For Visitors, Haiti Can be a Magical Place

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Freelance writer Joyce Dalton revisited Haiti recently for the first time since 1983. Her report follows:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Something's amiss in the world of tourism when Barnes & Noble bookstores stock six guidebooks on Cuba, which few Americans can visit legally, and no books at all on Haiti, to me the Caribbean's most intriguing country.

Being addicted to sightseeing rather than sunbathing, I admit a certain bias, but Haiti is Sans Soucia nation with world-class art collections; attractions such as Citadelle Laferriere and the palace of Sans Souci, and a rich cultural heritage as the world's first black republic.

Of course, there's nothing like images of political unrest to send tourists winging in the opposite direction, but things are calmer now in Haiti. An elected president is in place, the political situation is fairly stable and the government declared tourism a priority.

Although Haiti has its share of beaches and sun worshippers, it's more a destination for clients who do not fit the usual Caribbean profile, who want to leave their own culture at home and become immersed in a new one.

In 1983, I first succumbed to Haitian magic. In a battered Volkswagen that died whenever I slowed down and required occasional hot-wiring, I chugged from Jacmel in the south to Cap Haitien in the north. I trekked the hills beyond Jacmel, accompanied by a gentle teenage guide, to reach the hidden beauty spot of Bassin Bleu, where waterfalls tumbled into crystal pools.

Along the then-lonely road north, I thought nothing of stopping to inspect thatched huts and stilted storage bins from West Africa. I often was surrounded by costumed groups, tooting homemade musical instruments, on their way to pre-Easter festivities.

Would I feel equally comfortable doing this today? Yes and no.

The hectic pace of my press trip allowed little opportunity for wandering off and, as agents well know, fam trips often mean a lot of cocooning. Still, my gut feeling was that self-driving tours would entail no personal safety risks.

On the other hand, many roads could vie for a pothole prize (at one point, the scene ahead looked like a convoy of drunks, as drivers swerved in unison to avoid being swallowed by the holes). The number of vehicles, especially Mack trucks and overcrowded buses, has multiplied drastically in the past decade.

Clients who venture beyond the perimeters of inclusive resorts should not miss Haiti's three main tourist areas: the capital of Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitien and Jacmel.

The claustrophobic had best avoid Port-au-Prince's Iron Market, tightly packed with people, goods and brightly decorated tap taps (trucks used for public transportation).

More easily viewed sights in the capital include St.-Trinitie Cathedral, whose murals depict biblical tales set in the Haitian countryside; the imposing white National Palace, whose surrounding sidewalks were closed to pedestrians during the Duvalier dictatorships from 1957 to 1986; the Centre d'Art, where Haitian art received its first encouragement, and gingerbread mansions dating to the turn of the century.

Most tours take visitors into the hills above Port-au-Prince to visit Petion-Ville, the site of many upscale hotels and restaurants; Kenscoff and its lively Friday market; the panorama from Mount Boutilliers, and the castle-like Betencourt rum factory.

Twice-daily flights on Caribintair operate between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, but the five-hour road trip passes Cote des Arcadins, lined with beach resorts; voodoo temples, identifiable by high-poled flags, and, sometimes, images of deities.

Lottery stands bear names like Patience and New York Lottery. Rice paddies, cactus-dotted plains, green mountains, and brightly painted tombs almost big enough to live in fill the landscape.

Since President Rene Duval of Haiti and his entourage had usurped our rooms in Cap Haitien, my group stayed at the not-yet-officially opened Habitation Labadies, accessible only by boat. The vote was unanimous -- we loved it.

Haiti's main northern attraction is Citadelle Laferriere, sometimes billed as the eighth wonder of the world. The gigantic stone fortress, perched at the peak of a mountain, beckoned as our horses led us up a steep path. Once at the summit, we dismounted and roamed a structure originally designed to hold 10,000 soldiers.

Although we did not visit Jacmel, we heard lots about it.

The artists' town, two hours south of Port-au-Prince by car, has been targeted for major restoration work, ranging from port improvement to architectural touch-ups. From my earlier trip 15 years ago, I had fond memories of Jacmel's pastel houses fronted by Corinthian columns and wrought-iron balconies, a laid-back Iron Market whose origins date to 1805 and nontouristy voodoo ceremonies.

On our homeward-bound flight, we juggled a collection of paintings, sculptures, miniature iron tap taps and a collage of memories that all bore testimony to the fact that visitors leave Haiti with more than a tan and a T-shirt.

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