You’ve already photographed the Big Five, sipped your way across Stellenbosch, straddled a camel beside the pyramids and now you’re looking for someplace new and different to feed your fascination with Africa.
Freetown — Sierra Leone’s bustling seaside capital city — might be just the thing.
Sure, it’s not the most obvious destination for your Africa bucket list. Sierra Leone is more renowned for blood diamonds and boy soldiers than gourmet restaurants or five-star hotels. But 20 years after the end of the notorious civil war, Freetown has emerged as a vibrant, dynamic city with a heap of reasons to visit.
The city boasts awesome beaches, a tasty modern food scene, and even glamping. The coastal Krio culture is fascinating and very accessible. And you can easily embark on day trips to nearby tropical islands and a legendary wildlife sanctuary.
And then there’s history. No other African city has such a close connection to the U.S. and very few can say they also have strong roots in England, Canada and Jamaica.
Powerful Origin Stories
The name Freetown hints at the city’s genesis as a place created by people freed from slavery. The first settlers were blacks who remained loyal to the British crown and even fought against colonial forces during the American Revolution.
In the wake of the Redcoat defeat, they fled the 13 colonies and took refuge in Britain. They weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. And in 1787, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in London arranged for 400 of them to relocate to Sierra Leone, a small British enclave on the West African coast.
Freetown was founded five years later, its population boosted by former slaves who had fled to Canada during the Revolution, rebellious Maroons deported from Jamaica, people who managed to escape slavery in other parts of Africa and others freed from chattels when the British Empire abolished slavery in the early 1800s.
Together they formed Freetown’s Krio culture with its distinctive food, fashion, music, architecture, folktales and an English language dialect now widely spoken across Sierra Leone.
Located on a peninsula that juts into the South Atlantic, Freetown is flanked by fabulous white-sand strands.
Perched near the end of the peninsula, Lumley Beach is the city’s party beach. Long and wide, it offers more bars, restaurants and hotels than any other local beach, as well as a small arts and crafts market and the seaside Freetown Golf Club (18 holes).
Continuing down the coast, River No. 2 Beach is the most picturesque, its sandy isthmus and turquoise lagoon framed by coconut palms and the jungle-covered mountains of nearby Western Area National Park.
You can walk along the sand from River No. 2 to tranquil Tokeh Beach and The Place Resort, the best of the many hotels along the Freetown coast. Bringing up the bottom end of the coast strip, Bureh Beach is renowned for its resident surfers and surf club, where visitors can rent boards or take lessons.
The largest natural harbor on the African continent, the Sierra Leone River estuary empties into the Atlantic between the capital and its international airport.
Located about 45 minutes by water taxi from Freetown, the harbor’s Bunce Island is Sierra Leone’s foremost (and most infamous) historic site. Between 1670 and 1809, English traders used the now-ruined fort on Bunce to process and ship more than 30,000 Africans via the Middle Passage to the 13 colonies and independent United States.
Nearby Tasso Island is home to a relatively new community ecotourism project where visitors can grab lunch in an open-air restaurant, catch a few rays on the beach, photograph a variety of birds in the island’s thick forest, or stay overnight in modest beachfront bungalows.
Offshore from Bureh Beach, the little Banana Islands boast Sierra Leone’s only glamping camp, a Bafa Resort with waterfront safari-style tents and an open-air bar and restaurant beneath towering coconut palms. Work up an appetite for the resort’s excellent seafood by hiking, kayaking or biking.
Emerging Food Scene
Local Krio cuisine meets West African standards in a Freetown food scene that includes restaurants that are already gaining international acclaim.
“A buzzing oasis where history and culture meet haute cuisine” according to the BBC, Cole Street Guest House was founded by chef Miatta Marke and her husband Matt in the Murray Town house where she grew up. On the leading edge of the city’s nouvelle Krio cuisine scene, many of the dishes are inspired by her grandmother’s recipes.
The restaurant at Toma Boutique Hotel and chef Susan Senesie’s rooftop dining at Treat Food on Peninsular Road are two other rising stars of modern West African food.
At the other end of the Freetown diming spectrum, Crown Bakery in the downtown market area may not look inviting from the outside but the menu offers a mouthwatering array of Mediterranean and Africa dishes from falafels and shawarma to Jollof rice with stew and incredible tropical fruit smoothies.
Close Encounters of the Primate Kind
Meet our closest living animal relative at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Western Area National Park.
Located around a half-an-hour drive from downtown Freetown, the reserve was established in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran, a former accountant who decided to devote his life to saving Sierra Leone’s national animal from almost certain extinction in the wild. The legendary Jane Goodall was one of those who helped Bala get the sanctuary off the ground.
One-hour guided tours meander through tropical forest habitats that are home to 115 chimps rescued from local homes where they were kept as pets or orphaned in Sierra Leone’s national park by bush meat and animal trade poaching.
The sanctuary also offers longer guided forest walks in the national park. And visitors can also stay overnight at six eco-lodges costing from US$90 to $120 per night.
published 2023-07-26 12:32:05