I couldn’t work out what the noise was, not loud, just rhythmic and somehow familiar. Moments later, I placed the sound: it was the sea! And not just any old sea, rather the Atlantic Ocean. Leaning out from the balcony, I had a perfect view, straight ahead lay golden sands, a blue sea with gently breaking waves, and on the beach, two gorgeous horses cantered by. The tone was set for our stay at the African Princess Beach Hotel in The Gambia. Each day dawned as glorious as the one before, clouds seldom appeared and the temperature rose to about 30°C early afternoon, with cooler evenings and a pleasant onshore breeze.
Famous for its winter sun, the Gambia is but 6 hours flight from the UK and offers good value holidays for those weary of grey skies and the cold. We were ready for our post-Christmas get away, after juggling family meals, relatives by the dozen and a visiting puppy who chewed furniture and bare toes alike. For empty nesters and couples, the tranquillity offered by the African Princess Beach hotel cannot be beaten. And we were not alone, this hotel was full of others just like us!
It’s a modern, recently built property, well designed with spacious rooms, decorated in relaxing, neutral hues, providing the most spacious wardrobes I’ve ever seen in a hotel room. The lighting was good, a point often missed, the desk a decent size, the bed really comfortable with good linen. The cushions passed muster, tasteful and in contrasting colours to the walls. An important feature to my mind. For those on the ground floor, there was a swim up pool with a terrace. I prefer a balcony though, you get a better view.
What strikes you immediately about the Gambia is the warmth and friendliness of the people there. Not for nothing is it called ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’. Our room attendant, Mousa, was a delightful chap in his 20s, charming and gracious. The reception staff were helpful at all hours of the day and night, and presided over their large, welcoming foyer, sofas and comfy chairs with hints of Africa in the décor, in a justifiably proud-to-be-working-here manner. Around the gardens and pool, all beautifully maintained, and in the bar and restaurant, the staff were well trained and keen to ensure we had a great holiday.
The Gambia’s official language is English although many have more than a smattering of French, given that the country is surrounded by Senegal. And we met many Senegalese who live and work here, along with second or third generation Lebanese and Moroccans. What is a surprise though, is that 90% of the population are Muslim. Dress on the street ranges from brightly coloured traditional African through to European, with the occasional hijab appearing, although many women have some type of head covering. It seems that pretty much anything goes.
I love the beach and the sea. And on this beach, all the action took place. It is the playgroup for Gambians. There are quite literally miles of clean, unspoilt sand, with a few sunbeds in friendly clusters in front of hotels or restaurants. It is a stark contrast to the beaches of southern Europe with rows of furniture and umbrellas in rigidly straight lines, looking like a regimental parade. The beach here is used as a gym, a football and cricket pitch, a marketplace, a gossiping spot, somewhere to walk, to cycle, to ride, to relax. The sea is carefully monitored for tides and currents, which can be changeable, and the lifeguards use appropriate flags to show its suitability for swimming. I swam most days within sight of the hotel and felt safe.
So to food, breakfast was pretty standard and good, with plenty of choices. It was in the evenings that we ventured forth, after a drink in the hotel bar, which had the perfect sunset location, just idyllic, and used the recommendations from The Gambia Experience’s handy book, with discount or added value vouchers, at various restaurants. The Butcher’s Shop was a like stepping into a French colonial house and offered fine dining, with a great wine cellar with a bill of less than £40 for two. Likewise Seashells, run by the same family, hosted by the elegant Fouzia. For a taste of Italy, directly opposite the hotel, we ate at Luigi’s on the rooftop, surrounded by local families. Shiraz, a short walk away, serves really good Lebanese fare for around £25 for two. For the authentic beach shack experience, Solomon’s famous fish in foil with a couple of beers cannot fail to hit the spot. It ran a roaring trade day and night, closing only when the last customer left!
At the end of our week in the Gambia we had relaxed, sunbathed, swum, eaten in interesting and great restaurants, and explored a country we’d wanted to visit for a few years. Ah yes, and we’d had the down time we’d been so in need of.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends The Gambia Experience.