Reached from the airport by ferry across Fourah Bay, sleepy Freetown (pop. 1,051,000) sits at the northern tip of a large, mountainous peninsula. Although it lies on a pleasant natural harbor surrounded by high, wooded hills, we must admit that Freetown is not one of our favorite cities. Even before the war, the city was dirty, run down, hot and steamy. In its favor, there are some fairly nice golden-sand beaches (Lumley Beach is our favorite), and the colorful open-air market and the King Jimmy Wharf (where traditional bulom boats dock, filled with local wares) are operating again. Rebuilding of war-damaged facilities, including streets and the national stadium, has begun, but recovery still has a long way to go.

Several interesting excursions can be taken from town, including jaunts to game reserves and Bunce Island (pronounced buncey), site of a 17th-century British fort at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River (about an hour by boat from the capital). Or you can take the 60-mi/100-km drive around the peninsula to see picturesque beaches and colorful Creole villages. Freetown and the surrounding area easily can be seen on a three-night visit.

About 20 mi/30 km south of Freetown, the beautiful and rarely visited Banana Islands contain a wide variety of native and migratory birds. You'll need to hire a private boat to get out there (plan to spend the entire day on the islands), and you should only plan to do this if you really love birds; otherwise, the special effort required to get there probably won't seem worth it.

In a scenic forested area about 45 mi/70km northeast of Freetown, Port Loko is at a higher elevation than the capital (giving it a more pleasant climate). It's not on a lake or ocean, but the cooler clime makes for a nice change of pace for a day or two. Bird-watchers will want to stop by the wetlands west of town.

Farther afield from the capital, there are some sites of interest to nature-lovers. Outamba-Kilimi National Park, about 95 mi/155km northeast of Freetown, is a large, hard-to-reach park in the northern part of the country that contains rain forest and savanna. Animals to watch for include elephants, pygmy hippos, chimpanzees and colobus monkeys. Kamakwie is the nearest town.

Tiwai Island Nature Preserve, in the Moa River about 170 mi/275 km southeast of Freetown, has lush vegetation, many species of monkeys, pangolin (an endangered anteater) and other native west African animals. The area is not easy to reach, but worth the trouble.

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