‘Watamu is my favourite place in the world,’ my friend declared when I told her where I was going for a long weekend. For her, Watamu means Christmas. Like many visitors to Hemingways and other hotels alowhang the Watamu coast, her family are loyal repeat customers, returning year after year to this little village on the Kenyan coast around 75 miles north of Mombasa.
The coast has had its ups and downs. It became a popular holiday destination in the late 1960s and for several decades earned a decent income from visitors. In the 1990s and the 2000s, tourism had more of a struggle. Politics, terrorism and some well-publicised murders all played their part in putting people off. In 2015, the Foreign Office advised British travellers to avoid the Kenyan coast due to terror threats from the Al-Shabaab group. That year, Hemingways Watamu made the decision to close for seven months — from April to November — due to low tourist numbers. Now, however, with a relative calm in the political landscape, Kenya’s coast is gradually making it back on to the tourist map and things are looking more positive.
Given that it’s called ‘Hemingways’, it’s not surprising that this hotel became famous for specialising in deep-sea fishing. In the main bar on the beach front the walls are decorated with models of fish caught in these waters; ginormous marlin, swordfish and sailfish. British owner Richard ‘Dicky’ Evans, is rightly proud of his hotel, and the loyalty of his customers. He and his family love Watamu, and he has always been a keen fisherman. It was Evans who pioneered the ‘tag and release’ system of fishing that is now used up and down the Kenyan coast.
Hemingways was his first hotel, and he readily admits that when he bought it back in the 1980s, he knew ‘nothing’ about the industry. Nowadays he keeps a list of his celebrity visitors, ranking them with asterisks. Three stars for those who are the best company; none for the unlucky few. He tells tales of David Hasselhoff’s swimming skills (let’s just say that, despite Baywatch, you wouldn’t necessarily want him on lifeguard duty), Imelda Staunton singing on stage at New Year, and playing Scrabble with Nigel Lawson (‘I beat him’, he boasts).
The waters of Watamu are part of a marine national reserve, and are surrounded by reefs and oodles of marine life. The focus now is on conserving the local wildlife, rather than catching and eating it, and you don’t need to go far to enjoy the local fauna. We took a boat out, and were probably less than a mile from the shoreline when dolphins joined us, surrounding the boat and leaping from the water. There are three species here: Indo-Pacific Bottlenose, the rare Indo-Pacific Humpback and spinners. Unlike those in many other habitats, these dolphins are genuinely wild so might not take kindly to humans joining them in the water; as our guide reminds us they do, after all, have more than a hundred teeth.
Nairobi, just a short flight away, offers opportunities to spot giraffes, rhino and elephants
Next morning we hired stand-up paddleboards from the beach and set off around the lagoon while sea turtles swam underneath us. Snorkelling and diving are popular, too; it’s claimed that this is one of the best places on Africa’s east coast for exploring coral reefs. Divers sometimes see manta rays and whale sharks below the surface. The reefs are home to more than a thousand species of fish, as well as colourful corals and weird and wonderful nudibranch sea slugs.
One of the most spectacular sights that Watamu has to offer is the humpback whale migration. Every year these magnificent animals travel from Antarctica up through the warmer waters of eastern Africa to their breeding grounds. It’s estimated that around 70 pass along the coast in July and August, and in Watamu they often swim close enough to the shore to clearly seen. For a more close-up view, whale-watching tours are increasingly popular. If you’re lucky, you might catch one ‘breaching’ — that is, leaping up out of the water and slapping the water with its fins. We can’t be sure, but it’s believed humpbacks use this as a form of communication. If you have time to see more of East Africa, this handily coincides with its other great migration. More than two million wildebeest, antelope and zebra travel through the Serengeti to the Masai Mara, tending to arrive there in mid-July.
Watamu is just a short drive from Malindi airport, so it’s easy to visit Nairobi, too. Ours was a quick trip; spending one day in Nairobi visiting the giraffe centre’s endangered Rothschild's giraffe and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage, where baby elephants, along with the odd giraffe and rhino, frolic in the mud and enjoy bottles of milk. The orphans are cared for temporarily and the aim is, where possible, to return them to life in the wild. Karen Blixen’s house, now a museum, is also nearby, and we lunched briefly at the ‘Boho Eatery’, which sounds more like something you’d find in Notting Hill. It turns out that even in Kenya, ‘cashew slaw’, crispy tofu and vegan chocolate mousse are all the rage — at least among the expats and hungry tourists in the Karen area.
Back in Watamu, conservation is the buzzword. Young Kenyans take charge of the whale and dolphin-watching, thus encouraging them to look after their own marine life. EcoWorld Watamu is trying to tackle the coastline’s plastic problem. Locals are paid to collect the detritus which ends up on the pristine white beaches, and EcoWorld comes up with innovative ways to reuse the plastic; it’s made into fence-posts, furniture and even as building blocks when building houses. It might only be a drop in the ocean, but at least it’s a start.