As a country made up entirely of a river-surrounding chunk of land enveloped entirely by Senegal with an international airport that famously doubles as an emergency landing location for NASA spacecraft, Gambia - and it’s successful medley of African package tours – is a fashionable and characterful corner of Africa.
Sun and surf are the principal attraction, with a host of lavish hotels taking their place amongst the palms and salted fish markets of the western coast. Away from the hotels, teeny bustling villages still have their place on the shores too, like at Bakau Beach, where row upon row of diminutive, battered fishing boats launch early every morning, before rusting on the sand throughout the day.
Inland Georgetown, which sits entirely on a large island in the Gambia River, is a perfect spot for bird watchers, while muddy tracks and crumbling infrastructure are a more authentic escape from the hotels. Bars opening on to the street serve local JulBrew, a refreshing (if slightly toxic) beer. When you’ve had a few, be careful not to breach local custom by whistling after nightfall.
Capital Banjul is small and neglected, despite an active market scene and lively port. While dropping into the crumbling colonial town gives an impressive taste of Gambian history (as does the equally faded museum), most prefer to head straight for the shiny decadence of the coast. Nearby Abuko Nature Reserve is home to monkeys, crocodiles and giant kingfishers relaxing in the Bamboo pools, while River Gambia National Park is affectionately nicknamed ‘Baboon Island’.
For a true taste of Gambian culture, hop on a pirogue (traditional canoe) and head up river to a small town, where you might catch a customary wrestling match, or the extravagant musical sideshow that comes with a wedding or baptism. The yearly Roots Homecoming Festival in Banjul is another music lover’s spectacle, with oversized instruments and flamboyant in-band color coding adding to the aural delights.
You can come to Gambia and relax, be pampered and soak up a tiny bite of local culture on the side. Alternatively, the unusual accessibility provided by the Gambia River allows a real, hands on African adventure.