THE OTHER DIANI – WORTH EXPLORING
(Posted 17th May 2016)
Diani, one of at least two regular award winning beaches in Kenya, has for long been a destination for fun, sun and sand seekers from around the world.
In the old days, before modern resorts were established, mainly expatriates from their upcountry stations, would come to this part of the coast, stay in simple beachside bandas or even pitch tents.
When the first ‘proper‘ resorts appeared did tourists, local and from overseas alike, migrate to those for better creature comforts and no doubt for readily cooked meals and cold drinks.
A string of resorts were developed, starting from the mid to late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, providing bed and board for the growing number of mostly European holiday makers who arrived in Mombasa by charter flights, escaping the cold winter weather and the often unpredictable summer weather too.
Alongside those three, four and five star resorts however did a series of apartments and self catering villas spring up, offering alternative accommodation for travelers on either a budget or else on a different wave length, not keen to be rubbing shoulders with ‘ordinary‘ tourists but wanting to set their own agenda for their visit to Kenya.
‘All I need is a base, safe, clean, functional‘ said one European only identified as Mike at the local Nakumatt Supermarket, when asked why he loaded his shopping trolley with a week’s worth of supplies. ‘I found a small apartment to rent for a couple of weeks, a lot cheaper than even the cheapest hotels would charge me. It is of course off the beach, some distance even across the main Diani road, but I got a bike and if I am too lazy I use a Tuk Tuk to get around. This way I buy my drinks in the supermarket, some fruits and stuff to prepare breakfast and for lunch, that I take wherever I find myself. There are decent local restaurants around and for dinner I either cook, or the apartment complex manager provides a cook for a fee. Otherwise I go out, again by Tuk Tuk, the cheapest option to get around to a restaurant and back to my place.
I spend most of my money on water sports, have gone deep sea fishing twice, gone diving though the rough sea right now is a bit of a problem. I have done trips to the more remote places, Kisite Marine Park, the Shimba Hills National Park. The money I save on accommodation and meals I spend on activities and right now, with few tourists here, you get great bargains. I don’t regret coming to Kenya this year and the rains, ok, sometimes for two days, have not really spoilt my fun‘.
Getting to Diani is possible by various means. The centrally located Ukunda Airfield, managed by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, receives several scheduled flights a day from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, by Safarilink mostly using a Dash8-100, Air Kenya and one or two others while Kenya Airways’ low cost subsidiary Jambojet flies a 78 seat Bombardier Q400NextGen from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Ukunda.
Of course can one fly at slightly cheaper fares to Mombasa’s International Airport and then use road transport. That allows seeing the city of Mombasa while transiting to the Likoni Ferry, and when the crossing to the south coast from the island of Mombasa is finally accomplished, take another 45 or so minutes to Ukunda and on to the Diani beaches by roads, lined with little farms, coconut plantations, baobab trees and little trading posts. However, the often long delays and queues with the ferry are for many time conscious travelers enough of a reason to fly directly to Ukunda, and I did exactly that with my two flights both on time.
Past visits of mine were dedicated to discover resorts like the Jacaranda Indian Ocean Beach Resort and a few other mainstream hotels, but also allowed me to experience the top of the pops of accommodation on offer here at this stretch of Kenya’s coast: Afrochic, managed by Luxury Hotel Group Elewana, the Maji, privately owned and managed and a jewel in its own right and of course the award winning Alfajiri Villas, where the world’s rich and famous often rub shoulders in an entirely private setting which paparazzis regularly fail to access. I can’t deny that I love doing the five star luxury bit, I never get enough of it, but then not all my readers can afford that and it is only fair therefore to also periodically explore other options and write about them.
This visit therefore had a different focus, concentrating on the more affordable side of tourism, suitable to families with kids, couples wanting to get away and perhaps not be seen and even solo travellers like myself.
As mentioned I flew from Wilson Airport nonstop to Ukunda to spare myself the hassle of the long transfer from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport and make the most of my limited time. Many of the guest houses and even apartment complexes are ready to offer airstrip transfers, some ‘on the house‘ while others charge a nominal fee.
The first two nights was Diani House my home, and a home it was. Initially a large beachside residence, sitting pretty in a compound of 15 acres, does this little property offer just five guest rooms and visitors have the run of the house, terrace, lounge, sitting room and all. Guest rooms are found both in the main building but also notably a cottage, a classic replica of what in the old days brought people from upcountry to this part of the coast. A high makuti covered roof, a fan and open windows to catch the breeze kept the room cool enough and mosquito netting around the four posted Swahili bed kept the mozzies out to ensure a sound sleep.
A simple but entirely adequate bathroom with a large shower and an equally large rainshower head provided for the creature comforts needed. What was most surprising though was the food offered.
Ludovic, one of my two hosts, mentioned that he thought of the property as a Bed & Breakfast while Angie, his wife – clearly a gifted and passionate cook – felt that her version of half board or full board reflected reality much better. While I had one meal out at the nearby Forty Thieves beach bar, drawn into a quizz match by the locals – my friend James Willson, author of ‘Guerillas of Tsavo‘ had invited me that night – did I have one home cooked dinner at Diani House.
At the quizz night we came a respectable third against the overwhelming competition of two teams from the local mining company, who proved unbeatable at the night and dinner was typical ‘Pub Grub‘, tasty and filling, especially after a second helping.
My second dinner though, at Diani House, was something quite different.
A delicious soup was followed by perfectly grilled prawns and the dinner rounded up with a chocolate mousse better than I had in many fancied restaurants and Angie joined me half way through the meal and shared with me her passion for this part of the Kenya coast. It was immediately clear that she was the sort of host many visitors would wish for and yet never have, unique to this small hideaway property, providing the finest hospitality Kenya has to offer. Unpretentious, full of laughter, a storyteller par excellence and very keen to establish a personal bond with her guests, who come as strangers and leave as friends.
There is a pool on the property, sunshades and sunbeds, so nothing much is lacking compared to resort hotels but one gets that priceless feeling of having the place to oneself, even when the other rooms are occupied. It proved the perfect getaway and while I raced through an agenda of meetings and site visits – every hour counted – were the other guests able to put their watches away, switch their phones off and just enjoy each and every day from sunrise to sunset and beyond.
The sound of the breaking surf, even though the beach was surely over a hundred meters away from my cottage, provided the soothing sounds of the night, and the ozone rich sea air did the rest to put even this insomniac into a sound slumber for a few hours. The night serenades outside the cottage, for the uninitiated maybe slightly scary are certainly for those in the know a special treat. The occasional chatter of monkeys in the trees, birds instead of sleeping holding noisy conversations and the rustle of the palm leaves in the breeze, supplemented by the scent of Frangipani blossoms, made each of the two nights an experience worth remembering.
And then,, during the day, there is even wildlife to be seen, apart from sykes, vervet and colobus monkeys. Shy little gazelles were once in a while emerging from the forest which traverses the property, pretty to look at and a reminder what it must have been like in those long gone days when these beaches were virgin and both elephant and lions were regular visitors to these shores.
Moving on to the second part of my journey of discovery.
I already mentioned the Forty Thieves Beach Bar, probably one of the few along the Kenyan coast directly at the beach and therefore without any dress code being enforced or demanded. Barefeet, shorts and t-shirts, or no t-shirts ensures admission, the drinks are cold and the tea steaming hot while a snack menu helps to deal with those peckish feelings one tends to develop when strolling along the beach. Notably is it a place where the locals too come to relax and this makes for many good conversations, if one is keen to engage with the local crowd and not shy to both accept and offer a round of drinks.
A fully fledged water sports centre, owned and run by Joan Willson, normally a beehive of activity, was taking time out as the day after my dinner the Forty Thieves Beach Bar closed for some 10 days to completely overhaul the makuti covered roof, replace old rafters and generally put a new lease of life into one of Diani’s most famous watering holes.
Adjoining is the acclaimed Ali Barbours cave restaurant, sampled often in the past, where seafood delicacies are prepared using local ingredients for that special Swahili blend of flavours unique to the coast.
And then, previously unbeknown, there is another sister property on the sprawling compound, the Flamboyant Boutique Hotel.
Now, boutique today stands for many things and I am not sure I would use this phrase but it is a former large beach side villa turned into a little resort with just 10 rooms. Two suites and 8 large standard rooms, most of them seafacing, provide an atmosphere which is quite unique. The mix of guests I found, a family with kids, a few couples and some solo travelers all seemed to have found exactly what they were looking for, the garden large enough to seek solace if the poolside got a little noisy, the beach nearby to stroll into the waves and the two lounges, one under roof outdoors and one indoors facing the little pond and inside garden, give enough space for everyone to find an easy chair, a sofa and maybe, after my intervention soon some hammocks which complete one’s happiness.
The most common booking format is half board, including breakfast and dinner but full board, offering lunch, is an added option. In fact, those who stayed before opt for the full monty as, and here it gets interesting, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served from an a la carte menu with guests able to choose from a list of offerings. Dinner is ordinarily a three course affair, soup, main course and dessert, and one of those is particularly sinful, called ‘Chocolate Fondant‘ a little pastry filled with hot liquid chocolate topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Let me not go further into the sensations this caused to my palate but suffice to say that it was a perfect match to the Chilli Crab and the Calvados Prawns I had as main courses on subsequent days.
The variety of seafood offerings include everything from crabs to crayfish, and from prawns to fresh fish in season, like in a fancied a la carte restaurant. Moses Nzaro, the executive chef, produced several amazing meals in his small kitchen which will bring me back very soon, for the ambience, the setting and definitely the food, just as soon as time permits to get away again for a few days, hopefully losing phones, tablets and laptop somewhere en route before, when going home, they miraculously reappear from thin air.
Diani is however much more than just the beaches and the resorts. Sporting events, like Diani Rules and the Diani Touch Rugby Tournament bring lots of locals from upcountry down to the coast. Sky diving is clearly en vogue, in the absence of bungee jumping the most adrenalin raising activity seen and trips over the beaches in a microlight too thrill those who take the trouble to get up early when the air is still free of turbulences.
Deep sea fishing, diving, snorkeling, parasailing and more offers a variety of different water based activities. Those keen to hear about conservation can pay a visit to the Colobus Conservation, formerly known as Colobus Trust, enjoy a guided tour along a special nature trail against a small fee and see how conservation at grass root levels works.
The South Coast Residents Association more recently engaged in the setting up of a sea rescue unit and I was pleased to hear from SCRA’s Luciana Basile that already several local fishermen had been rescued from almost certain drowning after a sudden squall had their canoes capsize.
When the whale shark sanctuary will finally be ready is a matter of time it seems but Volker Bassen, a marine biologist and passionate diver, seems undeterred by critics after he got all the required licenses and as and when progress can be reported, it sure will be, right here.
My hosts, starting from Joan Willson, James’ daughter who runs the water sports centre at Forty Thieves and Flamboyant, to her parents, to Angie and Ludovic of Diani House and last but not least my delightful hostess at Flamboyant, Florence Bouchou, pulled out all the stops to make my stay comfortable and successful. Florence provided background information only locals know and of course, as witnessed, was she equally charming and engaging with other guests too, so it was not a stage managed red carpet visit for a travel writer but turned out to be a real life experience as every other guest coming before and after me can vouch for.
Meeting James again, he is as mentioned before the author of the highly acclaimed ‘Guerillas of Tsavo‘ book, which describes to the last detail the action in World War One in this part of the world, was a highlight of my trip to Ukunda. It allowed for both reminiscing as well as for looking into the future, of not just the country per se but specifically about conservation measures to protect the pristine beaches, the remaining patches of tropical rainforests and the marine parks and national parks along the coast for generations to come. We have known each other for decades and if anyone can see the challenges but also the opportunities today which tourism and conservation offer, it would be the two of us and a handful of other veterans, some seen at the ivory burn a few days earlier in Nairobi.