The Gambia's Coconut Residence beckons visitors with the promise of a luxury spa experience.
After a 30-minute drive from the airport, we arrive at what looks like the gate to a North African fort. It opens, and the future of Gambian tourism is revealed. My eyes widen, my breath is taken. I had heard that the country's tourist industry is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. Here is the evidence.
The first time I came to The Gambia, in 1997, I sat in the airliner's cockpit for landing. This was pre-9/11, when such things were still allowed. We banked over the River Gambia, the mighty, meandering waterway that defines mainland Africa's smallest country. The border with Senegal (which rubs against the country on three sides) is fixed approximately 10 miles from each bank. To the west lies the wild Atlantic Ocean, fringed by beautiful, sandy beaches.
On final approach to Banjul's Yundum International Airport (BJL), we lined up with an incongruously long runway. NASA upgraded it, said the co-pilot. This is an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.
I was surprised to discover the space age had touched this unlikely backwater. But I have since learned that The Gambia often confounds expectations.
Back in 1997, the aircraft was loaded with European package tourists. Some were not even aware that they had arrived in Africa. For 30 years, The Gambia had been a popular winter sun destination: cheap, downmarket and slightly seedy.
On that first arrival, I noticed that a significant proportion of the passengers were single ladies of a certain age. They wouldn't remain single for long. Within a day or two, most would be strolling the Atlantic beaches hand in hand with young Gambian men.
Although the shadow of sex tourism still lingers, in the past decade new forms of tourism have emerged. Returning after a 10-year absence, I am struck by the change in clientele in the arrivals hall. There are plenty of families and honeymooning couples, as well as birdwatchers outfitted with binoculars and khaki safari gear.
The Gambia is one of the world's outstanding birdwatching destinations, with 540 recorded species. Dedicated tours take the twitchers inland, concentrating their efforts on the mangrove channels that fray the southern bank of the river.
In the airport car park, the entwined strands of modern Gambian tourism are disentangled. The birdwatchers are directed to Land Cruisers. The families (and a dwindling number of single ladies of a certain age) board air-conditioned coaches destined for the beach resorts. And the honeymooners are guided to minibuses that will take them to secluded 5-star hotels and lodges.
One of the pioneers of the move upmarket is Farid Bensouda-Nettlau, a Moroccan who was born in The Gambia and who forged his successful business career in Germany. In 1995, he opened Coconut Residence, an exclusive $6 million boutique hotel close to the resort area of Kololi.
It was an audacious experiment. A legion of doubters was convinced that The Gambia's image as a cheap mass-tourism destination was so entrenched that any attempt to attract wealthier travelers would fail.
Farid pitched his sumptuously designed 17-room hotel at both business travelers and tourists. High occupancy rates from the beginning convinced him that he was onto something, and in 2004, together with his partner Walter Lohn, he embarked on the project that is now changing the face of Gambian tourism: Coco Ocean Resort and Spa.
Approaching the resort from the airport, I experience the customary sensory overload as the vehicle passes through the chaotic town of Serekunda. The market spills out onto the main road. We are surrounded by people, goats, scrawny cattle, noise, heat, exotic odors and vivid color. For firsttimers, this is the moment that culture shock hits.
Reaching the coastal road, we turn left toward Kololi. Authentic Africa is left behind. Suddenly we are in the land of international tourism, with scooter-rental outlets, shopping complexes, nightclubs, restaurants and forests of billboards pointing toward the beach hotels.
We follow one such sign and arrive at the imposing gate. The vehicle is waved through to reception, where I tread across black and white marble amid architecture that is part Moroccan, part Gambian and part Miami Beach.
Farid and Walter's dream finally came to fruition in December 2008. Having purchased an outstanding seafront plot, they initially employed gardeners to transform the empty scrubland into immaculate gardens, despite the best efforts of raiding monkeys from the adjacent Bijilo Forest Park. When the setting was just right, the builders moved in to create a 58-room, Moorish-inspired complex, complete with private bungalows, three restaurants, two swimming pools and The Gambia's first spa.
It is the spa that propels this hotel - and The Gambia - into the top league of world tourism. Attended by Moroccan and Thai therapists, guests quietly progress through a succession of treatment rooms.
Muzak is unnecessary here; the rhythmic swish of the Atlantic waves provides a natural soundtrack as you close your eyes and submit yourself to your choice from the menu of treatments. These include a gold pearly wrap (which leaves the skin shimmering with tiny gold flecks), a hot stone massage and an Indonesian hot compress massage.
The spa's signature facility is a traditional Moroccan hammam, the North African equivalent of a Turkish bath, where you can be thoroughly mud-smothered, steam-bathed and cleansed.
There is no let-up in the pampering when you leave the spa. The guestrooms are spacious and designed with meticulous attention to detail. The restaurants offer superb Moroccan and Asian cuisine, as well as terrific views of Bijilo Beach. The gardens are a riot of tropical flora set within neatly cropped lawns.
It is tempting to remain cocooned within the hotel for the duration of your stay, but that would be to miss out on a country full of charm and character. The contrast between the refinement of Coco Ocean and the rusty colonial ambience of nearby Banjul, the country's capital, is dramatic. As a new wave of tourists is now discovering, The Gambia offers the best of both worlds.