SOMETIMES, you just can’t help smiling. You know that feeling when, quite unconsciously, you find yourself wearing a huge grin on your face?
Well if you don’t, then after a few days in The Gambia you soon will.
It’s not so much the glorious weather, the wonderful wildlife, fantastic hotels or the stunning scenery – although they obviously all play their part.
No, the thing that really stands The Gambia aside from the drudgery of a typically cold, grey and miserable English winter just a six-hour direct flight away, is its people.
The country, which snakes inland from the Atlantic Ocean along the course of the river from which it takes its name, is known as the continent’s smiling coast.
And it doesn’t take long to realise why. It’s quite simply infectious, and everyone’s at it. If you’re not smiling, you’re the odd one out.
The Gambian people pride themselves on their sunny good nature, and there is no more obvious a sign of their warmth and friendliness than the beaming smiles that seem to be a default on everyone’s faces.
Everywhere you go, people seem to be incredibly happy. Whether they’re serving you dinner, driving a taxi, or just going about their daily business, there’s an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life.
And watching African life in action is fascinating. Driving through towns, the streets are lined with improvised-looking huts and shacks, as well as sturdier brick buildings, which all house bars, cafes and shops, with groups of men sitting around outside seemingly setting the world to rights.
As you head into the countryside, which is surprisingly green after the summertime rainy season, the buildings become scarcer, only to become replaced by sporadic stalls selling fruit and vegetables, and people waiting to catch a ride in a brightly-coloured taxi or one of the many ramshackle and crowded minibuses that dominate the roads.
But it’s when you get out of the car that you really get a feel for the extraordinary country and its people. The market at The Gambia’s second largest city, Brikama, was such a hive of activity it made Southampton’s WestQuay look like a library.
We visited on the busiest day of the year, the eve of Tobaski – which is the predominantly Muslim country’s equivalent of Christmas – and it was extraordinary.
Everywhere we turned, there were impeccably dressed people swarming through a seemingly disorganised hotch-potch of street displays and stalls accessed through narrow pathways, offering everything from traditional clothing to electrical goods to a few peppers or onions.
And despite the apparent chaos, those smiles and good humour continued to shine through.
The hustle and bustle of the busy market couldn’t have contrasted more than with the relaxed tranquillity of hotel life on offer in The Gambia.
We stayed in the serene Coco Ocean, an oasis of calm sitting alongside the golden sand Atlantic Ocean beach, just a couple of miles and a short taxi ride from the main tourist area of Kololi, with its lively strip of restaurants and bars offering alternatives to the laid back resorts.
Opened three years ago, the colonial-style five-star spa and hotel complex boasts a range of suites and facilities to cater for guests on a variety of budgets, ranging up to the palatial Presidential Suite, which as its name suggests, has hosted heads of state and celebrities from across Africa and beyond.
Coco Ocean’s striking whitewashed and distinctively domed buildings are spaciously laid out among palm trees and green gardens, creating an oasis of calm for the perfect winter getaway.
Coco Ocean has a mixture of open-air and covered restaurants offering the option of eating African, European and Thai cuisine indoors or in the open air, and bars where you can unwind by the pools or fountains, with only the sound of crashing waves to disturb you.
Further afield, the choice offered at the exclusive complex is replicated across The Gambia, which boasts plenty of hotel options to cater for different tastes and varied holiday experiences.
A few miles up the coast from the Coco Ocean, the boutique suites at the quaint Ngala Lodge provide a perfect child-free couples’ retreat.
Away from the coast, guests are outnumbered by the cute and fascinating baboons wandering around the exclusive Mandina Lodges in the 1,000-acre Makasutu Forest.
Its eight various lodges sit on stilts or float on the water of a tributary of the River Gambia, where visitors get an authentic feel for the African bush and its wildlife. Taking a leisurely catamaran trip across the river to the north bank, passing the time sunbathing on deck or watching the playful dolphins leaping from the water in front of the boat, you are whisked off to the remote haven of Sitanunku.
Here, just five lodges and a small bar and restaurant are set on a picturesque peninsula, providing guests with the ultimate back-to-nature getaway.
Or for those wanting to explore the true Gambia, the delightful Omakan Hotel is hidden away in the small village of Sukutu, where staff are only too happy to provide guests with information needed to see the country.
But however you choose to experience this wonderful country, I bet it leaves you smiling.