Life’s a beach! Kenyan travel and food blogger Wendy Watta rounds up the perfect to-do list, whichever part of the Kenyan coast you’re headed down to
Salt in the air, pristine sand beneath your toes, palm trees billowing in the wind, beach shorts and swimsuits, the promise of a snorkelling adventure tomorrow morning, and gently sipping ice-cold cocktails while taking in the slower paced ‘pole pole’ way of life – what’s not to love about a getaway to the idyllic Kenyan coast? Try our recommendations for the ultimate trip…
1 Take a dhow trip
Nothing beats a dhow excursion and these are available at creeks in Watamu, Kilifi, Mtwapa and more. Pilli Pipa in Diani will, for instance, offer you a personalised snorkelling and diving (with PADI and NAUI recognised instructors) day safari to Kisite Marine Park where you will get to watch dolphins and reef fish in the clear blue waters. Afterwards, you can tuck into the most delicious Swahili vegetarian or seafood lunch accompanied by wine, beer or soft drinks.
Tamarind Dhow in Mombasa also offers a tranquil lunch and dinner cruise with meals prepared by their expert chefs being served on board, sometimes with music to lull you along as you glide over the Indian Ocean through the creeks. If you spot the sun as it sets in rich golden hues in the distance, or the moon and stars up in their galaxy, you will believe that magic really does exist in this country.
2 Go sky diving in Diani
This is one of the most popular bucket list items the world over, and yet some just never ‘get round to it’. There’s no better way to conquer your fears while simultaneously getting an unmarred view of one of the best beaches in the world than on an aerial adventure from over 3650m (12,000 feet) above the ground, free falling at 190kph before touching down on the sands at Diani Beach; that’s what every adrenaline junkie’s fantasies are made of.
Skydive Diani is set up at the Ukunda airfield, and anyone can experience tandem jumps whereby you are connected to an instructor by a harness, and he then guides you through the entire process right from jumping off the plane to landing. This is probably the biggest exercise in trust that you’re ever going to experience, but one of their Australian instructors has been skydiving for 32 years with over 4000 jumps under his belt, so rest assured you will be in experienced hands. If you want to jump alone as a newbie, you will have to go through an extensive eight-hour Accelerated Freefall course where you learn how the equipment works, including how to open a parachute, exit the aircraft, stay in control during free fall as well as safety procedures.
For an extra fee, the instructors even take pictures and videos of your experience so you have memories to share and look back on.
3 Deep Sea Fishing
One of the fortunate things about Kenya is that enthusiasts can go deep sea fishing all year round. Catch the desirable striped marlin, which migrates through the natural corridor at Pemba Island from November to March (the yellowfin tuna comes in season from July to October). When agitated its body is known to spark up with 14 opalescent lines, a sight that you don’t have to be a sport fishing lover to appreciate. You can also catch up to six species of billfish in this channel, as well as broadbill, sailfish, giant trevally, wahoo, bonito, blue marlin, barracuda and more along the coastal strip.
There are many sport fishing competitions to take part in, such as the Watamu Fishing Festival.
4 Volunteer to work with whale sharks
Simply put, the East African Whale Shark Trust in Diani seeks to increase the level of protection of the whale shark by increasing awareness to avoid overfishing (fishermen often target it for shark liver oil that protects their vessels from shipworms). To achieve that, the trust has a research centre that collects and analyses data pertaining to the whale shark’s population size, habitat and migratory patterns, in turn working closely with local fishermen.
Due to the distinct markings on its body, the whale shark is known as Papa Shillingi in Swahili. The local fishermen tell tales of God being so pleased with this creation that he threw down a handful of silver coins on its body, and the whale shark in turn shows gratitude by swimming close to the surface to have the sun rays reflect off its back. Volunteers are invited to help in the conservation efforts where they will be trained, get to study the physiology, characteristics and movement of this gentle giant. You need not have a marine science background but a diving licence and a love for the water definitely help.
Alternatively, you can volunteer with Colobus Conservation in Diani, which seeks to promote the preservation of the Angolan colobus monkey and its habitat in the coastal forest.
5 A brush with history at Fort Jesus
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been hailed as a prime example of 16th century Portuguese military fortifications – it was built as barracks for their soldiers. Used as a museum accessible for a small fee today, complete with local guides, it was designed by an Italian architect to resist cannon fire and is built in the shape of a man lying facing up, head pointing towards the sea. A clear target for anyone seeking to control trade in Mombasa and surrounding areas, the fort was won and reclaimed nine times by various entities such as the Omani Arabs and Portuguese during their quest for power, before finally being fully controlled by the British. Once done with your tour, cross the road to the African fusion eatery, Mikaye Restaurant, or take a leisurely stroll across the Old Town.
Other historical sites to visit include the Gede Ruins, which tell tales of a long gone traditional Swahili town in Watamu, Lamu Fort and Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi.
6 Golf by the sea
There are several facilities dotted across the coastline that serve as either grounds for golf safaris or offer championship golf facilities, complete with well stocked professional shops for you to buy or rent the necessary equipment. One such spot is Vipingo Ridge in Kilifi, a scenic, five star location with private residences, beach club and airstrip. It has an 18-hole championship golf course, built as per the standards of the US Professional Golfers Association, and comes with artificial lakes, nature trails, a sundowner bar and other sporting facilities. Several resorts have arrangements with Nyali Golf and Country Club to allow their guests to tee off there, while the Leisure Lodge Club in Diani is as challenging as they come, with its 18 holes.
7 Get a henna tattoo
This traditional Swahili art form has found its place in the contemporary environment, and it is common to find stalls dotted along the beach equipped with the necessary tools of the trade, with personable Swahili women ready to draw beautiful designs on your hands and feet at bargain prices. These women get leaves from the henna plant, dry and grind them into fine powder, which is then mixed with liquids like water, lime juice and eucalyptus oil. They then apply this natural paste using a twig, and you could even find desired intricate designs online for them to replicate.
Fear not because the tattoo is temporary and fades in one to two weeks.
Swahili street food
Delicious, fresh Swahili cuisine can be found in abundance at the coast
This is perhaps the most popular street food around the country. At the coast, you will find vendors roasting fresh and sweet maize over a wire mesh on a makeshift charcoal jiko. Once charred to perfection, you can then dip half a lemon in a chilli-salt mixture and rub this all over your maize as desired.
There are proven health benefits of coconut water, and ‘a dafu a day keeps the doctor away’ is a phrase you will hear all too often among locals. You will find carts filled with young coconuts at pretty much every corner, and the vendor will readily help you select one, slice off the top and you can then enjoy the water with a straw and finish off with the creamy flesh inside.
These thinly sliced cassava crisps are flash fried in oil then tossed with salt, chilli and lime as desired. You can also find it pre-packaged and sold alongside other items such as roasted peanuts, cashew, tamarind and baobab.
The green, barely ripe mango is cut into strips around the seed, finished off with a chilli-salt mixture. The combination of sweet, sour and spicy creates a glorious balance on the palate. Also try ripe, oval-shaped maembe dodo – emblematic of the coast.
This pastry is best enjoyed at breakfast with a cup of hot chai (tea). Made from wheat flour, coconut cream and spices like cardamom, you will often find it being sold at an informal kiosk referred to as ‘mama ntilie’, alongside other staples such as mahamri, mandazi, bhajia and samosa. Pop into the same spot for lunch to indulge in authentic pilau and biryani topped with fresh kachumbari.
You will likely find this being grilled in open air coffee places known as forodhani with people enjoying kahawa thungu (strong black coffee). It is skewered beef or goat marinated in different ingredients before being grilled over charcoal.
If there are various vendors at one spot and yet most people are huddled around one, be patient and join this crowd. There’s a reason why their food is more popular! If there’s a crowd you also need to be a little more assertive in giving your order to the vendor as there is no service.
Once at the coast there are a number of options for travelling from place to place – most are inexpensive and easy to organise
Simply download the app on your phone and it will locate the driver closest to you. It is affordable, reliable and simple to use, but currently only operates in Mombasa.
These are a dime a dozen along the coast, and prices will depend on your negotiating skills as there is currently no meter system to monitor distance, time and calculate costs. You can easily get one on referral from locals or your hotel.
These public service vehicles are the cheapest and most common means of moving around, especially for shorter distances. It does help, however, if you already know where you need to get off as you won’t always see clear signs along the road.
These rickshaws are also relatively cheap and prices will depend on your negotiation skills. You can easily just hail one from the roadside or by going to their racks at random street corners. Just know that they never have seatbelts.
Take the Likoni ferry to get from the mainland to the Mombasa island. It is free for pedestrians, but vehicles pay a small fee and the queues can sometimes be very long. This is a good time to arm yourself with some street food. You can also take small, individually owned boats to get between places. This is a relaxing way to get around, especially in Lamu.
Habari? (How are you?)
Hujambo? (Are you fine?)
Shikamoo? (Mostly to your elders)
Sijambo! (I am fine!)
Marahabaa! (They then acknowledge that you respect them.)
DID YOU KNOW?
Swahili is the most commonly used local language, but many people at the coast speak English so you should be fine. In fact, you will find other European languages like Italian being spoken in Malindi for instance.
Five must try restaurants
1 Ali Barbour’s Cave
Said to be about 180,000 years old with a depth of about 10 metres below ground, this fine dining spot is set in natural coral caves, which makes for quite the unique ambience. The main chamber has an open roof so you can gaze up between mouthfuls of butter-soft steak or a glass of merlot into the starry sky. The menu includes a variety of seafood such as Ali Drunken prawns, fresh Kilifi oysters, a seafood platter complete with fresh calamari, crabs, lobsters, succulent red snapper and oysters, all prepared to perfection. Yes, they have a vegetarian menu as well. Ali Barbour’s Road, Diani
2 Majlis Restaurant
The menu here features Italian, Japanese and Swahili cuisine and is open to both in-house guests of the Majlis resort as well as external patrons. It features a high ceiling and is traditionally built with a makuti (palm leaf) roof, which is ideal for those very hot days. Seafood is bought fresh daily from local fishermen before arriving at your table piping hot and elevated with fresh seasonal ingredients. Enjoy a candlelit, romantic dinner served al fresco under the stars. Ras Kitau Bay, Lamu
3 Papa Remo
Located on one of the best beaches in Watamu, Papa Remo’s is an idyllic spot from which to take a dip in the ocean then cool off on one of the pink and blue sunbeds. The octopus and potato salad, sailfish carpaccio and lobster and crab salad are highly recommended, all coming at reasonable prices. It is Italian owned with friendly and efficient local staff, some of whom are actually fluent in Italian. Jacaranda Road, Watamu
4 Tarboush Restaurant
Very popular with both locals and tourists alike for their chicken or beef shawarmas. Portions are very generous, and this spot is ideal for families and other large groups. Other delicious menu items include authentic chicken tikka, an array of biryani, Swahili-style pilau and other comfort food with distinct Indo-Arabic influences. Makadara Road, Mombasa
5 The Old Man & The Sea
One of the oldest restaurants in Malindi and designed in a Moorish style, the mood here is relaxed yet intimate – perfect for a romantic meal. You can see the iconic Vasco da Gama pillar from the large windows. Much more conspicuous restaurants stand tall next to this little gem, but if you find it, you will be in for a treat. The menu consists of barbecued seafood accompanied by various sauces made in house. The Malindi smoked sailfish used in many of the starters is a sure crowd pleaser. Silversand Road, Malindi.
Why not try?
Referred to as Mnazi and having been popularised by the indigenous Mijikenda farmers who dwell at the coast, this is a traditional alcoholic beverage tapped from the sap of palm trees, which thrive in this climate. After the sap is collected, it immediately begins fermentation because of the natural yeast in it, and is therefore best drunk within 24 hours. The alcohol content at this point is usually about 4 per cent.