It was perfect timing when The Gambia Experience ran its 7-night Laico Atlantic Beach Hotel offer in the Top 20, only a week after a close friend said that The Gambia (nicknamed the Land of Smiles) was one of the most interesting destinations she’d been to in years. Inspired, I booked a week-long all-inclusive stay for two.
Two weeks later we were heading to Gatwick for our 6-hour flight to Banjul, The Gambia’s capital. Located on Africa’s west coast, The Gambia is the continent’s smallest country (and quite easily missed on a first glance at Google maps).
With temperatures regularly hitting 30 degrees throughout January and February, it is easy to see why people return to The Gambia year after year for their winter-sun fix. The heat hits you the moment you step off the plane and walk into the rather hectic Banjul airport. Be prepared for chaos at the X-ray machines and porters wheeling your suitcases off before you’ve agreed. You’ll still be expected to tip!
Once we’d passed security and collected our bags, we hopped on a coach and 20 minutes later arrived at our hotel just outside central Banjul. The Laico Atlantic Beach Hotel is an ideal resort for anyone who’s looking to relax rather than explore, as it’s a 15-20 minute drive from the busier tourist areas, with little else around. It comes with all the normal facilities: a large swimming pool, plenty of loungers, a tennis court and two restaurants serving a mix of local and international cuisine -- but it was service that really stood out for us. All the staff were fantastic and never greeted us without a smile or friendly chatter.
After a couple of days of lounging on the beach sipping G&Ts, we wanted to get out and about and see more of the country; so we booked ourselves onto The Gambia Experience’s Four Wheel Drive tour, which takes you to villages off the beaten track in an army-style truck. Highlights included watching a dance performance by children at a local school, sampling palm wine and jungle juice at a compound and eating a delicious fish lunch at Paradise Beach -- one of The Gambia’s best beaches.
Having enjoyed our first excursion so much, we decided to do the Roots tour. This day trip is named after Alex Haley’s famous novel, which traces his ancestors back to his great great grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped from The Gambia and transported as a slave to Maryland, USA.
A 2-and-a-half-hour cruise upriver took in Fort James (used as a prison for slaves before they were transported) on Kunta Kinte Island (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). We then visited the village of Jufureh, home to descendants of Kunta Kinte, which hosts a small museum devoted to the history of the slave trade.
This tour is certainly an eye-opener and I would recommend it to anyone visiting The Gambia for the first time.
By this point the holiday was flying by and we only had a couple of days left. Aside from more lazing by the pool, we took a couple of strolls into Banjul, always accompanied by a local Gambian or hotel staff member, as the attention tourists get can be very overwhelming and relentless. We also spent an afternoon bird watching with a local ornithologist (The Gambia is well known for its diverse bird population) and ventured to the SeneGambia, the main tourist strip, lined with lively clubs, bars and restaurants.
Next thing we knew, we were back at the airport waiting to fly home. A little heavier from all-inclusive eating, we were also armed with a lot more knowledge about this tiny country’s dramatic past and hopeful future.
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