Enjoy the winter sun with a guaranteed wow factor. Apart from sun worshipping, you can go cycling, fishing or explore the local culture, which has an exotic African flavour
The Casamance region, in southern Senegal, is renowned for its awesome beaches, its beautiful river scenery and its lush tropical forests. To capture all this, I was constantly reaching for my camera; but it‘s the people themselves that add that extra splash of colour. The overall effect is definitely more ‘oil on canvas’ than ‘watercolour‘.
We arrived just after Christmas, after touring Senegal’s fascinating interior, and stayed over New Year. This was the height of the tourist season but there was an overwhelming sense of space along the vast beaches. Tourism here is relatively low-key, and unlike the developed northern beaches, it has maintained its African atmosphere.
Cap Skirring's miles of palm-fringed sandy beaches and its perfect ocean temperatures are an invitation to idleness, yet you are constantly entertained. Senegalese women in striking clothes and headwear tempt you with exotic fruits for sale from baskets on their heads. Young boys stroll their cattle along the beach to keep them cool. The occasional tourist jogs by. Senegalese men do staggering amounts of push-ups, in a craze to keep fit, because of their passion for football and wrestling.
Except for the most dedicated of sun worshippers, it's advisable to head for the shade around 1pm when the heat kicks in. Time for a cold drink and some lunch, or a siesta in the air-conditioned cool of your bungalow. My choice was to swing in a hammock in the garden, with a good book.
Once things cooled down, it was time for a swim, a stroll along the beach or some surfcasting for tropical fish. But beware, the barracuda have big mouths and sharp teeth. My husband went through kilos of prawns!
We also made good use of the hotel's rental bikes, by cycling up the beach or heading to town, about 5km. Northwards along the beach we came to a fishing village, where we were lucky to see the fishermen bringing their boats ashore and unloading their catch. If you go south, you will reach the Guinea-Bissau border.
At sunset, we sipped cocktails and watched the sun dip below the horizon, before effortlessly moving on to dinner by the pool.
All the hotels offer a selection of guided tours and activities, like mountain biking or 4 x 4 trips. You can visit neighbouring villages for a peek at local life, visit craft markets, meet a fetishist, or even watch a traditional wrestling match. Best of all, in my opinion, is a boat trip on the 'bolongs', the backwaters of the River Casamance, with a visit to the Ile de Karabane for lunch.
The hotel found us a dug out and a boatman who specialised in fishing, and we set off into a maze of waterways. Women were stripping oysters from the mangroves, while a sea eagle perched above waiting patiently for its prey. For bird lovers there are loads of waders and many rarer species. However, our task was to catch the boatman's dinner! Unimpressed with our stingray, catfish and sea snake, he was finally happy with the parrot fish and bream we caught.
On the Ile de Karabane we indulged in barracuda and rice, and some freshly barbecued oysters. Originally, the island was a key French trading post. The old Catholic church is now in ruins, but there is a kindergarten, a medical centre, some simple mud hut accommodation, and not much else except for the pigs that roam free here.
Cap Skirring village
Cap Skirring is a laid-back place, but with plenty to catch your attention. The market is stacked with vegetables I'd never seen before, and plenty of bright-eyed fish. The main street is lined with shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. We didn’t test the latter, but I was assured that at night things liven up, and if you want to party, you're in the right place. All the beach hotels are only a few kilometres from the village - an easy bike ride or a cheap taxi fare.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Hotel La Palmeraie - Les Hibiscus on Cap Skirring Beach. It is in fact two establishments run together. The 4-star Palmeraie has individual villas, from 40,000CFA (£60) for two people per night, and the 3-star Hibiscus has B&B rooms from 29,000CFA (£39). There are two restaurants, a bar and two swimming pools. This is like a resort hotel but more ‘African', and we found the staff friendly and helpful.
If you are looking for more of a resort-style hotel with five star facilities and service, then you could opt for Les Alizes Beach Resort, also on Cap Skirring Beach, where double rooms with half board begin at 558,000CFA (£731) per person. Over the Christmas holidays full board is obligatory.
Where to eat
For lunch our favourite was La Paillote restaurant, right on the beach, just a five minute walk from the Hotel Hibiscus. It serves delicious brochettes and salads, but make sure you've done your homework on African footballers before chatting to the owner of the place.
For dinner, we ate at the Hotel Hibiscus, as we paid half-board. We enjoyed the poolside setting and the food, but it was often slow to arrive, unless you have children and then you get served first! But they did put on a phenomenal buffet for New Year’s Eve.
La Carpe Rouge is in the centre of Cap Skirring, and recommended by Petit Futé, a French travel guide. Alternatively, all the resort hotels have restaurants.
You may have heard of the separatist activists in the Casamance, but wherever tourists go security is tight, and we never heard of any trouble. But do get updates before you travel.