Vicarious Tourism: Freetown

For my first vacation since arriving in Guinea a friend and I went down to Freetown for the weekend, about a 6-hour drive from Conakry. Before we left I emailed the econ officer at Embassy Freetown, a buddy from my A-100 class, to let him know we were coming; he said he’d be pleased to see me but was a little incredulous that anyone would go to Sierra Leone on vacation. Well, believe it, because not only did I go, I had a wonderful time.

The highlights of the trip were a tour of the Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary, where I took the fabulous photo at left, a day at River No. 2 beach, and a glorious evening stuffing my face at the only sushi restaurant between Dakar and Monrovia. I have never been so excited about rice and fish and seaweed.

The beach was the best part though, no question. Guinea has plenty of coastline but it’s pretty much all rocks and mangrove swamps. Freetown has some very pretty beaches, though the ones in town were occupied by an endless string of energetic soccer games, so not best suited for lounging. River No. 2 is about an hour down the peninsula and zoned for tourism, with chairs and umbrellas for rent and waiters to bring you frosty beverages and outstanding grilled lobsters. The sand was white and warm but not hot; the water was a lovely clear green and cool but not cold. And best of all it was luxuriously uncrowded, even on a Sunday.

Sierra Leone has clearly come a long way since the end of the civil war, no doubt helped significantly by the rivers of aid money that continue to pour in. The road from the Guinea border to Freetown is a West African engineering marvel, which is to say that it’s a wide, smooth, paved, marked road you can actually travel on at something approaching highway speeds. This contrasts markedly with the road on the Guinea side, which appears to be a rambling country lane punctuated with potholes. Freetown itself is much cleaner than Conakry and has what feels like a real downtown with colonial buildings that seem to have been maintained rather than allowed to molder and collapse into decay, though the streets are much too narrow to accommodate modern traffic. In the suburbs planned housing developments are going up – beach condos and gated communities. There’s no way that’s going to happen in Conakry anytime soon.

And best of all, the progress seems likely to continue. Right now Freetown is at best an “off the beaten path” tourist destination, but that will probably change, and soon. Once a few newer, fancier hotels are built (which has already started) and the road down to the tourist beaches is widened and paved (which has already made great progress) there’s no reason Freetown couldn’t be the next Banjul, with a resort area outside town hosting hordes of holidaymakers from Europe. They’ll have to do something about the airport, which is inconveniently situated across a large bay from the main town, but that obstacle can certainly be overcome. Go now, beat the rush.