“WHEN we receive guests at home we’re happy, so we feel the same with tourists in Senegal,” says our tour guide Sougi.
And that warm welcome has been extended to us this winter with tour giant TUI launching the first direct flights to from the UK to the West African destination in more than a decade.
With 32C heat and no time difference to adjust to, I was excited to be one of the first on the inaugural flight bound for the all-inclusive 5H RIU Baobab — a resort with all the frills, which starts from just £816pp for a week.
There are four pools, including one with a swim-up bar (expect frozen cocktails and DJ sets every day), as well as an on-site water park with five slides.
You won’t find yourself fighting for a spot on the beach either.
There are miles of barely touched, bright yellow sand along the serene Pointe Sarene, with palm tree-shaded sun loungers and umbrellas galore.
The hotel keeps you well fed, from the fried chicken and chips at the pool cafe, to the extensive buffet restaurant serving everything from pizza and pasta to local Senegalese cuisine.
Be brave and try thieboudienne, the country’s rice and fish dish. It’s so salty and tasty you won’t be able to stop with just one scoop.
One perk of the resort is its three speciality restaurants, all of which are included in the package, although they need to be pre-booked.
There is Veneto for fine Italian dining, Doryaki, where you can fill up on sushi and noodles, and the Grill for BBQ fans.
The only difficulty is saying no to the wine, which is almost constantly on tap from the attentive staff.
They also make a mean mojito. Beer fan? Then the local La Gazelle will go down a treat too.
And when the sun goes down, the entertainment really starts, with live music and dance performances every night. You can party into the early hours at the Aduna nightclub.
The warm Senegalese welcome isn’t just felt at the hotel, but also outside, especially on an excursion to a local family’s home in a nearby village.
We arrived on their doorstep, while kids spilled out to meet us, and were greeted like old friends. We were given sleeping babies to hold and taught how to pound grain with massive pestles that left my arm muscles burning.
My lack of rhythm was also evident when invited to dance with a combination of arm swings and twerks, only for the locals to howl with laughter at my very awkwardly British attempt.
That community spirit continued at the Jardin d’Ebene, a small artisanal factory selling locally made jam and ice cream.
It is run by ex-Parisian Huong Thach and her team.
After a brief four-day visit five years ago, Huong fell in love with the country and left her marketing job in France to build her place from scratch.
She told me: “I feel so at home here. People are kind and you say hello to everyone even if you don’t know them.”
Her employees are also her neighbours and live just a few houses down. Her handmade hibiscus ice cream was so rich it made my tongue tingle from the sweetness, while her soursop jam (a fruit I was assured is the next big superfood) made its way back to my hotel room.
While it can be tempting to while the days away in the resort pool, the hotel offers all kinds of day trips that will tempt even the most reluctant of guests.
A trip to Africa would be nothing without some wild animal spotting. Try the Bandia reserve, which is ideal for first-time safari-goers to gawk at giraffes, zebras and rhinos.
Or hop on a boat down the Saloum Delta river, a Unesco world heritage site with thousands of hectares of wildlife, as you listen to the clacking of the oyster shells hidden in the mangrove trees.
But if there is one excursion not to skip, it is a visit Goree Island which was once one of the largest slave-trading centres on the coast of Africa.
It is estimated that at least tens of thousands were taken to the island between the 15th and 19th century.
When you arrive, the picturesque island almost hides its sad history with its brightly coloured colonial houses, built under the rules of the Dutch, Portuguese and French.
Following Senegal’s independence from France in 1960, just 1,200 people now live in Goree.
There are no cars, just local traders on every street corner in their brightly printed boubou outfits. Friendly female sellers at the craft market will tempt you to their wares to the tune of a “good price” while the young men peddle their kashaka instruments, shaking the beans to a percussive beat.
But the most commonly visited point on the island is the Maison des Esclaves, the last remaining slave house and now a museum. Previous visitors include Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
It makes for a sobering trip, especially the Door Of No Return, which shows the final point where the slaves would be taken to the boats, leaving their loved ones behind on the island forever.
You would expect the island to be a solemn destination, but it is the opposite, with a vibrancy from the people we met.
Our tour guide explained: “We try to forget it, as we cannot keep living with anger.” That sense of community and kindness is something so easily forgotten while living busy lives back home.
So as I waved goodbye to everyone at RIU Baobab, I decided my first port of call back home would be to spend time with friends and family — having taken that luxury for granted too often.
GETTING/ STAYING THERE: TUI offers seven nights all-inclusive at the 5H Riu Baobab from £816pp including flights from Gatwick on January 9, 2023, and transfers. Based on two sharing a double room with balcony or terrace. See tui.com.
OUT & ABOUT: Tui offers excursions from £27pp. The Saloum Delta Day Trip is £65 per adult/£33 per child; Bandia Reserve is £56 per adult/£28 per child; Goree Island and Dakar Day Trip is £65 per adult/£33 per child; and the Treasures and Flavours of Senegal is £27 per adult/£14 per child. See tui.com.
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