son music, or some other derivative, a brightly coloured bata drum being slapped or a guitar plucked to create those famous Afro-Cuban vibes. The rhythm just gets under your skin.
The colour doesn’t end there. I spy pink flamingos and red-headed turkey vultures en route to our destination of Cayo Santa Maria, an islet off the north coast of Cuba, connected to the mainland by a 48km causeway which slices through miles of shallow waters, shrublands and a winding network of mangroves on either side.
Once at the resort, it’s the colour of the sea which takes my breath away.
Walking along a small stretch of the virtually empty 10km beach, the water is not just blue, but rich, bright, show-stoppingly turquoise against an endless azure sky, a froth of gentle waves completing the truly brochure-style image. No camera filters needed here for Instagram or selfies. Everything you soak in really is as vivid as it seems.
Even the magnolia-hued sand, which feels like finely sifted flour underfoot, doesn’t get hot in the sizzling sun, because it’s coral lime, which doesn’t absorb the heat. So there’s no ungainly hopping to the water if you forget your flip-flops.
The beach is undoubtedly one of the main draws of Cayo Santa Maria, an island 16km long by 2km wide, which opened its first hotel in 2001 and is now home to 12 all-inclusive high-end hotels, including the Royalton, a luscious five-star tropical haven, accented by royal palms, rose pink hibiscus and pink and white-flowered walkways.
While Cuba’s capital Havana has developed rapidly over the last few years to keep pace with tourism, and the popular beach resort Varadero has become a hotel hotspot, Cayo Santa Maria is coming along at a slower pace, giving the visitor a much gentler introduction to this country.
Yet access is becoming easier for UK residents. Thomson Airways has just introduced direct Dreamliner flights from Manchester to Santa Clara airport, a two-hour drive away from where I’m staying, giving British visitors another point of entry and more scope for exploring.
Attractions include the second largest coral reef in the world, making Cayo Santa Maria, in the Jardines del Rey archipelago – a group of keys earmarked for tourists – a magnet for divers and snorkelers.
Joining a dive boat from the state-owned Marina Gaviota at Cayo Las Brujas, (20 minutes away in the car), we head east for the Herradura dive site, where I’m instantly engulfed in an underwater garden of corals, aquatic plants and colourful tropical fish.
Here, purple sea fans waft in the gentle current alongside brain coral, while electric blue damselfish, snappers and yellow-gold striped grunt dart in and out of leafy, stinging fire coral.
Among the bigger fish, chunky groupers glide heavily around khaki green sea rods, which resemble oversized pipe cleaners, while steel grey barracuda lurk immobile between rocks, waiting to strike when an unsuspecting school of smaller fish swim past.
There has been some coral bleaching, but when the Cold War ended and the Soviets ceased economic investment and trade in 1991, Cuba couldn’t afford fertilisers and pesticides, and so had to conduct organic farming, which had a beneficial effect on corals.
There are other good diving opportunities in Cuba, the largest Caribbean island and about the size of the UK. The sprawling Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), an underwater national park covering around 850 square miles off the south coast, is home to turtles, sharks and endangered corals, and is designated a marine protected area.
So far, Cayo Santa Maria and nearby keys don’t seem to have suffered too much from the tourist footprint, further demonstrated when I explore the stunning nearby coastline of Cayo Ensenachos and Cobos on a catamaran, anchoring off deserted beaches where palm-sized salmon-coloured starfish and huge lobster-pink conch are the only things blocking my sandy path.
Back at the hotel there’s a good range of activities, including yoga on the beach, kayaking or Hobie Cat sailing, followed by rum-slathered massages (yes, they do have them) in the hotel spa.
Tourism on the cayos is expanding. There’s already a dolphinarium off the causeway and plans for a golf course and a water park, so people who want a Robinson Crusoe-style paradise beach, peppered with some throwback colourful culture should visit sooner rather than later.
Despite the 45-minute journey from the key to the mainland, you can’t go to Cuba without at least exploring the brilliant and broken colonial towns stuck in a Fifties timewarp, while trying to understand a communist system where a doctor earns the same as a dustman.
Havana is six hours away from Cayo Santa Maria, so requires an overnight stay, but other old cities can be done in a day, including the relaxed, stylish, colonial splendour that is Trinidad in the south, three-and-a-half hours away, and Santa Clara, the provincial capital where you can still see the bullet holes on the Santa Clara Libra Hotel, which bear the scars of the historic battle where guerilla Che Guevara led the revolution to triumph, toppling the Batista regime in 1959.
The closest city to the resort is Caibarien, just off the causeway, an old port where fisherman still endeavour to make a living catching crabs, oysters and sponges, crumbling multi-coloured buildings try in vain to cling on to their former glory, and a brass band plays valiantly in the town square, determined that the show must go on.
And then, we are whisked away to a rumba gathering, a Sunday lunchtime party involving plenty of rum, Afro-Cuban rhythms and hip-swivelling dancing.
So much colour, in fact, that I need to put on my shades yet again.