Kenya: Sun, sea and sloth

You don't cook, you certainly don't clean - in fact, the most arduous part of a Kenyan villa holiday is choosing your next sundowner cocktail. Jack Barker reports

No Kenyan would. Kenyan villas come with staff: at the very least one cook, a few house-girls to polish floors and make beds, men to look after the garden and swimming pool, and others to take care of security at night. Their wages are included in the bill, so the only extras will be tips for the staff if their efforts have been tireless rather than tired.

You might occasionally have to visit a supermarket, but the cook is the one who buys local food from the market and negotiates with the fishermen who bring along their daily catch for sale. You won't be tied into a rigid changeover schedule - properties are generally rented by the day - and the Kenyan coast is set just south of the equator so you can rely on a steady tropical heat, at its sunny best through Europe's winter. Best of all, Kenyan villas tend to be much cheaper than their European equivalents and, thanks to the internet, can now be browsed, booked and paid for online.

As a taster, I booked a few nights in Diani House, down a sandy lane 40 minutes south of Mombasa. Shaded by mangrove trees, frangipani shrubs and palms, the low, sprawling building was set in 13 acres of garden that sloped gently down to one of Kenya's best beaches. The villa sleeps 12, with most rooms en suite and opening on to private verandas. Our three-year-old daughter Lucy ran delightedly into the garden, running rings around a vast baobab tree and shrieking with delight.

The atmosphere was relaxed. We didn't have to worry about Lucy falling into the pool, because there wasn't one. The sea that filled the view, sheltered by the offshore reef, was just a short stroll away, shelving gently. A selection of wildlife books and trashy novels were stacked on shelves, while traditional board games made the large-screen satellite television obsolete. A fridge groaned with Tusker beers and trays of ice, while an honesty book for recording your drinks was wedged on a platter between the bottles of typically east African spirits: Chelsea, Churchill and Safari gins, Bond 7 and Top Secret whiskies, and Cane Spirit.

Thanks in part to the excellent University of Tourism in Nairobi, Kenya is awash with inspired chefs but even so Diani House's cook was outstanding. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, yoghurt, home-cooked bread and croissants as well as jams. In the tropical heat the offer of a traditional cooked English seemed rather superfluous. Lunch was gazpacho soup and a feather-light cheese soufflé, while we struggled to fit in the tea of cakes and biscuits before it was time for sundowners.

The waiter, Ali, took care of a meal for Lucy as we watched bushbabies creep from the trees for a snack on a table nailed to a mangrove, and she was tucked up in bed before we started to eat. Dinner began with Shimoni oysters, served raw with lemon, followed by a vast crab, recently wrestled from a nearby mangrove swamp. I find crab rather labour-intensive, especially by candlelight, but not only was this one too large to describe as fiddly, but its flesh had also been scooped out and reloaded, and each limb pre-cracked. Brandies followed, as the sounds of waves filtered across the beach and stars glimmered through the leaves overhead. Life, to be honest, felt pretty good.

Such luxury doesn't come cheap, and Diani House is one of Kenya's more expensive villas. But on any beach in Kenya you catch glimpses of other private properties, usually filled with happy Kenyan families and occasionally tantalisingly empty, half-hidden in the coastal forest and mocking nearby resort hotels with their private informality. You can't gatecrash these on foot, but the internet can offer a cunning entrée into the close-knit society of Kenyan second-home owners. A short walk from Diani House and just the other side of the Nomad hotel, though quietly set at the other side to the bar, I found the White House. From the beach you could just make out a shady veranda through the palms; it was only later, on the internet, that I learnt that this property, with three double en-suite bedrooms and a further room sleeping four children, could be rented for £87 a night.

The same was true of the northern coast. Kilifi is a small village that used to eke an income from pulling a pontoon ferry across Kilifi Creek. A bridge means that traffic now whistles heedlessly by but, as a local told me, it still retains "a kind of cool". A stroll from the Kilifi Bay Hotel and I could see a glimmering pool through the undergrowth and a sturdy, newly built private palace: the Villa Patwa, with space to sleep 10, yours for £120 a day. An hour or so further north and Watamu is one of the nicest villages on the coast: very safe and friendly, with a gently cut-off feel. On this stretch of coast most UK tour operators only offer the choice of all-inclusive Turtle Bay or the slightly snooty game-fishing glamour of Hemingways, but, in between the two, is Palmview House. Set in its own private flower-filled gardens, it offers a charming alternative: available to sleep six for £76 a night, with an overspill cottage in the grounds a few Kenya Shillings extra. I know where I'd rather stay.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

A new direct route on Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com) flies weekly from Heathrow to Mombasa, otherwise there are daily services via Nairobi from where there are onward flights to Malindi. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) also flies from Heathrow to Nairobi.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Nairobi, in economy class, is £14.40. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

Diani House can be booked directly (00 254 40 320 3487; www.dianihouse.com) but the pricing is Byzantine in its complexity. Expect to pay £6,000 a week for a party of 10, staying half-board.

Alternatively, stays can be tailor-made by Somak Holidays (020-8423 3000; www.somak.co.uk), which also offers villas further south at the Cove, from £799 each a week week, including flights from Gatwick on Monarch Airlines and half-board accommodation.

The best selection of beach houses is listed by Nairobi-based Langatalink (00 254 20 891333; www.kenyasafarihomes.com), including the White House and Palmview House. Kenya Beach Rentals (01252 620 243; www.kenya-beachrentals.com) offers Villa Patwa and Kilifi homes.

GETTING AROUND

Thanks to import taxes, car rental usually gets you an ageing car that will be tested by the poor roads.

SAFETY

Though daytime is generally safe, at night you need to take advice before walking on unlit roads or along the beach.

HEALTH

The Kenyan Coast is malarial: though Malarone provides effective prophylaxis this is only available on an expensive private prescription. Consult your GP or travel clinic.

RED TAPE & FURTHER INFORMATION

There is a continued threat from terrorism in Kenya. For further informatoin consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk).

British passport-holders need a visa to visit Kenya. These can be obtained on arrival or from the Kenya High Commission (020-7636 2371; www.kenya highcommission.com) and cost £30.

Kenya Tourist Board (020-7202 6373; www.magicalkenya.com).

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