Having spent a glorious week exploring its beaches, sampling local and Italian food, following strangers on impromptu adventures and diving head first into an array of excursions, Wendy Watta makes a case for why you should visit Malindi.
Photography: Brian Siambi
Aerial Photography: Trevor Maingi
The plan is to join our photographers Brian and Trevor on a sunrise-chasing mission, but when I get a call from the former at about 5:15 am the next morning saying that our tuk tuk is waiting at the hotel gate, I seriously contemplate shutting off my phone and sinking deeper into the warm bosom of my comfortable double bed at Malindi Dream Garden. I often find it easy to catch the sunset, because if I’m at the coast, I am likely to be strategically placed at the best seat in some beachside or cliff-top bar with two daiquiris singing a catchy pop song in my head. A sunrise is often caught if it so happens to wash through the large windows of a cozy room I’m staying in, but actually having to rise up early for one is a concept I’ve never understood. Yet, I’ve seen enough photographers near fanatically plan for one with the seriousness of Jack Bauer trying to find a bomb hidden somewhere in the city in 24.
Walking down the Malindi pier barely 10 minutes after getting up, I am instantly sucked into vibe here. A man holding the hands of his two little daughters on either side strolls past me and the trio position themselves at the end of the pier facing the water in wait of the sun. Another rides his bicycle back and forth as though either restless or exercising. Two tall guys, abs in full display, do their burpees on the pavement, and let’s just say that I can see how a tourist from a faraway land would be drawn to these ‘oh so exotic’ beach boys. At this point, the sky is yellow and orange and pink but the sun is still playing peekaboo, so I decide to walk down to the sand which, much like the rest of Malindi, has black deposits and is speckled with micah, aka fools gold, which glitters in the sand.
A group of boys play football close to the water, and every so often, the ball is kicked into the sea and someone has to dive in and body-surf the waves to retrieve it. When the blazing ball of orange does take to the skies with such boldness and aplomb, we all come to a standstill as though watching the ultimate flag being raised. Malindi sunrises are incredible, and as an apology to photographers for everything I said before this mission, I get it. Really, I do.
In some rather stark ways, this town has changed from what it was three years ago when I spent quite a bit of time here on a family holiday. If ever there was a place where the hotel industry took a hit along the coast, it would be this. Once-popular spots like Coral Key, one of the oldest hotels in the town and where I remember us struggling to find space and thereafter stuffing our faces with heaps of cheese-packed pasta, are no more. Others like Eden Roc, Beverly key and more also closed down. Italians, who would come down in large numbers, have also reduced from this town which was once deemed as ‘Kenya’s little Italy’. Still, their influence is just as tangibly noticeable in the food and even signage language
Things seem to be looking up, particularly this year, as Malindi seeks to return to its former glory. Keen to rediscover the town, I hop on a boda boda to the Vasco da Gama pillar which I first visited during a history class field trip as a teenager. During a candid conversation, a hotelier at one spot we passed by had confided that they thought it was a run down place that they hadn’t taken their guests to for years, a sentiment I heard echoed a few times. On personal inspection, however, I thought it to be fine, and a tunnel underneath it led us to a beach where we were lucky to spot some starfish. Gede Ruins, the remnants of an ancient Swahili town, are still a worthwhile visit for culture buffs. Keen to find out some history, I head to the museum which proves to be a rather underwhelming experience. It is 5:00 pm and there is no one to show me around as all the guides have apparently gone home. I am instructed to ‘just walk around and see’, and when I ask about the history, get the noncommittal ‘if you know about the popular history of Mombasa then that’s pretty much it”.
Still, the charm of this quaint town is not lost on me, and for the discerning traveler, Malindi has a lot to offer. As of this year, tourism is looking up yet again and spots like Malindi Dream Garden where we stayed are bustling with guests. Having spent one glorious week exploring its beaches and tucking into its food (both at the nice restaurants in town and that roadside kibanda where a lovely Swahili woman sold me viazi karai with tangy tamarind sauce), what follows are some things that we did during our trip and that are worth adding to your itinerary.
The Low-Down on Malindi
Hidden Gem : Sabaki River Estuary
We had heard that the Sabaki River is a haven for flamingos, and that the best spot to take in the view was at the bridge, and so we ask our regular tuk tuk driver Mohamed to take us there. This place turns out to be exactly as advertised, but as Trevor is setting up his drone, a man runs up to us, introduces himself as a guide and tells us that there is an even better secret spot, one where the river meets the sea and where the view is tenfold. This man, Karisa, tells us that it is about 10 minutes off the main road, and that our tuk tuk can make it there, so without much convincing, we follow him. We turn into a blink-and-you-will-miss-it-path and follow the meandering river whose banks are so muddy that I think we will certainly tumble over in this rickshaw, but we only ever get stuck.
Moments later we come to the base of a huge sand dune where the tuk tuk can’t go any further, and as we follow Karisa up one sand dune and the next, I can’t help but wonder if I’m a lamb walking altogether too willingly into slaughter. Mohamed, too, says he has never been to this place, and while I’m starting to panic inside whilst wondering if he might be in on whatever this is, on the outside, I am the definition of calm and collected.
Then our group walks up to the most beautiful enclave I’ve seen in Malindi, where the river stretches a hand out to greet the sea but ever so slightly misses – so near yet so far! The ocean forcefully crashes into the land as if it has a personal vendetta that the wind is egging on. There are ridges left in the sand by the tide, and I quite enjoy sinking my feet into the little pools scattered all over. A big flock of flamingos paint the shoreline white in their plumage, and as we approach, they flap their wings as though part of a well rehearsed orchestra and fly off to the other shore. Karisa informs us that this is an important birding area, and that hippos are also found in this region. This estuary, which overlooks Malindi town, is certainly worth the trip.
Karisa Benjamin (Guide)- 0711849742
Where to Eat
Beachside: Osteria Beach House
This English colonial-style house is set right on Silversand beach, and when we stopped by for lunch, we dined al fresco under the cool shade of a tree. If you dine at only two places in town, stop by this spot or their other outlet in town which has the best ice creams around. There is a swimming pool but you can also dip in the sea then lounge on the sunbeds. Service is fast and friendly and the food is worth writing home about, especially the deep fried calamari, and our group also tried tuna and a salad, pasta and pizza crowned with ice cream. There’s a stand where a local man selling handmade souvenirs. He is so convincing that weeks after my trip, I still don’t remember how I bought four brass rings from him.
For Dinner: Bar Bar Restaurant and Bar
Bar Bar came recommended several times by residents, so we made a reservation. Set right next to the road, it is open to the front side ( imagine the great people watching during the day!) and is also quite spacious. There was a lively game of football showing on the screens. As soon as we sat down, an elderly Italian guy, presumably the manager, brought menus to our table, handing them to the ladies first – what a gentleman! The menu is very Italian, so expect pasta, pizza, gelato, tiramisu and the works. The ragu pizza is highly recommended.
For Local Food: Taheri Fast Foods
This is a small but prominent restaurant run by Tasneem Mohsin and her husband and sons. It is always bustling, which speaks to its popularity. The food is good and cheerfully affordable. Tasneem makes a mean baked mutton leg, and the menu being Indian and Swahili, I like to pass by for their mandazi, viazi, bhajia, kaimati and the works.
For Seafood: Che Shale
20 km North of Malindi, this spot might be popular for kitesurfing, but foodies will know it for its organic crab farm to plate experience. In an environment best described as castaway-chic, this passion project by owner Justin offers massive mangrove crab served in various ways blended with local flavours and spices. If you’ve never had soft shell crab fried until golden crispy with a dab of mango salsa, or the perfect crab cakes, this place is it.
Fun in the Sun
A sunset dhow cruise is my all-time favourite thing to do at the coast, and I therefore always seek it. Our crew of two is waiting when we finally get to the family-run Driftwood Beach Hotel, and we quickly hop on a speedboat which takes us to a traditional Mozambican-style dhow. After we all climb the ladder and get on board, we set sail. These cruises can be as laid back or extravagant as you want them to be. Desired drinks and snacks are always advised, and I always remember to pack some ciders or a bottle of wine. We even carry a bluetooth speaker so we can play our favourite songs as we are lulled up and down the waves, in and out of the winds. If you wish, you can even stop on a secluded beach for a private beachside seafood barbeque.
Book a cruise with Driftwood Beach Club: www.driftwoodclub.com
Plan Hotels overlook Malindi Marine Park which is located south of the town extending to Mida Creek. It stands out for its fringing reefs, coral gardens in the lagoons, diversity of fish, mudflats and more making it ideal for scuba diving and snorkelling, both of which we try. Brian, who goes diving, reports seeing octopus, lionfish, turtle, stingray and more.
Dive with Blue-Fin Diving: www.bluefindiving.com
Out of Town Excursion
Marafa Hell’s Kitchen
About an hour from Malindi Dream Garden where we are staying, we make a return trip to this intriguing sandstone canyon which, according to science, formed through erosion over thousands of years. The soil is so brittle that if you kick it it breaks apart so this isn’t exactly a far fetched notion. Its daunting name comes from the structure and colour which resembles flames jutting out of the bottom of the earth, and if you visit in the daytime you might just pass out from the heat. There are a variety of rather bizarre local folklore surrounding its formation, including one which claims that it came to be as a result of heavy rains which God sent down to punish a rich family who had a lot of cattle and so much produce that they would even bathe in milk, and yet would not mind their poor neighbours. A friend, on the other hand, mentioned that he thought it may have formed during the flood in Noah’s day…
Whatever the case, this canyon is indeed fascinating to see.
The white, yellow and red pigment in the soil are so vibrant that according to our guide, Maasai and Giriama women collect and use it cosmetically or as paint during traditional ceremonies. Wear comfortable walking shoes if you intend to go down into the valley. Evenings are the best time for a visit as the sunsets here just photogenic. This excursion was organised by Intra Safaris Ltd.
Sabina Vivaldi, Owner, Cozy Point Homes Malindi resident for the past 20 years.
What are your favourite places to eat in town?
I quite like Osteria Beach Bar for their good Italian food. In the town center, I like to have breakfast with friends at Karen Blixen or Bar Bar where I’m likely to have a cappuccino and brioche.
Favourite thing to do in town…
I like going around the fabric shops because I enjoy making my own clothes and sometimes for friends and guests. I work with a few tailors in town for that. I especially like the Indian shops and once in a while they will bring something new and will let me know beforehand so there is always that excitement of waiting for their stock to arrive. I even take my guests to explore the shops. I also really love the beaches, and Silversands beach is a nice spot for an evening walk. Mayungu, which is 20 minutes out of town, is one of the best and if you fly over it you will realize that it is a natural pool because you can see the reef and the coast underneath its clear waters.
Best kept secret…
In the dry season, I go to this secret spot near Arabuko Sokoke forest, and it has a natural water pond where elephants come to drink.
Morris Kalama, yoga teacher I’ve been teaching yoga for the past 10 years and currently spend a lot of time between Watamu and Malindi. My favourite spot is a beach which we call Obuntwane in Bajuni…it is close to Vasco da Gama and sometimes I go there with friends. My favourite thing is however to teach different types of yoga such as ashtanga, power vinyasa, hatha, vinyasa flow and restorative yoga. I get all levels of people, and we have some really beautiful homes which are perfect for sessions in the mornings or evenings. Malindi is also ideal for retreats so it would be a good spot for teachers to look into.