Kingfish steaks and Swahili cuisine - Travel - The Independent

Kingfish steaks and Swahili cuisine

The words "all inclusive" do not usually feature in my travel vocabulary, conjuring up, as they do, images of stodgy holidaymakers, Stalinesque meal schedules and endless rounds of steak and chips.

I succumbed to two such weeks in Mombasa because watersports were included. I could overlook the food, I rationalised, when such expensive activities as diving and windsurfing were included. After two weeks of Kingfish steaks and traditional Swahili cuisine - all with unlimited alcohol - it was just as well the watersports were on offer, or I might have needed a second seat on the flight home.

All-inclusive holidays at the Shelly Beach hotel, just south of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, began this year in response to the growing number of package deals offered by other hotels on the busier stretches of coastline.

The introduction has not been without cheerful hiccups. In the first week, because of an accidental overlap with the traditional a la carte menu, delighted customers ate their way through 134kg of "all-inclusive" lobster. A fixed menu may now be in place, but Shelly Beach retains much of the idiosyncratic charm that sets it apart from its more luxurious neighbours to the north and south.

The hotel was adapted from a 1920s colonial club. Its large, simple rooms are a throwback to its past, as is the rule (prevalent in many Kenyan hotels) that gentlemen wear trousers for dinner. Set on the beachfront, it has a panoramic view of the Indian Ocean and the sound of crashing surf to sleep by.

Despite the hermetically sealed environments of most Mombasa hotels, where security guards patrol to ensure that (white) guests are not "bothered" by the locals, some people confessed to feeling initially threatened by the relentless throng of beach traders catcalling from the beach. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the best idea was to cultivate one, in the belief that he would ensure the others left us alone.

Nasser, who had worked the beach for 11 years, walked us out to explore the reef, took us snorkelling from his dhow, taught us (possibly the only people in the Western world yet to see The Lion King) the overused phrase "hakuna matata" and offered us the chance to "go flying" with some high-class African grass.

When the endless leisure became unbearable, Nasser offered us a "taxi tour" of Mombasa town. Viewing the old Portuguese port from a sealed- up hotel bus cannot compare with being driven around by two rastafarians in a souped-up 1970s Ford Capri.

We came during an off-peak period (apparently it was the rainy season), so the hotel was only a third occupied. And this probably accounted for some its charm. If the Shelley Beach had been overtaken by a block booking of 50, all determined to get their money's worth from the bar, we would have had a very different stay. It was a perfect place for couples, but a few singles there bemoaned the hotel's tranquillity and isolated location.

It was less easy to feel comfortable about the nightly floor shows of acrobats and local tribes people, who come to perform traditional dances and sell trinkets to guests for whom "all-inclusiveness" had led to an overpowering urge to spend. While it is an obvious way of helping the local economy, those tempted by shields and carved elephants (most of which are not ebony, but hardwoods blackened with boot polish) should remember which items are most common at car-boot sales.

Travellers who do venture out of the luxury of the hotels find that Mombasa is very much a third-world town. There are some useful guilt reducers - take pens, which children clamour for, and give away as much clothing as you can bear.

Despite the tendency of most holidaymakers to make their all inclusives a little too exclusive, the locals were both pragmatic and indulgent of our presence. Take Agnes, our local tour representative. Shepherding a group of us on to the swarming Likoni Ferry, which links Mombasa town with the southern beaches, she told me how two years ago the boat had sunk halfway, with the loss of all 240 on board.

"It was terrible. They laid all the bodies out on the jetty - those that the sharks didn't get. It was a nightmare for me," she said.

I enquired why, nervously eyeing the shore. Had she lost someone?

"No. I had a flight come in that morning and I had to drive my clients all the way across the island so that they wouldn't see. It took hours."

Jojo Moyes paid pounds 719 for a fortnight's all-inclusive holiday with Hayes & Jarvis (0181-748 5050). The price included flights from Gatwick and three days on Safari. British passport holders do not require visas for Kenya. Take expert advice on medical precautions.

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