“WHEN we receive guests at home we are happy, so we feel the same with tourists in Senegal,” says our tour guide Sougi.
And that warm welcome has been extended to us this winter with tourism giant TUI launching the first non-stop flights from the UK to a West African destination in over a decade.
With a temperature of 32°C and no time difference to adjust to, I was excited to be one of the first on the inaugural 5-hour all-inclusive flight to RIU Baobab, an all-luxury resort starting from just £816 per person for a week. .
There are four pools, including one with a swim-up bar (expect frozen cocktails and DJ sets daily), as well as an on-site water park with five slides.
You won’t find yourself fighting over a spot on the beach, either.
There are miles of barely touched bright yellow sand along serene Pointe Sarene, with palm-shaded loungers and umbrellas galore.
The hotel keeps you well-fed, from the fried chicken and chips at the pool cafe to the sprawling buffet restaurant serving everything from pizza and pasta to local Senegalese cuisine.
Be brave and try thieboudienne, the country’s fish and rice dish. It’s so salty and flavorful that you won’t be able to stop with just one spoonful.
A plus of the resort are its three specialty restaurants, all of which are included in the package, though they must be reserved in advance.
There’s Veneto for great Italian dining, Doryaki where you can fill up on sushi and noodles, and Grill for barbecue fans.
The only difficulty is saying no to wine, which is made available almost constantly by the attentive staff.
They also make a good mojito. Beer fanatic? Then the local La Gazelle will also delight.
And when the sun goes down, the entertainment really begins, with live music and dance performances every night. You can have fun until the wee hours of the morning in the Aduna nightclub.
The warm Senegalese welcome is felt not only in the hotel, but also outside, especially on an excursion to the home of a local family in a nearby town.
We arrived at her door, while the children came out to greet us, greeting us like old friends. They gave us sleeping babies to hold and taught us to pound grain with huge pestles that burned the muscles in my arms.
My lack of rhythm was also evident when I was asked to dance with a combination of arm swings and twerks, only to have the locals roar with laughter at my clumsy British attempt.
That community spirit continued at the Jardin d’Ebene, a small artisan factory that sells local jams and ice cream.
It is run by the ex-Parisian Huong Thach and her team.
After a brief four-day visit five years ago, Huong fell in love with the country and left his marketing job in France to build his place from scratch.
She told me: “I feel at home here. The people are friendly and you greet everyone even if you don’t know them”.
Your employees are also your neighbors and live just a few houses away. Their handmade hibiscus ice cream was so rich it made my tongue tingle from the sweetness, while their soursop jam (a fruit I’m assured is the next great superfood) made a comeback in my hotel room.
While it may be tempting to spend the day at the resort pool, the hotel offers all kinds of day trips that will tempt even the most reluctant guests.
A trip to Africa would be nothing without spotting wild animals. Try the Bandia Game Reserve, which is ideal for first-time safari goers to gawk at the giraffes, zebras and rhinos.
Or hop on a boat down the Saloum Delta River, a Unesco World Heritage Site with thousands of acres of wildlife, while listening to the clacking of oyster shells hidden in the mangroves.
But if there’s one excursion you shouldn’t skip, it’s a visit to the island of Gorée, once one of the largest slave-trading centers off the coast of Africa.
It is estimated that at least tens of thousands were brought to the island between the 15th and 19th centuries.
When you arrive, the picturesque island almost hides its sad history with its brightly colored colonial houses, built under the rule of the Dutch, Portuguese and French.
Following Senegal’s independence from France in 1960, only 1,200 people now live in Gorée.
There are no cars, just local merchants at every street corner in their brightly patterned boubou suits. Friendly vendors at the craft market will tempt you with their wares to the tune of a “good price” while youngsters sell their kashaka instruments, shaking the beans to the beat of percussion.
But the most visited spot on the island is the Maison des Esclaves, the last remaining slave house and now a museum. Past visitors include Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
It’s a sobering journey, especially the Gate of No Return, which shows the end point where the slaves would be taken to the ships, leaving their loved ones on the island forever.
One would expect the island to be a solemn destination, but it is quite the opposite, with the vibrancy of the people we met.
Our tour guide explained, “We try to forget it, as we can’t go on living in anger.” That sense of community and kindness is something so easily forgotten while living a busy life at home.
So, as I said goodbye to everyone at RIU Baobab, I decided that my first port of call back home would be to spend time with friends and family, having taken that luxury for granted too often.
Go there: Senegal
HOW TO GET AND STAY THERE: TUI is offering seven nights all-inclusive at the 5H Riu Baobab from £816 per person, including flights from Gatwick on 9th January 2023 and transfers. Based on two sharing a double room with balcony or terrace. See tui.com.
OUT AND ON: Tui offers excursions from £27pp. The Saloum Delta Day Trip is £65 per adult/£33 per child; Bandia Reserve is £56 per adult/£28 per child; Goree Island and Dakar Day Trip costs £65 per adult/£33 per child; and Treasures and Flavors of Senegal is £27 per adult/£14 per child. See tui.com.
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