At first sight, Sassandra appears to be a dull, oversized Ivory Coast fishing village on the estuary of the 650km-long Sassandra River, built on an incline among the mangroves, vines, climbing palm forests and commercial plantations of the southwest. Anyone who invests some time and effort here, however, will find a veritable trove of idyllic beaches, invigorating walks, singular wildlife-spying opportunities and stimulating historical relics.

What to see and do

Old Governor’s Mansion

Sassandra sits on a knobbly 4km-long promontory, its furthest point marked by the Old Governor’s Mansion, which stares mournfully out across the embouchure – the point where the Gulf of Guinea meets the Sassandra River. There’s no denying the romantic profile of these serrated ruins (erected around 1900) perched at the highest point of the headland, even if close up there’s not a lot to see beyond a roofless façade, some vaulted arches and a balustraded balcony just about still standing. The second storey affords beguiling vistas of the sea and the jungle-clad embouchure. To get here from the centre of Sassandra, follow Rue de la Maison du Gouverneur as far east as possible, passing all the maquis and the Dumana Monument.

The plantation around the mansion has orderly rows of maize and yams tended by inmates from the prison down the hill (don’t worry, they’re overseen at all times by a warden). Follow the path a little way down the cliff to the north and you’ll see a rock that resembles a man’s face, sort of. Nearer the beach to the south is a huddle of faded old buildings with rotten shutters and trees growing through holes in the walls and roofs. It’s a crying shame that this is about all you can see of Sassandra’s architectural heritage, given that other edifices in far better condition – including Captain Schiffer’s house, the prison he built and a monument to him – are currently hidden away from public eyes for various political and bureaucratic reasons. We hope this situation changes soon and Sassandra claims its rightful title as the Grand-Bassam of the west. Before taking photos near the mansion seek permission from the town prefecture (your guide can handle this).

Just to the north of the Ghanaian fishing beach are some more archaic buildings, the most interesting of which is the Edwardian BCA bank with its rusty wrought-iron frontage still intact.

The Dumana Monument 

On Christmas Eve 1943, sleepy Sassandra was touched by the horrors of World War II in a shocking and unlikely manner. The British motor vessel Dumana was taking a cargo of RAF equipment to the Gold Coast when, just off the coast of Sassandra, she came under torpedo fire from the German submarine U-515. She sank so quickly that her crew had no time to launch her full complement of lifeboats. Fortunately, these were shallow waters and 107 of the 146 crew members either swam to shore or were rescued by two Royal Naval trawlers. Six corpses washed up at Sassandra, and a year later André Latille, the Free French Governor of Ivory Coast, unveiled an 8m-tall stone memorial to the drowned. It stands 400m from the La Cotière hotel on the other side of Rue de la Maison du Gouverneur.

In 2012, HMS Dauntless ferried a number of Royal Navy personnel to Sassandra for a special remembrance service. Local dignitaries and members of the British expatriate community joined them for prayers, a salute and the placing of a wreath.

Fish smokers’ community

When the Ghanaian fishermen return with their catch they hand it over to their wives who prepare it in a special area of their village, located in a small valley just off the road from Hôtel Le Pollet. The women laugh, sing and chat while smoking the fish on charcoal-fired grills inside small igloo-like stone chambers. By the afternoon, a wispy cloud of grey smoke hangs above this inimitably Sassandran scene. Visitors are usually offered a sample and the crispy morsels need their skin picking off before eating. Intriguingly, the community is roughly divided by nationality, with Ghanaians working cheerfully alongside Liberians, Burkinabés and Sierra Leoneans.

The Sacred Forest 

Locals steer clear of this densely wooded area on the southern extent of the fishing beach partly out of respect for their ancestors’ ghosts and partly because they fear the anacondas that supposedly dwell there (we haven’t seen any). Unlike other sacred forests around Ivory Coast, though, they don’t mind outsiders entering. You’ll find ronye trees with branches that criss-cross as if nailed together, sensitive flowers that retract when touched and a troupe of enthusiastic monkeys who’ll be your new best friends in exchange for a banana (be careful you don’t get mobbed).

Yaba beach 

A little over 1km south of the town centre, down the hill from the church, is an enchanting beach facing both the crashing waves of the bay (swimming here is risky) and a reedy section of the Sassandra River (swimming here is fine).

Getting there and away

For all its rewards, Sassandra is not the easiest place to drive to. The 271km run there from Abidjan can take up to 5 hours given that much of the coastal trunk road is marred by dips and ruts, which multiply after Grand-Lahou and worsen going west to San-Pédro (77km). The A4 and A5 roads northeast to Yamoussoukro (293km) are more level but hardly in great condition.

One direct bus service to Abidjan (6,500F) leaves from the UTB bus station each morning at around 07.30. Buses to Sassandra leave at about the same time and for the same price from Adjamé station in Abidjan. Smaller gbaka companies serve San-Pédro (4,000F), Man (4,500F) and Yamoussoukro (5,000F) from Sassandra several times a day, setting off once they’ve filled up their seats.