Any traveler looking for a seacoast paradise off the coast of East Africa always hears of Zanzibar in Tanzania as being the must-see destination. Kenya’s coast however, offers much to see and experience. Travel from Nairobi to Mombasa, and on up to Kilifi, on to Malindi and finally, to the northern coastal island of Lamu. Kenya’s coast offers any foreign traveler looking to go off the beaten path a combination of luxury European vacation destinations as well as a taste of remote locations Kenyans equally love vacationing at. Why go to the well-known tourist destinations when these hidden gems along the Kenyan coast offer an equally, if not more exotic experience?
Nairobi to Mombasa
Mombasa is entirely accessible from the popular starting point of Nairobi. Travelers can choose to take the Nairobi to Mombasa train, reminiscent from the colonial rule and what this movie was based on. It drips with British nostalgia and really transports the riders back to another era. As an added bonus the 13 hour overnight ride takes you through the grasslands of Tsavo National Park so riders heading from Nairobi to Mombasa may be pleasantly surprised to pass by giraffes and zebras among the rising sun in the early hours of morning. Beware however that when I tried to take this route in April of 2013, I unexpectedly discovered the train was down indefinitely due to parts of the tracks being washed out from the rainy season.
I didn’t find this out until I was at the ticket counter in Nairobi attempting to buy a ticket from Nairobi to Mombasa. An overnight bus ended up being my mode of transit from Nairobi to Mombasa, and while not as exciting or unique as the train, the ride was at a level of luxury I was not used to traveling in in East Africa. Mombasa is entirely accessible via the Nairobi to Mombasa Rd, a lovely paved highway which is a fairly new development, complete with a nicely developed rest stop about 4 hours into the trip equipped with food stations, bathrooms, and even a TV showing CNN. At least that’s what was on at the time I stopped through. Compared to other bus rides in East Africa, often on non-air conditioned buses rolling down dirt roads with no rest stops, I was actually able to sleep on this bus ride from Nairobi to Mombasa and perhaps even go as far as call it an enjoyable ride.
Mombasa’s Old Town
Mombasa’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with history unique to Kenya. Mombasa has buildings dating back to the 18th century adorning beautifully carved doors, elegantly styled balconies and meandering cobblestone streets reminiscent of European and Arab historical decor. Take the time to explore Fort Jesus, built in 1591 by the Portuguese and Spanish Kingdoms located on Mombasa Island at the time. From there, you’ll likely be harassed by certified tour guides outside the museum to do a tour of the Old Town. I was apprehensive, but the friendliness and subtle persistence of the particular tour guide we chose (or more accurately, chose us) won me over, which I’m glad for. Exploring the narrow and winding cobblestone streets, popping into stores where shoemakers were hand-making leather sandals or beautiful architecturally detailed bed frames felt like you were stepping back in time to an era before the hustle and bustle of technology and mechanization.
Continue walking up the Old Town streets and one will ascend upon Mombasa’s lively market. Bustling with street vendors selling everything from medicinal herbs, freshly butchered meats and fish, candied acacia nuts, and intricate scarves, the market is a place of intense noises, smells and crowds of people. I was grateful to have the tour guide with me during this time, because despite everyone’s good nature, being a “mzungu” (the affectionate term used by Kenyans to describe white people) I was a big target for vendors trying to sell me products. My tour guide was quite helpful in keeping it a jovial, good time while warding off the vendors when it was bordering on harassment instead of persistence.
Overall, Mombasa is a bustling port town full of rich history and a good introduction to Kenya’s coast. The people are friendly, though certainly more forward and extroverted than other parts of the country. Each stop north from here, life slowly transitions to a slower pace.