Winter sun: long weekend in The Gambia
Fly to Africa for a long weekend of sun and return midweek. Is that possible? Bernadette Fallon checks it out
It's five hours' flying time from London with no time difference on arrival, has winter temperatures in the 30s and the most welcoming people who have earned it the name of ‘smiling coast of Africa'. So even if you are struggling with limited time and a limited budget it's still possible to soak up out-of-season rays.
Africa, the continent, is a much more viable winter sun destination than - current favourite - the Caribbean. Of course many of the countries that make up this land mass attract attention for all the wrong reasons, so it's worth putting The Gambia in perspective.
The population is mainly Muslim, non-extremist and extremely tolerant, living peacefully alongside a Christian minority. The country's hot season, from November to April, makes it an ideal winter sun destination; the wet season lasts from May to October. A former British colony, English is the official first language; The Gambia received its independence under a coalition government on February 18, 1965.
Which co-incidentally is the date of my friend's son's birthday - a fact that makes the locals on the beach cheer loudly when they hear it. It is this, the friendliness of the people, that makes me think I will return to The Gambia some day, and of course the promises myself and my friend make to all our new-found friends - from the boys on the beach to the waiters at the hotel - to come back some day and see them.
The Gambia - getting there
If you are opting for a short break in The Gambia - and with the five-hour flight and no time difference, it's a realistic option - it's better to book through an experienced operator. We travelled with The Gambia experience and had the luxury of knowing we were being picked up at the airport and dropped to our hotel, a tour representative was available to give advice on the local area and excursions, and we were sent lots of information about the country and what to expect before we went - right down to local currency to tip porters at the rather hectic Banjul airport. (Note - you may also find it useful to take a guide book, I used the Bradt Guide to The Gambia, www.bradtguides.com.)
Flight times are twice weekly, so you can travel on a Friday morning as we did, be in The Gambia in time for afternoon tea and fly home Tuesday evening for work on Wednesday! Basic packages include flights, transfers, accommodation and local info - upgrade to Premium (from £249 return) for extras like flight upgrade, extra luggage allowance, access to airport lounge, tips for porters and more. A Gold package (from £39 on selected flights) offers a middle ground, with some of the premium benefits at a cheaper price.
Like many other regions, The Gambia is developing its tourist industry and expanding its range of choice. Tourism is now the third biggest national earner and has brought great employment to the country. And while it might be slightly incongruous to have luxury hotels offering amenities at prices many Gambians can't afford, the employment and training such institutions provide are welcomed by everyone we spoke to. They offer local residents income and training, and the skills to potentially open their own businesses as the region attracts more visitors.
Coco Ocean Resort
One of the newest hotels in the country - just six weeks old when we visited and still in its ‘soft opening' phase - is the sumptuous Coco Ocean Resort & Spa. A magnificent Moorish temple to five-star comfort and style, on the edge of an unspoilt beach that stretches in each direction as far as the eye can see. The pounding of the waves of the Atlantic is the first sound you will hear in the morning and the last before you go to sleep at night.
It's a lavish design, sympathetic to the landscape. While the views of domed roofs rising beyond the castellated white walls at the edge of the sand lend an Arabian nights' mystique, the building has been carefully developed to hug the natural curve of the hillside as it slopes gently towards the beach. The hotel gardeners have been on site for several years so that the hotel sits amid a lush green landscape and, rather than knock down trees to make space for buildings, trees have been simply incorporated into the design. In this way the thick trunk of a Coli tree penetrates the centre of the gym, where treadmills with the best views in the world look out to sea.
Also in this building, the pièce de resistance of the resort, the spa, is perfectly poised for ocean views, the tinted blue glass of the relaxation areas echoing the rich blue of the sea in front. This is surely one of the best placed spas in the world - the next day myself and my friend enjoy foot massages looking out to sea from our recliners on the edge of the Thalasso pool.
The spa's signature treatment, in keeping with the hotel's architectural heritage, is the Moroccan Hammam, a deep cleansing and exfoliating body treatment organised into several cleaning rituals. First a black olive all-over soap scrub, followed by an exfoliating body rub and finally a Rhassoul mud wrap, with mud from deep within the Moroccan mountains, infusions of steam throughout allowing the healing power of the minerals to penetrate deeply. In Morocco this is a weekly ritual for everybody from childhood, and I can see why. I feel renewed - due in no small measure to the entire layer of dead skin which has been removed from my body and now lies by my feet!
From Moroccan to Asian. Dinner that night in the Safran restaurant, where you can eat inside the light and airy space, or outside by the fountains (it's a bit chilly for us and we scuttle inside. The evenings can be very cool so pack sleeves as well as summer clothes) offers a menu of primarily Asian dishes (the chef is Thai), alongside a few African and European choices.
The hotel's own garden supplies seasonal organic ingredients; the following morning we help Farida, the hotel's director, pick fresh sage leaves and local herb Kilkileba for the spa's herbal teas. Energy is solar-powered - though some teething problems with the system mean the hot water supply is not totally regulated during our visit - like I said, the hotel is in ‘soft launch' mode.
The hotel facilities - two outdoor pools, spa, chillout lounge with (tiny) library - offer plenty of scope for relaxing. But what else can you do in The Gambia? Read more here ...
Specialist tour operator The Gambia Experience offers seven-night holidays at the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa (part of its Luxury Collection) from £899 per person. This price is based on two sharing a junior suite on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick, transfers and all taxes. Upgrades to half board cost from £18 per person per night.
For more information, call The Gambia Experience reservations department on 0845 330 2087 or visit www.gambia.co.uk.
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