Ivory Coast is a stunner, shingled with starfish-studded sands, palm-tree forests and roads so orange they resemble strips of bronzing powder. This is a true tropical paradise, and a country that is striding towards economic progress â€“ it’s a nation that is fast modernising its lifestyle and culture, but managing to do so without losing its identity.
In the south, the Parc National de Tai hides secrets, species and nut-cracking chimps under the boughs of its trees, while the peaks and valleys of Man offer a highland climate, fresh air and fantastic hiking opportunities through tropical forests.
The beach resorts of low-key Assinie and arty Grand Bassam were made for weekend retreats from Abidjan, the capital in all but name, where lagoons wind their way between skyscrapers and cathedral spires pierce the blue heavens.
Ivory Coast’s economic engine is strapped between lagoons and waterways, overlooking the crested waves of the Atlantic. At first glimpse, you wonder if these shiny skyscrapers can really be West Africa, but once you walk around Abidjan’s neighbourhoods, local life comes alive and the city’s vibrant tropical mood is revealed.
Abidjan is a challenging city to move around it’s vast and connected by mini-motorway and you’ll have to get in the swing of hailing taxis, negotiating fares and buzzing down the busy roads in order to get from one spot to another. But each neighbourhood’s distinct feel gives you an insight into the vast scope of Abidjan’s character and contradiction; it’s quite common for sharp luxury to exist right next to painful poverty.
Make sure to dip into the markets, street-food stops, art galleries and a sleek bar or two.
Arty and bathed in faded glory, beachside Bassam was Ivory Coastâ€™s French colonial capital until a yellow-fever epidemic broke out in 1896, prompting the French to move their capital to Bingerville. The town, named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012, had a glittery image as the top resort in the country until a March 2016 terrorist attack, claimed by al-Qaeda, killed 16 people, many of them foreigners. The town is now safe, but the attack caused a slump in the local tourism industry and Grand Bassam is working hard to recover its flair.
The city is laid out on a long spit of land, with a quiet lagoon on one side and the turbulent Atlantic Ocean on the other. Weekenders fill the beach and enjoy the sun and the sand, but swimming is not advised due to the strong currents â€“ people drown ever year, especially tourists.
Quiet little Assinie tugs at the heartstrings of overlanders, washed-up surfers and rich weekenders from Abidjan who run their quad bikes up and down its peroxide-blonde beach. It’s actually a triumvirate of villages: Assinie village, Assinie Mafia and Assouinde, all of which are laid out along the beaches and flow into each other, unified by their uniquely holiday atmopshere.
You can swim here, but watch the rip tides â€“ they can be powerful.
The green, green peaks and valleys of Man are nothing short of magical. Here the air is cooler, the food lighter and the landscapes muddier than in the South. And it’s perfect hiking territory. The town itself is a grid of busy streets filled with vendors
Other Places Of Interest
Parc National de Taï
There are many places in West Africa that could be dubbed one of the region’s ‘best-kept secrets’, but perhaps none so as much as Tai, a 5000-sq-km reserve of rainforest so dense that scientists are only just beginning to discover the wealth of flora and fauna that lies within.
Parc National de Tai is one of West Africa’s last areas of primary rainforest, and has been a World Heritage Site since 1982. The park is mostly known for its chimpanzees, who famously use tools in their daily activities, but the general wealth of the flora and fauna inside the park is incredible. Besides forest elephants and buffalo, there are at least eleven types of primates, 250 species of birds and 1300 species of plants, more than 50 of which are endemic to the region.
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury
An absolute trove of African contemporary art, this cubical, 600-sq-metre gallery features the best of the continent’s artists, from sculpture and painting to photography. Check the website for individual exhibitions or just explore what’s on at the time. A real gem of a place.
Yamoussoukro’s spectacular basilica will leave you wide-eyed. Based on the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican and designed by Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury, it was constructed between 1985 and 1989, with Italian marble and 7000 sq metres of French stained glass specially imported to build it. The nave is a luminous harmony of columns, with a flamboyant altar taking centre stage. There are well-informed English-speaking guides on duty who will take you around the dome and the grounds.