Most travellers start exploring the coast from Mombasa. Historically, Portuguese, Indian, Persian and Arab traders used this port as their starting point for accessing East Africa. This jumble of merchants and explorers helped create the ethnic mix of Mombasa’s population and the physical chaos of the city’s layout. Here, a long stretch of Chinese-built concrete boxes; there, a mosque built by a nostalgic imam from Tunis in the style of his North African home; around the way, a series of souks, alleys and cobblestone walkways thick enough for a donkey to pass through, overhung with canvas to protect Gujarati candy merchants and Digo witch doctors from the white equatorial sun. And dominating the entire city is Fort Jesus, a castle made of coral by colonizing Portuguese.
Mombasa can be dangerous to walk around after hours, but when the sun rises we recommend eating a breakfast of maharagwe (beans cooked with coconut) and chapatti bread. The ubiquitous foodstuff on the Kenyan coast is a synthesis of local and foreign ingredients.
The adventure of the Kenyan coast is unfortunately matched by the ugliest sort of overdevelopment in the form of full-service Swahili-chic resorts. But smart, sustainable tourism projects exist as well, even in places chok-a-block with large hotels like popular Diani Beach. For example, the Colobus Trust (www.colobustrust.org) resembles a jungle playground, overhanging with vines and ropes, all a set piece and sanctuary for the adorable Angolan Black-and-White Colobus monkey. Further south of Diani, Kaya Kinondo (kaya-kinondo-kenya.com) is the protected kaya, or sacred forest, of the local Digo Mijikenda tribe. The forest once housed the Digo, and has been maintained in a virgin state as a centre of their religious and communal ceremonies.
The undisputed gem of the Kenyan coast is Lamu and her sister islands in the Lamu archipelago. Lamu town is a perfect example of a historical Swahili city. It is a warren of rounded houses, airy courtyards shaded by palm streets, cafes serving steaming chapattis and cups of milky tea, inhabited by women in rustling black full-length robes and men riding donkeys, all overlaid with an omnipresent smell of spice. Even the geographic nomenclature of the town is supremely romantic. It is divided into two halves, Zena (Beauteous) and Suudi (Fortunate) and its 28 mitaa, or districts, bear such distinctive names as Makadara (Eternal Destiny) and Kivudoni (Smelly Place). Lamu is hard not to love.
Despite all that, Lamu was placed on the Global Heritage Fund's 2010 list of sites "on the verge" of irreversible destruction due to significant development and bad management. We encourage you to stay at responsible guesthouses, such as the gorgeous historically renovated Wildebeeste, which attempts to preserve Lamu's beauty for future generations through community art projects.
Back on the mainland, south of Watamu, make sure to spend at least a night at the Mida Creek Ecocamp. This huddle of lovely, simple traditional huts (and a more luxurious traditional Swahili house) is situated in a tangle of serenely gorgeous mangrove forest and estuarine mudflats. By day, pick fresh oysters out of the water or wander nature trails; by night, watch the stars fall over roaring bonfires, secure that the money you spend goes towards the local villagers who manage the ecocamp.
One of the most romantic ways to travel the Kenyan coast is by spice boat. Go to the old harbour of Mombasa and ask for the spice ships, and you may be able to book passage to a boat bound for Zanzibar. Just watch for pirates - nothing spoils a vacation like being held hostage in a Somali fishing village.
The article 'The Kenyan coast: Mombasa to the Lamu Archipelago' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.