Words by Marlie Sarr
When considering a trip to the continent of Africa, it is likely that you may imagine yourself checking out elephants and lions from a Land Rover, trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro, or doing some shopping in the colourful souks of Marrakesh. While all of those adventures are not to be missed, travellers seeking out an alternative yet equally enriching experience should consider popping over to the West African country of Senegal.
A mere 5-hour flight from parts of Europe, Senegal also has a ton of things to offer for every ilk of tourist and budget.
Senegal by some standards would not be considered a ‘prosperous’ nation. However one thing that it certainly has an extremely rich supply of is “Teranga”, meaning “hospitality” in the local language of Wolof. It is not uncommon for someone you have met briefly to invite you over for some traditional mint tea, or for a market vendor to insist on giving you a gift to thank you for your purchases. Whether you are a native French-speaker or only know how to say “bonjour”, talk to anyone who has ever been to Senegal and one of the first things that they will remark is how extremely friendly and welcoming Senegalese people are.
Senegal’s surf scene has recently seen an international surge, and for good reason. Dakar’s coast boasts a famous wave called the N’gor Right, which is considered one of the best in the world, and was featured in the 1966 surf cult documentary The Endless Summer. In fact, the brand Quicksilver has set up a shop and adjoining hostel for its surf camp, which brings daring and skilled surfers out to this wave daily by motorboat. If you aren’t quite ready to surf with the pros, most beaches in Dakar have waves that are ideal for beginners, as well as a bunch of different surf schools to choose from to perfect your skills. And there is no reason to be intimidated here – another advantage to learning surf in Dakar is that the local pro surfers don’t take themselves too seriously, welcoming people of all levels!
After a long day of riding waves, you can chill out with a drink at Copacabana on the bustling Virage beach, or check out the reconverted shipping container shop Bantu Wax, which sells surfboards and swimwear that are 100% “made in Africa”. Bantu uses gorgeous African wax fabric prints, and also features a super trendy fresh juice bar on the rooftop providing an amazing view of the setting sun on the beach.
Although several countries in West Africa may claim to have the best cuisine of the continent, Senegal should unequivocally be ranked high up on the list. Rich and elaborate culinary traditions run deep in Senegalese culture, and the food is not to be missed. The country has several revered national dishes, including Thiéboudienne, comprised of flavourful marinated fish cooked with vegetables and tomato sauce, and Yassa, made with either chicken or fish marinated in garlic, mustard and lemon juice and caramelized onions. Both dishes are served in healthy portions over the local ‘broken’ rice.
Senegalese cuisine can be perfectly paired with fresh glass of the brightly coloured national drink Bissap – hibiscus flower juice – or a glass of Bouye, a highly nutritious drink made of Baobab tree fruit, the superfood du jour. The list of amazing restaurants to try in Dakar is endless, but whether they are local, French-Senegalese fusion, Italian or Lebanese, I can guarantee that you will never be disappointed by your dining experience.
The Pink Lake
Visit Senegal’s Pink Lake, or “Lake Retba”, and you will see why many believe it should be added to the exclusive list of the natural wonders of the world. Only 30km from Dakar, the lake lives up to its name, with its dark pink water resulting from a specific type of algae that absorbs light by emanating a red pigment. The best time to see its vibrant color is during the dry season from November to June. There are also several ways to enjoy the lake: either by strolling along the banks, hopping on a horse or a camel, cruising around on quad bikes, or gliding across it on a leisurely boat ride.
A walk through the dusty yet colourful streets of Saint-Louis is like taking a trip back in time. The city is located 160 km north of Dakar, and the center of Saint-Louis can be found on a small island in the Senegal River. While this former capital of Senegal can feel as though it has been suspended in another era, its beautiful colonial architecture will leave you in awe, and has even earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors will inevitably fall in love with the city’s laid-back vibe, as well as the vibrant local culture. A trip to Saint Louis should be entwined with a visit to the surrounding National Parks, where one can observe various exotic birds, monkeys and tortoises.
Only 20 minutes by ferry, a half-day trip out to this picturesque island will provide an important glimpse into a sombre period of the continent’s history. Goree was once a significant coastal trading center for the transatlantic slave trade, and home to the well-preserved Maison des Esclaves, or House of Slaves, where slaves were imprisoned before being shipped off. Climb up to the Castel fort to get a beautiful view of Dakar’s skyline and take a walk along the colourful car-free streets of the island to admire the colonial architecture. There are a few restaurants on the beach, which mostly cater to tourists.
A few days relaxing on the more touristy part of Senegal’s coastline, also called the “Petite Cote,” can be a nice way to escape the city and cool off, with both Saly and La Somone hosting a variety of hotels to choose from. However, there are a few other less-crowded beach areas South of Dakar that can provide you with a different type of R&R. Located in the town of Toubab Dialaw, the avant garde Sobo Bade hotel was created by a Haitian artist and is mildly Gaudi-esq. With quirky rooms facing the ocean, a delicious open-air restaurant, and an array of spaces hosting everything from theater productions to djembe classes to artist expositions, you are guaranteed to get a good dose of local culture along with a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Dakar.
The Sine-Saloum Delta, a 4-hour drive from Dakar, is 695 square miles of wildlife and natural beauty on the Saloum River. The National Park, established in 1976, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts a variety of stunning natural beauty and wildlife. Visit the distinct fishing villages and stay at one of the many hotel options on offer: ranging from luxury resorts to camping-style bungalows, which all provide an escape from the city and amazing views. No visit to the Saloum is complete without a boat ride to the island of Fadiouth, a 90% Christian island that has no motorized transport and is entirely covered in seashells – truly a unique experience.
Senegal is not only known for its delicious food, it also has a culture of artistry and craftsmanship, which continues to flourish to this day. From jewelry to leather goods, to the local traditional art of sous-verre (intricate paintings done on the reverse piece of glass), shopping the endless markets and creative shops of Senegal is a must for any visit to this country.