The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country surrounded by neighbouring Senegal on the west coast of Africa. It’s fairly cheap to travel there from the UK and is growing in popularity as a winter sun destination. Despite this I’ve been asked SO many times whyyy I chose to go there? – here are my top reasons.
1 | Accessibility
So many small perks made travelling from the UK so convenient and comfortable, e.g.
- Flight time: 6 hours
- Time difference: No time difference! – so no need to adjust your watch
- Same plugs: No faffing around with adaptors.
- No language barrier
The official language is English & almost everyone you come across will speak English. It’s the main language for education, and the preference for written communication.
2 | Weather
The average yearly temperature is around 26°C*
While I was in Gambia, temperatures were reaching 31 degrees, with up-to 9 hours of beautiful sunshine. It definitely beat the cold, rainy Christmas I left back in London. The sun takes a little while to warm up in the morning (10am water aerobics was ambitiously chilly). The best time of year to go for sunshine is between November and June.
There is also a rainy season from late June to October. The weather is arguably the most agreeable climate in West Africa with predictable heat and sunshine.
3 | People
It’s not called ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’ for nothing. The always seemed happy, welcoming and curious.
Whenever we stepped outside of our hotel area people would come up to us almost straight away. Mostly they would be trying to sell us something – there are a lot of people hoping to make money by offering their services as a taxi or guide. Their persistence made us feel like walking $100 bills at times, but we never felt unsafe.
Also – I have never encountered such loving and outgoing children in any other country. We stopped off at a school in Juffereh on our way to Kunta Kinte Island and it wasn’t long before my heart was melting! Their smiles, affection and joy at receiving new pencils made me burst with love and humility. I took the time to cuddle each and every one of them.
Since that visit I’ve learned that poverty in Gambia makes education very difficult – with only 67 per cent of school-aged children enrolled in primary school. After some research I’m going to look into sponsoring a child who would otherwise be unable to go to school. You can look into this more here.
4 | Hotels – Where to stay
The main options I saw in The Gambia were either the lively resort area of Kololi near the Senegambia strip or the slightly quieter Kotu Beach area. Both are about a 30min drive from the airport.
The main tourist resorts are found here – also know as ‘The Strip’. Hotels are by the sea and the lively strip with its’ restaurants and bars are within short walking distance. Great for soaking up the sun during the day and partying at night.
Kotu is about 5mins drive from Kololi and is a quieter version with little nightlife or shops. It has a beautiful long sandy beach which provides the perfect backdrop for an idyllic sunset.
We stayed at Kombo Beach Hotel in Kotu which has a great beach and pool area and thorough schedule of activities, making it ideal for families. It was awarded the Travelife Gold Award three years running for its commitment to sustainable tourism.
Other touristy areas that we didn’t explore too much include Bijilo and Brufut.
5 | Beaches
The beautiful golden sand beaches in The Gambia never seemed to be overcrowded. There are plenty of sun loungers, beach bars and restaurants.
Known for outstretched coastline and spectacular sunsets, Kotu Beach is stunning.
Walking along the beach you may find a lot of local men & women trying to talk to you. They are friendly and we did bond with a few over a particular hair braiding session (lol). If you want some peace and quiet walking in the water you’ll be left alone as others won’t want to get their shoes wet!
Sanyang or ‘Paradise’ beach is a popular day trip and for good reason – white sandy beaches and relaxing shallow coastline. It is described as one of the most beautiful beaches in The Gambia. You can find a highly rated restaurant and peaceful, hassle free sunbathing.
Extensive summary of other beaches found in TG here.
6 | Markets
There are many local craft markets to explore – where you’ll find jewellery, decorations, African art, clothes and other interesting bits and bobs. The most well known market is Serrekunda and Royal Albert Market in Banjul.
Haggling: We quickly learned that the price quoted to you is more than double what the seller is willing to accept for any given item. The market is a great place to practice bartering skills – if they quote you D400, offer D200 or less and then meet somewhere in the middle. And stick to your guns!
Photographs: My friend and I couldn’t resist taking photographs – there was so much to see and so many colours. But we quickly realized that many of the local stall holders don’t like having their picture taken. If you do wish to take pictures at the market I would advise bringing your driver to translate and ask people if they mind being photographed on your behalf.
7 | Roots Tour
The ‘Roots’ tour was one of the most humbling, eye-opening experiences of our trip. On this one-day voyage we travelled to Kuntah Kinteh Island. Formerly known as James Island during colonial times, the purpose of this trip was to learn about the history of slavery, and explore the sites where many Africans were captured and sold as slaves. We also explored the village where the actual Kuntah Kinteh, whose real life character was depicted in the film Roots, grew up.
In the Juffereh Village is found a revealing museum on slavery, followed by a boat trip to the island where many hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped off to the Caribbean and Americas for hundreds of years.
Finding a tour
We were a bit unsure with how usual protocol works and finding a tour to take us out for the day was confusing. However after having done the tour, I think the official ‘guides’ that you can find online for this charge an extortionate amount (£50 per person) when compared to the guides you can find once you are out there. Given that you are allocated a personal guide once you are at the museum, they are just chaperones. I would say finding a local recommendation for someone who can chaperone you on the journey for the day is more than enough.
8 | Food & Night Life
What about the food? Is practically the first question people ask me.
Personally as I eat a predominantly plant-based / vegan diet I did find hunting down good food to eat a task to manage in itself. There were a great variety of restaurants around, particularly in the Senegambia strip. However I’d say there are far more vegetarian than vegan options. Here are the places we ate at:
Hotel breakfast: Wide range of options from fruit to fry ups, yoghurt, porridge etc. Traditional food I enjoyed included fried black bean cakes (called Akara), baobab juice and cashew and watermelon jam.
Ali Babas: This Lebanese owned restaurant has several chains around the area. We found the food to be tasty and full of flavor and there was always a little live music. I had a delicious veggie spaghetti there twice.
Mooshies: An amazing Caribbean spot with an extensive menu. I was more impressed with the variety of vegan options on the menu than the actual taste of the food to be honest. I was more than a bit disappointed by the chickpea curry, but my friend had the fish which was apparently delicious.
3 Chicks Grill: A trendy spot with a great variety of both veg and meat options on the menu. I kept it simple with a veggie burger and chips here which hit the comfort food spot. You can also smoke shisha if you feel like chilling.
Gambians love their food – here are just a few I came across and loved:
- Baobab juice, made from the baobab tree and full of vitamins, calcium and fibre
- Akara – made from black-eyed peas, grounded into flour and deep-fried. served with an onion and chilli sauce.
- Domada – a peanut based dish served with white rice and made from peanuts with tomato paste, mustard, black pepper and onions.
All the fruits in Gambia are available everywhere fresh and cheap: pineapples, coconuts, papayas, watermelon – try a fresh juice blend on the beach.
We had some fun nights out during the week and the strip has a small but varied selection of bars and clubs – below are the ones I went to:
Green Mamba – an outdoor bar with a cool vibe playing mostly commercial / dance music. We enjoyed several games of pool in the pool table area.
Starz – Felt like an old school dancehall rave in Jamaica in the 1980s. Blasting old reggae and bashment in a mezzanine style hall – an interesting experience!
Aquarius – By far the best club that we ended up going to 3 nights in a row. It is laid back but with a west-end vibe. It has air conditioning, music was fantastic and a mixed crowd that just want to party. Perfect night out!
We really didn’t have many qualms with The Gambia, here are just some things to be aware of:
- Wifi connection seemed to be awful everywhere we connected. It was slow, didn’t load our social media feeds and did not allow FaceTime or What’s App calls to the UK. Which can be positive or negative depending on how you look at it.
- As a tourist you do get a lot of attention, which can become tiresome. However after 7 days I learnt how to better deal with people so I didn’t feel hassled all the time- be honest with them! Asking to be left alone or saying a simple ‘no thank you’ is fine.
- Taxis – tourist taxis are green and found outside the hotels. They are more expensive but apparently have the best insurance and interior condition- ignore the price on the boards as you can usually negotiate the price down (in our case a D600 journey became D100!). We also found that the drivers are happy to act as tour guides and also wait for you for a few hours for the journey home – they’re much cheaper than going on an organized tour.
Have you been to The Gambia before? Where is your ideal winter sun destination?
“Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.”