When Vasco da Gama's fleet arrived at MALINDI in 1498, it met an unexpectedly warm welcome. The king of Malindi had presumably heard of Mombasa's attempts to sabotage the fleet a few days earlier and, no friend of Mombasa himself, he was swift to ally himself with the powerful – and dangerous – Portuguese. Until they finally subdued Mombasa nearly one hundred years later, Malindi was centre of operations for the Portuguese on the East African coast. Once Fort Jesus was built, Malindi's ruling family was invited to transfer their power base there, which they did, and for many years Malindi was virtually a ghost town as its aristocrats lived it up in Mombasa under Portuguese protection.
Malindi's reputation for hospitality to strangers has stuck, and so has the suggestion of sell-out. As a steadily growing development area for the cultivation of German and Italian euros the town is slipping towards cultural anonymity: it can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a Mombasa or a Lamu. While retaining a Swahili atmosphere, which Mombasa has partly lost in urban development, it utterly lacks Lamu's self-contained tranquillity. Heavily dependent on tourism, the town has gone into decline economically as holiday-makers have turned their sights elsewhere. It's now making great efforts to reverse that trend, starting with a clear-out of the beach boys and hawkers that were such a nuisance to tourists in the past, and aiming to abandon its former dependence on the Italian package-tour market. Nonetheless, although Malindi makes an excellent base for visits to places like Gedi ruins and Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, it remains a town unashamedly geared towards beach tourism.
Consequently, whether you enjoy Malindi or not depends, at least in part, 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. And of course it depends on when you're here. During the summer-holiday season (Malindi's best month, sea- and weather-wise, is August), as well as in December and January, the town can sometimes be a bit nightmarish. In a busy high season (and it's a while since Malindi has seen one) everything African seems to recede behind the swarms of window-shopping tourists and Suzuki jeeps. Even so, Malindi at its worst is still relatively placid compared with, say, Spain or the Greek islands, and off season (reduced here to the long rains only – April to June) can seem positively subdued, as if exhausted. At this time of year, when it is often damp and grey, with piles of seaweed washed ashore, Malindi has the air of a south of England beach resort: the faded muddle of an ageing seaside town – garnished with tropical plants.
Fortunately, Malindi has some important saving graces. Number one is the coral reef. The combined Malindi/Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve encloses some of the best stretches on the coast. Kisite-Mpunguti, on the south coast, and Kiunga, further north, are reckoned by some connoisseurs to be even better, but the Malindi fish have seen many more strange faces in masks and have become so used to humans that they swarm in front of you like a kaleidoscopic snowstorm. Malindi is also a game-fishing centre with regular competitions, and a bit of a surfing resort, too. Good-sized rollers steam into the bay through the long break in the reef during July and August and in early September, whipped up by the southerly monsoon winds which are likely to get you sand-blasted on the beach.
Despite the heavy reliance on tourism, Malindi still has some interest as a Kenyan town with an ancient history and a few places of interest other than its beach and reef. An interesting old Swahili quarter, one or two "ruins", a busy market, shops, hotelis and plenty of lodgings all compensate for the tourist boutiques, beauty salons and real estate agencies. The fact that Malindi has a broad range of places to stay within walking distance of the beach – and a broad range of places to eat and spend money within walking distance of the hotels – gives it a clear advantage over Watamu, Diani or the places more immediately north of Mombasa. As for the Italian package tourists, they have left the town with something that nowhere else in Kenya can boast: some of the best pizzas, pasta and ice cream in the whole of Africa.
The best way to get around Malindi and its environs is by bicycle (several places rent bikes. The flat countryside around Malindi is ideal and Gedi (90min) or Watamu (2hr) are easy objectives, with the guarantee that you'll be blown either there or back by the wind, depending on the time of year. The northern reaches of the wonderful Arabuko-Sokoke Forest are within easy reach too.