Top 10 Beaches of Our Sabbatical

We wrote this list while lounging around on the beach in Zanzibar, just to make you hate us. The criteria are totally subjective and not documented anywhere, but involve some combination of most beautiful setting, best food, best amenities, and best overall vibe.

In order from most to least amazing:

  1. Mandrem, Goa, India – we spent a week on Mandrem being beach bums at the end of our stay in India.
  2. Nai Yang, Phuket, Thailand – Nai Yang was so beautiful we had to go twice, first at the beginning of our Southeast Asia jaunt in January, and then for a long weekend trip with Seema and Mark in April.
  3. Galu Beach, Mombasa, Kenya – an extremely laid-back spot to kite surf – or not – and enjoy beautiful water and endless soft sand.
  4. Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam – we spent four nights on Long Beach in February, before we started our volunteer assignments in Thailand, and we ate chili lemongrass shrimp every day.
  5. Khlong Nin, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we spent four nights at Khlong Nin beach on Ko Lanta in January, directly after our stay in Phuket. It was a beautiful setting, but not quite as amazing an overall package as Nai Yang.
  6. Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania – it wasn’t easy to get there on foot from Nungwi, but it was worth the trek, as it offered a beautiful stretch of relatively-secluded beach.
  7. Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania – we spent four nights on Nungwi, in a hotel room with an incredible ocean view. Unfortunately there isn’t much beach to speak of at low tide, but Kendwa and East Nungwi, nearby, offer good swimming opportunities.
  8. Khlong Dao, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we finished up our January visit to Ko Lanta with two nights at Khlong Dao, which was nice but not as secluded or as pretty as Khlong Nin. We did find one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the world at Khlong Dao – Thai Is-San.
  9. Nha Trang, Vietnam – the beach was not as nice as we remembered it from our first visit in 2007, but the tropical fruits are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
  10. Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania – fascinating tidal flat landscape at low tide, pretty (but skinny) stretch of beach at high tide. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to stay, but it’s certainly worth a day trip.

If it makes you hate us any less, our tans will most certainly have faded by the time we arrive back in Seattle on September 22, and we do not have any more beach time scheduled between now and then.

Aniello’s

Rating:

While in Diani, we ate our best non-Olive Branch meal at a cute little Italian place called Aniello’s, recommended by Hassan from Kenyaways. The place has a romantic atmosphere, and seems to be a popular hangout for visiting Italians. Unfortunately the mood lighting made photography with our point-and-shoot difficult. But we shared a good pizza, crab ravioli, and a scoop of tiramisu gelato. I don’t remember the name of the pizza we tried, but it was the best pizza we’ve had in East Africa and featured two types of cheese, basil, and tomato sauce. The crust was thin and flaky, with the right amount of crunchiness. The crab ravioli were extremely fresh, although one needed to be a bit careful of the stray bits of crab shell hidden inside a few of them (oops!)

It’s a great little spot, and I’d certainly recommend it over most other options in Diani – for one thing, the pizzas are much better than those at Forty Thieves.

Aniello’s apparently has two locations in Diani – the one we chose was further north, across from the Barclay’s bank and just past the Nakumatt. There is another one in the Diani Shopping Center, although Hassan told us that the one we chose has the better menu of the two, most notably for the inclusion of the pizzas.

Pizza
The pizza looked better in person than this photo attests

Crab ravioli
Fresh crab ravioli

Aniello’s
Diani, Kenya

Galu Beach

We’ve had a very relaxing four days here on the Kenyan coast. The conditions that make Galu beach a world-renowned kite surfing destination (fairly constant north/south winds, water free of rocks or obstacles) also result in wide expanses of level, pillow-soft white sand.

It’s been great to catch up on reading, swimming, and sand castle building. We were also fortunate to stay at the lovely Kenyaways, a small beach-front guesthouse staffed by some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Not only did we have an amazing view of the sparkling blue water from our balcony, we also enjoyed consistently delicious food (review forthcoming), and excellent massages. The area is also home to large families of monkeys. We had two up-close encounters with monkeys on our balcony; one ran away when I stood up, the other was a thief that absconded with our closed jar of almonds!

Tomorrow morning we head to Zanzibar. While I’m excited to check out the famed spice island, I could also happily spend another week here…and maybe even learn how to kite surf. Here are a few photos, the full set is available on Flickr.

Galu beach
Site of our morning (and afternoon) walks

Camels on the beach
Camels on the beach

Lauren in the Indian Ocean
Lauren enjoying the Indian Ocean

Synchronized kite surfers

Big jump
Kite surfers in action

Sunrise
Sunrise over Galu beach

Enjoying the beach

The Cave

Rating:

To celebrate Vid’s birthday last night, we had dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town – The Cave. The restaurant is set inside two chambers of a natural coral cave that is open to the sky. While mildly gimmicky, the setting is really interesting, and the tasteful lighting added to the romantic atmosphere.

We started off with some of the house red, which was a surprisingly good cabernet-shiraz. We tried to order a few things that we thought Vid would order if she were with us in person rather than just in spirit. For appetizers we had the soup of the day (cucumber-mint), and a goat cheese tart. The soup turned out to be hot, which was unexpected, but it was enjoyable with primary flavors of chicken broth and cucumber (I couldn’t detect the mint). The goat cheese tart tasted like a frozen quiche from Trader Joe’s. I like TJ’s, but at Seattle-level prices I was expecting (at least a smidge) better.

On to the main course, with higher prices and greater disappointments. Little Vid’s mushroom crepes tasted much better than their caterpillar-like presentation. They were very cheesy, with lots of mushrooms inside. While it reminded me of upscale diner food, it was still satisfying. Our “pan-seared catch of the day drizzled with homemade pesto” was a breaded and fried tasteless brick that was doused in green lines of goo. We couldn’t bring ourselves to finish it. Given the mediocre results for dinner, we passed on dessert, but fortunately we had already satisfied our sweet tooth with a pre-dinner scoop of mango-coconut ice cream at Kenyaways (as Vid would have done).

Overall, The Cave has nice atmosphere, and the bar area would be a lovely place to have a glass of wine. However you should plan on going elsewhere for dinner, as the food is forgettable and very expensive.

The Cave
The Cave’s main dining room

Lighting
Mood lighting

Little Vid and her appetizer
Little Vid was also surprised by the average-ness of her appetizer

Little Vid and her main course
Main course: mushroom crepes

Forgettable fish
Veering away from the vegetarian side was not well-rewarded, this fish was terrible

Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant (a.k.a. The Cave)
Diani, Kenya
+254 (0)40-320-2033

Wooden it be Nice

The Mombasa area is famous for its popular beaches, and somewhat infamous for its “beach boy” phenomenon. Beach boys are young men who roam up and down the beach and sell anything from trinkets to snorkeling tours to safaris (and according to some sources, they can also offer much more). People are generally split between those who find their services quite useful, and those who find them an annoyance.

This afternoon Lauren and I decided to build a sandcastle, and two beach boys approached and asked if they could help out. We acquiesced, and they sat down, started digging, and introduced themselves as Felix (whose real name is Suleman, Sule for short), and Jay (whose real name is Juma, and also goes by “Doctor Bushman”).

We played with sandcastles for awhile (Jay made what looked like a crocodile), and we talked about politics. They wanted to know if Obama was making a difference. We told them that we’ve been mostly unplugged, but briefed them on health care reform; I told them how it takes a long time to turn a big ship around (they seemed to get the analogy). They told us a bit about local Kenyan politics. They are about to have a vote on a referendum to ratify their new constitution. The big vote is this Wednesday (which is also Obama’s 49th birthday). They mentioned that they are a little concerned about possible riots, given how the 2007 election played out, but that there is overwhelming support for the referendum in the Mombasa area, so hopefully things should be ok this time (at least near Gulu beach).

After about 30 minutes of chit-chat and sand castle building, they finally made their sales pitch. They sell personalized key chains made of ebony wood that they carve into the shape of an animal with your name on it. We normally dismiss these types of overtures, but the boys were very nice, we decided they’d make for nice little souvenirs in our shadow box, and we agreed on an ok price. A few hours later, we were the happy recipients of a rhino (for me) and a lion (for LL).

We also learned a few facts about the ebony wood; it comes from Tanzania (they don’t have any ebony trees in southern Kenya), and you want to use the pieces that are in between the bark layer and the inner core. This is the strongest section of the wood, and also allows for the tree to regenerate the harvested piece.

The beach boys
Me and the beach boys

Animalitos
Our ebony carving purchases

Beach Birthday

To mark the midpoint of our sojourn in Africa, and to celebrate a few birthdays – mine, Vidya’s, and Barack Obama’s (the latter two celebrations to be attended in spirit by the honorees) – we are heading out early tomorrow morning on a ten-day beach vacation. We have booked four nights on Galu Beach, south of Mombasa, Kenya, and six nights in Zanzibar, to be split between Stone Town and Nungwi Beach, in the north. Perhaps in part because we have worked our tuchuses off over the last week to prepare for our time out of the office, we are both extremely excited for some beach relaxation time.

Flights of Fancy

While Lauren has spent countless hours this week researching hotels and safaris, I’ve had the job of airline travel agent. Today I managed to book all of our remaining segments, which included another set of unexpected adventures.

Act I: Kampala to Mombasa to Zanzibar

One of my co-workers tipped me off that Fly540, the JetBlue of Kenya, has an office in Kampala. Even better, it’s located down the street from our office. I called them this morning and had my most delightful booking experience of the year. The gregarious agent offered  well-timed (and well-priced) flights from Kampala to Mombasa and Mombasa to Zanzibar (no return flight was available on my desired date). I asked if she could email me the details and she responded by texting her email address. After confirming our flights over email, we were able to pay with a credit card at their office. In person the agents were even more friendly and endearing. I’ll let you know what our experience is in the air, but simply based on my pre-flight experiences I’d highly recommend Fly540.

Act II: Zanzibar to Kampala

While it is quite tempting to spend the rest of our East African stay on the beach in Zanzibar, we will have some commitments remaining on our volunteer assignment, and so my next task was to find us a flight back to Kampala from Zanzibar. Air Uganda has the one nonstop flight available, as well as the lowest prices (and so far, so good on the flight safety front). They have a pretty good website with the option of booking online, and I was able to follow the standard flow of search –> provide personal information –> book, except at the end I received a little surprise:
clip_image002
Yes, the internet revolution hasn’t fully arrived here. Maybe they prefer big trucks. Fortunately after a short phone call with the Entebbe office I had a reservation for two one-way flights from Zanzibar to Kampala on August 10th. When I asked about payment I was told “you just need to pay by August 9th.” Awesome.

Act III: Kampala to Arusha

Of course, we are flying home from Tanzania, not Kampala. Thus one more flight needed booking before my quest was complete. The one reasonable flight from Kampala to Arusha is on Precision Airlines, who required payment in cash or wire transfer when I contacted them directly. To workaround this hiccup, I had the brilliant idea of using a local travel agent to handle booking and payment. Of course nothing is that easy.

There is indeed a travel agent around the corner, and they were able to book us on the Precision Airlines flight. They even quoted me a better price than when I contacted the airline directly. However, while the travel agency accepts credit cards for other bookings, they do not for Precision Airlines. No problem I tell them, as I pull out a stack of Ugandan shillings. Silly Mzungu. My bravado was quickly dashed as the agent informed me that she could accept the local currency at a rate of 2400 to the dollar (about an 8% premium), as Precision Airlines only accepts U.S. Dollars. The olive branch she threw was that I could head downstairs to the forex booth, trade in my shillings there at a rate of 2280 to the dollar, and then bring back some Benjamins for payment. I took the olive branch, and completed our final ticket purchase.

Finis.

East Africa Travel Planning

Many of our free hours lately have been spent planning a myriad of trips:

  • A 3-day Murchison Falls trip this coming weekend
  • A beach trip to Zanzibar and Mombasa at the beginning of August
  • Western Uganda gorilla tracking and volcano climbing in late August
  • Tanzania safari and possibly some Arusha-area hiking for the middle of September

We are flying back home to Seattle after the Tanzania trip, from Dar Es Salaam via Dubai and San Francisco (yay Emirates).

Planning travel in East Africa is certainly interesting; for one thing, it’s extremely expensive, and for another, it feels as though the tourism infrastructure is 20 years out of date. Just two fun examples, I’m sure we’ll have many more over the coming weeks:

  • The economy here is entirely cash-based. We booked our gorilla tracking excursion through a company whose office is located a bit south of Kampala, on the way to the airport. They wanted payment for our gorilla permits ($500 each!) in advance, but they would only accept a bank wire transfer or cash. Due to the Barclay’s ATM transaction limit, it took 5 ATM withdrawals to retrieve the required cash, and it came out all in 10,000 UGX notes (less than $5 per note). So Kenny had a stack of bills about 2 inches tall stuffed in his pockets for our drive down to Lubowa to deliver the cash. On the plus side, we got a very good exchange rate.
  • Kenny is trying to book us a flight to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. He found the website of Precision Air and filled out their contact form, which sent an email to… someone. When he didn’t hear back, he searched and found a direct email address to send his inquiry. He received a response a few hours later, stating that his flight had been booked and that it will be cancelled if we don’t pay by August 11. Of course, we may only pay by cash or wire transfer, and their office is in Tanzania. Not sure how we’re going to manage that one, as we won’t actually be in Tanzania until after the flight.

I can’t wait to find out how our Tanzania safari operator wants to be paid.