Over dinner at the Coco Ocean, we play "Where am I?" as we dunk our bread and listen to the Atlantic. The food is fiery Thai; the waiter is Moroccan; we are scrubbed and oiled and reeking of Indonesian herbs. It doesn't exactly feel like we are in West Africa.
The Coco Ocean Resort & Spa opened this year to cater to an upmarket clientele that few would imagine visiting The Gambia. Tourists here tend to holiday in the cheaper resorts around the Senegambia strip, returning home a week later, baked crimson.
Earlier, at the dusty airport, we played "spot the women sex tourists" among the sweating bodies wrestling over the porters. Backpackers and charity workers were also spat out into the beating sun. But only a small group gathered beside the air-conditioned minibus for the transfer to this new hotel.
Twenty minutes later we felt we had arrived, literally, at an oasis. Spread out across a gentle slope that leads to the ocean, the hotel is incongruously tranquil, as if a cathedral has been plonked in Piccadilly Circus at rush hour. From the road, it looks as though a congregation of small mosques has settled behind the high bougainvillea hedge. The buildings combine African influences with colonial architecture and Moorish cupolas; above the echoing white reception are most of the 58 rooms, with the remaining suites and villas cascading down towards the three restaurants and the ocean, their private terraces shaded by muslin drapes and jasmine flowers.
In the spa – the first of its kind in the country – everything that moves is pinned down, covered in Moroccan mud and exfoliated to within a whisker of its sanity. Outside, it has been painted brilliant white and topped with a dome. Stained glass and blue louvre windows cast a cool light. I can still smell the herbal steam and black olive soap, and hear the tinkle of water over the distant crash of wind and ocean.
The spa is based around a fizzing thalassotherapy pool, but its USP is the hammam, which promises to "increase physical and emotional detox, nourishing skin with vitamins and minerals". I don't know about emotional detox, but all week I slept the sleep of the pure. (That might have just been the enormous bed.) Physical detox involves a steamy, black-and-white tiled room, a surprise strip, being slathered with aromatic mud and scrubbed. It is a tribute to the petite Moroccan therapist that this is actually pleasant.
The therapy rooms overlook a slope of terraced pools leading down to the restaurants and deserted beach. The beachside restaurant, with its glass walls, has views of some of the best sunsets in the world. Down by the pool, the breeze off the ocean is so refreshing that you can forget all about sunburn. Don't: this really is Africa. Fortunately, there is Walter, who turns up on a quad bike and brings soothing aloe vera leaves cut from the gardens.
On arrival, guests are asked not to feed the monkeys. They should also say, don't talk to the boys. The Bradt guide warns of "bumsters", who are targeted by an increasingly helpful tourist police. Walking in the sea (bumsters don't like to get their trainers wet) turns out to be good advice.
Around the hotel, the country's famous hospitality is more ambiguous. Things Gambian men want to talk about: how are you? Is this your first time in Africa? Are you single...? Things they don't want to talk about: the president. Not that you can blame them; two British preachers are still serving a sentence for criticising the country.
Beyond the bougainvillea-draped walls, this is a poor country. The Gambia Experience tour operator offers to match any donations that tourists make to their education charity; giving money to children who beg is discouraged because it keeps them out of school. But anyone wanting to help by spending tourist dollars in the local economy should head to Serekunda market. Here in the red, dusty streets are crowds of women with baskets on their heads ("Women do most of the work here," says our guide. "Men does the thinkin'."), buying live chickens, herbs and dazzling fabrics by the mile. Plunging in among the children and the goats, this is where you'll find the real Gambia.
How to get there
The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087; www.gambia.co.uk) offers seven nights at the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa, part of its Luxury Collection, from £899 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Banjul, B&B in a junior suite and transfers. Upgrades to half board cost from £18 per person per night.
The Bradt Guide to The Gambia, price £13.99Reuse content