OUIDAH, Benin (Reuters) - The small club-shaped West African country of Benin is not on most tourists' radar but its palm-fringed white sand beaches in the south and surprisingly good wildlife parks in the dusty north will reward more intrepid travellers.
It has some of the best and cheapest food in the region, blending French and African influences. But the biggest reason to visit is the country's rich and intriguing history; for hundreds of years it was at the mercy of the slave trade and it remains famous for being the birthplace of voodoo.
Voodoo is the official religion for 17 percent of Beninese, although almost everyone incorporates it into their lives. Originally is was called "vodun" meaning: 'the hidden'. Voodoo centres around several vodun spirits and deities.
Traditional priests are consulted for their power to harness the spirits through rituals that often involve the sacrifice of a chicken or goat. It is seen as essential to call upon the spirits for protection or prosperity and they can be used for malicious ends. Commonly seen are fetishes; an object, sometimes a doll, which is blessed with a spirit's power.
If you can, visit Benin on January 10, the official Voodoo Day with celebrations all over the country.
The small town of Ouidah on the Atlantic coast is the cradle of voodoo, a culture far from the image projected in Hollywood in films featuring Indiana Jones and James Bond.
A Reuters correspondent with local knowledge helps you get the most out of a weekend trip to this magical spot.
4:30 p.m. - You've probably just spent two hours on a bumpy car journey from the dusty capital Cotonou and are need of refreshment but its worth making a stop at the Point of No Return. A giant gate memorial right on the beach, marking the launching point where 12 million slaves were deported between the 16th and 19th centuries. For a small fee a guide will talk you through its thought provoking history.
6 p.m. - Stop at the shack Coast Bar just down from the memorial for a well earned rest. Pull up a wooden stool on the sand and enjoy the sunset over a cold La Beninoise beer and perhaps a boiled egg with spicy pepper - only 10 cents a throw.
7:30 p.m. - Check-in at the relative luxury of Casa del Papa and be sure to get a bungalow on the beach. Ask reception to book you a driver/guide for your voodoo-packed day tomorrow. You're best bet is to stay here for the evening as Ouidah is no party town. There is bound to be some fresh fish on the menu and you can wash it down with very decent and affordable wine. www.casadelpapa.com/
10 p.m. - Take a stroll along the deserted beach and sit on your balcony listening to the crashing waves before bed.
7 a.m. Time for a swim. You can have a few lengths in the pool overlooking the beach or take on the sea. The waves are rough but it's a good morning workout. Don't go much beyond the break of the waves as the West African currents are legendary.
8 a.m. Enjoy croissant, eggs, coffee and delicious fresh fruit for breakfast. Watch the lines of fishermen pulling in the morning catch, looking much like a one-sided tug-of-war.
9 a.m. Start your cultural experience at the small Musee D'Histoire De Ouidah, where you'll get a grounding in Benin's slave and voodoo history.
10:30 a.m. Visit the Voodoo Python Temple. It's a bit of a tourist trap but the sight of a room filled with dozens of pythons is sure to stick in the memory and if not you can get a picture with one draped around your neck.
12 p.m. Just around the corner is the peaceful Sacred Forest, which contains a 400-year-old Iroko tree that allegedly King Kpasse, the town's founder, turned himself into to evade his enemies. There are several bizarre sculptures depicting voodoo deities, including the well-illustrated God of virility!
1 p.m. - Stop at the artistic guest house Le Jardin Secret for lunch. A small but perfectly formed menu is likely to feature fresh fish, prawns and maybe some goat, all served with either rice, chips or sautéed potatoes. Delicious meals will cost around $10 each. Allow plenty of time because, like everything else in Benin, service is at a relaxed pace. www.lejardinsecretouidah.net/
3:30 p.m. - You're now ready to visit the Voodoo King - if he grants you an audience. The Voodoo Palace, which he describes as the Vatican of voodoo, has a myriad of totems, fetishes and deity sculptures adorning several outbuildings. If the King agrees then you'll be led into his decorative chamber, where he says he often hosts the President of Benin for private consultations. When he enters you must kneel on the floor and bow at his feet. Bring along your most pressing problems and the King may see fit to solve them, from psychological demons to physical ailments, he claims nothing is beyond his powers.
5:30 p.m. - Hit the coastal road and head for the town of Grand Popo, a short drive towards the border with Togo.
7 p.m. - Head straight for Auberge de Grand Popo, a colonial-style guesthouse on an empty golden beach, peppered with palm trees. Have dinner in the thatched-roof terrace overlooking the sea, where you'll enjoy some of the best food in Benin. All the fish, steaks and chicken come with rich sauces and cooked vegetables with wines to match. Finish the evening playing the French game Petanque, or boules, on the sand by the restaurant and then take a stroll down the beach before settling into a comfortable sea-view room. here
8:30 p.m. - After breakfast ask the hotel to organise a Pirogue boat trip to the Bouche du Roy, a large expanse of water where the Mono River empties into the ocean. You'll spot many scenic island villages on a great two hour trip. www.naturetropicale.org/
12 p.m. - On your drive back to Ouidah ask the driver to take you to a traditional voodoo temple. If you're lucky you'll see vodun worship at its most atmospheric, if slightly grisly. You might witness a ceremony aimed at spurring love, where two voodoo dolls are bound together before sacred gin is poured over them and a chicken is sacrificed. It's fascinating stuff but if you're not keen on watching a decapitated chicken spraying blood around a dark room full of skulls and fetishes then it might be best to avoid it.
3 p.m. - Talk about your experiences over a beer and perhaps a strangely delicious spaghetti sandwich in one of the bars down the alleyways of central Ouidah. Grab a plastic chair and a beer, listen to hypnotic West African music and ask the locals about their thoughts on voodoo.
(Writing by Joe Brock, editing by Paul Casciato)