Try to stay away from the larger resorts -- you'll enjoy a more memorable interaction with the coast if you're based at one of the intimate retreats.
Just 6km (3 3/4 miles) south of bustling Mombasa and just moments beyond the mayhem of the Likoni ferry crossing, quiet and isolated Pungu -- basically a wilderness stretching between the highway and the beach, with a few villages and small holdings -- comes as a real surprise and a genuinely humbling alternative to the more developed parts of the south coast.
Not nearly as developed as Diani Beach, Tiwi's only substantially sized Tiwi Beach Hotel suffered a devastating fire in 2009 and was closed at press time. Shéshé Baharini, the miniature-resort style hotel next door, is a good (and well-priced) alternative. The advantages at Tiwi include the promise of tranquillity and true escape from the crowds -- this place has simply never seen the development of Diani, nor is that likely to change in the near future. There's also a relative lack of infrastructure. It's not an area you go wandering around in; stick to the beach and you'll be fine. If you like the idea of a self-catering cottage but want something a little more modern (and "luxurious") than what's available at Sand Island Beach Cottages (reviewed below), then you might consider one of the executive cottages offered at Maweni & Capricho Beach Cottages (tel. 040/33-0012 or -0040, or 072/232-8365; www.mawenibeach.com), a little farther south. It's a muddled development of different types of accommodation; be sure to avoid their hotel "suites" and standard cottages. There's nothing here that can match the accessibility or magnificence of the beach at Sand Island, and, in fact, the Maweni/Capricho beach is a bit on the tiny side, more like a coral cove than a full-on beach, and it's quite a steep climb to get down there. They charge from Ksh15,000 for a two-bedroom cottage to Ksh35,000 for the sumptuous four-bedroom Angelina's House, which overlooks the sea from a high cliff near the beach. There's the advantage of restaurants and bars here, but the place is marred by some ill-planned construction and worrying neglect in some areas. Note, too, that some of the cottages are actually functional gray blocks, and some are far away from anything resembling a sea view.
This is the main resort strip along the Kenyan Coast, and when it comes to lodging choices, Diani has something for everyone.
Diani's Best Villa -- Condé Nast Traveler called it "one of the most beautiful villas in the world," Harpers and Queen called it "the most glamorous house on the Indian Ocean," and I like to think of Alfijiri (tel. 073/363-0491 or 072/272-7876; www.alfajirivillas.com) as the ultimate in "rock 'n' roll, modern, African chic." Little wonder it's the celebrities' choice -- a place where privacy is guaranteed, yet a creamy beach lies just beyond the deep verandas that invite you to stretch out horizontally on oversized sofas. Inspired by Africa and filled with African objects and artworks, it's nevertheless an international, innovative aesthetic that holds all the pieces together, producing living spaces that are novel, exciting, sexy, and totally ballsy. Every piece of furniture and decoration -- the thickly hand-woven rugs and bold Zimbabwean cloth against ivory-white Danish floors, implements turned into ornaments, copper urns, Maasai antiques, beadwork, geometric patterning, and piles of cushions -- looks and feels like an invention of the imagination. The design is the work of Marika Molinara, former fashion designer and now one of Kenya's top interior designers, who owns Alfajiri with husband Fabrizio. Two of the villas (Garden and Beach) are a dreamer's take on an African-inspired palace, effervescently decorated with African and Eastern artifacts, while the third (Cliff Villa) has Caribbean overtones. All are capped with high makuti roofs with floor-to-ceiling glass walls to let in the views, surrounded by magnificent gardens with lily ponds, and have a scene-stealing infinity pool, lengths of fabric rippling in the wind, relaxing barazas, and comfortable sofas piled with pillows. Throw in traditional Lamu doors, hand-carved wood beams, and driftwood sculptures, and there's more than a hint of drama in the design of each. Two ayahs (nannies), who both speak English, are available 24 hours a day, and there are plenty of games, a TV, and movies, if needed. Villa rates depend on the number of guests ($1,100-$1,400 double in high season; $2,000-$2,500 for four people, and so on up to eight guests; children 16 and up 50%, under 2 free) and include all meals -- exquisite and prepared by your personal chef -- and all drinks (except French champagne), a vehicle for local use, and all kinds of activities, should you choose to give up the blissful embrace of your decadent beachfront palace, your eager-to-please butler, and attentions of around two dozen staff. Prices go up substantially over the Christmas/New Year's period.
Farther South: Kinondo, Msambweni & Funzi
Of my three favorite options south of Diani, two are on the mainland, while the third, The Funzi Keys, occupies a finger-shaped island just offshore. You can fly directly to Funzi Keys (which has a private airstrip) -- a one-way charter (for up to five people) costs $450 -- or arrange for a boat to pick you up from the jetty.