FREETOWN — Bone-white sand squeaks beneath your feet, the curved beach framed by lush forested hills, empty but for a handful of expats and intrepid tourists who have got wind of Sierra Leone's raw beauty. Weary of being a poster child for African conflict, Sierra Leone is working to lure back tourists, but for now enjoying some of Africa's most beautiful scenery -- like the palm-fringed Tokeh Beach -- is not for the faint-hearted.
Arriving at the run down Lungi international airport, situated across a wide estuary and four hours by road from Freetown, visitors have to decide how to cross the water to reach the capital. The British Foreign Office warns gloomily on its website that none of the options are "without risk."
Most flights arrive in the dark, and making the crossing in an aged ferry moving at a snail's pace or a faster water taxi in often rough waters with poor visibility, can be harrowing.
Helicopter transfers from Lungi airport to Freetown stopped in 2011, four years after 22 people, including the Togolese sports minister, died as a chopper crashed and burst into flames.
"It is a major challenge but also an opportunity for investment to be brought into that area: faster, better boats or a road system that will make you enjoy the scenery," said Cecil Williams, head of Sierra Leone's Tourism Board.
"We see tourism in the next five years as the industry that will bring maximum benefit for socio-economic development of this country."
Aside from the beaches, Sierra Leone boasts national parks rich in birdlife as well as elephants
Sierra Leone is shaped like a cut diamond and was ironically infamous as a provider of "blood diamonds" during its 11-year civil war, which ended about a decade ago and was one of the most brutal conflicts in recent history.
As it lures investors and woos travel writers -- in 2009 the Lonely Planet guidebook ranked Sierra Leone one of the world's top 10 places to visit -- it has rebranded itself "a diamond in the rough".
"Our war was a very gruesome one. Every time the word Sierra Leone reflects back on what happened, we have to fight that image of a war-torn zone," said Williams. Arriving in Freetown, the sea breeze affords a welcome respite from the thick tropical heat. Verdant hills ring the seaside capital, which is both crumbling and yet alive with construction.
Founded in 1792 as a home for freed slaves, Freetown is steeped in history that the government wants to play up apart from the west African country's stunning 360-kilometre (220-mile) coastline. In its chaotic and dilapidated streets, one can still find examples of Creole architecture in homes built by slaves returning from Nova Scotia.
The wooden two-storey houses sport vibrant hues like red, blue, green and yellow. Then there is Bunce Island, home to a 17th century castle, departure point for tens of thousands of slaves to the Americas. Sierra Leone, which attracted up to 100,000 tourists a year before the war began in 1991, mostly French, now wants to brand itself an eco-tourism destination.
"Our new strategy is to go for middle to upmarket tourism, we don't want mass tourism, we believe it destroys the environment, destroys culture and doesn't bring in much revenue," said Williams. Aside from the beaches, Sierra Leone boasts national parks rich in birdlife as well as elephants, the rare pygmy hippo and a sizeable chimpanzee population.
Tourist arrivals rose from about 33,000 in 2008 to 52,000 in 2011. However Williams says only about 20 percent of them were real tourists and not in the country on business. Despite poor roads and erratic water and electricity supplies, construction has begun on a $40 million (31 million euro) Hilton hotel, Radisson Blu is moving in and many more hotel chains are interested.
At Bureh Beach, a potential surfers' haven about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Freetown, music blares as locals kick a football around, no tourists in sight. Those who do visit can string up a hammock between palm trees, camp and enjoy freshly caught seafood barbecued on the beach.
Samuel Small, 34, muscular and smiling, describes himself as a tourist guide. "There are not too much tourists after the war. Just the NGOs," he said. "Every day I want to see white people, but now it is difficult."
Nearby, the dazzlingly white Tokeh Beach is still equipped with two helipads which used to bring in international jetsetters.
The ruins of private homes looted during the war stand shaded by palm trees as a stark reminder of the bloody past. Ali Basma, a Lebanese businessman born in Sierra Leone to a family which owned a beach resort that was forced to close during the conflict but re-opened in 2010, says interest is slowly growing.
"We look forward to so many holidaymakers now from all over the world. (People) think that Sierra Leone is unstable worldwide but ... we are very happy here, otherwise we wouldn't have invested a lot of money," he told AFP. Among the few visitors to Tokeh are Germans Henner Hilderbrand and his wife who have lived in Africa for years and first visited Sierra Leone in 1976.
"It is an extraordinary place. The truth is it is not easy to travel but once you discover this beach for example you will always want to come back," Hilderbrand said.
While some frolic in the warm water, a group of foreigners sit around eating lobster.
"Don't tell people about this place. We want it to remain a secret," one of them says, laughing.