The East African coast -- known to early Arabian traders as the Land of Zanj -- boasts a fierce and fascinating history. It's a tale of high sea adventure; international trade in slaves, ivory, rhino horn, and coconut; myriad intermingling cultures, including violent escapades by vicious Portuguese invaders and rampaging cannibals; and a furious struggle for control of ports that served as gateways connecting Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Coastal Zanj was also a battleground for the hearts, minds, and souls of local Swahili people as Christianity met its bitter rival in Islam, which had arrived with Shirazi and Omani settlers several centuries earlier. It was these business-minded Arabs who had established ports and trade routes and prospered on the back of slave labor.
This long history has had a profound impact on the region, which stretches from the war-ravaged Somali capital of Mogadishu to Mozambique in the south, and to this day, Swahili (an Arabic word meaning "People of the Coast") culture is more discernible and vibrant here than it is inland. Here, it's not only language that serves as a common bond between people of disparate ethnicities, but often also identification with a common faith, adherence to a unifying architectural style, dress, cuisine, and sense of community. Unlike the Indonesians, who forgot their original homeland after migrating to Madagascar (known as the Waqwaqs, these ancient immigrants had initially brought bananas to the Swahili Coast, but found the Zanj mainland too hostile and so ended up on Madagascar), the settlers who had come from Arabia and Persia always looked back to the great Middle Eastern cities that helped define their identity, bowing to Mecca in their mosques, where they listened to readings from the Koran and thereby sustained a unifying faith. Meanwhile, ancient cultural links with Islam were maintained by the movement of dhows that continued to sail between Arabia and the African coast.
Today commercial ships outnumber the Swahili Coast's traditional dhows, and the once-great sultanate of Mombasa has become a grimy industrial port. Tourists regularly pile onto the beaches north of Mombasa, but they're relatively sordid, crowded, and unappealing stretches that may be good for the mass-market resort set but are no place for the discerning traveler. South of Mombasa, though, the coast holds some beautiful surprises, with immaculate beaches, such as Tiwi and Diani, stretching all the way to Tanzania. Interrupted only by gorgeous coves, coral islands, and fabulous mangrove waterways, this is a genuine Swahili paradise offering great snorkeling, spectacular deep-sea fishing, and a handful of exclusive hideaways for a memorable post-safari de-stress.
North of Mombasa, the enclave of Malindi is an ancient Swahili town that's fallen victim to foreign colonizing instincts. It's overflowing with Italians who've set up shop here and is an unexpectedly garish cultural melting pot where bronzed Europeans hog the sun, snorkel among the most sublime coral reefs at nearby Watamu, and explore the mysterious Gede ruins.
But for a combination of cultural insight and a chance to unfurl your beach towel on a secluded beach -- or set sail aboard a weather-bruised dhow cruising between virtually unexplored islands -- there's no better destination than Kenya's far northern Lamu Archipelago. Lamu has acquired a raffish reputation as the most charmed of the Swahili coast's antique settlements, a place to lose yourself in an ancient culture and sink full force into an islander's life. It's the oldest living Swahili town in Kenya, and much-appreciated for its narrow labyrinthine laneways shaded by high stone walls. Although there's now an ATM and a bright pink motorized three-wheeler serves as the ambulance (besides one official car, the town's only other transport is waterborne or donkey powered), the town -- and the entire seven-island archipelago -- feels like a time-embalmed place, a soothing, mellow escape from the world.
You might have come to Kenya dreaming of nothing other than lions and leopards, but chances, are you'll lose your heart along the Swahili coast, a 530km (329-mile) stretch of impeccable, white sandy beaches dotted with laid-back villages and an improving number of idyllic intimate places to rest your safari-ravaged bones.
"Pole pole" ("Slowly, slowly"), they tell you at the coast, but be warned that the insidious charm of the Swahili Coast is addictive. Warmly referred to as the "Coastal Flops," the tendency to find yourself horizontal sets in quickly, the accumulated result of the sultry climate and the laid-back approach of the people who'll receive you. A few days here, exploring the long stretches of perfect white beaches, investigating an ancient and intriguing culture, or perfecting the art of unfurling in a hammock dangling from your private terrace, and you could end up beached here for eternity.