With its heady whiff of colonialism, the Hôtel de la Poste belongs in the pages of a Graham Greene novel. The building dates from 1850; it was originally a private residence. By the 1930s it had become a hotel, which made its name as the haunt of the Aèropostale airmail pioneers – which explains its name. Saint-Louis was a crucial stop on the postal network radiating from Paris.

The Hôtel de la Poste has become a shrine to the memory of one of them, Jean Mermoz. He made the first mail run across the South Atlantic from Saint-Louis to Natal, then disappeared over it without a trace in 1936.

Fittingly, the hotel was bought by a French family of pilots in the 1960s. The management has not over-spent on improvements since then. Peeling paint and cracked plaster are an integral part of the charm, as are the moth-eaten animal heads in the Safari Bar.

Order a glass of hibiscus juice or bissap and keep an eye out for the hotel's walking encyclopedia, Mr Colo Diakhitè, a resident for more than 30 years.

The breakfast room served, in a previous incarnation, as one of the earliest projection rooms in West Africa. It once showed silent movies. More recently, the film director Bertrand Tavernier captured the Poste's faded grandeur in Coup de Torchon.

Loccation, location, location

Hôtel de la Poste, BP 48, Saint-Louis, Senegal (00 221 961 11 18, www.senegal-online.com/hotelposte).

The Hôtel de la Poste sits at the historic heart of the former capital of French West Africa. Surrounded by the River Senegal, the island is the most fascinating of the three strips that make up Saint-Louis. On a clear day, you can see Mauritania from the northern tip; to the west is the Langue de Barbarie peninsula and the Atlantic.

Within easy reach of the hotel are the grand old quayside houses in varying states of disrepair that were once inhabited by European merchants trading in gold, ivory and slaves.

Time to international airport: The airport is 20 minutes away on the mainland. The Hôtel de la Poste runs a shuttle bus to meet the weekly Paris-Saint-Louis flight operated by Star Airlines. Coming north from Dakar, driving direct takes about four hours to cover the 264km (133 miles) on a relatively pothole-free road.

Allow anything up to seven hours for the taxi-brousse, or bush taxis, that only leave when full – full can include goats on the roof and chickens flapping around under the seat.

The locals talk of the train service from Dakar being resurrected later this year.

Are you lying comfortably?

There are 44 bedrooms, with plans to add a suite. Ask for one of the six that overlook the river – or for room 219 where Mermoz slept, though this tends to be booked months in advance.

Freebies: none, but who cares when the whole building reeks of aviation history and the room key is shaped like a seaplane?

Keeping in touch: The TV has mainly French channels and RTS, the national Senegalese station with a predilection for Brazilian soap operas ineptly dubbed from Portuguese. The telephone, refreshingly, is just that and doesn't turn into an alarm clock or a flashing message service.

The bottom line

Doubles cost 67,200CFA Francs (£64) per night. Breakfast is extra.

I'm not paying that: There are plenty of cheaper, if less atmospheric, options. The youth hostel, L'Atalantide, on Avenue Mermoz (00 221 961 24 09), is in a quieter part of town and charges 5,500CFA (£5.25) for a dorm bed with breakfast.