By Sean Sheehan
Kenya can be just too much – crowded national parks, safari schedules, bumpy jeep rides, bucket loads of other people’s camera gear in your face – but not if you head to the country’s east coast. The hub is Mombasa, an ancient Swahili port which has been ignored by international tourism and well worth a day visiting while heading to the north or the south for beaches galore. And if a spot of wildlife on a modest scale does appeal there is a terrific place called Tsavo East which is reachable by car in a matter of hours.
The coast north of Mombasa was off the visitor’s radar for a while because the UK Foreign Office issued a travel warning to the region. This was lifted last summer and the bonus is that visitor numbers remain low and hotels and restaurants have more time for you. The main resort in the north is Malindi and there is no shortage of hotels but the place has package holiday vibes and there are more interesting locations to discover. The small town of Kilifi has a lot going for it and there are lovely beach houses here but even better is Watamu. The 7-km-long beach at Watamu has coral outcrops, easy for snorkelling, shallow water at low tide and the local fishing village has an authentic Italian ice cream parlour. Why there is an Italian influence in the area is a mystery but local children regularly greet you with calls of ‘ciao!’
Lonno Lodge [www.lonnolodge.com] is tucked away at one end of Watamu and it is exactly what the term boutique hotel was coined for. Managed by owners who built the place and live here, Lonno Lodge has a homely feel, a small number of rooms and creature comforts like a pool, a spa and above-average food in the guests-only restaurant. The welcome drink is decorated with flowers from the frangipani and bourgainvillea plants that lend colour to the gardens that surround the rooms. The free bicycles make it easy to toddle off to the village, local hair-braiding salons and an Indiana Jones-style lost city called Gede. This city was a commercial capital until, inexplicably, it became deserted sometime in the 16th century. The friendly hosts at Lonno Lodge know everything about their neighbourhood and happily share their knowledge without getting in your face.
To the south of Mombasa a road runs all the way to the border with Tanzania and along the way there is a very lively resort built around the beach at Diani. This is well and good if you want bland hotels, Africa-lite bars and restaurants and touts interrupting your quality time on the beach. Only a dozen miles further south and you can hideaway on the virtually deserted beach of Mwabungu. There are only two places to stay here and I chose Saruni Ocean [www.saruniocean.com] because it has only ten rooms which are spread far apart from each other, guaranteeing privacy, and all-inclusive packages which remove the need to plan daily meals. The time can be spent lounging by the generously sized infinity pool, strolling and playing on the beach and enjoying daily sessions at the spa and yoga centre.
Indulged in for too long, lounging and lazing begins to lose their shine and a bit of what Kenya is most famous for – incredible wildlife parks – is called for. One of Africa’s best known parks is Masai Mara, far away on the other side of Kenya, where literally millions of wildebeest and zebra are on the move between late June and October. Some 150km from the east coast, though, Tsavo East is the country’s largest park but never feels like it: no vast herds, no convoys of four-wheel drive vehicles, but a peppering of well-managed places to stay where you choose your own level of wildlife watching.
At Galdessa [www.galdessa.com], a tented camp superbly situated next to the Galana river, there are game drives but only one vehicle at a time and the option of game walks. The birdlife is amazing, even around the camp, and being an unfenced property inside the park Masai staff escort you to and from your tent. Sundowners on a rock by a raging river, with Kilimanjaro in the distance, round off a day that could start with a bush breakfast after a walk along a riverbed. With only 11 tents, each with its en-suite bathroom and veranda, Galdessa does not attract large groups and the atmosphere is sedate.
A day should be kept for seeing Mombasa and if time is short grab a tour with AfricanMecca Safaris [www.africanmeccasafaris.com]. They take in the major site of Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese before Omanis and then the British took it over, as well as the town market and a highly photogenic Hindu temple. Best of all is the tour’s morning visit to the Akamba wood carvers’ cooperative [www.akambahandicraftcoop.com/] where you could fill a suitcase from the shop’s shelves of crafted products. Everything for sale is made on the site and you see all stages of the work, from splitting a log, shaping it, finessing the details and washing clean the final result. The accommodation scene in Mombasa is not one to write home about but Voyager Beach Resort [www.heritage-eastafrica.com/beach-holiday/voyager-beach-resort-mombasa] is only 10km outside the city and it makes for a hedonistic holiday spot given its all-inclusive rates that cover meals and drinks. It is a large and popular beach resort hotel with three restaurants and three bars. Steps lead down to the beach from the hotel and some of the rooms have splendid sea views.
Reaching Mombasa is a breeze with Kenya Airways’ daily flights from Heathrow to Nairobi on a Dreamliner and then a local flight to Mombasa. Prices from £645 including taxes for an economy return ticket to Mombasa. Lonely Planet’s Kenya guide covers the east coast and Tsavo East.