1. It’s safe and Ebola-free – and it needs tourists back
Sierra Leone has had a rough ride in recent years. First, there was a bitter civil war from 1991 to 2002, leaving more than 50,000 people dead and 2 million displaced. Graphically portrayed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Blood Diamonds, the conflict was fuelled by the diamond industry and characterised by extreme violence, kidnappings, child soldiers and horrific human rights abuses.
At the end of the war, Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries in the world. Peace brought political stability and democracy, a vastly improved economy and a remarkable reconciliation of its people that still stands strong today. By 2014, the country was back on its feet, tourists were returning and the future looked bright.
Then came Ebola. The deadly virus took the lives of nearly 4000 people and the entire country ground to a halt in a state of emergency and fear. In March 2016, the nation celebrated as Sierra Leone was finally declared Ebola-free. Intrepid travellers are slowly returning, drawn by the beaches, islands and jungles of this beautiful country – but it’s the people themselves, their warmth, spirit and sense of fun, that leave such lasting memories.
2. Some of the world's rarest wildlife lives here
Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Moa River, is just 12 square kilometres. But it's home to around 80 rare and elusive pygmy hippos and an astounding 11 species of primates – one of the highest primate concentrations in the world.
Sierra Leone’s first ecotourism enterprise, the sanctuary's profits benefit the eight communities that live near the island. Walking trails take you deep into the forests where chimpanzees, red colobus and Diana monkeys cavort in the canopy.
Take a boat trip along the gentle river to see some of the 135 species of birds on the island, amble to the pristine honey-coloured beach on the northern shore, or explore the caves in the nearby village of Niahun where bats – and spirits – live.
There’s just one simple camp here, with dome tents under shelters and limited solar power, but it adds to that wonderful feeling of escapism that Tiwai is all about.
3. You'll get a taste of 'Sweet Salone'…
Known by locals as 'Sweet Salone', Sierra Leone has a rich food culture. Although there are plenty of international restaurants in the capital Freetown, it’s worth sampling some typical Salone dishes while you’re here.
Fried plantain with pancakes make for a hearty breakfast, or fresh juicy pineapple and mangos a more virtuous option. The fish here is fabulous, with thick steaks of barracuda or whole tilapia popular choices, while beach shacks and restaurants serve delicious shellfish including lobster, crabs and oysters.
In markets and on street corners, the smell of warm, just-cooked bread wafts over from trays of baguette-like fula loaves balanced on vendors’ heads. Other favourites include groundnut stew and spinachy cassava leaves, usually with a generous heap of chilli, to accompany chicken, goat, fish and rice, all washed down with the local Star beer.
4. It boasts some of the world's most blissful beaches
Sierra Leone’s beaches are difficult to leave: belts of glorious white sand stretch along an aquamarine Atlantic coastline for around 360km. The Western Peninsula is the most popular area for a taste of palm-fringed paradise – indeed the unimaginatively named River Number Two Beach was the setting for the 1970s Bounty chocolate bar ad.
Nearby Tokeh Beach was once the magnet for glamorous French celebs and parliamentarians who would flock to the now derelict Africana Resort in the 1980s. Instead, today’s visitors stay at The Place, a luxury resort with 54 chic chalets, or the more rustic but very chilled Tokeh Sands.
Amble for hours on the squeaky sands, watch the fishermen of Tokeh village pulling in their daily catch from weathered wooden dhows, or simply melt in the vivid sunsets and warm ocean breeze.