Q. After a holiday in Kenya a couple of years ago, we are thinking of taking our children to West Africa next year, but can't decide where. So far, we have considered countries including the Gambia, Ghana and Mali, but are these places safe? And when is the best time to go? We're fairly adventurous, but would nevertheless prefer to travel on an organised trip. Can you help? R Wright, via email
A. These three West African countries have a lot to offer, but it wouldn't be fair to say that they're all ideal for families. The Gambia is both child-friendly and accessible. This narrow strip of land, little bigger than Yorkshire, runs down to the Atlantic, hemmed in on three sides by Senegal. Around 80,000 British tourists visit every year. According to Paul Medley, who is a product manager at specialist tour operator The Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; www.adventurecompany.co.uk): "For some years now, the Gambia has been one of the safest destinations in West Africa. It's politically sound and its people are warm and hospitable."
A good barometer for safety is Britain's biggest tour operator, Thomson. This year, its destinations in the central band of Africa comprise four coastal resorts in Gambia and four in Kenya.
As for when to go, the Gambian climate is warm enough to make it a good winter sun destination (the temperature hovers around 30C for most of the year), yet it's not too crowded in summer. In fact, coastal resort areas tend to be quieter in summer than winter and some restaurants and hotels even close entirely in July. On the positive side, this means you may get a higher level of service over the summer.
For a summer trip, May and June are the best times, since the monsoon hasn't arrived yet. From July to October the rainy season makes for high humidity, which children might find hard, but the short, spectacular storms soon clear the air.
A good travel company with family expertise is Hampshire-based The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2060; www.gambia. co.uk). It points out that although the Gambian coast has been steadily growing as a family destination, there are no waterparks or organised childrens' clubs in the hotels. Evening entertainment is usually an African dance troupe, which visits the various hotels and involves the audience in its routines. Nevertheless, the vast, uncrowded beaches really go down well with children, as do excursions to see monkeys and baboons in their natural habitat. Some children also take the opportunity to visit a local school and make instant friends with the Gambian children. A number of pen-pal relationships have started up this way. Prices for a week's holiday next June currently hover around £550 per person for a "four-bird" resort hotel (the company's own interpretation of the hotel star-grading system), inclusive of breakfast and return flights with Astraeus from Gatwick.
There are fewer packages available to Ghana, although the online agent ResponsibleTravel.com (01273 600 030; www.responsibletravel.com) recommends a family-friendly lodge 45 minutes outside the capital, Accra. There are plenty of activities on offer, such as woodcarving and bead painting.
Facilities are good – TV and DVD, your own garden, two bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen – all for £175 per week during Easter and summer holidays, but this is not resort life.
Land-locked Mali is captivating from an anthropological point of view. However, the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) warns that the risk of banditry and kidnapping has increased in parts of late. Significantly, Responsible Travel does not offer any family holidays in Mali. However, if you're keen to go, Steppes Travel (01285 650 011; www.steppestravel.co.uk) can tailor trips.
Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail email@example.comReuse content