As I was pulled forcefully through the water, I was strangely unaware of the man behind me trying to hold me beneath the surface. Instead my thoughts (along with my eyes and my arms) were focused on one thing, and one thing only: controlling the massive kite above me. My smile and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter required no such effort.Kitesurfing lessons in the shallows along Diani Beach, Kenya. Image by Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet
I was enjoying my first kitesurfing lesson at Chui Adventure Centre on Diani Beach, a stretch of sand on Kenya’s south coast whose near-constant trade winds have made it a popular centre for this burgeoning sport. At this point I’d already progressed from using a small kite on the sand to ‘body dragging’ in the water with a full-sized version. While I whipped the kite in and out of the power zone, my instructor used his hefty size and firm grip on the back of my harness to ensure that I didn’t go airborne. Though the thought of catching some big air was an exciting one, it certainly wasn’t something I was ready for. I happily made do with watching some local experts sailing high over the Indian Ocean (and making it look all too easy) while I was eating lunch at the legendary Forty Thieves Beach Bar.
As I ate I also couldn’t help but notice just how empty the beautiful stretch of white sand was. Earlier that morning, as I sat in the cavernous open-air dining area of Leopard Beach Resort, I’d assumed everyone else was already at the beach. A few nights earlier it was a different story at Sarova Salt Lick Safari Lodge, where tables were packed with Europeans and Kenyans enjoying an evening meal after a satisfying day on safari in Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary or Tsavo West National Park. While the lack of crowds on the beach is undoubtedly blissful for those who do visit, it illustrates the choppy waters the local tourism industry finds itself in.Diani Beach, Kenya. Image by Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet.
Although most of the sporadic attacks linked to the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab affected sections of Nairobi – the biggest being the one at Westgate Mall in September 2013 – the coast has borne the brunt when it comes to a drop in tourism arrivals. And despite the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) stating in May 2014 that Diani does not fall within any of the areas that it advises against travel to, many visitors are staying away. In fact British tour operators Thomson and First Choice actually pulled all guests out of the area as a precaution after that same FCO statement, as it included a warning about the island of Mombasa and a section of beach north of Diani.
The FCO’s updated advisory had followed two explosions in Mombasa, one of which killed four at the central stop of a local bus company. Diani hasn’t been unscathed; a late-night grenade attack at a nightclub on 2 January 2014 injured 10.
While my time in Mombasa was too short to get a true sense of the mood, my days in Diani – which included spending a morning touring the village on a bicycle with local guides – gave me a chance to explore and speak with locals. Everyone I encountered in and around Diani was incredibly warm and welcoming, and I didn’t noticing anything unusual except the lack of crowds. The feeling was the same as I travelled south to Shimoni for a journey out to Wasini Island and Kisite Marine National Park.They may look like torches, but these are actually straws (with blue fabric filters) for sipping local palm wine in the village of Diani. Image by Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet
It was only beneath the still surface of the cerulean waters at Kisite where I found things frenzied – octopi darted from hiding spot to hiding spot, rays burst from the sandy seafloor and schools of colourful fish rapidly patrolled the coral gardens. I’d heard many stories of dolphins swimming between divers and snorkelers here, but none graced me with a visit. If you travel here between August and October you might also catch sight of migrating humpback whales in the Shimoni Channel. Aquatic life aside, the cool waters are an appealing tonic for the daytime heat, so much so that I was inspired to throw myself off the end of the pier in Shimoni when I returned from my post-snorkel lunch on Wasini Island. It is just that tempting.One of the diving and snorkelling sites at Kisite Marine National Park, Kenya. Image by Matt Phillips / Lonely Planet
Nothing is ever frenzied on Funzi, a mangrove island between Shimoni and Diani where I finished my coastal explorations. The laidback pace of life is so contagious that the family who run the exclusive Funzi Keys Resort joke that visitors become ‘funzied’ after only a day or two. Like much of the Kenyan coast there were plenty of activities available – sailing, deep sea fishing, river sightseeing trips, canoeing – but at Funzi Keys there just seemed to be no need to move much at all. Playing with the beach’s soft powdery sand with my toes felt as good a way to enjoy the scenic situation as any. Late my first evening the peace was eventually broken, though not the spell – an enthralling thunderstorm lit up the western horizon as I dined on the beach.
The section of Kenyan coast that I travelled – Diani to Kisite Marine National Park – was one full of natural beauty and remarkable experiences. And much like my time under the kite on Diani, I always felt secure and well looked after.The sun sets on Funzi Island. Image courtesy of The Funzi Keys.
Travelling to Kenya? Here’s all you need to know to stay safe
South Coast; from Diani to Kisite Marine National Park
The FCO does not currently advise against travel to this section of coast. It is possible to fly directly to Diani from Nairobi, which avoids travel through the island of Mombasa and the section of the A14 road north of Tiwi Beach (the two areas of the south coast to which the FCO currently advises against all but essential travel). Mombasa’s Moi International Airport is free from FCO warnings.
North Coast; from Kilifi to Lamu
There are no FCO warnings for this section of coast . It is considered safe to travel north of Lamu as far as Paté Island, but FCO warnings advise against all travel north of this due to its proximity to the Somalian border. Forty-eight Kenyans were killed by Somali militants in the farming village of Mpeketoni (56km southwest of Lamu by road) on 15 June 2014.
The majority of the capital city and its airports – Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Wilson Airport (domestic) – are considered safe. The FCO warns against all but essential travel to only Eastleigh and low-income areas of Nairobi.
Masai Mara & other safari destinations
There are no FCO travel warnings for the Masai Mara or any of the other major safari destinations, including the national parks/reserves of Amboseli, Aberdares, Hell’s Gate, Lake Nakuru and Samburu. The private conservancies of Laikipia are also considered safe.
Somalia border & Garissa District
Travel to areas within 60km of the Somalia border and to the remote Garissa District in the northeast is advised against by the FCO.
For information and updates about safety in the rest of Kenya, check gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/Kenya.
Matt Phillips is Destination Editor for sub-Saharan Africa and is based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow Matt on Twitter.
Matt travelled to Kenya with support from the Kenya Tourism Board (www.magicalkenya.com) and Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com). When Lonely Planet contributors receive assistance from travel providers such as tourist boards, airlines, and so on to conduct first-hand research, we retain our editorial independence at all times, and never accept anything in return for positive coverage.