a place in saint louis, senegal tailor made for flyingnorth


During my travels in Senegal, as usual I was on the lookout for places that would inspire me to write a blog post. Those of you who know me know that travel is my drug, and that the walls of my apartment are adorned with antique maps and the walls of my office in midtown manhattan with vintage travel posters in which airplanes figure prominently. I even have a cast iron airplane on my desk to look at while I review vacation requests for those who report to me.

I spent a few days in St. Louis, Senegal, a town of 80,000 on the banks of the Senegal River and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This town was the site of the first French settlement in West Africa, founded in 1659 and named after the French King Louis XIV. The town itself is separated by the low spanning Pont Faidherbe, which connects the historic Île Saint-Louis to the mainland. Close to this bridge is a hotel and cafe that may as well be called the “Flying North Hotel” – the Hotel de la Poste, just across the street from the island’s main post office.

One of the most famous historic hotels in Senegal, it opened in the mid-nineteenth century during the time when, based on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the French were beginning their push farther into the interior of Africa. By 1895 the French had complete control of the region and established Afrique occidentale française, [AOF], or French West Africa. This colonial federation was made up of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan [Mali], French Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta [Burkina Faso], Dahomey [Benin] and Niger.

The hotel offers an architectural taste of the nineteenth century while at the same time injects excitement for anyone the least bit interested in antique planes or early aviation. Famed French pilot Jean Mermoz, an aviation hero in both France and Argentina, stayed here in the early twentieth century before meeting his untimely death at the young age of 35. The French colonial airmail service played a major role in the development of Saint-Louis, a central stop on the international postal routes of the time, and accordingly on the island there can even be found a museum about the airmail service and about the pilot Jean Mermoz.

Decorated with an Aeropostale theme, everything, including the room key, is an airplane. Vintage travel and airmail posters adorn every wall. The shop sells replica posters and wooden model airplanes. The light fixtures are airplanes. Even the ceiling of the breakfast room is painted with a scene of a plane carrying the mail from Africa to South America. The terrace cafe looks out onto a busy square and the famous bridge, and for those addicts concerned with #firstworldproblems, the wifi works.

The sad and brutal French colonial history and the marvels of a fledgling aviation industry are wedded in this one structure, which makes for a very interesting ambience. It seems a fitting place from which to contemplate the successes and failures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.