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The perfect winter sun destination?

Gambia day one

View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Mandina Lodge view

We’re not ones for lazing on a beach or by a pool, but during the English winter we do crave a bit of heat and sunshine. Ideally, we want somewhere completely different from home, and yet not too challenging to travel to, especially if we can’t spare the time for a lengthy break. We want time to relax, and time to explore. Hopefully we’ll find cloudless blue skies, hot sunny days tempered by fresh breezes, and temperate evenings blessed with dramatic sunsets.

Such a place, we discovered, is The Gambia.

In early 2014 we spent a week relaxing by the sea in Fajara, at the wonderful Ngala Lodge, and also managed to get out and about from there to see the local area.

We then had four nights inland at the equally wonderful (but very different) Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Cultural Forest, among the mangroves on the banks of the River Gambia.

This series of blog entries is compiled from the reviews I wrote for Virtual Tourist after our return.

Flight to Banjul

Leaving rainy Gatwick Airport

As (unusually for us) we had booked a package with The Gambia Experience, our flight was a charter one, flying with Monarch from London Gatwick. It was a sort of semi ‘no frills’ experience - we didn't pay for meals, but we did for drinks (even soft drinks). Service throughout, both check-in and on board, was well organised and despite limited leg room, the plane was modern and not uncomfortable.

The lunch that was served was reasonable too, with good marks for including some fresh fruit in particular (grapes, pineapple and mango).




Landing at Banjul Airport, in bright sunshine!

We landed just a little later than scheduled and stepped off the plane into temperatures more than 20 degrees higher than at home. The sky was blue, there were palm trees and white cattle egrets - we had arrived in the tropics!

The queue for immigration was not too bad, although the luggage carousel was mobbed and someone else nearly walked off with Chris's bag! But soon our luggage had been screened and we were being greeted by The Gambia Experience rep and directed to our buses. The holiday could now begin.

If you travel with The Gambia Experience you can if preferred book a private transfer but we were happy to go in the group buses and found it to be relatively hassle-free. The main downside was that we had to wait until everyone was through customs and ready to leave, but we were given a bottle of cold water and a straw fan, and there was plenty of activity to look at outside while we waited the 15 minutes or so for everyone to board the bus.

Waiting buses at Banjul Airport

Roadside drinks stands near the airport

The drive to our hotel took about 30 minutes and took us through Serekunda with its markets and local shops. I was able to grab some photos in passing - children in a school playground, women and children shopping for dinner, a sponsored walk that looked more like a protest march and more snapshots of local life.

School in Serekunda

Shop in Serekunda

Sponsored walk or protest march?

Serekunda scene
~ all the above photographed from the bus

The journey passed very quickly and we didn't regret for a moment not paying the extra for the private transfer - especially when another couple arrived at the hotel shortly after us in their private taxi that had run out of fuel en route!

Ngala Lodge

Most people who come to The Gambia do so in search of sun, sea and sand – especially winter sun. For northern Europeans especially it offers a guarantee of good weather at a time when their own country is cold, dull and dark. So most hotels are located on the short stretch of Atlantic coastline that runs south from the capital, Banjul. There is something for every budget, from basic guesthouses through budget hotels to all-inclusive resorts. We wanted a bit of a treat, but don’t particularly like large hotels which can be a bit soulless and which often offer (and charge for) facilities we have no intention of using. So we were glad to discover the boutique Ngala Lodge in Fajara.

In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

This is a quiet adults-only haven perched on the low rocky cliffs a little away from the main tourist areas but still within easy reach (by taxi or on tours) of some of the main sights. It is a tranquil place and won’t suit everyone. No children are allowed, and you don’t find any organised entertainment beyond low-key music provided by local musicians each evening. There are no pool games, beach sports or other activities. If you want to be continually busy and urged to ‘join in with the fun’, you need to go elsewhere.

In the grounds of Ngala Lodge


But if you want to relax, recharge the batteries and be just a little bit pampered in an understated way, this is the place! We had a wonderful week here and will choose it again for sure if we return to The Gambia.

First evening at Ngala

On this first afternoon we settled into our room. All rooms here are suites, some more luxurious and larger than others, but we had chosen one of the standard ones and were very happy with it. It was a first floor (second for US readers) corner suite, with a large private balcony, huge sitting room, bedroom with king-size four poster and good-sized bathroom with a shower. We had views through some trees towards the sea.

The bedroom


Lounge area, looking out to the balcony

Lounge area

We’d been invited to meet with the rep from The Gambia Experience along with the other new arrivals that afternoon. As I said, we don’t normally take package holidays and weren’t planning on booking loads of tours but there was one I was keen to do, to the villages associated with Alex Haley, author of Roots, which are hard to get to independently in a single day, so we went along to sign up for that. It was also a chance to get some advice about changing money and to meet one of the resident cats, Rasta, who was to become a firm friend over the next week!


After the meeting we took a walk through the grounds down to the edge of the cliffs, where a path leads down to the small beach, covered at high tide. The sun was starting to sink over the rocky shore.


Ngala Lodge sunset day one

It’s possible to book half-board at Ngala but we were keen to have the option to eat elsewhere on some evenings at least, so we’d opted for bed and breakfast. However on this first evening it made sense to have dinner here, and a delicious meal it was – preceded by a drink on the terrace outside the restaurant and followed by a night time stroll through the grounds before heading to bed, grateful that there is no time difference between the UK and The Gambia and hence no jet-lag to overcome!

Pre-dinner drinks

Spring rolls starter

Butterfish carpaccio starter

Cajun tuna

Restaurant terrace at night

Posted by ToonSarah 08:55 Archived in Gambia Tagged planes food sunset coast hotel flight airport garden africa cats gambia street_photography

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Looks lovely and a beautiful room. Looking forward to following you on your trip. It is funny . . . we look for places that are cooler, cloudy and have a bit of rain. Guess it depends on what you're escaping. ;)

by Beausoleil

Hi Sally. I think most of us travel to find something different from our everyday :) I'm not actually keen on lots of hot sun, but as a short break from the English winter I welcome it, and Chris even more so!

by ToonSarah

I guess it is the perfect winter destination! :)

by Ils1976

What meals are included in half board? We had modified American plan (aka half board) in Bermuda and it was breakfast and dinner. (And we ate lunch out)

I think the latitude of England is farther north (and thus darker) than most of the US. Maybe not as cold as Canada because of the ocean currents, but darker in the winter and there is more light in the summer.

by greatgrandmaR

Gambia? Amazing

by Michael Dempsey

Beautiful looking resort. Did it have a pool?

by irenevt

Thanks everyone! Rosalie, half board means breakfast and dinner are included, whereas if you add lunch too it's full board. What's 'American Plan' if half board is a modified version? I don't know that term.

And Irene, yes to the pool - you'll see photos in future entries. In fact, it now has two but there was only one when we were there. I think it's pushing it to call this a 'resort' however, it's more of a boutique hotel :)

by ToonSarah

American plan is the same as full board. Contrast with European plan which is the hotel only and no meals.

I was confused because you wrote: "It’s possible to book half-board at Ngala but we were keen to have the option to eat elsewhere on some evenings at least, so we’d opted for half-board. However on this first evening it made sense to have dinner here..." That sounded like half-board would be breakfast and lunch at the hotel and dinner out.

by greatgrandmaR

You've found my 'deliberate mistake' Rosalie I should have said 'we'd opted for bed and breakfast'. Sorry for the confusion - I'll change it now :)

by ToonSarah

Well I looked up half board and it just said two meals at the hotel - either breakfast and lunch or breakfast and dinner. But I was still confused. I thought you must have meant that half board was breakfast and lunch.

I did book the "meal plan" at a hotel in Santo Domingo and it was breakfast and lunch

by greatgrandmaR

I remember The Gambia being quite a popular destination for us sun-starved Brits, but I'm not so sure if it is these days. Do you know if it still is Sarah?

by Easymalc

Yes, definitely Malcolm, or at least it was until the recent pandemic affected travel habits. The UK company we went with, The Gambia Experience, has (had?) a thriving business sending Brits over there throughout the winter, with hotels ranging from basic to luxury. We've used them since for our Senegal and Cape Verde trips, and they also do Goa, but The Gambia is where they make most of their income I suspect.

by ToonSarah

We too want to escape the winter to somewhere warm, and have thinked about Gambia so I am very interested to read about the rest of your trip! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Hi Henna - on the whole I would definitely recommend The Gambia, although the bumsters are a bit of a hassle :( Worth putting up with however as there are lots of plus points - not just the weather but also a good range of accommodation from budget to luxury, and plenty to do if you're not into lazing around the whole time :)

by ToonSarah

I actually tried to find out the price range of Ngala Lodge but doe to the "covid situation" they are not taking reservations right now so it proofed to be bit difficult to find out :)

by hennaonthetrek

They're taking bookings through the Gambia Experience - I know, because writing this blog has got me wondering about going back next winter! But those are flight + hotel packages, so no use to you unless you want to travel via London. But maybe you would need to anyway - are there direct flights to Banjul from Finland?

by ToonSarah

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