We were drinking on the Manoir Alexandra's verandah, which has a fantastic view of palm trees, a curving bay, and gingerbread houses decorated with iron balconies and painted bright greens and corals and yellows. A town of 15,000 people with a long history of prosperity because of its coffee trade, Jacmel has things you don't see in other Haitian towns: a library, a playground, a cinema, and a palpable middle class - unusual for one of the world's poorest countries.
Until the First World War, Jacmel was the only place where the British Royal Mail ship landed in Haiti, giving it a cosmopolitan feel, open to foreign influences. While the country's political instability ensures its formerly healthy tourist trade has all but dried up, Jacmel still attracts the odd blanc, the word Haitians use to describe foreigners, whatever their skin colour. Some are international aid workers, others missionaries, while some, like me, are looking for one of those places in the world whose isolation and otherworldliness make me forget the rest of my life.
Perhaps because of its contact with the outside world, Jacmel has always had a thriving community of painters and poets. Rene Depestre, Haiti's best known living writer, grew up in Jacmel. In fact, it was Depestre's writing that led us to the Manoir Alexandra. In his award-winning novel Hadriana dans tous mes reves (Hadriana in all my dreams), a young Jacmelian woman dies at the altar on her wedding day and is revived as a zombie by a voodoo priest. Hadriana's family residence is a big house on the town park with many rooms, high ceilings, and a verandah where she combs her hair and watches the world go by. After her death a new owner turns it into a hotel and names it the Manoir Hadriana, upsetting the townspeople so much that he is forced to change the name to Alexandra. ("Oh yes, much of the novel is true," a visiting Frenchman assured me. I raised my eyebrows. "Strange things happen in Haiti," he insisted.)
The green and white Alexandra has a beautiful garden, with a lawn (rare in Haiti), banana and mango trees, 50-ft high palm trees, and mauve and fuchsia bougainvillaea climbing up the house. The entrance hall is bright yellow, with Portuguese tiles on the floor, and the rooms are painted vivid blues and greens. The concierge led us up a grand flight of stairs through a dining room filled with heavy wooden furniture, bedrooms with marble basins, huge armoires and shutters all around, and on to the famous verandah, which slopes so dramatically that I wondered if the whole thing might drop off the house one night. The scattered tables and chairs stand ready for many customers; the Alexandra must once have been a swinging place. I could imagine parties, romances, debauchery up there. Not now, though: we were alone except for the odd local chap wandering up the stairs to ask if we wanted a guide to the Bassin Bleu (the nearby beauty spot where you can swim in waterfalls), or to see his cousin's art gallery, or to warn us that a boy might come along and puncture our car tyres. (He duly did, and we had to visit "Myse Kaochou" - Mister Tyre - to have one fixed. This is called contributing to the local economy.)
The Alexandra has that air of faded grandeur associated with many ex- colonial watering holes - though such a description is not quite accurate since Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804 (the only successful slave rebellion in history), long before the Alexandra or any other hotels were established. Like many places in Haiti which thrived during the tourist booms of the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the 1970s, the Alexandra feels like the Marie-Celeste, waiting for its passengers magically to return and order the house cocktail.
Madame la concierge rattled around the place, appearing at odd moments to dust the furniture or light oil lamps, electricity in Jacmel being limited. She spoke only Creole, we only French, leading to farcical misunderstandings. She was patient with us but occasionally gave up mid-sentence and simply disappeared. Once she said something, scratched at her wrist meaningfully, and waited for our response. When we looked blank she said "Attende" and shot down the back staircase, leaving us to wonder what she was trying to tell us: was she reminding us of our skin colour or simply scratching a mosquito bite?
Charming as it was, the Alexandra had its drawbacks. The first morning we woke to find water cascading from the ceiling of the communal bathroom: the water truck had pumped too much water into the overhead tank. (There is little piped water in Haiti; people collect rainwater, carry it from wells, or have deliveries to tanks.) The concierge seemed unconcerned, and we soon discovered that it was a daily occurrence, along with the water running out after a two-minute shower. There was also the somewhat alarming tendency for strangers to come all the way up the stairs and through the house to bang on our shutters at night, shouting something indistinguishable except for the word "fem" - referring to me, I guess. Perhaps they had come to invite me to Zombie, the local disco - a name not the best advert for a lively time.
As in other Haitian towns, Jacmel's streets are cluttered with vendors selling anything and everything: gum, plastic buckets, homemade brooms, chairs, powdered soap, old refrigerators, piles of shoes. The central market, under a big corrugated iron roof, is busy, but clean and orderly compared to other Haitian markets. People walk along the streets at a measured pace, partly because of the heat, partly because many of the women are balancing impossibly heavy loads on their heads. They carry all sorts of things that way: baskets of bananas and mangoes, trays of sweets, laundry, even handbags or furled umbrellas. They stared at us until we said: "Bonjour," then smiled and returned the greeting in a singsong tone.
Jacmel's only drawback is its beach, a dirty affair made worse by hurricane damage and a rusting hulk of an old shipwreck. Pigs root among the banana peels and washed up bottles. A much better prospect was Cyvadier Plage, about eight kilometres from town along a road whose asphalt looks and feels like it's been chewed up and spat out. (The state of Haiti's roads is a favourite topic of conversation among its residents, much like the weather in Britain.) The clean, quiet hotel there is run by Hans, a charming Swiss man who ploughs some of the hotel's profits into local schools. Unlike many of the beaches in Haiti, Cyvadier is open to locals, and we sat and swam among picnicking Haitian teenagers, who jumped up and down in the waves as an undulating mass of bodies and later danced to Haitian music among the rocks.
For now Jacmel is my secret, safe from the tourist trail because of the perceived threat of political unrest. May the Alexandra's verandah never fall off the house, or I'll have to start looking for a new house cocktail.
HAITI FACT FILE
Flights to Port-au-Prince on American Airlines via Miami or New York. No visa is required for stays up to three months.
Manoir Alexandra, Jacmel, tel: 88 25 11, costs $15 a day per person; Hotel-Restaurant Cyvadier Plage, tel: 88 30 60 (College Suisse, Jacmel - ask for Mr Geffoy), costs $69 a night basic double, $88 a night deluxe double (including meals).
'Caribbean Islands Handbook' by Sarah Cameron, Footprint Handbooks, 1996; 'Hadriana dans tous mes reves' by Rene Depestre,Gallimard,1988; 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti' by Ian Thomson, Hutchinson, 1992; 'The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier' by Amy Wilentz Jonathan Cape, 1989.
Tracy Chevalier's novel 'The Virgin Blue' is published by Penguin.Reuse content