New tourism ventures are beginning to attract visitors back to this Caribbean nation, which suffered a devastating earthquake in January 2010.
Ile Ara, off the coast of Haiti, is a small island that legend says was a rendezvous point for Christopher Columbus and a local lover. Photo / Courtesy Steve Bennett/ (via Flickr)
Ile Ara, off the coast of Haiti, is a small island that legend says was a rendezvous point for Christopher Columbus and a local lover. Photo / Courtesy Steve Bennett/ (via Flickr)
Amid its woes, Haiti offers a striking rugged beauty that is obvious to adventure travellers - rolling hills, steep mountains and rocky terrain that make backpacking or mountain biking just as good a heart pumper as in any mountainous Caribbean island.

But the country also offers a quality often overlooked and even dismissed: a slice of paradise.
This was certainly the offering during a recent weekend jaunt to northern Haiti where I joined a group of curiosity seekers on a boat excursion around the country's picturesque coast.

Haiti's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, I discovered, is more than just a historical find.

Our day began with a 30-minute bus ride from our hotel, the Mont Joli, at the top of a hill overlooking the historic city, past streets with their faded grandeur, up another mountain, past a village that not even this native realised existed.

We finally arrived at Labadie Beach, driving around the security fence that separates the locals from the weekly cruise passengers who lounge on the private stretch of Labadie that Miami-based Royal Caribbean leases from the Haitian government.

Our tour guide, Mike Trimble of Labadee Charters, guided us aboard his eight-metre fishing boat. Haiti-born Trimble is an American who grew up here.
He launched his excursions with business partner Maxim Laroche last year. Since then, the business has expanded from fishing excursions for cruise passengers to include private tours for the few tourists who do trickle in.

Trimble took us 8km into the Atlantic around Labadie Bay. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Amiga Island or as the natives call it, Ile Ara, a small uninhabited island that legend says was a rendezvous point for Christopher Columbus and a local lover.

Awed by the trees, shallow green water and white sand encircling the entire island, my travelling companions wasted no time changing into their swimmers and jumping in. The water, which is great for snorkelling, was warm and amazingly not too salty.

Lounging around in the ocean makes you hungry. Lunch was a seafood affair, courtesy of local fishermen who came up to us in their wooden canoes with freshly caught fish, lobster and octopus.
Trimble's mate Pierre Jean-Baptiste, who brought his own special sauce that he prepared the night before, started a fire on the beach and grilled the seafood, using a variety of local peppers.

With our stomachs filled, we climbed back aboard the boat and continued our tour, which soon brought us to Cadras Beach.

The stunning white-sand beach has a natural cove where fresh and salt water meet. From the moment you step into the waist-high turquoise water, the scenery and calmness grab you.

You feel like you're in a gigantic swimming pool until you see the lush tree-lined landscape dotted with private homes accessible only by boat and owned mostly by wealthy Haitians and some French ex-pats.

As we enjoyed the tranquility, Trimble pointed out where British airline mogul Richard Branson stayed during a 2012 visit. Some owners, he said, rent out their bungalows to holiday makers seeking to expand their experience beyond his four-hour boat excursions.

I didn't think much could top Ile Ara, but the detour to Cadras really made the trip as we lounged in the water drinking Prestige beer, the local brew, and sipping coconut water out of the shell, freshly plucked from a tree.

Dining options in Cap-Haitien are limited beyond the hotels. However, no visit is complete without a trip to Lakay restaurant, the "It" place in the city, along the oceanfront boulevard in the Carenage neighbourhood.

Lakay, an open-air restaurant, offers large portions of authentic Haitian dishes such as Creole conch and fried goat as well as hamburgers and pizzas.

Started in 1999 by Philippe "Fito" Zephir and his wife, Anne-Claude, Lakay has its share of high-profile clientele. The day before our visit, Haitian President Michel Martelly lunched there, his visit shutting down the boulevard.

Cyril Bourlon de Rouvre, a French politician and sugar refineries heir, is a frequent guest. In fact, Zephir used to keep a special stock of Veuve Clicquot champagne just for him.

While you shouldn't count on getting Veuve Clicquot, you can count on sipping champagne in a laid-back ambience, with cultural performances on some evenings. There is also a DJ whose repertoire of konpa, reggae and American pop mixes had us dancing through the night.

For years, Cap-Haitien was mostly cut off, accessible only to those willing to fly in on a daily charter service from South Florida, or a smaller aircraft from Port-au-Prince. But a newly renovated international airport with a 2300m runway now allows for large commercial jet service.

American Airlines recently became the first US-based carrier to land here, and now operates daily non-stop service from Miami.

This is the city where Haiti as a nation was born. Visitors should climb either on foot or by horseback to the Citadelle Laferriere, about 45 minutes away in the town of Milot. A massive mountaintop stone fortress that overlooks the city, the Citadelle was built by newly freed Haitians to deter the French.

Two companies - Tour Haiti and Agence Citadelle - currently offer tour packages that include visits to the site. Trimble said he, too, is working on a three-day, two-night package that will include his boat excursions and visits to the Citadelle and San-Souci Palace.

Haiti, once a leader in Caribbean tourism, is now trying to re-enter the scene. Places still aren't equipped to deal with individual travellers, so it is best to go with a tour company that can arrange everything from hotels to tours to a Vodou drumming and ceremony.

Unlike Port-au-Prince, which offers a few name-brand hotels and South Beach-type restaurants, Cap-Haitien remains in an organic stage. The city has fewer than 1000 standard hotel rooms.

One of the newer hotels is Habitation Jouissant, a 13-room boutique hotel and a favourite of the country's president. There is a telescope in every room and on the vine-shaded veranda, enticing guests to take a visual tour of the city.

Furnishings are modern and reminiscent of South Beach in Miami, which isn't an accident. Owner Fred Beliard bought an entire floor of South Beach's Palms hotel before it was renovated by its new owner and had everything shipped to Haiti, right down to the bathroom fixtures.

Like others here, he's excited about the new direct flights from Miami and tourism opportunities. As we all should be.

Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to Los Angeles. From there, American Airlines offers flights to Miami and on to Cap-Haitien in Haiti.
What to do: Labadee Charters offers a range of boat excursions off the coast of Haiti.