TUCKING INTO LOBSTER ON A BEACH BESIDE LAPPING WAVES, UNDER A LAZY, HAZY SUN:it’s about as picture-postcard perfect a holiday moment as many could imagine. What you – and possibly the rest of the world’s 922 million tourists – would not imagine, however, is that this is a scene in Sierra Leone.
The tiny west African country might attract only 4,000 visitors a year at present, but there’s plenty for them to get up to. Just south of the capital Freetown, founded in 1787 as a home for freed slaves, a swathe of swim-perfect sea stretches out for 40 kilometres along the peninsula coast, each cove offering up a hidden beach with its own distinctive qualities. For example, while John Obey’s beach is home to a thick ochre sand, River No 2’s sands are fine white, York beach is lead-grey and the sweep at Bureh reveals a mountain-backed crescent beside the Atlantic. Almost all are united by their very emptiness.
“I’m a sucker for beaches and they don’t come better than John Obey and No 2,” says Bimbola Carrol. He runs Visit Sierra Leone, a local tourism operator, so he’s possibly a little biased. But when he says, “There are few things more romantic than beaches and sunsets you can have to yourself,” you can’t argue with that.
FOR THE ULTIMATE EXCURSION IN SEA-SPRAYED GLAMOUR, HIRE A SPEEDBOAT, pack it with ice-cold drinks, look out for dolphins dancing amid the waves and venture down the coast to the wild empty charms of Bureh Beach [Cape Shilling does a one-day peninsula tour for $125 each, based on four sharing; +232 (0)76 814646].
Call up the majestically named Prince Williams of the Bureh Town Beach Boys Organisation in advance [+232 (0)77 424902] to order oysters which have been picked straight from the rocks. Then head on to Florence’s Resort [+232 (0)76 744406, (0)76 642003], where you can dine on fish carpaccio and Crab Venus (pasta in a crab white-wine sauce) and stay in wood-slatted rooms with white plaster arches overlooking the sea.
If you’re still hungry the next day, the local community organisation at River No 2 [+232 (0)33 400943, +232 (0)76 806066] also prepares grilled fish and other beach-side favourites, ploughing all proceeds back into the village: all children go to school thanks to the association’s efforts.
Next, venture further still to the Banana Islands, whose humpback hills may have lent the country its name: Sierra Leone was first called Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain) in 1462 when Portuguese mariner Pedro da Cintra sailed past the mountainous west African shore on his way to India. This thickly jungled island is home to a thousand people at most, as well as half-buried cannons and long out-of-order lampposts left over from the Portuguese era. Among the lush village surrounds, you can pick out guava, star fruit and avocado trees.