There’s something so captivating about the Swahili coast, says Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright. Maybe it’s the balmy temperatures and the cool breeze that blows over scantily clad bodies, or the warmth of the Swahili people, or the exotic spices in the food. Maybe it’s simply the sense of escape that it evokes, and the way it always seems to beg a return.
After landing in Mombasa, we headed south to the beautiful beaches of Diani, which look like a travel brochure with their miles and miles of white sand, palm trees and turquoise water. There’s a reef protecting the beach so it’s safe for swimming and water sports, and there’s a little sand spit island called Robinson’s island where boats go out for snorkelling and where drinks and snacks are served at low tide. There are also a couple of beach bars and restaurants that get you into the holiday mood, such as Ali Barbour’s cave restaurant and the Forty Thieves Beach Bar, where we chose to water before escaping to our sanctuary.
‘There’s no signpost, so call me when you’re five minutes away,’ was my introduction to the beautiful hotel of Kinondo Kwetu. Voted in Tatler’s top 100 hotels of the world, I assured myself that this was going to be a magnificent adventure. As we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted by the full complement of staff, beaming smiles and singing voices welcoming us to their hideaway.
Kinondo Kwetu is owned by Ida and Filip Andersson, who trace their family back to the Blixens, as in ‘I had a farm in Aaaafrica’, and guests are treated as personal friends of the owners. In fact, Kinondo started out as their summer house while they were living in New York. They then built an extra house to accommodate their many guests visiting from their homeland, Sweden, and eventually decided to turn it into a hotel. The main house has four huge rooms with private wrap-around balconies, and lounging areas with Swahili daybeds just calling for a siesta or a glass of wine. Ancient African artefacts adorn the walls and corners, and are a wonderful reminder that you truly are in Kenya.
Every beautiful plate of food served at Kinondo Kwetu is Swahili in influence and world-class in flavour and style. Using local ingredients such as ginger, chilli, lime, cashew, mango and coconut they create delicious and flavourful dishes such as sirloin steak with coriander, chilli, lime and mint; snapper with wasabi butter and fresh crab salad with avo, mange tout, apple and chilli oil. Every evening before dinner we were offered ‘bitings’ with our drinks, like feta samosas with fresh chilli sauce. The hotel operates on a full-board basis and while there are no choices on the menu, you can ask for anything your heart desires or ask for the Kinondo Kwetu specials. The hotel has mini bar fridges scattered around the grounds, and if you get the sudden urge for a gin and tonic or an ice-cold Tusker, you can just grab one from a fridge. The hardest part is finding the perfect spot to drink it, as there are so many relaxing places to choose, from the pool area to the beach or on plantation chairs under the trees.
Lunch and dinner is served in a different location every night – either on a private terrace in the main house, on the beach or in an old boat that’s been tailored for dining. Our last night was truly memorable. We were led past the palmed dining area of the night before and to the top floor of a four-storey water tower, where we sat on lounge cushions overlooking the bay while dinner was served. Bougainvillaea and paraffin lamps were everywhere, and our main concern was getting down again after the many glasses of wine that Ruben our butler had carefully carried up the flights of stairs.
With sad goodbyes to new friends, we headed a mere five kilometres down the road to the Almanara Luxury Villas. A more different experience was not possible, and we were pleased to see such a different side to the Kenyan coast. There are six luxury villas in total, each with a private chef and butler. The villas all have three en-suite bedrooms kitted with all sorts of things from a laptop and printer to flat screen TVs, a satellite dish, a DVD player, an iPod docking station, and a kitchen stocked with goodies. There’s also a large 10-bedroom manor house overlooking the ocean if you’re travelling in larger groups, or planning a wedding.
Almanara’s beachfront bar, Sails, is slick and modern with the most delicious array of dishes on the menu such as a seafood platter, deep-fried beer-battered calamari with chilli mayo and baked crab gratin. Meals can be taken in the beach bar or in your villa, where you can have the pick of anything you’d like the chef to prepare for you. Our chef prepared a carpaccio of sailfish for us, followed by king prawns with a coconut, chilli and lime crust. Luke Doig, the general manager, came to Almanara as a consultant chef, having started his career at the Savoy in London. He loved it so much that he never left – a story common to many people who settle in Kenya.
Hemingways is a bit of a legend in Kenya. When you tell people you’re going there, they nod knowingly. It’s situated about 20 kilometres south of Malindi and two hours north of Mombasa in a little place called Watamu. As Simon the general manager says, ‘Hemingways is not a resort and not a hotel – it’s more like a club’. Families, many of them British, seem to keep coming back year after year to the comfort and familiarity of this special place. The hotel is run on a half-board basis, including breakfast and dinner. Dinner is a formal four-course affair with local seafood and other ingredients often appearing on the menu. You can also wander down the beach and pop into one of the many quaint little beach bars. We were welcomed by huge Kenyan smiles and ‘karibu sanas’ (you’re very welcome) before cold Tusker beers arrived. One of the guys had just been fishing for five large crabs the size of dinner plates, so we each chose one and then considered the list of possible ways to have them prepared. We opted for ‘removed from shell, stir fried and served with fresh lime’, which was heavenly decadent and a fine way to begin our stay.
There are so many fun activities in the area. The hotel itself has three fishing boats tailored for big game fishing and a very popular dive centre. The Gedi Ruins are nearby and Mida Creek, where you can take a leisurely cruise on a dhow, sail through mangroves to see flocks of flamingos. There’s also Tsavo National Park if you wish to combine your beach activities with a safari.
More than 100 kilometres north of Mombasa, the island of Lamu is undisturbed by the turmoil of modern times and harks back to the spice trade days. Situated just off the north Kenyan coast, it’s an easy flight from Nairobi, with many of the internal airlines doing a Malindi-Lamu-Nairobi circuit. You feel as though you’re stepping back in time when you head to this archipelago of coral-fringed islands. Great lateen-rigged dhows sailed in from Arabia and India, buying and selling ivory and spices. The resultant blend of cultures has produced a vibrant Swahili people, who are rich in history and justifiably proud of their maritime tradition. To this day there are no cars on the island and transport is by dhow, donkey or foot. When you arrive at the airport on the island of Manda, your bags are taken to an adjoining pier, where motorised dhows collect and whisk you across the crystal-clear channel to Lamu island.
We explored the narrow streets of Lamu town, with its ancient fort, wood carvers, wet market, juice bars and donkeys. Then, to get away from the hustle and bustle, we chose to stay in the quieter village of Shela, which is a tangle of narrow sandy lanes, tall stone houses, some smaller thatched dwellings, mosques, ruins and a spacious square fringed by a few market stalls, small shops and a telephone booth. Here in the cool evenings the elders gather to talk while women come out to shop. Wandering through the village you might meet discreet women in bui-bui, young boys in gowns on their way to the mosque, sleepy donkeys, weathered fishermen, the occasional beach boy, visitor and collection of cats.
A five-minute walk from the village brings you to a seven-mile beach of uncrowded golden sands and an ocean ideal for swimming, bodysurfing, diving, windsurfing, water skiing, fishing and boating. There are a number of private villas available for rent, some right on the beach, others with their own secluded courtyard plunge pools. The main feature of the beach is the Peponis Hotel, which is still being run by the family that opened it in 1967 and retains its original charm and character. The pool has to be visited, if only to see the enormous baobab trees that lean over it onto the beach below. Even if you’re not staying there, Peponis is worth a visit, either for lunch under the baobabs or a candlelit dinner on the terrace above the incoming tide. Meals range from exquisite fresh fish dishes to gourmet hamburgers, and the hotel itself has the shabby-chic feel of colonial Africa.
We stayed at Beach House, right on the seashore and a few metres along from Peponis. It’s a large beachfront house for 12 to 14 people, with four double rooms and one dormitory-style quadruple, all en suite. The house is frequently used by European royals and the colonial experience is a real treat. There’s a magnificent edgeless freshwater swimming pool, an alfresco terrace shaded by huge entwined acacia and baobab trees, and the bedrooms have their own private terraces. From the rooftop, with its bar, lounge and two swinging beds, you can enjoy panoramic views of the entire Lamu channel, watch fishing dhows return and dolphins pass, and see the moon rising.
On the hilltop dunes behind Beach House we enjoyed sitting in a gazebo with beautiful views of the Indian Ocean and the shoreline of Ras Kitau Bay. Here we had afternoon tea and freshly baked coconut cake, and one day we swam across the channel to Manda Island (accompanied by a small boat to pick up the less enthusiastic swimmers along the way, and to take towels, hats and sunglasses), where we had lunch at Frank’s Beach Club under the trees on the beach – there was ceviche, prawns, and chilli and lemongrass starters doused with fine Italian white wine that came in an endless chilled supply. On another day we did a 12-kilometre walk along the beach in the late afternoon and early evening, arriving back at the house under a full moon, and just in time to freshen up for dinner under the baobab. Fortunately our hosts had arranged a camel to accompany us, which was just as well as the camel had been equipped with two cooler boxes filled with ice-cold soft drinks and snacks that saved us from the 30ºC afternoon heat.
Lamu Island is a place where time seems to stand still, and where doing nothing, relaxing with a book, listening to the birds or going for a stroll along the beach are among your choices. We also enjoyed the massages our in-house masseuse gave us – using natural oils extracted from indigenous Kenyan trees – and the dhow trip we took to see turtle hatching sites, as well as a sunset cruise accompanied by the rhythmic drumbeats of the crew.
Best for in-house activities (boating, horse-riding, tennis, PADI diving), romance and the authentic luxury Kenyan experience. From $400 in low season to $490 in high season, per person on a full-board basis. www.kinondo-kwetu.com.
Almanara Luxury Villas
Best for families and small groups. From $290 in low season to $515 in high season, per person on a full-board basis. www.almanararesort.com.
Best for those looking for activities. From $210 (for the cheapest room in the lowest season) to $480 in high season, per person on a half-board basis. www.hemingways-watamu.com.
Lamu Beach House
Best for house party entertainment, chilling and relaxing on your own private beach with colonial flair. From $1 200 in low season to $3 000 in high season, for 12 to 14 people on a full-board basis. www.shelahouse.com.
Source: Winestyle Magazine