To be blunt, I couldn’t care less about most of the hotels I’ve stayed in over the years as a foreign correspondent. Many of them were just a place to take a shower, sleep and then forget about. But La Villa Creole in Haiti was different. I first stayed there in 2008 and quickly found it to be an oasis.
When I was planning a trip to Haiti last month I went on to La Villa Creole’s website to look for their phone number and discovered they had closed down. My stomach dropped. It was like being told out of the blue that an old friend had passed away.
In the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, La Villa Creole managed to be classy without being opulent. By contrast, places like the Montana Hotel a mile down the road or the Karibe always felt a bit too luxurious after a day in the slums.
La Villa Creole was set on a hillside in Petionville above Port-au-Prince. The rooms descended down a ravine into rich Caribbean foliage. The air in Petion-ville is slightly cooler than in the city below, there’s more money, less chaos. Stepping in to the lobby I could feel my shoulders relax.
After I’d stayed there a few times, the staff at the front desk would greet me like a returning relative. Melissa, the owner, always stopped by at breakfast to ask, “How is everything?” and she didn’t just mean do you have enough towels.
At night the bar bustled with idealistic young aid workers and cynical older ones. Middle-class Haitians or at least Haitians with bourgeois aspirations mixed with journalists and scheming entrepreneurs.
When I flew to Haiti in January of 2010 to cover the earthquake, the hotel took on a completely different role.
Photographer David Gilkey and I rented a pickup truck in the Dominican Republic and headed to La Villa Creole to set up a base. With phone lines out and cell phone towers collapsed, we didn’t know the condition of the hotel but had heard secondhand that it was still standing. As we drove through the grey piles of rubble, people had already started stacking dead bodies out by the side of the road for collection. Fires burned. The city had become a surreal landscape of destruction — jagged shards of concrete, tilting cinder block walls and twisted rebar.
By the time we got to the hotel, the sun had just slipped behind the hills. As we approached, there was a bustle of activity out front. The circular drive where guests usually pulled up to drop their luggage had become a flashlight-lit field hospital.
Knowing that aid workers were staying inside, Haitians carried their injured children, neighbors, loved ones to La Villa Creole’s gate. Someone had taken the blue and white striped pillows from the deck chairs by the pool and turned them in to thin beds. A gynecologist from the U.S. was bandaging wounds and instructing other guests how to administer first aid. Many of the injured were children. Several were naked. One child wailed in pain as we walked up to the hotel lobby.
In the coming weeks La Villa Creole was our home as we reported on a quake that the Haitian government said killed more than 300,000 people (though that estimate has never been verified). Even when the hotel didn’t have rooms for us or our colleagues, the managers let us camp on the lawn. As water grew scarce the pool became the primary place to bath.
International press poured into the hotel. European TV crews were doing live shots from the roof with an expanse of fallen buildings stretching across the landscape behind them.
A central part of the hotel in between the reception and the bar had collapsed. But everyone just worked around the piles of crumpled concrete walls and snapped timbers.
Each night the kitchen staff cooked one big meal and laid out it out on tables by the pool. Pots of beans and rice, rapidly melting meat that had been retrieved from broken freezers and was cooked on an outdoor grill. In those weeks after the quake, La Villa Creole was packed. Journalists who hadn’t seen each other since Iraq hugged and laughed in the gardens.
Over the course of 2010, as we covered the efforts to “build back better,” I would come and go numerous times from La Villa Creole.
The last time I was stayed at the hotel, in 2013, it felt quiet, peaceful, calm.
By then La Villa Creole was facing new competition. The eight-story Royal Oasis had just opened just up the hill. A Best Western Premier in Petionville was billing itself as “Haiti’s first 4-star international brand hotel.” A 175-room Marriott was under construction down by the airport. After finding last month that La Villa Creole “no longer exists” according to Tripadvisor, I checked in at the crumbling Hotel Oloffson in downtown Port-au-Prince.
The Oloffson is in a towering 19th-century gingerbread mansion with voodoo art all over the place. Sipping a beer on the creaky front porch, you can look out to the harbor and imagine that you’re living in a Graham Green novel. But eventually the broken AC units and rotten floorboards started to feel more cheap than charming.
So I moved to the El Rancho, directly across the street from La Villa Creole’s lot. The El Rancho used to be known for its rather dingy casino but it was recently renovated. The owners also purchased La Villa Creole and shut it down.
One afternoon, I walked from the El Rancho to the front gate of La Villa Creole. The grass is now overgrown, and a cable is strung up across the driveway where people were bandaging wounds after the earthquake.
In the lobby that used to house beautiful Haitian art, a dusty piano sits, draped in plastic, along with an overturned sink and some propane gas cylinders.
Sometimes you just expect a special place to exist forever. It’s hard to get your head around the idea that it’s now just a memory.
As I was checking out of the El Rancho to fly back to Miami, the night clerk was chatting with another guest in French. “You used to work at the Villa Creole, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Monsieur Beaubien!” He beamed, reaching across the counter to shake my hand. “Welcome back. We haven’t seen you in a long time.”