Kenya's Coast

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Drifting South on the wings of Monsoon winds


If you’re thinking of exploring Kenya’s famous Indian Ocean coastline aboard an ocean-going dhow, you won’t be the first to do so. The earliest report of such a trip was written in the 1st century and describes how the triangular lateen sails of these hardy ships harnessed the soft breath of the monsoon winds to waft them south from Arabia and into the ‘Lands of Zinj’.

Two thousand years later, they do so still.

Meanwhile, in the simple seafront shipyards, where the sails are still stitched by hand and the hulls embellished with the ageless talisman of the ‘evil eye’, the ancient art of shipbuilding continues unchanged since biblical times. Noah’s ark, it seems, was a dhow; King Solomon’s apes and peacocks were shipped by dhow: so were the frankincense and myrrh offered by the three kings to the infant Jesus. Even the leopards, eunuchs, lions and ‘singing boys’ beloved by the Romans – all were carried by dhow.

As a historical odyssey, this 250-kilometre coastal journey is unrivalled. It begins in the lyrically beautiful Lamu Archipelago where you can visit Manda, one of Africa’s earliest trading centres. Built in the 9th century, Manda was famed for its import of Islamic pottery and Chinese porcelain. Drifting on to the ancient harbour of Lamu, you can disembark to wander the winding lanes of the Old Town. Donkeys are the only form of transport here and the air rings to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to their prayers. As evening falls, you can take a camel safari up into the vast sweep of sand dunes behind the town and watch the sun go down over the blind-eyed cannons still staring out to sea.

Journeying south, either by dhow or by more modern means, in bustling Malindi you can walk to the stark white tower built to celebrate the arrival in 1498 of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da-Gama. Just outside the idyllic coastal hideaway of Watamu, you can explore the ruins of the 13th century town of Gede. A place of mystery, it is reputedly haunted by the ghosts of those who were forced to flee the shelter of its walls in the face of attack from cannibalistic hordes.

Watamu: Kenya’s coastal paradise


Escapist, enchanting, and with an indefinable air of having time-warped itself back to gentler days, Watamu beguiles. Standing atop a miniature peninsular, sheltered by the nurturing curve of Mida Creek, it abounds in rocky coves backed only by baobab trees; and shimmering lagoons fronted by three great sweeps of silver sand. Protected by Kenya’s barrier reef, the water is sapphire-clear and bathwater-warm all year round. Backed by the cool green vaults of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and the dreaming ruins of Gedi, Kenya’s most enigmatic 13th century Swahili city, Watamu has it all. There’s action if you want it and the Robinson-Crusoe-life if you don’t.

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Mombasa: Sun, sea and history


Indian Ocean Blues

Mombasa is everything that Nairobi is not. At nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Nairobi’s air is champagne clear and every breath seems to fill you with energy. In Mombasa you’re enveloped in a warm, humid, sometimes spice-scented blanket; and the temptation to lie down and luxuriate in it is overwhelming. In Nairobi everyone seems to be rushing to get somewhere or do something. In Mombasa nobody rushes. And everyone seems languidly content to remain exactly where they are. In Nairobi, the call of the wilderness is strong: there’s an underlying urge to get out and get on with the safari. In Mombasa, the Indian Ocean rules supreme. Its impossibly clear, warm, blue waters; silver sands and waving palms encircle the island. And the only call is that of the beach; or the blessed shade of the coconut palm.

Mombasa beaches… and beyond

Protected by its own barrier reef, the Kenyan coastline rolls serenely north of Mombasa via the endless beaches of Bamburi, into the quaintly pretty Kilifi Creek, and on up to the lazy languor of Watamu, Malindi and Lamu. To the south, it swings through the magnificent crescent of Diani Beach and on down to the Tanzanian border. For much of its journey, the Kenyan coastline is backed only by waving coconut palms. Occasionally it is punctuated by the bustle and brilliance of hotels, beach bars, camels and skittering kite surfers; sometimes by the coral-grey ruins of an ancient Swahili settlement; sometimes by a buttress of bulbous baobab trees; sometimes by a deserted mosque. Behind the southern beaches, though, rise the elephant patrolled woodlands of the Shimba Hills: behind the northern beaches the red-dust reaches of Tsavo East National Park. But above all, the Indian Ocean coastline is a journey: from past to present and from holiday paradise to pristine wilderness.

Mombasa eats

Swahili cuisine prevails on the coast, a glorious mix of spices, coconut, tamarind, fresh chopped herbs and chilli. Easily Mombasa’s most famous restaurant is The Tamarind, which excels in fish and runs The Tamarind Dhow, a Swahili sailing ship that tours the harbour for lunch and dinner (all meals and cocktails on board). Best ‘on-the-street food’ includes freshly cooked samosas and cassava crisps fried in old oil drums outside Fort Jesus, best eaten hot with fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of chilli powder.

A century ago…

This is what Mombasa harbour would have looked like when Dr and Mrs Boedeker arrived in 1896. She was a member of the British aristocracy, he was a Parsee from India, and they had left England to escape the condemnation of what was then considered a ‘scandalous marriage’. She was beautiful, he was a brilliant doctor and they had fallen deeply in love. Now they planned to make a life ‘somewhere in Africa.’ Her luggage contained velvet gowns, ostrich-feather trimmed hats and exquisite lace; he carried a plough. It took them six weeks, but they walked from Mombasa to Nairobi. When they arrived, having traversed nearly 500 kms of wilderness alive with lions, elephants and every other form of wildlife, their clothes were ripped to pieces and they were coated head to foot in heavy red dust. The Boedekers did, however, make a life for themselves in Kenya where she raised the family, always impeccably dressed, and he practiced as a doctor, sometimes using a railway carriage as an operating theatre.

Mombasa must see

Heading the hit list is the magnificent 16th century Fort Jesus, a red-streaked Portuguese bastion that broods, blind-eyed over the harbour and boasts a hauntingly tragic and bloody history. Next up is a walk around the Old Town, which echoes that of Lamu and Zanzibar. Dating from the 13th century it’s a place of winding streets, magnificent carved doors, delicate filigree balconies and dimly lit emporiums. There are also six magnificent mosques to be admired before taking a wander around the Old Dhow Harbour, where numerous traditional dhows bob on their anchors and sleek white cats prowl (the old fish market stands next door and is still functioning).

Magical Malindi


Malindi doesn’t just have a blissful climate, beautiful beaches and a brilliantly bustling vibe; it’s also got style, chic and a hot, hot, HOT nightlife. No wonder, it’s had over six centuries to perfect its exclusive take on sun, sand and scintillation.

Mentioned in one of the world’s first ever travel guides, written by traveller and historian Abu al Fida (1273-1331), Malindi has been attracting the world’s glitterati since the 13th century, when it had already established itself as the ‘go to’ resort of the East African coast. In 1414, the Chinese explorer, Zheng He, anchored his fleet off the town and such was his rapport with the locals that they gave him a giraffe as a gift. Next came Vasco da Gama in 1498. It was the first place he visited in Africa – and he liked it so much that not only did he rush back there on his return from India, but he was also very keen to sign an exclusive trading agreement with its ruling sheikh.

By 1498, Malindi was booming. It had a wealthy ruling Arabic class, a heady mix of Indian, Chinese and African merchants and markets full of hedonistic treasures. By 1499 the Portuguese had joined Malindi’s fan club, establishing a trading hub there, and by 1861 the Sultan of Zanzibar had made Malindi his slave-trading capital. By 1890, the British had taken over and abolished slavery. But everyone still wanted a piece of the magical Malindi action.
In the 1930s Malindi was in the news again, this time as the preferred haunt of writer and celebrity Ernest Hemingway, who famously drank gin at the Blue Marlin hotel and fished for marlin in the blue waters of the bay.

In the 1950s Malindi boasted a number of fashionable hotels, many of them built by Europeans returning from the war, and was the preferred holiday resort of the British colonials. And then, in 1964, a small group of Italian scientists arrived in Malindi to establish the San Marco Space Research Centre. And so enchanted were they by the intoxicating mix of sun, sea and Swahili style that most of them never left. Soon word of this enchanting Swahili town had drifted back to Italy and, throughout the 1970s, the Italians flocked to the place (swiftly followed by the rest of the fashionistas of Europe). The Italians, however, liked Malindi so much that they christened it ‘Little Italy in Africa’ and today 30,000 Italian tourists visit the town per annum, 1,500 Italians live there permanently, there are over 50 Italian owned hotels and resorts in the place, and it is regularly visited by Italian billionaires, beauties, celebrities and politicians alike.

It even has its own Italian Consulate.
So no wonder then, that the pizzas in Malindi are the finest you can get outside of Italy, that the streets are studded with superb Italian restaurants, that the prosecco starts popping late morning, that the gelati are as good as you’ll get outside Rome; and that the style on the street is Malindi meets Milan.

Swahili Coast


When it comes to beach-life Kenya is hard to beat, offering 700 kms of Indian Ocean coastline renowned for its white sandy beaches, clear waters, remote islands, and mysterious Swahili ruins. Protected for its entire length by a coral barrier reef lying just a kilometre off the beach, Kenya’s beaches promise calm lagoons that are ideal for swimming and watersports, nine national marine parks promising sightings of whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and thousands of other tropical species; and some of the finest dive sites in the world.

Add to this the fact that the coastal climate is as near perfect as it gets with an average daily temperature of 28 degrees centigrade, and a daily average of eight hours of sunshine, and you’ll rapidly conclude that Kenya’s coastline is one of the most alluring in the world.

And then there’s the culture

An exotic fusion of Arab, African and Portuguese influences, the Swahili culture is found nowhere else on earth. Typified by its serene pace of life, its sublime cuisine, its profound heritage and its welcoming people, the sheer delight of the Swahili life- style prompts thousands of tourists to return year after year to immerse themselves in its lilting languor; and to step out of their everyday worlds and into the enchanted Swahili world of winding alleys, peeping faces, bustling markets, white-walled mosques and black-veiled women.

Roughly divided into ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the island city of Mombasa, Kenya’s beaches offer a surprising diversity. South of Mombasa are; Shelly, Diani and Msambweni beaches. North are Nyali, Kenyatta, Bamburi, Shanzu, Kilifi, Watamu, Malindi and, ultimately, the beaches of the island resort of Lamu. Which to choose? Diani Beach is regularly voted one of the ‘finest beaches in the world’ by the global tourism press, but coastal charm is not entirely dictated by beaches. And each stretch of coast has its own subtle allure. Malindi, for instance, is famous for its aura of Italian chic, its stylish shops and restaurants and its vibrant nightlife. Watamu is adored for its sleepy rusticity, its magical mangrove creeks and its big game fishing. Mombasa is the place to go if you want bustle and bazaars, and arriving in Lamu is a little like entering the enchanted world of the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Finally, if all you want is beach, sky and sea, with perhaps the occasional harpoon fisherman emerging from the waves every now and then – head for Msambweni.

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