Mombasa Kenya Coastal Beach Holiday
Mombasa Kenya Coastal Beach Holiday feels like a different world from the savannahs of safari country. Low-lying and sandy, indented by mangrove-lined creeks, and shaded by coconut palms, the coast blends the bright light and colours of the tropics with the sparkling azure-blue of the Indian Ocean, where you squint through the afternoon sunlight to watch traditional lateen-rigged dhows sailing out beyond the coral reef.
Most travellers use their beach stay simply to chill after several days on safari. But you can also do a further safari from the Kenya coast, or even use the coast as a base for your whole holiday, taking safari trips inland.
Where to stay on the Kenya coast
The island city of Mombasa, surrounded by creeks and East Africa’s biggest port, is shabby and dilapidated, but not lacking in atmosphere. It’s fun to visit 16th-century Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese, and shop in the alleys of the old city – though don’t expect a Middle-Eastern-style warren of souks. The suburban district north of Mombasa has most of the Mombasa hotels used by charter package tours and overall feels a bit over-developed and hustly, though Nyali has some quieter corners.
After Mombasa’s suburban sprawl has finally fizzled out, 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 sliver 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 odd 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.
With no tarmac beach road and only one resort-style hotel, most of 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 and there are relatively few places to stay – most of them simple beach bungalows. One of the benefits is far fewer ‘beach boys’ (the generally innocuous, if often irritating hustlers who try to make a living from tourists), and there are some excellent snorkelling 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.
Although quite isolated and remote, the fishing village of Msambweni has a fascinating history: it’s the site of an old leprosy hospital that’s still renowned for its medical care in this rural area (though leprosy has been eradicated), 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.
Getting to the mangrove-fringed island of Funzi from the mainland – by speedboat through the creeks – is an adventure, and staying in the bewitching environment of sand and tropical vegetation at Funzi Island Lodge is a real escapist dream. You can fish, sail, take a canoe out for a private paddle through the mangroves or go on a boat trip up the Ramisi River, looking for crocodiles and water birds.
Safaris from the Kenya coast
If your holiday is based on the coast, or you’ve finished your safari but like the idea of another day or two of wildlife adventure not too far from your coast hotel, there are several safari options that we can organise.
Shimba Hills National Park
The hilly savannahs and rainforest of Shimba Hills National Park, just 30km inland from Diani Beach, protect Kenya’s only population of sable antelope. As well as this magnificent antelope (one of Africa’s largest, with its impressive, sweeping horns), you’ll commonly see elephants, buffaloes, fish eagles and monkeys, either on game drives or from the decks and walkways of one of the area’s rainforest lodges. Walks to Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and Sheldrick Falls are both highly recommended. A night or two at Shimba Lodge or Kutazama can make a fitting finale to a safari and beach holiday.
Tsavo East National Park
Kenya’s largest national park, Tsavo East National Park, is also the closest protected savannah environment to the coast, with large populations of plains wildlife, including impressive herds of dusty, red-coloured elephants, lions and cheetahs, buffalo, hippos, and plenty of grazers from impala to zebra. Nature Bound Africa offers very good-value safaris by road to our two recommended camps in the park, Galdessa and Satao Camp. You can go for as little as one night, though we wouldn’t recommend less than two and ideally three or four.
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