Since time immemorial, in this part of Africa, each kaskazi - the monsoon from the northeast - brought with it the billowing sails of the dhows of Arab sailors. Their ships came laden with rich cargoes of porcelain and silks from China, and incense and precious fabrics from the Middle East and India. They didn't weigh anchor again until half a year later, when the kusi - the southeast monsoon - sped them back to Oman, Yemen and Persia, with their holds full of gold and spices, furs and ivory, and slaves captured in the bowels of the continent.
As a result of this trade, powerful city-states flourished. For over a millennium of comings and goings, the refinement and culture of the Arabs, Persians and Hindus slowly intertwined with the native Bantu tongue and tradition, weaving a hybrid culture, Swahili, whose roots are felt most strongly today in the marine bustle of the little island of Lamu, the old quarters of Mombasa, and in Zanzibar's Stone City. The Swahili culture is firmly immersed in the clear warm waters of the East Indies.
Mombasa, Kenya's second city, is the great Swahili capital, the core of a fabulous universe that locks in an invisible embrace the little island of Lamu and the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar, Pemba and distant Mafia.
A sunset cruise in a dhow, the sighting of a sample of the vast range of marine life that makes its home in the Indian Ocean, or simply diving for traces of the historical past of sailors and merchants... these are just some of the pleasures on offer at some of the most desirable hotels dotted around these latitudes.
Many points on the Swahili Coast must be reached by boat or plane, which makes it simpler to buy a complete flight and hotel package direct from an agency.
On the coast of Mombasa (Kenya):
Alfajiri Villas, a riot of exoticism on a promontory of the Diani beach. One of the villas can be booked complete for parties of up to nine people, so you will have it all to yourselves: the glamorous dining room that opens onto the gardens and the sea, the terraces, the pool, and the personal attention of the two butlers, all this be exclusively yours. At the second villa - with a more African style - it is possible to simply book rooms as usual. Both villas are set alongside the house of the owners, an Italian couple, who will organise everything from fishing trips to golf to a shiatsu massage.
Kinondo Kwetu is home to a Swedish family who came to Africa with Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa and who settled on this isolated beach on the coast of Mombasa. The rooms of the exquisite hotel annex - all different and decorated in Swahili-style - offer accommodation for up to 38 guests, who may choose to go sailing, diving, fishing, golfing or bird watching, or simply opt for pampering in the spa and relaxation on the beach.
On the island of Lamu (Kenya):
Lamu House is a complex comprising two traditional Swahili houses in Lamu's historic centre, restored with taste and style by a Spanish architect based on this beautiful little cross-bred island. Each room is different and all display refinement and respect for the area's Swahili heritage. Among the unusual activities on offer are scenic flights, henna body art, visits to the shipyards where the dhows are still made as they were centuries ago, or a cruise under the stars on board one of the two dhows owned by the hotel.
Manda Bay, with 16 luxury cottages wedged between the Indian Ocean and the palm groves of the little island of Manda, north of Lamu and the Kiwayu archipelago. Activities include dhow cruises, fishing trips, diving and countless other water sports that perfectly suit a getaway in this corner of paradise.
Archipelago of Zanzibar (Tanzania):
Baraza is the greatest temptation of the island of Zanzibar. Located on the award-winning Bwejuu beach on the southeastern coast, we find 30 villas of one or two bedrooms and one complete presidential suite, all enveloped in an atmosphere that blends the Arabic, Indian and Swahili essences of the island. The coral reef is a spectacular setting for diving, and there are many more sporting activities on offer as well as spa facilities.
Chapwani Private Island. Just ten rooms, with direct access to the beach in this charming boutique hotel located on a small private island opposite Zanzibar Island's Stone City. Four-poster beds, local fabrics and traditional Swahili decor define the character of this place, which is an open secret among those who seek destinations like this, where the real luxury consists of exploring coral reefs or indulging in the absolute privacy its beaches. A place where you'll feel more like an invited guest than simply a visitor in this far-off corner of the world.
Kinasi Lodge consists of a dozen delightful bungalows clustered between the beach and the coconut and cashew plantations, in a Moorish-style hideout on the island of Mafia. A perfect place to simply relax, or, perhaps spend a few days fishing, snorkeling or diving.
Fundu Lagoon has 18 luxurious cabins, all overlooking the Indian Ocean, dotted about the stylish resort and linked by sandy paths on the small island of Pemba. Ideal for diving, the spot is also a perfect hideaway where you can forget the world as you laze on the beach, or enjoy a drink in one of its three bars, a gourmet meal in the restaurant, or indulge yourself in the pure luxury of the spa.
Mnemba Island Lodge is an island inhabited exclusively by the guests - a maximum of 20 - staying at this stylish hotel and the staff who look after their needs. The snorkeling and diving on the reefs of the Marine Conservation Zone and the absolute privacy of its beaches are the ultimate attractions of this remote tropical haven.
The Quirimbas Archipelago (Mozambique):
Quilalea Private Island has just nine luxurious colonial-style villas set on this private islet within a marine sanctuary: perfect for diving, fishing or exploring the neighbouring islands.
Medjumbe Private Island with just 13 stylish villas set on this tiny islet barely one kilometre long by 350 metres wide, a feeling of paradise lost pervades this tropical hideaway surrounded by coral reefs.
Kenya Tourism, Tanzania Tourism, Mozambique Tourism