Outside, it is nondescript. Inside, a hedge of well-manicured shrubs and potted plants of various species surround the parking lot and lead up to the reception door. The foyer is like a picture straight from a luxurious resort in the Spanish Riviera: small but exotic. Beautiful carvings and sculptures in wood, ivory, silver, etc stand gingerly in corners along with earthen pots, baskets made of different materials and colours, and a wide array works of arts and crafts. Paintings and artistic wine holders hang daintily on the beautifully finished walls; and to the left atop the modest reception desk are displayed petite sculptural items and figurines. There is even a mini sculpture of the famous international model, Sudanese born Alek Wek who first appeared on the catwalks at 18 in 1995.
Welcome to Casalinda, an exotic gallery lounge that is gradually becoming a rendezvous for art aficionados and people of good taste in Abuja. This writer was introduced to Casalinda by a friend, Angus-Baldwin Asogu, an Abuja based lawyer.
Located at the intersection of Colorado and Missouri Streets in the highbrow Ministers’ Hill area of Maitama, this model tourist resort is probably the first of it’s kind in Nigeria. One more evening at Casalinda and I was hooked. This writer was not alone: others like Abuja based lawyer Steve Ahaneku talented soprano, Meche, property development guru Victor Onukwugha and my architect brother, Kingsley who would rather be at his drawing table than anywhere else each had a complimentary comment to make about this memorable rendezvous.
The owner, Nigerian born Gandi Obiefule-Ekwegh, a US trained architectural engineer and public administrator says that Casalinda was established exclusively for discerning people who appreciate the beauty of art and who desire quality for their money whether they are interested in works of art, furniture, or just a place to unwind. Gandi is assisted by his delectable Venezuelan wife, Katiuska Rios, who has brought in a Latin flavour to the African milieu making Casalinda a melting pot of African, European and Latin cultures. There is something for everyone in this family-friendly retreat.
Casalinda offers a serene environment where culture and excellence meet in an African ambience. The outdoor lounge is modelled to look like a museum. Wood carvings and sculptures are used to simulate a village square scene that places African culture on the promontory. Most of the seats here consist of elaborately made carvings masterfully finished in natural wood devoid of embellishments but designed to seat each guest in substantial comfort. The tables are ornately carved and decorated with various motifs. Each piece of furniture is an elaborate work of art. And each one is for sale!
The roof is made of suspended wooden items empanelled with glass to ensure maximum ventilation and illumination. Grooved wooden panels, medium sized masks, giant decorative sculptures including bee-hives and a plethora of paintings add to the antique effect that has made Casalinda a favourite hang-out for the diplomatic community, expatriates, and eminent Nigerians in government, business and the professions.
At Casalinda, soft music of various genres wafts gently and blends with the cosy environment. For visitors wishing to keep up with the news, football or fashion, large flat screen TVs are placed in strategic locations. There is also a tidy pile of latest magazines on car racing, arts, football, tourism, fashion, etc in the foyer. Casalinda exudes class and style. Aside from the sheer panache, there is a visible display of an acute sense of space management. As a place of interest, Casalinda stands out as a model tourism sanctuary.
The unique selling point of Casalinda is that a customer can actually buy and take away anything from the furniture to any of the works of art on display or, at least, have a replica made for them. Some works of art can also be made to specification on order. There are two well-stocked bars with a wide selection of wines, juices and regular brews; a kitchen that offers delicious African cuisines and continental dishes prepared with the highest concern for hygiene; and for the visitor that chooses to linger, to soak in the opulent serenity, or to savour the thrilling experience, Casalinda offers luxurious lodging in gorgeous rooms that seem designed to seduce. Gandi calls it “sleeping with the art”. Casalinda is probably the first of it’s kind in this part of the world. For many visitors, it is their first experience of a gallery lounge.
Casalinda hosts arts exhibitions at which established and aspiring artists are given opportunities to showcase their talents. A cultural week holds quarterly at which cultural groups from various ethnic and racial groups strut their stuff to the delight of eminent guests. Invitations to troupes from some South American countries are planned to promote bilateral relations in culture and tourism. A Casalinda Jazz and Dinner Night comes up on Friday, March 26.
The Casalinda meeting room is a visual delight. With light brown, chocolate, cream, black and a whiff of red, the floor, walls and furniture seem to come alive in a sensual way. The lamp-holders, mirror, mantelpiece, and curtain rails are made like antiques. Paintings and finely made sculptural items adorn the walls with other finery. The rest room is a delight to behold. Massive air-conditioners keep the entire comfy interior chilled all the time.
What is the vision behind Casalinda? Gandi puts it lyrically: “Casalinda provides the ingredients for a good life”. These, for him, consist of arts, good food, and a soothing environment. “We set out to provide a place where people of class can relax, appreciate the arts, appreciate the environment, and choose whether they want to buy works of art or to just have a good outing in a safe and secure location”. Gandi and Katiuska look to the future with a lot of expectations. The couple share a passion for promoting African art and, in particular, Nigerian art, culture and tourism. There are plans for expansion and for collaborating with government and its agencies to promote art, culture and tourism. There is also an ambitious plan to set up a world class international tourist centre.
Any hope of replicating the exquisite tourism model that is Casalinda? Gandi is thinking of granting Casalinda franchises in the days ahead provided each franchisee is capable and willing to maintain the high standard of excellence in décor and service that are the hallmarks of the Casalinda vision. This will result in the establishment of Casalinda in every state of the federation. The couple are determined to take local Nigerian art in each area and raise it to appreciable international standards. Tall dreams, no doubt.
With increasing emphasis on diversification of the economy and, in particular, of maximising the tourism potentials of this richly endowed country, Casalinda may just be that great idea whose time has come.