“Bonne anne! Bonne anne! Happy new year!”
We were awakened on the flight from Casablanca to Douala to these phrases ringing through the plane. Festive passengers toasting champagne flutes and wine glasses aboard our flight cheering and ringing in a new year, 2020. Air hostesses skirted up and down the aisle at steady pace making sure the rousing travelers aboard this Royal Air Maroc flight were satisfied with the refreshments being served. Our four kids who had never seen such merry making on an airplane before were turning their heads trying to understand the shouts and laughter that carried through the air vessel. The older girls kept asking “What did he say?” “Mama, what’s going on?” as most conversations and interactions were conducted in French, the language communicated in by most in Cameroon. Soon enough the pilot announced over the intercom, “We would like to wish all passengers a happy and prosperous new year in 2020. We should be landing in Douala in approximately 90 minutes.”
Our previous trip to Cameroon was in 2016 and so this homecoming was well overdue. Mark and I have both made numerous trips to Cameroon; both of our fathers were born and raised in Bamenda which is where most of our families used to live. It had been four years since we visited Bamenda and the conflict and political turmoil has rendered the area less safe. Because of the insecurity and various other reasons, several relatives of ours now live in nearby cities such as Yaounde and Douala. This visit would be less than a weeklong, it would take a lot of planning to get family together from different towns and cities, but this was Cameroon where most will candidly say in a tongue and cheek fashion “almost everything is negotiable”.
We landed in Douala International Airport and after the routine checkpoints with immigration and health screening (yellow fever card check point), we picked up our luggage and headed out to our meet our ride. The Douala airport is typically busy, and it is best to have reliable pre-arranged transportation. It was two o’clock the morning of the first day of a new year when our four children, Mark, and I, who was seven-months pregnant, set out the airport to check-in to our lodging. This was the first time we would be staying in Douala with all four kids and we booked an apartment suite at Le Residence Le Carat Bonapriso on Expedia.com.
This hotel accommodation was conveniently located less than 15minutes from the airport. Checking in with an online reservation was a little arduous at that hour as the personnel available was unfamiliar with the process. However, after showing a printed-out email receipt verifying payment for the entire stay, we received the key to our suite. The three-bedroom three-bathroom suite included a living room with a dining space and kitchen. The central air conditioning throughout the suite would be greatly appreciated by all travelers given the tropical heat and humidity is no stranger to this coastal city. The amenities at the hotel included a restaurant with dine in and room service options, a hotel gym as well as a rooftop swimming pool which gave us views of the city beyond our balcony. An important note is these apartments and most Airbnb’s in the city will not come equipped with washers or dryers for laundry but there are several laundromats and dry cleaning (“pressing”) facilities. We used Pressing Victoire and with their delivery (pick up and drop off) service, we were pleased with the care taken in cleaning our laundry.
Dining out when we visit Cameroon is a rare option as the norm is to dine at home with family and friends where your preferences are well known. A norm well appreciated by most given the vast variety of ground provisions and the variation in cuisine yet unmatched by any other African country we have visited thus far 😊. Nevertheless, we have dined out in Douala and this time was no different from any other when we dined at White House restaurant. Its buffet style is perfect for large parties such as ours particularly because they purvey a wide range of authentic Cameroonian cuisine. Common favorites such as fried plantains, Jollof Rice, grilled chicken can be enjoyed by most especially kids while other delicacies such as Ndole, Egusi soup, Njama njama or Water fufu and Eru are true delicacies which possess flavors and pertain an acquired taste best appreciated by the experienced palate. There are several other options for dining in the city, but with a constant buffet service one is sure to satisfy a hunger without delay. For desserts, the kids desired ice cream and so Maison H was the obvious choice. This restaurant has a full service menu but what keeps us coming back is their ice cream which is second to none in town and can be accompanied by an assortment of pastries which are both pleasing to the eye and any sweet tooth! It is worth noting there are several other bakeries in the city which are considered above average by most standards . However, other ice cream establishments are often limited to soft serve machines and Maison H goes beyond this in flavor, consistency and overall quality. Lastly, if the kids are in the mood for a pizza, there are several local pizzerias in town and most deliver as well.
Out n’ About
Traveling around Douala like any other metropolitan city can be tricky. One can easily get caught in traffic around rush hour or more commonly get caught in traffic driving over the Bonaberi bridge. This bridge constructed over the Wouri River connects the west end of the city to neighborhoods like Bonaberi and provides access to other coastal towns such as Limbe. When traveling with our young children, we often pack boosters or children’s car seats and use family transportation but there are car rental services which can come equipped with car seats with prior notice. Avis rental is the only rental company within the Douala International Airport but another rental company, F-Enterprises Car Rent is one of a few local car rental companies.
Things to do (Those Learning Opportunities)
Musee Maritime de Douala
For a first-time visitor to the city, one of the most informative places to visit is the Maritime Museum. This museum covers a brief history of the country, Cameroon, and the city of Douala. This city was built along the coast of the Wouri river as the capital of the German protectorate (Kamerun) from 1884 to 1902. Douala was originally known as Cameroon Town prior to the Germans and then Kamerunstadt (Kamerun city) when it became a protectorate. Its current name Douala was given in 1907 after the names of natives Dou ala Njos. Cameroon, derived it name from the Wouri River, initially given the name Rio dos Cameroes or “River of The Prawn” by the Portuguese around 1472 when the famous explorer, Fernando Po and his men noted an abundance of the mud lobster along its estuary. The city of Douala lies along the estuary of the Wouri River. All these tidbits and more are detailed in the tour or the Maritime Museum and includes the history of the original inhabitants of the area, the Sawa people. There are interactive exhibits for children which demonstrate the inner workings of the ships and the history and evolution of trade in the ports of Cameroon.
The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul
This was the first time we visited the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. This byzantine structure was erected in 1936 with neo-roman architectural elements by French missionary priests. Catholicism was introduced with the celebration of the first catholic mass in 1890 by German Pallottine Missionaries in the Woermann factory in Douala, Bonanjo. Masses are still celebrated in the cathedral regularly and we were part of a congregation much larger than usual as it was a more festive period given the dawn of the new year. The twin towers on either side lined with fenestrated walls allows for great ventilation throughout the building in an otherwise humid environment. A brief history of the Cathedral is found on a signage to the side of the building produced by Doua’Art, a contemporary art museum in the city which showcases art pieces of local and international artists sure to intrigue the interpretive mind in us all.
Marche de Fleurs (Flower Market)
For souvenirs and keepsakes there is Marche de Fleurs, a street market which primarily provides beautiful bouquets and arrangements of fresh flowers for any occasion. A frequent stop on the way home to grab that bouquet of flowers or flower arrangements for funerals and weddings. We recommend a visit more for the souvenirs. Adjacent to Marche de Fleurs is Marche Artisanal which has more of an art and handicraft selection and attracts more tourist but with children the latter tends to be less enjoyable as the vendors are most aggressive and it is a more crowded scene. Marche de Fleurs provides an opportunity to price haggle with less distraction and the beautiful flower scents certainly create a much more agreeable atmosphere.
In Case of Emergency / Health Precautions
As most countries in West and Central Africa, a yellow fever card showing proof of vaccination is required upon arrival and in some cases when applying for a travel visa. Cameroon is no different in this regard. There is a routine check for these documents upon deplaning and the vaccine can be administered prior to travel by any local travel clinic or local health departments.
Another recommendation for travel to the region is malaria prophylaxis. It is highly recommended to start a regimen for prophylaxis at least a week prior to travel and continue for 3 weeks post return. Most regimens for malaria prophylaxis involve once a week dosing unless there is emergency travel involved where an alternative daily dosing regimen may be started. Please confer with your medical provider or physician as to which is most appropriate especially for the children whose pediatrician can safely advise dosing based mostly on the weight of the child.
In the event of illness or injury while in Douala, we have referred to Daniel Muna Memorial Clinic also known as Polyclinic Bonanjo. This facility provides excellent care and reliable medical service with onsite medical laboratory and radiology capabilities. Their staff includes a good proportion of foreign trained physicians in multiple specialties including General Medicine, Surgery, Pediatrics and in my case traveling pregnant, Obstetrics and Gynecology. It is affordable for travelers paying out of pocket but purchasing travel insurance which covers medical emergencies would be of most help. We always purchase travel insurance as we have learned over time, it is better to be prepared and not have an emergency than otherwise.
Off The Beaten Path – Quaint Kribi
What may be surprising to visitors is though Douala is a coastal city, it does not have recreational beach mostly due to the extensive shipping port along its coastline. However, Kribi, a close by beach town has satisfied those who seek solace on a beachfront. Typically less than a two-hour drive from Douala, the beach town of Kribi has been a sure destination for family holidays for decades. We last visited about five years ago and with our then three kids and 2 years prior to that with our oldest two. The soft brown sand beaches are easily accessed from most resort hotels and the coastline provides a gentle slope into the Atlantic making it easy to enjoy with young children who may not be avid swimmers yet. There are some rocky embankments scattered throughout giving it a natural and pristine atmosphere.
This beach town is less commercialized and truly provides space for a quiet stay with family. Our last visit entailed a brief stay at Hotel San Marco which was simply delightful. The hotel had suites located on the beach, a restaurant with excellent food service and amenities such as reliable WiFi, a swimming pool as well as the option of poolside dining. Hotel San Marco accepts online bookings and the check-in process was hassle free. We have also stayed at Hotel Costa Blanca which was a less sophisticated choice with more of a local vibe. Both establishments have the proprietors on site who are ever so attentive to the needs and requests of their clientele.
We tend to spend most of our days beachside however there are a few other activities one can engage in. We have taken in views of the Kribi Lighthouse though we have not visited this structure in person. Another family activity we have enjoyed involves an early morning drive to the wharf as the fishermen dock their canoes with fresh catch. For the outdoor adventurous family with older kids, a visit to Lobe Falls is a fun adventure with possible kayaking or canoeing as well. These are more skilled activities we have not opted for because our children have been fairly young the times we have visited Kribi so far.
In 2020, with a trip as short as six days, eager for some rest and relaxation, we spent most of our time in the rooftop swimming pool of Hotel Le Carat, lounging around our apartment suite, visiting with family while taking in views of the city, grateful for another year together and anticipating the birth of another child. The turn of events that followed in the next few months with the pandemic made us recognize more than ever before how fortunate we all were to have shared that time together with friends and generations of family. Cheers to another new year, a new year of continued hope and aspiration, cheers to 2021!
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