July 2, 2010 / 10:02 AM / 7 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Dakar, Senegal

DAKAR (Reuters Life!) - Africa’s most westerly point, Senegalese capital Dakar jams 2.5 million people onto a peninsula that spikes out into the Atlantic. Its heart is a ball of noise and pent-up energy fed by the sun, but the city breathes on its beaches.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit.

FRIDAY

4:00 pm - The moment you cross the exit of the airport, don your shades and the mien of a seasoned, unflappable traveler as you cut through the crowd of hawkers, scammers and money-changers, somewhere among whom are taxi drivers. Once downtown in Plateau, close to the presidential palace and main square, take a walk and absorb Dakar at its most colorful. The largely Muslim city likes to dress up for Friday prayers, men and women dressed in the ‘boubou’, a traditional Senegalese robe worn in iridescent blues, pristine whites, and bold patterns adorned with sparkling trim.

6.00 pm - While it’s still light, make it to the Almadies district and Le N‘Gor Tapas, a peaceful seafront bar that sits above the breakers. Cool off with a bottle of chilled Gazelle, the better of the two local beers, or a nicely built mojito as the sun sets over the Atlantic.

9:00 pm - Not far away is Le Mogador (lemogadordakar.com), one of a handful of restaurants which serve top-quality French cooking. There is little if any fusion between European and Senegalese cuisine, but the cultural influence of former colonial power France lingers in Dakar’s best kitchens as much as in its language.

Dakar’s dining scene, far superior to many other African capitals, grows more cosmopolitan every month. Take a look at dakarrestaurantreviews.blogspot.com, a popular local guide which keeps on top of new openings.

While eating, take advantage of what is practically year-round warmth well into the night to sit outdoors. Visitors in the June-September rainy season may find their balmy evening interrupted by apocalyptically violent rainstorms illuminated by lightning, an amazing sight to view from behind plate glass, but less fun to be caught in. 12:00 am - Traveling around, especially at night, can be an adventure. Most of the city’s taxi drivers know only a few major landmarks from which everything else has to be triangulated, and street names beyond a couple of main roads are generally meaningless. Passengers should always agree on a fare in advance, a good-natured barter that routinely begins with an attempt to hugely overcharge Western visitors.

En route, women passengers can often expect a marriage proposal or at the very least a date, while men are frequently offered an introduction to a woman who may or may not be the driver’s sister.

1:00 am - Relish the vanity of the Senegalese capital. In nightclubs, watch men and women take positions in front of mirrors running the length of walls, eyes only on their own clothes, hair, footwear and moves.

Visitors less proficient at physically interpreting the fast, snapping rhythms of local dance music Mbalax have been known to try it, attempts which usually earn the ‘dancer’ nothing worse -- or better -- than cold indifference.

In the early hours, before when no self-respecting Dakarois would even approach a dancefloor, check out Patio in Almadies, where an outdoor bar and pool table offer alternatives to narcissism, and the flash-acting Golden in Point E.

Among the brash young rollers of the city, there is money to spend, and when cash is dropped here, it is dropped ostentatiously. Pricey club Nirvana (nirvanadakar.com), on the same strip as Patio, has recently hosted big-name acts such as Sean Paul and Jah Rule at around $50 a ticket, well outside the reach of most Senegalese.

SATURDAY

10.00 am - Blast out the toxins of the night before with a morning on a surfboard. Sticking far out into the Atlantic on the tip of the Cap Vert peninsula, the beaches and rocky reefs surrounding Dakar catch swells from almost every direction, meaning rideable waves can always be found somewhere.

When conditions are right, huge waves break off the reef at Ouakam Beach, a fishing village with a spectacular mosque and framed by tall cliffs. Ouakam’s waves are considered the best in West Africa and can give experienced surfers big tube rides.

A short boat trip in a traditional pirogue can get you out to N‘Gor Island, a charming spit of land with cobbled lanes, restaurants, bars and beaches. It was here that two Californians first introduced surfing to West Africa in 1964, filming the iconic surf travel movie “Endless Summer.” The waves on N‘Gor Island’s reef may not be Ouakam’s perfect shape, but they can get huge. A surf camp, called Endless Summer after the flick, caters to international surf tourists. For the amateur surfer, the gentler waves of Virage or Yoff Beach are a good bet. Tribal Surf Shop in Virage gives lessons.

3:00 pm - Spend some cash at Sandaga market, which buzzes with noise and activity near Place de l‘Independance. Inside the market are fish, meat, fruit and vegetables and outdoors is a cornucopia of stalls selling fabric, clothes, hats, electronics, ornaments and, if the hectoring vendors are to be believed, the cheapest genuine Gucci sunglasses you’ll ever find, with a starting price of around $10.

6:00 pm - Settle in for dinner at Cabane des Pecheurs on N‘Gor beach, a friendly Dakar institution where the catches of the day are chalked up on a blackboard, the freshest seafood is unfussily cooked, and the ambience encourages lengthy meals.

11:00 pm - At open-air bar and music venue Just 4 U (just4udakar.com) on Cheikh Anta Diop, chances are you’ll see one of Senegal’s best loved bands, Orchestra Baobab. Veteran performers who don’t need to try too hard to entertain even a discerning crowd, their well-travelled West African music is inflected with jazz, Cuban rhythms and blues guitar licks.

SUNDAY

10:00 am - Take a ferry from Dakar’s main port to Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The island’s main attraction, the House of Slaves, is a memorial to slavery, and the departure point for boat after boat of Africans bound for the New World, though some historians argue the site’s importance to the transatlantic slave trade has been overstated.

3:00 pm - Form an opinion about one of Africa’s most controversial artworks in recent history. The monument to the African Renaissance, brainchild of President Abdoulaye Wade, is a bronze statue atop a hill near Dakar’s coastline of a man, woman and baby.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty, it is either a tasteless eyesore, a waste of money in a poor country, an insult to women, an un-Islamic idol and a misrepresentation of African life, or a celebration of hope, a recognition of progress, a unifying symbol of African strength and vitality. You decide.

6:00 pm - Finish the day with a leisurely drink at the poolside bar of the Radisson Blu (radissonblu.com), Dakar’s newest hotel, where the sun goes down to the sound of a jazz quartet. Most flights to Europe and the United States leave between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Paul Casciato

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