LAC ROSE, Senegal, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Approaching Senegal’s sand dune-flanked Lac Rose, overcast skies hid the sun and, at first, obscured the vibrant pink hue that gives the expansive lake its name.
But standing on its shores, the waters showed their true, improbable colours — magenta, nearly violet — lapping against the bottoms of gently bobbing boats and rippling around my hands as I scooped up the salt that gives the lake its fame.
About an hour up the Atlantic coastline from the capital, Dakar, the lake is among the prime attractions in a country that, by virtue of its culture, political stability and good roads, has emerged as a tourist capital of West Africa.
Four hours further north lies Saint-Louis, an island town of age-worn buildings that was once France’s colonial capital in Senegal and is today perhaps best known internationally for its jazz festival, held in May.
A half-km (quarter-mile)-long steel bridge built by Gustave Eiffel traverses the Senegal river, linking the UNESCO World Heritage site to the African mainland.
Shielding the island from the Atlantic is the Langue de Barbarie, a sandy finger of land named for the Berbers who once inhabited its small houses. It is now home to a traditional fishing village and, further down, a national park renowned for its bird life.
After a day wandering through Saint-Louis’s narrow streets, stroll over to the Flamingo Restaurant for a tasty yassa, a classic sauce of caramelised onions served over fish. Finish off with iced chocolate cake with honey from Senegal’s southern Casamance region.
The holy city of Touba in the country’s centre should make it onto your itinerary. Its crown jewel is the Grand Mosque, adorned with Moroccan tiles and Italian marble, where tens of thousands of worshippers come to pray every Friday. Female visitors will want to wear long skirts and headscarves covering hair, necks and shoulders to avoid a scolding.
Construction began in 1927, but the mosque is still a work in progress with each caliph, descendants of Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, seeking to leave his lasting mark.
Touba has no hotels — or bars or nightclubs, for that matter — so carry on south to Sine-Saloum.
The Collines de Niasaam eco-lodge in Palmarin (www.niassam.com) boasts picturesque views of the Saloum Delta, where you can swim or canoe in warm, shallow water and sleep in a treehouse perched among the branches of a majestic baobab.
The hotel’s three-course dinners are a fusion of local and foreign cuisine, like sushi served with a ginger-coconut sauce.
Not far from Sine-Saloum, visit the Bandia Reserve, home to hyenas, giraffes and rhinoceroses. Then put up your feet for a sundowner of passion fruit liqueur or get tipsy on a cream of warang, made from coffee, coconut and banana.
Had enough tranquillity? Dakar offers the antidote.
Though the peninsula on which the capital sits makes up just 0.2 percent of Senegal’s land mass, it bustles with more than 3 million residents.
Surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic and spoiled by near perfect weather year round, the beaches are always full of life. The private Bel-Air beach is usually packed, offering plenty of opportunities for people watching and dips in the sea. Surfers may want to hit the waves on Ngor Island, a short boat ride away from the mainland.
Downtown, head to Chez Loutcha for a Thieboudienne, a dish of rice and fish, or mafe, a peanut stew with chunks of beef, served over rice.
Senegalese cuisine can be heavy, so walk it off with a stroll along seaside on the palm tree-lined Corniche.
At night, Hotel Djoloff's popular rooftop (www.hoteldjoloff.com) is a great place to relax with a pint of beer or a glass of wine while checking out the view of the city and ocean.
Nearby, Le Must or L’Endroit offer a sampling of a vibrant music scene that includes the likes of world music superstars Youssou N’Dour and Ismael Lo.
Dakar’s night life really doesn’t get going until after midnight. But if you still have the energy, head to Charly’s in Ngor or Calypso downtown and dance to a mix of American pop and hip-hop and pulsating African beats. Or just walk down the Route des Almadies and decide which music floating out of the nightclubs’ doors most fits your mood.
Before you fly out, make sure you head to the African Renaissance Monument and throw in your lot with the lovers or haters of this divisive 50-metre (160-foot) tall, North Korean-built bronze statue depicting the model African family. (Editing by Joe Bavier, Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich)