THIS IS A message for Wilfred: Wilfred, you little 4 1/2-foot-high slicker, I put one over on you. I did not live in a tree in Cap Haitien. I stayed at the Hostellerie du Roi Christophe. But if, I'd told you the truth, you know you would never have left me a moment's peace, so I am not apologizing.
Now back to the main business: There are two things visitors should know before leading to Haiti to enjoy the low-rent season that began April 15. One is that, yes, it is possible to sleep and eat in one of the Caribbean's most captivating countries for a total for $10 a day, but if you want to do it without feeling at all put upon, figure $25-$30. For $50 you can go big.
The other is, for heaven's sake, don't admit anything about where you're staying or what you're up to do any of the first 400 kids who will swoop down and smilingly try to wheedle such bits of intelligence out of you. Believe me, you'll have enough trouble getting rid of them without giving them a handle on you.
Haiti's army of tiny touts, generally representing themselves as "guides," is one of several things that go into the "touristic defects" column. Another is the lack of easy-access beaches. The main tourist centers, Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, have beaches of sorts, but the good ones are all located so far away that they aren't practical for constant commuting.
There's a growing number of beach hotels but they amount to semi-isolated enclaves for foreigners, and one the things you don't want to miss in Haiti is the local scene. Although poverty is still painfully widespread, Haitians are a uniquely warm, independent and hospitable lot. Their French-African cultural mix has led to the availability of good food and sightseeing, outstanding arts and crafts and therefore unparalleled shopping possibilities. In Port-au-Prince area there's also a modest amount of hotel-centered nightlife with casinos, dancing and folkloric shows.
Put it all together and it looks like just what an adventurous small spender could learn to love, thanks to the existence of another key ingredient - some attractive, decidedly nonstandard-brand hotels and pensions, most of them with swimming pool, air conditioning and low-to-dirt-cheap prices.
By island-hopping from Miami, I entered Haiti not at Port-au-Prince, the capital, but as its second city, Cap Haitien, at first sight a gaily painted, bigger and more bustling version of New Orleans' French Quarter. Cap Haitien, though, is a place for self-reliant travelers who like to explore on their own; organized tourist activities are minimal.
In fact, in many ways, the whole 20th century has made only an insignificant dent here. The Cap Haitien marketplace still offers a crunch of people and a mass of stalls straight out of a colonial history book. And for one of its chief hotels, it has an 18th-century French marshal's home, now the Hostellerie du Roi Christophe.
I am a pushover for historic, high-ceilinged mansions with broad, airy verandas. I am also a pushover for pretty but unfussy places that give me a clean, simple room with bath, good fresh food and a pleasantly situated swimming pool, all for a decent price. I spent a week at the Roi Christophe and wept salty tears only over the fact that I was alone. It should be shared.
Of course, like everything, it could be improved. Next time I will bring dynamite. That's to blow up the Cap Haitien power generator. It has to go. Right now it's directly in front of the Roi Christophe's beautigul tree-lined grounds and naturally it yun-yun-yuns 24 hours a day. You could sit on the veranda at sundown and fall apart with joy - were it not for the noise. Eventually, of course, you get used to it, but dear heaven, it's not right!
The price on the other hand, IS right I paid $25.10 a day. That was with tips. And taxes. And breakfast. And yes, dinner. (The prawn and creole dishes were a delight, so were the desserts. Service is Caribbean casual, and I only had to go yank my waiter out of the kitchen once, practically a record.) The full range of rates is $20-$25 single, $34-$38 double. Add 15 percent as you do on all hotel rates in Haiti for taxes and service. Note: You can book through travel agents, but be aware the U.S. representatives of foreign hotels often have only the highest-priced rooms available for confirmation.
There's also the popular Mont Joli, far younger that the Roi Christophe and not as architecturally attractive. It's nonetheless well-kept, country club-like in feeling, and perched on a promotory from which, on a clear day, guests reportedly can see the Citadelle - the incredible, ruined fortress-palace built by the king in the early 1800s and now Cap Haitien's chief claim to tourist fame. There's also a large, free-form swimming pool and some more pleasing prices: year-round rates for rooms, breakfast and dinner are $20-$35 single, $34-$50 double.
At the family-style, smaller Brise de Mer, they ask even less - $15 for singles, $20 for doubles, including breakfast and dinner served on an open-air porch with a harbour view. The food runs neck and neck with the Roi Christophe's so it draws a lively bunch of locals as well as visitors, but the Brise de Mer has no pool and, for vacationers, it stacks up as a better place to drop in on than stay.
Cap Haitien is also ready to accomodate visitors attached to a barebones budget. The Pension Dupuy, a clear candidate for at Tennessee Williams drama, is one floor up in the center of town, and features rooms with 14-foot-high ceilings, French windows and, at each door, green-and-white-checked ruffled curtains that billow in the breeze. The asking price for these bath-down-the-hall doubles with ceiling fans was $7 when I inquired, but negotiation would, I suspect, pay off. Meals plans are available. They're not a "best buy," however, and the first-rate competion elsewhere means there's wisdom in eating around.
Of course, running around for me meant Enter Wilfred, age 13 going on 35. Before I dreamed up the tree story, I tried dodging his questions by saying I was an Eskimo and spoke only Igloo. It was no use, the materialized by my side at least once a day, offered brilliant suggestions on how to improve my life: take him to play pool, take him to Coco Beach, take him to a movie or best of all, take him to Chicago.
Instead, I foxed him and early one morning took myself to Port-au-Prince. Though Port-au-Prince didn't come up with anything to beat the Roi Christophe, its accomodations' scene has its charms. The Chatelet, for one, is an attractively remodelled mansion with a sizable pool and an informal yet stylish air - a "grand dame" gone democratic but not seedy. Summer prices are $13 single, $23 double with breakfast.
Alternatively, if you want a conventional but not-too-large modern, multi-storied hotel, there's the Plaza. It's the luxe-on-a-budget spot with small, tastefully decorated rooms; large pool with waiters ready to rush you rum punches; pleasant, inexpensive open-air coffee shop and elegant yet not outrageously priced French restaurant. Singles are $19-$26, doubles $27-$29.
For the smallest spenders, there's La Griffone, a guesthouse run by the charming Madame Beauplan, who takes the "guests" part of heart and acts far more the hostess than the proprietor. Housekeeping is a little casual and some rooms offer more - and less - than others, but for the money, it would be hard to do better: $13 and $25 with air conditioning, pool, breakfast, dinner ($10 and $18 without air conditioning). Food and service family-style - this, sufficient and one-up on TV dinners but not a whole lot more.
In summer, though, the suburban area of Petionville is likely to be more attractive than Port-au-Prince by reason of being about 5 degrees cooler. If you like to sleep cheap but eat big, many of Petionville's small hotels also offer the convience of being within walking or public transportation distance of some exceptionally agreeable garden restaurants.
Among the better bets on the lodging side are the Doux Sejour ( a rambling, usually lively, would-be-hip spot with comfortable rooms, pool, bar and restaurants, $20-$24 single, $28-$35 double with breakfast and dinner); the Kinmore (another old mansion, plain but well-kept and quiet, pool, food and drink service for guests, $12 single, $20 double with bath and breakfast, $10 and $16 without bath); and Villa Quisquaya (grand old wooden gingerbread palace at decidedly nonpalatial rates: $18-$32 single, $20-$35 double with breakfast and dinner. Pool, large and airy public rooms, better-than-adequate though uninspring guest rooms, location slightly hard to handle without a car).
Of course, if you really like off-the-wall spots, you would then run, not walk, directly to the Hotel Marabou. I loved it on sight and stayed nearly two weeks, in a huge, tiled-floored room directly off the pool with twin beds covered in patchwork, and several vibrant Haitian paintings on the wall. I paid $15 a day (should be $12-$15 in summer for singles, $20-$26 for doubles), inculding a breakfast of fresh fruit, toast, jam and tea or coffee, served in an artwork-studded dining room under a roof but open to the air.
For absolutely no extra charge, guests also got creeping tropical rot, mainly in the form of in-wall plumbing leaks, a thoroughly decadent-looking bar that's a cross between 1920s Berlin and 1940s Casablanca, plus a squeaky swing on the patio. Then there were other touches - a handsome Haitian man in a silk dressing gown who'd pop out of a back room to take phone calls around noon every day, and a dancing class held in an upstairs hall twice a week. How could I not be delighted?
Thinking back, I realized I had rather like Wilfred, too, and for much the same reason. In an increasingly standardized world, it's nice to run into originals. Even ones with rough spots.