We banked steeply out of Malindi Airport and headed north along the concave stretch of coast towards Lamu. Above Kipini the Tana River seeped chocolate-brown streaks into the ocean, swirling with shades of deep blue in the currents.
There were only a handful of passengers on the plane as we had predicted. Among them, coincidentally, was my doctor – just the person you want beside you amid a spiralling pandemic. My wife and I felt uneasy travelling, but our destination was about as socially distant as we could hope to get.
We stepped out of the plane at Manda Airport and were struck by a dry, airless heat – the kind of heat that hits you when you open an over door to check on a roast. But we soon cooled off in the spray of a motorboat, which sped us through the narrow western channel around Manda Island.
We were heading for the only property on the quieter northern side of the island – the isolated Manda Bay. This a boutique lodge that describes itself as ideal for families or couples looking for the ultimate ‘no shoes, no news’ experience, so in the light of all the coronavirus negativity circulating online, it was the perfect escape.
The only other guests were a small British family, so it also felt like we had the run of the place. But this is a sensation that most guests must have anyway, because the lodge covers such a large space, and the rooms are so cleverly secluded.
We stayed in one of 11 beachfront rooms, perched above the seawall with uninterrupted views out towards the bay and Pate Island. Each of these rooms is screened from its neighbour by a thatched fence, and is shaded by groves of palm trees.
With makuti roofs and large glassless windows, they blend well into their surroundings, but are also deceptively luxurious. At the heart of our en-suite room was a large stylish bed beneath a walk-in mosquito net, and on the stone patio out front was a swing bed and a couple of traditional woven Lamu chairs. And a few steps further, down a set of weathered cylindrical steps, was Manda Bay’s private beach.
This open-air, simple-but-stylish theme is consistent throughout the lodge – in the bar, in the poolside lounge and games area, and in the elevated dining area. This is where we enjoyed our buffet breakfasts and lunches, and we were also treated to delicious three-course dinners on the beach under the stars.
As much as we felt that the lodge was ideal for us as a couple, it was also clear how well-suited it was for families. The number of activities on offer is actually overwhelming, especially if, like us, you only have one full day to enjoy them.
Manda Bay has all manner of watersports equipment in its stores, from a banana boat, wakeboards, knee boards and water-skis, to windsurfs, paddleboards, canoes and sailing boats. They also offer dhow trips, boat transfers across the archipelago, deep sea fishing, fly fishing, bottom fishing, snorkelling and gamedrives.
We still managed to do a few of these activities in the limited time that we had. On our first evening we took a boat trip to a small nearby mangrove island, where thousands of carmine bee-eaters were roosting.
In the afternoon the following day, the Manager, Shan, and guide, Philip, drove us round some of the 9th – 16th century ruins on the island, in a customised six-wheel Range Rover. This included a stone structure where Jomo Kenyatta was rumoured to have been imprisoned. We then watched a handful of tame resident buffaloes, bushbucks and baboons drink from the lodge’s waterhole. We also had time for a snorkelling trip to the reef.
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation