An early morning swim in calm, crystal-clear, lightgreen sea towards a turtleshaped coral island sells Watamu to me in a couple of easy strokes. I can suddenly see why Watamu residents and fans claim that theirs is the best beach, all seven and a half kilometres of it. A pied kingfisher is hovering and repeatedly diving, beak first and bullet-like closer to shore. I swim back and walk up powder-soft white sand, criss-crossed by the trails of many crabs. My bare footprints feel like an intrusion into paradise.
Time to head back to the luxurious villa I am staying in at Medina Palms, a unique new concept to Kenya’s north coast. Medina offers you options. You can come for a night, a fortnight or for ever. You can rent one of the apartments and villas on a fullboard basis or be fully self-contained. Or you can buy one. Whichever choice you make you’ll have excellent service: your temporary or permanent home will have a butler service and a cook if required. Ranging from the large boutique villa with its fabulous rooftop views over the ocean and private pool, through various multi floored villas, penthouses, all with rooftop plunge pools, down to the smallest suites, all options are beautifully decked out and fullyequipped. My “small” two bedroomed suite was roomy, comfortable and had a spacious kitchen and living area as well as two bathrooms, Wifi and TV. And I could simply step outside and choose which of three interconnected pools to swim in.
Visitors walking into Medina look through arches, Moorish-style, along a long thin water feature which expands into swimming pools, dropping levels and ending in an infinity pool which looks out to sea. The latter was my idea of bliss, especially as it was a child-free zone. All this, Medina’s General Manager told me, was a logistical nightmare to build. Yet in spite of raising the land, they have kept many indigenous trees, added in lovely gardens which look astonishingly well-established, and somehow fitted a lot in to what is (but doesn’t feel like) in truth quite a small space. Clever architects, landscapers, and designers have very evidently worked well together. Moreover the sand dunes at the front have not been cleared of natural vegetation, nor have they been forced to have walls built to keep buildings that are too close to the sea from toppling in. A very high-end destination like Medina tends to attract discerning and environmentally conscious type of tourist, who will hopefully support local community projects and appreciate the award-winning ecocredentials at Medina.
One of the new villa owners, an English woman who has travelled the world, tells me she fell in love with Watamu over 30 years ago. Medina finally provided the answer to the second home she’d long been looking for, she explains. Its safe and secure, as well as hassle free when she’s overseas. but best of all it’s on her favourite beach. She’s visited beaches all over the world, but she said emphatically that nowhere matches up to this, not even anywhere in the Pacific, although Seychelles comes close.
In the evening we sit beneath a Madagascan Baobab in the coffee garden, where by day you can enjoy coffee, pastries and ice-cream. For now we enjoy a glass of excellent wine with some prawns and olives from the tapas menu, before eating in the simply but attractively decorated Amadina Restaurant above the entrance, upstairs and open to breezes from all directions. The chef, Dom, a young man who formerly ran a Jamie Olivier restaurant in Cardiff, creates culinary magic with each meal. As I tuck into Tudor Creek lobster tail with matoke puree, cherry tomatoes and basil, I am bowled over. And every meal I eat here is, without exception, top class: I sample the coconut crab claws for starters, and the fresh snapper steamed in white wine, as well as chilled soup and dressed crab with a touch of chilli, topped by lime sorbet. Flavours are a heady blend of Mediterranean, Arabic and Hispanic, prices are not unreasonable and the restaurant is open to outside guests, so Watamu residents and visitors can come and enjoy a cocktail in the Amadina Long Bar before their meal, and perhaps indulge in a shisha pipe in the rooftop star lounge afterwards.
There’s plenty to do in Watamu and Medina will arrange it – from a poolside picnic, to a visit to the local Ocean Trust Turtle Sanctuary. Tribe Watersports, on-site, have a kitesurfing school, or you can windsurf or kayak. Other activities include scuba-diving, snorkeling, big game fishing dolphin and whale watching, mountain-biking in the nearby Arabuko Sokoke forest, a visit to Gede ruins and Bioken snake farm, or a session in Medina’s Freestyle Fitness studio. Meanwhile the kids can be safely and happily occupied in Nemo’s cave, or taken on trips by professional carers.
As I was enjoying my last lunch, I asked one of the waiters what the word Watamu means. “The sweet people,” he replied. There aren’t very many people (less than 2,000) in Watamu town, which lies between Blue Lagoon and Watamu Beach, but it’s good to know they aren’t considered unsavoury types. I later discovered that the name actually goes back to the days of Arab slave traders, who used to distribute sweets to the local people before taking them as slaves. Thankfully today Watamu is a happier place with its glorious beach and the airport only 20 minutes away – and Medina, a word used as a girl’s name meaning “city of the prophet” is certainly a great addition.