The inside track on Ghana’s Gold Coast


Why visit? Ghana isn’t a conventional beach destination. True, its 500km coastline boasts some magnificent, palm-lined beaches, but there’s far more to the shore than beach life. Dense rainforests and rustling palm groves are alive with monkeys and colourful birds, while centuries-old ports such as Accra and Cape Coast offer fascinating historic sightseeing. Above all, it is easy to get around independently, making it ideal for travellers willing to explore a destination on its own terms.

HR-Ariadne-GH-CC-castle-001Unique appeal?
Its historical sites. Between 1482 and 1786 various European powers built around 80 castles and forts along a coastline described by Albert van Dantzig as “the ancient shopping street of West Africa”. Initially the Gold Coast’s main export was the precious metal for which it is named. By the end of the 17th century, however, as one official at Elmina noted, “the Gold Coast had changed into a virtual Slave Coast.” More recently, 28 of these fortified constructions were inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which noted that they had “shaped not only Ghana’s history but that of the world, as the focus of the slave trade and the starting point of the African Diaspora.”

Top urban hangouts
Accra  The old beachfront quarters of Ghana’s vibrant capital are studded with timeworn landmarks, most notably the colonial-era Jamestown Lighthouse, which overlooks a fishing beach dense with colourful pirogues. Suburban La Beach, lined by some of the country’s finest hotels, offers a heady combination of sun, surf and seaside nightlife, while the trendy strip nicknamed ‘Oxford Street’ is flanked by funky nightspots, craft stalls and cosmopolitan restaurants.
Cape Coast  Established as the headquarters of Britain’s Royal African Company in 1664, the port and city of Cape Coast is studded with architectural relicts spanning four centuries, most imposingly the seafront Cape Coast Castle. Yet this lively university centre is also popular with younger travellers, thanks to its excellent choice of budget accommodation and eateries.
Elmina  Ghana’s prettiest port straddles a thin strip of land separating the Benya Lagoon from the frothing Atlantic. A convoluted history of European settlement is reflected both in its name — derived from the Portuguese ‘el mina de ouro’ (‘the gold mines’) — and in the seafront castle and hilltop fort. Yet, at heart, Elmina remains an overgrown fishing and salt-production village, with colourful pirogues sailing in and out of the harbour and markets lining the lagoon.

Best beach escapes
Maranatha Estuary Beach Club This simple, tranquil and consummately laid-back resort has a magical location on the Volta Mouth, with the river lapping one shore and the Atlantic crashing against the other.
Busua  Stretching along a wide, sandy swimming beach, this easy-going village is dotted with low-key budget resorts, and the recent opening of two well-managed surf shops has made it the focal point of Ghana’s nascent surfing scene. Out of town, the isolated Ezile Bay Village has a captivating location in a sheltered cove, while the even more remote Cape Three Points is a tropical beach paradise set within walking distance of the spectacular Cape Three Points.
Big Milly’s Backyard  Set on Kokrobite Beach, a short drive west of Accra, this legendary party retreat is famed for its Saturday night soirées featuring live reggae and highlife music.
Lou Moon Lodge  The country’s one truly boutique-style beach resort, Lou Moon, on the outskirts of Axim, offers a winning combination of stylish, glass-fronted rooms, freshly prepared French cuisine and a perfect location on a picturesque isthmus flanked by rocky crags and turquoise seas. This is the ultimate Ghanaian honeymoon venue.

History and culture
St George’s Castle  Elmina’s four-storey St George’s Castle, perched on a rocky promontory between lagoon and ocean, was founded by the Portuguese in 1482, making it the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa. The original Portuguese chapel, set in its courtyard, was converted by the Dutch to an auction hall for slaves and is now a poignant museum.
Anomabo  This small coastal town is home to some of Ghana’s finest posubans – elaborately decorated shrines built for defence purposes by the Akan people in the eighteenth century. Of the seven posubans in Anomabo, the most eye-catching are Dontsin, with its menagerie of sculpted animals, and house-sized Kyirom, which takes the form of a European steamship.
Nzulezu  This unique stilted village on a freshwater lake inland of Beyin Beach comprises a central wood-and-raffia walkway flanked by a few dozen individual houses. It’s accessible by dugout canoe only, a wonderful one-hour glide through swamp forest rattling with birdlife.

Wildlife hotspots
Kakum National Park  Ghana’s largest rainforest is protected by this 375-square-kilometre park a short drive inland from the Cape Coast. It houses West Africa’s only canopy walkway, a giddying 350-metre suspension bridge that offers a thrilling monkey’s-eye perspective into the forest. Deeper into the jungle, there’s superb birding, and the chance to encounter any of six duiker and five monkey species, along with the bongo antelope and forest elephant.
Monkey Hill  Astonishingly, this minuscule forest in the modern port town of Takoradi hosts tenacious populations of spot-nosed monkey and the localised olive colobus, both likely to be seen on an early-morning or late-afternoon visit.
Muni-Pomadze Ramsar Site  One of West Africa’s few official turtle-tracking sites, the palm-fringed beach here is regularly visited by nesting leatherbacks and olive ridleys between September and March. Marine birdlife includes seasonal colonies of five tern species.

Safari Planner
• When to visit  Aim for the northern hemisphere winter (October to April), when humidity and rainfall are at their lowest, as are mosquito densities.
• Getting there  Several international carriers fly to Accra. From there, you can only get around by road, either in a hired vehicle or by public bus. Ghanaian visas must be obtained far in advance.
• How long to stay  This depends on your interests, but fewer than three days outside Accra would be tight, while ten to fourteen would be ideal.
• Where to stay  Accommodation is plentiful but mostly caters to low-end and mid-range travellers.