A slice of paradise in magical Leybato

by ademba

A hidden oasis on the Gambian coast of west Africa, laid-back Leybato offers a cold drink and a comfy hammock around every corner

Not your typical crowded European-dominated sunbathing spot, Leybato is a haven for tourists, ex-pats and locals alike. Whether exploring Africa and needing to restore energy or on a fortnight’s family holiday with a tour operator, it is a place to socialise and unwind. It is also a calm spot for children to play and relax.

Located on the beach in Fajara, Leybato offers a bar, restaurant and beach bungalows and is open 24-hours-a-day (www.leybatogambia.com). Catering to a multi-national clientele, the owner Saikou Demba welcomes new faces alongside regulars. Get yourself a Julbrew (the local beer) and head for a hammock or table in the shade of palms and flowering trees, or nearer to the beach to catch the rays.

What strikes you as you make your way off the Atlantic Road highway down the sandy track to the coast is the cool breeze. The Gambia is dry and scorching from mid-morning until evening in the dry season (November to June) and increasingly humid during the rainy season (July to October), when the sticky heat is punctuated with refreshing and dramatic downpours, bringing a sudden explosion of greenery and colour.

Leybato is a retreat from the heat. Time seems to stop as tropical birds flit in and out of the leaves, waves lap on the sands and women saunter by balancing trays on their heads, laden with peanuts, cashews, mangoes and banana. You’ve never tasted mango or banana until you’ve tried these. A must is the thirst-quenching infusion made from locally-grown hibiscus flowers and sweetened with sugar. Known as honjo (Wolof) or bisap (Mandinka), this drink can be bought for pennies and not only refreshes you with its sharp cranberry-like flavour, but also provides vitamin C and has medicinal mineral properties.

The restaurant offers burgers, chicken and chips as well as local dishes. Highly recommended are the domoda (meat or fish in a spicy peanut sauce) and benachin (meat or fish fried with fresh cassava, sweet potato or aubergine, simmered until tender in a rich sauce in which the rice is then slowly cooked). Other highlights include occasional gentle music from a kora player or drummers, horse rides along the beach and the incredible sight of a huge red sun slipping slowly away beyond the horizon.

There is much to explore beyond Leybato. Bakau market is a 15-minute walk along Atlantic Road, where you will find batiks, local carvings and arts, jewelry (the locally crafted silver is unique), fruit and vegetables, taxis and bigger hotels. This small country has a plethora of large-scale accommodation along the coast where you can stay in relative luxury. Hotels such as Sunset Beach, the Senegambia or Ocean Bay have pools and on-site catering, amenities and shopping. The Gambia Experience (www.gambia.co.uk) is a good starting point for booking these. Be prepared to pay from about £429 per person.

Alternatively, travel flight-only (cheap deals at www.flights-to-the-gambia.co.uk) and book at an ethical development. Leybato has beach bungalows and the more up-market Sandele Bay Eco-Retreat at Kartong (www.sandele.com) offers activities including yoga, bird watching and fishing. Visit www.gambiatouristsupport.com (GTS) or www.hiddengambia.com for more affordable accommodation. The latter has a more up-to-date website though GTS is still very much in operation via its manager, Francis.

I stayed at the house in the GTS Kololi compound with my two children, aged three and seven, at bargain prices. Simply but beautifully furnished in Gambian prints and patterns it was cleaned to perfection on a daily basis with freshly-laundered towels and sheets provided. By paying a £15 GTS membership we benefited from airport collection on arrival and return on departure as well as reduced prices in the GTS bar and restaurant at Senegambia. We visited the restaurant on our first evening. Two musicians entertaining guests invited my son to play drums, an experience he will never forget.

If required, and for a small price, our hosts organised transport, guides and local dishes cooked to our taste. For a pool dip we visited the Senegambia Hotel (www.senegambiahotel.com), paying a daily fee to use their facilities. When feeling energetic we explored Serrekunda market. Here we were assailed by pungent smells, bartering cries, stalls festooned with all varieties of flip flop, swathes of cloth and tailors whirring away on their Singer machines. If the crowds, sweat and excitement got too much, there was always the sanctuary of Leybato to return to.