A beach holiday to The Gambia over 25 years ago, still evokes vivid memories: hospitable people, rusting taxis, fish-head curry, playing golf on ‘browns’ and Imodium. However, knowing The Gambia had more to offer, Rivers of West Africa with Variety Cruises seemed an ideal way to explore what is essentially a narrow strip of land on both sides of the River Gambia. It also allowed us to dip a toe into neighbouring Senegal for the first time.
The cruise itinerary
The seven-night cruise has two ports of embarkation: Dakar in Senegal or Banjul in The Gambia. We chose the latter, as Titan Airways offer direct flights and it was easy to arrange a beach extension from Banjul at Kombo Beach Hotel. However, the downside was that 25 of the 33 passengers embarked in Dakar, and at times it felt like arriving late to a party already in full swing. Whilst it meant we enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Dinner before the Welcome Cocktail and Dinner, we had the benefit of sailing with two groups of fellow passengers, with some simply enjoying a five-night cruise along the River Gambia. With hindsight, we would have booked a couple of days in Africa before the cruise, as although there’s no time difference, we found a full day of excursions after a long day’s travel, a little exhausting.
The Harmony V
The Harmony V is a Mega Yacht with just 25 cabins. We found our top deck cabin well-appointed and comfortable rather than luxurious, with a reasonable-sized bathroom and decent shower, essential for washing off the day’s dust. There are no balconies, but a large sun deck, with indoor and outdoor space, provided excellent views, the opportunity to chat with fellow passengers and ad-lib tea, coffee and biscuits. We only retreated into our air-conditioned cabin to either sleep or cool down as during early February, temperatures were around 38 degrees. Needless to say, a full programme of excursions meant our flat-screen TV and DVD player were unused. The dining room and small lounge area were on the middle deck and although there is no lift, there are copious handrails to grab onto when negotiating the inevitable stairs. However, as the majority of the sailing is along the River Gambia, rather than the Atlantic Ocean, the yacht was very stable during both daytime and evening sailing.
As Variety Cruises is based in Athens, Captain Makris, the hotel manager, Yiannis, and our Cruise Coordinator, Kalliopi, were all Greek, but were supported by an excellent international crew of 18. Kalliopi kept us organised with pre-dinner briefings, newsletters and announcements to ensure we were in the right place at the right time, whilst Assan, our Gambian naturalist, told us about the optional excursions and accompanied us on them. He also gave a couple of talks covering cultural issues, religious and family life in The Gambia.
Tipping is discretionary, but Variety recommends €15 to 18 per passenger, per day with a separate thank you to Assan.
For the first few days, we were also joined by a number of guests with links to Variety Cares™, a charitable foundation.
Food on board
The majority of meals were served in the dining room, although we enjoyed a BBQ dinner on the sun deck and on two excursions, lunch onshore. Breakfast time varied depending on the day’s activities, with a buffet lunch generally around 1.30pm, and the single-sitting dinner at 7.30pm.
Breakfast was a casual affair, but with a good array of the usual hot and cold dishes. A typical buffet lunch would have three varied salads, four hot dishes and vegetables: I was pleased that the chips were always slightly hidden out of direct sight, so they never tempted me when healthy salads were available. Dinner was either four courses or a buffet and although the cuisine was international, one evening a local Gambian chef introduced us to traditional food such as beef domada, a peanut stew, and chicken yassa cooked with caramelized onions and mustard.
Tables seated six, and as fellow passengers were from around the world including Belgium, America, Canada and Australia, everyone mixed and enjoyed each other’s company.
My daytime essentials were long trousers or shorts depending on the activity. Having got sooty marks from the yacht’s smoking funnel on my shorts the first afternoon, I stuck with them, as the boats we used to get ashore were basic with wooden planks for seats, and much of the land-based walking, dusty. This is a casual cruise and I preferred trousers in the evening to prevent bites although we were pleasantly surprised to find few mosquitos. Evenings on deck could be a little chilly and a wrap or light cardigan was useful.
Taking the full set of 8 optional excursions cost £372 per person, which were booked and paid for onboard in Euros. We did all the trips and although at times, our programme felt a little ‘full on’, options are limited if you remain on board, as on some occasions we were moored in the middle of the river. This meant we used pirogues, or motorised wooden boats, to reach the shore. A degree of agility was needed to get in and out of them, especially when wearing a bulky life jacket, but there was always a helping hand.
The NHS Fit for Travel website indicates that visitors to Senegal require a Yellow fever vaccination certificate if arriving from a country with a risk of yellow fever transmission, which The Gambia is. However, we were never asked to show our certificate.
Helen booked her cruise through Seafarer Cruising and Sailing Holidays who also arranged a week at the Kombo Beach Hotel with Silver Travel Advisor Partner – Serenity Holidays – The Gambia Experience.
Watch an overview of the cruise