On Africa’s west coast lies a little-visited beach paradise, where you can have stretches of warm Atlantic all to yourself and walk for miles without meeting a single other tourist. You can surf, pitch a tent, dine on just-caught spiny lobster, get to know the warm, English-speaking locals. So what’s the catch? There is none: The destination in question – Sierra Leone – is simply recovering from an image problem.
Most of us know Sierra Leone for its devastating civil war (1991–2002), or as the setting for 2006’s violent Leonardo DiCaprio thriller, ‘Blood Diamond.’ But the Sierra Leone of 2013 is fascinating, beautiful, and safe – and the Freetown Peninsula is just the place to experience it. Stretching south for approximately 26 miles from Freetown – Sierra Leone’s chaotic capital, which has bar-lined beaches of its own – the peninsula boasts a stunning jungle-backed coastline: Long, wide, empty beaches that shift from powder-white to deep-gold sand, shallow turquoise lagoon to cobalt-blue sea.
Foreign-owned resorts have broken ground, but the best way to stay here is at one of the community-based tourism projects, where proceeds benefit the villages. The most sophisticated of the bunch is Tribewanted, an eco-voluntourism venture that combines sustainable development (earth-bagged mud huts, solar power, bucket showers) with community empowerment and cross-cultural exchange. Created in 2010, after Brit Ben Keene founded the concept on a Fijian island in 2006, the Sierra Leonean outpost is in John Obey, an underdeveloped, spectacularly located fishing village 20 miles south of Freetown.
For a weeklong stay, Tribewanted alone offers plenty to do – guests can pitch in on community projects, book guides/transport for area hikes, go ocean paddling in a traditional hand-carved pirogue – or not do, as the hammocks and pristine beach are certainly inviting enough. The Sierra Leonean food on offer, from spicy pumpkin stew to local fish and poyo, or palm wine, is some of the best you’ll find in the country.
But John Obey is also an ideal base for exploring other parts of the peninsula, like dreamy River No. 2 beach – long an NGO-worker favorite, with a thick ribbon of white sand between the ocean and its namesake river – and wild, idyllic Bureh beach, known for good surfing and plump, briny oysters, which locals collect by skin-diving. At the peninsula’s south end, palm-fringed Kent is the jumping-off point for excursions to the gorgeous Banana Islands. The bustling, crowded daily market at Waterloo is a different kind of must, as is that town’s signature snack: fried cassava bread with spicy smoked-fish sauce.
You can have no doubt you’ll be the only foreigner asking for it.
More information: To enter Sierra Leone, you need proof of a yellow-fever vaccine and a visa; the latter is available online from the Visit Sierra Leone website. To get to John Obey, fly into Freetown-Lungi International Airport (FNA), then take a boat from Lungi to Freetown, across the Sierra Leone River. Of the several crossing options, we recommend the Sea Coach Express water taxi (30 minutes, $40). Tribewanted offers customs support via a representative in the airport (a helpful thing, since it can feel a bit chaotic); the rep will also assist you with catching the next boat. For a fee, Tribewanted can send a driver to pick you up in Freetown and drive you to John Obey beach (about 90 minutes). There are three accommodation options at Tribewanted: beach tents (from $65 per night, $400 per week), wooden beach bungalows (from $80 per night, $500 per week), and earth domes (from $80 per night, $500 per week); prices include all meals (drinks, including water and beer, cost $1 apiece). Tribewanted is closed in July and August, during the wettest time of the year.
Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the co-founder of food-travel website Eat Your World, a guide to regional foods and drinks in destinations (including Sierra Leone) around the globe.