CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - Amid its woes, Haiti offers a striking rugged beauty that is obvious to adventure travelers - rolling hills, steep mountains, and rocky terrain that make backpacking or mountain biking just as good a heart-pumper here as in any mountainous Caribbean island.
But the country also offers a quality that's 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. The area is better known to Royal Caribbean cruise passengers and well-heeled yachting enthusiasts than to the typical visitor.
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 city, past streets with their faded grandeur, up another mountain, past a village that not even this native realized existed.
We finally arrived at Labadee Beach, driving around the security fence that separates the locals from the weekly cruise passengers who lounge on the private stretch of Labadee that Miami-based Royal Caribbean leases from the Haitian government.
Our tour guide, Mike Trimble of Labadee Charters, guided us aboard his 26-foot fishing boat.
Born in Haiti, Trimble is an American who grew up here. His father, Joel, a pastor, is well-known to Haitians here and abroad for his TV show La Bonne Nouvelle.
Mike Trimble launched his excursions with his business partner, Maxim Laroche, in February. 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 revved up the boat and took us out five miles into the Atlantic around Labadee 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 traveling companions wasted no time changing into their swimming trunks and jumping in. The water, which is great for snorkeling, 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 that cost between $5 and $10 a person. 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 expats.
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 vacationers 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, situated along the oceanfront boulevard in the Carenage neighborhood. An open-air restaurant, Lakay offers large portions of authentic Haitian dishes such as Creole conch and fried goat as well as hamburgers and pizzas.
For years, Cap-Haitien was mostly cut off from the world, accessible only to those willing to fly in on daily charter service from South Florida, or a smaller aircraft from Port-au-Prince. But a newly renovated international airport with a 7,500-foot runway now allows for large commercial jet service.
American Airlines recently became the first U.S.-based carrier to land here, and now operates daily nonstop service from Miami.
Once a leader in Caribbean tourism, Haiti is only now trying to reenter the scene. Places still aren't equipped to deal with individual travelers. To get a full experience, it is best to go with a tour company that can arrange everything from hotel stays 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 1,000 standard hotel rooms.