Vasco da Gama’s fleet received a warm welcome when it arrived at Malindi in 1498. It is likely that Malindi’s king heard of Mombasa’s attempts to sabotage the fleet a few days earlier, so he was quick to join with the powerful and dangerous Portuguese, no friend of Mombasa’s. Malindi was the Portuguese center of operations on the East African coast for nearly one hundred years before the Portuguese finally subdued Mombasa. As soon as Fort Jesus was constructed, Malindi’s ruling family was invited to relocate their power base there, which they did. From then on, Malindi was pretty much a ghost town as its aristocrats lived in Mombasa under Portuguese protection.
The reputation of Malindi as hospitable to strangers has endured, as has the notion of selling out. Malindi has an exceptional reputation for sex, and although recent travel advisories have hurt it, a quick glance at the bars suggests that sex safaris are still taking place, mostly dominated by Italian tourists. Malindi’s struggle with cultural anonymity is evident in the way that many hotels and tourist activities quote prices in euros: the city cannot decide whether to be a Lamu or a Mombasa. In spite of the Swahili character of its center, it lacks Lamu’s self-contained tranquility. It makes a convenient base for exploring Gedi, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, and Lamu, but is unashamedly geared towards beach tourism.
Consequently, whether you enjoy Malindi or not depends a little on how highly you rate the unsophisticated parts of Kenya, and whether you appreciate a fully-fledged resort town for its facilities or loathe it for its tackiness. It also depends on when you’re here. During December and January, the town can sometimes be a bit nightmarish, with everything African seeming to recede behind the swarms of window-shopping tourists and Suzuki jeeps.
Malindi’s good news is that it has some significant saving graces. It’s good news for Malindi that it has a few significant saving graces. One is the coral reef south of the town center. In the combined Malindi-Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve, you will find some of the best stretches on the coast, and the Malindi fish are so used to humans that they swarm in front of your mask like a kaleidoscopic snowstorm.
Additionally, Malindi has regular competitions for game fishing, and it is a popular spot for wind and kitesurfing, too. A southerly monsoon (kusi) wind whips up a large number of rollers that generate a lot of splash in the bay across the long break in the reef opposite the town between June and late September. Despite not being world-class, there are plenty of opportunities to surf, and the waves are good enough for boogie boards.
Among the tourist boutiques, beauty salons, and real-estate agencies are some interesting old Swahili quarters, one or two historical sites, a busy market, shops, and hotels. With the new residents of Italian descent, the town has unique riches that cannot be found anywhere else in Kenya, including some of the best pizza, pasta, and ice cream on the entire continent.