When I realised a few months back that I had 10 days holiday to use up between January and April, winter sun was the obvious answer. But where to go? Where is hot in March? Turns out the best options are Dubai (doesn’t really appeal), Egypt (lovely but been before) and The Gambia… Well, why not?After fielding my mum’s concerns about Ebola (they haven’t had any cases at all) we went for it, not really knowing what to expect. After a quick eyeball scan on arrival at Banjul airport, on we went to our hotel.
We stayed in the imaginatively named Sunset Beach Hotel on Kotu Beach, which is a collection of rooms and little bungalows among beautiful gardens full of gorgeous, vivid plants and flowers. It’s right on the beach and they also have a small pool if that’s your bag. Rooms are simple and certainly not luxurious, but it’s not expensive and you’re only really in the room to sleep.
We stayed on a bed and breakfast basis, and breakfast was extensive and well organised. Think toast, condiments, cereal, eggs and pancakes cooked to order, bacon, sausages, beans etc. Although note that sausages were of the chicken variety and suspiciously tinned-like.
The Gambian locals are ridiculously friendly, and the area is known as ‘The Smiling Coast’. Everyone seems happy and willing to do anything for you and it’s lovely, but you soon become aware that it’s possibly often for the tips-potential, and it can be hard to work out when it’s 100% genuine.
I was apprehensive about the food after being reliably informed by South African friends that all we’d be served was cane rat.. however our first meal of barracuda with a spicy curry sauce, and a traditional Gambian chicken yassa (chicken with lime and an onion sauce) were outstanding, and the beginning of a week of really great food as well as copious gin and local beer. Excellent!
The Gambia is a long, skinny country surrounded on three sides by Senegal with a tiny coast on the west of the country. Fishing is big business in this area as you can imagine, and all along the coast the locals fish on the beach every day, then distribute their wares to the local restaurants and hotels. It’s an interesting thing to watch, as they take the nets out in boats, then with a huge group effort pull them into the beach (with lots of help from watching tourists) and put all the fish on the sand. There’s a huge variety, from barracudas, ladyfish, angelfish, stingrays, butterfish and snappers, and as important as it is to know where food comes from, it’s a bit sad to see them gasping away.
The other national dish (apart from the yassa) is the domada, which is a peanut sauce with meat or fish. It’s completely delicious – slightly spicy and lovely and rich, pretty much an African curry. We spent a rainy day fishing with some of the locals, and one of them (he worked in our hotel) invited us back to his house where his wife cooked the fish we caught into a domada. It was an unusual glimpse into real life away from the resorts and constant smiliness, and a great experience.
We enjoyed a lovely variety of meals in the different restaurants around the area, the only less than great one was a couple of dry baguettes from our own hotel – I’d recommend getting out and sampling as much as possible.
The Gambia is suffering a lot due to Ebola – they’ve had no cases at all but people are scared and tourism is down 75% in the last year. For a country that exports practically nothing this is catastrophic and if you have any compassion you can’t help feeling awful for them. However, because business has been so bad it means competition is fierce, and the usual hassle you may get from ‘bumsters’ (guys trying to sell you things) is multiplied. Some are desperate for business and it can range from annoying to borderline aggressive.
This was a minor thing and wouldn’t stop me going back. The Gambia’s a lovely country full of friendly, sweet people and great food. If you’re looking for a holiday destination look into it, it’s something a bit different and was hugely enjoyable.