“COME and dance with me,” said the dazzling showgirl in a whirl of sequins and feathers.
Welcome to the Tropicana, Cuba’s extravaganza of singing, dancing and outlandish costumes.
Gyrating, barely-clothed bodies burst on to the stage, strut down the aisles and sway on a multitude of podiums lit up high in the gods.
“This is Cuba,” says the showgirl who has just shimmied up to our table. “Everyone joins in.”
So how could I resist? In no time I’m shimmying in the aisles with her — minus the heels and pink feathered headgear, of course.
Tickets to the Tropicana include a bottle of rum for your table, which, er, helped me get into the rhythm.
The audience participation came after we’d watched 200 of Cuba’s finest performers tell the story of their country and their culture.
Sure, it’s unashamedly non-PC — the men are given a cigar as they arrive — but it’s a great night out for all the family.
Cubans are rightly proud of their Tropicana. Their eyes light up when you tell them you’ve been. It’s a reminder of the country’s golden era before the revolution.
When Fidel Castro took over he closed down all the glitzy casinos, hotels and clubs. But he was forced to re-open the Tropicana after the people rose up.
Now, 11 years after Castro stepped down and the US eased its embargo, the revolution still casts a long shadow over the capital Havana.
A stroll through the old town by day is like stepping into the past.
The brightly coloured colonial buildings haven’t been touched since the 1950s. And the cars were new when the buildings were last painted.
The combination is enchanting. Add in the glorious Caribbean sunshine and the sound of live salsa and rumba bands ringing out of bars and restaurants and it overwhelms the senses.
The odd mojito helps too. A quick tipple of Cuba’s national drink is the perfect way to kick off a tour of the charming squares dotted around this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Plaza Vieja (Old Square), is beautifully restored to its 18th century splendour while the Plaza de la Catedral is flanked by the grand mansions of the old-time colonial bigwigs.
The touristy main street called Obispo, packed with restaurants and craft shops, is the best place to pick up souvenirs.
Luckily it’s just around the corner from La Bodeguita, the bar where the Mojito is said to have been invented.
There’s not much room inside, you’ll sip your mojito with a trumpet poking in your ear, but it’s Cuban to the core.
It was a favourite haunt of the writer Ernest Hemingway along with the El Floridita “home” of the daiquiri, another Cuban gift to the world.
There’s plenty to look at outside the old town too. And the best way to see it is from the back of one of those classic American cars.
So it’s shades on and Cadillac roof down for a cruise through downtown Havana like movie stars, or even royalty.
In fact Prince Charles and Camilla had enjoyed a classic car tour just days before us during their visit to the island.
As well as the usual sites like the newly restored parliament building, a copy of America’s Capitol Hill, our tour took us outside the city to the Almendares River crossing.
Here, female followers of the Santeria religion bathe naked on special days.
Lads also get their own special day, when they cleanse their “sub-tropical region” in the cold river water to help those who are having trouble, ahem, performing at home. Cubans swear by it — but we all kept our clothes on.
By now we’d worked up an appetite and a good idea for a snack are the many “peso” street food stalls and diners. They sell nibbles like pizzas, toasted sandwiches and black beans and rice — a Cuban staple.
We headed for a paladare, restaurants that Cubans are now allowed to open in their houses, offering traditional homespun cooking.
The menus are simple. We had the choice of pork or spicy beef, but both were delicious. A fine Cuban cigar and another shot of rum beckoned.
Stick to the official government cigar shops dotted around the city. The prices are regulated and very reasonable, ranging from £6 for a single and £20 for a box of 5.
Never be tempted by the street sellers hawking what look like genuine cigars but are likely to be filled with rubbish like banana leaves.
And guys, don’t be too flattered if a stunning girl in a bright dress and headgear walks up to you in the street and plants and big kiss on your cheeks. You’re expected to give a tip for the privilege. Clambering around the old sea fortress guarding the bay is a real treat.
The rows of cannon at Morro Castle and its twin across are very real. They rattle Havana’s windows when they are fired at nine o’clock every night.
And bookworms will love the Hemingway tour, which takes in the home on the outskirts of the city where the Nobel Prize winner retreated to write.
But Cuba is not just about the past. After decades of struggling under the communist regime the country is embracing a bright, modern future.
Our hotel, the 5-star Iberostar Grand Packard symbolised that perfectly. Retaining part of the original facade, it opened last year with a chic and contemporary style.
We arrived late at night, so after one of Cuba’s finest in the cigar lounge and welcoming rum in the piano bar, my butler showed me to my room.
He said I’d love the view from the balcony in the morning. And it was spectacular — the best view in the city.
The hotel is slap bang on the seafront with a stunning view across the harbour to the ancient fortress on the far side.
Another welcome sight was the vast breakfast buffet, complete with freshly made pancakes.
With breakfast wrapped up, it’s time for the first mojito of the day, stretched out by the infinity pool which also overlooks the bay.
From there it’s just a few steps to the traditional restaurant serving dishes with a fusion of Spanish and African flavours.
An afternoon stroll along the Malecon seafront works up a good appetite for an evening meal at the hotel’s a la carte Biscuit Restaurant, a nod to the legendary diner of old that once stood on the site.
And then it’s on to Havana’s nightlife hotspot, the Cuban Arts Factory — simply THE place to be and be seen.
Getting there: Flights from Gatwick to Havana are from £697pp return. See virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.
Staying there: One night’s room-only at the Iberostar Grand Packard is from £91.50pp based on two sharing. See iberostar.com.
Get there early as the mix of club music, live bands, performance art, art galleries and restaurants draws crowds from all over the island. And they queue all night to get in.
I unwound the next day in the hotel’s luxury spa, where a sauna and massage soothed away the night’s excesses.
Cuba celebrates its 500th anniversary in November and they promise the party to end all parties. And I’m sure the most often-heard phrase will be: “Come dance with me.”
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