Monday, August 9, 2010

Architectural yoga

My general strategy is to stay in the cheapest hotel I can stand, in the most central location, and spend as little time there as possible. I know there are many for whom where they stay is the most important factor in a vacation, but to me that’s anathema: travel is for streets and shops and restaurants and museums, not hotels. Nonetheless, about once per trip I stumble onto lodging so special that it forces me to upend my standard approach and enjoy where I’m staying for its own sake. Once a decade, perhaps, I come upon a place so outstanding that it becomes a highlight of the trip—indeed, a place that would be worth building an entire trip around. The last place I can think of to fulfill this claim was La Selva jungle lodge in Ecuador, which came as close as anyone is likely to come to being a seamless part of the jungle—while maintaining five-star standards.

Sandele Eco-Lodge (, in Kartong, is such a place. The rightfully proud proprietors—technically not owners, they hasten to point out, since all land and facilities will revert to the local people in twenty-five years—Geri and Maurice, wax fulsome over the various eco-friendly features of the facility, but in some ways what’s most impressive about Sandele is everything it lacks. This starts with the physical: no power lines (wind and solar on site); no flush toilets (a tiled-in composting toilet with a calabash full of sawdust adorns each lodge. "Composting toilets really separate the men from the boys in terms of low-impact living," Geri says. But they're actually quieter, simpler, and barely smellier than flush toilets). But it continues with almost anything not directly in harmony with the native environment: there are a few elegant lodges tucked among the trees, a tiny swimming pool between each pair, an open-air restaurant, a palm-frond hut down by the beach. . . and that’s it. If you came seeking any traditional beach or spa glitz, you’ll be disappointed. Sandele is where humans come to meet the ocean and the forest on an even footing, where everything other than surf and sand and birds and verdant foliage has been painstakingly tuned out. Sure, there’s excellent food and service, but that’s almost beside the point.
NB: Geri and Maurice are also the proprietors of the Safari Garden, (http://www.safarig where I've been staying for the last three weeks in Fajara, a suburb of Banjul, the Gambian capital.

The great riddle is whether it’s the overall drama—the sound of the sea just down the hill, the spacious airiness of each lodge—or the breathtaking attention to detail—the concentric circle insignia imprinted in doorjambs, cast into drape-clips, echoed by the domes—that makes the place at once so peaceful and so invigorating. Of course it’s both. Everything at Sandele conspires to get out of the way of nature just as everything at Sandele contrives to remind you how powerfully human intention can register on a place, and thus on a person. While most buildings are a hackle-raising hodge-podge of warring priorities and awkward happenstance, at Sandele everything is the way it is because someone has given it a lot of thought. Anyone who doubts that you can hear the luthier’s care in a violin, or taste the love in grandma’s bread, might become convinced by Sandele that bricks can convey compassion. The bricks are made from local sand and lime yielded by burning oyster shells, mixed with water and sun-dried, resulting in earthy gold rectangles that bypass all the high energy intake and toxic output of conventional concrete, or the forest depletion of wood.

Sandele is architectural yoga. On entering the domed lodge you feel a great sense of ease, as if your mind can suddenly stretch the way it normally only can outdoors. Here are all the protection and comfort of a building without any of the constraint. The domed space looks a bit like a temple, and there is something undeniably spiritual about the place. It’s dark inside but for eight glass blocks around the perimeter of the base of the dome, about twelve feet up, each of which casts a diffuse white light. Additionally, the peak of the dome is cut out and topped with a “lantern” of red, blue, and clear glass, which casts a bigger pool of light that moves along the interior of the dome echoing the sun’s journey. Most light, though, comes from the eight doorways cut into half of the circular walls, which let onto an outer ring, six feet farther out, composed almost entirely of French windows (which demur from lining up with the doorways). Geri admits this double ring was accidental: according to the original plans, the outer wall would have been open, but she feared the resulting room would be too small. Sometimes serendipity yields the most elegant solutions.

There’s more: the trinity of steepled bathroom areas (toilet, shower and sink, closet), the spiral staircase to the roof, the balcony running round the dome. . . but Sandele is, after all, a product of its location, and the major feature of that location is the Atlantic Ocean. “Have you ever been on a beach so unspoiled?” Geri asked me. “I think I have,” I said. “Chile comes to mind, maybe somewhere else.” The beach is extraordinarily secluded, and, no less important, extremely close: I woke shortly after dawn and, rather than shower, walked five minutes through the forest down to the water, where I bathed in waves so warm I might have only dreamed them. At the end of the day I repeated the ritual; the equilibrium in temperature between air and water, and the distance between the lodge and the surf, was so slight, I took nothing but my bathing suit. Both times I was alone save for two fisherman, half a dozen stray dogs, and a dozen cattle.

Sandele isn’t a cheap place to stay—to say nothing of getting there—which begs the question: what do you do there? If I’m shelling out top dollar on a “retreat,” I expect some activities. They do offer a an erratic rotation of pursuits, from yoga to djembe drumming to village tours. But really, like few other spots, Sandele is a place just to be. You’ll definitely want a book or two, maybe an Ipod, but the real highlight is simply lying on the bed and soaking in the world—finding endless facets of green in the leaves, deciphering bird songs and frog calls, uncoiling the long recursive symphony of the surf, feeling that your thumb has at last found the pulse of the universe.


  1. Nice portrait! Hope it gets them some clients. Or is that not a problem?

    Are you gonna tell us more about your actual work there?

  2. I thought you were going to give me grief about that first line.

    More on work, or at least African life outside fancy hotels, forthcoming.

  3. Wow, this place sounds like it has incredibly good energy! Your descriptions of what you like about it are terrific illustrations of the most basic principle of feng shui: form and function are equally important.

  4. No, I probably agree with your first line--but sometimes I'm just too lazy to follow through. On the other hand, witness my latest post about Bird Lady and Brooklyn guy a couple days ago. I leave the lobby once in awhile (to be rewarded with a Brooklyn guy--more often than a Bird Lady, it seems, but I'm not sure.).