x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Unspoilt and eccentric Paramaribo

My Kind of Place: The capital of Suriname seems stuck in the 18th century, with evidence of its Dutch past still strong.

Old houses in the area of the Zeelandia fort, a part of Paramaribo that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Frans Lemmens
Old houses in the area of the Zeelandia fort, a part of Paramaribo that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Frans Lemmens

Why Paramaribo?

If I were to design the perfect city, it would be like Paramaribo.

It would all be white, and have a river running through it. There'd be plantations and fruit trees, and little canals would come seeping through the centre. There'd be no business district or overbearing banks, and nothing would be taller than a church. At the heart of it all would be a little purple fortress, like a hat full of mansions. There'd be no trains or tubes or public toilets. By day, the presidential palace would glow like a wedding cake, and then, by night, it would turn green and flare like a planet. As for embassies, there'd be only nine, including a tiny bungalow for the entire United States. Temples, however, would spring up out of the foliage, along with stupas, pagodas and funeral ghats. There'd also be a mosque and a synagogue, huddled so close that they'd share a car park. Meanwhile, the police would be called the korps politie, and would wear white gloves and ride around on bicycles. There'd also be an alligator living in the city's pond, eating all the strays.

Oddly, this was once one of the greatest cities of the 18th century. In 1674 the British swapped Suriname for New York, and were lampooned for their folly. Under the Dutch the colony grew fabulously rich on sugar and became a Georgian treasure. And that, broadly speaking, is what it remains today.

A comfortable bed

The choice of accommodation is good. The Hotel Torarica (00 597 471 500; www.torarica.com) is a large, modern hotel catering mostly to Dutch tourists, and costs from US$140 (Dh514) a night. For old-world charm (but no swimming pool), there's La Petite Maison (00 597 475 466; www.hotellapetitemaison.com) on the waterfront ("waterkant"), at $82 (Dh300) a night.

Rather less expensive and more basic is the lively backpacker guesthouse Zus & Zo (00 597 420 751; www.zusenzosuriname.com), costing from $25 (Dh92) a night. My own favourite, however, is the excellent Albergo Alberga (00 597 52 00 50; www.guesthousealbergoalberga.com), which costs from $28 (Dh103) a night. It's a large wooden townhouse with a small swimming pool. The other guests are mostly Surinamese, and treat it just like home (one even left her baby at reception).

Find your feet

Being a former Dutch colony, the best way to get around is by hiring a bicycle. It costs about $16 (Dh60), and most hotels rent out bikes.

Paramaribo sits on the west bank of the vast Suriname River. It's built around a pretty little fort (c1650), beyond which is a large grassy field, known a little grandly as Independence Square. This is the Paramaribo I love. Around the edge are palm and mango trees, the wedding-cake palace and a splendidly crooked old courthouse that looks like the backdrop to a Rembrandt. It's not just me; everyone loves it here. Every afternoon people appear with kites and easels, or dance in the grass. It's hard to think of a city that looks so readily happy.

Meet the locals

By day, you'll find the locals on Independence Square, or head down Saramaccastraat to meet the Maroons. These are the descendants of slaves who escaped into the forest. They look different from everyone else, in their breeches and togas. Often they behave as if they own the city, which worries everyone else. Back in 1762, the Maroons were so numerous they'd threatened the colony. Eventually the Dutch were forced to grant them the interior, and that's where they've been ever since. Now there are 50,000 Maroons, and although the Dutch left in 1975, an old, Georgian stand-off continues. No one visits the interior unless the Maroons agree.

Book a table

A wide range of tastes are catered for, generally reflecting the country's varied cultural heritage. Among the most popular local dishes are olie bollen (oily bread), pom (yam), bami kip (chicken noodles), and pinda soep with tom tom (peanut soup with plantain).

There is good Indian cuisine at Jasmine (85b Kleine Dwarsstraat; 00 597 473 558) and the Sidewalk Café t'Vat, opposite the Torarica Hotel, is popular with Dutch tourists and does excellent bar food. Meals at both cost about $16 (Dh60). More upmarket is De Waag (00 597 474 514) on the Waterkant, where a meal costs about $25 (Dh92). Nearby, the food stalls along the river wall are lively and picturesque and serve good local dishes, freshly cooked, for only a few dollars a serving.

Shoppers' paradise

The shopping here is decidedly eccentric. The shops all look relatively normal at first, selling jeans and drums and camouflaged crossbows. But then you notice that the largest shop sells only Christmas baubles, and that some places only open at lunchtime or on Wednesdays or for a few hours at dawn. Even when they're open, they're confusing; there's a Soviet queuing system, and some items, like cloth, are still measured out in Dutch feet or Rhenish els. Far more straightforward is the witches' market, where you can buy anything from a cure for husbands to a bundle of tampons grown in the forest.

The best buys are Maroon carvings and paintings. A good selection can be found at Readytex (Maagdenstraat 44; www.readytexartgallery.com). There's also the usual array of skins and framed butterflies. But be careful: exporting or importing these may be illegal (and Amerindian necklaces often contain jaguar teeth, which can land you in trouble).

What to avoid

As in any small South American city, take the usual precautions against pickpockets and scammers. Avoid the Palmentuin (palm gardens) at night, and take care in the port area around Saramaccastraat.

Don't miss

Take a day tour out to Fort Amsterdam (a star fort built in 1734) and the Commewijne plantations. In the 18th century these were among the most prosperous agricultural lands in the world. Today, of the hundreds of great mansions, only a few survive. Despite the ever-present reminders of slavery (abolished here only in 1870), it's a beautiful world of mangrove, forest and lush farmland. Day tours through the government agency METS (00 597 477088; www.surinamevacations.com) cost $86 (Dh316) per person.

John Gimlette is the author of Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge