There is a scene in the movie 'Out of Africa' where Robert Redford kidnaps Meryl Streep in his Tiger Moth and whisks her away to the dreamy, palm-fringed paradise of Mombasa, accompanied of course by John Barry’s searing, haunting music - the kind of scene where phrases like ‘azure piece of heaven’ still can apply without the hint of a cliché.
Maybe I’m wrong and it wasn’t Mombasa, but this is the place I froze the scene at in my child-like, romantic memory. It is that, only not. Mombasa is no longer a wild, isolated, sleepy seaside town but rather a city with more than a million people.
It is located on Mombasa Island, which is separated from the mainland by two creeks: Tudor Creek and Kilindini Harbour, mainly occupied by the Muslim Mijikenda/Swahili people. Over the centuries, there have been many immigrants and traders who settled in Mombasa, particularly from Iran, the Middle East, Somalia and the Indian sub-continent, who came mainly as traders and skilled craftsmen.
"My fatigue takes flight"
This is according to the taxi driver in the car en-route from Moi International Airport to the Serena Beach Hotel & Spa. He says that it’s the second largest city in Kenya next to Nairobi. He tells me many other things, but I struggle to concentrate due to a lack of sleep.
But as we stop at the entrance of the Serena, fatigue takes flight and in its place appears a magical wonder as I stare agape at my beautiful surroundings. Fringed by white beaches and shaded by coconut palms, the hotel is situated on the silver ribbon of the Swahili coastline. Bright white against the blue sky, set in extensive tropical gardens, the architecture replicates the winding lanes and colourful market places of a traditional 13th century Swahili town.
Even though there are 164 rooms, the most overbearing sounds here are the palm trees rustling in the humid breeze. Following an 11-hour trip to get here, courtesy of Rove Africa and Precisionair with a five-hour stopover in Dar es Salaam (which didn’t do much for a sunny disposition), the hotel looks, feels, tastes and sounds like the seaside hotel-of-yore luxury mother lode.
My room is tripping distance from the beach with its warm, coral protected, translucent water. It’s done in typically decorative and colourful Swahili design with air con, mozzie nets, mini-bar and coffee facilities. Every room has a balcony with either a sea or lush tropical garden view.
Everywhere in the hotel and outside there are little nooks and crannies and surprising and intimate spaces. Guests loll about in slow motion on the loungers in the sun by the pool or under palm trees. Dinner consists of a set menu and I order the honey and mustard roast chicken with stir-fry veg and roasted potatoes - comfort food as soothing as the soft jazz notes that fill the fragrant night air.
The dining room is set around a courtyard in different areas so the intimacy is never lost. No wonder the majority of guests look like sleepwalkers on drugs, they are that relaxed.
The next morning, after a wander around the hotel, I chat to Lucy, the manager of the kid’s club. She tells me they offer a children's animation programme daily as well as children's menus, baby-sitting services, nightly entertainment (clowns, acrobats, movies etc), supervised nature trails, a delightful butterfly centre and sea turtle programme and a wide range of activities like ping pong, tennis, volley ball, pedalos, wind-surfing, yachting, swimming pool, water aerobics, coconut harvesting and more.
Softly swaying palm trees and chameleon sea
They make sure that the kids’ activities are age appropriate as well, so you can leave the little darlings in their capable hands while you do, well, nothing. The gorgeous spa offers sauna, steam room, full-service health spa and spa tub. Beauty services as well as body treatments are offered on request.
It’s almost 6 pm and back on my veranda with a champagne sundowner, that old familiar sadness of having to leave early in the morning creeps up on me as I gaze dreamily at the rolling lawns, the softly swaying palm trees and the chameleon sea in the last rays of the setting sun.
This grande dame of a hotel is the last word in serenity, conjuring up a time when beach holidays were languid affairs; before time got commoditised in chunks and bits and bytes. An impertinent baby monkey comes right up to my door and looks at me as if to say: "Why are you going so soon? Stay. For goodness sake, can you think of some place better to be?!"
Visit http://www.serenahotels.com for more information.
Jo Kromberg flew to Kenya courtesy of Rove Africa Islands & Safaris, and Precisionair.