The Kenyan coast is lined with a mixture of beautiful white sand beaches and tourist resorts, interspersed with Arab and Portuguese forts, overgrown ruins of Swahili outposts, and old trading port towns that are the remnants of its fascinating history.
Spectacular coral reefs with colourful plant and fish life provide world-class snorkelling and diving among pristine coral gardens in the pleasantly warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The marine parks at Malindi, Watamu Bay, and Shimoni contain undisturbed coral reefs and enormous fish due to the lack of coastal fishing traffic.
Mombasa is the centre of activity in the region and Kenya's second largest city. North of Mombasa, the coast is lined with resort complexes catering mainly to package tourists, with luxury accommodation, fine cuisine, and excellent services. Calm waters and palm-backed beaches are in abundance. Further north is the resort town of Malindi, as well as Watamu Bay and the islands of the Lamu Archipelago.
The vast Tsavo National Park is only an hour's drive from Mombasa along the main highway to Nairobi, and for administrative purposes is divided into the East and West. Covering 8,422 sq miles (21,812 sq km), the park is home to giraffe, buffalo, antelopes, monkeys, many exotic birds and Kenya's largest herds of elephant. The elephant often look startlingly red, covered in the dust and mud of the region's ruddy soil. Visitors are also likely to see rhinos - after being virtually wiped out by poachers in the 1980s their population now numbers almost 200; most are found in the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. Poaching has now practically been eliminated and the elephant population is also increasing; there are now around 5,000 animals, up from 3,000 in 1985, but still short of the 25,000 that are estimated to have roamed the park in the 1960s. Another exciting attractions is an observation tank in one of the park's pools from which visitors can get a close-up view of hippos, crocodiles and tropical fish in their natural habitat. Some of the roads in the park are in bad condition and it can be difficult driving but if you head out on organised game drives there'll be no problem.
A gentle and relaxed holiday destination, Lamu is Kenya's oldest inhabited town and the unhurried way of life has changed little over the centuries. Part of the Lamu Archipelago, Lamu town (on Lamu Island) is reached by boat from the mainland. The narrow, winding streets are crowded with pedestrians, markets, vendors and donkeys. Lamu's lovely old Arab houses feature intricately carved doors and lintels, and mosques decorate the streets of one of the last remaining Swahili towns from a civilisation that used to be the cultural force along the coast.
A dhow trip is a mandatory holiday outing and sailing around the little islands or to the beautiful beaches is a memorable experience. There are plenty of tour guides ready to show tourists around the archipelago by dhow, and visitors can find them along the seafront by looking for the bright blue shirts of the Promise/Ahadi organisation. The Takwa ruins on Manda Island and ancient settlements on Pate are great attractions to visit. Shela Beach, on the north end of Lamu island, is a beautiful white sand beach popular for sunbathing and watersports. For a sense of local history and Swahili culture, visitors can explore the Lamu Museum, the Swahili House Museum, or Lamu Fort.
Situated on the beach 60 miles (40km) north of Mombasa is the lazy, unashamedly hedonistic holiday resort of Malindi. For most the main attraction is the dazzling white sandy beaches that line the shore. However, for the more adventurous, there is also excellent fishing to be done while on holiday in Malindi. Trips leave early in search of barracuda, tuna and marlin, before the heat of the day sets in.
One of the few authentic Portuguese relics left on the coast can be found on the cliffs at the southern end of Malindi harbour - the cross of Vasco da Gama bears the Portuguese coat of arms and commemorates his arrival here in 1498, definitely worth seeing on any Malindi holiday.
South of Malindi are the Watamu and Malindi Marine National Parks. These protected areas of white coral beaches and stunning blue lagoons are a major holiday attraction for snorkellers and scuba divers. Malindi holidaymakers are also drawn here as the sea is crystal clear in contrast with the Malindi holiday resorts' waters, which are muddied by the Sabaki River. Between the two marine parks is the abandoned 15th century Swahili town of Gedi, where visitors can wander around the ruins of the palace, market place, houses, mosques and pillared tombs.
The hot and humid holiday destination of Mombasa is the biggest port on the east coast of Africa, serving five different countries and located at the beginning of the only railway that crosses the Kenyan interior, built by the British in 1901. Mombasa is situated on an island linked to the mainland by bridges and surrounded by a natural harbour where commercial shipping mixes with traditional sailing dhows.
The main Mombasa holiday attraction is the commanding 16th-century fort protecting the entrance of the harbour, Fort Jesus, whose remnants relay the story of a historic struggle for control of the coast between the Portuguese and Arabs. Behind this, on Treasury Square, is the Government Game Department's Ivory Room, exhibiting elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, hippopotamus teeth and other animal trophies confiscated from poachers or taken from dead animals on the reserve.
Mombasa's Old Town retains a strong Arab flavour and is the true heart of the city, with an intricate pattern of winding streets alive with the colours of the traditional wrap-around clothing, crammed with faded houses and street sellers, and filled with the heavy scent of spices. It is best to visit the Old Town with an official guide when on holiday, as mugging is not uncommon.
As a large city, Mombasa operates as the holiday hub of the coastal tourism trade, despite its lack of attractive beaches, so most visitors stay long enough to look around before heading either north or south to one the beautiful beach resorts nearby.
The coast of Kenya is idyllic and apart from its lovely palm-fringed beaches, colourful underwater worlds, and luxury resorts, it is also an interesting region historically. When visitors have had their fill of the sun and sea, they can explore ancient Arab and Portuguese forts and old Swahili outposts.
Mombasa is likely to be the starting point of coastal explorations in Kenya and although the port city can be quite overwhelming, there are some worthwhile tourist attractions for those who have time to spare before hitting the beaches.
The Tsavo National Park is a short distance from the city and provides a great opportunity for some game viewing. North of Mombasa the coast has luxury resorts that capitalise on the rich coral reefs and beautiful scenery. Malindi is a popular resort town and the islands of the Lamu Archipelago are also delightful.
The south coast of Kenya was once remote and inaccessible, covered in lush forest and infamous for its slave trade and tropical plantations. But today, little of the forest remains and it has become part of Kenya's mainstream tourist trade.
The region's popularity is due to its image as a haven of unspoilt white beaches and azure seas, where calm waters and well-preserved coral reefs invite underwater exploration. The coast is host to a wide range of resorts offering excellent facilities, but also has many less developed getaways. The small fishing village of Shimoni is home to a series of deep coastal caves and is a popular base for diving and deep-sea fishing.
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