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Dine Online visits The Gambia
Ngala Lodge: eccentric charm, excellent service

Editor's note: Dine Online visited the Gambia with The Gambia Experience. We were based at a package hotel called the Kombo Beach, but we also stayed at the more exciting Ngala Lodge, as well as visiting the Coconut Residence where we had dinner and were given a tour of that hotel. Prices are given in Delassis which were 34 to the £ in February 2003.

From the moment you enter Ngala Lodge through wrought iron gates to be greeted warmly at the reception bungalow, you realise that this will not be the standard package holiday experience. To begin with, there are only ten suites and the staff easily outnumber the guests. There is absolutely no question of having to get down early to bag a sun bed before breakfast. You just have to choose your spot and stand looking vaguely helpless; in a trice a helpful young man will appear with cushions and a sunshade.

The main building stands on high ground, a little way back from low sandy cliffs with steps leading down to a rock strewn but sandy beach. The gardens are charming - I first saw them attractively lit when we arrived just in time for dinner. Although the hotel is owned and managed by "Peter the Flying Dutchman", the restaurant is an independent enterprise run by its chef patron "Peter the Chef" who is Belgian. We stayed in suite 1,  approached through garden gates then up a private stairway covered by a tunnel-like pergola of flowering plants. When we checked in it was described as a "junior suite", but when we entered I thought someone had made a mistake - but no, at Ngala Lodge the junior suites are more spacious than most city hotels' senior suites. There was a generous walk-in shower in a decent bathroom, a double bed under a mosquito proof canopy, a sitting room and air conditioning, of course. Best of all was the huge balcony with room for a dining table and two big sun loungers, and the view over the gardens to the sea? - spectacular! After we had made friends with some of the other guests, they showed us why our suite was designated "junior". Theirs was the size of a decent London flat, with its own private section of garden and a gazebo in which to sit and read or take lunch.

One of the most creative African art forms is the imaginative use of reclaimed metal objects, welded together with intriguing inventiveness to make decorative sculptures often of native birds, or quirky but functional artefacts such as funky furniture and table lamps. At Ngala Lodge, extensive use is made of such objects, as well as more conventional carved masks, figures, fabrics and some rather kitsch Western art, all of which is for sale. There's a mildly eccentric air about it all, which reflects Peter's refreshingly individual style of hotel keeping. One gets the strong impression that his aim is to host an extended house party rather than merely run an hotel in the conventional sense.  We enjoyed his approach very much.

Peter  the chef's restaurant is perched on the hillside with stunning views over the sea. In warm weather, (which is most of the time) the glass panels all around are removed to give an even more informal, al fresco atmosphere. There's quite an extensive a la carte menu but every day there's also a different table d'hote (tdh) menu, which half board guests are entitled to choose from. We met some guests who were on their third week and they assured me that the tdh menu was different every day - so absolutely no cries of  "it's toad in the hole and jam roly poly, so it must be Tuesday!"  

For our first dinner we tried the tdh (450D for three courses) There were tasty starters of bacon wrapped Gambian prawns, and dim sum with minced fish which showed off Peter's eclectic style rather well. The duck breasts were pink and tender - perhaps the jus could have been reduced a it more, but the meat was good quality. Sourcing good meat in the Gambia is difficult, Peter explained, which is why his menu is very strong on fish. Having said that, on the next occasion I tried an excellent fillet steak, that came from a local free range herd - it was full of flavour. Local caught fish such as barracuda, captain fish and ladyfish are not to be missed; they usually come garnished with more of those magnificent prawns I keep on raving about. 

Desserts are plentiful, though not always quite what you might expect. I ordered a chocolate mousse that was more of a rich pot au chocolat, very nice, quite delicious even,  but not if you'd wanted the lighter texture of mousse - perhaps someone had forgotten to add the beaten egg whites?  Peter's bread pudding is a much lighter, Belgian version of this old favourite, more suited to the climate than those heavy British slabs of pudding, though I missed the sultanas and the caramelised sugar topping. 

At lunchtime there's a daily menu of three specials ranging in price from 125 - 175D and there's a wide selection of snacks. We ordered  a prawn baguette sandwich which was generous enough for two to share. Chef Peter has trained his Gambian brigade himself having found that the local catering college is a bit stuck in the past (one thinks of colonial dinners featuring boiled fish and rice pudding). His individual approach chimes in well with the Flying Dutchman's overall concept, so expect flavour rather than fancy presentation.

Clifford Mould - March 2003

The Gambia Experience has the exclusive agency for this hotel, and tours can be of 7,9,10, 14 or more days duration. Flights are on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays every week.  

The Gambia Experience  
email:  Tel: 023 8073 0888

See also: The Coconut Residence

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