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April 29, 2011 > Travel: Mombasa - The place for a beach vacation

Travel: Mombasa - The place for a beach vacation

By R.D. Huebner

If you're looking for a beach town to relax, unwind, and do a little sightseeing, you can't get much better than Mombasa, Kenya. Mombasa seems to have everything. It can be a large city, a quaint old town, a restful beach resort or a party place to rival Fort Lauderdale during spring break (OK...maybe not that wild).

I've been to Mombasa three times and each time was more enjoyable than the prior. I think that with experience, and a little courage, Mombasa just gets better and better. The first time you go to Mombasa, travel by road, as long as you have the time and can do it during the day. It's a long journey (7 or 8 hours) but the scenery is quite beautiful and different than most of the rest of Kenya. The trip takes you through small villages with community wells, past termite mounds, camels, huts, and elaborate mosques. Stop near Voi at a petrol station/restaurant/village store. There you begin to feel the heat and humidity that will only increase as you approach Mombasa.

A ways down the road, as you're passing through Tsavo National Park there is a sign for Man-eaters Camp. If you have time, this is worth a stop and quick tour. It is near the railway station where the true "Man-eaters of Tsavo" killed and ate up to 135 railway workers and inspired the movie 'The Ghost and the Darkness." The lions were eventually killed by John Patterson and their skins can be seen in the Chicago Field Museum today.

As you approach Mombasa there are great views of the water and the layout of the area. Shanty towns line the road and you wonder how anyone can live so close to such a dangerous highway with heavy trucks passing much too close for comfort. Mombasa is the port for most of East Africa. If you buy something in Uganda or even the Congo, it most likely passed through the Port of Mombasa along its way. Through the smell of dust, diesel fumes, and humidity, the welcome scent of saltwater fills the air.

The lush green foliage of the approach soon gives way to the hustle and bustle of Kenya's second largest city. Skirting the city, and heading north toward Bamburi Beach, where the pedestrian and vehicular traffic thins out, the verdant green roadside appears once again. On our last trip, after some confusion over the hotel (Bamburi Beach Hotel versus Bamburi Beach Resort), we arrived at the Bamburi Beach Hotel much to our relief. The Bamburi Beach Resort seemed like a seedy "girl friendly" hotel for sex tourists so we were glad to find the Bamburi Beach Hotel with its good security and nicely appointed lobby. A cold refreshing cocktail, served in a coconut shell, greeted us as we waited for a porter to take us to our pleasant but modest hotel room.

You could spend a lot more than the 9000 shillings a night for a double room with half-board (breakfast and dinner) but this hotel is nice and clean with a friendly staff. The Serena and the Sarova hotels are nearby but I shudder to think of the pricing there; especially for half board. I should mention that Bamburi Beach Hotel also offers B&B, full board, and all-inclusive options to suit your needs. If you elect the half board option you can have breakfast and dinner and explore for lunch. If you want to dine out for dinner you can opt for breakfast and lunch. If you go to Bamburi, make sure you visit the wood fired pizza place just walking distance from the hotel (south along the highway).

The pool and grounds are peppered with lounge chairs for a relaxing day in the sun. Limited umbrellas are available and the older, regular patrons (mostly Europeans) are quick to awaken in the morning and "reserve" their places by placing their towels on the lounges under umbrellas.

Don't forget, you are in Swahili territory that eschews the usual bland Kenyan fare, so seek out the more exotic local food if you can. Find a restaurant in town that serves authentic pulau (a spicy rice dish). Tamarind restaurant is also a great place for fine dining with a great selection of seafood and spicy dishes.

Generally, if you explore the city and the beach restaurants you will find more interesting foods than you will find anywhere else in Kenya. That is because there is so much foreign influence (historically) in Mombasa; Portuguese, Indian, Arabic, Masai, and more. This doesn't take into account the vast population of Europeans who have moved to Mombasa and started their own ethnic food restaurants, such as the wood fired pizza restaurant mentioned above. I could name foods and restaurants all day but your tastes and your adventurousness will dictate where you end up. There are always people to help you with your culinary suggestions.

If you're a beach lover, you may be disappointed by your first walk on the beach. Immediately upon hitting the sand you'll be approached by every curio vendor, tour guide and masseuse in Mombasa. How you deal with them is up to you. I usually tell them, "I'm not shopping until Thursday" knowing full well I'm leaving on Wednesday. A walk further down the beach will leave you relatively alone except for the occasional prostitute inviting you up toward the grassy edge of the beach or strangely, in my case, out into the shallow water. Still, the beach, once you get used to it, is a nice change from poolside lounging. I'm sure it would make for a good morning run if you were so inclined.

You can opt for a massage and I recommend the gals right next to the hotel to your left. They'll walk you from the beach to their massage rooms behind the hotel and, although it looks a bit sketchy, the massage is pleasant, good and cheap. You can have a massage at the hotel but the set up leaves you little privacy. The beach massage girls are "licensed" and do a professional massage...no funny business here. They are nice and very protective of their "territory" (you) so changing masseuses may be a difficult task. The pricing is so good that a daily scheduled massage is not beyond imagination.

My perfect schedule is pool-lunch-pool-nap-pool-massage-shower-happy hour-beach walk-dinner. I can take or leave the night entertainment provided by the hotel but I have to admit the crab racing intrigues me. For the ladies and the metro-sexuals out there, mani-pedis are available at the hotel or at another hotel, behind Bamburi, called Traveler's. You can also travel to Nakumat Nyali (about 3 miles down the road) where there are restaurants, salons, curio and clothing stores, a butcher and an ice cream parlor.

If you crave nightlife you can find it easily. Tembo near Nyali, Casarina in town or even Casaurina in Mtwapa are good bets for a night of dancing, drinking and loud music. On the wilder side is Lollipop's Go-Go bar in the Tembo compound. Not all nights are packed. Fridays and Saturdays are your best bet and like most places in the world other than the U.S. the real party starts after midnight.

In Mombasa, I highly recommend Taxi transportation in a matatu (a 14 passenger van used as public transportation in Kenya) during the day and private taxi cabs at night. Matatu transportation is probably too dangerous for a mzungu (white person) at night. There's nothing quite like taking a ride in a matatu in Mombasa. I recommend you try it at least once. The experience is never the same twice. In the larger towns, many of the matatus are customized with wild paint, flashing lights, loud stereo systems.

What is the reason for customizing what basically serves as a mini-bus? Part of the reason is showing off the personality of the driver but the most likely reason is that the brighter, flashier, and louder, the more likely to attract passengers. It is by far the cheapest transportation in Kenya short of a bicycle. A taxi ride that would cost 500 shillings is quickly reduced to about 35 shillings in a matatu. There are not many true matatu stops except in the large metropolitan areas, so the co-driver (tout or conductor) will hang out the side door shouting to people; encouraging them to hop aboard. Once the matatu stops for you, you are expected to move into the van with haste and pop into an empty seat or the seat just vacated by the last person to alight. And yes, you need to tell the driver-conductor where you need to "alight," not "get off,"

Inside the matatu you are subjected to a variety of sensory overload. The smell of 13 other passengers assaults the nose. The booming of the stereo assaults the ears. You're jammed in next to your fellow passengers and the driving usually makes you want to close your eyes and pray. Not a great advertisement for matatus, huh? But the alternatives are expensive taxis, dangerous boda-bodas (bicycles with a passenger seat on the back fender), tuk-tuks (3-wheeled Cushman-like vehicles), or piki-pikis (motorbikes). Try these too if you dare.

The tuk-tuks are fun on a warm day as they usually have open-air seating. But it's a rough ride and you get no respect from other drivers. Bodas and pikis are cheap but people are killed on these every day. If you take one, limit it to short journeys in town...not the highway.

I love the matatus for trips from the Bamburi Beach Hotel to Mombasa town and back. I figure I save about $20 round trip every time I take one. Getting to town is easy and a matter of asking the conductor if they're going to Old Mombasa Town. Getting back to Bamburi is a bit trickier. My first time, the touts at the stage in town were yelling "Bamburi-Bamburi-Bamburi". But as we approached the familiar highway to Bamburi Beach, we took a sharp left turn toward what I can assume is Bamburi town.

After a quick stop, the conductor explained that if I wanted to go to Bamburi Beach, I needed to take the matatu to Mtwapa. The next time, I was prepared and stepped into the matatu where the conductor was shouting, "Mtwapa-Mtwapa-Mtwapa".

Old Mombasa Town is a wild place near the port of Mombasa where you will see the beautiful old harbor complete with shipwreck. You'll see locals, especially young boys, down by the waterside, playing, doing laundry or even bathing. But first you have to get there. The great thing about Kenya is that people are almost always willing to help you get to a destination. The bad thing about Kenya is that people are almost always willing to help you get to your destination. That means you have very little alone time.

If you go to Old Town, have the driver drop you at the indoor market where, if you're a foodie, you'll see fresh fruits and vegetables and spices galore. If you're cooking your meals, buy some curry or pilau mix. Don't buy saffron here though. I did and paid too much and got bad saffron. You can find saffron at some quickie markets in Mtwapa (north of Bamburi). The fruits and vegetables are fresh so if you want something to snack on during the day, buy it here.

A short walk will take you to Fort Jesus. Fort Jesus was designed by an Italian and built by the Portuguese around 1631. It's been won and lost many times and I won't ruin the history for you. It's much more fun to hire a guide and have the fort explained to you by an expert. Our guide was Abdul who, after our fantastic tour of Fort Jesus, took us through the back streets of Old Mombasa, through front yards and backyards of residents, to the clothing market and finally back to the indoor market. Along the way, Abdul explained about the different Muslim sects and let us tour a large Hindu temple we passed.

It was hot and humid and Abdul ran for cool sodas while we de-shoed and toured the temple. We also viewed Lavan House which is the old slave trade building. Our day in Mombasa was a great break from the pool-side relaxation we had indulged in until then. We never discussed money with Abdul but when I slipped him 1000 shillings (about $15) at the end of our tour, he was thrilled.

Within a short matatu ride in the northern direction (opposite of Mombasa Town) is Mtwapa, hence the touts calling "Mtwapa" in town. It is a small village but worth a stop and a walk around the shops. Wazungu (white people) wishing to disappear off the face of the Earth, often find apartments here where they can stay for about $150/mo. rent. It's not long before mzungu men there find they cannot resist taking a local as a girlfriend/roommate. Mtwapa is hot and dusty but still close to the coast so it's a "poor man's beach retreat".

The hotels can send you to other more touristy destinations including day safaris and a village called Ngomongo where you can see many tribes displaying their culture. None of these could draw us away from the total relaxation of a pool-side lounge with roving waiters, a wonderful view of the Indian Ocean, and wood-fired pizza within walking distance.

Want to save more money? Take a matatu to Nakumat Nyali and stock up on water, soda, wine, and snacks. Don't forget a wine bottle opener because the hotel only has one and it always seems to be locked up in the restaurant which opens at 6. Tip the bartender and you might be able to have him chill your bottle for your own personal 5 o'clock "happy hour." I'm so cheap that I always stock up on drinks at Nakumat and then try to shove them all inside the tiny refrigerator. That way I don't have to pay mini-bar rates.

And speaking of "cheap" you can find hotels in Mombasa that start at 2500 shillings (and below) a night. That's about $30. Of course you can also find hotels in the 20,000 shilling (and above) range. It all depends on your budget. Just make sure you stay in a safe place. If you are planning your hotel on your own, don't be afraid to call one of the nicer hotels and tell them your price range and ask them for safe recommendations. They'll help for sure. I once stopped in front of a hotel and said to the bellman, "I know I can't afford this hotel but can you direct me to a less expensive one?" He was happy to direct me to a nice hotel down the street, saving me a bundle.

Mombasa has something for everyone. If you're just looking for a place to unwind and enjoy the sun, sand, and pool, it's for you. If you're more "touristy," it's for you. If you want to explore the historical sites, it's for you. Are you getting the message? Good weather, good food, good entertainment and good people. Yes, Mombasa is my beach town of choice.

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