Best beaches in Kenya: a complete guide to the coast
Founder Ben is a Kenya expert and complete beach lover. Here he breaks down all the options from Lamu in the North to Diani in the South
Operations & Marketing Development
04 Oct 2021
13 Feb 2023
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Founder Ben is a Kenya expert and complete beach lover. Here he breaks down all the options from Lamu in the North to Diani in the South – with the aim of helping you work out which will work best for your holiday.
I like the Kenya coast a lot. So much so that a few years ago I was asked by the Kenya Tourist Board asked me to be the face of a short campaign to promote it. What’s more they even paid me to do it. I felt rather self-important and told all in the office my days of tour operating were numbered.
So, when the resulting package came out… my wonderful colleagues wasted little time in dissecting my performance, and lets just say Hollywood won’t be in my future! You can see it here if you like.
I’ll stick to writing!
Choices, choices, choices...
The choices you face when going on safari to Kenya are pretty straightforward. Not been on safari before? Well then you’ll definitely be heading to the Masai Mara and won’t be missing out on the Great Rift Valley either. Or if you’ve been to Kenya before and already know your warthog from your wildebeest – then Samburu of the beguiling wilderness of the Laikipia plateau will be high on the menu I’m sure. And or those that like to live out where the real winds blow, Turkana, Baringo, Bogoria, Meru, the Matthews range will all feature high in planning discussions… all true wilderness environments that provide opportunities to get really off the beaten track and have a real adventure.
In short – despite Kenya’s plethora of safari options, choosing which one to explore is rarely that hard once you break it down. The same however can not be said of the Kenya coast. And this is the reason for this article… whatever Kenya safari you do – you’ll probably want to wash off the dust on Kenya’s truly world class coast – but choosing where to go isn’t immediately obvious. In the course of the next few hundred words I’ll seek to describe and compare the different parts of Kenyas coast – it measures some 500 odd kilometres from top to bottom. 500 kms of exotic, alluring and captivating coastline!
Lamu is Kenyas oldest settlement… it dates back to the 1300’s when Omani sailors came down the coast on Dhows trading dates, spices and probably in all likelihood people.
But most people don’t go to the coast just for culture… you have Nairobi Museum if that’s all you want… you go for beaches, the wind in your hair, cocktails at sunset and perhaps a dhow drip to a deserted island. And Lamu has all this in abundance.
Truth be told, Lamu is a hard place to accurately ‘capture’ on the page… without hyperbole I’d say it is one of the most unique human settlements on earth. Its mix of location, climate, history & culture and an eclectic mix of humans drawn from the four corners of the globe makes it utterly captivating.
But back to the point… why go here for that precious week of your holiday?
Off the beaten track beaches…
Boat trips to the seldom visited paradise beaches of Kiwayu Island
Malindi once used to be great… a selection of well endowed resort hotels situated along a gorgeous white sandy beach.
That was then. Now it’s tired and the same hotels look like dinosaurs – relics from a time when the words ‘boutique’ and ‘hotel’ were never used together and 200 room hotels on the other side of the world with big buffets and evening entertainment were the height of sophistication.
Unless you have a specific reason to be there – and there are a handful of good ones – namely visiting Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve which has over 200 species of birds and some elusive elephants that you’ll definitely not see, and secondly to see the Gede Ruins - the remains of an 11th century Swahili town – then I suggest you cross this off your list.
Hemingways Hotel, Ocean Sports, Watamu Marine National Park, Tribe Watersports and a wide array of beach villas are just a few of the very good reasons to rule a holiday to Watamu ‘in’ to your planning considerations.
Only a short distance down the coast from Malindi – so easily accessible from Malindi Airport – Watamu is really just a sleep coastal town. But thanks to a handful of hotels – Hemingways Watamu chief among them – and a plentiful supply of beach villas stretched out along its gorgeous 5km long beach – it has evolved into a first class beach destination.
Who will Watamu suit best?
For watersports enthusiasts – the wind is marginally stronger here than south of Mombasa so kite surfers should consider Watamu as a base. Tribe Watersports run by Ben Kelliher is one of Kenya’s best operations and can organize paddle boarding, and water-skiing / wakeboarding too. (www.tribe-watersports.com)
If you’re planning a family holiday to Kenya, then definitely consider a beach villa in Watamu for the time on the beach. Taking a serviced villa can be considerably cheaper than staying in a hotel, and has the added benefits of privacy and having your own space. Of course this means you don’t have ‘in house’ facilities like a spa or watersports – but all these things are easily arranged when you know how (which we do 😊)
Compared to Lamu and Diani there isn’t as much choice on the hotels front; I can list them all here actually (in descending order of standard / cost); Hemingways Watamu, Medina Palms, Lonno Lodge, Ocean Sports & Turtle Bay. Of course there are plenty of other lower profile places to stay… but none of them of the required calibre given you’ll have travelled halfway around the globe to be here.
Last thing to mention about Watamu is that it does have a great party vibe… particularly during the main holiday seasons. So if you’re travelling with sociable teens intent on dancing the night away – Watamu is for you… or rather them 😊.
With a picturesque creek, professional water sports centre and appealing beach bars, Kilifi appeals to the younger crowd. Roughly halfway between Mombasa and Watamu, it has its share of lovely white sandy beaches, but somehow its always flown under the radar.
This is probably because Kilifi is not as straightforwardly accessible when compared to Diani, Malindi & Watamu and Lamu – all of which have airports that enable you to be on the beach within 30 minutes of touching down on the tarmac.
When my step dad Phil lived in Kenya in the 1960’s Kilifi was where he’d spend his time on the Kenya coast. Many of the well off from Nairobi and upcountry Kenya built their beach houses along Bofa Beach, and unlike other parts of the coast where mass tourism has taken over, in present-day Kilifi the vibe hasn’t changed that much.
Nowadays Kilifi is somewhere to go for an uncomplicated and relaxing holiday by the sea staying in a beach villa or one of the few hotels. Deep sea fishing, seafood, perhaps some sailing or water sports, less tourists and more travellers, reading a book by the pool whilst being fanned by the cooling trade winds… if this all sounds good to you, then you’ll probably enjoy Kilifi.
Notable places to stay
Distant Relatives Eco-lodge is a magnet for backpackers;
Salty’s Kitesurf Village on Bofa Beach has 12 rooms and is a popular beach bar and kitesurf centre;
Mnarani Club – which is at the mouth of Kilifi Creek and has a good sailing centre.
MOMBASA & NORTHERN BEACHES
When I was a lad back in mid 1980’s Nyali Beach and Shanzu Beach to the north of Mombasa were the places to go to for our annual two week beach holiday on the Kenya Coast. Voyager Beach Resort and The Serena Beach Hotel were THE places to stay.
Unfortunately since then, Mombasa – Kenya's second city – has expanded dramatically and its urban sprawl has largely engulfed this part of the coast.
Give the incredible choice on offer on Kenya's coast – it is certainly not where I would recommend selecting for a holiday on the Kenya coast. The one exception to this is the Serena Beach Hotel… it is at the northern end of Shanzu beach… so further away from Mombasa, and is a wonderfully run, high quality beach hotel that I recommend highly.
It is easy to forget that the Kenya coast isn’t just about the beaches… it has a fascinating history, and over the past 500 years Mombasa in particular has played host to some of the most dramatic episodes in the battle for supremacy in the Indian Ocean. For anyone wanting to explore this history, a guided tour of Mombasa’s Old Town, with the ancient Fort Jesus the highlight, is a must.
If you’d like to do this, then in Mombasa Town itself – the Tamarind Hotel is by far the best place to stay. Situated near the bridge, it has wonderful views out over the sea to Mombasa Island. Known for its Arabic décor, stylish suites and legendary seafood restaurant, they can organize cultural tours to see the old town.
Additionally they operate the famous Tamarind Dhows – a lunchtime dining experience aboard two traditional sailing dhows that explore the locality of Mombasa island and the nearby coast as you enjoy a traditional seafood platter or similar. Find out more...
Diani (and its neighbouring beaches of Tiwi and Galu) is by far the best known and most established of Kenya’s coastal holiday locations. And with good reason – the combination of beaches, coral reef and warm waters here are astonishing. One of the few beaches that when you step onto it – will take your breath away… I talk from experience here… living in Diani for 3 months in early 2021, I was stopped in my tracks each and every single time I stepped onto that beach.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, it really is one of the best beach environments in the world.
Anyway, lets stick to the facts before I get carried away with more superlatives.
Go to Diani because.
Air links. The airport (called variously Ukunda or Diani Beach) is less than 10 minutes drive from most of the hotels and beach houses. Time efficiency on a holiday matters much more than many people realise.
Safari to Beach. There is a direct flight from the Masai Mara to Diani…. so you could potentially start your day with a game drive or a hot air balloon flight over one of the worlds most famous safari areas, then after boarding a flight from a dirt airstrip in the Mara you could be walking through the warm waters of the Indian ocean by mid afternoon. I can’t think of anywhere else on earth that offers the potential for such a rich pairing of unique and world class experiences in the same day.
Watersports galore on tap. Most hotels will have a store of the basics… perhaps an old windsurfer, some snorkelling gear, fins, a S.U.P and body boards. But anyone wanting up to date equipment, can head to one of the dedicated watersports centres situated intermittently along the beach.
Kitesurfing. Diani is the focal point for Kenya’s burgeoning kitesurfing scene. Consistent conditions (a steady afternoon breeze, warm water and sunshine ) for most of the year and the wide white beach means that on some days there can be as many as 200 hundred kites flying at the same time… an effervescent and colourful scene.
Wide variety of accommodation. There is something for everyone in Diani. Where it’s an affordable beach house with a pool for a family holiday, a laid back beach lodge, or a stylish boutique hotel for the classic ‘idyllic honeymoon on the kenya coast’… Diani will have something for you. And all will share that same superstar of a beach, sea & coral reef combination that makes Diani so special.
Beach restaurants. Historically there weren’t that many places to eat outside of the main hotels. But in the past few years that has changed dramatically. Experienced restaurateur Oli Prevett has created a brilliant beach restaurant called Salty Squid on Galu Beach, whilst executive chef Anthony Huth’s Sails Restaurant at Almarnara, also on Galu Beach, is definitely worth trying to book for a special night out (though you’ll need to book in advance). Book your table here.
There are so many wonderful places to stay on a Diani Beach Holiday – really recommendations should be the subject of a separate detailed article – but until I get around to that, for now here are a handful of personal favourites to consider.
SELF CATERING – 420 South, Tamani Beach Houses (call the office and speak to Ben for more info about these)
Msambweni is a sleepy fishing village situated amongst palm trees 45 minutes drive south from Diani. And until the early 2000’s very few tourists ventured down here… it was principally the home to a handful of secluded beach houses available for rent on a semi self catering basis – so more suited to the domestic holidaymaker. But then came along Msambweni Beach House – a stunning boutique Hotel creation that single headedly put the area on the international tourism map.
'MBH' combines amazing raised sea views, clever use of swimming pools and a unique ‘safari meets Greek island’ design style to stunning effect. The brainchild of the charismatic and pioneering Belgian Frederik Vanderhoeven – MBH has three rooms, a suite, three stunning self contained villas… and as I said, there are pools everywhere. Add to that mature gardens, warm hospitality, a private beach and boats to explore the coast – and you have a quite enchanting holiday proposition. I’d principally recommend it couples… if you want a remote and relaxing treat, then definitely consider Msambweni House.
Shimoni is the southern most point on the Kenya coast – and really it is more of a place to visit on a day trip, than somewhere to stay. The two principle reasons for a visit are to see Shimoni’s famous slave caves, and secondly to visit the Kisite Marine Park.
Shimoni Slave Caves.
Shimoni is the site of some caves that were used by slave traders as a holding point for slaves prior to boarding them onto ships to be sold in Zanzibar. Roger Whittaker has a great song that tells their very well “Shimoni, Shimoni… walls that tell a tale so sad that the tears on the cheeks of Africa glistened” – listen to it here
Kisite Marine Park
Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park, to use it’s full name, has some of the Kenya coasts best preserved coral reefs, which in turn means a healthy wider ecosystem including tropical fish, turtles and dolphins.
To visit you’ll need to set aside a full day. After an hour transfer from Diani, you’ll board a boat from Shimoni for the 45 minute journey to the marine park.
Accompanied by a licenced marine park guide you’ll be able to snorkel amongst the corals and tropical fish (I had an incredible sighting of some scary looking Moray Eels the last time I went). After a barbecue lunch and some drinks you’ll return to Shimoni and should be back at your hotel in Diani at about 5pm. A long day out, but full of experiences and well worth it.
The best known operator of these trips is called the Pilli Pipa Dhow - and most hotels will be able to organize this on your behalf. I’ve been out on their dhows twice now and happy to recommend them highly… definitely the best set up.
If you do want to spend a night or two in Shimoni, then I’d recommend speaking to the inimitable Yassin one of the Pilli Pipa owners – who runs Firefly Ocean Camp (also known as Wasini Lookout). Alternatively consider Shimoni Reef Hotel… a conventional hotel with a nice pool overlooking the ocean.
If you'd like to learn more about Kenya's resplendent beaches whether they're a holiday destination in their own right or for a few bats or tranquil beach bliss after a safari in one or more of Kenya's wonderful wildlife regions, get in touch and we'll create the perfect, tailor-made holiday just for you.