Kenya’s delightful North Coast – Kilifi, Watamu, Malindi, and Mambrui

The historic town of Malindi, along with neighbouring Mambrui, Watamu, and Kilifi, offers a very different vibe from Mombasa further south. With pristine beaches and calm, warm waters protected by corral reefs, an abundance of seafood and a comfortably slow pace of life, this is a lovely place to be when you are not in a hurry (don’t bother visiting if you are!).

Getting there

Malindi Airport

By Air: If you are traveling from abroad, or you are not a fan of road trips, then the obvious way to access Malindi, Watamu or Kilifi is by air. The small and convenient Malindi Airport only serves domestic routes at the moment, but funds and land have been allocated to expand into an international airport.

By Road from Nairobi: If, on the other hand, you are nearly as fond of road trips as I am, then fuel up and hit the road! The Standard Gauge Railway, launched in 2017, removed most of the truck and bus madness that used to make the road a death trap and turned it into something quite pleasant. It is still Kenya, so look out for mad drivers, nevertheless.

The slow and scenic option is to go through Kenya’s largest national park, Tsavo East. I have done that journey twice, and I can totally recommend it, especially the route along Galana River!

The much faster route is via the fairly recently tarmacked shortcut from Mariakani to Kilifi town. That one takes almost exactly one hour with normal speede, completely bypassing Mombasa. Voilà, you are in Kilifi County!

Kilifi Town

The underwhelming HQ of the vast Kilifi County is barely more than a small, densely populated area. When driving through the town, one can be forgiven for thinking that it is just a supermarket surrounded by a petrol station and a handful of buildings. The area is, however, home to some beautiful white beaches and is an increasingly popular tourist destination along the Kenyan Coast.

Silver Palms is a modern and very pleasant boutique hotel, with swim-in rooms and a beautiful pool with an island at the core of the property. It is located on a low cliff, but the pool makes up for the lack of a proper, sandy beach. The restaurant is barely ok, but at least, there is Nautilus nearby.

Naultilus Restaurant in Kilifi - Seafood Platter
Naultilus Restaurant in Kilifi – Seafood Platter

Nautilus Restaurant. The most famous restaurant in Kilifi overlooks the Creek and offers a delightful selection of seafood. Booking in advance is not a bad idea during peak seasons. The menu is fairly sophisticated for Coast, for instance, with three different types of fried oysters. For a hungry family of four, the seafood platter (depicted above) easily becomes a natural choice and an excellent one for that!

Watamu

The sleepy town of Watamu is historically famous for its sea turtles, white beaches, and shallow lagoons surrounded by reefs and islands. During low tide, you can sit down in the water in most parts of the northern lagoon, making this a perfect spot for families with small kids. The town and beaches are dotted with tourist hotels and resorts in all price ranges, and the market is increasingly flooded with AirBnBs. Hence, finding a place to stay is hardly a problem.

The Blue Lagoon is a shallow bay, almost enclosed by two cliffs, with an island in the middle. The white sand dune could have been idyllic had it not been for the rotting seaweed covering big parts of the beach, leaving a rather unpleasant smell. With one exception, the bars and restaurants are cheapish, with plastic chairs and limited menus. I have never trusted any of those places enough to give their food a try, but I doubt I have missed out on much. The one notable exception is, however, a very nice one:

Kokomo is one of the most recent additions to the wining and dining scene in Watamu. Overlooking the southern bay with simple, yet tasteful décor, they offer a nice Mediterranean/Lebanese selection and great cocktails. Their Fish Meunière is very nice, and the vegan burger is in itself a reason to pass by the place!

The Watamu Bay, north of the Blue Lagoon and Watamu Town is surrounded by seven coral rock islands, forming a shallow, semi-enclosed lagoon with very warm and calm waters. With the exception of some few, rocky areas, this lagoon is also devoid of the sea urchins you find in most other parts of the Kenya Coast. While going for a swim in the Indian Ocean is a no-brainer anywhere along Kenya’s coastline, the north side of Watamu holds a particular allure, as most of the bay is shallow enough to sit down. Unbeatable when traveling with small kids!

Gede Ruins: This historic site is among the most famous in Coast, but by no means the only one of its kind: The shores of Kenya actually feature a whole 116 ancient Swahili settlements. Gede, however, is in a league of its own. This former Swahili town by the Mida Creek was a major centre of trade and political power along the East African coast and played a key role in the Indian Ocean Trade. It is believed to have been inhabited from the 11th or 12th, to the 16th century.

Gede Ruins in Watamu, Kenya. Historic Swahili city

Lichthaus Bar and Restaurant. This is by far the funkiest beach bar in Kenya and possibly in East Africa. It is one of the very few places in Coast where you will see people actually dressing up.

Lichthaus - the funkiest bar in Watamu
Lichthaus – the funkiest bar in Watamu

Standing on poles above the Mida Creek, surrounded by mangroves, Lichthaus offers the most splendid sundowner setting you can get around here. This is one of the few places where you *have to* book in advance of you are to get anything semblant of a decent table, let alone any of the creek-facing nets, where you can actually lie down right above the water. While the atmosphere and the experience are enough to give them an overall 9.5/10, I am not too much of a fan of the service arrangement where you have to queue at the bar to order. They have some proper mixologists, so the cocktails alone are worth the visit. If only I could say the same thing about the food. All in all, this is still one of the spots not to miss out on if you’re in the vicinity of Watamu.

Dabaso Crab Shack. This exotic experience is considered a key attraction in Watamu. Walking on bridges through the mangrove forest to geat there certainly adds a je-ne-sais-quoi to the the meal. The menu is fairly simple and totally ok, but it is a place you visit for the setting, not the food.

Papa Remo was a small and cosy fine dining beach restaurant when I first ate there in 2016. It has since grown into a much bigger and less exclusive venture, with occasional big beach parties. Still one of the better places to eat in Watamu, though!

Non Solo Gelato is a home-grown Kenyan-Italian ice cream brand that started in Watamu and has since expanded to Nairobi. The original gelateria in Watamu has a small but delicious selection that changes every day. Trust me, when you travel with two kids, you get to visit the place at the very least once a day! The fact that they also have some nice, boozy options makes it a dangerous temptation for grown-ups too! 🍸

Casuarina

Malaika Beach Restaurant in Casuarina
Malaika Beach Restaurant in Casuarina

Casuarina is the relatively quiet beach area between Watamu and Malindi. Most movement between the two towns goes through the main road a few km further to the west, so Casuarina road remains untarmacked for now. The dirt road is no challenge for a 4WD, though, and if you want different and more quiet vibe, you could start here.

The beaches in Casuarina are vast and not very bust. There are some hotels that are supposed to be excellent, but the only one I’ve tried so far was not a success. The area, however, is dotted with beach restaurants, my favorites being Robbies Rasta Safari at Safina Beach Hotel, where you get a whole grilled lobster for KES 1200 along with an amazing vibe, and Malaika Beach Restaurant. The latter is worth the trip to Casuarina on its own merit. A long, lazy lunch there should be in your itinerary if you are anywhere within driving distance. Make sure to have the lobster pasta!


Malindi

Hell's Kitchen, Marafa. Make sure to visit when in Malindi, Watamu or Kilifi
Hell’s Kitchen, Marafa. Make sure to visit when in Malindi, Watamu or Kilifi

The second-largest town in Coast after Mombasa is a historic site, more than 1,000 years old. While little remains of the ancient Swahili settlement from which Malindi originated, the Vasco Da Gama Pillar and the nearby Portuguese Chapel, built in or around 1498 and 1502 respectively, stand as memorials to the pre-colonial trade relations between East Africa and Europe.

The Portuguese Chapel in Malindi - The oldest church in East Africa
The Portuguese Chapel in Malindi – The oldest church in East Africa

Looking for a taxi? Tough luck with that in Malindi! Uber, Bolt and other hailing apps are yet to set up shop, and the few old-fashioned taxis you’ll ever find there are ridiculously overpriced. If you are not driving, then get used to moving around on boda bodas (motorbike taxis), or tuktuks if you prefer to sacrifice some speed for comfort. During a previous trip to Malindi, I actually ended up taking a tuktuk all the way to Watamu (18 kms!), and back!

This is one of the places in Kenya I have visited the most. Since my first trip there on Valentine’s Day in 2003, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been back. I wrote one of my first-ever blog posts about the town back then. Most of that information is outdated by now, but feel free to read it at your pleasure!

Malindi Shipwreck

Previously a preferred destination for Italian tourists, Malindi was particularly hit by Covid. Tourism from Italy was already declining before that, though, and Silversand Beach on the south side of the town is today something akin to a cemetery of defunct tourist hotels. While some cautious signs of recovery are starting to emerge, it may still take a while for tourism to boom again in Malindi. In the meantime, the distressed hospitality assets are possibly a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity for the patient risk taker.

Things to Do, Eat, and See in Malindi

The Malindi Marine Park is an obvious experience to include if you haven’t been to other marine parks in East Africa. Even if you have, it is still pleasant to spend a few hours in one of the many glass-bottom boats, looking at the marine life, snorkeling, and walking on a sand island during low tide.

Hell’s Kitchen. This miniature “Grand Canyon”, a smooth 45-minute drive from Malindi, has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the ares in recent years. Virtually unknown until a new road made it accessible in 2019, this spectacular geological feature with its dramatic rock formations is now an obvious point on your checklist when visiting this part of the Kenya Coast. The place gets scorching hot, though, so the best time to visit is very early in the morning!

Vasco Da Gama Pillar, Malindi

The Da Gama Pillar. As mentioned above, this historical monument is one of the most emblematic features of Malindi. The ticket also gives you access to the Portuguese Chapel and the Malindi Museum. The latter provides a quick but limited overview of the history of Malindi, and is worth a brief visit.

White Elephant. A boutique hotel with an art gallery. The owner, Armando Tanzani, is a quite fascinating sculpture artist, whose works are mostly inspired by African traditions. There is also a nearby private sculpture park, which I have never managed to visit as it is by appointment only, and quite in demand. Supposedly, it is quite an experience too.

Olimpia, at the southern end of Silversand Beach, is an inevitable stopover for seafoodie. This is the only place in Malindi to serve decent clams and mussels. Other than that, the menu is fairly similar to the other Italian restaurants. At least there is some variety in the wine selection, too. Olimpia is also famous for their weekly Wednesday beach parties, so don’t miss out on that! With the general quality of the restaurant and surroundings, the look and feel of the parties is a notch above those of the other competitors along the beach.

Rosada Beach, two minutes further up the beach from Olimpia, is a legend that has been around for 30 years. Their beach parties are on Mondays, and this another one not to miss out on. They also have very nice Italian pizzas, so make sure to include that in your plans. The rest of the menu is not all that.

Coco Beach. At the Northern end of Silversands Beach, next to the Da Gama Pillar, you find this cosy restaurant on top of a low cliff. The slight elevation gives you a view of the whole beach, and generally, the atmosphere is great. Perfect for sundowners. The seafood platters are always a great option, and you cannot go wrong with their pizzas, either.

Baby Marrow is your best bet for lobster in Malindi
Baby Marrow is your best bet for lobster in Malindi

Baby Marrow is the closest thing to an upscale restaurant in Malindi. This art restaurant offers a more sophisticated dining setting than the other restaurants in Malindi, with a collection of captivating paintings on the walls and some menu items you won’t find elsewhere in this town, such as softshell crab with mango chutney or ham-wrapped tiger prawns. Did I mention three different types of Lobster?

Bar Bar in the northern outskirts of Malindi is also worth mentioning. The menu is Italian, with a huge variety of pastas and pizzas. The seafood pizza is particularly memorable and the chef is generous with the toppings.

Malaika Malindi is the sister restaurant of the amazing Malaika Beach Restaurant in Casuarina. In my opinion, it doesn’t reach up to the same level, although it does have a pretty nice ambiance. They do offer some decent sushi, but that is not enough for this restaurant to rank among my favorites.

Before Covid, Malindi used to feature a wide variety of gelaterias with delicious Italian ice cream, milkshake and tiramisu. Alas, most of them succumbed to the pandemic, as did the grand old classic restaurant, The Old Man and the Sea. Malindi used to be “Little Italy” in East Africa, but many of the old hotel and restaurant owners went back to Italy when the pandemic struck, never to return.

Hence, a lot of the old hotels in Malindi are now in a state of collapse. New and modern properties are coming up, particularly towards Causarina. The old hotels and restaurants that used to define Malindi until Covid, however, are mostly gone or rapidly degenerating. While some Italians are still staying put and even putting money into the businesses again, it is Kenyan investors driving the tourism sector there now.

As Malindi and the tourism sector recover, a different town emerges, still with an Italian influence, but less predominantly so.


Mambrui

Mambrui - Stranded Boat

North of Malindi, past the Galana River Estuary, lies a village called Mambrui. Below it, vast, golden sand dunes meet the waves of the Indian Ocean.

Mambrui offers a much “wilder” and more pristine setting than Malindi and Watamu, with fewer people and even less activity. Between the few local fishermen and the visiting kitesurfers, there is ample space on the enchanting golden beaches, and there are no safety concerns, so the place is perfect for a nice, long, barefoot stroll. Contrary to Malindi and Watamu, Mambrui is not protected by a coral reef, so the waves are bigger and stronger.

A handful of discreet makuti (thatch) beach resorts dot this pristine “middle of nowhere”, and top among them is Che Shale. This grand old classic has been around since the 1970s, and has allegedly hosted a number of billionaires and Hollywood celebrities seeking to get away from everything. After some 10 minutes on a dirt road that then branches off to a barely motorable path for another 10 minutes, a sign telling you that if you are wearing shoes, you are overdressed sets the standard. Once you sit down on one of the swing beds by the beach, you are unlikely to engage in many other activities. Che Shale has always been known for its seafood, and I can confirm that the menu is delightful. The wine list is fairly good too, so whenever I am in Malindi, an afternoon here is a mandatory part of my itinerary!

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