Hostels in Review –”Where Have All The Tourists Gone” (Part Three – Coastal Benin, Togo, & Ghana)

Reviews of the places I stayed in during my time in West Africa, in November-December 2014. I don’t seem to have written anything about them to booking or travel sites, so, again, none of them are rated. For ease of reading, I’ve split them into three posts.

This was very much, by sheer necessity, a trip with guesthouses rather than hostels, which didn’t seem to exist. Dorm rooms were very rare, and meeting other backpackers/travellers was rarer still.

1) Guesthouse Cocotiers, Cotonou, Benin
Date Stayed: 9 December 2014
Length of Stay: 4 Nights

Inside Cotonou Hotel
The rarely-occupied dorm; colourful, if a little small. The few other people staying were in private rooms.

A proper backpacker hostel! However on my visit it was very quiet; indeed not only was I the only person in the 4-bed dorm, according to the visitor registration book the last people in the dorm had been a group of Japanese backpackers around 20th November … there were a couple of people in the private rooms but I barely saw any of them, and the only chap I did speak to was an aid worker using it as a ‘house’.

Inside Cotonou Hotel
On the outside patio – the garden wasn’t that big so not really somewhere to sit and admire the view. The staff played cards here.

It’s not a large hostel, having a couple of dorms and private rooms, few facilities (aside from, perhaps oddly, a book exchange), and not much open space out front. The main social area does seem unfeasibly oversized compared with the rest of the hostel, but only has a small table at one end, and a computer at the other, which as a result makes it feel a little too ’empty’.

Inside Cotonou Hotel
The social area – really quite large and possibly under-furnished. It stretched out behind to the right too, where there was a computer and lots of books.

It’s located on a very quiet side street, towards the end of the main road through Haie Vive, so is a fair way out of the city centre, although very close to the airport. The Haie Vive area itself feels quite ‘exclusive’; a very pleasant area, with tree-lined streets and relatively expensive Westernised restaurants. It’s populated mainly with ex-pats and feels more like France than Benin. It’s also the location of some foreign embassies (notably Haiti and the DRC…). This all makes it seem a little odd though – like it’s a kind of ‘dead-end’, tucked away from the rest of the city; an add-on, if you like.

2) Gite de Possotomé, Possotomé, Benin
Date Stayed: 13 December 2014
Length of Stay: 1 Night

Possotomé is not very big; it does, however, have a surprising number of hotels & guesthouses, primarily because it sits on the shore of Lac Ahene, a picturesque lake that’s also an important centre for Voodoo. It’s also home to one of the leading brands of mineral water in Benin, named after the village.

I chose to stay an eco-tourist gite just up the hill from the lake; very easy to find and get to, with good views over the water. It was a reasonably pleasant place to stay; although I was just passing through, it would have been a good place to organise tours into the Voodoo heartland, and being an eco-hotel they promoted not only local experiences but also ‘green’ practices – the toilet was a waterless eco-toilet where waste biodegrades rather than being flushed into the water.

Inside Possotomé Hotel
The outside of the dorms, close to the eco-toilet.

Again, I was the only person in the 4-bed dorm – I may have been the only person in the whole gite – so it was quiet but also a little lonely. The dorm was fine, if a little dark, though the table in the room was slightly too small for someone of my height and clutteriness.

Inside Possotomé Hotel
Standard-issue 4-bed dorm; cosy and quiet.

I liked the overall feel of the place though, and while there’s not necessarily any reason to stay in the area that long, it’s a good hotel to base yourself in.

3) Lion Bar, Grand Popo, Benin
Date Stayed: 14 December 2014
Length of Stay: 1 Night

Everyone ‘s seen pictures of “beach paradise”, of vast sandy beaches, clear waters, palm trees, pure barefoot luxury. While I’m not saying that this fulfils every criteria, and with the personal caveat that beach holidays aren’t my ‘thing’, there is something to be said for a hotel where you can literally walk out of your room and be on the beach.

Outside Grand Popo Hotel
Just past the tables, on the way to the beach, were trees where people could sling hammocks and sleep under the stars.

It’s not much of a hotel – it’s a series of small concrete ‘blocks’ down a small passage that make up the rooms – but what it has is ‘vibe’. It’s got a seafront bar, where one can sit under a parasol drinking beer and playing in the sand with your toes, listening to the wind flutter the nearby palm leaves. In amongst the pine trees are hammocks where you can truly ‘drop out’ and let the world pass by, or pop up a tent if you prefer to be more grounded, and just beyond them the beach proper starts. In effect, the social area of the hotel is the whole of the seafront. In the evenings, the staff put on music; of course it’s reggae – carefree sunshine beat and rhythms fill the air.

Outside Grand Popo Hotel
Alternatively, one could camp on the beach. This shot is taken literally just in front of the tables of the hotel.

The vibe is very much that Afro-Caribbean style – apart from the music, all the rooms are named after reggae legends (complete with pastel-drawn caricatures), and the bar sells a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails rather than concentrating on the beer market. The outer walls are painted with murals reflecting the culture/heritage – Bob Marley features prominently, as you might expect.

Inside Grand Popo Hotel
Pretty much a summary of the entire ethos of the bar & hotel.

The rooms themselves are simple, consisting of nothing more than a mattress atop a concrete block, an electric fan, and a mosquito net (not even a table). The toilet block is a very short hop away; cramped huts but filled with cartoons and paintings. It is very much a case that they feel the room is simply somewhere to sleep; the bar and beach are what you come here for.

Inside Grand Popo Hotel
The very simple bedroom; basically just a mattress on a foundation. But fitted with the rest of the hotel.

Grand Popo itself isn’t very big at all, and built along a straight road that runs from the main Togo-Benin highway all the way to the mouth of a lagoon by the ruins of the old town (Grand Popo is slowly moving West and inland as the sea and sand both encroach). The bar’s maybe halfway along this road, but apart from a shop and one restaurant, most of the village is residential. Getting to the bar is pretty easy; the share taxi drops you off at the junction and from there it’s either a walk or a ride on one of the waiting moto-taxis.

The staff at the bar are very friendly, although almost exclusively Francophone, and can put you in touch with a local guide who can take you deeper into the village to explore the Voodoo culture here, or just to float on the nearby Mono River.

There’s not much to do here, but really, you won’t want to leave.

4) Le Galion, Lomé, Togo
Date Stayed: 15 December 2014
Length of Stay: 2 Nights

If ever a hotel is representative of a place I’ve been, this may be it. In principle, the hotel’s pleasant; it looks fine from the outside, it seems to have all the right facilities, but the more you look into it, the longer you stay, the more you pick up that it’s just papering over the cracks. Maybe it’s reflective of the fact I didn’t ‘click’ with Togo anywhere near as well as I did with Benin, so I was perhaps ‘looking’ for faults more.

Outside Lomé Hotel
It’s quite an impressive frontage, compared with many of the hotels I’ve been in on my West African adventure, even if it is looking a bit ‘tired’.

Let’s start with points that give a good impression. Compared with many of the places on my adventure, it’s much similar to a ‘European’ guesthouse – it’s all one building rather than scattered in random blocks, and its style and feel is closer to Europe than Africa -, it’s got a nice walled ‘beer garden’ at the front which serves as an overflow to the dining area, it offers a fair selection of food, the rooms are a good size with an ensuite bathroom to match, and while not central to Lomé, that’s really no bad thing and it’s self-contained enough to not feel like you’re missing anything by being in the suburbs. It’s a short walk from the beach, and very convenient for the main Ghana border at Aflao so it’s an easy hotel to stay in if you’re doing a West African adventure.

Inside Lomé Hotel
Quite a large room, with ensuite bathroom, if a little plain.

So, what lets it down? Well, partly the staff. As in much of Togo, and completely contrasting with Benin, the people in the hotel seem to be austere and grim, never smiling, always giving the impression of grumpiness and that my presence was making things awkward for them. Indeed, one member of staff who did have the audacity to smile at me was given an icy stare by the other person behind the bar.
Possibly related, the food service was pretty slow and generally functional rather than pleasant, even more so than I’m used to back in the UK.

Although it looks nice on first impression, the hotel does feel a little ‘shabby’, not necessarily kept shiny and pristine. Despite the relatively appealing outside, my room was quite boring, dated, and a little dark, and you could tell the floor hadn’t been mopped for a while – a bit like my own house in all honesty. Kudos for the cute ‘steam train engine’ soap but a bit more of that in the hotel wouldn’t have gone amiss.

It also has WiFi, at least down in the restaurant and bar area, although it was amongst the least reliable I’d come across, to the extent of being pretty much unusable. Given that that’s one of its selling points, it again fails to live up to its promises.

It’s a shame, as it has potential to be something good, but I just get the impression that the people running it just don’t care as much as they should. Maybe that’s a Togolese malaise rather than something specific to this hotel though.

5) Bafana Bafana, Kpalimé, Togo
Date Stayed: 17 December 2014
Length of Stay: 2 Nights

Outside Kpalimé Hotel
Rough & ready, dusty & dishevelled, but still functional. Togo was not my favourite country but it wasn’t my hotels’ fault.

Kpalimé is not the prettiest town in West Africa; in fact, to be honest, it’s a bit of a dive. And, from the outside at least, the Bafana Bafana doesn’t challenge this feeling – a sand-blasted weary concrete building at the crossroads of four gravel-strewn side-roads. It’s not much more impressive inside, but knowing what to expect means it feels comfortably familiar. At 7,000CFA/night, it’s also well within budget.

Inside Kpalimé Hotel
It’s quite odd to note just how many places I’ve stayed in that had this same layout – rooms around an uneven & unloved central stone area.

It’s reminiscent of the guesthouses I’d stayed at in Northern Ghana – a one-storey building with rooms running along the side of a central cement courtyard – although as the rooms are only on one side, it makes the hotel feel smaller. The room is light but plain, with a ceiling fan, small shower cubicle, and desk. I’m not sure how many rooms there are – maybe 6 or 7 – but I’m pretty sure I was the only person staying there.

Inside Kpalimé Hotel
Bright room, behind the camera was a small toilet/handwashing cubicle, and next to it a shower.

Apart from the room, there are almost no facilities in the hotel at all; it is, however, convenient for the centre of the town, standing just opposite the Germanic cathedral and only a short walk to food stalls and an Internet cafe, while even the market is only a few hundred meters away.

The staff were young and reasonably friendly locals, if maybe a touch overly laid-back and unfocussed, unrushed. They did manage to get me in touch with a local guide, who of course may or may not have been the boyfriend of one of the staff, but he turned out to be friendly and reasonably knowledgeable.

6) Hotel Malisel, Ho, Ghana
Date Stayed: 19 December 2014
Length of Stay: 2 Nights

For some reason, I have virtually no photos of this hotel.

It’s on the Southern side of Ho, quite a walk (around 15min at my pace, even when barefoot) from the main bus station & markets area, although the road between the two is lined with shops and small cafés. It’s actually set off the main road a little, and quite easy to miss if you’re not paying too much attention – it’s on the right, as the road climbs a slight hill, a short way before a crossroads.

My overall impressions of the hotel were that it was probably the most luxurious-feeling hotel I’d stayed in on my trip, although it probably thought of itself as more ‘grand’ than it really is. It’s a perfectly good, functional, hotel; I just found it a bit ‘faded’ in character, a bit ‘past its prime’. The entrance lobby (possibly the only place I stayed at in West Africa to have something worthy of the name) is bedecked in dark wood decoration and has a couple of settees to lounge around on, while the rooms are spacious, comfortable, and have decent facilities (including a TV!). I was offered a choice of rooms in fact; I plumped for one slightly below ground level that had a bed that may actually have been wider than it was long – big enough for me to lie on without discomfort, and wide enough for three banks of pillows.

Inside Ho Hotel
I seem to only have one photo from the hotel in Ho. Note the size of the bed; three pillows wide. Slightly below ground level, but spacious, quiet, and comfortable – all you really need.

The hotel does promise Wi-Fi, but on my visit it wasn’t working and hadn’t been for a while, apparently because “Vodafone haven’t got round to fixing it”. There is, however, an Internet café a little walk down the road opposite, probably less than 3 minutes away.

It’s very much a ‘hotel’ rather than a hostel or guesthouse (I didn’t notice it do food though), but it’s still a decent budget option.

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