Ghana provides a perfect introduction to African travel. True, this small and amiable West African nation lacks the big name draws associated with the continent's top safari destinations. But for anybody seeking a holistic experience that embraces traditional and contemporary cultures as well as beaches and safaris, Ghana's microcosmic travel circuit is the perfect African primer.

The Ghanaian coast is archetypal West Africa. But these picture-postcard beaches, which come complete with a backdrop of tangled jungle and coconut palms, are given a unique dimension by a string of imposing colonial forts, whose dank dungeons pay chilling testament to the millions of Africans once shipped across the Atlantic to serve as slaves in the Americas.

Ghana gets more varied and less predictable as you travel deeper inland. In Kumasi, the Adae Festival, held every sixth Sunday at Manhyia Palace, pays dazzling homage to King Osei Tutu II, ruler of the ancient Ashanti Kingdom. This bustling city also hosts Kejetia Market, with its labyrinth of 10,000 stalls, while nearby villages such as Adanwomase are famed for their communities of traditional Kente cloth weavers.

Further north, on the arid verge of the Sahel, are numerous ancient mosques and homesteads built in the curvaceous Sahelian style. It is also in the north that you can visit Ghana's top two wildlife viewing destinations: the vast Mole National Park, where guided walks frequently involve eyeball-popping encounters with elephants, and the community sanctuary of Boabeng-Fiema, with its sacred mona and colobus monkeys.

Where Ghana really stands out -- and the reason it has become so popular with backpackers and volunteers -- is its suitability to unpackaged travel. You could spend months, even months, exploring this safe and affordable Anglophone country, traveling as whim dictates, and still find yourself confronted with something different and special on a daily basis.

Philip Briggs is the co-author of Frommer's Kenya & Tanzania and the author of more than a dozen guidebooks about Africa including the Bradt Guide to Ghana. He can be found online on Twitter and his own website.