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  • Writer's pictureRuth Arad

Mandina Lodge – The Gambia

By: Ruth Arad | Architect and Interior Designer specializing in hotel design

Hotel design is a blend of spaces of commercial, personal and domestic character, which are both public and private at the same time. It’s a space in which a personal and distinctive story can be woven into a total hospitality experience and as such it is of interest to everybody, whether guest or host, and the chain of people involved in making every guest’s stay a perfect one.

This is the fourth blog in a series written in my travels around the world in the wake of hotels that excel through unusual design. Hotel and hospitality design has been my discipline and business for about a decade, and I invite you to come along to wonderful, faraway places. In each blog, we’ll take a short trip together toward extraordinary experiences that will be etched into your memory; each trip will be accompanied by professional explanations to add meaning to the hospitality experience.

Off the beaten track

In December 2009, I set off on my first adventure in Africa. It was one of those trips that remind us of our gap year between school and university, in places where there is no electricity, where running water is not always available and, if it is, may not be that warm and comforting.

The trip was to The Gambia, a tiny country in West Africa, which stretches along the Gambia River and forms an enclave to neighbouring Senegal. We landed at an airport that looked like a desolate wilderness – it is simply an open and empty space with only one structure separating the runway and the area where taxis await foreigners. Together with my travel companions, we took a taxi to the first motel on our itinerary, which was on the beachfront of the Atlantic Ocean, but on bare land without a garden or any plants. It was of the most extraordinary simplicity, with its rooms constructed of exposed concrete blocks, containing little more than a bed and a net for protection against mosquitoes. The net was the most important commodity in the room, competing only in importance with the bucket we had to fill with water from the kitchen so that we could wash ourselves. In fact, the common denominator in our motels along the way, proved to be the mosquito net and an empty bucket. The fittings and equipment were always basic and simple, as was the food.

I suppose that some of my readers will have travelled at least once in third world countries, where the roads are not roads, the signs don’t indicate the next turn but rather serve as a promise, often unfulfilled. As a result, in this scenario, the tour guide is the bible and if it is not up-to-date, we tourists are in trouble. In spite of the many difficulties en route, the sense of adventurousness overcame the difficulties of our stay, and we continued our trip as planned.

The route and its obstacles were to present us with many adventures since we had chosen to explore Gambia beyond its magical coastline — where the light-coloured sand forms a stunning contrast to the wild coconut trees — and head into the heart of the country to the starting point for a cruise down the River.

One day we took a ferry towards the capital city, Banjul, where, upon reaching the far bank of the river so as to continue onwards into the heart of the country, we had to share a minibus taxi with other passengers. It was a rather scary experience as some of our fellow passengers looked a little dodgy, not to mention the fact that the driver ran over a goat in the middle of one of the villages, and a great hubbub broke out around the taxi.

The journey included a few more ferry crossings toward the stretch of the river from where we could set off downstream by boat to discover its delights, including an island inhabited by monkeys, elephants, pink dolphins, antiquities, and remote villages.

At some point we ran out of the water we had carried with us. The experience of considerable dehydration for the first time in my life could almost have been my undoing, if it weren’t for the appearance of the village witchdoctor who gave me a special piece of wood to put between my teeth and, like magic, I began to feel better. The cruise down the river took several days and just as I started to feel the need to get back to civilization, and almost as if in fulfilment of my wish, a magical scene suddenly appeared in front of us.

Welcome sighting of the first Lodges Credit: The Gambia Experience

The welcome sight was of none other than Mandina Lodge Hotel, located in the Makasutu Forest, providing a thrilling encounter between the old world and the new.

The Lodges hug the river bank, peeping out from their mangrove setting Credit: Ruth Arad

The Lodges are straw-roofed wooden huts standing on wooden stilts piles in one of the channels of the river, among the mangrove swamps. Each Lodge is suitable for a couple with a large four-poster bed in its centre, a private terrace facing onto the river, and a shower that is open to nature. I was filled with joy to discover such a paradise! The hotel was founded by two people from Britain who decided to retire to Gambia to build the hotel of their dreams.

The hotel blends a wonderful 5 of local and authentic, high-quality hospitality, and a potpourri of original design elements.

The Lodges all have a private path leading to their back door so that the entrance is always from the southern approach to provide maximum privacy. In my own professional life, I’ve always placed great emphasis on designing private entrances to guest rooms as my belief is that when you’re on holiday, you want to feel that you’re in a place that provides maximum privacy. This approach is also of interest socially as it allows guests to move from the private to the public space, imparting a sense of independence and opportunity to regulate between personal time, and time spent in the company of new people.

The private walkway to the Lodge’s veranda and entrance Credit: The Gambia Experience

The choice of materials, most of which have a connection with the place, do it justice; this connection between place and nature shows the visitor how it is possible to live in the world in abundance by blending a building into its landscape and allowing it to flow within it.

Guests are served their breakfast by a personal chef who arrives by traditional canoe bringing quality food directly to your private riverside dining area. The Lodge itself is a single open space with a large, luxurious four-poster bed at its centre; its many windows and doors all face the river, allowing the peace and quiet to infuse and merge into the private space. As you lie on the bed, you have a real sense of being part of nature and afloat on the water.

Facing the river is the four-poster bed, under its protective mosquito net canopy; African pieces of furniture and accessories complement the mood

Credit: The Gambia Experience

Not surprisingly, after days of makeshift showers with buckets of cold water, and having fantasized endlessly about a real shower with hot water, it was the Lodge’s shower space that caused me most delight. Here, in this enchanting Lodge, I realized that I had arrived in heaven on earth. The shower is made of wood panels on all sides, and faces the mangrove trees so that half of it is open to nature while the other half is part of the structure. It was one of the most marvellous showers I’ve ever had – the miracle of running water accompanied by the magic of the location is truly inspirational.

The shower, open to the mangrove trees (L) and the distinctive chairs (R)

Credit: Ruth Arad

We had lunch in the Lodge restaurant where you can meet and dine with other guests. The restaurant is special not only for its construction method, which repeats itself in different configurations, but also for the design of the chairs. The chairs looked as if they had been designed for the king and queen of the tribe, one chair for a man, one for a woman, made of iron with special decorative elements and seats upholstered in authentic local fabrics. When I took my seat, I immediately imagined myself as of another world and a different culture, somehow blurring the history of the place and my personal place within all of it. I truly felt that I was turning into part of the story and the place.

The compound has a central swimming pool, constructed of local methods and faced with mosaic, set among tropical trees. Monkeys and other many other animals wander into the compound where they seem to feel completely at home, while giving us the experience of being deep in the African jungle.

In the evenings, the guests get together around a large open fire to listen to folklore stories and enjoy some social mingling. Most of the tourists at Mandina Lodge are from Europe and interesting connections were formed between Germans and Japanese, between locals and people from England, each individual and their own unique life story, meeting against the backdrop of the forest, provided unforgettable experiences.

A stay at Mandina Lodge is not cheap, but this hotel was the brightest and most enchanting spot in terms of hotels and hospitality on this trip, and it will forever hold a place in my heart.

The restaurant at dusk (L) and guests seated around the campfire (R)

Credit: The Gambia Experience

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