White sand beaches and blue skies as far as the eye can see, blissful silence only periodically interrupted by palms rustling under the weight of the monochrome colobus monkeys. This prime spot on Diani Beach, the Indian Ocean adjacent coast of Kenya, was originally the family home of the local Giovando’s. In an act of pure selflessness, they have opened their incredibly instagram worthy carved Arabic doors and are sharing their idyll in the form of a family run boutique retreat named Almanara.
I am sure I am not the only person that found this winter particularly harsh and unrelenting in its icy grasp (although this is hard to imagine now as we are in the midsts of a seemingly never-ending heatwave).
Indeed, as I sat Heathrow waiting for my flight to Nairobi on the 1st of March, surveying the snow covered runway and patiently waiting for the plane to be de-iced (yes apparently that’s a ‘thing’), I wasn’t overly hopeful I was going to ever make my escape. Thankfully we were one of the lucky ones and made it out, all be it with a hefty delay. This delay made the rush to our connecting internal flight to Mombasa pretty dramatic – reminiscent of the Love Actually dash (including a temporarily misplaced passport, swiftly recovered and resultant from human error on my dozy part).
After the short internal flight of just under an hour, we were landing in Mombasa and met by our driver for the one hour car journey to Almanara, where we were greeted by a symphony of enthusiastic bull frogs calling out into the pitch black night.
The big reveal
There is something I love about arriving at an exotic location in complete darkness – my inner drama queen likes that it makes ‘the big reveal’ all the more theatrical. So when I woke to the sun streaming in through the curtains and I pushed back the mosquito nets of my princess-worthy carved four-poster bed, I was ready to explore and embrace my first experience of Kenya with Out of Africa references at the forefront of my mind. I was staying with a group so we were in one of Almanara’s six standalone villas, each comprising of 3 en-suite bedrooms and your own communal living areas, ideal for those needing a little more space.
Lovingly named after one of the Giovando family members, the decor the villas is a sumptuous mix of intricately carved dark woods contrasting with crisp fresh white linens and soothing earthy tones. Spacious verandas wrap around each villa, allowing for the sea breeze to flow through its archways – perfect for al fresco dining. Early evening, I was often to be found relishing the vantage point (and perhaps a gin and tonic or two) from the peacefully private roof terrace.
Should you be a solo traveller or part of a loved up couple, you have the opportunity to stay in the boutique hotel at Almanara called Casa Bella, which looks directly out to the beach. And what a beach it is – just the white sand itself is a sight to behold. Unlike many exotic locations, the beaches are public and rather than being over-preened, Diani Beach is an unadulterated natural beauty. Given its magnificence, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Diani teaming with enthusiastic tourists much like myself. However, the beach itself is still quiet and peaceful. In terms of tourism, the coastline is still deliciously underdeveloped along the shoreline, so you can relish the vastness of the beach without any imposing high rise hotels peering over you.
Being utterly spoilt by Diani beach on your doorstep, Almanara recognised that their pool area would have to work harder to coax you back within its grasp, creating a serene oasis in keeping with the villas’ earthen tones and natural textures. The local galena stone that adorns the pool is a mirage of shimmering fish scales catching the light and reflecting serene blue and purple tones. I defy you to resist diving in to cool down in the midday African heat. The thriving gardens surrounding the pool area allow for moments of shaded calm. Not to mention the obligatory swim up bar, which may be the best seat in the house.
Many guests schedule their stay either pre or post safari trips – understandably you need a little rest after eager 4am starts to try catch a peek of the big 5. As with all of your wants and needs, your personal concierges of Almanara are happy to assist you with organising flights and safari trips to Tsavo East or Masai Mara National Parks.
For those looking for a little nature closer to your sunbed, Shimba Hills National Park is a mere 45 minute drive away. Rather than the flat savannah-like plains you expect from other reserves, Shimba is a dense green mix of coastal rainforest, woodland and grassland. This does make the animals a little harder to spot, but you will be able to see monkeys, water bucks, pythons and various antelope. There were whispers of elephants in the area and I did see some tracks, thanks the eagle eye of my Crocodile Dundee-esque ranger, but I was not lucky enough to spot during my stay.
The Diani Beach area is well known for its abundant coral reefs, so is a mecca for scuba diving and the breezy coastline is perfect for wind and kite surfing, attracting a number of extreme sport enthusiasts. More sedate holiday goers can hire a dhow – a traditional Kenyan fishing boat – for an excursion to the sand bank for a rather epic Castaway experience (‘Wilson’ not included).
Although not quite venturing out of the grounds, the Cloud Nine spa at Almanara offers a range of indulgent massages, reflexology and facials to help you in your journey to ultimate relaxation.
Each villa is fully staffed, and it is here where the Almanara approach to luxury holidays really does exceed the rest of the market – the team’s attention to detail is second to none. Your personal chef, butler and housekeeper are with you throughout your stay and this consistency ensures there are no forgotten dietary requests, personal preferences are effortlessly met, and favourites (here’s looking at you chocolate brownies – please bear in mind I am YOU magazine’s very own Bruce Bogtrotter), can be easily repeated to the same high standard time and time again.
It’s unsurprising given your beachside location that the seafood is particularly show-stopping; I had to stop myself from ordering it for lunch and dinner every day of my stay. As part of Almanara’s dedication to eco-practices they grow a large selection of fruit and vegetables within their gardens, ensuring quality and freshness. Our chef made recommendations for upcoming meals, considering what was available and in season. Indeed, on an afternoon you could see the fisherman walking up the beach with the day’s catch, so you would have an inkling as to what would be on your plate!
On our request we also had a traditional Kenyan feast, featuring Ugali (a cornmeal paste), collard greens, coconut fish curry and meat stews indicative of the area. Do not to fear if you are travelling as a family, even the fussiest of kids can be easily catered for while you dine as indulgently as you like!
If you can tear yourself away from the home comforts of your villa, the hotel’s Sails beach bar and restaurant is a must. Aptly named, the large white sweeping canvas and curved beam structure is a favourite for everyone in the local area as well as tourists (I would recommend booking in advance as demand can outweigh capacity on its spacious seaward facing terrace in high season). The perfect spot to watch the sunset majestically over the beach whilst relishing the locally inspired dishes from their carefully curated menu.
Almanara Luxury Boutique Hotel & Villas, www.almanararesort.com. Almanara is a collection of six private villas & our luxury boutique hotel on the white sands of Diani Beach, Kenya. From $265 per person / per night.
Review by Lucy Coghlan