If you are interested in exploring Africa with your family, but don’t quite have the budget for a safari vacation, or the stomach for the 18-hour flight to southern Africa with kids, give Senegal a look.
Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, is one of the continent’s most northern Sub-Saharan countries. It’s stable, inexpensive and only an eight-hour flight from New York, not much further than flying to parts of Europe.
Here’s a look at what there is to do there and what you can expect, traveling from south to north along the coast.
The unexpected delight of our visit was a day of bird watching on a motorized pirogue (flat-bottomed fishing boats) along the Sine Saloum Delta. Boy did we see birds! Pelicans, always strange and impressive on their own, are amazing to see in large flocks. We also saw plenty of herons and egrets and even a mongoose prowling around in the mangroves. Boats leave from Ndangane for bird watching and fishing regularly and organized tours are available.
Side trip: On the way to or from the Sine-Saloum you’ll pass sister towns Joal and Fadiot, connected by two bridges. The island town of Fadiot is majority Catholic, unusual in this Muslim majority country. But the two communities share a cemetery and have a unique history of mutual support. There’s not a lot to do and I think travel guides overstate Fadiot’s charm, but the villagers are used to tourists and will leave you alone, the cemetery is a dramatic sight and there’s a nice waterfront restaurant on the Joal side of the bridge. If you go, it helps to have a guide explain the local history and customs.
The Bandia Reserve, about 30 minutes from Saly (45 from Dakar) is a 3,500-acre safari park. During our time in the park we saw giraffes, zebra, monkeys, warthogs, impala and gazelle and other exotic four-legged animals, and even a hard-to-spot white rhino. Most of the animals have been brought from other parts of Senegal or Africa and they aren’t in a completely wild environment. But being able to see them up close in a semi-wild setting was amazing. The restaurant has a nice patio overlooking the crocodiles. Even if you don’t eat there stop for sodas or a beer after your ride through the park.
This is an expensive day by local standards, once you pay admission and hire a required guide and a safari truck. But it’s well organized and maintained, which takes resources. And I’m glad to see a more ambitious touristic initiative like this taking root.
There are two national parks inland, but local sources told us that because the parks are big and herds are thin the animal spotting is not reliable, something to consider before making the long drive.
Side trip: Climb a Baobab Tree
Right across the road from Bandia is Accro-Baobab, an adventure center built among a grove of the distinctive giant baobab trees. Try ropes courses and zip lines at different heights for different ages and abilities. It’s a stop we didn’t get to, much to my daughter’s chagrin. But I’ve read that it’s built to European standards and would no doubt be a welcome activity for kids who are feeling cooped up after a long flight. You can do Bandia and Accro-Baobab in one day.
Ile de Gorée is an island off of Dakar, where local people go for a day out and tourists flock as well. It was home to a series of colonial powers including the Portuguese and French and was an important center in the slave trade. Today you can walk among brightly painted Colonial buildings and alleys teeming with Bougainville.
Make time to visit the small slave house where captives were brutally prepared for their sea voyage and sale. Here in the U.S. we learn the fact of slavery but not the details of it, so this is unique and worthwhile stop. It was both eye opening and pretty appalling. We debated afterward whether it was right to take our 7-year-old—we talked with her about why it’s important to learn the bad parts of history along with the good ones and she got it, but found it pretty disconcerting. I wouldn’t take a child younger than 7.
Luckily there was plenty on the island to cheer us up. You can catch sun on the small beach, have lunch at an outdoor café, watch local kids play soccer or climb a tall hill to the inevitable colonial cannons at the top. Along the way you’ll see a wealth of local art on display; some of it pretty good and all of it fun. In particular, look for a studio where men create Senegalese scenes with different colors of sand from across Africa. It’s interesting to watch them do it and a unique souvenir.
In spite of the island’s grim history, Gorée offers a pleasant day out that I recommend. Bring your passport (or a photocopy); sometimes they ask for it at the ferry terminal.
The thing my daughter told everyone about when we got home was our visit to Lac Rose, a lake so densely salted that locals harvest the salt by skimming the excess that falls to the bottom. Harmless bacteria make the water look truly pink when the light hits it. We had lunch and hired a four-wheel drive truck that drove us around the lake where we saw the salt harvesting and then along a beautiful beach and a series of sand dunes. There are very basic changing facilities and you have to bring your bathing suit to swim in the lake. It’s so salty that you bob like a cork and it actually feels thick to swim through. My daughter thought it was amazing. Be sure to rinse the salt off when you come out or you’ll get itchy.
I really wanted to travel to St. Louis, a well-preserved colonial city north of Dakar that was the capital until 1902. It’s known for its well-preserved buildings, museums and music festivals. It also has two national parks with ample bird watching (Langue de Barberie and Birds of Djoudj), and the Fauna Reserve of Guembeul, where you can spot gazelles, Patas monkeys and tortoises. It’s far enough from Saly to require an overnight stay and we didn’t have time. But if you do have time it’s worth two days or so, especially if you go to Ile de Gorée. There are interesting colonial ties between the two places.
Where to Stay: Instead of gritty and charmless Dakar, I would urge families to stay in the beach town of Saly. It’s still fairly central for sightseeing and for $100 to $150 a night you can easily find beachfront hotels that have familiar amenities and staff who can help you to hire a driver and guides or arrange tours. The Obama Beach Hotel, Palm Beach hotel, Le Saly Hôtel and the Bougainvillees hotel are sound options.
Getting around: There are long-distance and local buses but they are notorious for running behind schedule and breaking down. It’s safer and more efficient to get around with a driver or a tour, especially with kids. Aim to be back to your hotel before dark; stop signs and traffic lights are scarce and cars don’t always have working head and taillights.
What to Eat: We wondered what we would eat in Senegal and, more important, what our picky child would eat. No worries: The Senegalese eat white rice with most meals, fresh local fish is everywhere, and the food was seasoned but not nearly as hot as we expected. Every restaurant had roast chicken legs and plain fried fish filets, which our child was happy with (they often had French fries, too). The adults tried various fried and grilled fish, lamb curry, coconut-based shrimp curry and chicken in peanut sauce, all good. The national dish is Thiebou jen, a meaty fish stuffed with spices, cooked with root vegetables and eaten with side sauces (these can be spicy). If you have the opportunity, absolutely try it. You won’t find hard liquor outside of the hotels in this Muslim nation, but beer is easy to come by and acceptable. Kids can drink bottled sodas.
I hope Senegal is a great introduction to Africa for you.
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Eileen is a journalist whose work has appeared in the HuffPost, U.S. News, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Parents.com and many other publications. She has traveled on five continents, three of them with her daughter. She calls New York City home. You can read Eileen's blog at Familiesgotravel.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
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