Shambani: Easter at the South Coast

In light of the various incidents of insecurity recently, it’s hardly surprising that many Kenyans favoured the beaches of Lake Victoria over those of the Coast. Hotels in western Kenya registered record high levels of bookings during the Easter period as people shunned Nairobi and Mombasa to explore or visit family around Kisumu or Eldoret. This mass migration to the west, though, meant that the normally steep Easter prices at the Coast had dropped – making some of the more upmarket hotels and cottages more affordable. So, my girlfriend and I seized the opportunity, and headed to the south coast.

We normally set out early and drive there, but the lengthening queues of lorries mean that the journey takes far longer these days than it used to. Plus, our trip roughly coincided with the establishment of Jambojet – the new low-cost airline offering cheap flights from Nairobi to Eldoret, Kisumu or Mombasa for as little as Kshs 5,700 for a return ticket, depending on how early you book. As with all low-cost airlines, like the UK equivalent Ryanair, all you pay for is your seat. Refreshments, a suitcase and the choice of where you sit are all things you have to pay a little extra for. As the flights are short, this isn’t much of an issue. If you’re an average-sized person though, and want a modicum of leg room, it’s worth paying an additional Kshs 850 for a seat that’s not at the back – which I found out the hard way.

We had arranged a taxi for the drive south from Mombasa, a journey that took three hours because of the heightened security at the Likoni ferry. I had read only a few days before that the ferry was a prime terror target so it wasn’t the most relaxing journey, I’ll admit. All this was forgotten, though, when we arrived at our destination. We were staying at the Shambani Cottages – at the northern end of the Diani Beach road, at the Mwachema river mouth.

Shambani’s eight self-catering cottages are set in a lush garden of bougainvillea, flamboyant and palm trees, which easily makes up for the fact that the plot isn’t on the beachfront. Two of the cottages have three bedrooms, and cater for larger families, while the rest have either one or two bedrooms. They all have a kitchen and there is a chef on hand who is happy to cook meals for you. Our small cottage opened out onto a spacious balcony with Lamu-style beds, and a view of the garden with its abundance of Vervet and Sykes’ monkeys. There is also a pool, and a communal area with a BBQ.

Considering the insecurity of late, I thought we would be amongst the only ones there, but this wasn’t the case. I asked the manager, Salim, about how they had been affected and he informed me that all the two-bedroom cottages were full, and two large families arrived the day we left. The guests were quite a diverse group, too – there were Brits, Italians, Americans and Indians. It seems not everyone had been deterred by the recent events, particularly with the reduced rates. The rack rates are on their website www.shambani.com, though we found it considerably cheaper through www.sleepout.co.ke.

The beach is only a short walk away, across the road, under a canopy of venerable baobabs and past the Kongo Mosque. Named after the former forest of the area, the mosque is thought to be the last remaining building of the Wa-shirazi settlement that developed here in the fourteenth or fifteenth-century. The mosque is still in use, and you can have a closer look with permission and a small donation. There are a couple of beach beds for Shambani guests just beyond the mosque run by beach boys (though this too requires a small donation).

On Good Friday we decided to ditch our own questionable cooking for a meal at the highly-rated Ali Barbour’s Cave further south along the Diani Beach road. Ali Barbour’s is probably the best option for dinner among all of Diani’s restaurants. It sits within the sunken chambers of a 150,000 year-old coral cave, just over 200m back from the beach. There are lights in every crevice, and the focal point is a large natural hole in the cave ceiling – open to the elements and covered by a canvas cloth when it rains. The cave was converted into a restaurant some 30 years ago by George and Jackie Barbour, who own the adjacent Forty Thieves Beach Bar and Flamboyant Boutique Hotel.

They describe their cuisine as ‘typically international, specialising in seafood’, and there is also a good selection of vegetarian options. For those who aren’t huge fans of seafood, I recommend the ‘Cheesy Cave Chicken’ – chicken breast covered with melted brie on a basil pesto sauce, with seasonal vegetables and sliced potatoes. They also run a free shuttle service to pick you up and drop you off back at your hotel – if you don’t want to top your meal off with a few drinks at Forty Thieves next door.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

(Photo: http://www.shambani.com)