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Sierra Leone’s tourism industry is on the verge of huge growth: Hilton is scheduled to open a 200-room property in Freetown in 2019; at the time of our visit, high-end beach resorts were being built. It was our experience that the few community-based tourism ventures already in place, however, are hugely rewarding, both for visitors and the communities themselves, who benefit directly. We encourage you, whenever possible, to try to support local communities over foreign private investors—it’s a small decision that is actually meaningful here.
For more information on traveling to Sierra Leone, including easy online visa application, check out the Visit Sierra Leone website.
Pickings are slim for good accommodation in the capital, especially if you don’t want to shell out—gas-powered generators are very expensive to run, so higher prices aren’t necessarily indicative of better quality (plus, Sierra Leone doesn’t attract many budget travelers yet; the market is dominated by business clientele). Here are a few places we’ve heard good things about:
--Along Freetown’s beach-bar-dotted stretch of coastline, Aberdeen’s Family Kingdom Resort (Lumley Beach Rd., map) is a solid, if decidedly quirky, midrange option with reliable electricity, Internet, and a children’s playground. Great location for bringing a little beach vacation to your capital stay (singles from $90). A bit more upscale (though still basic) is the Kimbima Hotel (232-22-273482/3; Bintumani Dr., Man of War Bay, Aberdeen, map), with ocean-facing rooms and a pool.
--According to the Bradt Sierra Leone guidebook as well as some online forums, Place Guesthouse (076-622-358/627; 42 Rawdon St., approx. map) is perhaps the best bet among budget hotels downtown (i.e., not at the beach): clean and with overnight electricity.
--Until the Hilton opens, visitors looking for a higher level of accommodation might consider the Country Lodge (HS-51 Hill Station, map), a former mansion up in Hill Station overlooking the city. With wireless Internet, satellite TV, a fancy gym, tennis courts, and a hilltop pool, expect an exclusive foreign environment. Keep in mind that though you’ll pay inflated European prices (singles from $175; doubles $215), you won’t necessarily get European service.
Our hands-down favorite place to stay in Sierra Leone is Tribewanted (John Obey beach, map), the shining example of what eco-friendly community-based tourism might look like in this country. Created by Brit Ben Keene and Italian Filippo Bozotti in 2010, after Keene founded the concept on a Fijian island in 2006, the Sierra Leonean venture, located about 20 miles south of Freetown along the gorgeous Freetown Peninsula, invites guests to have a genuine cultural exchange with the people of the adjacent John Obey fishing village, many of whom are employed by TW. Visitors stay in tents, comfortable wooden bungalows (pictured above), or adobe-like mud huts built collectively by trained John Obey villagers and past TW guests; made of local earth, the domes join other sustainability initiatives like solar panels, an organic garden, compost toilets, bucket showers, and a carbon-offset program. (You’ll also eat very well, and very much, at TW: Lunch is good Salone chop—some of which you’ll find in What to Eat; see groundnut soup, pumpkin stew, poyo—while dinner revolves around local seafood.) You have the option of volunteering any skill you have—helping to build a new hut, repair fishing lines, teach local schoolkids, help out in the kitchen—or not: The expansive coastline, backed by jungly hills, is truly spectacular (and empty, more often than not); the ocean is warm; and the hammocks are very inviting. From here it’s easy to arrange area hikes, boat excursions, and day trips further afield, all of which likewise employ local guides/fishermen. Although prices are provided for a weeklong visit—$450-$750 single; $800-$1,200 double, depending on accommodation—there is no enforced minimum stay. Prices include all meals and help support the community’s continued development; airport pickup and dropoff cost extra (and is recommended, particularly the former).
Editor’s note, 2019 update: Tribewanted no longer operates the property, but says on its website that some of the local managers now run it. (Contact Fatorma at ibrahimfatorma2008 AT yahoo dot com or +232 786 26293, or Daniel at danielmacauley75 AT yahoo dot com or +232 301 77007 / +232 783 88767.)
Another community-based tourism venture in the area is at River No. 2 (map), a white-sand beach with a turquoise sea, located north of John Obey, whose beauty is something of a legend in expat circles. Facilities there include basic but clean concrete huts, toilets, showers, and a small restaurant serving local seafood, plus lifeguards and beach-chair rentals. It hasn’t been built sustainably from the ground up, as Tribewanted has, but it’s making efforts to improve on that front.
If you’re just looking to sleep in a tent on the beach for the night, and perhaps buy some dinner, you can arrange this at a number of other beaches besides John Obey and River No. 2, including stunning surfer-friendly Bureh beach (map)—where the community is currently building a surf school and restaurant—and Kent (map), at the peninsula’s southern tip, where you can hop on a boat to the Banana Islands.
If you’re able to get yourself to Tiwai Island, about five hours southeast of Freetown by car, do it: The Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary (Tiwai Island, map), a community conservation program in the Moa River, boasts one of the world’s densest and most diverse populations of primates (chimps and pygmy hippos too, though it’s unlikely you’ll see those), in a secluded, stunning tropical setting. For guests, there’s a few elevated, covered, solar-powered platforms with comfortable tents (pictured above), which include mattresses, pillows, and blankets ($30 per person per night, including boat ride from Kambama village and breakfast, plus a $15 entrance fee per person). Meals other than breakfast are separate, but—as you’ll note on these pages—the village chef is very good (see pepper soup).
As in Freetown, it’s best to not be too picky in Sierra Leone’s second-largest (Bo) and Eastern Province (Kenema) city. Interspersed among the bars, restaurants, and many, many diamond shops of the latter, the Capitol Hotel (about $40/night for a double; 51 Hangha Rd., Kenema) isn’t a bad place to stay (at least, it won’t be once the renovations are finished); rooms have terraces, nets, and A/C, and there’s even a nice-looking pool. In Bo, the Sir Milton Hotel (about $25/night; 6 Kissy Town Rd.) worked well enough for us.
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