Amid its woes, Haiti offers a striking rugged beauty that is obvious to adventure travelers — rolling hills, steep mountains and rocky terrain that make backpacking or mountain biking just as good a heart pumper here as in any mountainous Caribbean island.
But the country also offers a quality that’s often overlooked and even dismissed: a slice of paradise.
This was certainly the offering during a recent weekend jaunt to northern Haiti where I joined a group of curiosity seekers on a boat excursion around the country’s picturesque coast. The area is better known to Royal Caribbean cruise passengers and well-heeled yachting enthusiasts than to your average visitor.
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Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien, I discovered, is more than just a historical find.
Our day began with a 30-minute bus ride from our hotel, the Mont Joli, at the top of a hill overlooking the historic city, past streets with their faded grandeur, up another mountain, past a village that not even this native realized existed. (When you’re Haitian, rarely do you come here as a tourist. Vacation usually means visiting family in a far-flung rural village and going home.)
We finally arrived at Labadie beach, driving around the security fence that separates the locals from the weekly cruise passengers who lounge on the private stretch of Labadee that Miami-based Royal Caribbean leases from the Haitian government.
Our tour guide, Mike Trimble of Labadee Charters, guided us aboard his 26-foot fishing boat.
Born in Haiti, Trimble is an American who grew up here. His dad, Joel, a pastor, is well-known to Haitians here and abroad for his TV show, La Bonne Nouvelle.
Mike launched his excursions with his business partner, Maxim Laroche, in February. Since then, the business has expanded from fishing excursions for cruise passengers to include private tours for the few tourists who do trickle in.
Mike revved up the boat and took us out five miles into the Atlantic around Labadie bay. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Amiga Island or as the natives call it, Ile Ara, a small uninhabited island that legend says was a rendezvous point for Christopher Columbus and a local lover.
Awed by the trees, shallow green water and white sand encircling the entire island, my traveling companions wasted no time changing into their swimming trunks and jumping in. The water, which is great for snorkeling, was warm and amazingly not too salty.
Lounging around in the ocean makes you hungry. Lunch was a seafood affair, courtesy of local fishermen who came up to us in their wooden canoes with freshly caught fish, lobster and octopus that cost between $5 and $10 a person. Mike’s mate Pierre Jean-Baptiste, who brought his own special sauce that he prepared the night before, started a fire on the beach and grilled the seafood, using a variety of local peppers.
With our stomachs filled, we climbed back aboard the boat and continued our tour, which soon brought us to Cadras Beach.
The stunning white-sand beach has a natural cove where fresh and salt water meet. From the moment you step into the waist-high turquoise water, the scenery and calmness grab you. You feel like you’re in a gigantic swimming pool until you see the lush tree-lined landscape dotted with private homes accessible only by boat and owned mostly by wealthy Haitians and some French ex-pats.
As we enjoyed the tranquility, Mike pointed out where British airline mogul Richard Branson stayed during a 2012 visit. Some owners, he said, rent out their bungalows to vacationers seeking to expand their experience beyond his four-hour boat excursions.
I didn’t think much could top Ile Ara, but the detour to Cadras really made the trip as we lounged in the water drinking Prestige beer, the local brew, and sipping coconut water out of the shell, freshly plucked from a tree.
Dining options in Cap-Haïtien are limited beyond the hotels. However, no visit is complete without a trip to Lakay restaurant, the “It” place in the city, situated along the oceanfront boulevard in the Carenage neighborhood. An open-air restaurant, Lakay offers large portions of authentic Haitian dishes like Creole conch and fried goat as well as hamburgers and pizzas.
Started in 1999 by Philippe “Fito” Zephir and his wife Anne-Claude, Lakay has its share of high-profile clientele. The day before our visit, Haitian President Michel Martelly lunched there, his visit shutting down the boulevard. Cyril Bourlon de Rouvre, a French politician and sugar refineries heir, has been a frequent guest. In fact, Zephir used to keep a special stock of Veuve Clicquot champagne just for him.
While you shouldn’t count on getting Veuve Clicquot, you can count on sipping champagne in a laid-back ambience with cultural performances on some evenings. There is also a DJ whose repertoire of konpa, reggae and American pop mixes had us dancing through the night.
For years, Cap-Haïtien was mostly cut off from the world, accessible only to those willing to fly in on daily charter service from South Florida, or a smaller aircraft from Port-au-Prince. But a newly renovated international airport with a 7,500-foot runway now allows for large commercial jet service.
American Airlines last month became the first U.S.-based carrier to land here, and now operates daily nonstop service from Miami.
This is the city where Haiti as a nation was born. Visitors should climb either on foot or by horseback to the Citadelle Laferrière, about 45 minutes away in the town of Milot. A massive mountaintop stone fortress that overlooks the city, the Citadelle was built by newly freed Haitians to deter the French.
In 2012, while vacationing with my mom, I visited the fortress on horseback. That day, Michaëlle Jean, former general governor and current UNESCO special envoy for Haiti, was touring the site. Jean has been a leading promoter of protecting historical sites like the Citadelle and the Palais San Souci, the royal residence of Henri Christophe, that is located just below the fortress.
Jean was treated to a local dance performanc and a meal of artichoke and duck with guava, cooked by Jules Joseph, chef at Le Trois Decks in Fermathe in the hills of Port-au-Prince. Another one of my favorite eating spots, the restaurant is owned by Jean-Lionel Pressoir, whose company Tour Haiti arranged Jean’s visit.
In addition to Tour Haiti, another company that offers tour packages is Agence Citadelle. Trimble said he too is working on a three-day, two-night package that will include his boat excursions and visits to the Citadelle and San-Souci Palace.
Once a leader in Caribbean tourism, Haiti is only now trying to re-enter the scene. Places still aren’t equipped to deal with individual travelers. To get a full experience, it is best to go with a tour company that can arrange everything from hotel stays to tours to a Vodou drumming and ceremony.
Unlike Port-au-Prince, which offers a few name-brand hotels and South Beach-type restaurants, Cap-Haïtien remains in an organic stage. The city has fewer than 1,000 standard hotel rooms.
One of the newer hotels is Habitation Jouissant, a 13-room boutique hotel and a favorite of the country’s president. There is a telescope in every room and on the vine-shaded veranda, enticing guests to take a visual tour of the city. The furnishings are modern and reminiscent of South Beach, which isn’t an accident. Owner Fred Beliard bought an entire floor of South Beach’s Palms hotel before it was renovated by its new owner and had everything shipped to Haiti, right down to the bathroom fixtures.
Like others here, he’s excited about the new direct flights from Miami and tourism opportunities. As we all should be.
Going to Cap-Haïtien
Getting there: American Airlines (www.aa.com) flies nonstop from Miami, a 2-hour trip, with roundtrip airfare starting around $288. Tortug’Air, (www.tortugair.com), a Haitian airline, also operates flights from Fort Lauderdale that start at $438.50 roundtrip and IBC Air, (http://flyibcair.com/) runs daily charter service from Fort Lauderdale and Miami, starting at $596 roundtrip.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel reservations can now be booked online for several local hotels and at Hotwire.com. The city is walkable but transportation is required to get to the beach or the historical sites.
Habitation Jouissant: 202 Route Habitation Jouissant Cap-Haïtien; 011-509-3124-2400/ 305-635-0938, ext. 3004; www.habitationjouissant.com. The 13-room boutique hotel is close to Place d’Armes and Cap-Haïtien Cathedral. Rooms have complimentary Wi-Fi and a telescope to see the city, refrigerators, coffee/tea makers and hair dryers. The hotel has a restaurant, indoor bar/outdoor lounging area, small pool. Rooms start at $144 with breakfast and taxes included.
Hotel Mont Joli: Rue 29b, Cap-Haïtien, 011-509-2943-1110 / 011-509-2260-5847. http://hotelmontjoli.net. Spacious rooms offering flat-screen TV. Complimentary wireless in the lobby. Restaurant and bar, large pool. Rooms start at $120 with breakfast included.
Auberge du Picolet: 90 Boulevard Carenage, Cap-Haïtien; 011-509-3438-6357 / 011-509-2810-1111; https://www.facebook.com/AubergeduPicolet. The hotel offers 19 rooms on the oceanfront, not far from Lakay restaurant and other nightlife. Rooms start at $130 with breakfast.
Hôtel du Roi Christophe: Rue 24B, Cap-Haïtien ; 011-509-3687-8915 / 011-509-3709-0556; http://hotelroichristophe.com. One of the city’s older hotels, it features 37 rooms and is in the center of town. Wireless internet is available in the lobby and in some rooms. Both the courtyard and exterior are lush with trees. There is a pool, outdoor bar, billiards table. Rooms start at $102 with continental breakfast.
Cormier Plage Resort: Route de Labadie Bande du nord, Cormier; 011-509-3702-0210. http://www.cormierhaiti.com/. Located on a private beach, it is also close to Labadie Beach. The hotel offers shuttle service to town, complimentary wireless Internet access in guestrooms, air conditioning, babysitting services, water sports, massages and other sports. Rooms start at $105.
WHERE TO EAT
Lakay: Located along the Boulevard du Carenage on the city’s main oceanfront strip, the restaurant offers authentic Haitian dishes, natural juices and alcohol. DJ and cultural performances. 011-509-2942-7225. http://lakayhaiti.com/. Entrees and sandwiches from $7 - $29.
WHAT TO DO
While historic sites like the Citadelle Laferrière and Palais San Souci are accessible on your own, the best way to get the full experience is through a tour company that can also put together a package that includes a traditional Vodou ceremony and other visits. Here are a few:
Labadee Charters: http://www.labadeecharters.com/. Boat excursions of three to four hours around Labadie Bay off the coast of Cap-Haïtien. Trips are $50 a person for a minimum of six persons, includes drinks but not food. (Groups of 10 or more can get a bigger discount while the cost runs higher for smaller groups). firstname.lastname@example.org or 011-509-3701-9559.
Voyages Lumière: www.voyageslumiere.com or email email@example.com; 011-509-4805-8289 or 011-509-3607-1321
Voyages Plus Cap Haitien: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.