The Kenyan Coast, specifically Mombasa, is Kenya’s leading tourist destination and for good reason. Mombasa has some of the most beautiful and pristine sandy beaches in the world dotted with world-class beach resorts that, together, offer an unforgettable beach vacation. On top of that, Mombasa is a historical and cultural destination showcasing the rich heritage of Swahili life. These are a couple of factors that make Mombasa so famous the world over. There is one conundrum, however, when it comes to one’s beach vacation in Mombasa and that is choosing between the North Coast and the South Coast. The North Coast is segmented into Nyali, Shanzu, Bamburi, and English Point beaches while the South Coast is mostly characterized by the multi-award-winning Diani Beach as well as the lesser-known Tiwi Beach. Obviously, there are pros and cons to vacationing in either one of the two coastal destinations. To help advise your preference, we’ll take a deep dive into the key differences between the North Coast and South Coast.
Both the North Coast and South Coast are easily accessible. However, the mode of transport used may make one more accessible than the other. Coming from Nairobi, as most tourists to Mombasa do, the Madaraka Express train or the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway) as it is popularly known is arguably the most preferred mode of transport by tourists. The train takes between five and six hours to arrive in Mombasa from the capital, Nairobi. For more details on the Madaraka Express such as its schedule, fares, and much more, kindly see our comprehensive article on the same here.
Thus far, two supposed tourists traveling to Mombasa have had no differences in their journey using the Madaraka Express train. At this point, however, there is a marked difference between the tourist heading to the North Coast and the one heading to the South Coast. Technically, the train terminus in Mombasa is on the North Coast. The most noteworthy beach resorts on the North Coast are about 20 kilometers from the train station. Therefore, a quick taxi ride should get one to their hotel of choice in under half an hour assuming ideal traffic conditions, of course.
To get to the South Coast from the train station, one has to use a ferry service that is often a bottle-neck, so to speak, of traffic. Considering that most beach resorts in the South Coast are at least 40 kilometers from the train station coupled with heavy traffic at the ferry crossing, especially during rush hours, one should plan for about an hour and a half to reach one’s hotel.
The North Coast seems to be winning the accessibility battle so far. However, if one uses a flight from Nairobi to Mombasa, the South Coast edges out the North Coast albeit slightly. To access the North Coast by plane, one lands at the Moi International Airport which is about 15 kilometers from most North Coast beach resorts. When it comes to the South Coast, one lands at the Ukunda Airport which is, in most cases, less than five kilometers from most beach resorts on the South Coast. In fact, quite a number of these resorts offer complimentary pickup and drop-off at the airport. This makes accessing South Coast hotels quite convenient and even more cost-effective than the North Coast hotels if getting there by plane.
The South Coast’s Diani Beach stands out due to the plethora of fun beach activities it offers, more so compared to beaches on the North Coast. One can go skydiving and gliding in Diani, activities that are missing on the North Coast beaches. Tiwi Beach, on the other hand, is known for being a romantic getaway.
Not to be outdone, beaches in the North Coast are better for marine life viewing due to the presence of several marine parks especially if including the areas of Malindi and Watamu which are technically on the North Coast.
That being said, a popular activity on both coasts is going on a boat excursion. During the low tide, tourists often take boat excursions to islands out in the ocean. Fish viewing using glass-bottom boats is also part of such excursions as well as diving and snorkeling.
Both beaches on the North Coast and South Coast are dotted with souvenir shops that sell tribal and cultural ornaments, carvings, and clothing items.
Diani Beach has been crowned Africa’s best beach five years in a row since 2015 and so this might help inform one’s preference between the two coasts.
Beyond the beaches on either of the two coasts, tourist sites are also a major draw to the Kenyan coast. In this category, the North Coast wins by a landslide. From historical sites such as Fort Jesus and Old Town to recreational sites such as Wild Waters, Go-Kart Mombasa, and Mamba Village. The city of Mombasa is also located within the North Coast meaning access to amenities, eateries, and entertainment joints is better compared to the South Coast.
The North Coast is, therefore, better suited if one is looking for more than just a beach vacation.
The Beach Hotels
If cost is anything to go by, then the beach hotels on the South Coast should be at least marginally better than their counterparts on the North Coast. It could also be that hotels on the South Coast charge more because they know that Diani Beach is a major attraction. Comparing beach resorts on either coast is a matter of splitting hairs. Both coasts have world-class resorts though the South Coast has more luxurious and five-star resorts than the North Coast. Perhaps this is why beach resorts on the South Coast are perceived to be slightly better.
Back to the cost. Typically, resorts on the South Coast are costlier than ones on the North Coast. However, the coronavirus pandemic that took the world by storm in 2020 drastically affected how much hotels charge, especially the South Coast hotels. Most had to revise their rates down to incentivize tourists to visit the hotels. Therefore, during the pandemic, South Coast hotels have at times been more affordable than North Coast hotels.
There are a few hard facts we can establish to help us choose between the North Coast and the South Coast. If traveling by train, then the North Coast is more accessible. However, if traveling by plane then the South Coast is slightly more accessible.
For anyone drawn to beach activities, especially extreme activities such as skydiving, then the South Coast is the ideal destination. For a more wholesome vacation then the North Coast would be the better option as it also offers historical, cultural, and recreational sites.
Finally, if cost or budget is the primary focus, then the North Coast has marginally more affordable resorts to choose from setting aside the effects of the pandemic on pricing. All in all, it is bound to be a memorable vacation whichever coast one visits.