Kenya Beach Guide 2024
Lying on the equator, with the glaciated peaks of Mount Kenya – second highest mountain in Africa – rising from a natural environment of exceptional beauty, Kenya is a hugely rewarding place to travel.
The country’s dramatically diverse geography has resulted in a great range of natural habitats, while its history of migration and conquest has brought about a complex social panorama.
But if the world-famous national parks, colorful ethnic mix and superb beaches lend an exotic image, the glossy hype of the tourism industry ignores Kenya’s post-colonial poverty and deep political tensions.
Diani Beach ought to fulfil most dreams about the archetypal palm-fringed beach.
The sand is soft and brilliantly white, the sea is crystal-clear turquoise, the reef is a safe thirty-minute swim or ten-minute boat ride away and, arching overhead, the coconut palms keep up a perpetual slow sway as the breeze rustles through the fronds.
As elsewhere in Kenya, all the beach is open to the public; it’s only the access routes that are restricted by some hotels.
Enjoying yourself on Diani isn’t difficult. You can rent snorkelling gear from just about anywhere, and float out across the lagoon to the reef. Remember how fiercely the sun is likely to burn and wear a T-shirt unless you’re very brown.
You need to be a confident swimmer: there are no strong currents nor any real danger, but the reef is 600-1000m away and swimming back on the ebb tide can be tiring.
Alternatively, a trip to the reef at low tide on one of the outrigger canoes is highly recommended. The crews know all the good (or at least the more reasonable) spots for snorkelling and it shouldn’t cost you more than Ksh1000 for an hour or three.
One of the best areas is directly opposite Baobab Beach Resort, about 300m out towards the reef, where there is a cluster of coral heads. The sheltered lagoon behind the reef is also ideal for windsurfing.
When you tire of the beach and the sea, or of just lying under the palm trees, you could rent a bicycle and go off exploring – from about Ksh600 per day.
By matatu, Mombasa with its Old Town and shopping possibilities is an easy enough target for a day out.
There’s also the eighteen-hole par 72 golf course opposite the Leisure Lodge (which runs it) on the north side of the junction.
Kenyatta & Bamburi Beaches
North of Mombasa
These two contiguous stretches of beach, together with Shanzu just to the north, are the heart of the “North Coast”.
If you’re out for the day, there should, in most cases, be little difficulty in visiting a hotel and using its beachfront, especially if you buy some drinks or take a meal there. The exceptions are the “all-inclusive” places, which charge steep daily admission.
The beach itself is entirely public; it’s the access to it which has been progressively restricted by the hotel developers. Either way, Whitesands and Mombasa Serena Beach are the nicest hotels along this stretch.
One beach that is unquestionably public is Kenyatta Municipal Beach, almost the only beach in the country where you’ll see droves of ordinary Kenyans by the seaside.
There’s a great family atmosphere here – and consequently little or no hassle. The beach goes far out at low tide, exposing plenty of coral pools and miles of sand for undisturbed walks.
There are sailing boats for hire and trips offered, and at the fringes under the low coconut trees, pedlars sell ice-creams and sodas, snacks and drinking coconuts, while others rent out inflated car inner tubes.
For many though, the main attraction is Pirates, a combination of waterslides, restaurant and breezy bar, with a similarly relaxed feel.
The slides are a required outing for kids: they’re as good as you’ll find anywhere, certainly in Africa, consisting of one long, steep and fast one, with a big jump, and one curling and gentle. The slides cost Ksh300 per day, or Ksh100 for just the children’s pools.
The restaurant serves good if not amazingly cheap Mediterranean food. It’s also the venue for popular discos (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), with a mixed crowd and music.
North of Mombasa, Mtwapa Creek
For a day-trip out of Mombasa without your own transport, Kikambala, a few kilometers further up the coast, is about as far as you’d want to come (Kilifi-bound matatus and Malindi-bound matatus and buses from Abdel Nasser Road in Mombasa pass here regularly).
Note that the topography here is very flat. The sea goes out for nearly a kilometer and it’s largely impractical for bathing except at high tide, so if you’re just coming for the day, consult a tide table before setting off (daily newspapers print this).
Much of the coastal strip here is still thickly forested and the beach itself is a glorious white expanse, though it’s 2-3km from the highway and there are no matatus.
The only official campsite in the area is at the Kanamai Conference & Holiday Centre, or “Kanamai Youth Hostel”.
The first low-budget beach spot north of Mombasa, it makes a good stop-over, and if you plan to stay more than a night you’re not utterly marooned – there’s usually someone with a vehicle at the site who’ll be going to the dukas on the main road most mornings and, once or twice a week, if you help with petrol, into Mombasa.
You could also splurge on a day pass at the all-inclusive ClubSun’n’Sand, which is another thirty minutes’ walk further north. Unless you happen to be staying at them, the other Kikambala addresses are not worth a special visit.
Kenya’s coastline was submerged in the recent geological past, resulting in the creation of the islands and drowned river valleys – the creeks – of today. Kilifi, a small but animated place, is on such a creek.
When the Portuguese knew it, Kilifi’s centre was on the south side of the creek and called Mnarani (still the name of the village on that side). Together with Kitoka on the north side of Takaungu Creek, and a settlement on the site of the present town of Kilifi, these three constituted the “state” of Kilifi.
The real beaches around Kilifi are mostly accessible only through private property, and the best are up on the open coast to the northeast of the town.
Along this ten-kilometre tarred road, however, there are several fairly recent developments. Distances for the following are given from the main Mombasa-Malindi road.
Baobab Lodge 3.2km, attractively sited amid densely planted gardens and baobabs, in a pleasant position on a bluff above the shore. Tennis courts and a good pool with lots of shade, but little beach to speak of and no sea-swimming at low tide.
The rooms, though, are spacious and well furnished, with AC and fans, but lack sea views. Next door is the Kilifi Beach Club for drinks and average food. Closed May and June.
Kilifi Bay Beach Resort 6.5km. The best of Kilifi’s hotels, with a stunning location right on the beach (the best rooms have stupendous sea views; all have balconies), mature tropical gardens with coconut palms, a freeform pool for when the tide is out, great four-poster beds, spacious makuti -roofed communal areas, good service and decent breakfasts.
Perhaps best left until the end of your stay in Kenya, Lamu may otherwise precipitate a change in your plans as you’re gently lulled into a slow rhythm in which days and weeks can pass by unheeded and other objectives can easily be forgotten.
For many people, Lamu’s deliciously lazy atmosphere is the best worst-kept secret on the coast. Hours can be blissfully spent on a roof or a verandah just watching the town go by, its mood swinging effortlessly from one of the day’s five prayer calls to the next, from tide to tide, and from dawn to dusk.
Lamu is something of a myth factory. Conventionally labelled “an old Arab trading town”, it is actually one of the last viable remnants of the Swahili civilization that was the dominant cultural force all along the coast until the arrival of the British.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lamu’s unique blend of beaches, gentle Islamic ambience, funky old town, and host population well used to strangers, was a recipe which took over where Marrakesh left off.
The one place everyone goes on Lamu is, of course, the beach, which more than repays the slight effort of getting there. The walk is enlivened by the village of Shela, at the start of the beach 3km south of Lamu town, one of three villages on the island.
Fewer people see the interior of Lamu island itself, which is a pity, as it’s a pretty, if rather inhospitable, reminder of how remarkable it is that a town exists here at all.
Much of it is patched into shambas with the herds of cattle, coconut palms, mango and citrus trees that still provide the bulk of Lamu’s wealth. The two villages you might head for are Matondoni and Kipungani.
Dhow trips with a beach barbecue are the stock-in-trade of the waterfront hustlers, and as such are hard to avoid even if you wanted to; always fun, they also give you the chance to see the ruins of Takwa on Manda island.
Whether you enjoy Malindi or not depends, at least in part, on how highly you rate the unsophisticated parts of Kenya, and whether you appreciate a fully fledged resort town for its facilities or loathe it for its tackiness. And of course it depends on when you’re here.
During the summer-holiday season (Malindi’s best month, sea- and weather-wise, is August), as well as in December and January, the town can sometimes be a bit nightmarish. In a busy high season (and it’s a while since Malindi has seen one) everything African seems to recede behind the swarms of window-shopping tourists and Suzuki jeeps.
Even so, Malindi at its worst is still relatively placid compared with, say, Spain or the Greek islands, and off season (reduced here to the long rains only – April to June) can seem positively subdued, as if exhausted. At this time of year, when it is often damp and grey, with piles of seaweed washed ashore, Malindi has the air of a south of England beach resort: the faded muddle of an ageing seaside town – garnished with tropical plants.
Fortunately, Malindi has some important saving graces. Number one is the coral reef. The combined Malindi/Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve encloses some of the best stretches on the coast.
Malindi is also a game-fishing center with regular competitions, and a bit of a surfing resort, too. Good-sized rollers steam into the bay through the long break in the reef during July and August and in early September, whipped up by the southerly monsoon winds which are likely to get you sand-blasted on the beach.
Trips out to the marine park can be arranged with the boat-trip salesmen who make their rounds of Silversands Campsite (and elsewhere) most mornings.
Alternatively, make your own way down to the park office and very pretty beach at Casuarina Point, 5km from town, where you can choose your boat, captain and all.
The six square kilometers of the national park take in the loveliest areas of coral garden, a couple of kilometers offshore, and the trip is worth every shilling you finally agree on.
The snorkeling itself is sublime and, especially if you’ve never done it before, an experience which will stay with you forever.
There are two dive centers, both also diving schools: Scuba diving Malindi, based at the Driftwood, which is the cheaper of the two, and promises “special rates for backpackers”; and Blue-Fin, based at Tropical African Dream Village.
Good diving zones to ask about include Shark Point, Tewa, Barracuda Point and Fargialla.
Nyali Beach, Mombasa
Nyali, the comfortable suburb of Mombasa closest to the town, has a few minor items of interest of its own – apart from three of the North Coast’s main hotels.
Behind Nyali Beach and the hotels, you can’t miss Mamba Village on Links Road. Nothing to do with poisonous snakes, this is the biggest crocodile ( mamba ) farm in Kenya, with hefty entry fees to the “crocodile trail” and film show. A series of semi-natural pools, created in a disused quarry, houses many thousands of crocodiles at all stages of growth.
Also part of the empire is the adjacent Botanical Garden and Aquarium, which includes a thirty-minute guided walk around its snake park and gardens, specializing, no great surprise, in the weirdest things they could find, including carnivorous plants and “fishes which blow up for not being eaten” (i.e. puffer fish).
The main public access to the beach at Nyali is right by the entrance to Nyali Beach Hotel. It gets pretty busy at weekends.
One oddity a little way south is a cave containing a natural lingam (phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva) in the form of a stalacmite, plus a natural rock formation resembling Shiva’s son, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.
The area is maintained as a temple by the local Hindu Union, but visitors are welcome (remove shoes when entering the temple cave) and the site includes a pleasant ledge overlooking the ocean and a roofless cave containing two more Shiva lingam stalacmites.
Coast from Kilifi to Malindi
Ten kilometers before you reach Kilifi, there’s a turn-off to the right to Takaungu. Although there are a couple of matatus most days from Mombasa to Takaungu, the chances of a lift are relatively slim if you get dropped off at the turning, but the walk (5km) is not too long.
Takaungu is enchanting – a quiet, composed village of whitewashed Swahili houses situated on a high bluff above Takaungu Creek.
There are three mosques and one or two small shops and hotelis, but no formal lodgings except for the exceedingly expensive Takaungu House (tel 0125/22479; over Ksh16,000/$215; with deep pool; bookings through Bush Homes of East Africa).
If you want to stay in the village and you speak a little Swahili, people will put you up for a very reasonable price. Food supplies are variable; women will prepare food if you ask, and especially if you supply the ingredients.
There’s no produce market, but a small fish market by the creek – be there when the catch arrives to get the tasty ones.
Takaungu is a place that repays time spent getting to know it. If you just want to sit back and relax, pass it by and head on to Lamu.
There’s a small seaside beach, 1km east, through the secondary school. Takaungu Creek is startlingly beautiful, the colour of blue Curacao, and absolutely transparent; the small swimming beach on the stream is covered at high tide, but you can still dive from the rocks.
Upstream, the creek disappears between flanks of dense jungle.
When you’re ready to move on, the tiny, council-operated rowing boat provides a slow and almost free service across the creek to the Kilifi side; from there, it’s a five-kilometer (ninety-minute) walk through the sisal fields to Kilifi bridge.
On the coast south of Likoni, the first real magnet is Tiwi Beach. Popular among budget travellers having a bit of a splurge, Tiwi rates as genuine tropical paradise material and attracts lots of Anglo-Kenyan families down from Nairobi.
The reef lies just offshore, and there are good snorkelling opportunities at high tide, especially at the northern end.
Beach hustlers and all the attendant hassles have mostly yet to arrive, especially in the northern section (fronted by Sand Island, Capricho and Maweni ).
With the exception of the large new Travellers Tiwi Beach Hotel at its southern end, Tiwi is still cottage territory, with nearly a dozen plots vying with each other for business.
The only restaurants as yet are at Travellers Tiwi Beach Hotel, Tiwi Villas and Twiga Lodge, the latter with the best bar. The main drawbacks (some might say its advantages) are the lack of bars, restaurants and nightlife, and its isolation from the rest of the coast.
There are two roads down to the beach from the main South Coast highway. The first, signposted for Sand Island, Capricho and Maweni , is a narrow sandy track some 17km from the Likoni ferry; the second, about 1.5km further south, has a bigger clump of signboards and is much wider, and more reliable for driving in rain.
Waiting for a ride won’t be a huge problem as there’s a fairly frequent taxi service (it should cost Ksh200-300), and most places will happily pick you up for free from the main road if you call ahead. Taxis from Mombasa cost about Ksh1600.
In the dry season, you can walk to the end of Tiwi Beach and wade across the Mwachema River to Diani Beach and the strange Kongo Mosque, right next to the Indian Ocean Beach Club.
Wasini Island Beach
South Coast Kenya
Wasiniis easily reached. Wasini Island Restaurant (PO Box 281 Ukunda tel 0127/2331 or 3055) will speed lunchers across the channel in their boat, but otherwise you’ll have to hire a dhow. Local people use jahazi , sailing boat “matatus” which – notwithstanding the resentment of the diesel men – you should be able to use, too.
Only 5km long and 1km across, Wasini has just a thousand inhabitants, and is totally adrift from the mainstream of coastal life, although the recent introduction of telephone wires signals change.
There are no cars, nor any need of them: you can walk all the way around the island in a couple of hours on the narrow footpaths through the bush, though few people do.
With something of Lamu’s cast about it, the island is completely undeveloped, and Wasini village , an old Wa-vumba settlement, is built in and around its own ruins. It’s a fascinating place to wander and there’s even a small pillar tomb which still has its complement of inset Chinese porcelain.
The beach in front of the village is littered with shells, but don’t assume anything: a lot of them have been collected from the reef and dumped here, and people will try to sell them to you, so it wouldn’t be wise to treat them as legitimate beachcombings – and, strictly speaking, trade in seashells is illegal in Kenya.
Nevertheless, the wealth of interesting items on the shores of Wasini – not just shells, but shards of pottery, pieces of glass, scrap metal – add up to a beachcomber’s paradise you could explore for hours.
Behind the village is a bizarre village green, an area of long-dead coral gardens now raised out of the sea but still periodically flooded at spring tides. It’s covered in a short swathe of “sea grass” – a tasty vegetable called simply mboga pwani (sea vegetable).
Walking through the coral grottoes with birds and butterflies in the air leaves a surreal impression of snorkeling on dry land.
Wasini has ideal conditions for snorkelling, with limpid water all around.
Both Pilli-Pipa and Wasini Island Restaurant, a few minutes to the west of the village, run full-day trips in large dhows to the reefs around Kisite island, part of Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park, which usually has some of the best snorkeling in Kenya.
Coast from Kilifi to Malindi
After Gedi, Watamu seems fairly superficial. It consists simply of a small agglomeration of hotels, a strip of beachfront private homes, a compact coconut village of hotelis and curio stands, and the beach.
It tends to cater for package holidaymakers staying in the large hotels along it, but there’s still plenty for the backpacker – beautiful beaches, a superb marine park and lively young nightlife.
Although one or two of the hotels are very pleasant, the beach and the coral offshore are the main justification for visiting Watamu. Fortunately, they are justification enough.
This is an exceptional shoreline, with three stunning bays – Watamu Bay, the Blue Lagoon and Turtle Bay – separated by raised coral cliffs and dotted with tiny, sculpted coral islets scuttled over by crabs. If you like beach walks, bring a pair of rubber or plastic-soled sandals – the coral rock is sharp.
Out in the Watamu Marine National Park, the submerged crags of living coral gardens are – despite all the visits in glass-bottom boats – as vivid and magically perfect as they must have been for millennia.
Watamu is a good place to go diving – or to learn the skill, with at least three diving schools offering one-off dives or approved courses at standard rates. It’s worth knowing, however, that from June to October seaweed is often swept onto the beach and the sea can be murky, while in July it’s often too rough to snorkel or dive anyway.
Getting to Watamu is easy, with frequent matatus making the run from Malindi. Buses and matatus between Mombasa or Kilifi and Malindi will drop you at the Gedi junction, leaving you to walk, hitch, wait for a matatu, or take a taxi for the last 6km.
Coming into Watamu itself, the road from Gedi passes the post office before it hits the beach road, which matatus scud up and down all the time. Just north of the junction, behind the post office is a supermarket with, next door, a very pricey internet office.
If you continue up the beach road a little way past the turning for the supermarket, a road off to the right takes you into Watamu village.
Just under a kilometre beyond that, on the left, a superb little reptile park, Bio-Ken, breeds green and black mambas for anti-venom, and houses a large collection of snakes, plus a few tortoises and a token croc, and you’ll be guided round by someone who actually knows a bit about the scaly slitherers.