Get away to The Gambia: Sun, sand and ceremony in Africa's rising destination - 25 July 2010

The noise, heat, smells and vibrant colours of Africa assault you as soon as you get off the plane. These are followed closely by an assault from the bumsters - a local term for the young men who hang around hotels and beaches trying to earn money from holidaymakers. Not surprisingly, these men wanted to be my daughters' special friends, and show them a good time during our week-long stay.

We were staying at The Coco Ocean Resort in Bijilo, a 15-minute drive from Banjul. It is a haven from the hustle and hassle of daily Gambian life. If you choose, you can spend your days in the resort's elegant grounds, lounge by the pools and gaze out over the beach to the crashing Atlantic waves. The rooms and villas are cool and comfortable, and there is a restaurant built just above the ocean where you can eat lunch and escape the midday sun.
But we chose to use The Coco Ocean as a base camp, somewhere gloriously luxurious to which to return after our many excursions and adventurous dinners (I can recommend a Lebanese restaurant called Al Basha in nearby Kololi, and a particularly good seaside bistro called The Sailor in Kotu).
We spent one morning walking around the market in Serrekunda, The Gambia's largest town. The hubbub and constant motion are in sharp contrast to the elegant ladies in blinding colours selling their wares.

And it is the women who are the most important here - they are called Boss Lady. When we were negotiating to buy a multi-coloured raffia basket, the man running the stall said: 'I must ask the Boss Lady.' She was fast asleep under the table. Heavily pregnant, she emerged with feline ease, struck a deal with us, and then crawled back from whence she'd come.

My daughter Domenica was astonished by the way all the women carried everything on their heads, from vast sacks of potatoes to impossibly large steel containers overflowing with vegetables and fruit. Many had babies tied to their backs too, and all swayed along with marvellous natural rhythm and innate grace.

Only once did we see men carrying things on their heads - and this appeared to be rubbish contained in black plastic sacks. Domenica thought it would be a good way for her father to do the same thing. I readily agreed.

That evening, we visited the Bijilo Forest, next to the resort, and were lucky to see several monkeys, even glimpsing an elusive colobus swinging high in the branches. Green monkeys were far more curious, following us around and allowing us to get very close.

Seeing two of them sitting side by side on a log, with their feet on the ground and their beady eyes missing nothing, they looked for all the world like any old couple perched on a park bench. It was a true Darwinian moment.

There were several of the strange, upside-down-looking baobab trees in the forest, which are thought to have magical properties and which survive for hundreds of years because of their ability to store rainwater in their trunks. Our guide told us that the fruit from the tree could be made into a drink with an extremely high alcoholic content - a few sips could make you 'see all the way to England!'

Meandering back from the forest, we came across a group of drum-beating locals surrounding an adolescent boy dressed in white. Then we spotted two other men dancing manically by the side of the road. They wore weird, brightly coloured fringed costumes, with masks over their faces, and they brandished a curved knife in each hand. Sometimes they dashed in front of cars, flashing the knives.

Our driver told us this was a circumcision ceremony, which takes place when a boy is between ten and 12 years old. Only recently has the actual circumcision been done in hospital. Perhaps boys in the past could have done with the anaesthetic qualities of whatever alcoholic drink can be made from the baobab tree!

The music from the ceremony enthused Domenica, so the following day we went to the market in the town of Bakau in search of a musical instrument. There we encountered a man known as Mr No Problem, his name writ large on a sign above his stall.

Mr No Problem and Domenica became instant friends, and after an impromptu jamming session she became the proud owner of a bongo drum and a giant seed pod, with her name written on it in black paint and shoe polish, to rattle as an accompaniment.

My eldest daughter Savannah found the perfect gifts for her closest girlfriends: three carved monkeys in the classic see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil format. I didn't ask.

After so many excursions, we chose to spend the next day at the hotel, on the beach and in the spa. Until the opening of luxury hotels such as the Coco Ocean and its sister venue, the Coconut Residence, The Gambia was known primarily for cheap package deals and as a holiday destination for bird-watchers.

The Coco Ocean Group is co-owned by a local man, Farid Bensouda, and a German called Walter Loehn. Farid is the interior designer and Walter the architect, and theirs is an inspired partnership. Having visited one or two other hotels in the country, I would say they have certainly created an oasis in a hinterland of dubious taste.

The landscaping at the Coco Ocean is perfect. Within the grounds is a vast vegetable garden run with immense pride by Moor Faal  -  the delicious produce is served in the hotel's three restaurants.

There are other bonuses that The Gambia offers British visitors: the flight takes only six hours, there is no time difference, and the sun shines all year round. What's not to like?

The hotel spa is spectacular, with treatment rooms overlooking the ocean. I had a hammam  -  an exfoliating session in a Moroccan-inspired steam room - while Savannah had a back massage. I only wish that instead of piped music we could have listened to the roar of the ocean. It's ironic that in many city spas you have to listen to taped ocean music. What is wrong with the real thing when it is right outside your window?

No trip to The Gambia would be complete without spending a day on the River Gambia, so we set off on the hotel boat, a pirogue, accompanied by Lamin, one of the hotel chefs.

During the trip we ate probably the most delicious food of our week. It was so delicious that it didn't matter in the least that our boat broke down  -  or that the crucial spare part required to mend the engine disappeared into the river after being thrown from a neighbouring boat. We were much too busy enjoying our fish marinaded in ginger, coriander, oyster sauce and chilli.

When the fault was finally fixed, we went to the fishing port of Tanji and a nearby village. It was like a journey to a past century. The fishing continues as it has for aeons, with the smokery under a hut on the beach, amid the clamorous noise of gulls and children. The villagers, meanwhile, live in one-room houses and have no running water.

Our last day was Independence Day, and the president of a neighbouring African country arrived at our hotel with his entourage. The red carpet was laid out as his vast cavalcade approached, drums rolled and dancers in splendid costumes put on a marvellous performance. For a few glorious moments, it was like being in a scene from Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

I looked out for the Lord Lieutenant, but she was nowhere to be seen.


Travel Facts

Specialist tour operator The Gambia Experience (0845 330 2087, offers seven nights at The Coco Ocean Resort & Spa, part of The Gambia Experience Luxury Collection, from £989pp. This includes B&B accommodation in a junior suite, a complimentary foot massage and return flights from Gatwick.
Departures from other airports are also available.