The seaboard north of the capital is arid or semi-arid most of the way to Gonaïves, and all round the northwest peninsula as far as Port-de-Paix. This area was hit by drought and famine in 1997 and severe ecological damage has occurred. From Port-de-Paix to the Dominican border, it is quite lush and green.
The Route Nationale 1 is asphalted to Cap-Haïtien, but is badly potholed for the 65 kilometres between Pont Sondé and Gonaïves. It hugs the coast for most of the first 85 kilometres, skirting the foot of the Chaine des Matheux mountains. Cabaret (Km 35) is the former Duvalierville. Its ugly, modernistic buildings and pretensions of becoming Haiti’s Brasilia were lampooned in The Comedians. L’Arcahaie (Km 47) is where Dessalines created the blue and red Haitian flag by tearing the white out of the French tricolor. Outside L’Arcahaie, a dirt road heads east high into the Chaine des Matheux to a region where coffee and indigo was grown in colonial times. A dozen ruined plantation houses survive. The turnoff is just before the point where the highway crosses the small Mi Temps River. Sailboats leave at mid-morning from Montrouis (Km 76) for the 22 kilometres crossing to Anse-a-Galets (one guesthouse), the main town on barren La Gonave Island. In 1997 a ferry capsized just off Montrouis as it was docking. At least 172 died when passengers all crowded to one side and the boat turned over only 50 metres from the shore.
At Km 96, after the Côte des Arcadins beaches, the RN1 reaches the port of St Marc (F Hotel Belfort, 166 Rue Louverture, clean, basic). Several fine gingerbread houses are on streets to the east of the main street. A pretty valley runs inland southeast as far as Goavier.
The highway crosses the river Artibonite at Pont Sondé, entering a region of rice paddies irrigated by canals. Fork right at the Kafou Peyi intersection, two kilometres north of Pont Sondé, for Petite Rivière de L’Artibonite (Cr: Ti Rivyè), a picturesque town built by Christophe on a steep-sided ridge overlooking the river Artibonite. Its Palace of 365 Doors was Christophe’s provincial headquarters. In 1802, there was a key battle at the Crète-à-Pierrot fort (five minutes walk above the town) in which Leclerc sacrificed 2,000 men to dislodge a force of 1,200 led by Dessalines.
About eight kilometres after L’Estère, a right turnoff runs southeast 25 kilometres to Marchand, a town at the foot of the Cahos mountains that was briefly Dessalines’ capital. Hike into the surrounding hills to visit seven big ruined forts built by Dessalines. Near the town is a spring with a natural swimming pool. Dessalines told his soldiers that bathing here made them immune to French bullets. The house of Dessalines’ wife, Claire Heureuse, still survives in the town. You can also see the foundations of his own home. After the Marchand turnoff, the RN1 crosses a semi-desert called Savane Désolée.
Amid saltpans and arid lowlands, Gonaïves at Km 171 is an ugly, dusty town of 70,000 (Haiti’s third largest). It is called the City of Independence because Dessalines proclaimed Haiti’s independence here in 1804. The unrest that toppled Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986 also began here. D Chez Elias is a safe, clean guesthouse (T2740318), Rue Egalité opposite Teleco, rooms with fan and bathroom, MAP. At Chez Frantz (T2740348), Avenue des Dattes, the rooms are often taken by long-term residents, but the food is Gonaïves’ best. Rex Restaurant, Rue Louverture, half a block from the market, has Créole food and hamburgers. Buses (US$3, four hours) leave Port-au-Prince mornings from the intersection of Boulevard La Saline and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. In Gonaïves, mopeds operate as taxis, charging US$0.20 a ride.
After Ennery at Km 201, the RN1 climbs steeply up to the Chaine de Belance watershed and enters the green, northern region. Limbe at Km 245, has a museum, Musée de Guahaba, created by Dr William Hodges, a Baptist missionary doctor who runs the local hospital and supervises archaeological digs along the north coast (see Excursions - La Navidad). The museum is not always open but you can ask for admission from his family who work at the Limbé hospital nearby. Fort Crète Rouge, above Limbé, is one of the many fortresses built by Christophe.
A rugged side-road from Limbé down to Le Borgne (Cr: Oboy) on the coast offers spectacular views. The 20 kilometres either side of Le Borgne abound with white-sand beaches. The high, green mountains right behind add to their beauty, but the coast is densely inhabited and the beaches are often used as a public latrine. From Le Borgne to St Louis du Nord, the road is very bad but not impassable for four-wheel drive.
After Limbé, the main highway descends quickly, offering fine views over L’Acul Bay, where Columbus anchored on 23 December 1492, two days before his flagship sank.