The Caribbean island of Haiti explodes with beauty and history. It is very much influenced by its European past but much closer to the U.S. With 1,100 miles of lovely coastline, the bustling city of Port-au-Prince, and the wondrous city of Jacmel, Haiti has become a very sought-after getaway for singles, couples, and families.
The country of Haiti shares one-third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with another country, the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s size is about that of the state of Maryland, and Port-au-Prince is its capital.
Columbus landed here in 1492, and the Spanish took control of the island and its indigenous population. The French usurped the Spanish in the seventeenth century and imported slaves to boost international commerce. As it grew into a wealthy colony, Haiti became known as the “pearl of the Antilles.” The native Haitians continued to revolt against the French, and as a result, they split with the Dominican Republic and became an independent nation in 1804. It developed into the first Black Republic and was the second country in the Americas to enjoy independence. It quickly became a haven for Black Americans, many of whom emigrated during the 19th century. Approximately 20 percent of Blacks moved to Haiti before the onset of the Civil War, which established a strong link between Haiti and the U.S.
Haiti is a rich blend of African, European, and Latin American influences. The Christian religion is an important part of its culture, although there are vestiges of voodooism. Its popular cuisine draws on its Spanish and French history, with plenty of African elements. Young visitors may be delighted to learn that spaghetti and hot dogs are an acceptable breakfast.
Natives love a festival, with the yearly three-day Haitian carnival being the largest in the nation. The fun begins with pre-carnival festivities in January, leading up to the big feast before Lent. Port-au-Prince has the biggest celebration, but the cities of Jacmel and Aux Cayes also celebrate. The carnival is all about parading and dancing in the streets in cheerful, colorful costumes. In addition to marching bands, floats at the harbor have sound systems to broadcast the music through the streets. Food stands and rum are a vital part of the festivities.
Language Spoken in Haiti
French is the official language of Haiti, and it is used in schools, the media, and for official documents. Interestingly, only 5 percent of Haitians are fluent in the French language, mostly the elite part of the citizenry.
Ninety-five percent of Haitian speak Haitian Creole, a mix of French, indigenous Taino language, and African languages. Spanish is growing in use and popularity in Haiti due to its proximity to the Dominican Republic.
Currency in Haiti
Most Haitian businesses will gladly accept U.S. Dollars. Many do not carry enough dollars to make change for a large U.S. bill, so it is advisable to carry small bills. The official currency, however, is the Haitian Gourde.
Things to Do in Haiti
La Citadelle Laferriere
The Citadelle Laferriere is a fortress on top of Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain and has been referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Built by the French as protection against an attack, with 365 cannons, it proved to be virtually impenetrable, and the old cannonballs are still within the Citadelle. Its shape is angular for added fortification. Large food and drink storage areas and bathing areas enabled the occupants to remain confined for a long time.
Saut-d’Eau Waterfalls is a holy site to which both Christians and their voodoo equivalent make an annual pilgrimage. It is the place to ask one’s deity for favors and let the healing waters of the fall wash over the sick.
Haiti’s Sant-Souci Palace is one of the West’s most fascinating structures. It was built by a former slave, Christophe, who helped defeat the French and had dreams of turning Haiti into a wonderland. He proclaimed himself king of Haiti. The entire project, with splendid gardens, dancing, and feasts, was a whirlwind of activity to create a suitable royal home for Haiti’s first king. It was deemed the Versailles of the Caribbean, although much of it is in ruins these days.
Ironically, Christophe used thousands of slaves to build his palace, hundreds of who died. Christophe did not last long. The public understandably resented him, and the slave/king committed suicide. It would make for an interesting discussion what kind of fate he deserved – a fierce fighter for liberty who used slaves for self-aggrandization. If for no other reason, the great Sans-Souci Palace should be a part of any Haitian travel itinerary.
The popular Gelee Beach is located in southern Haiti by the city of Les Cayes. The scenery is picturesque, the water is warm year-round, and the swimming is subline. Gelee Beach is surrounded by seafood restaurants serving just-caught fish and fried plantains. The restaurants are popular and frequently have queues of waiting diners.
The largest and most beautiful waterfall in Haiti is Saut-Maturine Falls located in Les Cayes. The fall is surrounded by nature’s own beauty, with colorful wildflowers and lush greenery. It falls from a height of 89 feet to form clear pools of water. Visitors love to swim in the pools; the adventurous ones even jump in from the top of the fall.
At 8,793 feet, Pic La Selle is Haiti’s highest mountain. Located outside the town of Jacmel, with Mare Rouge as the nearest village, the vistas are to die for. The hike to the top is not too arduous, but it can take a few hours, and the camping is great.
Best Cities to Visit in Haiti
Most Haitian cities were established during their French occupation, and much of that colonial influence is still reflected.
Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is the economic center of the county and its most culturally diverse.
Like so much of Haiti’s architecture, the Bicentennial Monument celebrating Haiti’s independence is large and unique and a must-visit while in Port-au-Prince.
The Place Jean-Jacques Dessalines celebrates former slave Dessalines’ successful revolt to rid Haiti of French occupation and help abolish slavery. The park, created in his memory is the perfect place to relax and for children to play.
Hotel Oloffson had seen better days, but like a former beauty queen, she can still strut her stuff. Luminaries such as Jacqueline Onassis and Mike Jagger have stayed here. It is famed for its rum sours and Thursday evenings voodoo rock bands.
The outdoor Acajou Restaurant & Bar at the Hotel Montana is the only Port-au-Prince hotel with a view of the city and the nearby mountains. Its Creole cuisine is especially popular.
Petionville has a reputation as a party town. The Asu Rooftop Lounge is the place to be on a Friday night. Lounge around the colored pool and sip a few cocktails until the DJ comes alive at 10:00 p.m.
While in Petionville, visit the Musee Nationale for its exhibits of historical artifacts. The National Museum of Arts, located 8 kilometers from Petionville, has a huge pre-Columbian art collection.
Boukanye in the city of Cap-Haïtien is where visitors can enjoy Haiti’s infamous spaghetti breakfast with a great view of the surrounding mountains. Return later in the evening for some music and potent rum.
The northern Haitian city of Gonaives is historically important to the country. This is where Jean-Jacques Dessalines made his famous stand for freedom in 1804. It is also Haiti’s voodoo sanctuary. There are three temples specifically devoted to voodoo traditions, the Souvnans, Soukri, and Bajdo. Each temple tracks its tradition back to African culture and African songs and dances.
The Village Artistique Croix-des-Bouquets is the largest metal artist community in Haiti, comprised of 1,000 artists set up in more than 60 shops. Visitors can stroll through the streets and watch the various artist at work as they turn any piece of old metal into a work of art. The artists will take on personal assignments upon request.
Jacmel, located in Haiti’s southern region, is known for its gorgeous mountain waterfall, the Bassin Blue, a stunning fall with three wonderful pools. You can climb into the final pool or simply jump. Jacmel also has a great beach, the Raymond Les Bains with its restaurant at the beach, and a remarkable art scene.
Best All-Inclusive Resort or Hotel in Haiti
The Kaliko Beach Club is an all-inclusive resort along Haiti’s famed Côtes des Arcadins located an hour outside of Port-au-Prince. The resort’s beautiful Creole architecture and large ocean-front suites are designed for relaxation and fun. Fine dining and the open bar are available the entire day. The Club’s buffet is locally known as the “best buffet in all of Haiti.”
The Club has a pool with cabanas, its own private beach, tennis, horseback riding, scuba diving and swimming – within reach of their beach bar. Guest can also enjoy a menu of relaxing spa treatments. The rooms are either ocean-view or garden-view, and all have a private patio.
Best Resort or Hotel for Couples in Haiti
The Florita Residential Hotel in Jacmel is conveniently located close to Jacmel’s main attractions and a mere block from the beach. Jacmel is considered by many to be Haiti’s most beautiful city, and couples can enjoy the artistic scene and arrange for a tour to the romantic Bassin Falls. The hotel is a UNESCO landmark building. The rooms have either a scenic mountain or garden view, and all have large, romantic four-poster beds and balconies. The hotel has an onsite restaurant, bar, and lounge, with entertainment during the weekend.
Best Resort or Hotel for Families in Haiti
The 18-room boutique hotel, PC Enterprises, is in the midst of exciting Port-au-Prince. Some rooms have private pools and jetted tubs, and all have separate living areas, making them family-friendly. The property has a pool with cabanas, an onsite restaurant, deli, grocery store, and bar, and a daily breakfast is included with the stay. The hotel is located near all major Port-au-Prince landmarks, including the National Palace and a local winery.
The hotel provides babysitting and supervised activities for children.