Senegal has winter sun, no jet leg –and is perfect for adventurous travellers

The UK’s dreary winters always tempt me to seek out warmth. And, after a testing 12 months personally, I decided it was time to regain my spark – with a solo trip.

What I needed, with just five days of annual leave left to use, was to visit somewhere that was new to me, which could be reached on a relatively short flight and that had almost guaranteed sunshine. The fact that Senegal has no time difference with the UK, that its capital enjoys an average temperature of around 30°C in December, and that it is considered one of West Africa’s most stable countries helped to seal the deal.

Traditional painted wooden fishing boat in Djiffer, Senegal. West Africa.
Traditional painted wooden boats in Senegal (Photo: Curioso.Photography/Getty)

And it seems as though, after decades of leaving the destination to French holidaymakers, I am not the only Briton to have Senegal on my mind.

In November 2022, Tui launched a direct five-and-a-half-hour flight from the UK to Dakar, the country’s capital. And other operators are set to follow suit.

Kelly Cookes of the Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest network of independent travel agents, told me: “We believe that Senegal will be one to watch for 2024 and beyond, with some of the larger UK tour operators bolstering their offering to the destination.”

“There are an increasing number of flights to Senegal this winter, and we think that going forward more and more Britons will see it as a great winter holiday spot.”

My Senegal adventure began with an indirect – read more affordable – flight via Lisbon with TAP Air (returns from £370).

Eight hours later, I landed in Dakar, the traditional traveller’s entry point to the relatively small country (it’s around the same size as England and Scotland together). I arranged for my guesthouse – Hotel du Phare (£42 p/n) – to collect me (£30). The transfer took around 45 minutes.

As someone who regularly travels solo, I feel comfortable visiting places that aren’t typically on the radar of British tourists. I took my first trip alone aged 18 – a gap year in Australia.

Sometimes I have travelled alone simply because I’ve been single, and my friends and family haven’t fancied my choice of destination, our finances didn’t match up or our annual leave wasn’t compatible. Mostly, however, I’ve travelled alone because I love to. I get to try a new, different life on for size.

I found Senegal’s capital to be chaotic, crowded and spectacular. But I needed someone to show me around. I befriended Babacar (+221 775 332 635), a taxi driver who was genuinely delighted to share his city with me. There was one caveat: Babacar didn’t speak English. Some British visitors may need to resurrect their secondary school French if they try my approach to sightseeing.

For around £20, Babacar spent a day showing me Dakar’s attractions, including the African Renaissance Monument (a 49-metre-tall bronze statue that, controversially, cost £16.6 million to construct, using foreign labour), markets, and live music venues where mbalax – a style made famous by the Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour – filled the air.

Yet the highlight was a trip to the car-free island of Goree, a 20-minute ferry ride from Dakar. Goree looks like a colourful paradise with its bougainvillaea-draped buildings. In reality, it’s a chilling reminder of a dark past.

The island of Goree was a traditional slaving and trading port, by the colonial powers of Europe. It is a small town of historic houses, with a fort and a protected harbour for trading.
The island of Goree (Photo: Bruno Morandi/Getty)

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the tiny island served as the largest slave trading centre on the African coast – something I learnt more about at Gorée’s Maison des Esclaves.

Slaves were brought to this salmon-hued house house, now a museum, to board ships bound for the Americas. Seeing the infamous “Door of no return” – the archway through which 20 million people left Africa – will never leave me.

But back on the mainland, Babacar was keen to look forward – and urged me to visit Saint-Louis. This crumbling city in northern Senegal, founded in 1659, is being regenerated.

And so, I said farewell and boarded the Dem Dikk bus (£6.60) to West Africa’s first French settlement. On the six-hour journey, I passed savannah grasslands studded with Baobab trees, children playing barefoot football in red-rust streets, and women peddling cashew nuts at pop-up produce stalls.

On arrival, I saw yet another side of Senegal. Saint Louis’s tight nest of streets were packed with horse-drawn carts and pink and ochre buildings filled with shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and cute cafes.

My base in Saint Louis was Ndar Ndar, a cheerful guesthouse in the heart of the old town. There are places you enter and immediately think “I’m going to like it here”, and Ndar Ndar had that effect on me.

My double, en-suite room (£44 p/n) was clean and comfortable – and came with a balcony from which I watched sunsets in hues of orange and red. Elsewhere, the communal area – crammed full of photos, books and records documenting Saint Louis through the years – proved a great spot to meet fellow travellers.

Oumar, the guesthouse’s owner, was full of fab recommendations, too. For example, he showed me where to find thieboudienne (Senegal’s national dish of rice and fish that’s as hard to pronounce as it is to spell) for a late, cheap dinner (£3.90) with new friends, followed by even later drinks.

The eight-hour bus ride (£6.60) back down south to Saly, the heart of Senegal’s tourism industry, wasn’t without its hiccups (it broke down more than once), but proved strangely enjoyable. I sat on dusty streets in the hot sun while waiting patiently for the vehicle to be repaired. I learnt card games, shared snacks with strangers, and chatted until the early hours over Senegalese tea – a brew of green tea, sugar, and mint boiled over glowing coals.

In Saly, palm trees rustling in the warm breeze provided the backdrop to the shifting colour of the sea as local fishermen clambered into wooden pirogue boats hoping to make their daily catch.

On my final morning, I woke early and stepped onto pale gold sand that had the footprints of just one other person. They led me north to a rustic, unnamed cafe serving freshly baked croissants with butter and jam – a legacy of French rule – which I savoured while listening to the sound of the sea lapping the shore.

I knew, of course, that this was a suspended reality – that soon I’d be heading back home to a barrage of pinging text messages and email notifications, and freezing temperatures.

But, in that moment, I felt as though, by travelling solo to Senegal, I had given myself a gift: a chance to connect with others (and myself) and be reminded of the joy that comes from opening my eyes to new destinations.

Getting there and around
Tui offers direct flights and several other airlines offer indirect flights to Blaise Diagne International Airport, 50km south-east of Dakar. Dem Dikk buses are a good way of travelling cheaply around the country ( tickets must be booked in person, a day in advance at the bus terminal, and with cash.

Further information