As The Gambia celebrates 50 years of independence, Tamara Hinson looks at this colourful winter-sun spot
As I stood in one of the world’s smallest nature reserves, I came to a conclusion: the big five are overrated. After 24 hours in The Gambia, I’d spotted monkeys, eagles and butterflies in hues I never knew existed.
I’d had a cobra wrapped around my neck at the Gambian Reptiles Farm, and spotted the tail-end of a puff adder flick out of sight into thick foliage.
And if you’re wondering about the “The” that comes before Gambia, a former president decided that his country’s name should be preceded with the word to avoid confusion with Zambia. He needn’t have worried: The Gambia is unique.
It’s always been a huge winter sun destination, but the past few years have seen the opening of several boutique hotels and eco-lodges, run by owners keen to showcase the country’s lesser-known aspects.
One day, I visited a local groundnut farm, and later, a local school where I dished out pencils to giggling children.
My advice to visitors? Don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten track.
Sell: Sunshine and savings
The Gambia’s size makes it easy to navigate; a beautiful beach, quaint fishing village or wildlife packed reserve will always be nearby.
It’s a six-hour flight to the capital, Banjul, from the UK, and the time difference is only one hour. There’s hot, sunny weather year-round and even in the wettest months (August and September), rain falls mainly at night.
This predominantly Muslim country is the smallest in mainland Africa – about the same size as Jamaica – with a population of 1.8 million.
The national currency is the dalasi, but don’t expect to spend many – a bottle of imported beer will cost you £1, while a small bottle of Coke will set you back 55p, although prices at international hotels are higher. Some of the best bargains are handicrafts from local markets, where haggling is encouraged.
Stay: Moving upmarket
Sandele Eco Retreat is a chilled out, family-friendly option in the southern village of Kartong.
There’s a gorgeous beach nearby, and guests can choose one of the four lodges (which sleep two adults and one child) or one of the 10 guest rooms. Decor is traditional and beautiful – think furniture made by local craftsmen – and buildings constructed using traditional techniques. Prices start from £100 per night full-board.
For luxury, suggest Coco Ocean Resort & Spa, set on a quiet beach near the town of Serekunda.
The hotel has The Gambia’s first spa, and it’s a decadent affair, with treatment rooms overlooking the beach, a plunge pool and ice room. The gardens are filled with fragrant bougainvillea and swaying baobab trees, and guests can choose from suites or penthouses. Prices start from £88 per night with breakfast.
On the northwestern tip of The Gambia, Ngala Lodge is set back from a sheltered cove in gardens with a view over the Atlantic.
The main building of this child-free property – a former colonial mansion – is stunning and all 24 suites are unique, some with private plunge pools. There’s an infinity pool and the restaurant is one of the best in the country. Prices start at £125 per night.
The northern Makasutu Culture Forest is a private ecotourism reserve, and nature lovers can stay at Mandina Lodges, which opens between November and May.
Located in the bush and feeling truly remote, it’s only a 30-minute drive to the airport and 45 minutes from the coastal resorts. Guests have a choice of floating lodges, which are encircled by balconies and have beautiful four-poster beds, while the riverside jungle lodges have roof terraces accessed via spiral staircases.
In the morning, the air is filled with birdsong, while in the scrub, home to various reptiles, baboons can be spotted swinging from branches. Guests can take trips in a dugout canoe with a guide or fish off the pontoons – the chef is happy to cook their catch for dinner. Prices from £299 for three nights' half-board.
See: Beach and beyond
For some retail therapy, head to Serekunda’s colourful markets, where you can barter for wooden carvings, groundnuts and sarongs. Just hold your breath as you duck under the rows of catfish drying in the sun.
Visitors who are a dab hand in the kitchen should sign up for a cookery course, like the one offered by The Gambia Experience. For £35, budding chefs can visit a food market with local cook Ida before learning how to prepare a traditional meal.
Abuko Nature Reserve covers just 105 hectares and is best explored with a guide. I spotted beady-eyed vultures, huge eagles and tiny antelopes. The park is also home to vervet and colobus monkeys, mongooses, porcupines, crocodiles and monitor lizards.
The Gambian Reptiles Farm is run by Frenchman Luke Paziaud. He’s passionate about snakes and will happily show off his puff adders, spitting cobras and lizards – and drape them around your neck, if you’re brave enough.
Spend a few hours floating along the Gambia River’s southern end to the Lamin Lodge, a gorgeously ramshackle building perched above the river. Food is basic but tasty. Grab a bottle of JulBrew beer and watch the baby monkeys scoop up crumbs.
Ask the expert
Sam Hancock, sales & marketing director, The Gambia Tourism Board:
“It’s been a challenging year due to the effects of Ebola and the representation of Western Africa, despite The Gambia remaining Ebola-free, but we’re on the road to recovery. We’re keen to show why it’s known as the smiling west coast of Africa, and with November’s fantastic international fishing competition in Barra Point, Cape Point, Fajara and Kotu, and next October’s Bird Festival at Tendaba Camp, the destination also appeals to specialist niche markets.”
The Gambia Experience offers seven nights with breakfast at Ngala Lodge from £799, departing October 27. gambia.co.uk
Thomas Cook offers seven nights’ all inclusive at the three-star Smartline Palma Rima on Kololi Beach from £573, departing November 1 thomascookworld.com
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