Haiti: Sun, sand, sea – and poverty

Riots, revolution and years of grinding deprivation – Haiti is the West's poorest country. But the tourists may soon return to this Caribbean 'Paradise Island', says Tony Wheeler

I started on another length of the short swimming pool, contemplating as I turned at the deep end that this was where the hotel manager, Mr Brown, had found Dr Philipot's body. Having slashed his wrists, he'd cut his throat as well, just to make sure, the hotel manager had observed.

Mr Brown, the manager of the Hotel Trianon, and the dead doctor, Papa Doc's Secretary for Social Welfare, were both fictional characters in Graham Greene's The Comedians. The pool, however, was very real and so was the hotel. Apart from changing the name, Greene had hardly altered a thing.

The Hotel Oloffson is a gentle uphill mile from the Champs de Mars, the centre of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. Papa Doc Duvalier, the background villain in The Comedians, died in 1971 and his equally venal and brutal son, Baby Doc, took over. In 1986 he was hustled off to Paris for a comfortable, and still ongoing, retirement. And then things got really bad.

The next 20 years saw a revolving door of military rulers interspersed with a chorus line of hapless and/or greedy elected leaders. Bertrand Aristide, the wonderboy of 1991, was in and out within a year, brought back with American backing and military muscle in 1994, re-elected in 2000 and kicked out again in 2004, perhaps with US assistance. They brought him back in 1994 and, the street gossip says, they took him away in 2004. He's now in exile in South Africa.

Throw in an economic blockade (as punishment for dumping Aristide on the first occasion), a boat-people exodus (many of them ended up with a spell in Guantanamo Bay before the war-on-terrorism era), gang warfare in the capital's festering slums and a steadily declining (make that plummeting) economy and it's no wonder tourism to Haiti didn't just dry up, but entirely disappeared.

Remarkably Haiti might just be finding its way back onto the map. Rising world food prices have hit the people harder than in most countries. And Haiti is still subject to those "don't go there unless you're nuts" government advisories, but they're led by US State Separtment concerns about kidnapped Americans – almost all of whom are, in fact, Haitian-Americans. Tourists have not been targets. The turnaround began with UN intervention in 2004. To general Haitian acclaim the Brazilian personnel who led the UN forces tended to shoot first and check which gang the bodies had belonged to afterwards. As a result law and order soon returned

Haiti is often not a very pretty place. The shocking deforestation which has gone hand in hand with the country's descent to "poorest country in the western hemisphere" status means it can look dusty and impoverished. The roads are potholed and battered; the infrastructure is limited; but there's also exuberant colour, some amazing sights, music to rival nearby Cuba, and it's certainly not overrun by tourists.

The colour is equally certainly there in Haiti's wonderful naive art. You can find it arrayed on walls around the main square in Pétionville, the upscale suburb a few miles uphill – where it's cooler – from Champs de Mars. Or try the suburb's assortment of art galleries, their walls glowing with the work of the best-known Haitian artists. You can get a taste of the big names in Haitian art at the Museum of Haitian Art on the Champs du Mars or, even better, at the Sainte-Trinité cathedral, where the walls have been painted in a roll-call of the naive art greats.

Nearby stands the statue of the black slave Toussaint Louverture, who fought French rule. Statues of other heroes of the world's first black republic dot the expanses of the Champs de Mars.

A southern excursion from Port-au-Prince took me to Jacmel. Only 25 miles in a straight line from Port-au-Prince, it's much further by the winding road.

The first stretch follows the coast before it climbs up into the mountains and as the Haitian proverb goes: dèyè mòn, gen mòn – after the mountains, more mountains.

I stayed a few miles out of town at Cyvadier Plage, where my room had a great view over the little bay from my balcony. To get back and forth to the town I'd jump on a "tap tap", the pickup truck bus services also found in other Caribbean nations.

Tap taps are not designed for comfort; "How many passengers does a tap tap carry?" goes the Haitian riddle. Answer: "One more." My tap tap drops me close to the town centre and Jacmel's wonderful market. The cast-iron market building is a smaller version of Port-au-Prince's Marché de Fer or "iron market".

There's a touch of history in the bright pink "Thank you Jesus" shop at one corner, where a tiny plaque notes that Simón Bolívar, South America's great "liberator", stayed here in 1816.

Reputedly, he asked how he could repay his hospitality and the president, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, suggested freeing the slaves in South America, a project which Bolívar took on board, once he'd kicked the Spanish out.

A few days later I'm back in Port-au-Prince and heading north. The tiny domestic terminal is crowded and there's a batch of small aircraft waiting out on the tarmac. Haiti is a tiny country, so why are so many people flying places? Because the roads are so awful.

I'm taking a Caribintair flight to Cap Haitien. It's only about 80 miles and the flight (with a female co-pilot) will take less than half an hour. By road it would be seven, if all went well.

It's yet another example of how poverty pollutes. Lousy roads take more time to drive and consume more fuel, often in worn-out old vehicles which are environmentally unsound to start with. When things get really bad, the people who can afford it simply abandon the roads and take to the air.

Staying in a hotel named after King Christophe was entirely appropriate, since the number one reason for coming to Cap Haitien is to make the pilgrimage 15 miles south to the town of Milot, where Christophe built his huge palace, Sans Souci, as a Haitian version of Versailles. The palace fell into ruin after his death and was then badly damaged by a huge earthquake in 1842, but the ruins comprise a magnificent sight.

A road winds steeply uphill from Sans Souci to the immense and brooding Citadelle. Christophe intended his fortress to be an insurmountable obstacle to any French attempt to recapture Haiti and reintroduce slavery. They never tried. The Citadelle still has hundreds of cannons and around 50,000 cannon balls, many of them neatly stacked outside the fortress walls.

Labadie Beach, just a few miles along the coast from Cap Haitien, is the only place cruise ships stop in Haiti. A couple of times a week a cruise ship out of Miami anchors offshore and thousands of passengers spend the day on the beach and in the Caribbean waters. Yet none of them seem to get to see nearby Cap Haitien or the Citadelle: the roads are so appalling transport would be all but impossible. It's said that once upon a time the passengers didn't even know they were landing in Haiti. They were told the stop was at "Paradise Island".

I was back at the Oloffson for my final night in Haiti and, with fine timing, it was a Thursday. For music fans it's a night that could justify a trip to Haiti in itself. Close to midnight each Thursday the hotel's resident band, RAM, named after the Oloffson's owner-manager Richard A Morse, kicks off for a spell of "voodoo jazz" which propels you into the early hours.

I flew out the next morning with my ears ringing and a smile on my face.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Haiti. Flights are available with carriers such as American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk) and Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) via their hubs.

You can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Getting around

The energetic and organised Jacqui Larom is a long-term British resident of Haiti. Her tourist operation, Voyages Lumière, (00 509 249 6177; email: voyageslumierehaiti@gmail.com) will organise tours and book accommodation and transport for individuals and small groups.

Staying there

Hotel Oloffson, Port-au-Prince (00 509 223 4000; www.hoteloloffson.com). Doubles start at US$73.90 (£39), room only.

There are more luxurious hotels around, as well as cheaper, backpacker-style, options that are available in Pétionville.

Shopping there

Expressions Art Gallery, Pétionville (00 509 256 3471; www.expressionsgaleriedart.com).

Galerie Monnin, Pétionville (00 509 257 4430; www.galeriemonnin.com).

Red tape

The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) warns: "We advise against all but essential travel to Haiti, because of the threat to personal security. There are incidences of violence and kidnappings for ransom, which have included foreign nationals, taking place mainly in Port-au-Prince... The security situation is better in cities outside the capital, with the exception of Gonaives and to a lesser extent, Cap Haitien. Pétionville and Bourdon are inhabited by expatriates and, although regarded as relatively safe during daylight hours, care should be taken at night."

More information

'The Comedians', by Graham Greene (Penguin, £7.99).

After a lengthy interruption there will be a new Lonely Planet guide to The Dominican Republic and Haiti in October (www.shop.lonelyplanet.com).

Haiti Tourism: www.haititourisme.org

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