Travel: Sierra Leone

IF YOU are old enough to remember that classic Taste of Paradise Bounty bar commercial, you'll have an idea of how impressive the beaches in Sierra Leone are.

The advert was filmed on River Number Two Beach, just outside the capital, Freetown. Verdant mountains almost tumble into glistening sweeps of white sand, shaded by strips of gently swaying coconut trees and lapped by turquoise tropical waters. This stunning shoreline fits many people's idea of perfection.

If these sands were in the Caribbean or rimming an island in the Indian Ocean, it would be the preserve of the glamorous jet-set. As it is, the beach is in west Africa, in one of the poorest countries in the world. Sierra Leone may be famous for its diamonds but it is infamous for its vicious 1991-2002 civil war. So rather than conjuring up images of pristine tropical beaches, the country is usually coupled with poverty and violence. Petty crime is still common, however, and the transport infrastructure remains poor. None of the options for transfers between the airport at Lungi and Freetown are risk-free, according to Foreign Office advice. Even the diamond trade does not carry a favourable image. Many will recall the 2006 blockbuster Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

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All this means you will probably have River Number Two Beach largely to yourself. I did. The only people here were a few fishermen landing their abundant evening catch of barracuda and other impressive-looking fish, together with a throng of children from the local village who were joyfully splashing about in the water. I was the only oporto (white man) around.

Swimming out to sea and looking back, the beach's full tropical majesty lay stretched before me. Sandwiched between the clear blue sky and the shimmering sea lay a long strip of white beneath a ridge of densely forested mountains. The Portuguese sailors who 'discovered' this land in the 15th century would have seen a similar sight. So struck were they by the dramatic backdrop that they named the place Serra Lyoa, or Lion Mountain.

Appropriately diamond-shaped, like its most famous export, it is a relatively small country – about the size of Wales – sitting on the western bulge of the continent. With a repetitively sad history, from slavery to civil war, Sierra Leone has endured its fair share of problems, yet today is a functioning democracy and very safe. Freetown has little of the menace that characterises some African cities. Although the country is transformed from a decade ago, its recent human tragedy is never far from the surface. Every time a market trader wielded a machete to lop the top off a coconut, I thought of the alarming number of limbless people hobbling around.

Many of what we consider essential services do not exist here or only function at a most basic and intermittent level – safe drinking water from the tap, a reliable electricity supply, health and education services. Many of the streets do not have lights, let alone electricity to power them. Infrastructure varies from non-existent to scarcely functioning. There are few pavements and you will appreciate the luxury of Tarmac after travelling by road here. Many of the packed taxis and buses appear to be held together by rust (the FCO advises against using these) and there is no public railway. Getting across Freetown presents a challenge, let alone travelling up country.

British nationals will need a visa to enter Sierra Leone, which depends on foreign aid and languishes at the bottom of the UN's Human Development Index of 177 countries. Life expectancy here is 41.8 years, while a sixth of mothers die giving birth – the highest rate recorded – and a quarter of children never reach their fifth birthday. Fifty seven per cent of Sierra Leonians live on less than a dollar a day.

Yet in the 1970s and 1980s Sierra Leone had a thriving tourist industry. Civil war and economic mismanagement put paid to that, and today it attracts a trickle of tourists – around 4,000 a year – the bulk visiting diplomats or aid workers' friends and relatives. Hardly anybody comes here for the express purpose of a holiday any more. The tourists have all moved on to neighbouring Gambia.

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The country does, however, have one major trump card: its beaches. It boasts some of the best in Africa. It also has something else in spades: potential. If Sierra Leone can successfully harness wealth from its vast deposits of raw materials and utilise its rich agricultural land and use the money to kick-start its tourism industry, it is surely only a matter of time before it starts attracting flocks of European holidaymakers.

It is recommended to visit before June, when the deluge begins as Freetown is one of the wettest capitals in the world and travelling in the rural provinces can be treacherous. Visit from November to March in the dry season and its glorious beaches, strung out like a diamond necklace along the peninsula south of Freetown. The first is Lakka Beach, then Sussex Beach, where I enjoyed a marvellous lunch of fish carpaccio in lemon juice for a starter, followed by a whole baked lobster, washed down with a couple of the local Star beers, all for around 15. The next is Baw Baw Beach, a good place to set up camp and sleep under the stars. River Number Two Beach – of Bounty fame – has the looks to be crowned the country's top beach and around the corner are the equally stunning sands at Tokeh, where for around 7 you can sleep in a thatched beachside hut. The pick of the bunch for me was Bureh Beach, where the startlingly named Crocodile River snakes out from the mountains into the Atlantic. For surfers, some of Sierra Leone's best waves can be found here.

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Most visitors are unlikely to escape the shoreline but for the more adventurous, highlights include climbing West Africa's highest peak, Mount Bintumani, and Koidu, the centre of diamond mining and Sierra Leone's Wild West. The country's first national park at Outamba-Kilimi, on the border with Guinea, has hippos, chimps, crocodiles and leopards but a far easier option is the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary a few miles outside Freetown and home to 99 rescued chimps, where you can sleep in a thatched hut or tree house in the jungle canopy for around 30. Sierra Leone does not lend itself to a relaxing getaway yet the rewards are some truly stunning and as yet undeveloped beaches. After a lobster lunch, relax in a hammock strung between two coconut trees, on virtually your own private beach a world away from modern communications and gadgetry. That really is the taste of paradise.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, April 11, 2010