Every year, I try to plan a solo holiday to a place that satisfies two simple criteria: it’s a destination where I can eat well and surf great waves. I found myself scouting for such a getaway after ten months living and working as a chef in Hong Kong. Soon to relocate to Paris—a city I’d never been to and where I knew absolutely no one—I was in need of a place to wind down and think through my next steps. I decided on the West Coast of Africa, and in a toss-up between Liberia and Senegal, the latter won.
A former French colony that won independence in the 1960s, Senegal has become one of the most stable democracies in Africa and an increasingly accessible destination for travelers. Occupying the westernmost tip of the continent, it is generously rewarded with rolling Atlantic swells from the north and south that are a particular drawcard for surfers. This is especially so around its capital Dakar, which sits on a finger of land that juts out into the ocean.
After a long haul from Hong Kong, I arrived there close to midnight with few preconceived ideas, a couple of surfboards and enough books to carry me through a month of solitude. From the airport I took a van to Ngor Beach on the Cap-Vert Peninsula. Here, rickety wooden canoes powered by outboard motors ferry people to the island of Ngor. These run fairly frequently throughout the day until sunset, but my arrival time meant that getting to the island was going to be a little tougher.
After some bartering and a few phone calls, a boat was sent from the island to collect me. In the dark of the night, with nothing more than the glow of a lit cigarette, we crossed the choppy channel to Ngor, my base for the next month.
IN SEARCH OF SURF
The next morning, I set out to find Ngor Rights, a wave made famous by Bruce Brown’s cult 1966 surfing documentary Endless Summer. The wave can either rifle or gently roll down the reef depending on the tides and direction of the swell, offering opportunities for both experienced surfers and novices to get their fix. The island boasts a few other breaks as well as some protected beaches that are popular with Senegalese tourists as places to swim safely and pass the day under umbrellas next to local vendors grilling-just speared fish.
However, the real attraction for the traveling surfer is Ouakam, a bustling little fishing village 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the center of Dakar. Here, the striking Mosque of the Divinity towers over a beach scattered with hundreds of colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, locals either sorting through fish or mending nets (depending on the time of day), and some feisty and territorial pink pelicans who patrol the beach along with the always-present stray dogs and cats.
The left and right peak of the beach offer world-class waves that break over frighteningly shallow reefs blanketed in sea urchins. On one of the few occasions I got to surf this fickle wave, I copped a foot full of urchin spikes that kept me both out of the water and off my foot for the last week of my trip.
The national dishes of Senegal bear an amalgam of influences including local Wolof traditions, the cuisine of Morocco, the cooking of the French and, where I was located, the abundant seafood of the Atlantic ocean.
Fish seemed to be present everywhere, typically prepared in the style of thieboudienne, a sort of stew of marinated fish, root vegetables, tomatoes and broken rice. Around the diplomatic quarter of Dakar there are plenty of restaurants dotting the beach, the day’s catch on display waiting to be grilled simply over charcoal.
My most memorable meals were at the restaurant Chez Loutcha in central Dakar. The staff greet and treat you like family in a dining room that resembles a tropically kitsch Wes Anderson set laden with the scent of spices and grilled meat. All the classic Senegalese dishes are on offer: thieboudienne, its meaty cousin thiebou yapp, a dish of either poultry or fish cooked in a stew of onions named yassa, and maafe, an almost sickly rich peanut-based stew of either lamb, goat, chicken or fish.
However, the star of Chez Loutcha that kept me coming back was a curry with morsels of goat grilled over woodfire then braised to slip straight off the bone—the smoky meat and sauce coming together in a dish greater than the sum of its parts.
THE NIGHT MARKETS OF DAKAR
One weekend, a close friend happened to be visiting his brother-in-law, a journalist based in Dakar, who told us of clandestine night markets where men gathered to grill skewers of lamb and chicken in abandoned basements. Upon hearing this, a passage from a Richard Olney book immediately sprang to mind, where he talked about the universal appeal of “meat on a stick.” Armed with the address we went out in search of our meat-on-a-stick moment at the crossroad of Rue des Dardanelles and Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop.
On arrival, the absence of street lights only heightened our apprehension, but by uttering some basic French and following our noses we managed to find our way into one of the smoke-filled basements. Feeling like trespassers, we sheepishly stood on the outskirts while large groups of men huddled around low-lying charcoal grills. The tension quickly faded and we found ourselves squatting around the grills, tearing into the skewers. Though perhaps not the greatest rendition of skewered meat, the moment left us giddier than most destination restaurants manage to.
THE PINK LAKE
Nestled between white sand dunes and the ocean a short ride north of Dakar lies Lake Retba (known by locals as Lac Rose). Its unusually high salt content nurtures an algae that turns the lake a surreal shade of pink. It was a sight to see, not just for its sheer beauty, but for the scale of harvesting that takes place there too, with locals taking boats and baskets out to collect salt that is often sold to dry fish.
Dakar itself has enough history, museums, monuments and sights to keep you busy if you fancy. In the end, my urchin-spiked foot kept me beach-bound under an umbrella. Given the surrounds and my proximity to the grilled-fish vendors, it wasn’t such a bad fate.
—James Henry is an Australian chef based in Paris.