The coast is a world apart from “upcountry” Kenya and in many ways it feels like a different country. For a start, Mombasa, Kenya’s second city, is a much easier place to enjoy than Nairobi. With its sun-scorched, colonnaded streets, this is the quintessential tropical port – steamy and unbelievably dilapidated – and it’s fun to shop here, stroll the old city’s alleys, or visit Fort Jesus. To the north and south of Mombasa there are superb beaches and a number of tourist resort areas, but nothing, as yet, highly developed in the Florida or Canary Islands sense. You can certainly enjoy yourself having a lazy time at a beach resort, but there’s a lot more to the coast than recliners, swimming pools and buffet meals.
Most obviously, the beaches are the launch pad for one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. With rented equipment, you can do some spectacular dives, but even with a simple snorkel and mask, which are easily obtained, you can discover what really is another world. The two most spectacular areas are enclosed in marine national parks, around Watamu and Malindi, and at the island of Wasini.
The string of islands that runs up the coast – Wasini, Funzi, Chale, Lamu, Manda, Pate and Kiwaiyu – are all very much worth visiting. Apart from their beach and ocean attractions, most of them have some archeological interest, which is also a constant theme on the mainland: the whole coast is littered with the ruins of forts, mosques, tombs and even one or two whole towns. Some of these – including Fort Jesus, the old town of Lamu and the ruined city of Gedi – are already on the tourist circuit, but there are dozens that have hardly been cleared and make for compelling excursions if you’re adventurous.
Islam has long been a major influence on the coast, and the traditional, annual fast is widely observed during the month of Ramadan, when no food or drinks are consumed during the hours of daylight. Visiting the coast at this time might leave a slightly strange impression of a region where everyone is on night shift, but in practical terms it usually makes little difference. The end of Ramadan is marked by major festivities, as are several other Muslim holidays throughout the year.