As a rule, I avoid conversation on flights. Partly because diazepam makes me slur and partly because I was told never to talk to strangers. But, as it transpires, I am something of a novelty on this flight. I’m heading for Banjul, capital of Gambia, and all around me sturdy geriatric twitchers are sipping gin and tonics and popping antimalarials.
I am the flight’s youngest passenger and small talk will be unavoidable. Queuing for the toilet an elderly man cracks a joke about blood pressure and offers me a pear drop. I steer the conversation to birds. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” he tells me. “The coast is the place for bird-watching.” I tell him that we, too, are staying by the sea. “Well, be warned: the lads aren’t used to young girls. I’d pop that ring onto the other finger.” He winks. Twenty years ago, removing the ring or indeed anything of vague worth would have been better advice.
Tourism is still in its early stages. But in recent years, thanks to low prices and a dramatic improvement in its hotels, Gambia is an increasingly popular winter sun destination, it is also — my fellow passengers notwithstanding — starting to lure a younger crowd.
The newest and most flashy hotel, the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa, opened just after Christmas. Here, twitchers and honeymooners alike check in in their droves beneath a sky that teems with life. On the hotel lawn, white cattle egrets will sidle up to your lounger while, above, vultures circle like predatory biplanes. There are so many birds that when asked which kind is eyeing up your breakfast, staff simply grunt “owl.”
Laid out with no evident symmetry just off Bijilo beach, the Coco has 58 rooms and suites — all cleaned and bug-sprayed twice daily, and all on a colossal scale. A few of the rooms are in the main building; most are individual villas scattered throughout grounds so extensive they would take 25 minutes to traverse on foot. I count three loungers per head and five waiters per diner. On each section of lawn — they’re all surrounded by baobab trees — lurk further surplus members of staff, all resplendent in their palm-green-colored uniforms.
A tropical garden planned for the rear of the hotel will add another half hectare and another 14 gardeners. Towards the beach, the grounds are bordered on one side by a shabby cafe manned by an over-friendly body board vendor and on the other by the Bijilo Forest nature reserve, which, despite the hotel’s high bougainvillea walls, sporadically expels Colobus monkeys from its canopy onto the hotel terrace. Dining here is a lazy, seven-star experience, with chipper waiters and hearty portions. Three dinners in, my body begins to protest at the extraordinary amount of seafood I am throwing at it and I debate leaving my claypot tuna under the table for the invaders, since feeding them bananas is prohibited by management.
The Coco Ocean’s unique selling point is its spa, which is Gambia’s first. Housed in a Moorish-style villa, with domed ceilings, stark white walls and marble floors, this place oozes opulence and can be as taxing as you want it to be. Guests can work up a sweat on a treadmill or fizz the dead skin off their backs in the thalassotherapy pool. I ease myself into the grandeur with four treatments: a foot massage, followed by a facial and an Indonesian back massage with herbal compresses, and culminating on day five with a Moroccan hammam rub.