Suriname, colonised by both the Dutch and the British, has a fascinating history. Today, its capital, Paramaribo remains an intriguing melting-pot

The five Guyanese fisherman mending their nets at the untidy waterside in Paramaribo invited me to sit down beside them. We were in the shade, out of the oppressive sun, but there was little we could do to protect ourselves from the extreme humidity. It felt like being inside a particularly vicious sauna.

The five Guyanese fisherman mending their nets at the untidy waterside in Paramaribo invited me to sit down beside them. We were in the shade, out of the oppressive sun, but there was little we could do to protect ourselves from the extreme humidity. It felt like being inside a particularly vicious sauna.

"Sometimes we go out for up to 10 days. We stay out until we've caught enough fish to use up all the ice on board," said their leader, pointing to a scruffy 30ft long vessel called Be Happy. "I've got another boat over there called Don't Worry."

The second, equally scruffy fishing boat was tied up between the modern steel tanker, an antique-looking wooden Brazilian coaster and the shoal of little ferries that take people across the river. We chatted on, about how my wife had been brought up by a Guyanese lady, and about their difficulties fishing along the coasts of the Guianas. "The French chase us away from the coast of Cayenne. The Surinamese allow us to work, but we never make more than a few hundred dollars on a trip."

I got up to go. A few yards away, another fishing boat had unloaded the biggest fish I had ever seen into a truck filled with crushed ice. It was some sort of monster guppy, the size of a broad-shouldered man. "Gimme some ice," said a beggar woman as she approached the truck. Passed a handful, she wandered off into the dark depths of the covered market and its stalls heaped with lychees, bananas, oranges and maracuja.

Gasping for refreshment I went for my morning portion of enjoyment at the San Marino Ice Cream Saloon round the corner. Three large scoops of citron, rum-and-raisin and strawberry cost 1,900 guilders (75p). The saloon is run by Ronald. He takes great pride in the certificate of quality he won years ago from a man with an Italian name who, he said, was the best ice-cream maker in Amsterdam.

Suriname, once known as Dutch Guiana, was created by the burghers of Amsterdam - once, that is, they had got rid of the Brits. The English were the first Europeans to settle here in the early 17th century and the real founder was Lord Willoughby of Parham. In 1651 he got the plantations going with slaves from Africa and Jews from Holland, Italy and Brazil. The Dutch admiral Abraham Crynssen captured it in February 1667 but under the Peace of Breda a few months later King Charles II's men pulled a fast one. They formally swapped what had become known as Willoughbyland for a small but promising settlement at the mouth of the Hudson River called Nieuw Amsterdam which they re-baptised New York.

Amsterdam's insignia features on the old coat of arms that is emblazoned over the broad verandas of the former governor's palace. This building overlooks the grassy main square once known as Oranjeplein after the House of Orange, later sonorously renamed Onafhankelijkheids- plein or Independence Square. Today, it is called Eenheidsplein, in the name of national unity. Beside the palace stands a little bust of a rather less than attractive Englishman "Meester George Henry Barnet-Lyon, Agent-Generaal voor de Immigratie in de Kolonie Suriname".

A hundred years ago, this moustachioed figure in his coat, tie and waistcoat was responsible for the importation of coolies from British India to what was then a Dutch possession and which was desperate for manpower. He wasn't quite a slave-trader but he can't have been far off. He has his back turned to the Palmentuin, the Palm Garden, a wonderful collection of tall palm trees which bring the feel of the jungle into the very centre of Paramaribo.

The Dutch must be given the credit for erecting some of the finest buildings European colonists ever put up in Paramaribo - and for making this city what it is today, a unique tropical mixture of the relaxed and the stately. Looking out over the river, a short walk from where the fishermen were mending their nets, the Waterkant is a curving succession of beautiful wooden mansions painted white, most of them with finely carved doorways and handsome windows and gables.

Behind it lies Dr Lim A Postraat. This street doesn't look out on the river but it does contain some equally fine mansions. Gravenstraat was the best of them all, though, a broad avenue shaded with trees. Today, it looks a bit down on its luck, its beautiful façades unpainted. Two of the city's finest palaces were also here but the former Concordia masonic lodge turned into the foreign ministry and the former headquarters of the chartered colonial company burned down a few years ago. The harmony of the remaining 18th century buildings is more than a little spoiled by the 100-year-old Catholic cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul which is claimed to be the largest wooden building in America. Largest, perhaps, but in its gothic mockery, by no means the finest.

One remaining jewel in Paramaribo is the beautiful and restrained Ne Ve Salom synagogue. It was founded in 1716, perhaps for the Jewish community who arrived after being expelled from neighbouring Brazil. Beside it stands a garish new mosque, a mass of green minarets. The two faiths may be doing battle architecturally but the Jews are clearly the winners.

Relaxation, untidiness, unstuffiness: all the best traits of Surinamese life are captured beside the river in Paramaribo. It is one of those great tropical rivers, wide and deep enough to take the bulk carriers which bear bauxite ore from the mines of the interior. The river also reminds you of the majesty of the natural environment that surrounds you. Nearly a mile away, the far bank is pure jungle.

Getting there

The fastest way to reach Paramaribo is on KLM. From Christmas Day until the June, the Dutch airline offers a fare of around £620 from more than a dozen UK airports, via Amsterdam, through discount agents such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3366). It may be cheaper to travel on Air France changing planes at Paris and Cayenne. It is much cheaper than the non-stop flights on KLM or Suriname Airways via Amsterdam.

The Suriname government doesn't make it easy to visit. You need a visa before you arrive and there is nowhere to get one in London. Try the consulates in Brussels (00 32 2 640 1172) or Amsterdam (00 31 20 642 6137). Getting one in Cayenne, French Guiana costs £37. If you are coming in via Air France through Cayenne you are supposed to have had a yellow fever innoculation. Surinamese officialdom is not welcoming as you arrive or as you leave. Credit cards are not generally accepted, and the banks don't change sterling. It is best to come with US dollars.