Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Paradise found

Tired of the same old five-star resorts? Fancy a different vacation by the sea? Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he heads for the undiscovered Kenyan Coast

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Blue skies, crystal clear water and white-powdered beaches-Dreamland; tropical paradise at Funzi Island; the superior bungalow, luxury in the heart of nature

Without a doubt, Kenya is famous for its renowned Masai Mara. As an outstanding national park, the Masai Mara is one of the best places to watch all the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard) as well as wildebeest migration. But there's much more to Kenya than game drives and bush walks.

I was keen to explore Kenya away from the traditional Mara, so I headed to the coast. Kenya's main portal city and commercial outlet is the diverse city of Mombasa. Through the ages, different nations have occupied the city, and each occupier left an impression of their culture on the city. The result is a diverse yet homogenous pot of cultures which paint the soul of Mombasa.

It began with the Portuguese in the 16th century, after renowned seafarer Vasco da Gama visited the city as early as 1498. Followed by fellow Portuguese, Mombasa's main attraction, Fort Jesus, was built in 1593. In the century to follow, Omani Arabs were on the rise. With ambitious plans to expand their trading posts on the African eastern shores, they besieged the city for a notorious 33 months. Mombasa finally fell to their hands in 1698.

Two hundred years later, Mombasa was handed over to the British who exerted a huge effort to fulfil their dream project -- the Uganda Railway. They brought thousands of Asian workers, mainly from British India, to work on the "Lunatic Line", as it was mocked at the time. So don't be surprised if you find a rooted Indian community in Mombasa, or pass by people murmuring in Arabic while heading for the Friday prayer.

The Kenyan Coast is actually divided into two, one in the north and the other in the south. The North Coast includes Malindi, Watamu and laid back Lamu; while the South is home to Diani, Tiwi and Funzi. Unable to visit all these alluring places, I had to make up my mind and choose. And since I wanted to experience a completely different seaside vacation, I opted for Funzi.

Located 90km south of Mombasa, Funzi is an island in the Indian Ocean off the Kenyan coast. Small in size, you can easily circumnavigate the whole island on foot in about two hours. No wonder there is only one car on the island. The car belongs to the island's owner, who in 1999 decided to give up city life and go back to nature. "I always wanted to live on the coast," says Funzi owner, Alessandro Torriani.

When Torriani was building his house on the island, he thought of adding extra space to accommodate visitors. Gradually, the summer houses evolved into a private island resort -- The Funzi Keys. In fact, leading travel magazine Condè Nast Traveler named it one of the best private island resorts in the world.

Since Funzi Island is only accessible by water, visitors are picked up from the main coast by boat. Upon arrival, they are greeted in an oriental-decorated open reception adorned with a dhow boat right in the centre. Dhow is a traditional sailboat Arab merchants used to sail in the heydays of trade.

My room, which is actually a spacious bungalow, is furnished with the latest in luxury and necessity, including a coffee machine, mosquito repellent and a calming cream for sunburn. While there is no TV set, phone or satellite receiver, there is a private jacuzzi. In all seriousness, what more do you need?

But a vacation in tropical Funzi Island where green mixes with yellow and blue is not all about relaxation. You can enjoy a variety of water sports or a deep-sea fishing trip up Pemba Channel. If you're not a thrill seeker, however, you can always spoil yourself with a full body message or a stroll along the mangrove woods.

Since guests at Funzi Keys are limited, this automatically gives you a number of advantages. In addition to the extra care and extremely polite service you get from not-too-stressed staff, you have the luxury of deciding your mealtimes and where you want to enjoy them. Even if you opt for lunch on the sand bank, it can be arranged.

Before I went to Kenya, I didn't know much about African cuisine, let alone Swahili delicacies. Indulging in a prawn stew, simmered with fresh-from- the-palm coconut and hand-picked coriander, is a delectable experience. The taste of fresh fish cooked with African spices and chili herbs is simply delightful dining.

One of the greatest advantages of the privately-owned Funzi Keys is its communal responsibility. As opposed to big multinational hoteliers who invest in virgin locations, exploit the place and its people, and later transfer all the profits to the fat wallets abroad, Funzi Keys has a well-respected sense of responsibility towards the local community. It built a water purification station at the other end of the island, funded the village school and provided good paying jobs for the tribe's youth.

Funzi Keys is a prime example of how tourism can directly impact continuous development and sustainable tourism. It is a win-win module which Egypt could benefit from greatly.

For further details and prices, please visit http://www.thefunzikeys.com or contact Alessandro Torriani Tel +254 733 900446 or 733 900582, e-mail: torriani@thefunzikeys.com

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