Going Our Way: Two ways to take a roots tour in Ghana

By Carol Sottili
Sunday, December 6, 2009

President Obama and his family put the spotlight on Ghana as a tourism destination when they visited there in July. Vickie Jones and her family won't be greeted by the Ghanaian president after flying over on Air Force One, and addressing parliament is probably not in the cards. But they will be able to follow the Obamas' tour of Cape Coast Castle, a holding and shipping point for millions of slaves.

Ghana, on the west coast of Africa, was one of the focal points of the transatlantic slave trade. Millions passed through the European-built forts and castles on their way to South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Today, members of the African diaspora are traveling to Ghana in increasing numbers to see the paths their ancestors traveled. Be prepared for some strong emotions. After visiting Cape Coast Castle, Obama said he would "never forget" the sight of his daughters passing through the infamous "door of no return" -- and then walking back out.

Ghana also has miles of relaxing beaches and several wildlife parks, so the trip can offer more than heritage tourism.

The key question for Jones and her group is whether to book the trips' components individually or to go with a tour company. Large families are often better off having a fixed itinerary devised by an outside party: That way, no one will blame you for choosing the worst hotel on the beach, and there will be no family throw-downs about sitting poolside vs. sightseeing. Tours, however, are often more expensive, and they're typically busier, which could be difficult for the children.

Before you go, make sure all paperwork is in order and health considerations are addressed. Visas, which cost $50, are required. Contact the Ghana Embassy (202-686-4520, http://www.ghanaembassy.org) at least a month before you travel. A valid certificate of immunization against yellow fever is also required. For recommendations regarding other vaccinations, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov).

Let's look at the do-it-yourself vs. the get-help options.

Packaged tour

One of the best-known U.S.-based tour operators to Ghana is Spector Travel of Boston (http://www.spectortravel.com). I presented Jones's wish list to June G. Spector, president of the company, and she came up with an eight-night independent tour for the family, which means they wouldn't be part of a larger group. The trip covers all the basics, including round-trip airfare to the capital city of Accra, seven nights' first-class hotel accommodations, transfers, land transportation, guides and taxes. Also included are daily sightseeing trips. It's an ambitious plan that includes almost daily changes in lodging, but you'll see plenty.

Starting in Accra, there's a city tour, including a visit to the W.E.B. Dubois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture. From there, you'll travel to Kumasi to learn more about the Ashanti people, with visits to the Manhyia Palace Museum and the region's Centre for National Culture. Next up is the long drive to Mole National Park, where you'll stay overnight and take two treks to view the park's wildlife, which includes elephants, monkeys and antelopes. On Day 4, you'll return to Kumasi, stopping to view the Kintampo waterfall.

Next up is a day of shopping for local goods: You'll tour several craft villages, including Ahwiaa, which features wood carvings; Ntonso, famous for its textile printing; and Bonwire, known for Kente cloth weaving. Then it's on to Elmina. A morning tour of Kakum National Park, which features a canopy walkway 120 feet above the forest floor, will be followed by an afternoon at Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, both of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Finally you'll return to Accra for a day of leisure and shopping before heading back home.

Cost: $2,591 for adults departing from New York or Washington, $2,641 for adults traveling from Dallas, and $1,822 for children from any of the three departure points.

Spector can also put together a less ambitious and less expensive itinerary. For a list of other tour group choices, contact Ghana Tourism (http://www.touringghana.com).

Independent trip

Getting to Accra is easy and fairly inexpensive. Your group will converge in New York's JFK and take Delta's nonstop overnight flight.

Save money by renting a house in Accra and using it as a base. For example, Ghana Villas (http://www.ghanavillas.co.uk) has 14 private houses and villas available for rent, including a four-bedroom with a swimming pool. Most come with a housekeeper, and you can hire a chef. The villa company will pick you up at the airport and offers vans for rent with driver guides. If you prefer hotel accommodations, Continent Tours (http://www.continenttours.com) represents more than 70 properties at all price levels across Ghana.

Use a private driver recommended by your hotel or villa for day trips. Definitely put Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle on the list. Kakum National Park is also within easy striking distance. Unless your group includes avid wildlife enthusiasts, you might want to forgo Mole National Park, because it's at least a 10-hour drive from Accra. Or split up, with some heading for the overnight wildlife adventure while others stay put, spending the day at Kokrobite Beach. (Watch the children carefully: The sea is often rough.) Aburi Botanical Gardens, 160 acres of formal gardens and native forests, is another day-trip option. Farther afield, and better as an overnight trip, is Wli Falls, the highest waterfalls in West Africa. Contact Ghana Tourism (http://www.touringghana.com) for more choices.

Cost: Adult airfare is about $1,077 round trip from New York; $1,114 from Washington; $1,168 from Dallas. Fare for children ages 2 to 11 is discounted by 25 percent. Four-bedroom houses in Accra range from $100 to $180 a night, depending on location and amenities. Hotels that cater to Westerners in the Accra region are relatively expensive, starting at about $110 per night per room. Renting an eight-passenger van costs about $100 a day, plus $12 for the driver. A chef is about $10 a day, plus food. Entrance fees vary, averaging about $10; beach entrance fees can go as high as $20. Total cost per adult will probably come to less than $1,700.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

Who: Vickie Jones, 37, of Alexandria, and her extended family, ranging in age from 4 to 63 (final numbers to be determined). Jones and her brother will depart from Washington, but others will leave from New York and Dallas.

Where: Ghana.

Why: To learn more about their West African ancestry, see exotic wildlife and relax.

When: Late March, for one week.

Budget: Between $2,000 and $2,500 per person.

"We want a family vacation where we can learn something but not feel like we're in school, engage everyone with a little bit of a sense of adventure, and keep it exciting for the age ranges (AARP-preschool)."

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