How best to experience the Caribbean’s most taboo destination
Few places on earth are more deeply misunderstood and mischaracterized than Haiti. Consequently, this is one very special corner of the Caribbean that is most often just plain missed.
I’m here to tell you, though, that you definitely should not sleep on the wonders that await discovery here.
I’m not Haitian. I don’t even speak French or Creole. Still, I’ve enjoyed some of the most amazing travel experiences of my life over the handful of visits I’ve made to Haiti during the past four years. Here’s how you can do the same…
Step 1: Stay At The Marriott Port-au-Prince
Surprising to some, but there actually exists quite a number of nice, modern hotels in Haiti’s capital city. The best of the lot: The Marriott Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s newest hotel (doors opened in February 2015), The Marriott Port-au-Prince is an enclave of style, sophistication, and serenity in the heart of the Caribbean’s most bustling city. Guest rooms, suites, and common areas here boast the same modern comforts and amenities you’d expect at any Marriott, including the fastest, most reliable Wi-Fi Internet service in Haiti.
What sets the guest experience apart here, though, is the great lengths that the Marriott Port-au-Prince goes to bring the best aspects of the authentic Haitian experience inside the property for guests to enjoy. This is most readily seen in the hotel’s expansive local art collection.
Expertly curated by Philippe Dodard, a renowned Haitian artisan whose work inspired Donna Karan’s Spring 2012 collection, the hotel’s treasure trove of art celebrates the works of 22 different local artists. The works are moving, inventive, and uniquely Haitian, oftentimes employing upcycled materials to create indelible representations of Haitian history, culture, daily life, and national pride.
That pride shines through in the food here too. Chefs here go beyond the few cursory local dishes you might find on restaurant menus in similarly styled U.S.-flagged city hotels in other parts of the Caribbean. Soup Joumou, Beef Kibby, Griot, Lambi Creole – the local culinary delights at La Sirene are worth stopping in and savoring, whether you’re staying here or not.
Step 2: Hire A Local Tour Operator
While I personally find a lot of the safety warnings over travel to Haiti to be overblown, it is still not the kind of place where the typical traveler can just go wandering around on their own. This goes double if you, like me, do not speak Creole or French. It’s best to have your hand held a bit here. Thankfully, there are a number of local tour operators to choose from for the task.
Agence Citadelle, for one, has been running professional guided tours in Haiti since 1946! Yeah, they know what they’re doing, and they know a lot of the best places, especially in and around Port-au-Prince.
Daytime tours can showcase the capital’s charming and historic Gingerbread Mansions, the famed MUPANAH Museum, home to such rare artifacts as the anchor from Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, and the Liberty Bell run by Toussaint Louverture heralding that freedom had be won from the French by Haiti’s enslaved population in 1804.
You can also stop and tour Haiti’s top art galleries and artisan villages like Noailles, where skilled craftsmen toil night and day producing wildly inventive metal art upcycled from old oil drums.
Agence Citadelle’s Thursday nightlife tour gets you up close and personal with one of the most pulsating nightlife scenes in the Caribbean. Starting with dinner and jazz at La Reserve, the party then moves on to Quatier Latin for a lively session of dancing to salsa and son from Cuba. Son is the original Latin music form from Cuba from whence salsa was derive.
The night ends at the historic Hotel Oloffson for the spellbinding weekly Vodou Rock concert by RAM. Their music is unlike anything I’d ever heard before; a whirling, tempestuously sublime cacophony of horns, strings, percussion, melodies, shouts, and screams, combining traditional Vodou chants, rhythms and Rara horns with rock ‘n roll guitar riffs, heavy bass and drums. Somehow it all flows beautifully together, enticing all to get up and dance the night away.
Another great option for tours, Tour Haiti, specializes in more adventurous travel options, including hiking and camping in the mountains and farms of Haiti’s rural areas. They run especially great and informative visits to The Citadelle and Sans-Souci Palace near Cap-Haitien on Haiti’s north coast.
On my last excursion with them, we even stopped in at a local Clairin distillery, makers of Haiti’s tempestuous local bush rum, to sample a taste straight from the still – a must experience for any true rum-lover.
Step 3: Make Time For The Beach
Beaches? In Haiti?
Ahh oui, you can kick back and relax along pristine white-sand shores here, just as you can anywhere in the Caribbean. Some of the best I’ve experienced lay along the country’s southern shores near Jacmel and Port-Salut. Seemingly endless miles of uninterrupted white sand stretch along the shores here, virtually all of it devoid of crowds.
If you’re up for some surfing, the shores of Cayes-Jacmel are ideal. Surfing came to Haiti with aid workers following the earthquake of 2010. Today, a small but vibrant surfing community thrives here.
Another great beach option can be found 90 minutes north of Port-au-Prince in La Côte des Acardins. Haiti’s resort area, La Côte is home to several small beach resorts with a combined total of less than 500 rooms. Moulin Sur Mer stands out among the group for offering Haiti’s only dive operator.
The all-inclusive Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa, formerly Club Med Haiti, is also in the area as is Wahoo Bay Beach Resort, which hosts a fantastic DJ party attracting Haiti’s young and sexy crowd each and every Sunday.
For a more personal and exclusive beach experience in Haiti, though, you’ll want to find your way to Bananier. Accessible solely by boat (and completely inaccessible to cell phone reception), this secluded slice of beach heaven in southern Haiti is not the kind of place you’ll want to leave easily.
It was the amazing staff at The Marriott Port-au-Prince that originally turned me on to Bananier, which shows you’ll definitely always want to remember rule #1 when visiting this truly amazing country.