Africa may be wild at heart, but head east and you can enjoy the most civilised of de-stress experiences in majestic surroundings, writes Sean Sheehan
The idea of Kenya summons up epic vistas – zebras and wildebeest in their millions migrating across vast savannahs – but sometimes what the doctor ordered is a boutique experience, not a blockbuster one. Safaris have their attraction, but if you want to slow down, let stress levels gently fall, and regain the cool factor by relaxing in the sun, then head for the east coast of Kenya.
Visitor numbers fell drastically after the Foreign Office temporarily took it off the tourist map, but those warnings were lifted in the summer of last year and slowly holidaymakers are returning for an African idyll. North of Mombasa the well-established package holiday destination is Malindi, but a well-kept secret, the sleepy Swahili fishing village of Watamu, lies a few miles to the south.
At low tide the 7km-long beach has huge stretches of shallow water and coral outcrops that loom out of the sea. Snorkelling and beach combing are minutes away from the bedrooms at Lonno Lodge, though the double hammock in the porch and the pool-side sunbeds are equally tempting. The place is managed by a gracious Italian couple, bedrooms are tastefully furnished and the gardens are colourfully landscaped with bougainvillea and frangipani.
For shopping, meandering strolls and an Italian-run ice cream parlour, the local village is a walk away on the beach, while a cycle jaunt on one of the freely available bicycles accesses local attractions. These include a marine nature park, a snake farm and the ruined city of Gedi, which was mysteriously abandoned in the 16th century despite being the centre of medieval trade on the coast. Malindi has its quota of touts, on the streets and beaches, but Watamu is left to itself and no one bothers you.
Mombasa is east Kenya’s hub and has been for countless centuries; its port served trade with the Arab world long before Vasco da Gama dropped anchor here in 1496, the first westerner to chart this side of Africa. It’s not surprising, then, to find a city that resonates more strongly with the past than the future – though this will change with the completion of a Chinese-built high-speed train line between Mombasa and Nairobi replacing the existing narrow-gauge line built by the British (nicknamed the Lunatic Express, it is said, because two man-eating lions killed over 130 workers constructing the line before the lions were trapped and killed).
The history of Mombasa is there to see in Fort Jesus: built by the Portuguese – their pictorial graffiti is visible on walls – then taken over by Omani royalty, who made it their luxury pad until the British arrived in 1870. Walking around the old port, where Africa meets India and British imperialism, you find half-ruined buildings with ornately carved doors and decrepit but stylish balconies dating back to the end of the 19th century. It ought to be a World Heritage Site and funds provided for upkeep and renovation, otherwise it will become just a heap of stones and decaying buildings.
A city tour of Mombasa should also take you to the Akamba wood carvers’ cooperative, not far from the city centre. Here, under tents and awnings, you can stroll around and watch every stage of the carving process using ebony, mahogany, teak and soapstone, from cutting the original log to the final washing and cleaning of the carved object. Prices in the adjoining shop are well below what you’ll see in shops around Kenya and there is a huge variety of carvings to choose from. There is little by way of accommodation in Mombasa that you would want to write home about but six miles away the lively Voyager Beach Resort offers good-value, all-inclusive deals if you want to stay put for a couple of days and soak up the sun.
The coast to the south of Mombasa offers more great beaches, stretching all the way to the border with Tanzania, and as with the north, the feel of the place is not typical of Kenya. The influence of Swahili culture and centuries of contact with countries across the Indian Ocean accounts for the laid-back rhythms that prove infectious. Diani Beach is the exception as this is the place to party, and accommodation for all budgets is spread along the beach road. Water sports are well catered for and there is no shortage of bars and restaurants.
To find somewhere less intrusive continue south for 15 miles to Msambweni Beach, where souvenir sellers are a rarity and two hotels have the entire beach to themselves. One of them, Saruni Ocean, is an upmarket retreat, ideal for a couple of days’ chilling out and loosening up your body with massages and yoga.
For a spot of wildlife without the safari convoys, Tsavo East National Park is less than a hundred miles from the coast. Galdessa is a luxury tented camp within the park, serenely situated alongside one of Kenya’s biggest rivers, the Galana. Elephants, red in colour due to the soil they roll around in, wander along the riverbank to eat fruit from the doum trees. Less costly is a stay in the motel-like rooms at Voi Safari Lodge, situated on high ground to give wide-angle views of wildlife but also equipped with a hide for close-up shots.
East Kenya has it all – beaches and wildlife – without the crowds. A cool place under a hot African sun.
• Kenya Airways flies daily from Heathrow to Nairobi with connections to Mombasa; from £645 including taxes. For an economy return ticket to Mombasa contact kenya-airways.com. Rooms at Lonno Lodge (lonnolodge.com) from £170 a night; at Voyager Beach Resort (heritage-eastafrica.com) from £88 for rooms with garden views and half-board from £114 all-inclusive (airport transfers, all meals and drinks); at Saruni Ocean (saruniocean.com) full-board packages (airport transfers, some water sports, massage and yoga and all meals) £290, all-inclusive (including wine and house spirits) £315; at Galdessa (galdessa.com) from £300; at Voi Safari Lodge from £150. Mombasa city tours: AfricanMecca Safaris (africanmeccasafaris.com) £35. Car hire with driver: Nguta Mwauchi (firstname.lastname@example.org). Information: Kenya Tourism Board (magicalkenya.com), Lonely Planet guide to Kenya (lonelyplanet.com).