Following the devastating earthquake four years ago, the ‘beautiful, bedevilled’ Caribbean island of Haiti is ready to welcome visitors, says Ian Thomson.
Rum punches on the veranda of a gingerbread hotel, delicious in the tropical noon… the sound of drums, rumbling in the hills, reaching your room at night. Haiti will always be entrancing for those in search of an out-of-the-way experience. It has echoes of west Africa – the houm-doum-do from that Vodou gathering – and a dash of French custom and Latin devil-may-care cool. This was apparent on my first visit almost 25 years ago in 1990, when I gathered material for a book about the Caribbean island, Bonjour Blanc.
Last June, I returned to beautiful, bedevilled Haiti for the first time in 10 years. I was itching to see how it had changed since I wrote the book and what damage had been left by the terrible earthquake of January 12 2010. This time, I would not be travelling by jitney, lorry or fishing boat, but in taxis and air-conditioned tourist coaches.
Jacmel’s colourful crafts
From the air, Haiti is a sun-scorched clinker; deforestation, caused by a ruinous cutting of timber for charcoal, has destroyed much of the green. As the plane rolled smoothly along the tarmac at Port-au-Prince, the capital, a group of musicians at Immigration were shaking maracas and strumming guitars in welcome. Bright-coloured advertisements for Haitian beer and rum adorned the walls. The airport looked like any other in the West Indies.
Port-au-Prince was as exhilarating and exhausting as I remembered it. The streets, thronged with pack animals, porters and ambulatory salesmen, were a human ant heap. The smells I knew so well from the earlier visits – jasmine, burning rubbish – hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away.
Parts of the city were visibly still damaged from the earthquake. One of the worst natural disasters in Caribbean history, the earthquake claimed up to 316,000 lives. The National Palace was turned to dust; the twin-spired Episcopalian cathedral, the Palais de Justice and the Palais des Ministères were all pulverised. The convulsions lasted just 35 seconds, but a more graphic image of municipal chaos would be hard to imagine: the heart of Haiti’s national and civic life had been razed. Rich and poor alike were reduced to a state of homelessness and despair.
Art for sale on the street in Pétion-Ville
Now, four years on, Haiti is a nation on the road to recovery. The tent cities have mostly gone and I was impressed by the industry of rebuilding and sense of hope for a new start. No traveller should feel put off. The Haitian government is wooing travel companies in Europe and North America. Things are still a long way from perfect – Haiti lacks the refinements of its Caribbean neighbours – yet the US State Department considers the country safe for tourists, while the Foreign Office warns only against travel to four specific slum districts in Port-au-Prince: Carrefour, Cité Soleil, Martissant and Bel Air. Given all this, it will not be long before the first charter flights and cruise ships arrive. I would urge people to visit now, before the country is marketed as the “edgy new Cuba” and loses something of its haphazard allure.
Next day, I took the local Sunrise Airlines flight to Cap-Haïtien in the north. On a mountaintop there stands a fortress they call the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was built by King Henri Christophe of northern Haiti, who committed suicide with a silver bullet (they say) in 1820 following a coup. Obscured by clouds, the Citadel is overwhelmed at first by the king’s rococo palace of Sans Souci, intended to be the Versailles of the New World. With its terraced steps mounting like a ziggurat temple, Sans Souci resembles an Aztec or Sumerian ruin; tangled with lianas, the palace is a luminescent, haunting relic of state power.
Iron Market art
Tourists can reach the Citadel by foot or hired horse; the walk uphill takes about two hours, but it is worth it. The Citadel was built as a defence against a return to slavery. A mass of titanic stone apparently welded to the landscape, it towers above the trees on Pic de la Ferrière like a gigantic Crusader castle. Inside, I was shown a maze of passageways, oubliettes and galleries laden with English and French cannon. They say Christophe was buried here in quicklime to deny the mobs his corpse. The view from the ramparts is one of the most magnificent in the western hemisphere: a great antiquity of mountain, forest and sea.
No visit to Haiti would be complete without a Vodou ceremony. Vodou reflects the rage and ecstasy that threw off the shackles of slavery. On the night of August 15 1791, a ceremony was held outside Cap-Haïtien that marked the beginning of the African slaves’ revolt against the colonial French. (Haiti, the world’s first black republic, gained independence in 1804.) For many Haitians, Vodou is a way to rise above the misery of poverty and the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, mud slides, storms and other natural disasters. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and gratefully transformed.
Football in Canaan
To attend a Vodou ceremony, you have to follow the rumble of drums into the countryside. This I did on my birthday, June 24, St John’s Day. In Vodou, St John the Baptist (Sen Jen Batis) is a powerful, rum-drinking divinity who is propitiated with bonbons and bottles of alcohol. At the village of Trou-du-Nord, not far from the Citadel, the night air was dirty like a smoked ceiling and eerie with the barking of dogs. Around the parish church of St John the candles and the swaying, crowded bodies suggested a Mexican Day of the Dead.
Crowds stood around the edge of the Vodou temple made of woven palm-thatch; they paid me no mind. The mambo (priestess) was sweating and jiggering her shoulder like an epileptic, her hands loaded with masonic rings and bangles. The drummers, bashing furiously, looked similarly possessed. A peaceable religion, Vodou is derived from the rites and beliefs brought to Haiti by African slaves in the 1600s. It is as old as Christianity.
The main town on Haiti’s south coast, Jacmel, is a glory. Steamships used to sail there every month from Southampton, exchanging tweeds for coffee. Today the coffee exporters’ houses with their wonky verandas recall the French quarter of New Orleans. The Hotel Florita, off Rue du Commerce, is a beautifully restored 1880s town house with teak floors and overhead fans that used to belong to the American poet and art collector Seldon Rodman. From the Florita you can travel by horse or minibus up to the bassin bleu – blue pool – along a beautiful, jungle-like trail in the hills. The waters of the bassin, a series of amazing blue-green natural aquifers, are deliciously cool on sun-heated skin. I stripped down to my underpants and dived in. With the vault of bright blue sky above, I was in heaven.
The streets of Haiti
Back in Port-au-Prince, I made a beeline for the Hotel Oloffson, a magnificent gingerbread mansion made famous by Graham Greene in his Haitian novel The Comedians. Illuminated at night, the hotel was a folly of spires and fretwork. Hurricane lamps flickered yellow, showing white rattan furniture. I had not seen the manager, Richard Morse, since I proposed marriage here in 1990 (I went down on two knees to Laura after a burst of gunfire startled me).
“Ian, it’s been too long,” said Richard, laconic as ever. Not only had he kept the Oloffson open all these years, but he fronts a world-class Vodou rock band, named RAM after his initials. The band played so well that Thursday night in the hotel that I thought I would levitate out of my seat. Past guests have included Noël Coward, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger (who wrote Emotional Rescue there). Laughably, a room had been named after me as the author of Bonjour Blanc.
By day, Port-au-Prince is a study in bedlam. The roads are crammed with buses known as tap-taps from the noise of their vintage engines; painted with psychedelic flamingos and palm trees, they list perilously and belch smoke. The Iron Market, a block of bargaining and bawling, is a great arched structure in vibrant reds and greens, with minaret-domes that might have come from India. It is the best place to buy fantastic Haitian paintings, raffia bags, globular straw baskets or Ali Baba jars. I bought a chromolithograph of my birthday divinity St John and a bottle of Haitian Barbancourt rum (five-star), pure ambrosia.
Tired and in need of a drink, I headed for the magnificent National Pantheon Museum, a sleek underground structure across the road from the razed National Palace. Inside was a display of rusted iron manacles, chains, branding irons, muzzles and other implements of slavery, along with portraits of the Haitian national heroes Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Forged in the crucible of French colonialism, Haiti was once the most profitable slave colony the world had ever known.
After a week in Haiti my time had almost run out, and I felt the same emotion as 10 years ago, a mix of impatience for home and regret at leaving. Haiti is one of the most astonishing places – a west Africa in the Caribbean. I found a courage and humour in the face of desperate odds that was like an intoxication of hope. Change cannot come too soon; I can’t wait to go back.
Ian Thomson’s ‘Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti’ is published by Vintage in a new and revised edition.
When to go
December to March are coolest. Carnival is held each February after Shrove Tuesday to mark the start of Lent. It is Haiti’s biggest party and, for me, the best time to go. The Carnival of the Flowers takes place in late July.
Flying time and difference
Eleven hours; GMT minus 5 hrs.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ) and Delta Air Lines (0871 221 1222; ) fly via New York and Miami. Air France (0870 142 4343;airfrance.co.uk) and Air Caraïbes (aircaraibes.com) fly via Paris and Guadeloupe. The other option is to fly to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. From there it is a two-hour road transfer to Santo Domingo, then a 40-minute flight on Sunrise Airways (sunriseairways.net).
G Adventures (0844 272 0000; gadventures.co.uk) has just launched its Haiti programme and Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674;undiscovered-destinations.com) also has trips organised. Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontierstravel.com) has two tours scheduled for 2015, on sale from September, while Exodus (0845 287 7658; ) plans to introduce a Discovery trip to Haiti next year. For details of other tour operators, visit experiencehaiti.org .
The best hotels of a budget
Hotel Oloffson ££
This truly magnificent, historic gingerbread hotel in Port-au-Prince is where the more adventurous stay. Thursday night is music night and well worth attending. Service can be a bit haphazard but what you lose in convenience you gain in atmosphere. Rooms from $100/£59, suites from $200/£118 (3810 4000; hoteloloffson.com).
NH Haiti El Rancho ££
Art deco folly that used to be a favourite with Richard Burton and the New York crooner Harry Belafonte, with splashing fountains and Italianate marble floors. Partially rebuilt after the earthquake but still lovely. Rooms from $120/£71 (0034 91 398 46 61; nh-hotels.com).
The best luxury hotels
The Karibe Hotel (2812 7000; karibehotel.com), Best Western (2814 2222; bestwesternpremierhaiti.com) and Royal Oasis by Occidental (royaloasishotel.com) all offer more luxurious if somewhat bland accommodation. Rooms from $160 (£94).
The best restaurants
Le Plaza Hotel £
Has an excellent Creole buffet every Wednesday lunchtime, and a barbecue buffet on Sunday evenings, accompanied by a Haitian twoubadou (countryside troubadour) band with drums, maracas and guitars (10 Rue Capois, Port-au-Prince; 3701 9303/2940 9800;plazahaiti.com).
Hotel Oloffson ££
Its lovely veranda restaurant is still one of the best places for breakfast in Port-au-Prince (60 Avenue Christophe; details above).
Le Quartier Latin £££
Atmospheric, bourgeois-bohême gourmet restaurant and nightclub with live salsa and meringue (10 Rue Goulard, Place Boyer, Pétion-Ville; 3460 3326/3445 3325; email: email@example.com).
The village of Croix-de-Bouquets, eight miles outside Port-au-Prince, is a must for carved iron sculptures of Vodou divinities and other art pieces.
The Galerie Nader on Rue Grégoire in Pétion-Ville has superb Haitian fine art for sale.
Always carry American $1 notes, the preferred currency, for bottles of water, tips, snacks and taxis.
Regardless of your colour or race, you will be amicably addressed as “blanc”, which in Haitian Creole means “foreigner” as well as “white”.
Never dole out gifts of sweets or chewing gum, as this creates resentments locally and puts street vendors out of business.
The popular beach resorts are on the Arcadins Coast, 45 minutes north of Port-au-Prince. In Cap-Haïtien, Labadie beach is famous as a cruise ship destination. The Cormier Plage Resort hotel () outside Cap has a lovely private beach, a silver strand by moonlight.
The local currency is the Haitian gourde. HTG77 = £1. Most travellers use US dollars. HTG45 = $1.
No visa is required. Immunisations against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and typhoid are strongly recommended. The oral cholera vaccine Dukoral is sometimes suggested depending on where in Haiti you are going. Anti-malaria prophylaxis is essential.
See. The Bradt Travel Guide to Haiti by Paul Clammer is strongly recommended. My own hybrid of history and adventure, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti (Vintage), is still the only major modern travelogue about Haiti.