It was reassuring to have someone from our holiday rental in Diani Beach, Kenya, greet us at Mombasa airport after dealing with the rude, unsympathetic staff of Kenyan Airways who couldn’t manage to get our bags on the same flight as us on the first leg of our journey from South Africa. Less reassuring was the fact our driver appeared to be confused about how we should track down our lost bags, despite telling us this happens all the time.
On the drive to Diani Beach, 45 minutes south of Mombasa, we were – despite having just visited Cape Town’s townships – struck by the poverty we saw as we sweltered in the van. You could describe the scenes we saw as either ‘colourful’, such as roadside stands where locals buy fresh water, or ‘disheartening’, such as roadside stands where locals have to go to buy fresh water.
Our alarm at the poverty – tiny thatched-roof homes with dirt floors, businesses operating from ramshackle corrugated iron huts, rickety little wooden stands for shops – didn’t diminish the next day when we returned to the airport to pick up our luggage from the comically ill-efficient airline and customs staff.
Arriving at Diani Beach, by contrast, was like arriving at an affluent seaside village. Probably because it is. The sprawling beach resorts and spas, and mostly foreign-owned villas and cottages, are supported by well-stocked supermarkets, bars, live music venues, discos, and an overabundance of Italian restaurants.
Locals, set up in thatched stalls along the side of the road running the length of Diani Beach, sell wood carvings, textiles and trinkets to tourists, most of whom flock here during the December-February high season, and work in the hospitality and service industries which support the tourists and expats, returning to their modest homes in nearby villages at night.
Shambani Cottages, our ‘home away from home’ in Kenya for a fortnight, is located at the far end of Diani Beach road. After passing through the high security gate, we were met by half a dozen friendly members of staff (and we would meet even more), a sizable number considering this wasn’t a resort, but a series of three simple thatched-roof cottages offering self-catering and/or the services of a cook.
Feeling a little lagged after almost 20 hours of travel and three flights from Cape Town to Mombasa, we happily ate some serviceable food made by the cook and tried to settle in. Considering we had no luggage and no change of clothes that should have been easy, but the heat and humidity were uncomfortable, and the promised Internet (the installation of which HomeAway Holiday-Rentals had paid for) ominously wasn’t yet working, and would never really work properly.
Overlooking the over-attentive service, lack of internet, deficit of luggage, and the fact that the ceiling fans were proving to be an unworthy adversary against the humidity, the place itself was quite beautiful. Everywhere you cast your eyes there were towering coconut palms, frangipani trees, colourful chirping birds, and the striking Angolan Colobus monkeys and other primates passing through our trees.
A decent sized and very enticing swimming pool sits in the middle of the verdant garden, which is just as well as the cottages are a 10-minute walk to the beach. More about the beach (where more people pester you on the sand than mosquitoes and bugs at the cottage once the sun goes down – no small feat) in this post.
The cottages themselves, though nicely decorated in an African style, are very basic, with no mod-cons, which is somewhat at odds with the number of staff hovering around, including a cook to make you meals three times a day if you choose. Given the state of kitchen hygiene at the cottages we were quickly regretting that we’d agreed to test out the cook’s services, wishing we’d opted to eat out instead.
Eating out, however, requires some planning as Shambani’s staff don’t recommended you walk the streets after sunset, the mobile phone service from the cottages is dodgy, and taxis can be hard to come by when Diani Beach gets into full-swing during high season. Once you are out, the cuisine at local restaurants around the village would suggest you’ve time-travelled rather than taken a taxi, with menus perfectly preserved in aspic from the 1970s. Lobster Thermidor, anyone?
The staff back at Shambani – well, most of them – did try to help, but their lack of training and supervision is readily apparent. Despite us telling the cook we didn’t require meals on several occasions, he still hung around the cottage, leaving us with no privacy most of the time. One morning we woke to find two fishermen standing on our steps with bags of seafood to sell. Our cook, who was present, ignored them, despite us telling him we’d be eating out and were going on safari for a few days, leaving them for us to deal with.
The ‘management’ team was also happy to leave us to our own devices – ignoring complaints and making no apologies for the fan that functioned only on one slow speed; the electricity that went off in the wee hours of the morning for most of the night every night, leaving us to swelter as we tossed and turned; the mosquito net with holes that allowed the buzzing pests to enter (Lara still has the scars); the toilet that didn’t function properly; and the internet that went off continually – working their jobs like a government contract. The only thing missing was the sound of a time clock being punched for arrival and departure every day.
We did enjoy conversations with our maid, Emily, an intelligent, much-underutilized staff member with hospitality qualifications specializing in front office management who should have been running the place; the friendly security guys who guarded the property from sunset until dawn from sunbeds by the swimming pool where they would take turns each night to sit with a machete on their lap; and Jeff, the internet guy, who frequently visited us. The troop of four Colobus monkeys that often hung around the compound for hours on end, also provided welcome entertainment.
If you’re looking for a beach resort with mod-cons and five-star trimmings, this property is clearly not for you. If you’re sensitive to heat and humidity and want creature comforts, rather than creatures crawling over your body, you will definitely want to look elsewhere too. But if you’re happy with basic accommodation, in gorgeous gardens with a swimming pool, a simple base from which to take safaris* and hit the beach occasionally, Diani Beach, this property will fit the bill.
However, given that Diani Beach is basically a tourism construct, you’re not going to even remotely live like locals, as we quickly discovered. In some destinations on our yearlong grand tour, we’ve appreciated that living like locals isn’t always possible. Interviewed for the HomeAway Holiday-Rentals website, the owner of the beautiful Bali property we stayed at said on the top tips by owners page, “It is difficult to live like a local in Bali, as most Balinese people live on $50 a month and believe in a spirit world.”
Cynicism aside, it’s pretty much the same reality here at Diani Beach, conflated by the fact that the local monkey population has lost 75% of its coastal habitat in the process of establishing Diani Beach as a tourist destination over the last 20 years. Would I return to Diani Beach? Yes, to volunteer at the Colobus Trust and help some of the locals still get to live like locals in the future.
* There is an airfield at Diani Beach with direct flights to the Masai Mara, making it a brilliant launching pad for safaris.