If you are planning a trip to East Africa, Kenya should be at the top of your list. And the first thing you should consider doing is contacting Melinda Rees of Best of Kenya. A resident of 28 years and hospitality industry expert, Melinda knows Kenya like the back of her hand.
As a product developer for a small ecotravel company in 2001, I began working with Melinda to design tours in East Africa, but we’d never met in person. Because she calls Watamu her home base these days and because I had never been to the Kenyan coast, this time round I chose this charming seaside town to begin my holiday with some friends after building houses with my Habitat for Humanity Global Village team in Malawi.
Watamu is a small town like any other and Melinda might as well be its First Lady (although she told me her unofficial title is Empress!). In Watamu you can walk about safely at night. Business owners welcome you with a smile. Six degrees of separation becomes two. She recommended Ocean Sports Resort for the beach part of our stay. “It’s not fancy,” she emailed, “but it’s comfortable and the place everybody goes to hang out.” Indeed, Ocean Sports is the Cheers of Watamu’s expat community.
Situated on a quiet lagoon, the warm Indian Ocean waters lazily lap the shoreline. The rooms are beach chic, the food is delicious and the hardworking staff aim to make you feel right at home (minus the trappings!). On any given day you may see the local ladies playing bridge, wind surfers, fisherman moored just offshore, guests enjoying sundowners. The name Ocean Sports makes more sense when you discover the many activities available to guests. Or simply hang by the pool and do nothing more than work on your tan.
Whether you stay at Ocean Sports or not, stop by its Ocean Bar and order their signature cocktail, the Dawa. A mix of local muddled limes, local mangrove honey and a double shot of vodka over ice, the Dawa became our happy hour go to.
Book at canoe ride at sunset among the mangroves on Mida Creek. Afterward enjoy sundowners and local treats at the Crab Shack Dabaso (find them on Facebook). The Dabaso Community came up with the idea to offer canoe rides on the Creek at sunset. They began making money and invested in building an elevated walkway on the mangrove (without damaging it) that leads to a simple treehouse like shack (aka Crab Shack) overlooking the water.
Next came a kitchen, a conference room and 25 beehives from which they harvest the honey to sell to local hotels and restaurants. The very honey Ocean Sports uses for its eponymous signature cocktail. They farm crabs, and harvest oysters and prawns from right under your feet. The entire enterprise was initiated and operated by the community, who also reap the benefits. The epitome of broad-based, sustainable development.
Tips & Recommendations:
Getting to the coast from Nairobi is easy. It was a short 40 minute domestic flight from Nairobi to Malindi, then a 15 minute drive to Watamu. We booked on Kenya Airways. If you need to overnight in Nairobi I highly recommend Macushla House, a small boutique hotel that was once a private home. Breakfast is usually included with your stay, but they serve all meals and have a bar.
Be sure you get Kenyan Shillings. Many street vendors and shops can only accept cash. If you want wine, beer, water or groceries try Mama Lucy’s. Her smile is infectious.
To take a canoe ride on Mida Creek and order some “bitings” from the Crab Shack book in advance. Don’t miss the crab samosas and the deep-fried coconut. If you’d rather not take the canoe, you can just book the Crab Shack and enjoy your snacks while watching the sunset. BYOB or ask them to pick up some Tusker, the local beer in Kenya, to go with your treats.
For locally made handicrafts including jewelry, sarongs, handbags, kikoys, carvings and many sundry gifts, go to Caroline’s Boutique. Caroline understands you will want to shop freely, without hassle and giving you a hard luck story, the way most street vendors do. Most tuktuk drivers know Caroline’s. You’re in Mayberry remember.
Just about everyone wears beaded sandals around here, which are widely available. For a treat, visit Enoch the cobbler on Mida Creek Road near the intersection for Hemmingway’s. If you have a few days, you can choose a design and your favorite bead colors and Enoch will make you a custom pair, all for about USD $8. Cash only.
Learn some basic Swahili so you can greet locals in their mother tongue. A hearty, “Jambo! Habari? Mzuri sana!” will go far.