Holidaymakers heading to Africa often flock to The Gambia or further south to Kenya, but they're overlooking a very special slice of the continent. Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to West Africa, sings Senegal's praises.
One of the most accessible countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a six-hour flight and no jet lag from Europe - and for most nationalities no visa required - Senegal is an easy and fantastic country to visit. Occupying the westernmost tip of West Africa's bulge, it covers an area the size of England and Scotland combined, or about half the size of California, with a relatively small population of around 13 million. It has a robust and fairly open democracy, wonderful dance music, a fascinating history, a tolerant, expressive and colourful version of Islam, great beaches, good national dishes, and even a couple of decent safari parks with some of West Africa's best wildlife viewing.
And yet although it almost entirely surrounds The Gambia - the popular charter destination favoured by British package tourists - English-speaking visitors have largely ignored Senegal.
Why the country has been so overlooked is partly down to the quirks of colonialism; from the seventeenth century the French were firmly based at the port of Saint-Louis in the mouth of the Senegal River, and they later developed Dakar as the capital of their West African colonies and set about turning the country into an overseas French territory. The British, on the other hand, secured a fort in the mouth of the Gambia River only in the late-nineteenth century - and then did nothing with it.
So while the French, and to some extent other European visitors, flock to Senegal every winter, the British stick to their hotels on the short Gambian coastline and only occasionally explore across the border. Which is a shame, because there's a lot that's worth exploring.
For a start, the capital Dakar is a seductive draw for music fans, offering great nightlife and inThiossane and Just 4 U two clubs well worth a visit. And although Youssou N'Dour may not play so often now that he's taken the role of Minister of Tourism and Culture in the new government, you can rely on Cuban-toned classics and great mbalax sounds - the irresistibly fast dance music of Senegal's biggest tribe, the Wolof - most nights of the week. May, meanwhile, sees the annual St Louis Jazz Festival.
Dakar is also a great spot for markets, and its slaving history can be revisited in the houses and museums of the UNESCO-listed island of Gorée, a short boat ride from the port. For surfers, the coasts around the Dakar peninsula have a growing reputation for some of West Africa's best breaks - Malika Surf Camp is a good first base.
In the north, the crumbling colonial capital of St-Louis has a unique ocean-side atmosphere haunted by the ghosts of fishermen and slave-traders. There are one or two good restaurants here, too, where you can sample excellent poulet yassa (chicken marinated in lemon juice, pepper and onions), poisson farci (stuffed fish), tiéboudienne (rice with fish), riz jollof (rice with vegetables and sticky red palm oil) and beef, mutton, vegetables or virtually anything in a saucemafé (peanut sauce).
Traditional Bedik tribe bungalows © Vytenis84/Shutterstock
In the far southeast, close to the Guinean border, the savannah woodland of the Niokolo Koba National Park shelters lions and elephants and Africa's most northerly population of chimpanzees. In the southwest, the creeks and forests of Basse Casamance - the lower Casamance River - are the home of the rice-growing Jola people, who also have some of the country's best palm-fringed, silver sand beaches on their doorstep.
I asked Wendy Spivey, of the Dakar Women's Group, to sum up why Senegal is such a special place. Her reply goes some way to capturing the charm of the country.
"Why Senegal? Because on a diamond day when the air in Dakar is clear, the sky an amazing blue, the traffic on the Corniche is whizzing along, I have to pinch myself to remind myself I really live here. It's often the small moments, like when I'm in the supermarket and they're playing Baaba Maal, and the butcher's doing a little dance. Or heading downtown to the Plateau district where the old buildings are whitewashed and heavy with purple bougainvillea. My Australian heart turned African over seven years ago because I live somewhere where people are amazing, gentle and dignified, and where I am always greeted with a 'how is your day?'"
The question to ask is really: why not Senegal?