If you're bored of the same old package destinations on the Spanish Costas, the Algarve, Turkey's west coast or the Greek islands, then this West African gem could be exactly what you're looking for.
Just a six-hour flight from the UK, The Gambia boasts gorgeous sandy beaches, friendly people and some lush countryside. There are lots of good quality resorts which cater for most budgets and a wide range of activities, whether you're a sports or wildlife-lover. The weather's pretty good year-round so it's an ideal destination for a week or two away.
International flights arrive at Banjul International Airport which is a 30-minute cab ride outside the capital. In Banjul itself and around the Atlantic coast resorts, look out for the yellow taxis which are mainly used for short journeys. If you want to venture further afield, find yourself a green taxi and be sure to agree a price before setting off anywhere. Most of the resort hotels can arrange a transfer from the airport if you want to avoid the hassle of finding a cab.
Around half of The Gambia's 50-mile long stretch of coastline is home to some top quality beaches. Most of the resorts are grouped around the best ones and offer a wide range of watersports. Bijilo beach is long and sandy but there are only a couple of nearby hotels so it's a great place to really chill out. Kotu beach is sandy but fairly narrow while Kololi beach is much wider. The area around Bakau beach is dotted with red stone cliffs and many other small beaches and Cape Point is one of the biggest and best beaches with an excellent watersports centre.
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, visit the small capital Banjul. There, you'll find Arch 22, built to commemorate the country's independence, and the National Museum, which provides an interesting insight in the culture and history of the country. The city is situated on St Mary's Island at the mouth of the River Gambia and is quite a strange place, given the mix of colonial architecture, shanty towns and modern office blocks. Beer-lovers can take a tour of the Banjul Brewery and sample a sip of the locally produced Julbrew. Jufureh is a popular small town. It rose to fame as the home of Kunte Kinte, the ancestor of Alex Haley in Roots, the book and 1970s TV series. There's a popular, half day 'Roots' tour which takes in the village itself, a former French trading post and the former slave fortress, James Island. If you're lucky, you may spy the odd dolphin on your way out there.
If you want to get away from the beach for a day or two, you could set off on an inland safari. There are a few camps in rural Gambia where you'll find basic accommodation. Camps like Tendaba act as a great base from which to explore. In the Gambian bush, you'll find more birds, bush hogs and lots of other wildlife and you can venture out in a 4x4 or along the river in a canoe. Back at the camp, the Bamboo Bar is the perfect place to compare notes with other guests over a cold beer. In the capital, you could also take a sunset cruise along the River Gambia's tributaries (known as bolongs) or paddle along in a wooden pirogue to Oyster Creek, the main stretch of water separating Banjul from the mainland.
They like their food spicy in The Gambia, so if you do have a delicate stomach, you'll be better off sticking to the international cuisine that you find in many of the big resort hotels. Or you could indulge yourself with all manner of deliciously fresh fruit, including mango, papaya, orange, grapefruit, pineapple and watermelon. A delicious local juice is called Wonjo, which is squeezed from the sorrelflower. If you are feeling a little adventurous, then specialities in The Gambia include grilled chicken marinated in onions and lemon (yassa poulet), and rice baked in a sauce of fish and vegetables. If you're after fast food, Gambian-style, then look out for the little shacks known as afra. Not for vegetarians, these are the places to get yourself a spicy meat snack. Most tourists find their evening entertainment confined to one of the many resorts dotted along the Atlantic coast. The big hotels put on full entertainment programmes and you can expect to be treated to performances of African ballet, Djembe drums, fire-eating, Kora and Balafon (traditional instruments), karaoke, fashion shows and 'dance with the locals' nights. There are some wonderful beach bars, should you fancy a tipple with the sound of reggae and lapping waves in the background. For a bigger night out, head to Banjul while you'll find upmarket clubs like the Melicana Nightclub or more raucous venues such as the Soto-Koto. If you fancy a flutter, there are several casinos in the Senegambia area.
The Gambia's great for holiday souvenir shopping as there are markets everywhere. Popular items include colourful baggy trousers, tie-dye and batik fabrics, wood carvings, jewellery, leather goods, sand painting, masks and baskets. Many markets are found in the resort towns and haggling is the norm, so make sure you have an idea of what you are prepared to pay before you start to barter. You have to be very careful with your purchases as anything you buy that's made from the skin, ivory or feathers of any protected creature will be confiscated at customs. You'll also generally receive a large fine. If the rhythms you hear throughout your holiday hit the right note then invest in the CDs of local artists. A great place for a family day out is Abuko Nature Reserve, about 15 miles inland from the west coast. It's a bit of an ornithologist's paradise, but even if you're not interested in our feathery friends, there are monkeys, crocodiles and lizards to look out for. There's also an animal orphanage with enclosures for hyenas, antelopes, monkeys and a lion. Book yourself a guide for a two-hour walk around the reserve, and keep your eyes peeled. Before heading home, visit the nearby Brikama Wood Carving Centre to observe the local craftsmen at work.
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