The island city of Mombasa, surrounded by creeks and East Africa’s biggest port. It’s fun to visit 16th-century Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese, and shop in the alleys of the old city.
After Mombasa, the coast road crosses the blue waters of Kilifi Creek and the next significant resort area is the much quieter resort of Watamu, a low-key peninsula stretched along a beautifully sculpted coastline of old coral islands and headlands with the deep mangrove creek of Mida Creek behind it. Watamu has a small, traditional village, and there’s an excellent beach here and good diving and snorkelling, plus some wonderful excursions for wildlife and culture enthusiasts in the shape of the Arabuko-Sokoke National Park and the ruins of Gedi.
The animated town of Malindi, which has some of the nicest hotels on the coast, is a 30-minute drive north of Watamu, partly through the eastern part of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest. Malindi is growing quite fast, but it has retained one of the most appealing town centres in Kenya, where a good-humoured mix of tourists, locals hustling tourists and locals going about their business generally get on very well. The town is located just south of the mouth of the Sabaki River (which rises in the highlands as the Athi and flows through Tsavo East as the Galana) and is set back from the extensive sands of the town beach. Most Malindi beach hotels are located round the rocky headland of Vasco da Gama Point, a short way to the south, where the beach is prettier and the sea clearer.
The fabled Lamu archipelago includes the main island of Lamu, and Manda, where the district’s small airport is located, facing Lamu across a wide creek. To the north of Manda, Pate is a larger island, with several small towns, and interesting Swahili ruins, but no visitor facilities. Much further north lies the remote slice of Kiwaiyu island. Between the islands, swamps of mangrove forest and shallow seas make navigation tricky. Just off the mainland, and somewhat disconnected from the rest of Kenya (there’s still no tarmac road to this northern part of the coast), the islands are a blissfully tranquil retreat from the exertions of safari life. Although small, Lamu town, with its origins in the fourteenth century is, alongside Zanzibar, a major stronghold of Swahili culture. The town still preserves its ancient layout, characteristically tall and narrow Swahili architecture and winding alleys. Apart from the motorcycle, there are virtually no vehicles on the islands – people get around on foot, by donkey or by lateen-rigged dhow. Culturally, Lamu displays a distinctive blend of African and Arab influences, its traditions are strong and the daily cycles of prayer calls and tides still dominate life.
Tiwi Beach, 20km south of Mombasa, remains reminiscent of Kenya’s coast 40 years ago. It’s popular with people who specifically don’t want lots of facilities and activities around. There are some excellent snorkeling and diving spots.
Diani Beach, Galu Beach and Kinondo Beach
Diani Beach is perhaps the best beach in Kenya – wide, silvery, palm shaded and reef fringed, with some sandbars in the lagoon that are exposed at low tide for excursions from the hotels in dugouts or glass-bottomed boats. There’s a good balance of places to stay, places to eat, sea- and land-based activities, and various spots to drink and party a little. A busy, 12km tarmac beach road runs along the coast behind the beachfront properties, eventually reverting to gravel just north of Pinewood Beach Resort, where Diani Beach actually becomes Galu Beach, and finally turning into a narrow track through the bush when it reaches Kinondo Beach. There’s a real mix of resort-style hotels, mid-sized hotels and guesthouses, and we’ve selected a variety of the best and best-value options.
Although quite isolated and remote, the fishing village of Msambweni has a fascinating history. While some of the caves in the low cliffs behind the beach were once used to hold slaves. The whole area is thick with coconut palms and very traditional, while the largely deserted beach itself, a short, steep climb down the cliffs via steps or paths, is punctuated by crags of old coral rock poking through the pristine sands.