Desperately seeking tourists

Attempting to recover from 2010’s devastating earthquake, Haiti has some treasures to offer.

THE HOTEL Florita on Rue de Commerce in Haiti 390 (photo credit: Linda Epstein)
THE HOTEL Florita on Rue de Commerce in Haiti 390
(photo credit: Linda Epstein)
PORT AU PRINCE – Haiti has been in the news because of the major earthquake of two years ago, but what is generally less well known – or appreciated – is its attraction for tourists. Port au Prince, the capital, is a sprawling city with few features of appeal. But Jacmel, a two-hour drive over the mountain, is well worth a visit.
Arriving in Port au Prince, as one steps out of the airport, you are immediately approached by several people wanting to offer you a taxi ride. After a bit of negotiation, the fee to the Olofsson Hotel is set at $10; mind you, the first stop is a gas station where an additional $5 in gas is purchased. That gets you one gallon (4 liters), so it’s hard to be angry with the local for his bargaining over the price of the trip.
Prices are quoted both in US dollars and in local currency (40 Gourdes is $1) and both can be used easily, although it’s best to have local currency for smaller purchases or you won’t get change smaller than a $1 bill. There is a shortage of ATMs, but there are lots of money changers around.
The Olofsson is nestled against the mountainside, as is much of Port au Prince, and is best characterized as a gingerbread house. There are turrets, and there are rooms scattered throughout the grounds masquerading as private abodes. Room 11 is spectacular, with two full bedrooms, an entrance area within the room, and a four-poster bed on a balcony which is larger than many apartments in Israel.
Guests all congregate on the hotel’s main-floor balcony, which acts as restaurant cum bar. Most visitors are working for various NGOs, but the Minister of Tourism sometimes drops by, and the owner of the hotel is also a musician.
PAP, as it is affectionately known, has its upscale neighborhoods with antique dealers as well as tent cities of displaced people from the earthquake. If you want a tourist visa for Syria, just stop off at the Eagle Market, a supermarket where the Syrian representative has his “office.”
People in the streets are helpful and pleasant, although a smattering of French seriously helps. The other primary language is Creole, Haiti’s own dialect and apparently unintelligible to the untrained ear.
Yet the undisputed jewel in the crown is Jacmel. The number of old colonial buildings can certainly rival New Orleans, with a lot of the architecture being quite similar. The curve of the bay is breathtaking, with the beach scattered with fishing boats. Unfortunately the main beach has not yet been cleaned up, but there is a small cove just outside of this small city which offers just the privacy one seeks to strip down and jump into the clear blue Caribbean.
The Hotel Florita on Rue de Commerce is an absolute gem. It quite rightly rates the top slot on Trip Advisor for Jacmel due to its old world charm. Rooms with brilliantly polished dark wood floors, inner courtyards of gentle grace, a small pool next door just for guests of the hotel, a great bar filled with Haitian artwork, artifacts from lost ships, outsized masks from previous Carnivals (an annual affair in February) and friendly staff.
A stroll through town brings warm smiles. The market is vibrant with everything from shoes to art for sale. The post office is still in a tent down the street from the Florita, but construction is everywhere as this town is now on the World Heritage map, and buildings damaged in the quake are being restored.
Sidewalks are a bit iffy, and drivers everywhere in Haiti have not yet learned to appreciate pedestrians, but the warmth of the smiles and the shouts of “bonjour” from the locals keep you happy. Not to mention the music, which is a delightful mixture of Caribbean, African and French and is heard throughout town as one meanders the narrow side streets. The cacophony is accompanied by roosters crowing and motor scooter horns, but both of those are useful as well.
Haiti desperately needs tourist and investment dollars. As useful as the NGOs have been and continue to be, I suggest you come yourself to see what an amazing place this is.