Coco Was My Cup of Tea

Journalist Jackie Butler enjoys a few days at the luxurious Coco Ocean Resort and discovers the real Gambia on a cookery course and 4 Wheel Drive excursion.


Jackie Butler is the deputy features editor of regional daily newspaper the Western Morning News. Now that her three children have flown the nest, her favourite hobby is exploring the world.


Mrs Ida Cham Njai strolled through the market, head held high, gently weaving through the chattering crowds towards the waterfront, her proud and striking red-clad figure standing out against the mass of ramshackle wooden stalls and patchwork of huts to either side of the dusty pathway. I followed close behind, feeling self-conscious in my borrowed lime green apparel, a traditional Gambian three-piece of floor-length wrap skirt, with matching overdress and a simple scarf, which Ida had conjured into an elaborate headdress to rival her own. But in the morning heat, already nudging 30C, if not cool, I was far more comfortable than my Western clothes would have allowed.

Trotting down a gentle slope, suddenly the scene opened out on to Tanji beach and the most extraordinary assault to the senses I have ever experienced. A little way out at sea, teams of fishermen lolled lazily on a dozen or more long, open boats, their work done for the day; children no older than seven or eight carried big round trays of fruit or bread on their heads, urging us to buy, while others hassled for money or gifts; men old and young stand around smoking cigarettes.

At a cloth-spread table staffed by a row of laughing, gossipping assistants, Ida poked and prodded some fierce-looking fishy specimens and prompted me to hand over a couple of crumpled Dalasi banknotes. With some of our lunch in the bag, we moved back into the market throng to select vegetables, rice and spices from assorted sellers. So, this was shopping, Gambian style – an honest slice of everyday life in this tiny West African country. With no refrigerator in the average home many housewives go through this ritual twice a day. It made a striking, but welcome, contrast to the addictive splendour of the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa a short drive away, where I could have remained indefinitely cocooned in the most divine vacation luxury. I love all that fivestar treatment, of course, but I also get immense pleasure from engaging with the real people of the places I visit. In The Gambia this is not only possible, but it’s a major part of their sustainable tourism strategy and it’s helping to keep threatened traditions and customs alive. The Yabouy home cooking day run by Ida is an excellent example. A regular excursion, it offers tourists a chance to shop, cook and eat in traditional style.

The following day my party set off bright and early, climbing up a ladder into the back a huge four-wheel drive lorry. We trundled down the dusty tracks that pass for roads in The Gambia only the two major routes are Tarmac – to catch some snapshots of town and country life in the company of our most charming and chatty tour guide, football fanatic Mucki. As we drove, people and buildings emerged abruptly from either side and it was impossible to anticipate what was coming up ahead. We negotiated the low-rise shanty metropolis of Serrekunda, a sea of tatty shopfronts and single-room business premises, the noisy streets simply swarming with people. Nothing could have prepared us for the enthusiastic reception waiting at one of the local schools where tourists regularly call in to look around and give donations of greatly appreciated pens, pencils and books.

Back on the lorry and deeper into the unknown, lofty vegetation sweeping past our ears, Mucki pointed out the plethora of colourful birds, naming each one carefully and accurately, throwing in a smattering of football-themed humour. “Red-beaked hornbill: Gambia 2, England, nil.” Eventually we emerged onto a deserted seafront where a lone cafe overlooked an idyllic beach. We quenched our thirst with fizzy pop and selected a light lunch from a laden hot and cold buffet before hopping across the baking sand and plunging neck-deep into the balmy waves for a leisurely swim. I dried off dozing and swinging gently in a string hammock. Total bliss.

That night, we dined at JoJo’s bistro and grill, known for its fish and steaks, in the busy and popular Kololi resort, home of the Strip, where there are restaurants of all nationalities, except Gambian, loads of bars and a couple of clubs. But for me nothing could exceed the appeal of the top class Moroccan-style Coco Ocean and Spa at Bijilo, where I luxuriated in my spacious single storey studio-style Beach Club Villa, which boasted a furnished outdoor terrace as big as its bed-sitting room and bathroom suite. I guess I’m a five-star girl deep down, and I’d go back for more tomorrow.

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