by Dervla Murphy Eland, HK$238 Cuba has re-emerged since the mid-1990s as a popular tourist destination with the lure of tropical beaches, vibrant culture and irresistible music laced with the unique legacy of the revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Most visitors are never quite sure as they head for Havana: will they bear witness to the last days of Caribbean socialism as an ailing Castro fades from centre stage? Or will they be surprised to discover an enduring outpost of hope for a better world amid the gloom of corporate greed and the global capitalism crisis? Irish writer Dervla Murphy is more effective at delving into and describing Cuba's myriad contradictions, and capturing life in the barrios, than any foreign correspondent or academic. The first part of The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba, is a fun chronicle of an unusual holiday with daughter and three young grandchildren, straying far from the tourist track. Although health clinics and schools can be found everywhere in urban Cuba, anywhere to eat and sleep can be well-nigh impossible in the countryside. But at least there is no safer country in which to sleep on the beach under the stars. In part two Murphy resumes her odyssey minus the family. This intrepid lone adventurer - 76 years old - traverses the island by bus, train and horse and by hitch-hiking, usually with a bottle of her favourite Cuban beer in hand, passionately conversing with academics, artists, scientists and even a few dissidents. Personal anecdotes, journeys and places are neatly interspersed with a well researched history of the slave trade, Spanish colonialism and American control of Cuba from 1898 until the 1959 revolution and independence. The apt title reminds us that Cuba has been admired throughout Latin America as the only country that dared to defy Washington, even though the US stands a mere 145km away. Murphy discovers that the communist way can be deeply exasperating. Every visitor who is not part of a group on an organised tour will encounter excessive regulation and bureaucratic bungling, she observes. How much longer can Cuba keep global market forces at bay and pursue an independent path in the world? The Castro era is over and the island is on the cusp of reform, as well as the possible reinvention of socialism. The island that dares to be different, despite being battered by the repeated hurricanes of American sanctions, remains unbowed.