Mombasa & the Kenyan Coast
August 1, 2019
Kenya’s 480 km coast is one of the principal attractions for visitors to the nation. Each year, hundreds of thousands of sun lovers find their way here. Many are returning pilgrims who truly know that the sun here is ever faithful. Unlike other beach destinations, the visitor is served with much more than just sun and sand but is delighted to discover ancient coastal forests and historical sites and a people with a fascinating culture and history. The casual visitor impressed by the tranquil beaches and gentle people won’t suspect the colourful and eventful history of these realms.
For the tourist, the Kenyan coast can be seen as five regions. These are: the town and island of Mombasa; the south east shore –stretching from Mombasa to the Tanzanian border 135 km away: the north coast- covering the beaches from Mombasa up to Kilifi, 60 km away: Malindi and Watamu about 130 km to the northeast of Mombasa and Lamu island and archipelago, 225 km further up from Malindi. Each of these regions has similarities concerning history, culture, natural attractions and beach experience. But as sports fans will understand, it’s the differences that matter to the dedicated fans of each region.
The gateway to the Kenyan coast is Mombasa. You get here by flying into its international airport or by taking the 520 km road journey from Nairobi, the common entry port for most visitors. If you need the freedom of your own car, consider taking a rental car either in Nairobi on in Mombasa to help you get around. Review the options you have for Kenya Car Rental and Kenya Domestic Flights as you intend to get there.
Mombasa, the principal city at Kenya’s coast is among the earliest human settlements on the eastern seaboard of the African continent.
Mombasa is now a cosmopolitan metropolis reflecting the influence of Africans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Portuguese and the British. The Old Town is a grid of narrow winding streets lined with houses built to coastal Swahili and Indian styles. A few of the houses have intricately carved doors similar to what you find in Zanzibar and Lamu. In the Old Town you will find Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison built by the hapless Portuguese. Fort Jesus, in addition to being an attraction itself, houses a museum exhibiting various artifacts reflecting the many cultures which have influenced the Kenyan coast. You’ll also see posts recovered from the unlucky Portuguese warship Santo Antonio De Tanna, which sank in the siege of 1697 that lasted 1000 days.
In Mombasa you can take an all day dhow trip and relive the adventure of the traders who sailed along the East African coast and as far as India and the Persian Gulf aboard these vessels for centuries. For the last couple of years, every November the Mombasa Carnival has been staged in the town. The Carnival is a lively street parade where you see incredibly adorned musicians and other artists from the Kenyan coast and other areas of the nation. Street comedians, Swahili Taarab singers, Maasai warriors, brass bands and individual artists in outrageous costumes brave the November heat to march in the parade.
Visitors to the south coast usually visit Shelley, Tiwi, Diani, Msambweni and Shimoni. These are the beaches to the south of Mombasa, where hotel and resort development has taken place. To reach the south coast beaches you will need to take the ferry at Likoni, the southern tip of Mombasa Island. When it doesn’t suit you, have a flight to Diani airstrip. Diani beach, 40 km from Mombasa is the most developed beach at the south coast. This is the quintessential tropical paradise and here you’ll find a wide assortment of resorts, such as an 18-hole golf hotel. Though some of the other beaches are excellent, they’ve limited range of accommodation and attract fewer people.
Shimoni, 100 km from Mombasa is a center for serious deep-sea fishing. It’s also from Shimoni which you could go to the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park. Here you’ll see the treasures of Kenya’s underwater world. In the marine park, the snorkeling experience is outstanding and on a lucky day you will swim with the dolphins. At Shimoni, there are a series of deep coastal caves stretching from the sea to deep inland. Arab slavers allegedly used these caves in the dark days of the slave trade. The slaves who perished here are recalled in Roger Whittaker’s song”Shimoni”.
In the south coast you have a lot of opportunities to indulge in some thrilling marine activity such as water skiing, wind surfing, scuba diving, goggling and deep-sea fishing. The Shimba Hills National Reserve, directly inland from Diani is a surprise and you have the chance to observe some of the wildlife that Kenya is famous for. Although the wildlife isn’t as successful as in the upcountry game parks, the beautiful rainforest and the spectacular Sheldrick Falls make it worth a trip. You could even spend the night here at Kenya’s only tree lodge at the shore, which has some water holes where elephants and other animals come for a drink.
The principal attraction of the north shore is its shores. Going north from Mombasa these are: Nyali, Bamburi, Shanzu, Vipingo and Kikambala. Here you’ll find hotel and resort complexes to match the taste of most beach holiday enthusiasts. From your north shore, you might want to visit Mamba Village, reputed to be among the worlds’ largest crocodile farms. Those interested in eco conservation projects shouldn’t miss Haller Park. The park is named after the Swiss agronomist who by sheer grit and vision transformed a huge abandoned cement quarry into a spectacular 7 sq km nature and animal sanctuary.
At Mtwapa, just beyond Shanzu beach, Kenya Marineland houses some very diverse marine life, which you see from a glass-sided underground tube. From exactly the exact same point, you can take a dhow sailing trip that includes onboard entertainment – acrobatics, fire eating and local dancers. Just off the coast, spectacular coral reefs teem with numerous fish, sea turtles and dolphins. You have an chance for world-class diving here, including some serious wreck diving. Diving in the Kenyan coast is excellent year round, expect in the months of July and August when silting and high seas are a problem.
Malindi has a history going back at least 800 years. This is the only town along the east African coast where the Portuguese found friendship with no persuasion of arms. Vasco Da Gama erected a pillar to serve as a navigation aid that still stands. Nowadays, the city is a particular favourite with Italian people. The majority of the hotel and resort development are to the south of town along the Silversands beachfront and closer town around Malindi Bay. In Malindi Marine National Park, you can see some fascinating coral gardens by diving, snorkeling or from a glass bottomed boat.
Malindi is a respected centre for big game fishing and several world records have been set here. The writer Hemingway was here in the 1930’s to enjoy one of his favorite macho sports.
Watamu, 15 km further south, is a small beach development around the beautiful inlets of Turtle Bay and Blue Lagoon. Watamu also has its own Marine Park. At the border of this park, you find a selection of caves housing a school of giant rock cod, some extending the whole of two metres. Consider making a trip to Gedi Ruins, one of Kenya archeological treasures. Gedi is estimated to have been founded in the 13th century but was mysteriously abandoned in the 17th century. Experts suspect that marauding Galla tribesmen from up north did in the settlement.
Lamu has in recent years found favour with the international glitterati. The town has an ambience of mediaeval romance that attracts those who are offended by the burdens of our modern existence. Life in the island goes on almost like it did in the 14th century when the settlement was set. Lamu has narrow streets and the city has only a single car for use by the top government official. Everybody else walks, takes a dhow or uses donkey taxis. If you come in by air you land at nearby Manda Island, from where you take a dhow or ferry. In this centre of Islamic culture, the men wear full size whites and the women are shorn head to toe in black.
Shela is the main beach on the island and is just 15 minutes away by motorboat. You’ll find good rated accommodation at Lamu. Additionally, there are some very pricey hideaways in the neighboring islands of this archipelago favoured by the jet set. In the middle of the city, you find a fort built by invading Omani Arabs in the early 19th century that now serves as a cultural center. Lamu museum is situated in the seafront, in a house once occupied by Jack Haggard, Queen Victoria’s consul in this then important outpost. The museum is a repository of Swahili culture and on display are artifacts, dhows, jewelry and crafts.
At Mombasa and the Kenyan Coast you will find rated accommodation. As soon as you’re there, you can have a break to see some of the wildlife that the country is famous for. From Mombasa, the nearest park reachable by road is Tsavo East, 4 hours off. Another great option is to fly to the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s top wildlife sanctuary and home to the big five- elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo. There Are Lots of Kenya safari options with Mombasa departures.
The Kenyan coast has a tropical climate and it’s a hot and humid location. Temperatures year round vary between 22° C and 33° C. July and August are the coolest months. Light clothing is
Recommended, as well as the evenings are usually warm. Short sleeve shirts, shorts and pants for men and short sleeve blouses, slacks and skirts are sufficient. However, in this predominantly Muslim place, women will need to dress modestly so as not to offend local sensibilities. But swimwear is perfectly acceptable at beaches and hotel premises.