From the sky, Ghana is a bundle of green on the west coast of Africa, bordered by golden beaches and the warm blue of the Atlantic. Once you're on the ground, its variety hits you like a rush of sweet, humid air.
Ghana, around the same size as the UK, may be dubbed "Africa for beginners", but its richness is apparent in everything from the cuisine to its soft mountain peaks, its increasingly hip capital city and the wealth of local languages. Want to don flippers and a snorkel and float through gentle waters? You've got it. Want to walk with herds of elephants? Learn the Twi language? Barbecue plump shrimp, shovel warm handfuls of fufu into your belly or take African dance lessons on a palm-fringed beach? Go to Ghana.
The frills of the 540km coastline are lined with pockets of rainforest, rocky headlands and sugar-sand beaches. The interior of the country is a patchwork of tropical green farmland, dry savannah and hilly urban areas, such as Kumasi, Ghana's second city. The capital, Accra, is built on low-lying land that dips towards the ocean, while in the north, the dry city of Tamale has a mystical, Sahelian feel, heated by hot desert winds. Go east and you'll hit low mountains, waterfalls and national parks that beg for hiking boots.
The country has a darker history too: once the bastion of West Africa's slave trade, Ghana's historic coast offers plenty of moments for reflection. Ghana has been through a lot in the past few centuries, from Ashanti rule (1670 to 1902), through Portuguese, Dutch and British control and finally independence from Britain in 1957. Slave ships once departed its turquoise waters for America, carrying thousands of West Africans who had been locked in the bowels of the haunting 17th-century castle in the central city of Cape Coast. Although Ghana's ride to the present has been fraught with post-independence struggles and development hurdles, last year its economy was the fastest-growing in the world, thanks to recently discovered offshore oil (found in 2010), gold mining and a growing fair trade cocoa industry.
Accra, one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa, is starting to rival the Nigerian city of Lagos for entertainment, dining and art. In the district of Osu, sushi bars and sultry clubs pipe out West African hip-hop; construction is under way all over the city and shiny new apartment blocks go up next to traditional "chop bars" serving spicy Ghanaian dishes such as red-red and fufu. You are likely to get stuck in at least one or two "go-slows", or traffic jams, as the capital's increasingly clogged roads struggle to cope with the surge in business interest now that Ghana has emerged as an exciting African player.
Although Accra is a seaside capital, nothing beats the spectacular beaches further west. To feel soft white sand between your toes, jump in a minibus and chase the coastal road, stopping off at sleepy fishing villages and laid-back beach spots. Some of the best coastal resorts lie beyond Axim and before the Ivorian border, where beaches are buttered with thick sand and peppered with skinny coconut palms. You can party at key spots along the coast such as Kokrobite and Busua, or hire a board and ride the country's renowned waves – the 1966 surf film The Endless Summer was partly shot in Ghana.
Ghana can't compete with major safari destinations such as Kenya or South Africa, but it has spectacular bird life, snorkelling and opportunities to spot turtles and humpback whales. Sunbird Tours (01767 262522; sunbirdtours.co.uk) offers a 14-day group tour in November to spot bird species such as jacanas, blue-headed bee-eaters and yellow-headed picathartes, costing £2,470 per person, excluding flights.
A small population of African elephants lives in the north, close to the border with Burkina Faso. You can visit them at Mole National Park, where wardens lead walking safaris that wind past watering holes. Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) has a 15-day Kingdom of the Ashanti journey through Ghana that takes in Cape Coast, patches of rainforest such as that at Kakum south of Kumasi, and Mole National Park for £1,920 per person with flights, accommodation, and most meals.
Lonely Planet's West Africa guidebook is available now, price £20.99 (shop.lonelyplanet.com)
Eastern Ghana's prime trekking area is focused around the Volta Region which is characterised by forest, hills and waterfalls. The highlights include Mount Afadjato (Ghana's highest peak) and Wli Falls, a 400m waterfall that cascades on to the Agumatsa Wildlife sanctuary, where monkeys, colourful bird species, butterflies and bats all thrive. Wli Water Heights Hotel (00 233 20 93 871 76; wliwaterheight shotel.com) has double rooms from GHC35 (£12) including breakfast. Another option is Big Foot Safari Lodge (00 233 20 78 823 34; big footsafarilodge.com), which has doubles from US$40 (£27), with breakfast.
Mole National Park
For many visitors to Ghana, a trip to Mole National Park, about 670km north of Accra, is a highlight. Mole Motel (00 233 2443 167 77) has doubles from GHC70 (£25) including breakfast and is in the grounds of the park. You might be lucky enough to catch elephants at the watering holes and monkeys rustling in the trees while wardens lead you through the scrub. Hikes start at about GHC10 (£3) per person and are arranged through the motel or at the park entrance, a few metres away. The nearby town of Larabanga is known for its mud-and-stick mosque, pictured, said to date from the early 15th century.
Ghana's capital, Accra, is worth at least a few days' exploration for sightseeing, local food and top nightlife. In the centre, Independence Square is flanked by a golden arch beneath which burns the Eternal Flame of African Liberation, first lit by Ghana's independence leader Kwame Nkrumah in 1957. Ghana's football team was named after a black star on its tip.
The National Museum of Ghana (00 233 21 22 1633; bit.ly/GhanaMus) on Barnes Road has a collection of traditional musical instruments, ethnic chiefs' attire, scriptures and masks. Admission is 6GH (£2).
Ghana's breakfast bars are renowned for cheap dishes, served while you sit on wooden benches. Expect mugs of builders' tea or instant coffee with sweetened milk, big chunks of bread and dollops of red-red – a local dish with black-eyed peas, salted plantains and sweet, spicy palm oil sauce.
Katawodieso Waakye, in Osu, is Accra's breakfast bar of the moment.
Also in Osu, Firefly Lounge Bar (00 233 302 777 818) on 11th Lane has been turning heads. This is where Ghana's celebrities, fashion set and philanthropists spend Friday nights. Expect sleek design, exposed brickwork, moody lighting and DJs.
Afia African Village (00 233 302 681 465; afiavillage.com) has doubles with Atlantic or lush garden views from US$100 (£67) including breakfast. Its Tribes restaurant has classy Ghanaian dishes, such as spicy groundnut stew, at GHC18 (£6).
Five hours' drive west of Accra is the pretty fishing town of Elmina, pictured, with its 15th-century Portuguese castle (elminacastle.info) and backpackers' favourite Stumble Inn (00 233 54 14 627 33; stumbleinnghana.com), where thatched huts, a few paces from the ocean, start at GHC35 (£12) with breakfast.
Further west, in Busua, you can learn to surf. Black Star surf camp (00 233 27 52 249 69; blackstarsurf shop.com) has week-long packages, with accommodation, food, board hire and lessons from €250.
Near Axim, you'll find the Belgian-owned resort Lou Moon (00 233 26 42 415 49; loumoon- lodge.com), which has B&B from €75. Bed down in hillside cottages or canoe out to your own private island. Lou Moon's Togolese chefs will rustle up plates of local lobster and hibiscus ice cream.
Makola market in central Accra was recently rebuilt, and although it's no longer the bewildering maze it once was, you can find everything from traditional spices, jars of local shea butter and Ghanaian cloth to football shirts and second-hand pairs of sequinned heels. Most of the stall owners are women, some of whom are part of local commerce collectives or business groups supported by NGOs.
Trashy Bags (00 233 54 43 49 857; trashybags.org) at 8 Dzorwulu Road, in the Accra suburb of Dzorwulu, is the main store for a design company that creates purses, shoulder bags and laptop cases from discarded sachets for drinking water. It also does a line in hats made from the wrappers of frozen yoghurt brands.
Accra Mall (accra mall.com) is on the outskirts of the city. Ghanaians flock here for a fix of high-street shopping, internet access and the latest film releases.
Visit the Woodin boutique for its stylish wax cloth shirts and dresses. There's also a food court with some South African chain restaurants and a branch of the Ivorian eatery Maquis Tante Marie, which serves up big bowls of Ghanaian and Ivorian specialities such as grilled plantain and fish served with a spicy local salsa.
BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) both fly non-stop from Heathrow to Accra.
KLM (08705 074074; klm.com) flies from a range of UK airports via Amsterdam, Lufthansa (0870 8377 747; lufthansa.com) flies via Frankfurt and TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) via Lisbon.
British passport-holders require a visa, which can be obtained from the Ghana High Commission in London (08453 133 399; ghanahighcommission uk.com) for £50. A yellow fever certificate is also mandatory.
Ghana's bus network is a blessing, especially if you've a passion for West African films as well as the scenery.
Look out for air-conditioned STC and VIP buses that ply the main travel routes, including to Elmina/Cape Coast (five hours), Kumasi (six hours), Tamale (12 hours). A single journey costs from GHC6 (£2).
A taxi through Accra should cost from GHC3 to GHC6 (£1-£2). Or you can take tro-tros (minibuses) which charge less than GHC1, although they are often overcrowded. Motorbike taxis are not recommended.
Jolinaiko Eco Tours (joli-ecotours.com) is a low-budget tour operator that specialises in West Africa. It offers tours of local sites, beaches and climbing adventures starting at around £35 per person per day, excluding accommodation.
M and J Travel (mandjtravelghana.com), another local tour operator, offers trekking, birdwatching, wildlife-watching and historical tours of Ghana. The company also offers shorter trips by bus, including from Tamale to Mole National Park, from GHC20 (£7).