Why we like it
- Lamu and Manda Islands are great for a luxury but relaxed beach holiday.
- Lamu old town a UNESCO World Heritage site great alternative to Zanzibar for Swahili culture without the crowds.
- World famous barefoot luxury beach resorts on the islands.
- Very wide variety of water sports including snorkeling, diving and kite surfing.
- Some of the best deep-sea fishing in the world, all on a tag and release basis.
The Kenyan coastline is world famous for palm-fringed, white sandy beaches, as well as hidden cultural treasures that hint at a rich and varied colonial history. Some of the beach areas are busy and pretty touristy, but further north the Lamu archipelago of islands is a real gem for travelers looking for barefoot luxury and active beach holiday, with a measure of history and culture thrown in too….
The Kenyan coast comprise of the city of Mombasa, a number of popular beaches areas & marine parks, as well as some inshore islands On Kenya’s northern border, Lamu Island and its neighbor Manda Island are firm favourites for the discerning traveller, with the old town of Lamu, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sleepy Lamu town is fast becoming a great alternative to Zanzibar for travellers that want to experience Swahili history and culture without the crowds.
Right in the northern corner of the Kenyan coastline, is an archipelago of islands, seemingly stuck in time. Lamu island and its neighbor, Manda, are becoming more popular with tourists, decades after they were ‘discovered’ by Hollywood stars and European royalty. Many consider it a great alternative to Zanzibar, which some claim has lost some of its charm.
Manda features resorts and large private houses that can be hired exclusively. Across the channel is Lamu, which is a bustling hub of a town that hasn’t changed architecturally for centuries. The narrow alleyways can only be navigated by foot or donkey. Therein you will find mosques, art galleries, silversmiths and other treasures between the shops and houses.
Further down the island is the little town of Shela. This tends to be the focal point of anyone’s stay here, with the world-famous Peponi Hotel and its iconic bar and deck still serving their renowned seafood and cocktails. Numerous private houses are available to rent here. Mostly on a self-catering basis, each house comes with its chefs who go out and buy the freshest seafood and supplies to create wonderful meals each day.
Around the corner is Shela beach, a protected stretch of sand, backed by dunes, where no development is permitted. At the far end, 12kms away, is Kizingoni, where a few barefoot luxury operators have established ‘Robinson Crusoe’ styled accommodation options for those really looking to escape.
This unique coastal destination would not be complete without the dhows. Hiring one and its crew to take you on a sunset sail through the mangroves on Manda, or out to snorkeling or fishing spots is a must. Some dhows are large enough for you to sleep on and a few operators have created exceptionally luxurious experiences on board.
Getting to Lamu is possible by flying to Manda Civil Airport, with daily scheduled flights from Nairobi and Malindi. Despite its physical proximity to the Somali border, the touristic sides of Lamu are considered safe. The people are some of the friendliest in Kenya and they add the cherry on top for what makes one of the most unique coastal destinations in East Africa.
Kenya’s second largest city by population, Mombasa is also the most important port on the East African coastline, handling cargo and trade that is bound for land-locked Uganda, DRC and beyond. The main city is on an island, ringed by a channel of tidal sea water.
The international airport and new railway terminus, both just to the west, on the mainland, make Mombasa a common stop en-route to other coastal destinations. Its traffic is notorious and the limited infrastructure that allows travellers through the town to destinations either north or south of the island can mean for frustration.
Visitors that are keen to explore the city often head to the ‘old town’, which features narrow alleyways, with a menagerie of buildings and shops not to dissimilar to a souk in the Middle East or Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
Mombasa was the scene of various colonial power struggles, no better demonstrated than in the museum and World Heritage Site, Fort Jesus. Completed by the Portuguese in 1596, it changed hands over the centuries between the Portuguese, Omani Arabs and local Swahili Sheiks. Eventually, the British used it as a prison from 1895 when they declared the Protectorate of Kenya.
Travellers heading south from here to the postcard beaches of Tiwi, Diani, Galu and Msambweni have to use the now tiring ferry service at Likoni.
Thankfully, a small regional airport at Ukunda, only a few minutes’ drive from Diani beach, is now serviced by numerous Nairobi-based domestic airlines, including ones that connect directly into Amboseli and the Maasai Mara.
Arguably Kenya’s most famous coastal attraction, Diani, is a quintessential tropical beach destination. With its neighbours, Tiwi and Galu, the white sand makes way for stands of coconut palms that shade numerous resorts, ranging from boutique to huge. All along the coastal road are restaurants, cafes and entertainment options for those not keen to stay in their hotel throughout. Keep an eye out for the ingenious rope bridges that span above the main road, that have been built for the safe passage of threatened Angolan Colobus monkeys that live in the coastal forests here.
Like much of the Kenyan coastline, a barrier reef sits a few hundred yards out into the Indian Ocean. This means the lagoon it forms between it and the beach is calm, clear and warm. A great, safe place to swim. Conventional surfing is not common here, due to the lack of large waves, as these tend to break out by the reef. However, Diani has become somewhat of a mecca for Kite Surfing, as the consistent monsoon winds and calmer waters make for ideal conditions.
At low tide, the water can recede as far back as the barrier reef, especially on Spring tides, which makes it possible to walk out there, bearing in mind that the returning tide can create sand bars and trap the unwary. Rock pools, exposed at this time often hide micro-ecosystems, housing Anemones, Clown fish, sea slugs, urchins and even Moray eels.
South of Diani and Galu is the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park. It’s possible to hire glass-bottom boats to visit it and snorkel amongst the coral outcrops to see the variety of marine life they attract. Dolphins and Whale Sharks are also often seen here. Certain hotels have dive-centers attached to them that can organize diving expeditions here, as well as to other reefs, wrecks and interesting sites.
Further south, there are the Shimoni Caves that were used as a prison for centuries and then idyllic islands such as Chale. Beyond that and you’ll reach the Tanzanian border.
The vast majority of Kenya’s beach destinations are north of Mombasa.
Nyali and Bamburi Beaches
The town of Nyali has essentially been swallowed up by Mombasa, where wealthier residents live and commute from. This was the original beach destination in Kenya and some of the oldest resorts can be found here. However, they are busy, especially around school holidays when a lot of Nairobi residents make for the coast.
Bamburi is known for its cement factories, which might not seem like a great tourist attraction, but one company was thankfully responsible enough to convert an old and disused quarry into Haller Park, home to significant reforestation and tree nursery projects, butterfly farming and even a small wildlife sanctuary.
Most tourist these days head further north, however.
Kilifi and Vipingo
With fewer hotels, Kilifi and Vipingo tend to be quieter beach experiences than those further south. Featuring magnificent private houses that can be rented out for a few nights and a nearby world-class golf course, it tends to attract people looking for a less resort-based experience. There is a small airstrip here too, which has daily scheduled flights to and from Nairobi’s Wilson airport.
Heading north from Kilifi, you go past some fascinating places worth visiting if in the area. The Gedi Ruins are the remnants of a medieval Swahili-Arabic settlement that is suggested to have been first occupied in the 11th Century.
Surrounding the ruins is a portion of primordial forest, which is all but gone along the East African coast. The heart of this remnant is the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, just to the south of Watamu. A birder’s paradise, it hosts numerous endemic species, including Kenya’s smallest Owl, the Sokoke Scops Owl. There are elephants here too and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the cat-size Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew! Going with a local expert guide is by far the best way to see the forest.
Watamu and Malindi
Between the forest and the sea is a mangrove woodland that protects vital shorebird habitat and fish nurseries. Dugongs have been seen here too. The little town of Watamu emerges from the mangroves, set along another stretch of white sandy beach. Otherwise similar to Diani, albeit smaller, this part of the Kenyan coast is famous for its deep-sea fishing. Between September and March, the Sailfish and Marlin fishing is at its best, with numerous operators based out of Watamu and Malindi. Christmas fishing competitions are a hotly contested annual tradition here.
Other watersports are on offer from most hotels and the Marine National Park here is another great diving and snorkeling destination.
The Local Ocean Trust has an education centre in Watamu, where you can learn about the various projects undertaken here. Sea turtles are a key species they focus on, where vulnerable nests are rehomed to safe spots. They have had huge success in educating local fishermen about sustainable practices and most turtles caught in their nets are rescued, brought to the centre, evaluated, rehabilitated and released.
Malindi is known for its Italian community, so don’t be surprised to hear the locals speaking the language. As you can imagine, the restaurant and cafes here are excellent. Hotels and resorts are spread along the beaches north and south of the town. A large airport makes Malindi and Watamu easy to travel to and from.
Other Travel Considerations
The wet seasons of April, May and June are best avoided, but the rest of the year tends to be sunny, albeit it very hot and humid at times.
On the popular beaches (Diani, Nyali, Bamburi, Malindi and Watamu), in the busiest months, ‘beach boys’ can be a nuisance; attempting to befriend you and get you to buy souvenirs, offer you boat rides or even try to entrap you into purchasing Marijuana. Each hotel has ‘askaris’ (guards) along their beachfront to assist their clients from overt harassment, but sometimes it’s best to go in with expectation that it’s worth making a friend by supporting their hustle and having them help you reduce the nuisance from everyone else.
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