Home to a mere 80km of coastline, the tiny West African nation of The Gambia has long captivated travellers with its gorgeous palm-fringed beaches, traditional villages and lush coastal reserves teeming with birdlife.
Despite its small size, the country has a surprisingly diverse range of tropical getaways, from vibrant beaches just steps from great restaurants and nightlife, to idyllic end-of-the-road retreats with vast stretches of empty sands, mangrove-lined creeks and lush inland forests.
Backed by palm trees and fringed with lagoons, this wide resort beach hits all the right notes. It’s a fine destination for leisurely strolls along the golden shoreline, or relaxing in a sun lounger at one of the beach bars overlooking the waves and taking in the passing people parade.
You’ll find an appealing range of lodging options here, including perennial favourites like the Kombo Beach Hotel, with a huge pool, a waterfront bar, and loads of amenities. The 2km-long beach is bisected by the Kotu Stream, a mangrove-lined waterway that’s a magnet for birdwatchers; the Kotu Bridge, located around 400m upriver from the beach is a good starting point for spotting avian species.
One of the liveliest beach destinations anywhere in West Africa lies in Kololi, a buzzing district of resort hotels, open-sided restaurants and music-filled bars – along with craft markets, night clubs and adventure tour operators. The former fishing village has been a traveller hub since the 1980s and draws a wide cross-section of visitors, who come to frolic on the beach, eat well and indulge in a bit of nightlife.
The centre of the action is along the Senegambia Strip, a vibrant restaurant-lined road between the ocean and the Bertil Harding Highway. Aside from the sun-drenched shoreline, the other big draw is the Bijilo Forest Park, better known as Monkey Park for the colobus and red vervet monkeys inhabiting the woodland reserve.
Perched on a headland above the town of Bakau, Cape Point overlooks two beaches with decidedly different personalities. Below the reddish cliffs of Bakau to the southwest is a busy fishing beach, with colourfully painted pirogues (long narrow fishing boats) and a bustling market where the day’s catch is sold.
The golden sands to the southeast of Cape Point offers a fine counterpoint to busier resorts to the south. Here you’ll find some enticing low-key hotels, as well as a wide stretch of sand with a more local flavour. Stop in on Sundays to see Gambian families picnicking and enjoying games of football (soccer). After a day on the beach, it’s worth catching the sunset from one of the restaurants in the area. Calypso is an enchanting spot for afternoon drinks and a memorable seafood meal.
One of The Gambia’s finest beaches lies just south of the bustling village of Tanji. This wide, palm-backed stretch of white sand makes a superb shoreline retreat. Come to Batukuku to unplug and enjoy long walks along the waterside, memorable sunsets and leisurely days soaking up the rays.
A few nearby attractions include the biologically rich Tanji Bird Reserve, which is set amid lagoons, forest and dunes. On the shore, the lively Tanji Fish Market sees fishermen in brightly painted pirogues unloading baskets of fish onto the sands, as vendors haggle over the day’s catch. Stands of fish being dried and smoked line the back of the beach. There’s limited development in the Batukunku area (part of the charm), which means you’ll likely day trip here from other areas, or else base in one of the area’s few guesthouses, like the appealing White Horse Residence.
Located around 30km south of the Gambia’s capital of Banjul, and around 5 kilometres west of the small village of Sanyang, this pretty beach is an excellent choice for those seeking a tranquil stretch of shoreline. Sanyang Beach is sometimes called – not inappropriately – Paradise Beach.
There are a handful of beach bars and simple eco-lodges in the area. One perennial traveller favourite is the open-sided Rainbow Lodge, where you can enjoy cold beers (and South African wine) while taking in a view of the wave-kissed beachfront. On Sundays, you can often catch live music and dancing in the afternoon (from about 4pm). An ideal place to overnight and arrange boating excursions is the garden-fringed Bees Mouth Gambia.
On the southern coast just a few kilometres from the Senegal border, Kartong is one of the oldest settlements on The Gambia’s Atlantic coast; its roots date back over 400 years. The multi-ethnic village of 5000 or so residents is home to Mandinka, Jola and a few smaller groups like the Balanta and Karoninka.
West and north of the village, the beaches here feel wild and remote, with sparkling bays set against a striking tropical backdrop of palms and low dunes. There are several low-impact resorts, like the Sandele Eco Retreat, which makes a good base for exploring the region. Kartong is also a twitcher’s paradise, with over 350 avian species in the area. You can arrange guided birdwatching tours at the Kartong Bird Observatory on the western outskirts of town next to the wetlands.
While in the area, don’t miss a visit to Falonko, one of three sacred shrines with crocodile pools in The Gambia. Set amid a gallery forest near the centre of town, Falonko is an important pilgrimage site, particularly for infertile couples hoping to have children. A few kilometres south of Kartong is the mangrove-lined Allahein River, another fine destination for bird watching. You can arrange trips, or have a meal at Dodou’s Place on the waterfront.
The Gambia’s sparsely populated northern coastline stretches for just 10km between the eponymous river and the border with Senegal, but it’s home to the spectacular shoreline of Jinack Island.
This curved low-lying land has expansive beaches fringed with coastal lagoons, saltwater marshes and mangrove creeks; it’s a magical destination for an edge-of the-continent getaway. The 100% solar-powered Jinack Lodge has pleasantly rustic accommodation on the seaside, and offers a wide range of tours and activities (including boat trips through the mangroves, dolphin-spotting trips, African cooking tutorials and drumming workshops).