When Captain Hamed sauntered up to us at breakfast one morning, he seemed so experienced – and so reassuring. Dolphins and snorkelling – hell, yeah! But the next day, I wasn’t feeling so sure. It turned out that not only did our “captain” not have his own boat, but his other promises fell short too. The boat that he did hire had no lifejackets for our children, refreshments or any of the other things that he had promised. It was a less than auspicious beginning.
From our starting point in Shimoni, we motored out for about 90 minutes (after we picked up buoyancy aids still several sizes too big from a ‘friend’) to the dolphin-spotting area. We were in luck that day, and several dolphins frolicked around the bobbing boats.
Our next destination was to the snorkelling area of the Kisite Marine Park – a shallow and glorious spot for sighting all sorts of colourful sealife and, if you’re lucky, turtles. It was here that the lack of tiny buoyancy aids was most noticeable, as our youngest children could only snorkel while holding onto an ageing lifebuoy.
Still, there was the much raved-about crab lunch to look forward to. Except that it turned out that our fee didn’t include crab. Hamed did finally persuade them to provide a few claws, but it was a far cry from our lovely seafood banquet on the island of Funzi a couple of days before.
I admit that I am not selling this trip very well. But I do know that I am itching to do it again – but this time with a reputable operator. Flicking through the brochures back at the beach house, I saw the company Pilli Pipa selling the same trip for a similar price, but with drinks and snacks on board, and an all-frills lunch with crab, wine and beer in a private garden. I know where I’ll be putting my money next time.
Thanks to a last-minute cancellation by other guests, we recently found ourselves at Jinchini, an old-style coastal house in Msambweni. From Diani, where we had stayed the previous few nights, it was just a short hop south. The beach itself is lovely – all the more so because it is mostly lined by private houses, giving it a more intimate and peaceful feel that its more popular neighbours to the north.
Jinchini, the beach home of the Orr family, is an old-fashioned stalwart with homely appeal, a large garden and direct beach access. When I think of Kenyan beaches, my mind drifts to Watamu or Diani, but Msambweni really deserves to be more popular than it is. It is a long stretch of golden sand with lots of pools and shallow swimming at low tide, and there is almost a complete absence of pestering beach boys.
That said, it’s worth investing in anti-malarials this far south – on a trip a few years previously, my husband picked up malaria, a reminder that not all of the coast is malaria-free. Sand flies can also be a nuisance, making it wise to slather on insect repellent. Even with all that, it remains one of my favourite beaches in Kenya.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure of what to expect at Jinchini. We had been staying at a much more upmarket resort further up the coast, and the cost of a three or four nights at Jinchini was equivalent to a night for a family elsewhere. Surely there had to be a reason it was so reasonably priced, I wondered. The reason is, I suspect, that Msambweni doesn’t spring to mind when it comes to a coast holiday – it remains very undeveloped and is that bit further from the nearest airport in Ukundu. I would strongly argue, however, that it should be on everyone’s list.
The house itself was built many years ago, and is much simpler than the newer, rather chic houses built further up the coast. For me, the simplicity is part of the charm. It feels like I’m returning to a family home, and not a fancy hotel where I look around in terror every time my toddler picks up a breakable object.
The owners have made various improvements added over the years. The rooms are fairly unadorned – oldish furniture, single beds pushed together to make a double, showers that could do with upgrading – but for us, it was just what we were looking for. Kassim, the house manager, runs a tight ship, and the cook rustled up delicious seafood dishes. Helpfully, the owners’ information pack, suggests recipes that they know he can do well.
Our young kids spent considerable time on the beach, or in the pool situated away from the sea on a terrace above the house. It also provided us with a very convenient base for exploring the south coast islands, meaning that our five nights at Jinchini really felt much too short. A night at Jinchini costs around Ksh 20,000.
Lockdown dashed our plans to stay at Kinondo Kwetu on Kenya’s south coast last Easter. I was gutted to cancel. It had never been on our watchlist, but visiting friends from South Africa invited us to join them there, and as I read up on the lodge, I relished the possibility more and more.
But surely it would cost an arm and a leg, I realised, as I looked at their rates. But to our surprise, they had a stand-alone house, the residence of the Swedish owners when in the country, at a fraction of the cost of the main hotel. At that time, it was Ksh 24,000 a night, a steal when compared to other coastal villas. (Sadly, that rate is no longer available, and it now costs Ksh 44,000 a night.)
We finally rebooked it for December, and packed our car and kids for the long drive down to Kinondo, which sits round the headland from Galu beach. As the manager reeled off the list of activities we could do – from horse riding along the beach to morning yoga to tennis on a floodlit court – I found myself wondering when we would get any downtime.
But downtime we got – in this lovely, lovely lodge right on the beach, the rooms, dining areas and pool spread out over the huge property. Although the lodge was full when we stayed, it is pretty small in terms of beds and never felt busy. There was enough room to barely make eye contact with the other guests, even when it seemed we spent hours in the pool, a large chunk of it pleading with our seven-year-old to get out NOW.
We haven’t done a whole lot of beachfront activities with our kids on previous holidays – when I arrive at the coast, an apathy steals over me, and I rarely raise my eyes from my book. This time, I took my eldest daughter for her first “free” canter along the beach, waded our horses into deepish waters and played an uninspiring game of tennis with my middle child. The highlight was a roughly 90-minute sail in a galowa, a traditional trimaran from Tanzania, where the kids were towed along. “What’s the word for when you’re both excited and scared?” asked Rosie, my eldest. “Thrilled?” I suggested. After that, everything was thrilling.
Although we had planned to exclusively self cater (well, we did for our kids), we couldn’t resist a grown-up dinner in the hotel, with one night becoming two and so on. Indeed, the food was some of the best I’ve encountered on the coast.
Would we go back? If the price was right, yes. But I fear we may be priced out in future, as travelling with children comes with a hefty additional price tag. But it was fabulous, and I recommend it to those looking to splurge in a place that’s actually worthy of the cost.
FB rates vary from 20,500 pp per night for the cottages to 52,500 pp per night for a larger cottage or superior room. The Alex House costs Ksh 44,000 per night with a mandatory full-board supplement of Ksh 6,500 per adult and Ksh 4,500 per child.
Tel: 0710 898 030
About the Author
I'm a former travel magazine editor, focused on Kenya, before which I covered news in Africa and beyond. These days, I travel with my kids.