THE HEART OF KENYA?
In a sense, yes. Long before Nairobi became the country's capital it was the coastal city of Mombasa that was the focus of Kenya's political affairs. East Africa's oldest harbour city attracted traders from Portugal, India and the Arab world; its prevailing cultural legacy was left by Omani Arabs, whose intermarriage with coastal inhabitants formed the Swahili people. It is from Swahili that the national language – Kiswahili – is taken.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
Around 500km long, the coast makes up the second smallest segment of Kenya's irregularly shaped hexagon, bordering Tanzania to the south, Somalia to the north and with the seductive Indian Ocean to the east. Incomers have been landing on the coast for centuries..
Kenya's second biggest city, Mombasa, continues to be the main point of arrival, although these days this tends to be by plane (from Nairobi or one of the national parks), train (from the capital) or road, rather than by water. Mombasa lies on a small island, connected to the coast proper by two main roads and a ferry. The nucleus of Swahili society is a fascinating clutter of Arabic, East African and European history and life here is about as hectic as it gets on the otherwise laid-back Kenyan shore.
Traffic lights arrived on the island city just two years ago and the chaos of the matatus (public minibuses) and tuk tuks can at first put visitors off. You'll have to pay the city a visit, since you have to cross onto the island to venture to any of the beach resorts to the north or south. However, stopping for a short while makes for a fantastic introduction to the history and culture of the coast.
WHAT ABOUT BEACH LIFE?
If it's white sand beaches, temperate turquoise water and palm trees you're after, then you won't be disappointed. Mombasa's north and south coasts both provide idyllic expanses of soft sand and tropical water. To the south are the resorts of Diani and Tiwi, both replete with modern hotels and restaurants. Don't let that put you off: Diani opens onto a vast expanse of white sand and is probably the most picturesque of Kenya's beaches. If you're after isolation, then press on south to Msambweni, where the upscale Msambweni House (00 254 20 357 7093; www.msambweni-house.com) is the only hotel of note. Perched on a cliff overlooking deserted, pristine coastline, it offers chic suites from €320 (£267), full board. To the north, the upmarket neighbourhood of Nyali beach overlooks Mombasa island, leading up to Kenyatta, one of two public beaches that throngs with locals at weekends. Beyond is exclusive Shanzu, where camels await punters on the sand and the calm ocean shelves into Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve (www.kws.org/marine.html). The entire reserve covers around 200sq km and is a marine haven that has yet to become a mainstream diving destination. Most hotels offer trips out to the coral reef. The Serena Beach Hotel (00 254 20 354 8771; www.serenahotels.com) in Shanzu has a dive centre for its guests, with complimentary glass-bottom boat rides and snorkelling trips on the reef. Doubles at this smart Swahili village-style resort start at $220 (£126), including breakfast.
Around two hours' drive north of Shanzu are the neighbouring resort towns of Watamu and Malindi. The beach resorts open onto a slightly wilder coastline, where white sand is patched with coral that creeps up from the Malindi Marine National Park (00 254 41 312 744; www.kws.org/malindi.html), a biosphere reserve that stretches from Mida Creek just south of Watamu, up to Malindi. The marine parks open 7am-6pm daily, admission $10 (£5.70).
I WANT TO GO WILD
You could easily spend a week or more enjoying more than just the beaches. The principle attraction is the coral reef, which is rich with marine life – over 600 species of fish have been recorded in Watamu Marine Park alone, with endangered sea turtles nesting on its beaches several times a year. In this protected area, you'll see a dizzying array of tropical fish, with the possibility of seeing whale sharks, manta rays and even dolphins further out to sea. Humpback whales also put in an appearance during July and September.
If diving doesn't float your boat, big-game fishing is also popular in Watamu, particularly from Hemingways Resort (00 254 122 32624; www.hemingways.co.ke), which operates a strict tag and release policy. A day at sea regularly yields marlin and yellowfin tuna. A full day's charter costs £420 for four people.
FROM SURF TO TURF
Most big hotels offer safari excursions. Hemingways will fly you down to Tsavo East, Kenya's biggest national park, at dawn. You arrive in time for breakfast in the bush and a game drive before flying back to the hotel for lunch. Trips cost £175 per person. Alternatively, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest (00 254 42 3246; www.kws.org/arabuko.html; admission $20/£11.40) is East Africa's largest tract of coastal forest and is home to birds, butterflies, monkeys and around 80 elephants.
One place where elephant sightings are almost guaranteed is Shimba Hills (00 254 40 4159; www.kws.org/shimba.html), a national reserve in the hills above Diani beach where you can overnight in a banda (hut) among birds and bushbabies for $35 (£20) per person, room only.
The region is home to mambas, cobras, puff adders, pythons and more. Alternatively, ophidiophobics can overcome their fear at the Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu (00 254 42 32303; www.bio-ken.com; open daily 10am-noon and 2pm-5pm; Ksh700/£5.60). The farm is one of the world's top research facilities for anti-venom, but also opens its doors to the public. Some of the most venomous snakes (boomslangs and puff adders) are on display, as well as more agreeable reptiles such as turtles, terrapins and frogs. After a guided tour from resident expert Royjan Taylor, even if you don't come away a fan of snakes, you'll at least understand their importance in keeping rats away from farmers' crops. Royjan also organises snake safaris, tracking down a reptilian "big five"; one-day safaris cost from $70 (£40) per person.
For an introduction to Swahili culture, start in Mombasa's Arab-built old town. Men haul huge wheelbarrows stacked with wood and coconuts, while pedestrians slip into doorways to let them pass; fruit is spread out for sale on cloths on the street side; young boys wearing kofia caps play outside their homes; the muezzin's call drifts through the humid air. The old town's cultural heritage is embodied by the architecture – centuries-old carved wooden door frames reveal Arabic, Gujarati and British designs.
The scene is halted on the periphery by the dramatic Fort Jesus. The imposing ochre fort presides over the harbour mouth on the eastern tip of the island and was built by the invading Portuguese in the late 16th century in the shape of a man, hence the name. It opens daily 8am-6pm, admission Ksh800 (£6.50). The cultural hotch-potch radiates further out, too. While the old town is home to 15 mosques, in the modern city you'll find Lutheran, Evangelistic and Pentacostal churches and the beautifully kept Shree Cutch Satsan Swarminarayan Hindu temple on Bajun Road in the city centre. Visitors are welcome; look out for the colourful wall reliefs warning against alcohol and eating meat.
Another excursion from Mombasa is the Akamba Handicraft Workshop (00 254 41 343 4396; www.akambahandicraftcoop.com) on the road from the airport to the island. Around 3,000 artisans work for the co-operative in a complex of thatched workshops. Visitors can wander around to see the region's wood carvings and woven baskets being made. A large warehouse sells the produce onsite. The workshop opens daily 8am-6pm, admission free.
Just outside Watamu, the Arabuko Sokoke forest conceals the enchanting Gedi ruins. The trees open to reveal the ruins of a 12th-century Swahili village, scattered among baobab, tamarind and neem trees and overrun by Sykes monkeys. Abandoned in the 17th century, it lay undiscovered until 1948. During excavations, porcelains from China, glass beads from Venice and scissors from Spain unearthed from the intricate stone houses and mosque revealed Gedi's trading prominence – yet the village is curiously distant from the coastline, adding to its mysterious appeal. The ruins open daily 7am-6pm, admission Ksh500 (£4). An extra Ksh100 (80p) buys you a climb up to a vantage point at the top of a baobab tree.
HOW CAN I GET THERE?
The writer travelled with Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.com), which offers seven nights on the Kenyan coast from £979 per person, including flights to Mombasa, transfers and seven nights' half board at the Serena Beach Hotel.
Alternatively, British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies to Nairobi from £385.70 return. From there you can connect to Mombasa via Air Kenya (00 254 20 605 745; www. airkenya.com). You can also travel by road from Nairobi in about six hours, but could break the journey midway at Tsavo National Park.
Desert island bliss: Lamu, Manda and Pate
Where Tanzania has Zanzibar, Kenya has Lamu, an archipelago comprising three islands: Lamu, Manda and Pate. The focus is Lamu, which contains just four settlements, interspersed by dense, protected mangroves along the east coast and an almost uninterrupted stretch of wild beach to the west. Perhaps the most seductive of Swahili communities (and one of the oldest), the Unesco-heritage listed Lamu Town is a cluster of coral stone and lime houses pinched together along the waterfront. Donkey and cart is the mode of transport and the streets and alleys are tapered to the point where the buildings almost seem to prop one another up. The animated market square, with its meat and fish halls – long, dark passages with slabs of unidentifiable meats and goats' heads and tropical fish displayed on wooden benches – and dhow-cluttered jetties, belie a laid-back society that is one of the coast's most welcoming destinations.
After exploring Lamu Town, tourists often make for the beach resort of Shela, which has a noticeably more European feel and a smattering of upmarket hotels. However, for a taste of desert island paradise, make for the island's most south-easterly extremity where Kipungani Explorer (00 254 20 444 6651; kipungani.heritage-eastafrica.com) epitomises isolated bliss. The hotel's 13 makuti-thatched bandas have electricity for only part of the day and the resort works closely with the neighbouring village of Kipungani – half of the staff come from the village and the residents provide labour and much of the materials for the hotel. Overlooking the channel between the Indian Ocean and mainland, access is by private boat transfer only. Double bandas start at $420 (£240), full board.