the principal city at Kenya’s coast, is one of the oldest
human settlements on the eastern seaboard of the African continent
Kenya’s 480 km coast is one of the
principal attractions for visitors to the country. Every 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 history and culture. The casual
visitor impressed by the tranquil beaches and gentle people will not
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 coast –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
in terms of history, culture, natural attractions and beach experience.
But as sports fans will understand, it is 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 demand 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 plan to get there.
Mombasa, the principal city at Kenya’s coast, is one of the oldest
human settlements on the eastern seaboard of the African continent.
Though it has without doubt been in existence for at least 700 years,
it is mentioned in writings of Arab, Roman and Egyptian travelers dated
as far back as 2,500 years ago. The Arabs came to trade and settle,
starting from about the 8th century AD. With the push of the northeast
monsoon, their dhows brought ironware, glassware, textiles, and took
home rhino horn, ivory and slaves. Substantial settlements gradually
developed and many traders settled and intermarried with local Africans.
The Arabs also brought along the message of the Prophet and the Kenyan
coast is even today predominantly Muslim.
Relative tranquility prevailed at the coastal towns until the Portuguese
showed up at the end of the 15th century. The Portuguese were a substantial
seafaring power of the day and were anxious to break the stranglehold
of the Ottoman Empire on Indian Ocean trade. Vasco Da Gama opened the
way for his compatriots when he made his way round the southern tip
of Africa and up to eastern Africa in 1498. The Portuguese were not
warmly received in Mombasa, but not so at Malindi. The local sultan
offered his ready friendship and proved very useful to Da Gama by providing
a pilot who knew how to get to India, his ultimate destination.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Mombasa saw plenty of war. For
this reason, the city was nicknamed Mvita, which in Swahili translates
as Isle of War. Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison whose construction
was started by the Portuguese in 1593, changed masters 9 times before
1875. By the terror of war, the Portuguese sought to control the east
African coast. As colonial overlords, the Portuguese were deficient
in that they were mostly interested in plunder and trade and did not
establish robust systems of administration. Another related difficulty
they faced was that they were supplied from Goa in India. The student
of military theory will recognize this as a classical case of “long
The Portuguese were finally driven out by the emerging power of Omani
Arabs in 1729. The ascendancy of the Omani Arabs lasted until Britain,
a leading super power at the time, appeared at the beginning of the
19th century. The British came in under the guise of a humanitarian
mission: the suppression of the slave trade. The Omani Arabs were notorious
slave traders. Christian missionaries put pressure on the British government
to persuade the Omani Arabs to pursue other trade other than trafficking
in humans. This is somewhat like the problem the Americans face today
in South America with respect to the cocaine trade.
The British were actually successful in this, by using time honoured
carrot and stick tactics. Under the resulting deal, the Omani Arabs
whose headquarters was in Zanzibar were recognized as overlords over
a 16 km strip along the Kenyan coast. The sultan was to be paid an annuity
as compensation for resulting loss of revenue. This territory acquired
the status of a British Protectorate until 1963 when the Sultan of Zanzibar
ceded it to the newly independent Kenyan nation.
Mombasa is today 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. Some 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 various cultures
that have influenced the Kenyan coast. You will also see articles recovered
from the ill-fated 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 experience
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
past few 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
parts of the country. 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 head to Shelley,
Msambweni and Shimoni.
These are the beaches to the south of Mombasa, where hotel and resort
development has taken place. To get to the south coast beaches you need
to take the ferry at Likoni,
the southern tip of Mombasa Island.
If this does not suit you, take 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 will find a wide
range of hotels, including an 18-hole golf resort. Though some of the
other beaches are excellent, they have limited range of accommodation
and attract fewer people.
Shimoni, 100 km from Mombasa is a centre for serious deep-sea fishing.
It is also from Shimoni that you can visit the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine
National Park. Here you will see the treasures of Kenya’s underwater
world. At 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 reportedly used these caves in the dark days of the slave
trade. The slaves who perished here are remembered in Roger Whittaker’s
At the south coast you have plenty of chances 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 opportunity to see some of
the wildlife that Kenya is famed for. Though the wildlife is not as
prolific as in the upcountry game parks, the beautiful rainforest and
the spectacular Sheldrick Falls make it worth a visit. You can also
spend the night here at Kenya’s only tree lodge at the coast,
which has some water holes where elephants and other animals come for
The main attraction of the north coast is its beaches. Heading north
from Mombasa these are: Nyali,
Vipingo and Kikambala.
Here you will find hotel and resort complexes to suit the taste of most
beach holiday enthusiasts. From your north coast base, you may want
to visit Mamba Village, reputed to be one of the worlds’ largest
crocodile farms. Those interested in eco conservation projects must
not 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 view from a glass-sided underground tunnel. From the 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 opportunity for world-class diving here, including some serious wreck
diving. Diving at the Kenyan coast is good 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 without the persuasion
of arms. Vasco Da Gama erected a pillar to serve as a navigation aid
that still stands. Today, the town is a particular favourite with Italian
visitors. Most of the hotel and resort development are to the south
of the town along the Silversands beachfront and nearer town around
Malindi Bay. At 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 1930s
to enjoy one of his favourite macho sports. Watamu, 15 km further south,
is a small beach development around the beautiful inlets of Turtle Bay
and Blue Lagoon. Watamu too has its own Marine Park. At the edge of
the park, you find a collection of caves housing a school of giant rock
cod, some stretching the whole of 2 metres. Consider making an excursion
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 guess 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 founded. Lamu has narrow
streets and the town 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-length
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 will find
good rated accommodation at Lamu. There are also some very pricey hideaways
in the neighboring islands of the archipelago favoured by the jet set.
In the centre of the town, you find a fort built by invading Omani Arabs
in the early 19th century that now serves as a cultural centre. Lamu
museum is located at 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.
and the Kenyan Coast you will find rated accommodation.
Once you are there, you can take a break to view some of the wildlife
that the country is famed for. From Mombasa, the nearest park reachable
by road is Tsavo East, 4 hours away. Another good 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 many
safari options with Mombasa departures.
The Kenyan coast has a tropical climate and it is a hot and humid place.
Temperatures year round vary between 22° C and 33° C. July and August
are the coolest months. Light clothing is recommended, as even the evenings
are usually warm. Short sleeve shirts, shorts and trousers for men and
short sleeve blouses, slacks and skirts are sufficient. However, in
this predominantly Muslim area, women need to dress modestly so as not
to offend local sensibilities. But swimwear is perfectly acceptable
at beaches and hotel premises.