Mombasa, Kenya’s port city, has been invaded by so many nations over five centuries that its Swahili named means ‘island of war’ – but the resulting melange is a fascinating and vibrant destination.
Judy Bryant / supplied
Kenya’s 480km-long coastline is one of the most idyllic resort areas in the world, a tropical fantasy of powdery white beaches fringed with palms, bougainvillea, mangrove swamps and creeks. Near the shore, a long coral roof shelters lagoons coral gardens and national parks, where 250 species of brilliantly coloured fish dart and weave among marine plants.
The Portuguese arrived here in the 15th century, stopping off at Malindi (now the favourite hangout of bronzed Italians and offering great pasta) and later swooping on a number of Swahili trading cities along the coast. In 1528, they attacked Mombasa an established political and economic dominance for 200 years, until they in turn were overthrown by the Omani Arabs, and the British ruled from 1888 until independence in 1963. All these influences have impacted on Mombasa’s culture, architecture and cuisine, founded on African ingredients and tempered by centuries of trade contacts and settlement.
Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest town and its only port. Its built on an island and separated from the mainland by two creeks. Nyali Bridge takes you to the beautiful beaches, resorts, nightclubs and restaurants of the North Coast, including scenic Watamu Bay. Just outside Watamu village, the lost world of the Gedi Ruins – a mysterious complex of houses, palaces, tombs and mosques built during the 13th century – is worth a visit for its fascinating insight into the Afro-Arab civilisation that thrived on the East Coast some eight centuries ago.
South of Mombasa, from Kilindini Harbour, are even more splendid beaches and hotels. A short dhow ride off Wasini Island’s outer reefs takes you to marine reserves where you can snorkel and dive among whale sharks, dolphins and turtles.
Mombasa’s Old Town is an easy day trip from the resorts. It has a fascinating collection of historical 18th-century buildings, many with intricately carved doors and elegantly styled fretwork balconies overlooking tiny, winding alleyways. It’s now a mix of old and new, with decaying buildings alongside traders selling everything from kangas and baobab seeds to mobile phone accessories and Red Bull.
Before you take on the chaotic traffic, smooth-talking traders and craftsmen of downtown Mombasa, order a freshly-brewed coffee, fruit juice or milkshake at the Jahazi Coffee Shop in the Old Town. This must-visit is an unlikely culinary and cultural creation of three young teachers who head up the science, humanities and expressive arts departments of the local Aga Khan Academy. They teamed up with local master carpenter Abdallah Ali Mohamed and coffee barista Mohamed Riziki (who honed his skills at a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia) to create a cultural meeting place that buzzes.
Book in advance for a traditional Swahili meal painstakingly prepared by local women and relax on comfy cushions to enjoy the delicately spiced fish, chicken, meat or vegetable biryani. The muezzin’s call to prayer from the mosque nearby drifts in on the hot air, as scooters clatter by.
First published Elle Decoration South Africa spring 2008
Images Judy Bryant and supplied