MOMBASA AND THE KENYA COAST – THE TEN TOP THINGS TO DO WHILE ON VACATION
(Posted 19th July 2015)
Surprisingly often are questions asked when I highlight the many attractions the Kenya coast holds for visitors ‘But what shall we do all day long’.
Most hotels and resorts these days have a professional animation team on site, helping holiday makers to pass their time if they do not wish to leave their resorts. Sports, games, song and even dance, there is a long list of activities available for adults and in some places, like the Sarova Whitesands, there is even a kiddies club, taking the youngsters off the hands of their parents for a few hours every day. There they can make friends, learn useful things and most important, have a holiday experience they will be looking forward to repeating a year later.
Still, even after such answers come the questions in about how to pass one’s time when spending a week or longer at the coast, and my own top ten activities outside the resorts perhaps for good give visitors to Mombasa an idea what wide range of activities there are, available as day trips or half day excursions, some at greater and other at lesser cost.
Dhow trips during the day and at night
(Seen here is the Mida Creek Dhow)
One of the most common activities for visitors to the Kenya coast are dhow excursions, and they are available at Watamu’s Mida Creek, the Kilifi creek, the Mtwapa creek and even from Mombasa’s Tudor creek.
Some of these tours are day trips, lunch included and others are sundowner cruises, with drinks and snacks served on board, and in the case of the Mida Creek Dhow, as more recent experienced, this turns out to be more of a meal than a snack, all seafood of course. Perhaps most popular are the evening dinner cruises though, with music on board and a full meal served, again mostly seafood though upon prior notice will the respective operators be happy to arrange for a steak or a vegetarian meal at no extra cost.
The magic to sail the waters of the Indian Ocean, up and down the creeks, along fancy holiday homes up on the cliffs or skirting the mangrove forests and watching myriads of birds, is unforgettable really and those who catch a full moon as they dhow silently glides over the waters, will know there and then what mystique and promise Africa holds, as the big star formations above are close to touching.
Hotel concierges and tour desks will be able to make bookings at one of the dhow operations nearby or even further away, the only difference normally being the time it takes to get there and back again from the resort.
Wild Waters Park Nyali
While I have to rely on the feedback of others – I never did visit them during the more recent travels to the Kenya coast – are the narratives received ranging from just ‘ok’ to ‘great fun’.
On site restaurants in the Food Court allow to spend the entire day in the complex. Kids and adults alike can enjoy the more than a dozen slides, without having to leave for lunch and come back later. Once tired of the water games is there a gaming arcade, a day time disco and a bumper car concourse all of which make Wild Waters a place of choice for those tourists who still need more water over and above the crystal clear Indian Ocean.
In addition are meeting and exhibition facilities available and are team building events hosted by the Wild Waters team. Wild Waters has also hosted weddings, cocktail functins and product launches regularly take place across the sprawling complex which is located in Nyali along the Links Road. Cab drivers and resort courtesy busses know the way and a detailed map for those on self-drive can be found on their website www.wildwaterskenya.com
Hallerpark – the close up wildlife and nature experience
Mombasa’s Haller Park has since its inception in the late 1970s, when the Bamburi Cement quarries looked like moonscapes along the Mombasa Bamburi road, been transformed into a mini garden of Eden and a habitat for some 240 species of birds, over a dozen large mammals, reptiles and even an active Tilapia fish farm, which helps to financially sustain the growing operation of the park while catfish, lungfish and tilapia are also found in the extensive interconnected pond system which traverses the park.
What started as the Bamburi Nature Trail in the second half of the 1970s was in 1999 renamed to specifically recognize the extraordinary conservation efforts made by Dr. Rene Haller and his relentless battle to overcome prejudice and opposition to his project. It is today a site of global renown and won numerous environmental awards. Recognized time and again the Haller Park now is a prime example of how the visual and ecological devastation caused by surface mining can be overcome and turned into a biodiversity hotspot, given the resources and time needed to develop a strategy, carry out the necessary research and then get on with it.
The main part of the park measures more than 200 hectares while the nearby Forest Trails add a further 400 hectares to the rehabilitated area, and as the quarrying expands, eventually these green areas will grow further still.
Haller Park, when staying along the north coast resorts, has become a must see attraction and the cooler climes inside the forest makes visitors the normal coastal heat and humidity almost forget, as they stroll through the well-kept network of paths and tracks, on their own or accompanied by one of the parks guides to explain the history and biodiversity as it now presents itself. In fact, the nearby Forest Trails is often used for cycling across the 600 hectares of rehabilitated quarries. Cycling is only possible at Forest Trails of course as the main Haller Park is strictly for conservation and educational purposes while the Forest Trail embraces some commercial aspects too to raise much needed funds to carry out the ongoing work as more empty quarries are handed over to them.
Visit in person when in Mombasa, a half day or full day trip no one this correspondent spoke to ever regretted or pay them a virtual visit via www.lafarge.co.ke/wps/portal/ke/4_A_3-Haller_Park
Kenya has some excellent diving grounds along the reefs which run along the almost entire coast line. Many resorts have PADI diving centres located on site and many of those offer free diving lessons for beginners, using the swimming pools for some initial experience. Courses are offered by all of them of course, at a cost which differs slightly from resort to resort, introducing newcomers to the wondrous underwater world which awaits them as they descend into the deep.
Unlike snorkeling does scuba diving offer a much wider experience as the diving novices and their instructors slowly go deeper to explore either the nooks and crannies of the reef or else got close up to some of the sunken ships which can be found in some places.
For those planning to learn how to dive while on a vacation along the Kenya coast should best contact their resort of choice in advance to pre-arrange a course and avoid disappointment should the in-house diving centre be fully booked and other options taken which involve drives to other hotels.
Course participants get certified after passing the relevant exams and can then on future visits build on the experience and move to the advanced stages of diving.
Snorkeling has often been described as ‘scubadiving light’ but there are marked differences between the two ocean sport activities. Those conversant with the practice will no doubt enjoy the views underwater near the reefs but again, many of the water sport centres at the resorts offer courses for those who want to learn how to snorkel. Like with diving it is an important safety measure to go out in pairs or as a larger group to keep an eye on each other and instructors, for those taking a course, will keep a close watch over their novices.
Once out on the reef does the colourful underwater world open up, seen from the surface with the eyes, shielded from the salt water by a mask, able to discover and explore.
Arguably the best experience do visitors have inside the various marine national parks, which stretch from Malindi to Watamu and all the way along the north coast, south coast towards the border with Tanzania. Tour desks and concierges or client relations staff in the resorts will be happy to make recommendations and organized tours to the marine parks are on offer.
Glassbottom boats to the reefs
Glassbottom boats taking visitors to Kenya’s beach resorts out to the reefs are the ‘stay dry’ alternative for those shy of getting into the water or not quite ready yet to don the diving gear or put on a mask and bite on a snorkel and get into the water.
While the view from the glass bottom boats is limited to the area immediately underneath the boat do the skippers know their craft and make sure that those inside the boats see what impressive marine life has made the reefs their home. If there is one added advantage of staying dry it is being able to have a drink on board while of course those in the water, diving or snorkeling, at best get a mouthful of seawater but no juices, soft drinks or cold beers.
Going out by glass bottom boat, most resorts again have in-house operators offering such tours – licensed and insured of course – is one of the key activities first time visitors to the Kenya coast simply have to do and something even repeat visitors continue to enjoy, bouncing on the waves and seeing fish swim up directly underneath the boat.
Skydiving in Diani
In the absence of bungee jumping at the Kenya coast is sky diving the second best, and many think better option anyway. Skydive Diani operates out of the Ukunda airfield and offers both the conventional jump school for anyone with the guts to try it out, including a full free fall course.
For novice tourists though does the sky diving club offer tandem jumps where those daring enough find their own harness strapped to that of a skydiving instructor who will do all the work while the ‘passenger’ has the opportunity to enjoy the view, first out of the plane, then when falling and then when – after the chute has opened – gliding silently down towards the beach below.
www.skydivediani.com is five star rated by TripAdvisor and the testaments of those who conquered their own fears of heights and falling or jumping out of a plane are legion, full of praise and describing the excitement.
All the resorts’tour desks, client relation staff and concierges know how to contact the sky divers and the experience is worth the cost involved.
Skydive Diani can also be found and followed on Facebook, where potential ‘jumpers’ can read up and see what to expect. No doubt, this is one of the Kenya coast’s most adrenaline raising experiences and for those who suddenly can’t get enough after the first jump, there is always another day for another try.
A safari to the Shimba Hills National Park
The 300 square kilometre large, or small Shimba Hills National Park is located in the county of Kwale south of Mombasa and is the nearest national park to the resorts and hotels along the Mombasa north and south coast. Easily reached from the award winning Diani beaches and their fancied resorts can visitors access the park within an hour after leaving their hotels. The main attraction for visitors are the elephant but there is a wide variety of other mammals and even predators found in the park too, and the flora, for those interested, is equally interesting. Over 100 species of birds, including over 20 endemic species are found at the Shimba Hills National Park
The normal coastal heat and humidity is not felt in the park and the tour provides a safari close up and personal without having to either fly inland or else travel for hours to reach Tsavo and the Taita Hills. Anyone who wants to get a first glimpse of wildlife while staying in particular at Diani or Tiwi, Msambweni or Shimoni, this is the hottest tip unless watching Animal Planet of National Geographic is an acceptable substitute.
A visit to Shimba Hills can be booked through the tour desks at the resort, either as a private trip with a car and driver exclusively for one or two clients or else by just buying a seat in a safari vehicle on an organized regular tour departure. Hot tip: No visit to Kenya is complete with at list a sniff of a safari experience and a day tour to Shimba Hills provides exactly that.
Wasini Island – a trip back in time
Wasini Island, at times called Lamu’s little sister, provides visitors with a trip back in time. From most of the Diani resorts is it less than an hour and a half to get there, along the main road which connects Mombasa via Ukunda to Lunga Lunga, the border post with Tanzania.
The turn off to Wasini is near Shimoni and on arrival are visitors allowed to drop their jaws and utter their regular ‘Awesome’ expressions because the scenery is indeed just that.
Fishermen in canoes, outriggers or small dhows are regularly seen criss crossing the crystal clear waters, and for those with food in mind, yes, the lunch on this day trip is largely made up of fresh seafood, literally from the ocean into the pots and on to the plates.
Wasini few resorts, among them the Blue Monkey Cottages, are without main power supply and use mostly solar power and in rare cases a generator. Telecommunications are assured though, the one major step into the 21st century for the few hundred people who call Wasini their home.
The day tour includes transport to and from the Diani resorts, lunch, snorkeling and for those keen even diving, the latter at extra cost. Sail out with the Blue Monkey Cottages’ own Blue Dhow and perhaps, depending on the season, see whales or even swim with dolphins inside the Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park.
At the end of the tour, if time still permits, take a walk across the island, the best way to understand how laid back life on Wasini is and how coastal communities can still live life the way their forebears did.. For more information check out www.wasini.net
Playing Golf while at the Kenya coast
Many airlines offer the free uplift, over and above the regular baggage allowance, of golf bags, though some limit their weight to 20 kilograms. This makes play with one’s own clubs easy but equipment is for hire at the respective Pro-Shops of course.
Along the Kenya coast can several courses be found, some offering what can best be described as safari golf while at least some offer championship golf facilities.
Among the better courses are the Nyali Golf and Country Club and several hotels and resorts along the coast north of Mombasa have arrangements with the club to allow guests to play there, of course against green and caddy fees and at times temporary membership dues.
At Diani however is a true championship course open for players, opposite the Leisure Lodge Resort complex and the 18 holes are as demanding as they come.
No doubt though in this author’s mind is the coast’s latest addition, Vipingo Ridge, the non plus ultra of playing golf in Kenya today. Build to the exacting standards of the US Professional Golfers Association was Vipingo earlier this year rated as Kenya’s best course by Jim McCann of Top 100 Golf Courses, when the Kenya Tourism Board brought him and other editors of leading golf magazines to Vipingo to sample the course and the accommodation. An own hard surface airstrip even offers daily scheduled flights from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport by local airline Safarilink, should a keen golfer who is in Nairobi already want to play a round or a few in Vipingo.
And in closing there is one final mention, an absolute bonus activity for the ladies who visit the coast.
They really may want to try out Henna skin paintings, an age old custom and tradition amongst the Swahili people of the Kenya coast. They can show off these art works on their skin when they get home, to the envy of their friends no doubt. After all, whoever has been to Kenya is allowed some bragging rights, no?