I sprawled on a chaise in the shade of towering palm trees. Their giant leaves rustled in a warm, salty breeze, sounding like the patter of rain. A white sandy beach stretched before me, as brilliant emerald waves rolled ashore. Next to me, friends lounged, sipping from freshly cut coconuts.
The scene felt like a Corona commercial — except for the occasional camel strolling by on the beach.
My friends and I were at Diani Beach, on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. Our group of seven Minnesotans met up there after several of us had been on safaris. After taking exhilarating game drives on the vast grasslands of the Maasai Mara — and navigating the bumpy roads and bustling sidewalks of Nairobi — we wanted a place to decompress and to celebrate a far-flung Thanksgiving. Where better to do that than at the beach?
Located about an hourlong plane ride from Nairobi and just north of the Tanzanian border, the lush Kenya coast around Diani boasts miles of pearly beaches and bright turquoise waters. It was a whole other side of this African country I never expected to see, but am so glad I did — a surprising slice of tropical paradise just south of the equator, with distinct African touches.
The sails of dhows — traditional Arab boats — bobbed in the distance as little white crabs scurried across the sand and ducked into tiny holes. Vendors hawked kikoy towels, colorful East African cotton blankets. I flinched as I dipped my feet into the salty, shallow waters, shocked by the warm bathwater-like Indian Ocean.
The vibrant, stunning part of Kenya draws snorkelers, kitesurfers and sunbathers from around the world, but few Americans.
While resorts, beach houses and restaurants pop up along the palm-lined coast, beaches are far from stacked with sunbathers and surfers. Instead, Diani is a relatively quiet escape, with more “beach boys” and women selling souvenirs and boat rides than tourists.
Locals told us it was peak tourism season, yet we encountered few other visitors. Tourism, they said, has slowed after El Niño ushered in blistering heat. Temperatures soared into the 80s but with the high humidity, it felt more like 90 degrees as the sun beat down.
Kenya’s tourism has also taken a hit after terrorist attacks in Nairobi and elsewhere. At the time, the U.S. State Department’s travel warning listed several attacks in the Mombasa area just north of Diani in the past couple of years, including a 2014 attack at a resort frequented by Westerners. The department had restricted U.S. embassy workers from traveling to all coastal counties after Al-Shabab attacks.
For our stay, we opted for apartments on Galu, a quieter beach just south of Diani. My friend Emily Cook-Lundgren, 31, and her husband, Jeff, 30, left the U.S. to live in Nairobi almost three years ago, so we took comfort in their expertise and the fact that thousands of Americans and other tourists visit the country without incident.
Under bright blue skies, we relished a respite from the sweltering heat in the shade of palm trees, lazily watching the teal ocean waters inch closer with the tide.
Plenty of beach activities
Atop a trio of camels, we lurched back and forth in an awkward ride later along the bright white beach. We giggled as the camels jostled us with each slow stretch of their gangly legs, striding across the hot sand. At the end of our ride, I was sure I’d fall out of the saddle when my camel sat on the ground, collapsing first its front legs, then its back legs, sending me lurching. I let out a scream.
Under fluttering canopies of a beach bar, we sipped dawa cocktails, which translates from Swahili into “medicine” and is a vodka drink made with lime and honey.
And later, we boarded a fishing boat called a ngalawa, an outrigger canoe.
We waded out into the warm Indian Ocean and hopped into the traditional sailboat, carved out of mango trees. Used by the three young fishermen to catch red and white snapper, tuna and lobster, the boat was as narrow as a canoe but about 30 feet long. I grasped the sides of the boat as it bobbed up and down, waves crashing against the sides.
Emily hunkered down in the small boat as she started to feel seasick from the bouncing. The captain turned to Sheyda Esnaashari, 28, a St. Paul native living in Kenya, and invited her to steer. She maneuvered the wooden rudder back and forth.
“It’s harder than it looks,” she said as we flew over the green waters, the salty wind whipping against the sail.
Emily looked up from the floor of the boat. “How much farther?” she asked.
A young crew member scooped water out of the boat to empty water that crashed over the sides, and he cackled with a laugh.
“Are you going to feed the fish?” he joked.
She crouched further, hugging her knees as the crew spun the tall white sail around and we headed back, reaching shore a half-hour later. We leapt out of the boat and haggled over the price with the crew.
A magical place
“It’s really quiet,” Jeff said as we walked the beach one morning.
A “beach boy” suddenly emerged, yelling out “Jambo!” Hello.
“Hakuna pesa,” we said, indicating we had no money with us.
Guidebooks praise the Kenya coast’s scenic beauty, but warn about the annoyance of souvenir sellers.
Aside from the nuisance of the frequent sales pitches, we often had the peaceful coastline nearly to ourselves.
We celebrated Thanksgiving in the warm night air of our apartment’s deck, sharing red snapper, prawns and a small turkey. We shooed away a monkey that jumped down from the overhanging trees before taking a bite of an inflatable raft.
We did our own “turkey trot,” running barefoot on the beach with turkey hats. Confused beach boys wished us “merry Christmas.” We cut the run short; the overbearing humidity made it feel like running in a sauna, drenching us in sweat. A dip in the ocean followed by fruit salad of mango, bananas, pineapple and passion fruit rejuvenated us.
The next day, as we rode out to a sandbar in a glass-bottom boat to go snorkeling, I marveled at the crystal-clear aqua waters, unlike anything I’d seen before. Our guide picked up a red-knobbed starfish, its brilliant blood-red spiny protrusions like blunt spikes. Then he handed us snorkels and masks, and we dove in, swimming above the coral reef.
It was a magical place for my first snorkeling experience. The water glistened on the surface; I heard nothing but the sound of my breath moving in and out. I swam past a blue starfish clinging to coral as trumpetfish and zebrafish sped by my face.
It wasn’t zebrafish, but zebras and other safari sights that had initially drawn me to Kenya. Instead, I was also leaving with an unexpected look at the vivid tropical coast that many American visitors do not see or even know about.
After a day in the scorching sun, lazily soaking up beach life, my pale skin burned pink. The sun began to quickly melt into the horizon.
We ended the day with one last jump in the ocean, soaking up the warm waters, the waves carrying us farther and farther out as dusk fell on Kenya’s coast in a purple, blue haze.