The capital and largest city in Haiti (pop. 1,144,000), Port-au-Prince feels very much like an overgrown small town (it has mostly two-story buildings and only two "skyscrapers"—both less than 20 stories). It's a bit like stepping back in time, as the city offers lively markets and merchants trading on the sidewalks.
Among the things to visit in the city are the Iron Market (selling not iron, but food and various other consumer goods) and the Cathedral of St. Trinity, with its huge paintings and murals of the local voodoo spirits and Catholic saints. One painting is a biblical scene reminiscent of the wedding at Cana but the setting is a Haitian village. (Besides the artwork, we were fascinated by the fervor with which the parishioners spoke toward the heavens—or at least the church's soaring roof. They seemed to be having one-on-one conversations with God.)
The Museum of Haitian Art in the College of St. Pierre displays the country's best collection of local art, characterized by bold color and the depiction of plants, animals and people. DeWitt Peters' famous art school, the Centre d'Art Haitien, is also located there.
At the centrally located Place des Heros de l'Independence, an eternal flame is dedicated to those who died for Haiti's independence, and the Statue of the Unknown Slave (Le Maron Inconnu) depicts a bondsman blowing the call to revolution on a conch shell.
Also of interest in town are the ethnographic museum (voodoo-related items) and the National Museum, which houses Haitian relics, early costumes, paintings and historic documents in a hilltop mansion. For us, the highlights of the museum were the anchor from Colombus' ship, the Santa Maria, and Toussaint L'Ouverture's pocket watch.
Elsewhere in town, Delfly Mansion, designed by a Haitian architect, is an impressive example of 19th-century French gingerbread design. The Oloffson Hotel (in another old-fashioned gingerbread mansion) is one of the city's landmarks. An interesting crowd of diplomats, politicians, journalists, filmmakers and others can usually be found sipping cocktails there. Over the years, the hotel has hosted the famous, including author Graham Greene, whose novel The Comedians made use of the hotel. (Room 20 is now known as the Graham Greene Room.) The house specialty is rum punch (the recipe remains a secret), and there's live music on most nights.
Although there are no good beaches within Port-au-Prince, there are some excellent ones not far away, north of the city on the road to St. Marc. East of the city is a resort area that includes Ibo, Kyona, Kaliko, Wahoo and Moulin sur Mer Beaches.
An excursion should also be made into the hills behind Port-au-Prince to the suburb of Petionville (though it is also a good choice for a place to stay). High above the city, it has some of Haiti's loveliest hotels as well as a casino, a 9-hole golf course and tennis courts. There are also a variety of boutiques, art galleries and some of the capital's best restaurants. The Jane Barbancourt Rum distillery is near Petionville (tours available).
Farther up the road from Petionville are fine views of Port-au-Prince, Fort Jacques Artisanat, and a forge where handmade furniture and decorative objects are sold. The Tuesday market in nearby Kenscoff is also worth visiting, as many area residents go there to sell goods (the winding road to Kenscoff provides great views of the harbor and city). In Kenscoff itself is a missionary village with a craft shop that sells local handicrafts.
In the vicinity of Port-au-Prince is Sand Cay Reef, one of the country's most beautiful coral reefs, which is reachable by excursion boat from the Casino Pier. Le Grand Bec is a crystal-clear, shallow area of coral formations that's excellent for snorkeling.
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