Looking to go to Africa for cultural, adventure and other extraordinary experiences? Consider a visit to Senegal. And now that a flight out of Washington, D.C., Dulles International Airport with South African Airways takes only seven and a half hours, the country where people are friendly and cultural experiences last a lifetime is within easy reach.
The closest country to the United States and one of the most visited, Senegal is raising the ante in culture tourism with the opening of its African Renaissance Monument in Dakar on April 4, the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. Moreover, Senegal is a cool place for eco-tourism, sports tourism, bird watching and just about any other type of tourism you have in mind. Its 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, beaches, luscious terrain, tranquil waters, gorgeous natural sites, six major game parks and reserves make the country a paradise vacation destination.
The first place to visit is, of course, Dakar, the capital city located on the westernmost point of the African continent, on the tip of the Cape Verde Peninsula. Home to more than 1.5 million people, Dakar is a modern, vibrant city with beautiful contemporary buildings and historical colonial houses. A multicultural city influenced by French, North African and Middle Eastern traditions, it still manages to keep its unique flair, evidenced by its exotic music, food and customs. The whole city seems to be a bustling open-air marketplace. Different ethnic groups showcase assorted wood and metal crafts, foods, jewelry, fabrics, clothing and artwork, giving you a glimpse of the gamut of Senegalese culture. You can stroll through the upbeat metro downtown area, or get away for peaceful walks along the ocean, meditation beside the cliffs or just for relaxation on one of several beaches. The main beaches, like the Plage Bel-Air, are close to each other. Others further out, like the Toubab Dialao, are flanked by awe-inspiring red cliffs.
The African Renaissance Monument is set to open in April as Senegal’s signature historic site. Visitors will behold the 160- foot bronze statue-monument that Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has compared to the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. This phenomenal structure depicting a muscular man with his wife in one arm and child in the other rising out a volcano is the brainchild of President Wade, who first wrote about his idea of an African giant emerging from a volcano in a book on his vision for Africa. The “Monument to the African Renaissance” is meant to symbolize Africa’s potential, rebirth and liberation from centuries of ignorance, intolerance and racism, he contends.
The colossal statue, which will house culture exhibitions, shops and multimedia and conference rooms, with a theatre nearby, is situated on a 330-foot hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A floor at the very top allows visitors a bird’s eye view of the surrounding city and ocean. Few doubt that the African Renaissance Monument will be viewed as a world-class attraction, luring visitors from around the globe. A must-visit heritage site and very important aspect of African Diaspora Tourism, the monument will show the world that Africans are rebounding and experiencing a renaissance period after six centuries of darkness and suppression, its promoters say. They add that the monument is also a symbol for the people of the African Diaspora worldwide.
The significance of the African Renaissance Monument is more heartfelt after a visit to Goree Island, just off the coast of Senegal, a 20-minute ferry ride from Dakar. This world-famous 45-acre island, now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a memorial to the African Diaspora, was once the center for the warehousing of Africans for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Some sources estimate that millions of Africans passed through the island between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s. Here is where you will find the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), the island’s most famous tourist attraction. Built in the late 1700s, the colonial-styled house is preserved in its original state and serves as a museum, displaying slave artifacts and the horrors of the slave trade. The House of Slaves held 150 to 200 men, women and children, sometimes for months, before they were shipped to the new world for a life of servitude. It is no wonder that tourist visiting Goree Island experience somber and reflective emotions, much like pilgrims visiting a holy site.
Plan extra time on Goree Island to immerse yourself in the local art, crafts, dance, music and food. The 1,000-or-so inhabitants are served by their own stores, schools, places of worship and other locally owned businesses. Many make a living by peddling goods to tourists. You can enjoy the beach, watch colorful fishing vessels go by, or simply revel in the island’s colorful foliage and cool breezes. Dine at one of the local restaurants -- like the Chevalier de Boufflers, named for a former governor -- where you can enjoy Senegalese cuisine and fresh fish right out of the water. A charming, yet quaint place, with no cars or hints of crime, Goree Island seems to be lost in time with original 17th century through 19th century buildings and colonial-style houses still lining the streets.
Other points of interest on the island include the Saint Charles Borromée Church, an 1830s provincial-styled church, and the Historical Museum in the old Fort Estrées, where you find anthropology exhibits and learn about the history of some of West Africa. Be sure to visit the Saint Michel Castle, originally built by the Dutch, and go for a scenic stroll through the Botanical Gardens located on the island’s Rue du Port.
Back in Dakar, explore one of the many markets, such as Kermel market in Old Dakar, or Soumbedioune on the West Corniche. You can find anything you want and on any given day in these markets, including colorful fabric, basketry, wood sculptures, jewelry, food and music. While in the city, go by the Palais Présidentiel (presidential palace), a majestic white building with luscious gardens. You can take pictures with the guard at the gate, with the palace as the backdrop. Other photo opportunities await you at The Third Millennium Gate (La Porte du 3ème Millénaire). Also known as known as The Gate of Africa, this magnificent structure was erected in 2001 to symbolize Senegal’s entry into the third millennium. Another magnificent landmark is the Grande Mosquée, Senegal’s most famous mosque. Even though it is off limits to the public, you may get a glimpse of its distinct minaret floodlight if you drive by at night. Built in 1964, this beautiful mosque, one of the most spectacular religious monuments on the continent, is located in the Medina, an old African quarter in the city, where you will find original colonial buildings and the Tilene market.
Dakar is an art lover’s haven. You must visit the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noir, IFAN) museum, dedicated to the arts and traditions of West Africa. This museum showcases approximately 9,000 objects, including masks, statues, tools, clothing, and musical instruments. There is also the Art Village on the road to the L. Sédar Senghor International Airport, where you will find many exhibition galleries and an art library. Here, various visual artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, ceramists and videographers display their work and hold workshops all year round. Works of some of the best contemporary painters of the African Diaspora are housed at the Boribana Museum of Contemporary of Art that opened in 1998. Dakar hosts the Dak’ Art Biennale, a festival of events and expos that supports and promotes artistic potential through training, education, workshops and exhibitions. Dak’Art 2010 will take place from May through June.
A great place to stay in Dakar is the Terrou-Bi hotel, just five minutes from the heart of downtown and 10 minutes from the airport. A four-star hotel with 112 rooms, a private beach, swimming pool, casino, marina, disco, three restaurants, two bars and lounges and large rooms for receptions, it is really an oasis in the city. Include in your visit a night on the town at Just4You, a popular entertainment venue where the food is tasty and where you might even catch a performance by KKTAR or another local band with rhythmic, yet soothing, African sounds.
To top off your culture vacation, spend some time with a Baobab tree, Senegal’s upside-down-looking national tree whose branches resemble roots. One of the longest living trees in the world, some of them are 4,000 to 5,00 years old. The Senegalese people enjoy the tree’s fruit, which they call monkey bread, and use the leaves to make stews and the bark to make rope and medicine. They also perform rituals under the tree to honor their ancestors. After some moments of meditation and reflection, you, too, may experience spiritual inspiration under this tree that has been called the oldest organic monument on the planet.
Visit www.senegal-tourism.com  for more information.