8 reasons to visit Senegal

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(CNN)The most westerly point of Africa is surprisingly undiscovered by English-speaking tourists.

And that's a shame for the tourists, who are missing out on vibrant and welcoming Senegal, where rich traditions and natural beauty combine to great effect.
French travelers have been enjoying Senegal's sandy beaches and textured landscapes since the 1970s.
    While basic French will come in handy, there are English-speaking guides in most places.
    The country is seen as a model for democracy and stability in the region, and with its peaceful and hospitable culture, it's an ideal choice for a first-time visitor to Africa.
    Here are eight great reasons to visit.

    Beautiful beaches

    What separates Senegal from the rest of Africa?
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    With 330 miles (531 kilometers) of dazzling Atlantic coastline, Senegal has plenty of opportunities for uninterrupted sun lounging within easy distance of the capital.
    Stretching south from Dakar, the Petite Cote is a sweep of buzzing coastal towns, dozing fishing villages and idyllic beaches.
    Saly is Senegal's beach-vacation hub, but its crowds are best avoided by heading to Tama Lodge, a boutique hotel on the edge of neighboring Mbour.
    The lodge's restaurant serves a fresh menu of local produce and its cabins are just feet away from a superb curve of palm-studded beach.
    From the comfort of its sun loungers, visitors can sip from a fresh coconut and spy muscled Senegalese wrestlers practicing "la lutte" -- the country's national sport.
    The bohemian village of Toubab Dialaw, just an hour south of Dakar, has a pristine beach and a lively arts scene.
    The mosaicked Sobo Bade hotel offers traditional art, dance and percussion classes to shake up vacation languor.

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    There's lots of play space in Mbour, a beach town south of Dakar.

    Tranquillity

    Just south of the Petite Cote, a journey into Sine Saloum's labyrinth of mangrove creeks and lost-in-time fishing villages offers a stress-banishing taste of the simple life.
    One of the best places to feel the region's calm is Mar Lodj, a small, car-free island in the Saloum delta where the electricity cuts at 11 p.m. to expose an unfettered explosion of stars.
    These winding creeks are home to an abundance of flora and fauna, protected by 76,000 hectares of national park and UNESCO world heritage status.
    Wooden canoe trips glide past flamingos, pelicans and oystercatchers, while the Isle de Oiseaux is home to the largest breeding colony of royal terns in the world.
    Hotels can arrange day trips into the delta, starting from about $40 per boat.
    Tranquility seekers will love the remoteness of Hakuna Matata, a laid back camp overlooking a glorious stretch of river.
    This is an angler's paradise -- just seconds after casting off, hungry carp and grouper tug the line.
    French host Olivier Guerin helms the camp, plying his guests with fresh seafood at his convivial table d'hote.
    "We've sort of fallen in love with the place," said Daphne, a Belgian expat traveling with her husband and son from Dakar. "We can't stop coming back."
    The Sine Saloum delta is a place to unwind.

    A vibrant capital

    In stark contrast to Saloum, bustling Dakar shakes your senses with a warm, salty blast of humidity as soon as you get off the plane.
    Dakar is home to the trendy and traditional, Senegal's old and new. It's a fascinating city for dancing, bargain-hunting and authentic culture.
    In the relaxed neighborhood of Mamelles, La Calebasse is a good spot to sample traditional African cuisine on an elegant covered rooftop.
    For a buzzier (and smokier) vibe, Le Viking hosts a nightly live band that plays a mix of local "mbalax" dance music, Western rock and reggae.
    Shoppers at the HLM market can find technicolor prints from $1.50 a meter, and tailored outfits are sewn up in hours.
    Meanwhile the historic Marche Kermel is a literal and visual feast -- the circular wrought-iron building is a kaleidoscope of okra, tamarind and fish.

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    Easy-to-reach islands

    Just a 20-minute ferry ride from Dakar, the quiet, picturesque streets of Ile de Gorée hide its horrific past -- it was the last glimpse of Africa for thousands forced from the region as slaves.
    Still standing, the 18th century prison's "door of no return" bears witness to this chilling chapter of history.
    Then there's the jagged, uninhabited Isles de la Madeleine national park, which can be reached with a $9 boat ride from Dakar's southwestern bay.
    It's a find, says Senegalese artist Mamadou Wane. "Not one percent of the population has been there.
    "It has crazy beautiful beaches, with rocky cliffs and clear water. Many people here have no idea how beautiful their own country is."

    Warm hospitality

    A deep source of pride for its people and a treat for visitors, Senegal's "teranga," or hospitality, is part of its identity.
    Friendly locals are quick to invite visitors for Senegalese tea -- a strong infusion of green tea leaves with mint and sugar brewed over glowing coals.
    In an elaborate ritual known as "attaya," the tea is always brewed in three rounds; the first strong and bitter, the second weaker and the third, very sugary.
    There are all sorts of different folkloric explanations as to why, with one musician explaining, "The first is bitter like death, the second is soft like love and the third is sweet like friendship."
    Many locals will double as guides within markets or cities, sharing priceless insider knowledge.
    While offered freely, a tip is expected, and as with all prices, bartering is the norm.
    Saint Louis' colorful streets ooze French colonial charm.

    A colonial capital

    Dripping in history and charm, Saint-Louis was the colonial capital of the whole of French West Africa until Dakar usurped it in 1902, largely thanks to its superior port and growing peanut trade.
    Easily explored on foot, the city's bougainvillea-laced streets offer the perfect antidote to Dakar in size, pace and atmosphere.
    A stay at the nostalgic Hotel de la Poste evokes the glamorous story of Aeropostale, the French aviation company that pioneered first air-mail, and then in the 1920s, some of the first long-haul passenger flights to Africa and South America.
    Guests can stay in the (modernized) room of legendary pilot Jean Mermoz, a hero in the city.
    A 20-minute drive and boat ride to the Langue de Barbarie peninsula is rewarded with a sandy beach shared only with some rapidly retreating crabs.
    En route, local women can be seen sifting white salt mounds from tidal ponds, deftly balancing baskets on their heads.

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    Amazing sound

    Whether it's the rattling rhythms of mbalax, gentle kora or deep djembe, there's live music to be found every night in and beyond Senegal's capital.
    Renowned Senegalese musician Baaba Maal hosts a world music festival in December, while Saint-Louis welcomes five days of jazz artists in May.
    Just4U is one of the best-known venues for stumbling across top African artists in Dakar, and on Saturdays night-owls should try Thiossane (Rue 10, Dakar), the club of home-grown superstar Youssou N'Dour.

    Fish, fish and fish

    Senegal is a treat for seafood lovers -- fish is the country's staple and most menus are peppered with oysters, prawns and squid.
    The national dish, thieboudienne, marries freshly grilled fish with spicy tomato rice, cassava and carrots.
    It's served up at Dakar's Chez Loutcha, a favorite for locals.
    At Mbour, it's well worth heading to the docks at 5 p.m. to spot the arrival of the fishing boats -- dozens of ornately painted vessels bringing in the daily catch.
    As fishing is one of the country's major industries, hundreds of Senegalese gather to play their part in the riot of color, sounds and of course, smells, central to the whole operation.

    chez Loutcha, 101 Rue Mousse Diop, Dakar Senegal;