If you think Kenya is just about wildlife, think again. With beautiful beaches, coral reefs, unique heritage and European influence, Malindi is a great place for a break from hectic safari-ing.
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Our main reason for visiting Kenya was, of course, the incredible wildlife. But after a week of driving—both from one park to another, and within each one—we knew we would need a break. And Malindi seemed like the perfect coastal getaway.
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In June 2018, we turned a fond dream into reality with a three-week visit to Africa. After a week in Uganda with relatives, we headed to Kenya for a week of wildlife watching (more on that in another post coming soon). Seeing elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinoceroses and other animals up close was incredible. What we didn’t realize, though, was how tiring it would be to drive from one park to another! Spending up to nine hours on (often) very bumpy roads every other day will take it out of you. Thankfully, we had planned on three nights of taking it easy on Kenya’s unique coast. And though it was a bit of a mixed bag, it turned out quite well in the end.
The road to Malindi
Before zeroing in on Malindi, our initial plan was to head to Mombasa—Kenya’s second-largest city, and a major port town. A few friends recommended, though, that we should probably stay outside the city to avoid the crowds and traffic. Malindi to the north and Diani to the south emerged as the destinations of choice. Days of research followed, and we couldn’t make up our minds where to stay. Meanwhile, flights to Mombasa were in increasingly short supply. So I thought, “why not book our flights first, and worry about accommodation later?” In retrospect, not such a good idea! More on why later.
We finally decided on Malindi because a homestay there (the aptly named Lovely Cottage) came highly recommended. So we booked that through AirBnB (our first ever booking!), and we were set. Then came an unpleasant surprise. It turned out Malindi was three hours’ drive from Mombasa, and the taxi would cost us a pretty penny. Even worse, Malindi had an airport! Sadly, no amount of kicking myself made it any cheaper to change our flights to Malindi instead of Mombasa. So we resigned ourselves to an unnecessary three hours on the road each way.
But it wasn’t all bad. If we had flown in, we would have missed the countryside dotted with Africa’s iconic baobab trees, and seeing the sun set behind endless sisal agave plantations. Or it could just be a case of sour grapes. I’ll never tell!
A warm homestay and a nice dinner
It was dark when we got to the homestay, and the road approaching it was unlit, so we were a little spooked. But it turned out to be as lovely as advertised! Our room was on the first floor of a cottage, itself part of a large layout of residential cottages on the beach. And though it looked like a holiday resort complete with thatched roofs and swimming pool, each cottage was in fact privately owned. After the long drive (and the scary road), the warmly lit cottages and our simple but tasteful room were a huge relief.
Because it was dinner time and we were starving, we convinced our driver to drop us off somewhere we could eat. He drove us back up the scary beach road to Osteria, a great Italian restaurant that was highly recommended by our host. So we celebrated our first night in Malindi with pizza, Caesar salad and grilled potatoes. Oh, and beer. It turned out to be a lot, so we ended up taking quite a bit back with us. Luckily, our homestay gave us access to a kitchen with a fridge.
A day of taking it easy
The next morning, we were in a bit of dilemma. We hadn’t remembered to pick up any groceries the day before, and the kitchen was quite bare because our host wasn’t in town. We ended up having to survive (just barely) without our customary morning tea. And the previous night’s leftovers made for an… interesting breakfast.
Having got that out of the way, we decided to take a leisurely walk on the beach. Luckily, the layout we were in was right on Silversands beach. All we had to do was walk up a cobblestoned path, and there we were! As we were strolling about, two locals walked up to us and tried to start a conversation. We weren’t really in the mood, but one of them was quite intent on showing us the sights, so we relented. We stayed on our guard though, because we had heard about (and experienced) enough scams during our travels.
Discovering Silversands beach
So we walked along the beach, led by our new ‘friend’. The beach itself was unlike any other we had seen before. There was sand, of course, but only up to a point. Beyond the narrow strip of sand, low tide had exposed a sea floor of what looked like black rock! The beach was very shallow too, so low tide meant that the water had receded at least 100 metres or more, showing us the black, bumpy mossy sea floor. Definitely not what we were expecting.
As we walked on, we found lots of that rock inland as well, with the sea having carved a few tunnels through the higher outcrops over the ages. Malindi’s famous Pillar of Vasco Da Gama (erected by the explorer himself in 1498) sits on top of one of these. Sadly, because one needs to approach to pillar from the road (and pay for it) we couldn’t take pictures from the beach. We did walk through the small tunnel underneath, though.
Towards the end of our stroll, near a settlement next to the road, we passed another group of locals lounging in the shade. They apparently knew our guide and greeted him, which set my spider senses tingling. I guess I was just being paranoid about the whole thing, though. In the end, all our man seemed to want to do was help out, and was even surprised when we gave him a tip for his efforts. Which just goes to show that not everyone is out to get you!
We search for groceries
We took a path through the settlement to the road, and emerged just opposite the Baobab restaurant. It looked inviting, and we had had an unconventional breakfast that morning, so in we went. Sadly, the pancakes we ordered were uninspiring. And that reminded us again that, if we wanted a decent breakfast the next day, we needed groceries. The manager at Baobab didn’t seem to know where we could get any besides the supermarket in town, so we hailed a passing tuk-tuk and headed there.
We stocked up on what we could at the supermarket, and then wondered what to do. It was around noon, too early for lunch. But we didn’t feel like doing much anymore, so we stopped off at Osteria again and ordered some take away to eat later. While we waited, we sampled some of their incredible gelato and made good use of their free Wi-Fi. (Aside: I get the feeling that their free Wi-Fi was actually a clever marketing strategy. Osteria was one of the very few places on the beach road that had it, meaning people like us would keep coming back just for that.) Once back in our room, we relaxed a bit, had a leisurely packed lunch, and knocked off for our customary nap.
An evening of beer and fries on the beach
That evening, we decided we would walk up the beach in the other direction, away from town, and see what we could find. We’d been told that the Mariposa hotel had a nice beachside restaurant, so that was our destination. To our annoyance, the evening high tide was so high that we couldn’t walk further after a point. So we had to head back to our layout and walk along the road instead of the beach. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though. Because just a few steps along the road was a tiny little shack that sold groceries!
Earlier in the evening, the brown baking sugar we had been forced to buy in the supermarket had curdled our tea. So we told the jolly grocery shack lady we would buy some regular ‘sukaari’ (Swahili for ‘sugar’) on our way back, and some of the tempting-looking mangoes that were on display.
The Blanco restaurant at the Mariposa hotel turned out to be a nice, casual, open-air affair, with a sand floor. We spent a lovely hour there sipping beer, snacking on fries, and watching the locals—and a happy doggy—playing in the waves a little way further down the beach. While we were there, we suddenly realized that we had had enough of taking it easy, and decided we would see a few sights the next day. We zeroed in on a boat ride and some snorkelling in the Malindi Marine National Park in the morning, and a visit to the Hell’s Kitchen depression in the afternoon. On the way back, we made good on our promise, and picked up the sugar and mangoes from the grocery shack and its smiling proprietor.
Also read: An off-the-beaten-path holiday in Goa
A cosy dinner in a Swahili setting
The night, we had dinner at the cosy Old Man and the Sea. The small restaurant was done up a bit like a traditional Swahili home, with low pointed arches and wall hangings. The atmosphere was very nice and the food was good. And while we ate, we were treated to the sight of a man on the street feeding a whole pack of stray cats in the middle of the road. Once he and the rest of the cats were gone, a lone kitten stayed behind, squeezed itself between two goats that were sleeping on the road, and fell asleep too!
Dinner and entertainment done, we walked back along the now-familiar (but still pitch-dark) road to our homestay. And again, along came some leftovers that we would eat for breakfast the next day.
Of corals and surreal landscapes
The next morning, we set out walking to the Malindi Marine National Park. Of course, it turned out much further than we expected. There were no tuk-tuks to be found, so we caught a boda-boda (a motorcycle taxi) instead. Despite my apprehensions of having three people—driver included—on one small motorcycle, we got there without a scratch. (Aside: The say boda-bodas are called that because they can supposedly ferry people across borders without needing the paperwork a car would need. So they take people from border to border, or if pronounced with an east African accent, from ‘boda to boda’.)
The Marine National Park experience
The marine park was surprisingly empty, with us being the only visitors around. Maybe it was because we were early, or because that day happened to be Eid-ul-Fitr, the most important holiday for Muslims. Whatever the reason, there was no one to share the cost of the boat with, so it turned out a bit pricey. On the flip side, we had the large boat entirely to ourselves. It also meant we could snorkel around the reef in peace and explore the neighbouring sandbar at our leisure. Interestingly, it was raining inland for much of the time, while there was bright sunshine out over the water.
The snorkelling over the reef was nice enough, though not as nice as we’ve seen in the Andaman and Lakshadweep islands in India. The water was a bit murky (it was the end of the rainy season), and the reefs looked in bad shape. But there were still interesting corals to see, and lots of fish (though we didn’t appreciate out boat captain using bread to attract them, despite us telling him not to). The sandbar was nice too, piled up against the outer edge of the lagoon. Overall, a nice enough outing, though a tad expensive. And our boat captain (he called himself ‘Teacher’) was nice enough to drop us back to our homestay on his motorcycle. For the regular boda-boda fee, of course.
Also read: Our holiday in mysterious Lakshadweep
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Our descent into Hell’s Kitchen
After a quick lunch at our homestay (we still had some leftovers) and a quick snooze (yes, we take our naps seriously), it was off to Hell’s Kitchen. About an hour’s drive out of Malindi, Hell’s Kitchen is a surreal Martian landscape of spires and ravines created by rainwater erosion of the soil. The people of the nearby village of Marafa are the custodians of the site and guide tourists around for a small fee.
When we got to Hell’s Kitchen and our guide started showing us around, we were slightly disappointed. There was something very familiar about the red sandy pillars of soil and the paths between them. I suppose, living in India, we’ve seen things like this often enough, though admittedly not on such a scale. But it was still nice to stroll through the maze of little ravines cut into the earth, and clamber around a few of the more accessible soil formations. It was hot too, though, and our guide said this was one of the reasons this place got its name. He said the temperature inside the depression could go up to 50 degrees Celsius, even while the surroundings stayed pleasantly cool.
A nice last evening in Malindi
Our drive back to Malindi that evening was quite beautiful. The evening sun played over the fields, bushes and tall baobab trees next to the unpaved road. Children walked home with water and provisions balanced on their heads. And everywhere was an atmosphere of peace and contentment. That changed soon enough. As we entered town, there was an unexpected traffic jam. It turned out that we were passing the traditional Eid carnival at the town’s fairground, and almost the entire Muslim population of Malindi was there, celebrating. As we inched our way through the jam, it was interesting to watch people celebrate Eid in a different way from that which we’re used to. At home in India, most people celebrate by visiting relatives at home. But this way seemed like a lot more fun!
That night—our last in Malindi—we had dinner at The Baby Marrow. That was the best (and most expensive) meal we had during our time there. It was also the only time we saw a significant number of locals in a restaurant, at least as many as the tourists and expats. I suppose that was because we had been visiting during Ramadan.
A stop at Gedi on the way to Mombasa
The next day, we decided to leave for Mombasa early. Our flight was in the early afternoon, so we thought we’d stop and take a look at the ruins at Gedi (or Gede) along the way. The village of Gedi was in the jungle, a few minutes’ drive off the main highway, and the ruins were a little further. (Aside: The Gedi ruins are the remains of a medieval Swahili-Arab town that were discovered in the early 1900s. Since then, the walled town center has been cleared and excavated, but they say most of the surrounding city is still covered by the jungle.)
Mysterious ruins surrounded by jungle
Our guide (you can hire one at the gate) led us through the ruins of the old one-storey stone buildings. He said there were various theories about why the city had been abandoned, despite being a major trading hub. It seems Gedi was abandoned either because of military conflict or because of scarcity of water.
Whatever the reasons for its decline, Gedi must have been quite prosperous at its peak. Despite being one-storeyed, the ruler’s palace and the city’s great mosque seem to have been built with quite some finesse. Our guide also mentioned that artefacts from India, China, Persia and even Europe had been found here, which means it was probably quite an important trade center.
Gedi was, of course, not quite as impressive as a lot of historical places we’ve seen. Still, the remains of its palace, great mosque, pillared tombs and stone houses, all surrounded by jungle, have an air of mystery all of their own.
A last reminder
We didn’t have a lot of time, so we headed off after an hour of exploring the ruins. It was lunchtime by the time we go to Mombasa, so we had a quick lunch at a local restaurant before catching our flight. And, like a last reminder that we were leaving Kenya behind, we were treated to the majestic sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro towering over the clouds outside our airplane window.
Our few days in Malindi were a little on the expensive side, but they were still fun. The beach was nice, the food was good, and the atmosphere was perfect for us to recover from our time on the road. And though we’ll probably not visit again, we’ll always have fond memories of our time in this little town on the Kenyan coast.
IQ’s top tips for visiting Malindi
- Malindi has an airport, but it’s serviced only by smaller domestic airlines and not by Kenya Airways.
- The place can be expensive, especially near the beach. For example, entry to the Malindi Marine National Park is USD 20 per person, and hiring a boat for yourself is another USD 30. A meal for two along the beach can cost upwards of USD 40.
- For three nights in Malindi, you can expect to spend at least USD 500 on accommodation, food and activities. Flights will also cost at least that much if you’re flying in from somewhere else in Africa. If you’re flying internationally, tickets will cost much more.
- The transport is somewhat reasonable, though. Tuk-tuks will probably charge you the unofficial fixed rate for tourists: KES 100 (around USD 1), regardless of distance within town.
- It seems Malindi is a very popular destination for Europeans, and Italians in particular. A lot of restaurants are run by expat Italians, and most of the cottages in our homestay layout (including the one we stayed in) were owned by expat Europeans.
- It’s not easy to find local food along the Silversands road. If it’s local cuisine you want, it’s probably better to head into town, away from the beach. Malindi is full of places that serve excellent European and world cuisine, though.
- The gelato in Osteria is really good. If you’re an ice cream fan, you should try it.
- Carry some US dollars and Euros if you don’t want to carry wads of local currency. Many places and people are happy to accept them in place of Kenyan shillings. Some—like the Marine National Park—even prefer payment in US dollars.
- Some establishments will exchange your US dollars and Euros into local currency, but it seems that’s illegal. It’s probably a better idea to ask a local bank, or to just pay in foreign exchange and get change back in shillings.
- The beaches aren’t the typical white sand beaches you find on coral islands. But the extremely shallow water at low tide is something special.
- East Africa overall has a major bottled-water culture. If you’re concerned about plastic and its impact on the environment, you should probably invest in a filter-purifier bottle like GRAYL before visiting.
- Kenyan cuisine is heavy on meat and seafood. There are some vegetarian options, but you’ll have to look quite hard for them. The most common ones are spinach-like greens (mchichi or just ‘greens’), green banana (matoké), onion and tomato salad (kachumbari), maize flour cake (ugali), Indian-style flatbread (chapati), red bean stew, rice, and root vegetables like arrowroot, turnip and cassava.
- Steer clear of any restaurant with ‘choma’ in its name. ‘Choma’ translates roughly to ‘barbecue’ and any choma restaurant will pretty much be meat-only.
- In Malindi, western restaurants will have more than enough options to keep vegetarians happy, though.