Mandina Lodges – Magical and mellow with a message
Before going to Gambia I knew little about this petite country in West Africa. When I learnt how far along the path to responsible tourism it has come I was surprised and a little embarrassed that I didn’t know more. That was about to change though.
I stayed at two ethically run resorts on my trip: Mandina Lodges and Sandele Eco-Retreat. The interests of local communities and the environment are at the heart of both places, yet the feel and the way they are run is quite different. This post originally covered both, but I soon realized that each place deserves a story of its own. First up is Mandina Lodges.
This resort effortlessly combines off the beaten track with luxury – definitely no mean feat. Set in Makasutu, a 1700 acre protected area created by the owners, the resort rests on the banks of a tributary to the great River Gambia amongst mangroves bursting with birdlife. Here the concepts of conservation and gorgeous accommodation compliment rather than exclude each other.
Despite being only 30 mins drive from the airport, Banjul, you soon feel like you’re off on an adventure. My Indiana Jones mood grew as we turned off the main road, plunged into the forest and soon spotted a troop of baboons in the bush against the setting sun.
On arrival we were assigned our own personal guide, the funny and lively Lamin, so our itinerary was entirely up to us. At first this felt a little overwhelming but once we got our heads around the options we appreciated the freedom this offered us.
The high staff-to-visitor ratio means that you are completely looked after at all times and also guarantees good employment for local people: A win-win situation. The tea and coffee delivered to your lodge each morning is also a nice touch. Don’t expect espresso though – out in the semi-wild instant coffee is what goes. Excursions out are usually by canoe or by foot and if you have four days at Mandina you will have plenty to do in the local area, counting in time for relaxing and simply enjoying the resort.
We stayed in a floating lodge with a quaint little jetty leading to a gazebo area where we could sit and watch the world glide by.
We soon got used to the local women in their dug out canoes, paddling amongst the mangroves and harvesting oysters with their machetes. This quickly became a soothing part of the surrounding soundscape.
The gentle undulation of the waves sent me straight to sleep every night (and into the occasional nap!) as our little house rose and fell with the tide. The al fresco bathroom felt exciting and unusual and had a very efficient composting toilet that shouldn’t put off even those unaccustomed to non-flushing toilets. It really wasn’t offensive at all and trust me, I’ve tried out my fair share of alternative toilets!
Toiletries are best kept inside the lodge to avoid tempting the kleptomaniac baboons who like nothing better than to partake in a bit of light thieving before breakfast. When I visited, plans were underway to build a very high platform to get new solar panels out of reach following an unfortunate incident involving the old panels and said baboons. They might be a colourful addition for guests, but they come with their own set of challenges.
The restaurant and pool area are set in stunning gardens with a symphony of birdsong to accompany the idyllic scene. It really feels like you have been plunged into paradise. Having a swim and relaxing on one of the comfortable double sunbeds is pure bliss. Add to that sipping the local beer, Jul Brew, with its turquoise Kingfisher motif whilst surrounded by the real birds and it doesn’t get much better.
Every afternoon the chef found us to discuss our choices for dinner – usually there were 2-3 options in each category of a three-course meal. A word of warning to your waistline: expect to expand. The food is
simply too delicious to pass up and I certainly put on a pound or two. The
ingredients are also locally sourced where possible to help the local economy
and minimize food miles.
Unless too tired after the day's activities, guests naturally gravitate towards the fire pit after dinner. Like most of the buildings and furniture at Mandina, the cast-iron, throne-like chairs around the fire are made on-site and make you feel rather majestic as stories are enthusiastically swapped and events of the day compared.
We tended to go out early mornings and late afternoons as the days can get very hot. Early morning canoe rides on the river were serene and our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, ready to answer our questions. He also liked to throw in a joke or a riddle for good measure. A perfect way to prepare for breakfast.
We spent a fair bit of time just drifting along, soaking up the atmosphere and spotting birdlife and a monkey or two. We also went to a local village, dropped in on the school and saw where the women sorted out their harvested oysters. As it turns out, this is quite a labour-intensive process involving boiling, shucking, sorting and eventually crushing the shells for use in paint. Nothing is wasted. An unexpected aspect was the outdoor art in the village, on buildings, trees and in the school, part of street art project called Wide Open Walls. More on that to come in a separate post.
Mandina Lodges are part of The Gambia Experience’s Unique Collection and costs from just over £1000 for seven nights on half-board (including flights and based on two people sharing). To see more of Gambia, many visitors split their stay between Mandina Lodges and another resort. Whereas this might not be the cheapest holiday around, it is definitely extraordinary and unlike anywhere I have been before. Also don't forget the feel-good factor from knowing that the resort gives back to the local community and helps protect the environment.
As mentioned in my Colours of Gambia post, the best time to go is in the European winter, so that leaves a few months to save up for a special trip when the weather cools!
The Gambia Experience kindly hosted me on this trip. All views expressed are my own.