Kenya safari holidays: Don’t want to choose between the beach and unbelievable wildlife? TUI's African safari trip might be for you

From infinity pools looking out over the sea to elephants wandering around outside your room, you won’t have to sacrifice relaxation or adventure on this African holiday.

They might be one of Africa’s best known animals, but you can go on safari ten times and not see a single lion.

Or, as I recently experienced during a safari taster tour with TUI, you might see a whole family of them, wandering down a dusty road as plain as day. It started with a buzz of static on our jeep’s radio, quickly picked up by our experienced driver Omar. Lions had been spotted, and we took off to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive royalty of the savannah.

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Vehicles pulling carefully to the side of the road, we stumbled across not just one, but two lionesses, each with a gaggle of playful cubs in tow. The mothers - likely sisters, our guide told us - were nigh on indifferent to their thrilled audience, pausing occasionally to survey their surrounds, or to flop down onto the road sleepily. 

A family of lions passed right by our jeeps (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)A family of lions passed right by our jeeps (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
A family of lions passed right by our jeeps (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

A shiver shot up my spine as they meandered past our jeep. One of Africa’s apex predators, close enough to reach out and touch. Then with their characteristic feline grace, the family were gone - disappearing into the safety of the savannah scrub, as the sun began to set.

The close encounter was the pinnacle of a spectacular trip I had the pleasure of taking with TUI earlier this year, to show off the travel company’s new Kenya safari and beach-stay holidays. A more affordable and accessible way to get up close and personal with some of Africa’s most iconic and underrated wildlife alike, the packages offer blissful beaches, luxurious lodges, and safaris so stunning you’ll remember them for the rest of your life.

It’s not always easy tying relaxing and exhilarating together on holiday, but this is one I can guarantee will have you both leaping out of your seat and embracing the ‘hakuna matata’ lifestyle. Here are some of my favourite parts, as well as what you might expect to see on one of these holidays:

Tsavo East's elephants are an unusual shade of red (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)Tsavo East's elephants are an unusual shade of red (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
Tsavo East's elephants are an unusual shade of red (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

Stunning safaris

The animals of Tsavo East National Park had clearly heard we were on our way as our group set off on our very first safari tour, in the expert hands of Pollman’s Tours and Safaris. What felt like minutes after we raised the roof of our jeep and struck out from the entrance, we began seeing red elephants dotted in the distance. 

Their rusty hues weren’t natural, our guide told us, but the result of the park’s famously iron-rich earth slathered on their skin as they bathed - a process we’d soon have the pleasure of seeing for ourselves. Our jeep quickly rumbled to a halt as it became evident that we were smack bang between an entire herd and a watering hole, and they intended to make their way across.

In two orderly streams - one right in front of our jeep - they crossed the dusty road. Tiny babies, with seemingly little to no motor control over their trunks, tottered closely behind their majestic mothers, their silver-white tusks bright in the morning light. The herd quickly surrounded the waterhole, much to the bemusement of a lone hippo wallowing inside, and began drinking and bathing, spraying jets of mud over their backs, while the little ones splashed and played. 

Together Tsavo East and West make up some 22,000 spectacular square kilometres, and are home to approximately 16,000 elephants and 200 lions between them. The elephants gave a hell of a welcome, but it quickly became apparent that it’s not just the fabled ‘big five’ animals that make the trip worthwhile. It’s the rich tapestry woven by all of the other incredible wildlife that call Tsavo home, some completely different from anything you’d see in the UK - and some just different enough to notice. 

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It’s the high-stockinged secretarybird cutting a striking silhouette as she strides across the savannah; the iridescent blue glint of the superb starlings flitting from perch to perch; and the dainty, bespeckled lizards darting to safety as you wander the sunbaked stone path back to your room at the safari lodge. 

Our trusty steed for our safari tour, captained by one of Pollman's expert drivers (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)Our trusty steed for our safari tour, captained by one of Pollman's expert drivers (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
Our trusty steed for our safari tour, captained by one of Pollman's expert drivers (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

The landscapes subvert your expectations at every turn too. It’s not just dry grasslands - with the ground speckled with star-shaped morning glories in pink and white and yellow. And once you cross into Tsavo West, the landscapes become even more dramatic. 

You can expect a precarious river crossing as your jeep traverses the mighty Tsavo (handled with gusto by your expert driver), framed by wild palms that look like something out of Jurassic Park. Then there are the crispy black lava fields, and finally, Mzima Springs - where we had the opportunity to get out of the jeep and take in some wildlife on foot.

These pristine waterways emerge from beneath the solidified lava, a process that takes decades, and prop up an entire ecosystem. Famous for its hippos and crocodiles, the densely-packed trees surrounding the springs also host troops of vervet monkeys and giant kingfishers. But as always in a national park, seeing wildlife isn’t a guarantee. There was but one hippo lazily resting in the water when we arrived, and no crocodiles to be seen. However, what made it all worthwhile was a tiny underwater viewing platform, which allowed you to submerge yourself in the brilliant blue of the springs - surrounded by dozens of glittering silver fish.

Nestled between the two Tsavos, we stopped in at the Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, a private nature reserve and a birdwatcher’s paradise - home to some 350 species, many only found in the area. An evening game drive up to Kudu Point was the highlight of the experience, where we could watch the sunset over the comparatively lush surrounds, to a soundtrack of drumbeats and singing by women of the local Taita tribe.

A flock of pink flamingos were a striking sight against the incredible backdrop of Kilimanjaro (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)A flock of pink flamingos were a striking sight against the incredible backdrop of Kilimanjaro (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
A flock of pink flamingos were a striking sight against the incredible backdrop of Kilimanjaro (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

After clearing the Tsavo area it was on to Amboseli, another National Park on the Tanzanian border. Amboseli comes from the language of the indigenous Maasai people, and means ‘salty, dusty place’ - a name the frequent dust devils dotting the savannah made sure it lived up to. From the moment our jeep arrived, it revealed itself as a place where the extraordinary seemed normal. Children played soccer on a field as an enormous elephant wandered nonchalantly behind them. Cattle grazed side-by-side with a herd of zebras.

But as the flocks of snow-white cattle egrets soaring across the dawn sky hinted at, Amboseli had more in store for us. The park’s crowning glory is its closeness to  Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s biggest mountain (although it also stretched out far wider than I had ever expected). 

Our very last game drive of the trip offered us a perhaps unparalleled view of the famous mount, and certainly an unparalleled way to wrap up our safari. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pink greater flamingos waded through the shallows of Lake Amboseli, as Kilimanjaro cast its towering reflection upon its waters. It was a sight that made my breath catch in my throat. Not necessarily a sight you’d envisaged seeing when imagining a Kenyan safari, but one you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

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Salt Lick Safari Lodge is like nowhere else you'll ever stay (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)Salt Lick Safari Lodge is like nowhere else you'll ever stay (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
Salt Lick Safari Lodge is like nowhere else you'll ever stay (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

Luxurious lodges

When reading about Africa as a child, I’d imagined a safari lodge as a somewhat barebones place - somewhere between an expedition base camp and an army barracks. I couldn’t have been more wrong as it turns out, with the lodges we stayed at not only serving up a heavy helping of luxury, but doing so in some of the most spectacular surrounds imaginable. 

The Ashnil Aruba Lodge was our base in the heart of Tsavo East. The lodge offered an outdoor pool, separated from the wilderness of the park by just a high fence and moat-like ditch (apparently a lion was even spotted near the fenceline while I was visiting, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see him myself). Similarly, the Amboseli Serena Lodge in Amboseli had some of the nicest rooms of the trip, with walls adorned with images of the local flora and fauna cast in what almost looked like charcoal.

Thanks to its tactical watering holes, wildlife was never far away (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)Thanks to its tactical watering holes, wildlife was never far away (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
Thanks to its tactical watering holes, wildlife was never far away (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

Others where our tour simply stopped in for lunch are also worthy of a special mention, like the Kiliguni Serena, where the amazing lunchtime viewing area let us watch waterbucks, elephants, giraffes, zebras, water buffalo and warthogs all converge on the area - all at once.

However, Taita Hills’ two lodges really take the cake. Especially the unforgettable Salt Lick Lodge. Here, we stayed in what feel almost like cabins on stone stilts, connected by a string of wooden bridges. The rooms were small but cosy and clean, but despite their unique appearance, they’re not what makes Salt Lick so special.

That would be the waterholes dotted around nearby, where thirsty animals frequently pop in for a drink. There were plenty of elephants on show when our group arrived, and it was a delight being able to watch them drink and hose themselves down more closely than ever before. There was even an underground walkway with viewing windows, where you can get right up alongside these gentle giants of the savannah.

A relaxing beachside stay is definitely a tantalising prospect post-safari (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)A relaxing beachside stay is definitely a tantalising prospect post-safari (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
A relaxing beachside stay is definitely a tantalising prospect post-safari (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

Blissful beach stay

Although most TUI customers will end their trip with a stay at one of Diani Beach’s paradisiacal seaside resorts, we actually began our trip there. However, Baobab Beach Resort immediately strikes you as an idyllic place to unwind after a long trip - without saying goodbye to Kenya, its warm-hearted people, or its abundance of wildlife just yet.

Baobab - one of a number on offer with a TUI Kenya package - was a veritable haven for visitors wanting to beat the heat. It boasts plentiful pools across its three sections, including one with a swim-up bar and waterfall feature, and others with ‘infinity’ views out across the seascape. A staircase offers immediate beach access to Diani’s glorious white sand beach, a view most of its spacious rooms will soon have you all too familiar with.

There are numerous in-house restaurants offering buffet to à la carte dining, although the real stand-out was The Maharaja. The restaurant showcases dishes from Kenya’s large South Asian community, and every dish on the menu has a story to tell - and tastes heavenly. It’s also beautifully set up for a more intimate dining experience, one I imagine would be perfect for romantic dinners in the warm evening air.

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Perhaps the best thing about this resort, however, is that it exists in harmony with the local wildlife. Troops of baboons occasionally wander the grounds, as do threatened black-and-white colobus monkeys and tiny dik diks. Huge golden orb weaver spiders hang over ponds, and after dark, the night air echoes with the ‘beeping’ of tiny frogs - reminding you nature is never far away in Kenya.

There are plenty of excellent optional tours within reach of the hotel too, and Diani Beach has plenty of charm of its own. Its storefronts bear a rainbow of hand-painted signs, and herds of humpbacked cattle and goats intermingle with tuk-tuks as they are driven down the side of the highway.

The nearby Pallet Café, a project which helps deaf people get training and work experience in the hospitality industry, is a lovely place to stop for a delicious beachside lunch and cocktail. And in terms of engaging with and supporting the local community, the Kaya Kinondo Sacred Forest is also worth seeing. One of the last patches of rainforest standing in the notably tropical area, this ecotourism project must be visited as part of a guided tour with members of the Digo Tribe, who will advise visitors on the respectful way to explore this sacred space.

As well as learning about the 48 species of eye-catching butterflies and 187 types of trees - many of them with all sorts of practical, medicinal, and even fun uses - amid a thrum of cicada song, it’s a good chance to learn more about the tribe’s history and culture. You also have the option of touring a local Digo village, a wonderful way to learn more about how this culture has been kept alive - although it’s important to remember to engage in a thoughtful and respectful way on village visits.

The Mombasa Tusks are one of the city's most well-known monuments (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)The Mombasa Tusks are one of the city's most well-known monuments (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld)
The Mombasa Tusks are one of the city's most well-known monuments (Photo: Amber Allott/NationalWorld) | Amber Allott

Diani Beach is also within easy reach on the island city of Mombasa. The still significant port city is now a melting pot of the various tribes that make up the Kenyan Coast’s Mijikenda, but it also bears the marks of the Omani, Portuguese, British, Indian, and other cultures that helped shape it throughout the centuries. From the colourful matatu - minibuses decorated with elaborate caricatures of pop cultural figures used as a sort of public transport - to its bustling markets, to the 16th century man-shaped Fort Jesus, Mombasa is a must-see for its rich and sometimes troubled history alone.

One of its perhaps best-known monuments, the ‘Mombasa tusks’, are particularly significant, especially to those who have enjoyed a taste of Kenya’s wild places. Arcing across one of the main thoroughfares, these four criss-crossed elephant tusks not only welcome visitors to the city just as they were built to welcome Queen Elizabeth II, but represent Kenya’s commitment to protecting all of the incredible wildlife you have seen, for future generations to enjoy.

TUI’s nine-night Kenya taster safari and stay package - which includes exploring the beautiful Mombasa coast as well as safaris through Kenya’s sprawling national parks - start at £2,742 per person, departing 3 October. This includes flights, transfers, 23kg luggage, a five-night all-inclusive safari tour, and a four-night beach stay. There are different resorts, levels of board, and lengths of stay available. Find out more at tui.co.uk.

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