Though it’s one of West Africa’s most stable countries, Senegal is far from dull. Perched on the tip of a peninsula, Dakar, the capital, is a dizzying, street-hustler-rich introduction to the country: elegance meets chaos, snarling traffic, vibrant markets and glittering nightlife, while nearby Île de Gorée and the beaches of Yoff and N’Gor tap to slow, lazy beats.In northern Senegal, the enigmatic capital of Saint-Louis, a Unesco World Heritage Site, tempts with colonial architecture and proximity to scenic national parks. Along the Petite Côte and Cap Skirring, wide strips of beaches beckon and the wide deltas of the Casamance invite mesmerising boat journeys amid astounding biodiversity, including hundreds of bird species.
Whether you want to mingle with the trendsetters of urban Africa or be alone with your thoughts and the sounds of nature, you’ll find your place in Senegal. Dakar:The beauty of Dakar, a city that sprawls across the Cap-Vert peninsula in a jumble of villages and former French colonial towns, comes not from its architecture, but from its people and the atmosphere they create. Hot, dusty and derelict streets are brought to life by locals parading in an explosion of brightly-coloured fabrics and sharply-tailored suits. Roads are often choked with traffic, but there’s a buzz in the constant chatter and giggling of workers on the buses and in the sept places taxis. In the markets and the Medina, there’s a riot of noise and smells. And in the air, there’s a constant soundtrack of raucous jazzed-up Senegalese pop.
It can be an exhausting place to negotiate, but to escape the hustle and bustle for, say, the sedate confines of Club Med in the opulent suburb of Les Almadies 5km from the city centre, is to miss the point – and the warmth of the place.Dakar is a city of extremes, where horse-cart drivers chug over swish highways and gleaming SUVs squeeze through tiny sand roads; where elegant ladies dig skinny heels into dusty walkways and suit-clad businessmen kneel down for prayer in the middle of the street. Once a tiny settlement in the south of the Cap Vert peninsula, Dakar now spreads almost across its entire triangle, and keeps growing.For the traveller, there’s much to discover, from peaceful islands just off-shore to vertiginous nightlife dancing to mbalax beats.
You can spend your days browsing frenetic markets and taking in the sights of bustling downtown, followed by sunset drinks overlooking the crashing waves. At once both intimidating and deeply alluring, Dakar is a fascinating introduction to Senegal.Steer clear of the pricey hotels around the buzzing place d’Independence, where the noise is constant and sleeping is seen as indulgent. Instead, within easy reach by bus or taxi, Hotel du Phare is located down a quiet, sandy side street in the coast-hugging district of Les Mamelles.
The pastel painted walls, comfy couches and book-lined shelves lend a homely atmosphere, and the excellent food fuses West African and Mediterranean flavours – poulet aigre doux, for example, is tender spiced chicken in a sweet, tangy sauce.To get to grips with the scale of the place, head up Les Mamelles (breasts in French), two hills that overlook the otherwise flat Cap-Vert peninsula. From here you can see the Atlantic, the city sprawl and the controversial bronze statue Le Renaissance Afriquaine.
Larger than the Statue of Liberty and still in the process of being built, it features a man, woman and child pointing, in vaguely communist style, to the horizon; a symbol of renewed African hope. Designed and built in 2009, the statue itself is impressive, even if the £17m spent by President Wade’s government has come under scrutiny. Religious groups recently complained that the skirt of the female figure is too short. A further £6.7m is being spent lengthening the offending item of clothing. It should be finished and officially opened by the middle of this year.