Before I met my husband, when I was single and looking, I often joked to my friends and family that my future soul mate was probably in some faraway place like Zimbabwe.
As it turns out, I was somewhat close. Although he had been living in the United States for almost 10 years when we met, he was born and raised in the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire. On our one-year wedding anniversary, we put on traditional African dress and celebrated our union with his family and friends in Cote d'Ivoire.
The Ivory Coast, as it's known in English, is a French-colonized country along the Gulf of Guinea. Abidjan, my husband's hometown and our home base for our two-week trip in late September, is a tropical region dotted with coconut trees and palm trees. We packed our summer clothes - the climate was warm and humid during our stay, although temperatures throughout the year can range from 50 to 104 degrees.
Abidjan is a modern city surrounded by vast expanses of lush landscape and villages where the locals dress in a mix of traditional African garments and Western-influenced clothing, such as the "Obama girl" T-shirt we spotted on one young girl. On our car rides through Abidjan, we passed numerous streetside stands selling fresh produce, carved wooden animals, African-style clothing, accessories and jewelry, as well as purses, jeans and shoes similar to what you could find at White Oaks Mall.
Hospitality comes naturally to most Ivorians; everybody we met along the way welcomed us and embraced me with extra fervor when I managed to speak a sentence or two in French. They were perhaps most generous with food. Because we were there to visit family, we dined at several private homes, but we also patronized some excellent restaurants, including Maquis du Val in the Cocody section of Abidjan.
One of our first restaurant experiences in Africa, it offered all the flavor of Ivorian dining along with the comforts of a large establishment. The high, wood-paneled ceilings and plantation-style shutters over open windows enhanced the eatery's tropical feel. I ordered fried plantain as a side dish to a pair of generously sized beef kebabs and a full plate of rice. I had to leave some food behind, but it was worth it for the aloco, as plantains are called in Cote d'Ivoire once they're fried. Similar in appearance to bananas, plantains are sweet and take on a caramel flavor when fried. They're a must-try dish for a visitor.
Restaurants are a good place to brush up on some basic French, which I would recommend before a trip to Cote d'Ivoire. Example: poulet (chicken), boeuf (beef) and poisson (fish). Many Ivorians can speak some English, but knowing some key words and phrases will make outings easier. My husband was able to translate for us and help us order off restaurant menus, but a tourist with no French-speaking companion should consider investing in a pocket-size phrase book. One of the most fulfilling aspects of the trip for me was the opportunity to be immersed in the language and see the pleasant surprise on the faces of strangers and my new in-laws when I showed them I could speak some phrases in French.
We called the Hotel Bellecote home during our stay in Abidjan. A gated property, it sits on a hill in the Cocody section of the city. Our villa-style suite had three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom; a common living room; a kitchenette; and a garage. We made a point to set aside some time to spend at the pool, set off from the hotel's main entrance by a wall of coconut trees and other foliage.
Driving in Abidjan is not for the timid. Traffic can be unruly in parts of the city, especially at intersections. We witnessed few accidents because local drivers seemed to be in sync with the traffic patterns. For a first-time visitor, though, driving would likely be challenging. We had only a few opportunities to use public transportation because several of my husband's friends kindly shuttled us around town during our stay. There are, however, city buses, smaller buses that resemble shuttles, and scads of orange taxicabs. We traveled by taxi a few times early in the trip, and the cabs were clean and the drivers polite and accommodating.
Once you figure out how to get around, you'll want to have some local currency so you can start shopping at those roadside stands and the bigger markets that sell African clothing, food and artwork. While larger hotels and restaurants will accept credit cards, most shops only accept cash.
Banks and larger hotels in downtown Abidjan will exchange U.S. dollars for Cote d'Ivoire currency, the African franc. It's a good idea to have plenty of cash on hand for any merchant who won't accept a credit card. Armed with your cash, be prepared to barter for that ebony elephant you have your eye on - no price is set in stone at a craft market.
You'll also want to stop for some pictures at the Golf Hotel, which is a 10-minute drive from downtown. The elaborately designed pool offers views of the lagoon on which the hotel sits, and the colorful lobby displays African wood carvings and artwork.
Midway through our stay in Cote d'Ivoire, we ventured out of town for a few days to experience Assini, a beach community east of Abidjan, and the political capital of Yamoussoukro, which sits in the south-central part of Cote d'Ivoire. Assini is near the border of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, and it's a popular spot for families looking to get away from the city for the weekend.
We understood Assini's appeal after two nights at the Coucoue Lodge, a tropical paradise of a resort separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a serene inlet. Open-air cocktails and dining. Poolside cabanas. Coconut trees shading lounge chairs on the sand.
I can't recall ever feeling as far from life's realities as I did at Coucoue.
We spent our two nights in rooms facing the water, each lodge with its own porch and lounge chair for taking in the breathtaking surroundings.
We ate most of our meals at the hotel restaurant. We started our days with a breakfast of ham and cheese omelets and croissants. For lunches and dinners, we tried pizza and the traditional Ivorian meal of kedjenou, a stew with onions, peppers, tomatoes and a variety of meat options, including chicken and rabbit.
We departed Assini for Yamoussoukro on a sunny, warm Monday in a rented SUV with a driver. The smooth, four-lane highway leading out of Abidjan narrowed to a two-lane as we headed north, and we were surrounded by green countryside as we passed the occasional village and roadside stand. After about three hours, we reached the entrance to Yamoussoukro, which guided us in with rows of streetlights on each side that appear to form a gate to the city.
Yamoussoukro's highlight is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. Listed in Guinness World Records as the biggest church in the world, the basilica covers 322,917 square feet and rises to 518 feet. A tour of the inside reveals grand columns, some wide enough to hold elevators that access the base of the dome. The basilica's rich collection of stained-glass windows features an image that former Cote d'Ivoire president Félix Houphouët-Boigny commissioned of himself as one of the three Biblical Magi kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ.
We spent our single night in Yamoussoukro at the Hotel President, a high-rise hotel with a high-end eatery, Restaurant Panoramique, perched on top. We lingered over a late dinner after our long, sometimes-bumpy ride to the capital, and I ordered my first meal that inspired thoughts of home - a steaming dish of lasagna with a dollop of pesto on top.
The crown jewel of our visit was also the grand finale of the trip - our first-anniversary wedding fete. My husband's family organized the celebration on the beach at Grand Bassam, a town along the route to Assini, for our last night in Cote d'Ivoire.
His family and friends surrounded the car as we pulled up, temporarily thrusting us into celebrity status. Between dinner courses mixed with dancing, his aunts, cousins and family friends helped us change from one traditional African outfit to another, each garment and accessory having been passed down for generations in his family. We took the dancing down to the shoreline as clouds started to roll in. A short time after our fourth and final clothing change, the rain started and the party ended.
We had planned our trip at the tail end of Cote d'Ivoire's wet season.
But, as the French would say, "C'est la vie." That's life.
You'll need a visa as well as a passport to visit Cote d'Ivoire, and entry to the country requires a vaccination for yellow fever. A number of other immunizations are recommended, and you won't want to leave the U.S. without a prescription malaria medication and plenty of mosquito repellent. For more information about Cote d'Ivoire and entry requirements, visit the following websites:
Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )