Ami Doshi Shah jets off to Diani for an unexpected Labour Day Weekend
The moisture-laden breeze wove its way lethargically through feathered branches of palm. The Indian Ocean lapped back and forth; barely licking the coral outcrop a few meters away from our balcony, allowing the moon illuminate its placid and rhythmic movements. This pace, its unrushed ebb and flow, set the tone for seaside living.
Just stone’s throw away, the consistent punch of reverberating bass jolted me out of the reverie. The glass windows vibrated with a chorus for Guinean musician, Mory Kante’s anthem, Yeke Yeke. We had inadvertently arrived just in time for a half-day rave that began at noon, when the beating sun shone its brightest and ended midnight on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend. The parched revelers were of two varieties: those who relentlessly pounded sweaty fists into the air and the second variety that clutched any form of refreshment and decided to “sit this one out.” The remaining hotel guests allowed themselves to be numbed by overwhelmingly hypnotic beat and at some point, my husband and I, put the our two boys to bed (yes, they miraculously fell asleep) and adopted the mantra: “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” So, like any self-respecting parents would, we raved.
This was how we found ourselves on our second night at Swahili Beach Resort and Spa in Diani. A 140-room property brought to life by acclaimed Austrian architect, Tibor Gaal—of Tamarind Village fame— it officially opened in December 2011, amid one of the worst tourism crisis to hit Kenya in the last decade. Its construction was an ambitious project which garnered extensive debate about changing travel trends and the risk involved in operating large scale resorts along the Kenyan coast. For a time, Diani, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu were ghost towns, hotels shut down or ran at 10- 15% occupancy; the less successful ones still do. Much like a Phoenix, dusting off its ashes, the resort opened to rave local and international reviews and is undoubtedly one the most successful and design conscious resorts along the Kenyan coast.
Unerringly loyal to its vision of creating a monument to Swahili architecture, what its owners have achieved from an aesthetic perspective is extremely significant. From its four-story colonnades that prop the ominous arabesque vaulted ceiling as you enter, to the iwan framed archways that frame the palm fringed sea in the distance. With a flourish of coastal hospitality on our arrival, we washed away the exhaustion with chilled Eucalyptus infused towels and sipped our ‘dawa sawa’ (the virgin dawa) and drank it all in.
We traversed paths snaking through bottle palms, stoic baobabs, bougainvillea and frangipani, and just barely managed to stop our boys from cannonballing into the pool. Our room was at a perfect 20 degree Celsius when we walked in, a very significant detail when facing the sweltering 40-degree heat outside. A sinewy mahogany writing table and 2 occasional chairs were the only necessary external elements within the room. The rest, including the king size bed and Baraza beds overlooking the balcony, were seamlessly built in to the warm hued limed-cement structures within the room. Hessian toned woolen kilims covered the floor and double doors led straight to the balcony with breathtaking ocean views.
Like any self respecting beach resort, Swahili Beach’s pool is its social and visual centerpiece. A seven tiered jewel, crystal water cascades from the main pool down into the last pool that is flanked by the beach bar and restaurant, Baharini. Here, crispy and delectable wood fired pizzas, which Executive Chef, Jasraj Jandu, tells me are the best in Diani can be had while chilling out on the beach beds overlooking the sea. Heaven.
We grabbed a chance to chat to the Kenyan born and raised Chef Jandu. With three years of experience in the kitchen, including Capital Club, Ole Sereni Hotel and Haandi Restaurants, since his tenure at the resort, he says his, “focus has been on streamlining processes, from storage and preservation of the produce to incorporating seasonal ingredients into the various menus.”
Swahili Beach boasts five restaurants, with Majlis being the main buffet dining area. Here, soups, delicious salads and traditional Swahili and Indian cuisine are on offer. Freshly made chapati, mandazi, stir fried pasta and a carvery add dimension to the traditional buffet set up. The adjoining a la carte Spice Route restaurant offers signature Indo-Kenyan delicacies such as chilli paneer and Swahili nilgiri prawns masala.
Considering the scale of the resort, the service standards were fairly high, but with any holiday along the coast, one has to slow down a few gears and start to acclimatize to the pole pole pace of life, which is one of the charms of a beach getaway. Nevertheless, wait staff were always attentive, friendly and helpful. Until I came to Swahili Beach, I kept asking myself how this and so many other properties along the Kenyan coast manage to survive. With a trend of travel moving towards smaller, boutique properties and unique travel experiences, how do the larger resorts and hotels survive? I guess the answer really lies in persevering and maintaining the property through the tough times and ensuring that in busy times, you offer an experience that is timeless and enduring. For us, this certainly was the case; having experienced what I hope is the benchmark for the hospitality industry along the Kenyan