An all-too-brief taste of Haiti

By Deanna Palić
This item appears on page 50 of the February 2016 issue.
At the southern end of Grande Rue, the main avenue in Port-au-Prince, street artists create sculptures from found objects. Photos by Deanna Palić

My spring ritual is to come up with a summer vacation destination I’ve never visited. Last spring, when an email from Marriott Hotels & Resorts popped into my inbox announcing they had just opened a new hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, my decision about where to travel in August 2015 became easy. 


A history of turmoil

In the early 1980s, in my role as a tour manager, I escorted a 3-week tour in China, and among the group members was a well-traveled couple from Port-au-Prince. Through our conversations, I had my first glimpse of Haiti. 

At that time, French was still that country’s only official language, and it remained so until 1987. Today in Haiti, Creole — a combination of French and African languages — is also recognized as one of Haiti’s official languages. French is now considered the language of the elite, and less than 10% of Haitians speak it as a first language.

The Republic of Haiti, population 10 million, inhabits the western third of the island Hispaniola, the second-largest island in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic takes up the other two-thirds of the island.

In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick divided the island between the French and Spanish. When Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804, it became the second independent nation in the New World, after the US. 

After almost 200 years of rule by a series of, for the most part, despotic emperors, eccentric kings, cruel dictators, weak presidents and tyrannical generals, Haitians continue to face economic and social problems. Today, there still is a struggle to maintain a stable democratic government. The truth of the matter is that the majority of Haitians are barely surviving.

The role the United States played in Haiti also kept the pot boiling. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson approved an invasion to protect US interests from Haitian rebels. American Marines killed thousands of Haitians who objected to their presence. Our troops remained until 1934, making it the longest US total occupation of a foreign nation.

The capital

Port-au-Prince, with a current population of 1.9 million, was founded in 1749. A bustling city and the center of the Haitian economy, it has been under major reconstruction since the 2010 earthquake. 

To prebook a city tour, I went online and found the Haitian company Voyages Lumière S.A. (phone [+509] 3607 1321, Jacqui Labrom was extremely helpful and efficient, responding quickly to my emails.

Although my city tour was complimentary, the price of the tour was $100 per person, including a van, a driver, a guide and a museum entry fee of $5. I thought that the tour price seemed high, but when Jacqui explained that Haitians pay $5 per gallon of gasoline, the math was clear. (Although I never needed to exchange money, the Haitian currency is the gourde.)

My traveling companion and I were the only participants on the 3-hour morning tour, a normal itinerary. We saw gingerbread houses dating back 120 years, the Champs de Mars (including Heroes Square), the Roman Catholic cathedral (damaged in the 2010 earthquake), Holy Trinity Cathedral (an Episcopalian church), the Iron Market, built in 1891, and the National Palace.

On the roof of the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, the cones are skylights over historical exhibits of different eras.

The National Pantheon Museum is where our excellent guide, Serge, brought Haitian history to life. The permanent exhibition is divided into seven semicircular sections and recounts the key historical events that led to the birth of the Haitian nation, including the Indian period, the Spanish period, the slavery period, the revolutionary period, the post-revolutionary period, the Second Empire and the contemporary period. 


At the new Marriott Port-au-Prince (147, Avenue Jean Paul II, Turgeau, Port-au-Prince; phone +509 2814 2800,, I stayed as an invited guest for two nights. The rate for two paying guests would have been $175 per night plus taxes. The room my friend and I shared was spacious and comfortable. 

I arranged transportation from and to the airport through the hotel at $40 each way — a ride of about 40 minutes with traffic. I would suggest doing this as opposed to facing the onslaught of freelance taxi drivers waiting outside the Customs area.

With more than 140 pieces on display, the hotel is a showcase for Haitian art purchased from local artists. During a meeting with the Marriott management team, I was pleased to learn that they’re attempting to give back to the community in other ways as well.

Hotel employees had been hired from the poorest villages and enrolled in an intense training program designed to meet Marriott’s high standards. Their efforts have been paying off, as the service exceeded my expectations for a newly opened hotel. 

At breakfast, the Egyptian chef worked his wonders with French croissants. They were superb and melted in my mouth. And the food at dinner was varied and tasty. I especially enjoyed the gazpacho.

The next time my travels take me to the Caribbean, I’d like to return to Haiti.    

Write to Deanna c/o ITN.