Senegal was once the administrative center of French West Africa, and its oh-la-la French legacy is everywhere. Dakar, Senegal, is by far the most fashionable and sophisticated of the West African capitals (thanks to the French influence) with cafes, movie theaters, a happening nightlife, shopping, and museums. To underscore the point, you may even want to plan to visit during Destination Africa Fashion Week from Nov 15 to 21 where there will be fashion shows of local designers (contact 313/873-3889 or bysharrone.com for more info).
But Dakar is still Africa through and through: Women walk with bundles atop their heads in the middle of town, and Muslim clerics in robes and with pray beads shuttle by the nightclubs. Tourists come for it all: The modern culture, the African arts, the baobob tree forests just south of Dakar, the friendly African villages, the long stretches of beaches, and the mangrove deltas that populate the southwestern part of the country (a heaven for bird watchers).
Although you can go it alone, booking a tour package of Senegal through a company such as 2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com) is your best bet -- especially if you don't speak French. Run by South Africans, 2Afrika has easy package trips for American travelers, including day trips to villages, beaches, the famous "Pink Lake" (a body of water with rose-colored waters), and other excursions. Moreover, they can arrange for you to have a guide/translator and private driver, which come very much in handy. Week-long trips with airfare from New York start at around $1,400 with hotels, guides, excursions, some meals, and local transportation -- by far your cheapest option to Senegal.
Tourists use Dakar as a base, and cheap but modern hotels in the city center are not hard to fine. Try the four-star Hotel la Croix Sud (20 Avenue Albert Sarraut, +221/889-7878; lacroixdusud.net), a classy and chic hotel with renovated rooms with TV, private baths, and a sophisticated lounge in a 1951 building, in the center of Dakar near the main plaza of the city, Place D'Independence. Smart rooms start at a cool $108.
A more simple option is the L'Oceanic Hotel (5 rue de Thann; +221/822-2044) near the main market in Dakar. It's popular with French tourists, has a cozy patio bar, and rooms may not have TV, but they make up for it with big bathrooms and brightly colored balconies. Doubles start at $42.
Although most of the other good beaches are a couple hours' drive away on Le Petite Cote ("The Little Coast") to the south of Dakar, the city does have a couple of tourist-popular beaches at La Voile D'or -- about a $3 taxi from the center of town. There are thatched umbrellas, white sand, and clean water despite that fact that the port is within eyeshot. Day use of the beach costs you a buck, or stay the night here at the simple but comfy Monaco Plage Bel Air (+221/832-2260), a yellow cement building with rooms starting at $30.
Goree Island is the famous UNESCO World Heritage site that was the horrible sending off point for slaves to the New World. It's now a somber reminder of this dark history, albeit with beautiful pastel buildings and cobblestone alleyways. One thing most tourists don't realize is that you can spend the night on Goree Island as well. Hotel du Chevalier de Boufflers (+221/822-5364) is located right off the main dock on the isle, and is a charming red pastel building with a handful of African-decorated rooms and a good restaurant overlooking the ocean serving Senegalese and French meals for under $10 (despite the plethora of tourists and lack of eateries on the island). Rates start at around $36 a night, and a continental breakfast is $3.
A major tourist spot is the Village Artisanal in Soumbedioune -- a market overflowing with carvings, African toys, bright fabrics, and interesting knick knacks. It's a $2 taxi from the city center and everyone knows it well. After haggling your way through it, you're bound to be hungry: Check out the La Jete de Soumbedioune restaurant (+221/566-4535) that is adjoining the marketplace. They have live Senegalese music on the weekends, and the patio eatery is a great place to watch the fishermen bring in their catch on brightly painted boats in the bay. Grilled filets of beef and chicken go for less than $10, and a half liter of French wine starts at $3.
You can't leave Senegal without experiencing its robust music scene, famous the world over. A great place to catch live music at night is Dakar's mellow Just 4 U (2.5 km on Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop, +221/824-3240) where you can hear the latest Senegalese jazz in a large courtyard atmosphere. The music is free for the price of a drink (around $5).
For a taste of Dakar, go to the pleasant Casa de Creole (21 Blvd. Dijily Mbaye ea Pinet Leprade, +221/823-4081), not far from the Place de L'indepence. They serve international cuisine with a French slant. The interior has a balcony eating area, a waterfall, and stained glass. Meals like filet of sole go for about $8.
If you do want to venture further afield away from Dakar, Les Paletuviers (+221/948-7776; paletuviers.com) is a resort located right alongside the friendly village of Toubacouta in the south central of the country, a few hours' drive from Dakar. It's run by a jovial Belgian couple. There's a pool, a bar, a restaurant, spacious rooms with air conditioning, and better yet, tours aplenty -- like a social tour of the village, boat tours of mangroves, bird watching tours, guided fishing, and more. Rooms start at under $100 a night, and tours start at less than $50 a day. Even better, two other hotels in the area are under the same management: Village Plage D'or, with round African cottages on a white sand beach, and L'ile des Paletuviers, a lodge with a pool, lounge, and restaurant. Zodiac boats can take you to either of these properties from Les Paletuviers, and prices are in the same ballpark. All three properties make you feel like you are a million miles away from any major tourist areas.
Or if you simply want to have a bit of a beach holiday, check out the Savana Saly Hotel (+221/849-4242, savana.sn/index-ang.html) on Le Petite Cote (about two hours south of Dakar) with doubles starting at $100. The swanky resort has pools, a small beach, cultural shows and tours, and great dining. Another nice resort with a quiet beach near Le Petite Cote is Le Warang (BP 334 Mbour; +221/957-2010) where you can stay in African-style cottages with modern amenities and there's also a large pool and a restaurant with panoramic view serving Franco-Senegalese food. Doubles start at $24.
No matter where you go in the fascinating country, you are bound to be greeted with welcoming waves, sweet people, grand vistas, and an intriguing view into the lives of modern Africans. It's a trip that may change your whole view of the continent itself.