When Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrived at MALINDI in 1498, it met an unexpectedly warm welcome. The king of Malindi had presumably heard of Mombasa’s attempts to sabotage the fleet a few days earlier and, no friend of Mombasa himself, he was swift to ally himself with the powerful and dangerous Portuguese. Until they finally subdued Mombasa nearly one hundred years later, Malindi was the Portuguese centre of operations on the East African coast. Once Fort Jesus was built, Malindi’s ruling family was invited to transfer their power base there, which they did, and for many years Malindi was virtually a ghost town as its aristocrats lived it up in Mombasa under Portuguese protection.
Malindi’s reputation for hospitality to strangers has stuck, and so has the suggestion of sell-out. It has an amazingly salacious reputation, and although there was a slump in German tourism after the first AIDS-awareness crisis in the 1980s, a quick glance in some of the bars suggests that the sex safari is back in full swing, now dominated by Italians. As a growing zone for the cultivation of Euros, Malindi is slipping towards cultural anonymity: it can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a Mombasa or a Lamu. While its old centre clings on to some Swahili character, it lacks Lamu’s self-contained tranquillity. And although it makes a good base for visits to Gedi and the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, and for a trip to Lamu, it remains unashamedly geared towards beach tourism.
Consequently, whether you enjoy Malindi or not depends a little 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. It also depends on when you’re here. During December and January, the town can sometimes be a bit nightmarish, with everything African seeming to recede behind the swarms of window-shopping tourists and Suzuki jeeps.
Fortunately, Malindi has some important saving graces. Number one is the coral reef south of the town centre. The combined Malindi/Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve encloses some of the best stretches on the coast, and the Malindi fish have become so used to humans that they swarm in front of your mask like a kaleidoscopic snowstorm. Malindi is also a game-fishing centre with regular competitions, and it’s also something of a surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing resort, too. Good-sized rollers steam into the bay through the long break in the reef, opposite the town, between June and late September, whipped up by the southerly monsoon (kusi) wind. The surfing isn’t world class, but it’s fun, and good enough for boogie boards.
Despite the heavy reliance on tourism, Malindi still has some interest as a Kenyan town with an ancient history, and a few places of interest other than its beach and reef. An interesting old Swahili quarter, one or two archeological and historical sites, a busy market, shops, hotelis and plenty of lodgings all balance out the tourist boutiques, beauty salons and real-estate agencies. As for the Italian influence, the new resident expats have brought the town riches that nowhere else in Kenya can boast – and some of the best pizzas, pasta and ice cream in the whole of Africa – even if the suspiciously dormant state of some Italian businesses makes you wonder how legitimate they all are.