I eat quickly and so does she – so we stand, chatting, as we wait for the others to finish their picnic lunches. We've just come from the Saut d'Eau (or Sodo in Creole), a storybook double waterfall in the middle of lush wilderness that is famous for being the site of an apparition of either the Virgin Mary or a voodoo equivalent, Erzulie Dantor, depending on your proclivities. We splashed around for pleasure, but many thousands visit to be immersed and anointed.
This woman, whose name I never manage to catch, is here with her husband. Both were born in Haiti and now live in Montreal. They have returned several times to visit family, but never before for vacation. "It's beautiful here," she says, talking about the falls but also where we've been staying: the Côte des Arcadins on the central coast, with its white-sand beaches, ancient sugar mills and tourmaline waters, all of which she had grown up hearing of but never seen. She says it with a strange mixture of pride and revelation, the sort a Swiss might use if she were unaccountably seeing the Alps for the first time. I agree with her. This is not the Haiti either of us expected.
It is also a Haiti that had been inaccessible to travellers for years. Tourism used to be a driving force in this country, attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis. It persisted on and off through years of Duvalier dictatorship, until the even more chaotic son's rule started to fall apart in the 1980s, and unrest and natural disasters scared away most visitors, leaving many hotels to fall into disrepair.
People gave aid money to Haiti, not vacation days. But last December, Montreal-based Air Transat started offering the first and only package tour of this troubled country. I am on the fourth iteration, along with 15 Quebeckers, most with personal ties to the country.
Though the trip is not expensive (between $1,300 and $1,500), it might seem so when compared with the discount rates for the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola. But Haiti could not be more different. The hotels are owned by Haitians, for one thing, not international corporations. Mine, the Moulin sur Mer, has acres of lawns, a resident flock of geese, a gorgeous beach and large rooms with private terraces.
The 16 of us have a ball snorkelling, climbing mountains, dancing in the evenings, eating griot (fried pork with scallions and bitter orange sauce), poulet au maman (roasted chicken with cashews) and pikliz (coleslaw with onion and Scotch bonnet peppers) – food that is far and away the best in the region, more West African than Caribbean. After our last supper, just down the beach at the Kaliko club, I ask around and discover that, after deducting the amount of the package that went to Transat, we've spent an average of $1,000 each on things such as hotels, food and souvenirs. That's money that stays in Haiti: $16,000 of non-charitable aid, no strings attached. And it was way more fun than writing a cheque to World Vision.
The tour is smooth, led by guides who are well organized and well informed. It consists of two days in Port-au-Prince and its upscale suburb of Pétionville, then five on the Côte des Arcadins in one of six hotels, all beachfront and all family-owned with excellent food, abundant staff and big rooms. We visit the national museum, where you can touch the bell that rang out in 1804 at the conclusion of history's only successful slave rebellion (it resulted in Haiti's independence from France). It sits next to the anchor from Columbus's Santa Maria, which sank off the north coast. Try getting that kind of history in St. Lucia.
All in all it is the perfect package trip: plenty of beach, with remarkable sights and stories to bring back. You should go. Really.
IF YOU GO
Air Transat offers four- and seven-night packages from February to October, with midmonth Wednesday departures from Montreal. Rates are $1,279 to $1,469 including airfare, hotels and two meals a day. The tours include Haitian guides and buses, with optional excursions.
Most parts of Port-au-Prince are safe, including so-called slums such as Jalousie. I walked around by myself at night in the upscale suburb of Pétionville, on streets filled with people going to and from the many restaurants and bars. Give the neighbourhoods of Cité Soleil, Bel Air, Martissant and Carrefour a miss; they have not recovered physically or socially from the earthquake. All four are at least as far from the areas described in this piece as East Hastings is from North Vancouver.
With roads under repair and detours frequent, a driver may be helpful if you decide to set out on your own. Hotels often carry the business cards of ones they trust, and prices range from $50 a day to $250 a day, which includes separate accommodation and meals for the driver, but at the lower prices does not include a car.
The writer travelled courtesy of Air Transat. It did not review or approve this article.