Dhow boats and dawas: it's time to come back to Kilifi, Kenya

Harriet Constable

written by
Harriet Constable

updated 23.04.2024

With the recent lifting of the British High Commission’s travel ban on parts of the Kenyan coastline, you should once again think about Kilifi when planning your trip to Kenya. At this lesser-known resort around two hours north of Mombasa, you can still sail on dhows in the pristine Indian Ocean and soak up the golden sun on sugar-fine sands. Here, Harriet Constable tells us more about why you should choose Kilifi for a coastal break in Kenya.

Why go to Kilifi?

Kilifi has always been something of a secret. Because of its hidden location, tucked into a the estuary leading to the Goshi River, it has escaped the development that has affected beachside towns like Mombasa and Diani.

Tourism first emerged in Kilifi on a small scale around 25 years ago, when the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Wellcome Trust partnered and set up camp here to research tropical diseases. With the growing influx of non-locals to the area tourism slowly started to grow. The result is that Kilifi is well set-up for tourists, without being busy.

Visitor numbers have taken a hit in recent years due to the British High Commission’s travel ban, but now it’s been lifted, this is the perfect time to support the local community by exploring this lesser-visited corner of the Kenyan coast.


© idfied/Shutterstock

What should I do there?

As you enter the Kilifi area, the busy roads from Mombasa open up to luscious countryside. Palm and baobab trees line the horizon, the latter so alien they somehow look the wrong way up: a thick trunk and a tufty splay of roots sticking indignantly in the air.

The first sight as you cross the Kilifi Bridge is the spectacular creek leaking out into the Indian Ocean: a lusciously calm expanse of azure with just a few yachts nonchalantly floating about. Waves of teal, cobalt and icy blue lap over each other in the shallows while a deep sapphire sea spreads out beyond.

As Kilifi is a calm, tranquil place, it’s somewhere to do not much at all except kick back and relax into the pace of life on the Kenyan coast. But when the beauty of all that lounging on the beach wears off, there are dhow boats (a traditional wooden sailing boat with long thin hulls and a single sail) for hire.

Editor's tip: To add comfort to your journey, also read our guide on when is the best time to travel to Kenya and explore our Kenya itineraries for inspiration.

Dhow Boat Trip, Lamu, Kenya

Sail down the creek at sunset for a most rewarding experience – at this hour, it’s completely still and the estuary is teeming with life. Expect to see plants sprouting happily from the riverbanks and birds skimming across the water silhouetted against the sunset.

Also worth a visit is the Boatyard: an outdoor seafood restaurant overlooking all the old-fashioned ships that sit in the creek – the perfect place for a sundowner.

Where can I stay?

Kilifi isn’t home to the huge resorts other parts of this coastline are popular for, but there are plenty of excellent options for all budgets. Either side of the creek there is a smattering of lodges, hotels, self-catering properties and restaurants.

For a comfortable budget stay, try Distant Relatives eco lodge. It’s relaxed and friendly, with huge cushions made from Kenyan Kanga material, a games room and a bar serving dawas: a cocktail made from vodka, lime juice and honey, garnished with a stick of sugar cane. Accommodation consists of large bandas (houses with bamboo roofs, outdoor showers and composting toilets), and there’s a pool.

Kilifi Konnection has some spectacular rental properties, including a houseboat, while for mid range hotels, try Kilifi Bay Beach Resort, which is set on the beautiful Bofa beach.

There are also a few high-end resorts like Mara Engai for those looking for a little luxury.

How do I get around?

Taxis are available in and around Kilifi but the most convenient way to get from A to B is by Boda (motorbike taxi), Tuk Tuk (a three-wheeled motorbike) or water taxi (small boat).

Tuk Tuks are the preferred on-land option, as long as you don’t mind the spine-jangling effect of filling this small vehicle with passengers. It’s best to book water taxis through your accommodation; then when you reach the harbour they’ll be ready waiting for you.

Explore more of Kenya with the Rough Guide to Kenya. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Harriet Constable

written by
Harriet Constable

updated 23.04.2024

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