Haiti has had its share of ups and downs. Just over 200 years ago Saint Domingue, the French colonial name for what became Haiti, was the Western Hemisphere's richest colony. At the dawn of the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon I sent his troops to put down a slave revolt. The emperor subsequently lost the New World's second war of independence.
Shortly after independence, the former wealthy colony of Saint Domingue became poverty-stricken Haiti. A former Saint Domingue servant, Henry Christophe, subsequently crowned himself king of northern Haiti. Then he built a magnificent, marble-floored palace near his new capital city, Milot. The palace was a dead ringer for Frederick the Great's San Souci mansion near Berlin. So King Christophe called his new digs Sans Souci, French for Carefree. Sans Souci soon became the venue for numerous soirees attended by newly created nobility, including the Duke and Duchess of Marmalade and the Count and Countess of Limonade. Overlooking all of King Christophe's royal magnificence was a massive fortress called La Citadelle. It remains one of the greatest wonders in all the Caribbean. The fortress and the palace (largely in ruins after an earthquake) are now shaping up as major tourist attractions near Cap Haitien. UNESCO has made recent efforts to restore the palace and La Citadelle as an international cultural heritage site.
In the summer of 2004, there were signs of a rebirth of Haitian tourism. Royal Caribbean International re-opened its private beach, Labadee, in northern Haiti. Security was beefed up and there were 24-hour patrols in order to shield visitors from Haitian presidents' tendency to foster political chaos.
The quaint, picture-postcard town of Jacmel, south of capital city Port au Prince, is being spruced up as a travel destination of note. Somehow, Jacmel, with its spectacular Creole town houses, escaped much of the turmoil and economic chaos of Haitian politics.
Petionville, overlooking Port au Prince, remains comparatively pristine and prosperous. It is the venue for the enchanting and historic Hotel Oloffson. The hotel was immortalized in Graham Greene's novel: The Comedians. The novelist's name is over one of the hotel's decorative doors. Haitian artists - among the most creative in the Caribbean - decorated the hotel's doors with names of notable guests, among them Greene, Marlon Brando and Ian Wright. The latter is featured in a loopy and colourful Lonely Planet video about Wright's travel adventures in Haiti.
Haiti, with its eerie voodoo (vodun in Haitian Kreyol) drums breaking the evening silence, is a land of superstition. Seeing a vodun ceremony, even if staged strictly for touristic reasons, is an adventure you may never forget. Worshippers, dressed in white, go into a trance as they use handfuls of flour to trace symbols of Afro-Haitian gods on dirt floors. There is a strong scent of rum (world-class Barbancourt rum has been distilled in Haiti since 1765) as worshippers chant names of important deities, especially Baron Samedi. The Baron wears black, formal attire and a top hat. This popular deity is believed to have powers regarding death, funerals, and zombies. The latter comprise Haiti's walking dead and are de rigueur ingredients for Hollywood horror films.
Despite its poverty, Haiti has to be one of the most intriguing and exotic of all Caribbean destinations. Haitians have artistic talents to spare. As in the mother country, France, Haitians are engrossed in the production of world-class paintings and sculpture. Haitians also share the French knack for creating and serving fine cuisine in romantic settings.