Out on the ocean, in the golden light of late afternoon, bob the boats that will take you deep sea fishing which Watamu is famous for. On the other side, where the water ends in a long stretch of beach, the wind has picked up the great kites of surfers in the air.
I’m having a sun downer at the beach bar in Medina Palms – old dhows refashioned into a bar counter and shelves under a tent. It’s the happy hour or two before the sun goes down and they’ve unusually, roasted the pineapple in this one, it’s insanely tantalising because it’s not too sweet. It brightens the colour of lapis lazuli and those ultramarine pots against the white sand.
The basis of Swahili design is private and inward looking with great fort like walls presented to the outside. In Africa, a Medina was the old walled city, safe from intruders’ eyes, where people could live and play together. And the Medina in Persia always had a water garden in the courtyard.
Palm gardens surround a central pool system connected by a channel that flows down the terraces towards the sea. All life at Median Plams is played around this. Dinner is signalled by candles set out below the trees and tonight the barbeque is roasting seafood. The first encounter on entering the compound is a welcoming long bar before the eatery, the set up indicating that Amandina Restaurant is popular even amongst those not staying at Medina Palms. The term ‘Moor’ can mean anything Islamic from North Africa to the European mediterranean, which is how the menu can be described – continental, Arabic and African ingredients sitting together at the table where residents may invite visitors to dine.
The idea of having your own accommodation at the coast that can be rented out as well is a concepts becoming a favourite along this coast. In villas and penthouses – which are really on three floors with a whirlpool tub on the roof terrace, carved, white washed wood and modern kitchens shape the body of Medina Palms. Whilst it’s all polished white terazzo inside, the outside is a kind of Tuscan earth with Swahili arches.
At Sakina spa, the therapists are stretched to providing tranquility or sakina with Africology’s approach to holistic harmony. The spa is designed also for visitors and residents and so is a busy place offering six types of facials, six types of body massage, five types of body rituals like sunburn soothers and wraps to reduce blood pressure amongst standard salon fare and a whole host of treatments catered just for children. There’s a fairy stone massage and a sleepy feet treatment for over active kids.
Outside, the seas are rising, some say one centimetre a year, and the shoreline is meandering this way and that. Hemingways next door have built a seawall but Jennifer, the operations manager tells me they are considering using a waving, more natural rock structure which will still make available parts of the beach for turtles to come ashore.
For now, together with Ocean sports hotel, they’re relying on sand bags to keep the waves at bay. Medina Palms has a water sports centre, gymnasium and a kids club, making this suitable for able families with young children.
If you’re spending more than a night here, you might like to venture out to experience Watamu with it’s shopping markets. At Dabaso village, a restaurant was started to generate income for conservation on the creek and to improve living standards of the locals. The Crab Shack serves more than just crab and have expanded their conservation work to include a crab fattening programme, canoe riding, bird watching and tree nurseries. Papa Remo is a beach bar with music, offering Italian style food. The Comeback Club is a pizzeria and bar and there are two Italian gelataria or ice cream parlours. There’s a bakery, cafe and more restaurants in the big hotels like Temple Point. Whilst, the Italian influence here is unmistakeable, Pilipan on Prawn Lake offers Asian inspired food.
Between Malindi in the north and Mombasa in the south lie the northern coastal towns of Watamu, Kilifi and Vipingo. All of them still have the marine parks that the coral reef that runs from the horn of Africa to Madagascar encloses. But Watamu also has the Mida creek, which is an estuary lined with mangrove forests – a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Best enjoyed via a sunset dhow cruise. There are the Gede ruins, snake park and butterfly park, as well as the Arabuko-Sokoko forest for guided bird watching. Within the forest is a sacred Kaya, or home – the place from where the ancestors still communicate.
The people who call Watamu home are the Bajuni, of the Mijikenda tribe – Giriama and Arabs who traded here for slaves. Kiswahili developed from these mixed people and bears a close resemblence to all Mijikenda dialects. Watamu means the sweet ones in Kiswahili, and archaeologists believe these coastal dwellers moved into the hinterland to avoid the Portuguese. Portuguese records from the 16th century however indicate the Giriama were very adept poisoners, using plant based poisons which they laced with magic from puff adder innards and crocodile gall bladders amongst other things. They were in fact known as good hunters and fearless warriors, especially their women.