Just as Havana looks, feels and smells like the epitome of "faded grandeur", the town of Trinidad, on the southern edge of Cuba's elongated finger, could well be the encyclopaedic entry for "colonial charm". Today part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the surrounding Valle de los Ingenios, its elegant architecture and easy-going pace make for a welcome antidote to the capital's brashness and bustle.
Loaded with fine, affordable places to stay, Trinidad occupies a nice position in that it's well on the tourist trail, with amenities to boot, but is untainted by its influxes of visitors and retains its inherent charm. It's also nicely-positioned in a more literal sense; situated between the Escambray mountains and beaches of the Caribbean, both are easy to reach and make for a varied, fascinating destination.
The town's cobbled streets and pleasant facades - regularly drenched by passing tropical showers in summer that alleviate the humidity a fraction - hide some wonderful residences; there are no end of Casas Particulares here, which chosen carefully can be quite exceptional value. These Casas (guesthouses-cum-homestays) are comfortably the best way to see Cuba, offering some attractive, welcoming accommodation and home-cooked meals that belie the country's modest culinary reputation - guidebooks will make some good suggestions, but ask around and you'll find some equally pleasant places on arrival if these are booked up. Expect to pay around 30 Convertible Pesos (CUC) for a room (£20 or so), about 8 CUC for a tasty, filling dinner and 4 CUC for breakfast. Fresh fruit, a choice of meats, beans and rice tend to make up the average meal.
Trinidad expands outwards deceptively far, although it slumbers in a thoroughly small-town atmosphere, and its principal attractions are all within a half-kilometre or so radius of the Plaza Mayor, a charming, quiet square lined with palm trees and surrounded by a pretty church and arched, tiled buildings. This colonial architecture (alongside the enveloping lush countryside) prompted UNESCO to add the town to their extensive list, and the whole historic centre could well be posing for a photograph. Touring, persistent cigar-sellers are perhaps a less welcome part of the picture.
One block to the north of the main square (head left as you face the church), an attractively-situated museum recounts some of the area's history and cultural significance in a series of fairly dry displays - nonetheless, the 1 CUC entry is more than justified by the stunning views from the tower which survey the town's mass of tiled roofs and offer extensive vistas beyond over the countryside and out to the azure Caribbean.
A number of other small museums dot the centre of Trinidad, and simply wandering the streets, the wealth the town soaked up from its past position at the centre of a valley booming in sugar industry is evident. So too, though, is the time that has passed since those days of white, fine gold being pulled in (by slaves, naturally) from the plantations - but then every Colonial Gem (copyright, I'm sure, every guide to Cuba) needs a bit of charming decay. The Brunet Theatre, south-west of Plaza Mayor makes for one of the most striking expositions of this withered wealth - the ruined shell of a former playhouse which, less its roof has become a café-cum-restaurant with occasional live music; one of the distinct pleasures of eating out in Cuba. Actually, given the food, the only pleasure.
If you do choose to eat outside your Casa - and it's not something that comes highly recommended - Trinidad does at least have a good variety of eateries offering a fairly predictable fare. Better, eat in your Casa and head out for some drinks; the steps leading upwards away to the right of the church are surrounded by some bars which also often overlook live performances.
As established, the town is one half of UNESCO's designated heritage zone - the other part, the aforementioned Valle de los Ingenios, alongside the rest of the verdant countryside is invitingly accessible from Trinidad. The lack of traffic on Cuban roads - something I read about, but still found quite astounding - encourages exploration by bike. Flat, quiet roads and the off-limit-to-cars centre of the town make it wonderfully easy to get out to the beaches or valley; just expect to make leisurely progress, as bikes are deliciously cheap (3 CUC a day), but don't necessarily work so well.
Playa Ancon presents something of a contrast to Trinidad, a row of resort-hotels lapping at a long white sand beach, itself met by a limitless Caribbean horizon. Half an hour's cycling will take you there, where you can grab one of the free shades and some food and drink from a beachfront bar. Further round to the west of the narrow finger of land that forms Playa Ancon, La Boca is an earthier, less polished, more Cuban beach village.
For a view of Valle de los Ingenios, go for a wander up the hill behind the main square's church, where twenty minutes' walk and a couple of hundred metres' ascent brings you to a television-transmitter station with some wonderful views. When we wandered up there, the implausibly friendly employee manning the station insisted on taking us up a worryingly homemade ladder to the rooftop, where great views became greater. We declined the offer of mojitos, though. Given the walk takes you through the edges of town and some isolated areas, it's perhaps one to make before dusk - although why would you go vista-gazing in the dark?
The Valle itself is well worth a visit - again, biking it is an option,
although such is the wealth of history in the area, a guide (plenty will
volunteer) is a good choice. Westwards of Trinidad, the Topes de Collantes is a large natural reserve offering considerable hiking and exploration. From beach to bar, sand to sugarmill, a visit to Trinidad is a perfect complement to Havana's melting-pot madness, and offers a chance to see some of the best of Cuba's beguiling riches, natural and manmade.
Regular buses depart Havana bound for Trinidad, costing around 25 CUC and taking five to six hours, stopping in Cienfugos and passing the Bay of Pigs.