Just an hour's flight from Nairobi you can relax at a Diani Beach luxury hotel overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean. However, look below the surface and things are not quite what they seem.
Looking through the square, glassless rear window of the Paparazi Junior Academy in Mombasa I made eye contact with a woman crouched on her haunches as she cleaned a small fish with a rusty knife.
Her ragged clothes, sorrowful expression and the look from her sunken eyes as she scraped the fish, that would doubtless have to feed more than one hungry mouth, forced me to look away in shame.
We had just finished a Masai Mara safari and, after returning to Nairobi, had flown to Mombasa to enjoy a relaxing week at the luxurious, all-inclusive Baobob Beach Resort at Diani Beach.
We had asked a hotel employee to arrange a visit to the school. Apparently hotel managers would prefer guests are kept away from schools and villages and later discovered staff can face dismissal if caught arranging such trips.
We arrived at the school armed with gifts of paper, pencils, note books and a tub of Chupa Chups to be greeted by 18 smiling faces and four members of staff, who incidentally earn less than £20 a month each.
The children, aged between three and nine, were dressed in clean, if well worn clothes. An explanation from a teacher of just how tough life is for the youngsters and their families left me angry. How could I justify spending so much on a safari and beach holiday when, less than a mile from my luxury hotel overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean, there is abject poverty, malnutrition and a lack opportunity, something I take for granted?
The answer came from Joseph, six, who clutched my hand throughout our visit and, with the aid of his teacher, told me his father worked in the kitchens of one of the hotels which is why he, and his sister, were able to go to school. Others village children weren’t so lucky.
So at least some of the revenue brought in by tourists wanting to lounge by the pools of luxurious hotels telling tall tales of near misses from charging lions does some good after all. Quite simply without tourism life would be even tougher for the local people. Not that local craftsmen are not helping themselves, close to Diani Beach local carvers have set up a co-operative ensuring everyone benefits from their joint skills of carving wooden elephants, giraffes and other animals.
The flight to Mombasa from Nairobi takes just over an hour and if you are lucky you can get a good view of Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow covered peak during the flight. The hour long transfer to the hotel strip is not the best as you pass through streets crammed full of people and as you stop in traffic ragged traders appear at your window with handfuls of necklaces, water bottles, toys or anything else they think you might buy.
There is also the need to cross the 500 meters or so of Kilindini Harbour, via the Likoni Ferry, which connects the island city of Mombasa and the mainland. Two doubled-ended ferries alternate across the harbour and it’s free to foot passengers which means crossings at peak times are over crowded and you can find foot passengers climbing on your roof or bonnet. All of which can be frightening for tourists more used to a health and safety regulated way of life.
In truth most tourists stay at one of the all-inclusive hotels at Diani Beach as a starting or finishing point to a safari holiday or just to enjoy a luxury all-inclusive hotel with little thought of leaving the site.
There is not a great deal to see outside of the hotel complex and the centre of Mombasa is noisy, chaotic and can be intimidating. You will be mobbed by young children begging and if you carry a bag or camera keep a firm grip on it. The old town is much quieter and perhaps the best way to see it is to hire a private taxi as at least you have control over where and when you stop.
A few words of warning for travellers thinking of spending a week on the beach and then booking a safari from the numerous local independent operators offering cheap safari trips. Think about what you are doing. Is the operator trustworthy? What are the vehicles like? Do they have adequate, or for that matter, any insurance cover? You will almost certainly be better off booking your safari on-line or through a reputable tour operator before you set off for Kenya, one you can check out and research before you ever set foot in the Masai Mara, Amboseli or Tsavo.
Where to stay in Mombasa: We stayed at the four star Baobab Beach Resort which I have to say we found to be fabulous. The hotel overlooks the white beach and the hotel gardens are fabulous. Rooms are clean and spacious with good air conditioning, an electronic safe, hairdryers and a small fridge.
The hotel sits on three sites, the older Kole Kole and Baobab wings and the new Maridadi wing with guests able to use the facilities of all three. There is a gymnasium, spa and tennis courts and some great pools. The Maradadi has three large pools connected by waterfalls while there is a fabulous infinity pool and one for activities including water aerobics and water polo.
The food is excellent and is generally cooked by chefs to order at cooking stations in front of clients. Every lunch and dinner menu has a wide range of meat dishes, good vegetarian options and a unbeatable array of deserts. Local drinks, including Tuskers beer, are all part of the all inclusive package up until 11pm after which charges occur. The staff though, without doubt, make the hotel what it is. Always smiling and with a great attitude they really are fabulously welcoming. They put on a nightly themed show which is fun if a little unpolished.
On the downside, venture down for a paddle in the ocean and the beach boys can be a real pain. Also watch out for wildlife as a troop of olive baboons, vervet monkeys, as well as some impressively big water monitors live within the hotel grounds. However, leave them alone and they generally ignore guests unless someone is foolish enough to leave food unguarded. Prices begin at around 9,359 Kenyan Shillings per person per night (£80).
Eating out: The Ngiris Bar and Restaurant at Diani Beach offers something different if you fancy an evening away from the hotel. Opened around two years ago by a couple who moved out to Kenya from England the menu will suit all tastes and uses locally sourced produce. Prices are affordable with pork spare ribs costing around 600 Kenyan Shilling (£6) and chicken, chips and salad around 480 Kenyan Shilling (£4.80). There are quiet seating areas as well as some pretty lively party nights at the Ngiris - which incidentally is the Swahili word for warthog.
All in all Mombasa’s Diani Beach is an excellent and thoroughly relaxing way of ending, or beginning, your safari adventure. Just don’t plan on spending too much time away from your all-inclusive hotel and at least you will know your tourist cash has helped support some local Kenyans whose lives are blighted by poverty.