This spring will mark two years since Virgin Atlantic launched direct flights to Accra, Ghana - our fifth destination in Africa after Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
When his partner was offered a job in Accra, freelance writer Nathan Midgley found the lure of adventure too strong and is now based permanently in Ghana's capital. We're delighted to have him on board today to help first-timers navigate their way through the cut and thrust of this fast-growing West African coastal city...
A life without sushi
My first meal in Accra was a huge plate of the spicy bean stew known as red-red, and an even bigger bottle of Star beer. Sitting in the damp tropical heat, starving hungry and fresh off the plane from Heathrow, it didn't feel like culture shock at all: in fact, the combination of rich comfort food and cold lager was as good a curative as I could imagine.
The following day I struck up a conversation about food with our guide, praising red-red and joking that I dreaded a life without sushi. An hour later I was tucking into tako nigiri at Chase in the Labone district. Point made. It won't do to essentialise Accra – yes, it's Ghana condensed and sped up, but it's also a city influenced by the global tastes of diasporans, returnees and expats, and soundtracked by beats you can hear echoed in London and New York.
Where to begin
Old hands may sneer at it, but beginners should start on Oxford Street, a colloquial name for the stretch of Cantonments Road that cuts through nightlife epicentre Osu. It's loud, colourful and jammed. There are mirrored glass office blocks and new construction sites. There is a three-storey fast food restaurant called Frankie's, and a bar called Lizzy's made of shipping containers. There is Mama Mia for pizza, Dynasty for Chinese, Monsoon for teppanyaki and Nigerian chain Mr Biggs for West African snacks on the go; there are, everywhere, stands selling tilapia, coconuts, Nollywood DVDs, electrical adapters and mobile phone credit. If Accra Mall – a pristine site on the outskirts of town, with games arcades and a multiplex – is modernity as a set piece, Oxford Street is modernity in open play, noisily negotiating its role in the city.
Eating, drinking and entertainment
The best bars and restaurants are on the side streets, but before diving in hit Citizen Kofi's Sky Bar for a bird's-eye view of the whole thing. Just off Oxford Street's northern end, it looks south over the rest of Osu and gets welcome breezes coming in from the Atlantic – Accra is a low-rise coastal city, so even a small amount of elevation can deliver a good dose of freshness.
You could stay for Kofi's upmarket restaurant, but you'll have more fun if you treat Western-style places as pit stops. Head instead to Asanka or Blue Gate for some proper Ghanaian grub – they're accessible to newbies without being gentrified.
Expect to dine to hiplife, azonto, or even a sermon if the radio's on, and use the water and washing up liquid to clean your hands (try eating with your right before you fall back on cutlery). Red-red and jollof rice are both good entry points, and Club is the best local beer, coming up drier and crisper than Star or Gulder.
If you can't do West African food, the excellent Ghanaian-owned Zion Thai is across the road from Blue Gate. Don't be surprised if Zion pops in to take your photo – pictures of him with diners and footballers adorn every spare inch of wall space. Married to a Thai woman, he puts slicker and pricier competitors to shame, growing his own lemongrass in front of the restaurant and heading to Asia at least once a year for new recipes.
Follow dinner with a bar crawl, but pace yourself – Ghanaians don't drink as fast as Europeans, and the heat will deal you a crushing hangover. Make time for Epo's, where the spacious terrace attracts a friendly local crowd that swells to bursting on Premiership match days, and for Lizzy's (colloquially known as 'Container'). If you need another pit stop, try the bar at Monsoon restaurant (0302 782 307) decorated with photos of Hollywood icons, or hit Irish pub Ryan's.
For a slightly calmer dinner with some live music, head out of Osu to 233 Jazz Bar or Taverna Tropicana, both just off the ring road that runs around the city centre. It's also worth keeping an eye on Alliance Francaise, which stages major gigs in its gardens – it hosted celebrated Ghanaian-American rapper Blitz the Ambassador in late 2011, and frequently has good bills by promoters-about-town Accra Dot Alt, a collective whose events attract the city's fashionable, creative bright young things.
The energy and industriousness you'll sense at many of these places is a definitive feature of Accra. Young Ghanaians like to call it 'vim', and it turns up in the most fascinating places. Visit up-and-coming 'fantasy coffin' carpenter Eric Adjetey Anang at the Kane Kwei workshop and he'll take a break from carving cocoa pod and fish-shaped caskets to whip out a laptop, firing up a video of his role in a 2009 soft drink commercial.
He'll tell you the workshop has pieces in public and private collections in Europe, the US and Canada, and that he's been invited to exhibit in South Korea. All this from a modest building beside a barbershop on the busy, dusty Teshie Road.
Next to its daily life, Accra's sights can be a little underwhelming – especially since most are closed to the public or prohibit photos. But it's worth doing a quick tour. Drop your jaw at Flagstaff House, the new presidential palace that resembles a vast traditional stool beamed in from the 25th Century, and which the current leader refuses to use after criticising the project while in opposition.
Also essential is Nkrumah Memorial Park, where modern Ghana's first president declared independence in 1957. Inside its striking mausoleum, reflections from the surrounding moat dance on curved walls, creating an unexpectedly calm space a stone's throw from congested High Street. Just to the east is Independence Square, a parade ground overlooked by a space-age arch with the crashing Atlantic beyond it (no photos).
Finally, beaches. Most visitors are keen to try one, but the country's finest are well outside Accra. Your best bets are the raucous La Pleasure Beach, which you can dip in and out of from Labadi Beach Hotel's private enclosure for a fee, and Bojo Beach Resort, located on a sandbank some 40 minutes' drive west of the city centre. Bojo is peaceful early on, but the sound systems kick in as lunchtime approaches – its advantages over La are slightly tamer surf and freedom from persistent hawkers.
Getting around Accra
Confusing public transport and variable taxi services make car hire attractive for confident drivers, especially if you want to do some independent exploring – the heat prohibits doing so on foot. Be prepared for heavy traffic on the arterial roads.
Plentiful and cheap, but addresses are of no use. Identify a landmark near your destination beforehand – big sights like Flagstaff House or popular chop bars like Blue Gate are a good bet. Haggle with a smile before boarding, but don't obsess over getting the local price. Allow an absolute maximum of five cedis within the Ring Road and ten for journeys out to the motorway (e.g. the mall). Excursions like Bojo Beach could be up to twenty. Hotel staff are a good source of advice on landmarks and prices.
These incredibly cheap minibuses represent the city's public transport network, but there are no route numbers or public maps, making them a difficult proposition for first-timers. Ask people for help if you're determined to use them, and tell the 'mate' (conductor) where you plan to 'drop' (alight) when you board.
For more information and insight into daily life in Accra, we highly recommend checking out Nathan's blog Sushi in Accra.
Virgin Atlantic operates five direct flights to Accra from London Heathrow per week. Visit www.virginatlantic.com for the latest fares.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.