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A whale of a time – guaranteed: Discovering that the humpback migration off Kenya’s coast is one of nature’s greatest wonders (while staying in 5-star luxury at a European 4-star price)

At first, there’s just a fleeting glimpse as one breaks cover.

Moments later, it’s a whole family. And suddenly, with shrieks of delight from our children, we are in the midst of the great migration.

Kenya is famous for the annual trek of wildebeest and zebra from the Serengeti to the lush grasses of the Masai Mara, dodging lions and crocodiles all the way.

But we’re not watching that show. We’re just off a Kenyan beach, viewing an equally spectacular migration — of humpback whales which voyage from Antarctica to the Indian Ocean each summer.

En route, they brush the Kenyan shoreline at Watamu — and are just one of the attractions at this enchanting seaside town.

Robert Hardman visits the Kenyan coast where he watches the spectacular migration of humpback whales, which voyage from Antarctica to the Indian Ocean each summer

For many, Kenya is all about going on safari. Yet, the Kenyan coast is far more beautiful, accessible — and affordable — than I thought. It is also ideal for summer holidays, as it is the quiet season here, with lovely temperatures.

So before paying peak prices in a European hotspot, look further south.

The East African nation is more of a trek than Spain, but many of the eight-hour direct flights to the capital Nairobi are overnight, there is no jet lag and there are plenty of connections to the coast at either Malindi or Mombasa.

We opted for a week in Watamu, where the days were balmy and the evenings delightfully cool.

From dawn to dusk, we had the full tropical sandy beach experience, jumping off glass-bottomed boats over a coral reef and lying on the sand eating freshly cut coconut.

While the coastal town of Watamu, just 13 miles from Malindi airport, was far from empty, it was also far from full.

Behold Hemingways – a handsome, low-lying property with a huge pool above the beach in Watamu. Robert checks in and declares that it offers five-star luxury at a European four-star price

Pictured: Robert in Watamu with his family

My wife and I, plus our three children (aged 16, 14 and 11) stayed at Hemingways — a handsome, low-lying spread with a huge pool above the beach.

It’s five-star luxury at a European four-star price.

Our Ocean View apartment had two spacious bedrooms and an enormous living area, both facing the Indian Ocean and opening on to a balcony that ran the length of our suite.

Two large bathrooms and a big kitchen faced inland. Not that we were doing any cooking.

Hemingways’ restaurant had a full brunch-style breakfast each morning. Every evening, we had the choice of a buffet or an a la carte menu.

Outside, the chefs were preparing curries or tossing steaks, snapper and stir-fry over fire pits.

We often took a couple of tuk-tuks at lunchtime and headed for the bazaars and restaurants of central Watamu.

Robert bases himself by the beach, from where he views the migration of humpback whales. Pictured: Terrace dining at his hotel 

The bathroom and master bedroom in one of the hotel apartments

This place is steeped in Swahili history with its Gede ruins. There are Indian, Arab and Italian influences, too. Browse the stalls for a famous kikoy sarong.

Just before dusk, head to Mida Creek which opens into a huge inland lagoon.

There you can sit in a bar on stilts over the water with a cocktail and see the sun set over the dhows and mangroves.

An unexpected highlight was Watamu Snake Farm, a sanctuary for some of the world’s deadliest specimens, including puff adders and spitting cobras.

Robert finds that the tropical sandy beaches of the Kenyan coast are far more beautiful, accessible — and affordable — than he had thought. Pictured: Turtle Beach in Watamu

Just before dusk, head to Mida Creek (pictured), which opens into a huge inland lagoon, writes Robert

Be there at 11am when venom is ‘milked’ for serum to treat bites which kill up to 1,000 Kenyans each year.

Another popular spot is Watamu Turtle Watch’s marine information centre. The area is a breeding ground for endangered sea turtles and if fishermen catch any in nets, they bring them here.

As Watamu sits on a UNESCO-protected marine reserve, it is not teeming with pedalos, jet skis and disco boats.

You need a day ticket to enter the reserve in a licensed glass-bottomed tourist boat. It’s £12 for a day pass (£10 for a child) plus the boat ticket.

As Watamu sits on a UNESCO-protected marine reserve, it is not teeming with pedalos, jet skis and disco boats, says Robert

The area is a breeding ground for endangered sea turtles like the one pictured here at the Watamu Marine National Park

Hemingways’ restaurant (above) offered a full brunch-style breakfast each morning, says Robert

A skipper will take you out to a coral reef. All boats have free snorkelling kits and life jackets. You can sunbathe aboard or jump in to view marine life.

My lot tailed a stingray — at a distance.

The high point was the afternoon on a Hemingways’ sport boat following the great whale migration. It’s £80 each for a four-hour trip (with drinks and food).

We soon spotted a cloud of mist from a whale’s blowhole. Then the humpbacks appeared, thwacking their tails on the water.

Suddenly, a mother surfaced with a calf, then a trio of relatives, so close we could hear them snorting.

On the way back, our skipper Alfred set up game-fishing lines. I reeled in a whopping sailfish, as long as me with a 3ft spike on its bill. It took three of us to haul it in, hold it for a photo then remove the hook. Then we threw it back.

What a day. What a week.


A week at Hemingways costs from £1,659pp, a saving of £200pp with DialAFlight (, 0207 962 9933). Includes Kenya Airways return flights, seven nights’ B&B in an Ocean View room and transfers. Book by March 28, for travel April 25 to July 31, 2024.

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