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Tourism gems off the beaten track

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Peter Muiruri | January 31st 2021

A few of the country's little known tourism gems.

Kenya is a land of contrasting landscapes as far as tourism products are concerned. It boasts of high-end hospitality establishments, including global players such as Radisson Group, Marriot, Hilton and Kempinski.

But there are smaller ones too, some hidden in seemingly unreachable locations. Included are some that have welcomed royalty and global statesmen. We look at six of them and tell you what makes them tick.

Delta Dunes, Tana River

Have you ever thought of Tana River as your ideal holiday destination? Unlikely.

Stories of banditry and extreme weather conditions may have conspired to kick out Tana River from the checklist of key getaways. But there is Delta Dunes that has existed for over 30 years in the seemingly harsh environment.

As the name suggests, Delta Dunes is built on top of dunes, hemmed in between the Indian Ocean and the Tana River delta. The main dining area is located on the topmost part of the property, commanding a bird’s eye view of the tranquil watery world. The establishment has made use of rusty logs, old canoes and drift wood to create a ‘Flintstone-like’ world.

In the soaring temperatures, having a breeze filter through the rooms is key, and the developer made sure that the wide open sides accomplish that.

Talk of sleeping under the stars with a mosquito net being the only thing separating you from the world outside!

From Malindi, take the Malindi-Garsen road plus a 15-minute canoe ride and you’re in Delta Dunes.

Hell’s Kitchen, Kilifi

Fancy some dining at Hell’s Kitchen? Maybe not. Well, the only feast you might indulge in at Marafa Depression in Kilifi is visual. Marafa Depression is a series of gorges and gullies that have become part of local legend, told in the same fashion as that of Vasco da Gama’s visit to the region.

Beautiful hues combine to create a magical gorge that locals call Nyari, or a sacred depression despite the creepy name given to it by a white visitor — Hell’s Kitchen. How did it come about? This depends on whom you ask.

A local myth states that people who lived here long ago angered the gods by using milk to bathe since there was no water nearby.

As a punishment, the gods killed them all. The red colour is said to symbolise the blood while the white colour represents the milk.

Scientifically though, the depression and the resultant colours are due to the erosion of the soft sandstone, creating the depression interspersed with rocky outcrops – some 30 metres tall.

The best time to visit Hell’s Kitchen is late afternoon, especially for sunset enthusiasts. The local guides charge a small fee; Sh200 for East Africa residents and Sh300 for foreigners.

Msambweni Beach House, Kwale

Freddie and his family came to Msambweni, on Kenya’s south coast and fell in love with the view. Here, they put up a family home. Later, this morphed into Msambweni Beach House, one of the most exclusive in this region.

The main house consists of six ensuite bedrooms including the vast tented Ocean Suite, all sharing a 14-metre infinity pool.

Then there are three private villas secluded from prying eyes by a labyrinth of palms and popular with families with children of all age groups. It is an architectural masterpiece, with some swimming pools hugging the lounges.

You can either fly to Ukunda Airstrip or drive via Mombasa. Msambweni is a 30-minute drive from Ukunda. There are no walk-ins. A confirmed booking is required.  

Mfangano Island Camp

Few places are as tranquil as Mfangano Island where one listens to tweeting birds and watch menfolk set out to the lake for the catch of the day. Mfangano Island Camp is hidden under a canopy of trees and can be easy to miss for a first-time visitor.

The camp is made up of nine plastered huts designed after the local Luo architecture.

The high roofs make them cool and airy in the humid climate. Each rondavel tells a story.

The showstopper is the secluded honeymooners’ suite, built with a sunken bathroom while the bedroom is set on a rock that seems to hang over the lake.

The enchanting camp has hosted, among others, former US president Jimmy Carter.

Drive to Mbita Point before taking a speedboat for another hour to the camp. Here too, advance reservation for overnight stay is a must.

A few of the country's little known tourism gems.

Ololo, Ongata Rongai

How can you not know about Ololo? After all, it is located not far from the populous Ongata Rongai, on the banks of Mbagathi River and opposite Nairobi National Park.

The lodge, sitting pristinely on a hillside overlooking the park is the brainchild of Craig and Joanna Chapman, a farming couple from Australia. It is a former residential property turned into a small holiday enclave.

The main guest lounge is one of the tastefully decorated, with collectables from Kenya and Australia.

Some of the ornate rooms are former horse stables and hay shed, yet bearing little semblance to their beastly past.

Advance reservation required.

Rondo Retreat, Kakamega

Have you ever been to Kakamega Forest? This is an ornithological wonder and the last of the once vast Guineo-Congo forest.

The forest is ideal for trekking (with a guide) as you sample the over 300 species of plants, including the endangered Elgon teak, red and white stink wood, and croton.

Tired after the rigours of the hike, there is no better place to unwind that at the nearby Rondo Retreat. This exquisite lodge was built in 1948 by Bob Turton who had come from South Africa to Kenya, attracted by the Kakamega Gold Rush.

The house was built under a large Elgon teak. The charming house is a regular, overnight stopover for local and international guests. The house is run like a missionary outpost so please read the strict rules of engagement.

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