(JollofNews) – As we shivered in the drab weather, the question in the Nichol house was: ‘Where do we go for some guaranteed sunshine without crossing half the planet?’
A few years ago, the answer may have been Egypt or Tunisia. But due to recent attacks at tourist resorts and regional instability, travellers are looking at previously less popular destinations in the search for safe, sunny, reasonably priced holidays.
We chose the west coast of Africa and its smallest mainland country, The Gambia, with its subtropical climate and year-round swimsuit weather.
Even though the disease never reached Gambia, the 2014 outbreak of ebola in West Africa had a devastating effect on the area’s tourist industry. But now visitors are returning to enjoy the country’s legendary beaches.
On holiday, I require sunshine and a sunlounger, while my wife Suzie has an eye for a decent spa and some ‘off the beaten track’ sights to explore. Daughter Sophie, 11, requires a pool, a beach, and other families so she can seek out new playmates.
With its large pool, spa and beachfront setting, The Ocean Bay Hotel at Cape Point, where the River Gambia and the Atlantic Ocean merge, seemed the perfect choice.
After a six-hour flight from Gatwick – with a time difference of only one hour – we were ready to hit the pool as soon as we arrived.
The Ocean Bay staff were always ready with a beaming smile and a cheery greeting enquiring after ‘the boss lady’ or ‘princess Sophie’.
Food, in and out of the hotel, was excellent and, with prices as low as 200 dalasi (about £4) for a main course, superb value for money.
We sampled some freshly caught fish such as barracuda, and local staples like yassa (chicken cooked with fresh lime, chilli, onions and black pepper) and domoda, which could be any meat cooked with peanuts, mustard and tomato paste.
To experience the real Gambia, you need to step outside the neatly manicured grounds of the international hotels.
At first, you will be pestered by ‘bumsters’ trying to sell everything from a coconut to an excursion, or begging for money. The official advice is to politely, but firmly, reject every advance.
We followed the advice and we were largely left alone. Another tip is to use an official tourist guide. They were always outside our hotel and cost £11 for half a day.
As I had important business lazing by the pool, it was Sophie who headed out of the hotel with a new friend and her family, in the care of one of the official Gambian guides. This is her review:
‘Halfway through our holiday I was invited on a tour. We got on a bus with no seatbelts, it was quite weird and we had to cling on because the roads were very bumpy.
‘After a few minutes we pulled up outside an old shack. I was confused as I thought we were going to a school, but the guide explained that this was the school.
‘I expected to see 30 children sitting on chairs with tables in front of them. It turned out there were 70 kids squashed up on narrow benches with no tables.
‘They were all different ages, ranging from three to ten. They were pretty good at English – compared to my French – and they could all pronounce the words excellently. They were learning the letters and how to say different animal names.
‘We were asked to join in so we shouted words like “butterfly” as loud as we could. Afterwards they sang nursery rhymes. We gave them a few gifts of pens, sweets and books and they were very thankful.
‘One teacher was very strict, hitting the children, which was rather awkward. We left thinking about how lucky we were.
‘Next we headed to the vulture park where we saw the birds being fed and given a drink. They were incredibly ugly, but very graceful, too.
‘Then we walked through a wood to see some monkeys who we could hand-feed. They took one shell at a time, carefully choosing which one they wanted before shaking it to make sure there was a nut inside. They carefully bit off the shell, ate the food, then took another.
‘Then we saw some crocodiles and we were even allowed to touch them. We avoided the teeth and they seemed very friendly. Finally, after a tasty lunch, we headed back to the hotel to cool off in the pool. We had a very busy day and I really enjoyed our holiday.’
Sophie’s final thoughts sum up the holiday – a blend of sunshine and relaxation mixed with an insight into an impoverished yet welcoming country. Our trip was a perfect early spring break, and very good value for money.
Written by John Nichol, Courtest of Daily Mail.