By Lesly A. Patterson
“Ayiti,” as it was once called by its native people, means “land of mountains.”m Also labeled “Pearl of the Antilles,” Haiti occupies the western one-third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, makes up the eastern two-thirds.
Until recently I had never considered Haiti as a vacation destination because of my perceptions shaped by media images of the devastating earthquake in 2010 that destroyed the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince, and killed over 300,000 people. My newly formed interests in Haiti, however, prompted me to explore the brighter sides of this historic and controversial country.
Upon arriving in Port-au-Prince, passengers were greeted with music from a traditional Haitian band before trekking on to Immigration and Customs. The first step into the humid heat knocks you in the face, and the second thing you notice are the mass amounts of people—everywhere—and no, not in tents!
More than 2 million of Haiti’s estimated population of 9.8 million, live in Port-au-Prince. The streets are their place of business and street vendors will “set up shop” anyplace—and I do mean, anyplace. In the few minutes it took me to check-in at one of the hotels, I returned to the car to find a shoe “business” set up by the passenger-side door.
These industrious entrepreneurs sell everything from food, clothing, and handcrafted art, to gallon jugs of gasoline. (Never just settle on the asking price because they actually expect you to haggle for a better deal).
Haiti’s breath-taking natural beauty also makes it worthy of a spot on your list of places to vacation. It has white-sand beaches, fertile valleys, emerald green mountains, and “healing” waterfalls.
Just a two-hour flight from Florida, Haiti has yet to be as popular as other islands in the Caribbean, which is a plus for many who avoid places where it seems the tourists outnumber the natives.
For traditional Creole food, lunch at La Coquille Restaurant in Pétionville is the place to go. This brightly colored cottage features a buffet-style presentation where you’ll find plenty of Haitian favorites like griót (marinated, fried pork), ritz ét pois (rice and peas), póisson gros sel (fish with onions, herbs and salt), and Prestige beer to wash it all down.
Look forward to pumpkin soup on Sunday mornings.
For the best experience in restaurants, shopping at boutiques, Haitian art, and a good selection of hotel accommodations, tourists flock to Pétionville.
Since the earthquake Pétionville, Port-au-Prince’s wealthiest suburb, has become the main commercial center and accommodations at the exotically beautiful Karibé Hotel are top-rate.
I stayed at the Allamanda Bed & Breakfast, which offers a lovely décor, and daily breakfast at the discounted rate of $90 per night.
Transportation around the city can be cumbersome, but I didn’t’ have to deal with it on my own thanks to my Haitian driver. Colorful little Tap taps (brightly painted buses and even pickup trucks that transport people) cars, and people fill the streets all day long. However, I suggest you use a service, such as Caribe Tours to handle the driving reigns.
Several great beach resorts are also within driving distance of the city. Wahoo Bay Beach Club & Resort is just about 45 minutes away from Port-au-Prince and offers numerous fun activities, including water sports on the turquoise waters of the Côte des Arcadins. This is a great place for some rest and recuperation, or a lively time swaying to rhythmic island beats while enjoying cocktails at one of its three bars.
Kaliko Beach Club is just up the road and offers all the tropical pleasures that one could expect from a top-rate resort. Here, you’ll find the only beach tennis in Haiti. Moulin Sur Mer is a longer drive down the road and offers the added cultural opportunity to experience history at the Musée Ogier Fombrun, a museum located on an 18th century sugar cane plantation.
The beach clubs are all private and perfectly safe for guests. Whether you decide to explore the many beautiful islets, such as Ile á Vache on Haiti’s southern coast, tour the town of Jacmel, or head north to Cap HatÏen and see the country’s biggest collection of Gingerbread-style houses; there are numerous ways to fill your vacation time in Haiti.
Be sure to stop by Pétionville’s impressive Caribbean Market to pick up grocery items and remember to use the same safety precautions that you’d use in any unfamiliar destination and you’ll be fine: no flashy jewelry, don’t show wads of cash, and stay away from seedy dark areas.
Meanwhile Enjoy Haiti.
Even a pearl in the rough is still a pearl.
Colorful buses, called Tap Taps are a big part of the transportation system.
Despite the major earthquake that killed tens of thousands people, Haitians remain remarkably resilient. Here a street vendor sales her wares.
Little business and street vendors will “set up shop” anyplace.
Haiti is well-known for it rich and colorful art.