Haiti’s rich Afro-Caribbean culture, French architecture, and natural beauty make for an unforgettable trip. Here's where to stay, swim and drink.
AFAR contributing writer Tom Downey visited the island for his story about clairin, Haiti’s local rum, in the July/August 2018 issue. Here’s the behind-the-scenes low-down on how to visit the island like he did—and how to get your hands on some clairin.
Transportation within Haiti can be tricky. Renting a car is not recommended for first-time visitors—traffic is chaotic and road conditions unpredictable. Many travelers hire a driver through their hotel or tour agency. Voyages Lumière can arrange transportation and guides (from $25 per hour). The U.S. State Department advises against joining the crowds that pack into Port-au-Prince’s exuberantly colorful tap-taps—converted school buses and pickup trucks—due to safety concerns.
Port-au-Prince is still recovering from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck in 2010. But the streets are as vibrant as ever. The Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien chronicles Haiti’s history and houses the rusted anchor that belonged to Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria. The capital’s most iconic accommodation, Hotel Oloffson (from $100), is a destination in itself. Built in the 19th century as a presidential summer home, the hotel has welcomed dozens of celebrities, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Mick Jagger.
Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast, with its turquoise waters and colonial architecture, offers a change of pace from the capital. Don’t miss a dip in Bassin Bleu, a series of waterfall-fed swimming holes hidden in the mountains outside the city. Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien, makes a good base for exploring the beaches along the northern coast and for day trips to the Citadel, a 19th-century mountaintop fortress that is Haiti’s most impressive architectural and historical site.
Clairin is available in small bars and street stalls all over Haiti. It is often flavored with fruits, herbs, and roots, and it varies widely in quality. Luca Gargano, who served as a guide for writer Tom Downey, selected three of the best to bottle and export: Clairin Sajous is a fresh, crisp rum made by the Chelo distillery located in the mountains that surround Saint-Michel de l’Attalaye. Clairin Casimir, a rum with bold, tropical flavors, is made in Barradères, an arrondissement on the north side of the Tiburon Peninsula. On the south side of the peninsula, the Arawaks distillery in Cavaillon creates Clairin Vaval, a spirit characterized by floral notes. Gargano’s clairin is sometimes available at Lakou Lakay, a boutique inside La Lorraine Hotel in Pétion-ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, and is served in cocktails at Shakerz bistro in Pétion-ville.
The spirit is now available in a select few New York eateries—such as Glady’s restaurant in Brooklyn and the upscale Augustine restaurant in downtown Manhattan—as well as online at Astor Wines ($40 per bottle).