Tag Archives: Haiti

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.6.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

Bay Bridge bike path

Welcome to the first IBIT Travel Digest of 2013. Let’s get going.

SAN FRANCISCO: BAY HEATING UP?
The folks at Smarter Travel have listed San Francisco as one of the travel destinations to watch in 2013.

That might sound a bit like saying the sky is blue and water is wet, since San Francisco has always been a hot travel destination. But the city that calls itself “The City” has some new attractions going on line this year, and it’s all about the bay that gives the city its name.

This year, the Aquarium of the Bay is putting in an exhibit devoted to the rare river otter — one of which recently turned up, almost as if on cue, in the ruins of the old Sutro Baths, to the delight of sightseers and the puzzlement of scientists.

The Exploratorium, which has delighted generations of visitors with its science exhibits, also is getting a new and greatly expanded headquarters this year along the city’s waterfront.

But the main event will be the opening of the sleek new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, replacing the old span damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Not only is the new bridge gorgeous and designed to hold up better in an earthquake, but it incorporates something that cyclists have dreamed about for decades — a separate bike/pedestrian path. The illustration above shows you how it will look once it’s in service.

People will be able to ride or walk from Oakland to Treasure Island, the halfway point of the bridge, something that was never possible before.

Plans/discussions/arguments are underway to add a similar deck to the original west span of the bridge.

I can’t wait for the chance to take my bike up to the Bay Area and join my cycling friends, old and new, for a spin over the bay — even if it’s only to Treasure Island. Half a bay is better than none.

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GO SMALL, LEAVE HOME
You already know about the cruise ship industry’s building boom, but it’s not just the big lines building big ships. Less well-known outfits also are turning out new, smaller vessels. One example is Alaskan Dream Cruises, which currently operates three small ships for Alaskan cruises.

How small is small? ADC’s three vessels hold a combined total of 162 passengers. Your typical Carnival or Royal Caribbean cruise ship may hold close to ten times that many — on one deck.

When you board a typical cruise ship, holding anywhere from 2,000 to 5,400 passengers, you may feel as if you brought half of your hometown with you. Not so on a small cruiser. It’s a completely different experience. Faster. Smoother. More intimate.

The super-small cruise ships can easily get into scenic inlets and bays, even explore small rivers, where the floating behemoths would surely run aground. Once ashore, you get more time to sightsee, because your small cruise vessel can dock at much smaller harbors. The mega-ships have to shuttle you back and forth on tenders, which really eats into your limited time in port.

Being smaller, such cruises are seldom cheap. But the experience can more than make up for the price.

AMERICAN + USAIR = ?
With each passing day, a merger between American Airlines and US Airways looks like a done deal.

Even before American filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, industry analysts have been expecting the airline to be snapped up by one of its financially healthier rivals. When Delta dropped out of the fray and United opted to buy Continental instead, that pretty much left the field open to USAir.

And as we move into the new year, the wheels are already turning.

Last month, American’s pilots approved a new contract, the last of the airline’s three labor unions to get on board. Having all three unions signed means that American can now come out from under Chapter 11.

The other shoe dropped just last week, when USAir pilots gave their blessing to a proposal by their American Airlines counterparts on how the two groups would handle a merger.

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DRAMA BUILDING ON THE BLUE NILE
Ethiopia kept its plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam so quiet that they first were labelled “Project X.” But when you’re planning the largest dam in Africa on one of the world’s most disputed rivers, that’s a hard elephant to hide.

When finished in 2015, the reservoir it creates on the Blue Nile River will be double the size of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia — and the source of the Blue Nile itself.

Issat Falls, Lake Tana, Ethiopia
Issat Falls on Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. © Cdkeyser | Dreamstime.com

Simply put, the GERD is Hoover Dam on steroids. It will surely become an enormous tourist attraction, and the electricity it generates could transform Ethiopia.

But mega-dams often do major, unforeseen damage to the environment, and Ethiopia shares the Blue Nile with Egypt and Sudan. Both countries already are unhappy about this dam.

Make that very unhappy.

People a lot smarter than me have been saying the next great global conflict will be over water, and observers in East Africa are already sounding alarms over this project.

IBIT says: Expect drama.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from Travel Weekly
Could this be the Next Big Thing in airline add-on fees? Bundled fares.

from the New York Times
New screening procedures from the TSA are letting some travelers actually leave their shoes on when going through security. The key word there, of course, is some.

from the Los Angeles Times
Save on airfares to Europe? Think off-season and outside the proverbial box.

from NBC News
Forget the Six Million-Dollar Man. Tom Stuker is the One Million Frequent-Flier Mile Man. And that’s how you get a jumbo jet named after you.

LAND
from the New York Times
How to get the most out of TripAdvisor.

from National Geographic
Ice hotels. If you’re not “cool” after spending a night in one of these places, see your doctor.

from Smarter Travel
For a lot of women, wearing stiletto heels while traveling may be impractical. In Greece, it’s also illegal. One of 11 weird laws around the world that can trip up the unwary traveler. SLIDESHOW

from CNN Travel
Ten cars for every type of traveler.

SEA
from Gadling
Ways to save on your next cruise.

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AFRICA
from Mashable
Take a good look, world. Here they come: A smartphone and a tablet computer, designed by an African, built by Africans. Hitting the market now. This could be IBIT’s future travel gear…and maybe yours, too?

from informAfrica
Forget “The Lion King.” The leopard — not the lion — is the real “king of the jungle.”

from the Washington Post
Not all of Africa’s fascinating sights are of wilderness and wildlife. A look at urban Tanzania and Ethiopia. SLIDESHOW

from Africa Review
Mali’s Islamic extremist insurgency threatens the country’s deep musical traditions.

from The New Vision (Uganda) via allAfrica.com
Bill Gates loves Uganda?

AMERICAS
from the Wall Street Journal
New York City is still America’s biggest tourist draw. Who says so? A crowing Mayor Bloomberg — and a record 52 million visitors in 2012.

from the Los Angeles Times
The many and varied joys of a stay in Santa Barbara. A guide to its sights, sounds and tastes.

from NBC News
The US State Department issues a new travel advisory on Haiti: “No one is safe.”

ASIA/PACIFIC
from the Washington Post
Would you build an entire city around an airport? The place is called Songdo, and if this experiment works, it could change the way the world travels.

from France 24
Not content with making knockoff purses, pirated movies and even fake Apple stores, the Chinese may be counterfeiting a set of skyscrapers.

from CNN Travel
China prepares to open the doors to the world’s largest building.

EUROPE
from The Guardian (London UK)
Twenty bargain vacation options across Europe.

from Associated Press via USA Today
If you’re planning to visit Vatican City anytime soon, bring your prayers but leave your plastic. The Vatican has gone cash-only.

from the New York Times
Berlin. It’s not just about currywurst and beer anymore. The city’s better restaurants are racking up Michelin stars. Ich bin ein foodie?

from CNN Travel
QUESTION: How do you get the world’s largest airliner through a small French village? ANSWER: Very carefully.

Edited by P.A.Rice

IBIT TRAVEL Digest 2.26.12

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

Juffureh, Gambia
Juffureh, Gambia | ©IBIT G. Gross

RETURN OF THE TRAVEL AGENT?
The Internet has given us all the ability to search out the lowest price on all things related to travel, so we really have no need for travel agents anymore, right?

Not necessarily.

An admittedly non-scientific side-by-side test by the New York Times matched the Web and a travel agent to see which produced the best deals — and the live-human travel agent came out on top.

Seasoned travelers know there’s nothing like having a knowledgeable travel agent in your corner when reservations fall through or unforeseen events blow up your travel plans. Now, it looks now as if the old-school travel agent might be able to hold their own when it comes to scoring travel bargains, as well.

FLYING LOW OVER ASIAN WATERS
The only thing I love more than traveling by sea is traveling cheaply by sea, which means I’m naturally drawn to ocean-going ferries, and Tripologist.com has come up with a trip that satisfies on both counts.

As close as Japan and South Korea are to one another, it would only make sense to visit both while you’re traveling in that part of the world. But a round-trip ticket for the two-hour flight between Tokyo and Seoul could cost you $500 and up, which is insane.

For almost $200 less, you could take a three-hour cruise on a high-speed hydrofoil between the two countries, and pass easily and cheaply from the ports to the anywhere in either country via their high-speed rail networks.

Two high-speed train rides, connected by a hydrofoil? That’s me, all right.

Tripologist breaks down the particulars here.

THE (AMAZING) RACE IS ON…AGAIN!
That’s right. CBS is coming back at you with its 20th segment of the world travel contest show, The Amazing Race. The format is the same, 11 teams of two competitors each. The prize is the same, $1 million.

Being the travel addict I am, I’d probably watch this, anyway, despite all the artificial drama and instigated conflict the show’s producers try so hard to generate. But this time around, I have extra incentives.

The first is that, once again, there are contestants from San Diego on the show. Or rather, there were. The two Asian golfing sisters were eliminated the first night. Poor girls, they barely got their passports open and they’re already gone.

The other is that I have reason to believe that the race is returning to Africa. I’d watch for that reason alone. Some may watch this show for the conniving and the cattiness, but for this traveler, it’s all about the destinations.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

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AIR
from Smarter Travel
The new rules requiring airlines to fully disclose the cost of a flight have prompted online travel agencies to limit their flexible options — in some cases, drastically. But there are still ways to use flexible search to your advantage.

from TIME
First, they were feeling up old ladies, frisking little girls and looting people’s luggage. Are TSA screeners now using their screening machines to ogle young women’s bodies? One woman says yes, and she’s suing.

from USA Today
The merger with United has caused Continental Airlines to disappear in all but name. Now, even that is going away. ​

from msnbc
Have one of those unbearably long flights coming up in Coach? Would rather not have a seatmate, maybe even prefer having a whole row all to yourself? That can be arranged.

LAND
from The​ Times, London UK
Better driving by motorists would make things a lot safer for cyclists. What makes this statement remarkable is that, in London, at least, it’s the motorists who are saying it.

from the New York Times
The NYT’s Michelle Higgins tells us how to get elite status from the better hotel chains. The way the hotels are adding on surcharges these days, you almost owe it to yourself to do it.

from Away.com
TV chef Anthony Bourdain shares his five top travel tips. This could cost him his Bad Boy membership card.

SEA
from the San Francisco Chronicle
The Costa Concordia disaster is giving folks in Venice second thoughts about how close they want these massive mega-ships passing by their fragile icon of Italian history.

from USA Today
Talks are underway that could bring a cruise to the capital city of Haiti for the first time in a quarter-century.

from Cruise Critic
Twenty-two passengers from the cruise ship Carnival Splendor robbed at gunpoint in Puerto Vallarta. This probably will trigger a massive response from the authorities to crime in the Mexican port, but it might be too late to save the Mexican Riviera.

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AFRICA
from CP-Africa
Is this the footprint of God?

from The Daily Observer (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
New Fajara Craft Market opens in Kotu, part of an ongoing redevelopment of the Fajara waterfront.

from the Business Daily (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Tourism figures are up in Kenya despite worries over tourist kidnappings and conflict with Somalia’s al Shabaab religious extremist militia.

from The Citizen (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Mafia Island. In more ways than one, it’s not what you think. On land, lush, green, and largely unspoiled tropical landscape. Offshore, world-class diving and snorkeling.

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AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
from State.gov
The State Department breaks down its travel warnings on Mexico, going state by state.

from the New York Times
This piece is all about how to spend a weekend in New Orleans. But if you approach this city in the right spirit, a weekend in “the NOLA” can last all year.

from USA Today
A new exhibit at a Phoenix museum shows there’s more to the Apache legacy than the legend of Geronimo.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
Hawaii’s lava flows are equally fascinating to scientists and tourists, but if you plan on taking in this breathtaking sight, a little caution is in order. Actually, make that a lot of caution.

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ASIA/PACIFIC
from Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan)
From giant paper floats to a private train heated in winter by a pot-bellied stove, Aomori prefecture puts Japanese culture on display.

from the Japan Times
Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, which feeds this nation’s insatiable appetite for seafood, is a whirlwind of sights, sounds, aromas and characters. It’s also due to close in three years. So if you want to see a historic piece of daily Tokyo life, go soon.

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EUROPE
from the Guardian (London UK)
An interactive map showing the best bargain-priced restaurants around Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You’ll want to keep this one in your “mobile.”

from the Guardian (London UK)
If you’re one of those people who think camping would be great if it weren’t out in the wilderness, Berlin has the hotel you’ve been waiting for. it’s called the Hüttenpalast. AUDIO SLIDESHOW

from the the Guardian (London UK)
Speaking of eateries, here’s one Parisian’s list of the ten best Paris bistros. I wouldn’t call any of these places a bargain, but they’re probably worth every euro.

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MIDDLE EAST
from France 24
Iraqi town uses history and heritage to turn from terrorism to tourism.

Chile? Sí, Chile!

Torres de Paine National Park — © Davthy | Dreamstime.com

Has this week’s incredible rescue of the 33 Chilean miners got you curious about Chile? Me too!

© Skvoor | Dreamstime.com

If you’re a Star Trek fan like I am, you know that one of the ST movies had as a subtitle the words, “the undiscovered country.”

For a lot of us, watching the rescue operation bringing those miners safely up from more than 2,000 feet in the Earth after…sixty…nine…days, that’s an apt description of Chile.

Before tonight, if Americans were aware of Chile at all, it was only in the vaguest sense. That really long, really skinny country that seems to run the entire left side of the map of South America. Had some dictator named Pinochet.

Now, after watching the start of this remarkable operation, a lot of us around may be thinking: “Chile? We need a closer look.”

So let’s take one.

CHILE AT A GLANCE
OFFICIAL NAME: Republica de Chile
POPULATION: 17 million
AREA: 2,700 miles long, 109 miles wide
WEATHER: World’s driest desert in the north (where the San Jose mine is), rainy and mild in the south, Mediterranean climate in between.

You could envision Chile as one long bone of a place, backed up against the Andes mountains to the east and front by the Pacific Ocean for its entire 2,700-mile length. That combination gives it some things that should automatically interest a lot of travelers:

  • Some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on the planet
  • Beaches that go on for days
  • Some of the best skiing outside of the Alps
  • A wine country that produces some of the best wines in the world

Culturally, it’s a very conservative, very Catholic country. Many Chileans celebrate their saint’s day as much as they do their own birthday. Divorce was illegal until 2004, and abortion still is. And yet this same button-down Catholic culture also invented this thing called “cafe con piernas”coffee with legs. Go figure.

ZZTop would go nuts down here.

It’s a place where families are both extended and close-knit. They get together for celebrations. They run businesses together.

It’s said to be a very class-conscious place. Money talks, and people will size you up based on how well you dress and other superficialities. But unlike a lot of other class-conscious places in the world, the class structure here is not rigid, fixed. You can work your way up that ladder, if you so desire.

Perhaps in part because of that upward mobility, the Chilean workday is a long one, typically starting around 9 in the morning and finishing up around 8 at night, with a long lunch break in the middle.

Four meals a day are common, starting with a very light breakfast and ending with a dinner that may come as late as midnight. The main meal of the day is usually lunch.

And as you’d expect from a nation with a coastline 2,700 miles long, they’re really big on seafood (okay, that’s it — I’m there!).

Chilean folk music, which became a form of political activism in the Pinochet years, has gained an international following.

Easter Island
Easter Island — © Steve Allen | Dreamstime.com

And we haven’t even gotten to Easter Island yet. Think Stonehenge, but with faces.

All in all, Chile is largely a mystery to us northerners. But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

The first hint we had this year that this place has its act together came in February, when its central region was rocked by an earthquake with a magnitude of…8.8. Fatalities: about 600.

Terrible, yes, but nowhere near what it could’ve been. The quake that killed somewhere between 90,000 and 230,000 people in Haiti a month earlier was a magnitude 7.

We Californians know our quakes, and a magnitude 7 shaker is no joke, but 8.8? That’s Biblical, end-of-days type stuff, the kind that wipes out entire towns in places like Turkey and Iran. To get out of an earthquake that destructive with losses that low, you have to be doing a lot of things right.

And now, we see this amazing mine rescue in northern Chile, in which it looks as if the Chileans, from the most ordinary mine worker to President Sebastián Piñera, are doing everything right.

Politically, they’ve put the dictatorship era far behind. The country has elected governments now, and its press freedom is some of the strongest in Latin America. Indeed, one of the things that jumps out at you as you watch the mine rescue is how open the government is being with the whole process.

Beautiful scenery. One of the world’s longest coastlines. Great food and drink. Proud, hard-working, family-oriented people. A government that handles its business in an honest, democratic way. Maybe it’s time for us to discover this “undiscovered country.”

IF YOU GO
US citizens need only a passport for stays in Chile up to 90 days. That’s the good news. The bad news: a $131 “reciprocity fee.” This is retaliation for the visa fees we now charge Chileans. A lot of countries are doing this as payback for the visa fees we started imposing on them after 9/11.

The principal aerial point of entry is the capital, Santiago. In addition in the national airline, LAN, the national Chilean air carrier, 16 international airlines fly into Chile.

Chile also is well established as a cruise ship destination.

Chile’s highways are modern, smooth and safe, which makes bus touring a good option for many. For backpackers in particular, there’s the Pachamama hop-on, hop-off bus. It works just like the hop-on, hop-off city tour buses in places like New York, London and Paris, except this one runs almost the length of Chile and makes its stops once a week.

HAITI: Stupid cruise tricks?

Companies like Royal Caribbean figure to play a major role in the country’s recovery from disaster — but NOW?

Unless you’ve been sleeping off your New Year’s hangover in a cave for the last two weeks, you know that Haiti was all but obliterated by a Richter 7 earthquake on Jan. 12. If you’re into cruising, you also may know that Royal Caribbean owns the Haitian port of Labadee.

What you may not have heard — and may not believe — is that Royal Caribbean is still sending its huge cruise ships to make their regular port call at Labadee. To the company’s credit, those ships are arriving with relief supplies for the country’s desperate survivors.

But they also are arriving with tourists and vacationers, all of whom are fully aware of the horrors now taking place on what was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Among cruise industry insiders and passengers alike, it’s become the subject of some debate.

Those siding with the cruise line emphasize that Labadee and its tourist attractions are both undamaged and many miles from the devastation of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. They also point out that cruise ships inject money directly into the Haitian economy. Ships pay thousands of dollars in docking fees. And each boatload of tourists means jobs for the locals — even if they’re being paid at rates that would embarrass Mickey D’s.

With the Haiti’s already limp economy pretty much flattened by the quake, that matters.

Not all the passengers see it that way, though. The quake’s devastation may be out of sight from Labadee, but it clearly is not out of mind. To them, there is something morally wrong with playing on the beach and sipping on Bahama Mamas — in effect, flaunting their position of privilege as affluent tourists — while people are going through Hell not that many miles away.

Both sides, I think, make valid arguments. Haiti needs all the help it can get right now, in any form, and the country’s own leaders were trying to build Haitian tourism into an economic engine they hoped would power the country out of its stunning poverty. At the same time, perception counts — and the perception of boatloads of tourists partying on the edge of a disaster zone isn’t exactly uplifting to anyone, anywhere.

There’s a more practical consideration, also. Haiti is still receiving aftershocks, some of them major. There’s no guarantee that one of them wouldn’t reach out and touch Labadee in a major way.

Would it be better to let the behemoths of the seas deliver emergency goods to Labadee, but keep the passengers on the ship? Skip Labadee altogether, even though it’s undamaged? Change the itinerary and substitute another destination?

To me, this is where the cruise industry’s tendency in recent years of turning their ships into floating all-inclusive resorts could come in handy — and Royal Caribbean has been one of the leaders in that regard. On a modern cruise ship, there is so much to do and see that some folks might not even want to go ashore — and more than a few don’t.

Letting the passengers stay safely and self-entertaining aboard ship while dropping off supplies for the quake victims would be totally appropriate, at least for the first few weeks.

Let’s face it, if the passengers were really that anxious to truly experience Haiti, they wouldn’t be taking a cruise ship to some artificially spiffed up private beach and port owned by a company based in Miami, right?

I want to go Haiti

The country was on its way to becoming a major player in Caribbean tourism before the earthquake hit. It still could be — eventually.

I want to go to Haiti.

No, not now. Not with the Caribbean’s most impoverished nation crushed and shattered by a Richter 7 earthquake. Not with its capital largely reduced to rubble, the dead lying uncounted in their thousands and even its president left homeless.

I want to go to Haiti. But not as a poverty or disaster tourist, the kind who fuel the ire of people from New Delhi to New Orleans by crowding into buses and vans for carefully choreographed tours of everything from flood zones to street gang “turf.”

I want to go to Haiti, in the same way that I want to go to a hundred other places. I want to see its towns, its countryside, its art. I want to taste its food and savor its drink. I want to see the traces of its history and the colors of life in the faces of its people.

I want to go to Haiti as a traveler. And prior to Jan. 12, Haiti was working hard to make that happen.

One of the tragedies playing in the background of the disastrous earthquake is that it struck just as the country was fighting to become a player on the Caribbean tourism scene.

The history of Haiti is one of grim resolve in the face of grim circumstance — brutal slavery and equally brutal slave rebellions, vicious political oppression at home and cynical manipulation from great powers abroad, environmental pillage, high crime, mind-numbing poverty and social injustice. Not to mention one hurricane after another.

For years, the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory on Haiti could well be reduced to one word: DON’T.

In recent years, though, the Haitians had settled on a course they were hoping would lead them to better days — developing Haiti as a tourism attraction. To many Americans, the mere mention of “Haiti” and “tourism” in the same sentence seems absurd. In Port-au-Prince, though, things were starting to move.

The United Nations had offered Haiti $324 million in aid to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure, in dire need of help long before the quake, and private investors like George Soros were looking to get on board.

Venezuela was offering a $30 million loan toward construction of a new airport in the city of Cap-Haitien. Choice Hotels had announced plans to build a Comfort Inn to Haiti, the island’s first international chain hotel.

Royal Caribbean International, which owns the Haitian port of Labadee, was committing $55 million to improvements there, not the least of which was the building of an 800-foot pier to accommodate the largest cruise ship in the world, the newly launched Oasis of the Seas.

There was talk of building a road between Labadee and the park containing Citadelle Laferriere fortress and Sans Souci Palace built by Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the slave revolt that liberated Haiti from French rule — and defeated Napoleon armies 11 years before Waterloo.

It’s a UN World Heritage Site.

Former President Bill Clinton, named by the UN as a special emissary to Haiti, was hard at work promoting traditional Haitian art and broaching the idea of getting the State Department to light up on its travelers advisory to would-be visitors.

The country’s tourism minister, Patrick Delatour, was confidently predicting that Haiti would be back on the Caribbean tourism map come 2011.

All such thoughts in Haiti came to a halt at 4:53 p.m. local time Jan. 12. You already know what happened then. What no one knows is what will happen next.

Two U.S.-based airlines, American and Delta, have suspended flights to Haiti. Given the financial commitment American just made to the struggling Japan Air Lines, and the current sour economic climate for the airline industry in general, a there is no guarantee that either carrier will return.

Everything else that had been in the works to boost Haitian tourism will now go on hold, possibly for a long time.

But not, one hopes, indefinitely. For even as Haiti faces a Herculean task of rebuilding, tourism, developed and promoted by a just and stable government, may still be this ill-starred nation’s best chance at lifting itself up — not only from the disaster of Jan. 12, but from all the years of poverty and cruelty that came before it.

That is why I want to go to Haiti as a traveler, after the charitable donations have dried up and people have started changing the channel when Haiti comes up on network news. I want to make friends there. I want to see good things and have good times there. I want to kick up rooster-tails in the surf and hike in the mountains and pay homage to the memory of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe.

I want to go Haiti when my being there contributes to its progress, a progress too long delayed by the failings of men and the whims of nature.

And God willing, one day not too long from now, when the new roads are dry and the beaches are smooth and the Prestige beers are chilled, I will.

Hopefully with a lot of company.

Baseball, beaches and the world's coldest beer

The Dominican Republic — one part baseball mecca and one part beach colony, with a ton of Caribbean history and culture thrown in for added flavor.

El Conde promenade, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo. Hollywood filmmakers have used this alleyway to simulate Havana in movies like The Godfather II.

The island of Hispaniola sits in the eastern Caribbean between Cuba and Puerto Rico. The western third of Hispaniola is controlled by Haiti. The Dominican Republic occupies the rest.

The Dominican Republic sends a steady stream of talent to Major League Baseball. You’d be hard-pressed today to find a National or American League team that doesn’t have at least one dominicano on its roster. One town, San Pedro de Macoris, practically specializes in producing infielders.

The DR also is known for its all-inclusive beach resorts — more than 30 of them at last count. Lodging, meals and just about everything else are included in a single, sometimes staggeringly low price.

But is that all there is to the country? Not by a long shot. The capital city, Santo Domingo contains enough history of the Americas to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most of that history is packed into the Zona Colonial, where the age of almost everything except the residents is measured in centuries.

For instance, the Pat’e Palo restaurant has been doing business on the same spot for 500 years, which makes it three centuries older than the United States! The Hotel Palacio, where I stayed on a baseball trip a few years back, is a mere 400 years old.

The remains of Christopher Columbus are buried here. At least Dominicans think so. It’s a long story, and a big argument. There’s also a museum where you can see treasure from sunken Spanish galleons.

Coconut vendor, Zona Colonia, Santo Domingo. Sweet refreshment for less than the cost of a Coke.

Even the thoroughfares have history. Calle de las Damas, so named because frilly ladies used to promenade there, is the oldest street in the Americas. It runs just below the perimeter wall of the old Ozama fort, which is not your typical Caribbean bastion.

Most colonial fortresses were erected to discourage pirates; Ozama was built to lure them in. Its buildings were designed to resemble a European church — from a distance. Only when they came into gun range did the pirates learn that the canons of this “church” were really cannons. Oops!

Americans still can’t legally visit Cuba because of the US embargo (although thousands skirt that ridiculous rule annually), but two stretches in the Zona Colonial can give you a sense of what Cuba is like. One is the seaside boulevard known as the Malecon. The other is El Conde.

Courtyard of the Hotel Palacio, Zona Colonial Santo Domingo. This is where you have breakfast in the morning.

The Malecon is lined with major hotels, casinos and restaurants overlooking the Caribbean. This is where we encountered a tasty liqueur known as Guavaberry. But don’t go looking for a bottle of this stuff to take home. It’s sold only on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. You can order it online, though.

When the sun goes down, lovers take over the concrete benches on the side of the street closest to the sea. On Sundays, the Malecon is closed to traffic. Kids play basketball and soccer and fly kites in the street, while vendors sell sweets, cold drinks and ice cream.

El Conde is a tree–shaded alleyway in the Zona Colonial lined with restos and shops. You’ll also find the Cubania cultural center, a good place for Cuba Libres, daiquiris, piña coladas and mojitos. This spot was used to simulate Havana in the film Godfather II.

If you’re into jewelry, El Conde also is a good place to find larimar, a stone similar to turqoise — and found nowhere else in the world.

Along both the Malecon and El Conde, you’ll see folks selling pieces of art done in the style of the Taino people, the original inhabitants of Hispaniola. The one thing you won’t find is any trace of the Taino themselves. The Spanish colonizers — and the diseases they brought with them — pretty much wiped them out.

(The decimation of the Taino by the Spanish led to African slaves being brought to Hispaniola, a pattern that would be repeated by Europeans throughout the Americas, including in what eventually became the United States.)

One of the must-sees in Santo Domingo is a restaurant called El Conuco. They specialize in traditional cooking known as criollo. The food is tasty, but that’s not why you go. What makes this place a command performance is the dance they call “bachata in a bottle.”

waterfall
Baiguate waterfall, Dominican Republic

Bachata is a traditional Dominican music and dance style. The dance is performed by a couple who take turns spinning on one foot, while balanced atop an empty bottle of Cointreau. Think I’m kidding? Take a look!

As with the rest of the Caribbean, the DR is not the best place to be during hurricane season but makes an ideal winter getaway — especially if you live anyplace where it snows. The weather is warm and the Presidente beers are always — and I do mean always — ice-cold. In fact, don’t be surprised if your beer arrives with little chunks of ice stuck to the bottle.

If you’re inclined to rent an SUV and go exploring, the countryside is also tropically beautiful, especially in places like Baiguate, with its waterfalls.

But the most beautiful thing about the DR may be the people who call it home. Bright-eyed, quick to smile, warm and strong in spirit despite the poverty that makes life a struggle for many of them. Ultimately, they may be the nation’s best tourist attraction.