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By inventing the wildlife safari, Kenya set itself a tough challenge: to find a second, equally magnetic attraction. As Africa specialist and author of the Rough Guide to Kenya Richard Trillo discovers, it’s 'hakuna matata' – no problem...
"The coast of the Indian Ocean to the north and south of the island city of Mombasa has some of the best beaches in Africa, perfect spots to relax after a week of wildlife-watching. Beyond the beaches, you’ll find Kenyan town life in all its noisy muddle, as well as villages of mud-built huts where animals wander and children call out jambo. Close by, there are tracts of bird and monkey-filled forest to delight any nature-lover, and the vestiges of the coast’s classical Swahili civilization stand in eerie ruins between rainforest trees."
Best beach for families: Diani Beach
"This beach south of Mombasa is the quintessential tropical paradise, with thousands of palm trees leaning out across broad, shelving sands and outrigger canoes anchored in the crystal-clear lagoon. Although the area has been developed, there are still enough patches of jungle to preserve a sense of where you are.
"Most of the hotels here are well-geared for children, but standouts include the mid-sized, all-inclusive Papillion Lagoon Reef, Southern Palms with its chain of giant, linked swimming pools and the boutique Asha Cottages. There are good places to eat too, including the hugely popular Forty Thieves Beach Bar and the upscale (no toddlers) Ali Barbour’s Cave, set underground in a fabulous coral cave."
Best beaches for active adventurers: Malindi
"Malindi, a thirty-minute flight or two hours' drive from Mombasa, is the coast's only other large town. The beaches to the north are open to the ocean and get real surf, while just south of the town lies the Malindi Marine National Park which is a haven for divers.
"Che Shale is Kenya's kite-surfing centre, set on a huge bay with three hundred days a year of monsoon winds. Stylishly furnished wood and palm-mat chalets, with soft sand instead of floors, stand between the coconut trees.
"Just south of the town centre where the good coral starts, the Driftwood is one of the oldest places in Malindi, with staff who never forget a face, a pool right by the beach and famous curry nights. They can organise anything for you, from windsurfing and diving to birdwatching or game fishing."
Best beach for unspoilt beauty and wildlife: Watamu
"Watamu, 7km off the coast highway, is so good that you'd expect it to be better known. But distances make all the difference, as does the absence of an airport although Malindi is less than half-an-hour away. Along Watamu's seaward side, snow-white sands shelve into the aquamarine lagoon behind the reef, while along its landward edge mangroves and forest fringe the shores of Mida creek.
"Around the shores you'll find secluded treasures like the deluxe Manfriday's. Tucked behind a remote headland, it's a captivating fusion of bougainvillaea and sunken baths, sofas on the sand and transparent rock pools.
"Watamu beach is a turtle-nesting area, and if you’re staying then Turtle Watch will call you to let you know when a nest is hatching so you can watch the babies scuttling down to the sea. To fully explore the area’s natural assets, visit the Arabuko-Sokoke National Park where you can take a guide walk to observation platforms, watch rare birds and monkeys and look out for forest elephants and the bizarre elephant shrew (like a bendy-nosed giant mouse on stilts). The ruins of Gedi, a thirteenth-century town abandoned in the jungle, are also nearby."
Best beach for genuine Swahili culture: Lamu
"From the moment you wake in Lamu, probably to the call of a muezzin from one of the town's 23 mosques, you're assailed by a riot of inputs: a stream of spicy cooking smells; the tang of salt air from the harbour; a blast of African hip-hop from a café; the braying of overloaded donkeys down in the alley; the way the palm fronds circle in the breeze; the taste of fresh mango smoothie and char-grilled lobster; and the liquid gold of the sun sinking behind the town."
"A UNESCO heritage site, Lamu is a living museum of Swahili culture, where the layout of alleys and three-storey houses has changed little in five hundred years. While time hasn't stood still – satellite dishes and mobile phones are everywhere – there are no cars, and therefore no roads: life moves at the speed of a donkey or a dhow.
"The town has no shortage of places to stay: Lamu House is a wonderful, luxury conversion on the waterfront, while Nyuma Gereza is a cool, low-budget option further into town. And if you do want the beach, you have the entire south coast of Lamu – a delightful hour's waterfront walk, or short boat ride, away.
Best beaches for luxury and solitude: Manda and Kiwayu
"Lamu might feel like the end of the coast, but it's just the first island in an archipelago stretching north for another hundred kilometres. Facing Lamu is Manda, virtually uninhabited and blessed with two superb beaches. The luxury hideaway here is Manda Bay, a Polynesian-style palm and thatch resort with an exclusive feel. You're likely to see some famous faces, but every guest is equally indulged with superb food and drink. Every conceivable marine pursuit is available.
"Further north still, the sandy ridge of Kiwayu island rises in front of a maze of mangrove creeks. Here, with views of the ocean on one side and the creeks on the other, you'll find Mike's Camp, a classy take on the hippy retreat concept. The island also has an obvious spot for a wonderful honeymoon, in the form of the remote and stunning Kiwayu Safari Village.
"Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to Nairobi from London Heathrow, and Virgin Holidays offer a wide range of holiday options for a beach holiday in Kenya, a safari experience, or a combination of both.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.