Travel: Lie back and think of The Gambia

Guaranteed sunshine and warm hospitality are pulling in the tourists to this small West African country, writes Andrew Warshaw

In need of a quick escape from winter? To an unusual place with guaranteed sunshine? Consider The Gambia: less than six hours flying time (you can be on the beach in seven hours, if all runs well); fabulous climate all year round with a cool breeze keeping the temperature in the high 80s; no time difference so no jet-lag; interesting food; fascinating culture; and weird and wonderful sights and sounds that only Africa can provide.

Of course, The Gambia does have its drawbacks. There is hardly anything to do for older kids; the surprisingly warm Atlantic sea can throw up dangerously strong currents; and the notorious bumsters, some of whom are genuinely interested in every aspect of your life, are irritating in the extreme, hassling you the moment you leave your hotel, taking no account of your mood and unable to read your body language. It is the same on some of the beaches, although here the hassle is restricted to fruit-sellers fighting over the customers.

In short, The Gambia is one of those take-it-or-leave-it places, a finger- shaped strip of unsophisticated charm; it offers a rewarding adventure in one of Africa's poorest yet most hospitable regions, surrounded on all sides by Senegal.

Perhaps sadly for the visitor, but thankfully for the country's economy, tourism has taken an iron grip on The Gambia to the point that wherever you go it is hard to avoid meeting other Westerners. The knack, if you want to see real Gambian life, is to befriend one of the locals. As sure as night follows day, you will be invited into his family's spartan compound, a group of ramshackle dwellings that represent home for an entire family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. An enormous effort will be made to make the tubab (Westerner) feel welcome. More often than not, the lady of the house will prepare a typically Gambian meal of, for example, peanut-spiced fish. Great pride is taken in this ritual. It is a humbling yet rewarding experience.

The only time to avoid The Gambia is in the rainy season, between July and mid-September, when it is unbearably humid. In the British winter and spring, however, it is a wonderful holiday destination, provided you can put up with the unrelenting attention of the aforementioned bumsters. Here is a tip if you begin to despair: get to know a couple of them, use them as contacts whenever anyone else tries to hassle you, and you will be left in peace to watch some other unsuspecting tourist suffer.

If such intrusions sound too much to bear, crime is virtually non-existent in The Gambia, unlike in many other African countries. With tourism playing a crucial role in the country's economic survival, the authorities clamp down hard on any reported cases of criminal activity against Westerners. That doesn't mean you can wander alone at night: the odd mugging still takes place in some of the less-frequented areas.

Stay within the resort, however, and you will be perfectly safe in an atmosphere of unhurried relaxation. Most of Gambia's resorts are a mixture of hotels, beach bars, restaurants, craft markets (where bartering is de rigueur, as it is throughout the developing world) and the odd supermarket - usually surprisingly well stocked. At night, the resorts come alive with a mixture of tribal singing and dancing. At times, throbbing reggae: at other times, intoxicating percussion rhythms. Loud, but never deafening.

Most of the hotels are spread out along the 25-mile coastline, but biggest doesn't necessarily mean best. Sporadic power cuts can affect an entire resort (no fun when you are in the shower). Satellite television may be available in some of the larger, more expensive establishments, most of which have air-conditioned rooms, but these lack the personal touch. On my last day at the three-star Bakotu, a small hotel of thatched bungalows and infectious warmth, where monkeys frolic in the lovingly-tended tropical gardens, the cook, John, a gentle giant, gave me a farewell present: a pineapple he had carefully placed in the back of his bicycle before cycling the three miles to work. The previous year, he had brought myself and my partner a beautiful batik tablecloth.

The Gambia's restaurants cater for a variety of international tastes. Some are attached to hotels, or may be a short taxi-ride away. Others could be a couple of minutes walk from your hotel. One of the most romantic is Il Mondo, candlelit and situated on the beach, its tables and chairs pushed into the sand. II Mondo's beach, by the way, provides free sunloungers and security guards to keep away pesterers.

Local specialities include groundnut soup, ladyfish and benachin, a delicious concoction of spiced meat or fish, rice, vegetables and tomato. Opt for a local meal at a reasonably priced restaurant and two courses washed down with the local beer will still cost you just over a fiver. The Bakadashi, in particular, stands out, a spacious yet unpretentious open-air Gambian establishment with a buffet on Thursdays and Saturdays, and an exciting acrobatic troupe of African dancers to entertain you. If you are lucky, Seku, one of The Gambia's finest exponents of the kora (a cross between a harp and a sitar) will serenade you with his gentle lilting music.

As for wildlife, The Gambia is not, it's important to stress, big-game country. There are no lions or hippos in this part of Africa. But if ornithology is your thing, you can't beat it. Take a guided tour down the River Gambia to hear the dawn chorus, dropping by an old colonial lodge for an enormous breakfast, and you could spot more than 200 species of rare birds.

There are many other excursions, notably a trip to Juffureh, the village to which Alex Haley is said to have traced his ancestor Kunte Kinte, celebrated in his famous book Roots. All-day excursions vary in price from pounds 15 to pounds 30. Take plenty of sweets, pens and paper with you: throughout your trip, scores of shabbily dressed, grinning children will run alongside your truck, hoping that you are going to make their day.

One last tip. This is malaria country, so taking the pills before, during and after your holiday is crucial. And beware "Banjul belly", the local stomach upset. Remember to pack plenty of rehydration tablets.

THE GAMBIA

GETTING THERE

Several travel companies operate package tours. Andrew Warshaw travelled with The Gambia Experience (tel: 01703 730888), which offers departures from Gatwick and Manchester. Prices vary from pounds 300 to pounds 550 for one week, including return flights, transfers and bed and breakfast accommodation.

GETTING AROUND

There is no railway system in The Gambia and buses are almost as scarce. The only frequent form of public transport are the characterful "bush taxis", which can take up to 14 people. For a more reliable service, take either local taxis, green and yellow in colour, which have fixed stop- off points, such as Serracunda market, or hotel taxis which are green, include two hours waiting wherever you want to go and should cost no more than pounds 10 for a round trip. Both types of taxis can be pre-booked or hired on the spot. A drive into Banjul from your resort should take no more than 30 minutes.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Winter is the best time to visit - avoid high summer. Visas are not required for British citizens. Transfer times from Banjul airport to the resorts take between 25 and 50 minutes. The local currency is the dalasi, easily obtained at hotels, banks and bureaux de change. Credit cards are only accepted at some hotels and restaurants. It is advisable to take some travellers' cheques with you.

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